A Lullaby of Nonsense – The Wild World of Sukumar Ray

(Readers’ submissions: Celebrating one year of the Indigenous Blog)

By Eshna Benegal

“(Jodi) kumropotash naache,

Khobordaar esho na keu astabol er kaache

Chaibe nako daaye baaye chaybe nako paache

Chaarpaa tuley thakbe jhule hottomular gaache”  

“ (If) Pumpkin Grumpkin dances- 

Don’t for heaven’s sake go where the stable horse prances

Don’t look left, don’t look right, don’t take no silly chances,

Instead cling with all four legs to the holler-radish branches

Sukumar Ray, “Kumropotash”

Wide eyes, mouth agape staring at my grandmother’s face

Raspy voice, ripe with age my grandmother said in a sing-song way

“Jodi kumropotash naache-

Khobordaar esho na keu astabol er kaache” 

With nonsense in my ears I slept a lullaby of words

Topsy turvy, ulto pulto, a milkyway of worlds.

Sukumar Ray entered my life in my grandmother’s voice. She put me to sleep, tapping my back to the cadence of “Abol Tabol”, Ray’s collection of nonsense poetry. I revisited him recently, expecting not to remember a word. But as my grandmother read to me, I remembered it all. The images of the Kumropotash, the half-bird half-goru (cow) Taensh Goru, and, of course, the weird Bengali gremlins that beautified every page. 

His writing was a balm to sore eyes and ears, appearing regularly in Sandesh magazine, the Ray family’s heirloom. “…young and old looking for entertainment in the home, turned to Sandesh, for its crazy cartoons and caricatures, rhymes and riddles, stories and humorous anecdotes,” writes Ruskin Bond in the introduction to “Wordygurdyboom!: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray”. It would not be a generalisation to say that Ray’s work of nonsense made its presence felt in every Bengali home and recently found its place in the English syllabus at Calcutta University. What seems like random rhyming words of whimsy is far more than just that. 

My introduction to nonsense shaped my understanding of language. As Sukanta Chaudhari, a translator of Sukumar Ray’s poetry has noted, “In nonsense poetry, more than other kinds of poetry, the form, the metre, the rhyme is very important.” Words are no longer simply words. They are sounds, cries, jokes, and sentences of their own. They hold worlds within their spaces and music in their notes, but they also hold nothing. Nonsense, simply put, is a celebration of language.

Abol Tabol: Ray’s collection of nonsense verses

“There was a young lady whose bonnet,

Came untied when the birds sat upon it

But she said “I don’t care! All the birds in the sky

Are welcome to sit on my bonnet!”

– Edward Lear

Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, all celebrated the English language. Turning it upon its heads and its head upon itself. Changing spellings, pronunciations, and sounds as per their own fancy. Language was a slave to their imagination. Ray, too, made language sing. “…He had two rare gifts- a remarkably observant eye and a limitless fund of imagination,” says Rima Chakraborty in her paper, “Finding Sense Behind Nonsense in Select Poems of Sukumar Ray”. 

Language in school taught us the words for rules. “Your writing is very verbose,” was the common complaint of all my language teachers. “Use less adverbs”, “Don’t write long sentences”, “rhyming is for children”, “The language is too flowery.” So many rules, so many rules, so many rules. All made to be broken. 

Ray’s limitless fund of imagination spread to its readers, children. His simple colloquial language gave children a new dimension of imagination. As for me, it gave me the permission to write and create exactly what I wanted to without fear. Nonsense, as the word says, pushes the boundaries of sense, of normalcy; it opens up a world where cats can turn into handkerchiefs and animals can fuse into one. It constantly brings up the question, where will you go from here? Where will your story go from here? Isn’t it a common saying in writing that, when you’re stuck, throw a character under the bus, and see where you go from there? In nonsense, you first throw the character under the bus and then say, okay, where do we begin the story? 

When I deposited my small purple copy of Abol Tabol in my grandmother’s lap, she opened it with glee. Reading and laughing by herself. I listened to her chuckle and intonate the same way she did when I was a child, stopping to ask her the meaning of some words. And her responding with, “It means nothing but, you know, it means something.” And something it meant, for Ray’s poems were not just for the purpose of nonsense but were a sardonic critique on the very people reading his poems.

Ray was a product of colonial Bengal who harboured anti-colonial sentiments. He wrote for children, but his poetry held nationalist ideals and often critiqued his bangali babu counterparts. “The Babus were the by-product of the Bengal Renaissance. They were Bengali men, now well versed in English language and literature, who had become loyal employees of the colonial administration. They embraced the opportunity of British employment and dwelt in a false sense of pride and status,” says Rima Chakraborty in her paper, “Finding Sense Behind Nonsense in Select Poems of Sukumar Ray”.

“(Jodi) kumropotash daake-

Shobay jaeno shamla ete gaamla chore thaake

Chenchki shaaker ghonta bete mathay molom maakhe

Shokto iter topto jhama ghoste thaake naake”

“(If) Pumpkin Grumpkin calls-

Clap legal hats onto your heads, float in basins down the halls;

Pound spinach into healing paste and smear your forehead walls;

And with a red-hot pumice stone rub your nose until it crawls.”

Sukumar Ray, “Kumropotash”

“…the portrayal of pot-bellied and lethargic Bengali men…can also be found in Ray’s illustration of- “Kumro Potash”,” says Chakraborty. The Bengali babu impacted others in wondrous ways, just as the Kumropotash did. His sheer presence created waves among people who resorted to wearing legal hats and floating in basins. 

Sukumar Ray was my first step into the worlds of Ogden Nash, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll. I listened to and by hearted nonsense poetry that, at that time, was never nonsense. It was just poetry. Imagine a childhood where someone gives you a pen and says yes, you can do what you want with it. There are no rules, there’s just you and the pen, go write. 

It was in my 11th standard English exam when I realised the joy in breaking rules. The question paper asked for a descriptive essay, and I instead wrote a love letter. Someone telling their lover the sights and the sounds of their morning walk and how it reminded them of her. The essay was mediocre at most but the feeling of the breeze in the classroom that day. The feeling of mapping out a path through a question that wasn’t direct, using my creativity, was exciting, to say the least. At this point in time, I was writing on a “secret” blog. Rhyming to my heart’s content. Making lovers propose in graveyards and making cupid meet magicians. I was realising the power of having had nonsense poured into my ear like melted wax. And if any of my writing was bad, I would blame it on Sukumar Ray. 

T.S Eliot once remarked on Lear’s poetry that it “is not a vacuity of sense; it is a parody of sense and that is the sense of it.” Ray was able to inspire generations of children to think to their heart’s content. He was a juggler with words, and we had signed up for a circus. 

“Aayre bhola kheyal khola 

                                        shopondola naachi aay

Aaye pagol abol tabol

                                        motto madol bajiye aay

Aay jekhane khyapar gaane

                                        naiko mane naiko shoor

Aayre jethay udhao haaway

                                                mon bheshe jaay kon shudoor

Aay khyapa mon ghucchiye bandhon 

                                           jaagiye nachon tadhin dhin

Aay beyara srishtichhara 

                                        niyomhaara hisaab-heen 

Aajgubi chaal bethik betaal 

                                        matbi maatal rongete 

Aayre tobe bhuler bhabe 

                                                oshombhober chhondete”

“Come happy foot whimsical cool

                                        come dreaming, dancing fancy-free,

Come mad musician glad glusician

                             beating your drum with glee.

Come o come where mad songs are sung

                              without any meaning or tune,

Come to the place where without a trace

                                 your mind floats off like a loon.

Come scatterbrain up tidy lane

                                  wake, shake and rattle and roll

Come lawless creatures with wilful features

                                        each unbound and clueless soul.

Nonsensical ways topsy-turvy gaze

                             stay delirious all the time,

Come you travellers to the world of babblers

                                                  and the beat of the impossible rhyme.”

Sukumar Ray, “Abol Tabol”


Translations from “Wurdygurdyboom! (Abol Tabol): The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray” by Sampurna Chattarji

The Hindu: Link

Finding Sense Behind Nonsense: Link

Abol Tabol‘ by Sukumar Ray

‘Kumropotash’ by Sukumar Ray

Eshna Benegal is a writer, editor, and dancer based out of Bangalore. She comes with an unrelenting love for nonsense, flowers, and trashy reality TV. 

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