A guest-review by Anu Kumar, the writer of many interesting books including - In The Country of Gold-Digging Ants, Atisa Series, The DollMakers' Island.
The Yellow Bird
By Lila Majumdar
Translated by Kamala Chatterjee
There may not be a single child growing up in a Bengali household who was not told Lila Majumdar’s stories once. She died only recently at the age of 100, and wrote a range of books on a variety of subjects. But it is as a writer of children’s books that holds the key to her enduring popularity, across ages.
Lila Majumdar came from the illustrious Ray Chaudhuri family of Calcutta. She was a niece of Upendra Kishore Chaudhuri who began the children’s magazine Sandesh. The magazine flourished under his son, Sukumar and grandson, the equally illustrious, Satyajit. Lila Majumdar remained associated with the magazine very actively right till the 1990s, even though she did other things as teach, present programmes on radio and bring up two children. Her first story appeared in Sandesh when she was only 14.
It is Lila Majumdar’s daughter, Kamala Chatterjee, who has now translated her book, ‘The Yellow Bird’ into English, bringing Lila Majumdar to a wider audience. It is indeed surprising that her books took so long to be available in other translations and there couldn’t have been a better beginning than ‘Yellow Bird’ to acquaint children with this wonderful writer. And Puffin Books deserve all credit for this.
The Yellow Bird is a strange, magical, little seen bird. Yet whenever it is known to appear, animals turn to human beings or begin behaving in strange ways.
But the story about the yellow bird is only one of many stories narrated by Jhogru, who has been working as a domestic help in Rumu and Bogey’s house for many years. The children are upset because a street dog that they picked up, Bhulo, and decided to keep as a pet, suddenly goes missing. He has done this before but on one occasion he simply doesn't appear.
A child’s loss can be bewildering, hard to explain and understand but Jhogru empathizes and seems to understand this all too well. And he does all he can to take them to a magical, fantasy world, usually his home village located in Dumka, in Central India.
All Jhogru’s stories are fantastic and unbelievable and Bogey, the know-all, sceptical boy, is rightfully suspicious. But Rumu, his younger sister, who is easily moved to tears, finds them comforting. There is adventure and also magic in the commonplace, as Jhogru’s stories show. The Yellow Bird, says Jhogru, is rarely seen but whoever has seen it, like his brother in faraway Dumka is struck by a strange restlessness and is compelled to leave home forever.
He goes on to describe the magic “manja” that makes kites fly high in the sky. And then he tells them about the babu who came from the city promising to make glass. He closeted himself in a room for days on end and didn’t emerge. Finally Jhogru’s grandfather lost patience and broke the door open. The man had disappeared, leaving a few things behind. When the grandfather threw his stuff into the fire, magic glass pieces appeared in the fire.
There is the horse that could fly. When Bogey is sceptical, Jhogru assures him that he does know about flying horses having worked in the stables once. He tells the story of a strange boat that appears in the river once near his home with a lovely damsel in it.
Jhogru finds a story for every occasion even as the children wait for Bhulo to come. There is the bear that the sardar just could not kill, as the creature looks at him in mute pity. There is the strange old man at the fair who sells them funny shaped boxes, one of which contains the seeds of the gunamoni tree, that grows astonishingly quickly once planted. Then of course there is the tiger in Burma who crept into a hut where Jhogru was sleeping and still didn’t harm anyone.
Jhogru’s repertoire of stories never seems to run out, even if Bhulo chooses to come back. Does he?
The Yellow Bird is a great book for reading aloud, replete with shadow black and white illustrations by Ajanta Guhathakurta. This book in its original Bengali won the award for Children’s literature awarded by the Bengal government. More to look forward to are Puffin’s plans to bring out some more of Lila Majumdar’s books in translation, especially ‘the Burmese Box’ that holds as much delightful promise as did 'The Yellow Bird'.
Many thanks to Anu Kumar for the review of this wonderful book.
Many thanks to Ajanta Ghathakurta for giving permission to display her illustrations along with this review.