We’re thrilled to share this reflective essay from Titas Bose, a scholar of Indian children’s literature, that takes us back to her childhood when she enjoyed Soviet picture books in Bengali translation…
By Titas Bose
As a toddler, my favorite story had three kittens — black, grey, and white. While chasing a mouse, they fell into a jar of flour and turned all white. After a series of adventures like this which changed the color of their furs, they would return home wet and in their original shades. The story came in an old hardback with colorful pictures staring up from the yellowing pages. The pictures were accompanied by sparse lucid Bangla text. The narrative voice was simple, lyrical and affectionate, easily merging with the soft, gentle strokes of the pictures.
The book had twelve other stories, all featuring different animals and their various exploits. Apart from the penultimate story which took place amidst snow laden valleys, there was hardly anything “foreign” about the stories in the book. Despite being written and illustrated by Vladimir Sutyev, Nani Bhaumik’s translation had rendered this Russian picturebook Galpo Ar Chhobi (Stories and Pictures) completely Bengali. In this essay, I try to trace my relationship with translated Russian children’s books like this that I inherited from my parents as a child.
From the 1960s, numerous Russian books were being translated into various Indian languages and brought to India. The political ties between the Soviet Union and India during this decade had led to a number of official cooperations particularly in the fields of education, industry, and defense. Simultaneously, the Soviet government set up a system to disseminate Russian literature across the countries that were its political allies. As a part of this process, the Foreign Language Publishing House in Moscow commissioned translators from India to render Russian books into regional languages. Later, the publishing houses Progress, Raduga, and Mir all started bringing out hordes of children’s literature titles in Indian local tongues. My inherited copy of Galpo ar Chhobi was printed by Progress.
The translators who were invited to the Soviet Union for this project, stayed there for months and sometimes years. They were “fed, clothed, housed and supported by the Soviet State”. These were huge incentives for the writers since many of them were part of the Communist Party nexus within the two countries, and in return for their work, they got a chance to experience the Soviet state’s cultural and literary processes by themselves.
K. Gopalakrishnan and Omana, for example, who were recruited by Raduga for Malayalam translations, were initially employees of the Soviet Information Centre in New Delhi. They engaged a tutor to learn Russian, so that they could translate the texts directly without taking recourse to English. T. Dharmarajan, responsible for many of the Tamil translations, was a long time party worker in India, who stayed in Moscow for eight years and became closely associated with the steps of the publishing process.
In India, local bookstores like Prabhath Book House (Malayalam) or Manisha Granthalay (Bangla) helped distribute the books to homes and libraries. As a result of this meticulous system, translated Soviet children’s books were available at throwaway prices in the Indian market. Picture books or illustrated books were very rare in those days; the ones imported from the West were unaffordable. Hence the freakishly cheap Soviet books, with their evocative pictures and great paper quality, were a staple for many middle-class households, left-leaning or otherwise.
Perhaps because of these mass work appointments exclusively for Communist Party workers or because of the way communism is demonized in Anglo-American discourses, these books have erstwhile been accused of being propagandist. In fact, if we consider the case of Lithuania or the other countries under Soviet rule, many of the children’s books do seem to propagate a didacticism typical of government propaganda. However, for me reading or listening to these books in the early ’90s (the era of economic liberalization in India, incidentally) the Soviet government’s indoctrination aspect was hardly applicable.
The first reason for this was the nature of the translations themselves. Sometimes the books made references to sounds and expressions which were quintessentially Bengali. For example, Alexander Ruskin’s “Babar Bhul”(“Little Daddy’s Mistake”) in Baba Jokhon Chhoto (When Daddy was a Little Boy) mentions “pithey-puli”— a kind of rice dumpling stuffed with coconut and jaggery — made during harvest festivals such as Nabanna and Makar Sankranti. Dholairam by Kornei Chukovsky had a number of onomatopoeic words for scrubbing, like “lago dholai, dolai, molai” — funny sounds that one associates with Bangla.
A tiny chick in the rhymebook Ak, Dui, Teen (One, Two, Three) proclaims himself proudly as “Ami baper beta” (“I am my father’s son”) to show his strength in front of a puppy. This is also a very Bengali or Indian expression, conjuring the image of aggressive boastful men. In this case, it is quite funny, because the speaker is a tiny chick. In an Arkady Gaider novel, Chuck and Geck’s mother, like other Bengali mothers, mockingly calls them names such as “Shonar chand chhele” (Lit. “boys as pure as gold”) when the two brothers are caught doing any kind of mischief. All of this had marred the “foreign” aspect of the books a great deal.
Besides these cultural familiarities in language, the way I acquired and accessed these books had dimmed their propaganda aspect. I did not read all of them, since by the time they came to me, many of the books were missing pages, or had become too brittle. So when Anika Burgess writes that Soviet children’s books were about hydroelectric plants, industrial vehicles and workers’ unions, I am unable to relate to her claim since these specific books with factory pictures never came to me. Also, some of them were lost or given away when we moved house.
It is an interesting coincidence that a lot of books with animal stories survived. I read them in parallel with other Bengali and English books; so in my mind they formed some kind of continuity with these other books. For example, the poems in Mikhailo Stelimakh’s Byamvir Hangsho (The Athletic Duck) or “Nana Maper Chaka” (“Different Sized Wheels”) in Galpo ar Chhobi, which talk about the dignity of work and collaborative effort, were probably meant for inspiring children to imbibe a socialist outlook. But for me, more than their ideological underpinnings, they seemed to be similar to folktales and fables in English and Bengali, by means of their depictions of anthropomorphic animals, and folk motifs.
There was also a further destabilization of meaning because of the adult mediation through which I came to know these books initially. When my grandparents or parents made up stories for me without reading them out from books, the characters, events and narratives of these Soviet stories often got mixed up with Indian ones. The context of listening to the story thus plays a huge role in determining the meaning of a text, and this factor sometimes produces a result contrary to the original pedagogical objective. Fairy tales and folktales which work through narrative functions and folk motifs are difficult to pin down with regards to their particular moral inculcations related to a particular regional culture or ideology. Trickster narratives, magical wonderlands, and origin tales tend to have universal fable-like qualities which resisted the particularity of their Soviet origins.
It would be however a mistake to think that the books did not assume any form of didacticism. V. Geetha reminds us that the original Russian books were aimed at tutoring and schooling children in a certain way, to conserve the future of communist society. Such future-orientedness and predetermined goals meant the books did carry some rigid notions of right and wrong. For example, Mayakovsky’s Kon Jinishta Bhalo ar Konta Kharap (What is Good and What is Bad) explained in very direct words how boys ought to behave during the course of the day. Alongside vibrant colorful pictures, short poems talked about the importance of a proper diet and daily hygiene, and preached kindness, courage, hard work and self-sufficiency.
However, cultural context also played a huge role in determining whether these books were judged to be too rigid in their moralistic teachings. For example, Baba Jokhon Chhotto had a story where little Daddy mistakenly drinks some vodka. It is completely the fault of the adults in the house as they kept vodka in the glass vessel that usually contained little Daddy’s water. The story goes on to narrate how he fell ill and spent the whole evening in bed. Later in life, he swore that he would never drink vodka again. The moral here, if there is one, is not very straightforward, but what interests me is the presence of alcohol in the first place. For a ’90s middle-class Bengali childhood, any mention of alcohol in a child’s book would be considered scandalous. No doubt, a story like this would have faced the censorship’s axe. Thus, irrespective of its original intent, it assumed a radical character in my context.
Another book with veiled pedagogical intent was Balisher Shongey Arhi (Masha’s Awful Pillow) by Gelena Lebedeva. When Masha is put to bed, she finds her bed to be extremely uncomfortable. The pillows feel hard and the blanket suffocating, and so she throws them away and goes out to find a better place to sleep. She meets a dog, who eagerly offers her his kennel, but that place is too cramped. Next she tries to fit herself on a hen perch and tumbles down on a haystack. A bat’s suggestion to hang upside down from the attic ceiling is an impossible option. Finally while imitating a crane, she falls headlong into cold water and starts crying. After having explored all these difficult sleeping places, she returns to her own bed, which now seems very cozy and snug.
If one were to only think of didacticism in this story, it teaches a child not to be too fussy or demanding about the bed and the blankets that are given to them. It shows that the alternative places to sleep in, like a confined kennel, or a narrow bird-perch, aren’t really pleasurable options for her.
However, every time I read the story, I am too pulled in by the illustrations to pay attention to this “lesson”. Boris Markevich, the illustrator had deftly painted all the pictures in a way that emanates a sensation of coziness. The soft strokes, the smudgy lines, and the light brown and blue color palette all function magically to remind one of the typical coziness of pillows and blankets. For me, the attractiveness of the illustrations in this book destabilized the meaning that the words performed or were meant to perform in the text. A simple lesson for the book to execute would have been that one’s bed is nice, and other places are bad. However, by casting everything evenly in soft, cuddly graphics, the book retained an overall comfort and intimacy, where the thrust of this lesson was lost.
Walter Benjamin once said that when children read, they are often interested in the fragments and pieces of a text, much like how they are attracted to waste and detritus at a construction site. They are more interested in places and things that are being worked on, or can be worked on, because these objects and places allow them to play with them. The finished product — in this case the complete story with a predefined moral lesson — has nothing left to play with. This means children aren’t very likely to derive the “lesson” from the story unless it is pointed out to them.
It is the adult mediation, either in the voice of the narrator within the text, or in the voice of the person who reads it aloud, that wishes to impress upon the child the intended didacticism, the moral lesson, or the propaganda behind the story, if any. There might have been some mention of the “lesson at the end” during my storytelling sessions, but the main appeal of these books lay in their wonderful pictures. Besides, when I received these books, the urgency of their political context was long gone, and any pedagogical intent that they possessed could not be linked to Soviet propaganda.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and weakening of communist governments in Indian states, the books started disappearing from markets. What were once readily available in every book fair and bookstore, were now relegated only to personal collections and select library stacks. Today, they are the relics of an enchanting childhood oeuvre, sometimes chanced upon in vintage stores. Enthusiasts and researchers have taken initiatives to digitize these books in multiple languages, from where they are downloaded and fondly read by older generations. The relationship is one of affection and nostalgia, with an irresistible appeal for the pictures. Even now as I open these old, yellowing pages to revisit the charming stories, I am struck by what a great visual impression they had left on my mind. If I read them with a more critical eye, I also can’t help but laud the fantastic translation work that these books bear.
Benjamin, Walter. “Old Forgotten Children’s Books.” In Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Vol. 1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Bhaumik, Nani, trans. Ak Dui Teen. Moscow: Progress Publishers, no date.
Burgess, Anika. “The Artful Propaganda of Soviet Children’s Literature.” Atlas Obscura, 00:00 400AD. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/soviet-childrens-books-propaganda.
Chukovsky, Kornei. Dholairam. Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.
Gaider, Arkady. Chuck Ar Geck. Translated by Shankar Ray. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d.
Jankevičiūtė, Giedrė, and V. Geetha. Another History of the Children’s Picture Book: From Soviet Lithuania to India. Tara Books, 2017.
Latheef, Sajid A. “Idyll and Ideology: An Overview of Soviet Literature for Children in Malayalam.” Accessed August 16, 2021. https://www.sahapedia.org/idyll-and-ideology-overview-soviet-literature-children-malayalam.
Lebedeva, Gelena. Balisher Shongey Arhi. Translated by Nani Bhaumik. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975.
Mayakovsky, Vladimir. Kon Jinishta Bhalo Ar Konta Kharap. Translated by Nani Bhaumik. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979.
Ruskin, Alexander. Baba Jokhon Chhoto. Translated by Nani Bhaumik. Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.
Sengupta, Anuradha. “Shonar Soviet in Kolkata.” @businessline. Accessed August 16, 2021. https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/cover/shonar-soviet-in-kolkata/article9722908.ece.
Stelimakh, Mikhailo. Byamvir Hangsho. Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.
Sutyev, Vladimir. Galpo Ar Chhobi. Translated by Nani Bhaumik. Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.
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.