Ninety years ago, a pale, lanky schoolboy with a broad head resembling a koi fish embarked on the first of his many funny escapades with his classmates. The boy, Dashu, immediately struck a humorous chord with both children and adult and to date, continues to be a part of people’s lives.
Dashu’s creator was Sukumar Ray, the Bengali poet, story writer and playwright who was also the father of legendary film maker Satyajit Ray. To commemorate Ray’s 125th birth anniversary, a team of translators from the Department of English in Jadavpur University has now published the English translation of “Pagla Dashu”, one of most noted works of the master writer. It comes under the title The Crazy Tales of Pagla Dashu and Co.
“Ray was one of the greatest writers for children in any language,” says Abhijit Gupta, who headed the team of translators. The comic genius of Ray which manifests itself through his poems, plays and short stories is unique and is as zestful today as it was nearly a century ago, he adds.
Ray’s forte was innovative word play and subtle humorous phrases that captivated the reader. Each of his poem or short story would have literary and figurative sense. “For children, Ray’s writings are funny, while the adults like their sublime meaning,” says Aranbinda Dasgupta, an avid reader and proprietor of a bookstore on College Street in north Kolkata.
In 1987, Ray’s “Abol Tabol” was translated as Nonsense Poems by Sukanta Chaudhury, professor of English at Jadavpur University. However, for Dashu, Gupta says that the department wanted to do a translation through the workshop method, where rather than an individual, a group of people translates works.
“It seemed appropriate to do short stories this way, rather than a novel,” he explains. “Pagla Dashu was a popular choice as it lent itself to the workshop method and, moreover, had never been translated before,” says Gupta. The team took two years to complete the translated works.
Gupta says that adding the typical Ray flavour to the translations was a challenging task. “The most difficult bits in Pagla Dashu were the poems interspersed through the stories. But overall we are quite happy with the result,” he says.
Ray inherited the writing style from his father Upendra Kishor Ray Chowdhury who was a noted children’s writer. Ray’s talent for writing passed on to his son Satyajit, who wore many hats as director, writer, artist and musician, among others.
But what is about Dashu that appeals to the readers even today? The answer perhaps lies in the paradigm shift from Ray’s time to today's tech-savvy generation. “Dashu appeals to today’s young generation, especially schoolchildren,” says Gupta. Classrooms today, Gupta adds, are regimented places where a strict eye is kept on children. Someone like Dashu — who bursts crackers in class and feeds mihidana, a popular Bengali sweet, to the school goat — is not your modern-day kid. “His irreverence should appeal to children, unless, of course, they have been already brainwashed into becoming robots.” adds Gupta.
As for the sale, booksellers have given a thumbs up to The Crazy Tales of Pagla Dashu and Co. About 60 per cent of the translated works are being sold to urban Bengali readers. “There is a huge demand for translated works of Bengali children’s books among the Bengali diaspora who live outside the country. Because Pagla Dashu is one of the most widely read Bengali children’s character, we are expecting a positive response from abroad as well,” says Dasgupta.