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Grandparent of Postmodernism

Nirja Gopal Jayal

Edited by Michael Heyman with Sumanyu Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2007, pp. 223, Rs. 295.00


Time was when we thought Abol Tabol represented the beginning and the end of Indian nonsense. For those unsanctified by a bhadralok pedigree, this also meant that until Sukanta Chaudhuri’s wonderful English translation of Sukumar Ray came to be published in 1987, almost nothing nonsensical was remotely Indian and vice versa.   The only form of nonsense to be recognized as such was the poetry of Edward Lear, with the Old Man of Madras who rode a cream-coloured ass and the horrid Old Man of Calcutta who perpetually ate bread and butter; and, of course, the Chuprassies, Dobies and Goreewallahs of The Cummerbund.   It is a pleasure therefore to finally discover a nonsensical lineage, a thoroughbred Indian tradition of nonsense. It is reassuring, above all, to find a sense of humour in the nation’s collective family tree that spans several Indian languages from Marathi and Mizo to Tamil and Oriya. Indeed, it now appears that the familiar rhymes of a Hindi-speaking childhood—Akkad Bakkad Bambe Bo—and the schoolroom poems of Imperial Punjab mocking the death of the English sovereign—ABC tu kitthe gayee si/ Edward mar gaya, onnu pittan gayee si—were actually forms of nonsense verse, though not accorded that formal literary status.   The two big sections of this book are on Literary Nonsense (from Kabir and Tenali Raman through Sukumar Ray and Rabindranath Tagore to many contemporary writers of nonsense in the Indian languages as well as in English) and Folk Nonsense (which encompasses nursery rhymes, lullabies, game rhymes, verse for festivals and weddings and just plain folk tales). In addition, there is a section on Nonsense in the Hindi cinema and a last section presenting some upcoming writers of nonsense. Finally, and most appropriately, there is an Appendix with a selection of Lear’s poetry that has an Indian flavour. Together, these add up to a substantial enough corpus to justify the name given by Sukumar Ray to ‘the spirit of whimsy’, the Tenth Rasa.   Several poems in this anthology convey the wonder of combining meaning and meaninglessness—so characteristic of nonsense—most compellingly. Take Anushka Ravishankar’s ‘The Discovery of India’. My cousin Nibboo—Boo for short   Once traversed India South to North At Parur he was very pleased He said, ‘I am—’ And then he sneezed Srirangapatnam turned him soft He sighed ‘I do—’ And then he coughed At Wardha he was feeling well ...

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