Bengali children’s literature: Titas Bose recommends

In September 2019, we published a list of Bengali children’s books, recommended by Rumana Yasmin. That particular post has been one of our most popular posts ever, having been viewed over 3,000 times since it was first written. So it is our immense pleasure to welcome Titas Bose to give us more more recommendations of Bengali children’s literature. Today Titas is sharing books that have already been translated into English as well as some that she thinks should be…

By Titas Bose

For toddlers: Rhymes and Lullabies

Ha Ha Ho Ho, Selected Rhymes of Annada Shankar Ray, Translated into English by Sukanta Chaudhuri (Seagull Books)

Novelist and essayist Annada Shankar is probably the most well-known for the many playful rhymes he wrote for children. Growing up in Dhenkanal in the Indian state of Orissa, he wrote both in Bengali and Odiya. He contributed most enthusiastically to popular twentieth-century children’s magazines, such as Mouchak. His rhymes collection, published in 1994, brings forth an eclectic variety of rhymes, at once charming listeners with their musical cadence, and making them think critically with their allegorical and satirical themes. His most famous rhymes is probably the one where he condemns the Partition of Bengal — “Teler shishi bhanglo bole khukur pare raag koro/ Tomra je shob buro khoka Bharat bhenge bhaag karo/ Tarbela?” Here’s a translation of the entire poem into English. Some of his rhymes such as this and “khokā o khuku” have been turned into songs. He also wrote a number of limericks in Bengali.

For Early Readers: Picture Book

Tutu Bhutu by Dhiren Bal

Many kids who speak and read Bangla are familiar with the adventures of Bhutu the naughty cat in red overalls, who goes to the catch fish with his friend Hansukhoka the duck. The author-artist of his delightful picture book and many others is Dhiren Bal. His daughter Pritha Bal writes that from his remote village in Bogura(present Bangladesh), Bal used to send his drawings to magazines in Calcutta and by the early 1930s, he established himself as a beloved figure in the world of children’s literature. The adventures of Chyanga, the rabbit and Byanga, the frog is another book still enjoyed by children. For more details, click here.

The Honey Hunter by Karthika Nair

Although not written in Bengali originally, this book narrates a myth from a quintessential part of both West Bengal and Bangladesh, the marshy Sundarbans.

I owe this wonderful recommendation to my friend Barnamala Roy, who has been working in documentation projects in the Sundarbans areas of West Bengal for quite a few years. This beautiful picture book, authored by Karthika Nair and drawn by Joëlle Jolivet tells the story of the millions of honeybees, their Bee Goddess and of course, the stream of gold itself — honey.

For Early Readers: Short Stories

Galpo ar Galpo by Sukhalata Rao

Sukhalata Rao belonged to the same talented family as Sukumar Ray, Satyajit Ray and Lila Majumdar. She was a social worker and wrote quite a few children’s books. Particularly memorable is her anthology of short fiction called Galpo ar Galpo (Stories and Stories) where simple lyrical prose narrate heart-warming stories for children.

For Early and Middle Readers: Folktales and Fairy Tales

Tuntunir Boi by Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri. Selected stories translated and published in a volume called Majantali & Co by Madhuchhanda Karlekar (Thema)

Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri, the author of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, also retold some of the most beloved Bengali folktales in his extremely popular book Tuntunir Boi (The Tailor Bird’s Book). In this book, anthropomorphic animals have interesting and fun adventures. Some have pointed out that many of his characters are tricksters, who enact an allegory of anti-colonial resistance by defeating the powerful. Not only this, he also illustrated this book himself — pictures which in the simplest craftsmanship express beautifully the allegorical and entertaining nature of his stories. Being a blockmaker, printer and publisher himself, Raychaudhuri’s illustration skills are superior. He also retold the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata for children, editions that retain the complexity of the original versions, in simple and narrative prose. 

Two stories from Tuntunir Boi translated by Indrani Chakraborty can be read here.

Rupkatha Samogro by Nabanita Dev Sen

It is well accepted that most of the traditional fairy tales of most cultures are excessively violent and sexist. However, Nabanita Dev Sen knows that there is something to be said about the form of these stories, which attests to their widespread appeal among children. So she wrote her own fairy tales, where the archetypes, motifs and symbols of the older oral traditions remain intact, but the stories have a positive outcome, there are no demons who are inherently evil, and lives are saved through love and empathy, not war and violence. In many instances, the protagonists of her stories are female. Dev Sen is a Padma Shri and Sahitya Academy awardee and is best known for her humorous travelogues.

Chhotoder Santhali Galpo by Gita Bagh

While there have been sociological and anthropological writings on Santhals (Indegenous tribal community in the eastern states of India), very few of their folktales, fantasy lores, and origin tales have been adopted for children’s literature. Gita Bagh attempts this exercise in her Bengali language anthology Chhoder Santhali Galpo (Santhal Stories for Children).

For Middle and Advanced Readers: History/ Historical Fantasy

Rajkahini by Abanindranath Thakur, translated by Kalyani Dutta

Partly because of the exoticism associated with miles of sand dunes and battles taking place amidst them, Rajput imperial history from the state of Rajasthan in India has lent itself to numerous legends, myths and stories. Abanindranath Thakur, who excelled in weaving stories about magical adventures and modern fantasy, here combines historical facts with mythical storytelling to narrate the lives of the Rajput kings. Rajkahini (The Lore of the Kings) are stories that speak about the valour and romance, but does not shirk away from showing the sacrifices, the violence, the oppression and the tragedies that remain at the heart of the grandiosity of imperial stories. 

For Middle and Advanced Readers: Ghost Stories

Dui Banglar Shreshto Bhuter Galpo edited by Nurl Amin Rokon

Bengal has always had a tradition of ghost stories. There are some ghosts which are gentle, some are the dead spirits of Brahmins, some can disguise themselves as beautiful women and lure you, some take the form of different animals to haunt you. This compilation brings together ghost stories by writers from both West Bengal and Bangladesh. Here’s a sneak peek of the kinds of characters you will encounter in the book.

For Young Adults: Social Realism

The Armenian Champa Tree by Mahasweta Debi, translated by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee (Seagull Books)

Mahasweta Debi, staunch feminist and tribal rights activist, drew greatly from her scholarship and social work to write extensively the stories of resistance and struggles of adivasi and dalit populations in West Bengal. What is less known about her is that she also wrote for children, teaching them to reflect on their own privileges and to critically question social ills and injustices in the world. In this very evocative story, Mato, a young tribal boy, takes his pet goat Arjun and runs away from home to save him from the sacrificial rites of a local temple. Written as an adventure-cum-chase story, the narrative exposes the corruption of religion and the historical oppression of adivasi people in the hands of the corrupt guardians of religion.

Bhombol Sardar by Khagendranath Mitra

Khagendranath Mitra was a prolific children’s writer. Writing during the turbulent times of Nationalist freedom struggle, independence and partition, Mitra’s stories are adventure tales masking social injustices and the need to resist the corruption of power. Bhombol Sardar, the eponymous protagonist is a rebel teenager and a run-away boy whose mischief and pranks subvert the tyranny of the zaminders, and help the lower-castes, peasants and labourers. According to Debashish Paul, “Bhombal Sardar’ was published in three parts in 1943,1955 and 1975, and was for a long time very popular among Bengali kids. It was translated into Russian and inducted as rapid reader in the seventh and eighth standards in the erstwhile USSR.” Another noteworthy anthology by Mitra is Dakater Galpo (Tales of Robbers) where he narrates the chilling tales of some real life thugs in Bengal, only to show how robbery and dacaoitry could be read as organised and guerrilla resistance against state repression.

Shovoner Akattor by Kaiser Chaudhury

In the twenty-first century, scholars and writers of children’s literature have discarded the claim that children’s literature has to be a simplistic, censored and sanitized genre. From the Holocaust to Partition to the World Wars, children’s literature has variously depicted many traumatic and violent socio-political historical events, countering charges of “innocence lost” or “disappearing childhoods”. Shovoner Akattor (Shovon’s 71) is a heart-breaking realistic account of Muktijuddho, or War of Liberation in Bangladesh (1971) as seen and experienced by Shovon, a teenager.

Bengali Comics

Bnatul the Great by Narayan Debnath, translated by Ananya Das

He is the gentle giant, the protector of the weak and terror of the oppressors. Bullets ricochet off his chest, as he pulls down planes with a lasso, and breaks down walls with single punches. Although inspired from American superhero comics, Bnatul is quintessentially Bengali, who, at the end of the day, loves being pampered by Pishima, his aunt. The hilarious stories of Bnatul, his friend Lombokorno and his pet ostrich Uto are still being published in the children’s magazine Shuktara.

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Titas Bose is a PhD student at University of Chicago, working on post-independent Indian children’s fiction in Bengali, Hindi and Marathi. She has worked as an English teacher in Cambridge School, Sriniwaspuri, New Delhi. As a part of an organisation called Sayambharataa, she helps organise workshops for tribal children in a Birbhum district of West Bengal. She is also the editor of the Delek Archives, the research wing of the Delek Education Foundation. 

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Click here to read Rumana Yasmin’s post on Bengali Children’s Literature: 20 Books Waiting to Be Explored

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Our thoughts and best wishes go out from everyone at World Kid Lit to those people in India and the surrounding areas who are currently affected by the ongoing coronavirus situation.

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