“Enjoyed by children over the ages, the anthology became synonymous with the cultural heritage of the region.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar appeared on the Bengali literary firmament quietly in the mid-19th century. It was a time when different ways of combating colonialism were being explored and a study of folk tales and received wisdom was part of this exercise. Thakurmar Jhuli or, Grandmother’s Bag of Tales brought oral traditions into written form for the Bengali child and drew into the plethora of ogres, demons and winged horses that people these fantasy worlds, not to mention the envy of queens.
Thakurmar Jhuli was first translated into English fairly recently by Sukhendu Ray, proving that the essence of the stories could be conveyed while keeping the magic intact. Sutapa Basu’s version makes no attempt to translate the title, using it as a kind of brand endorsement so that those who are familiar with the stories will recognise the source, but focuses on princesses, monsters and magical creatures hoping that the new generation of Harry Potter fans and Marvel comics will be drawn to the contents. In any case those words will catch the eye and the rest will most certainly be ignored.
What the stories make apparent are the social distinctions in palaces and homes. Women appear to be the worst enemies of women, using their position to crush the already downtrodden like the queens who guzzle up the magic position and leave the dregs for the two other queens. In the original the queens had titles based on their position from elder queen downwards, but for the sake of translation Basu has given the queens names based on their attributes. The other thing that comes through is that kings are credulous and willing to believe that women can birth monkeys and owls. It is a different social set up but wicked stepmothers and ogres cut across cultural divides.
The illustrations have been modernised but lack the quaint folk quality of the original woodcut – though modern, non-Bengali reading children will be unaware of what they are missing. This holds true for the text as well.
Mitra Majumdar’s stories retain their vividness and Basu attempts to remain true to spirit of the original, despite elephants rampaging in unBengali corrals and somewhat fallible rhyme schemes. These are elements that a sensitive editor could have dealt with and do not detract from the experience that the book offers which is a lively romp through fantasy worlds.
Storytelling and literature after all play an important role in preservation of human heritage, culture and diversity.
Added 11th November 2021