Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Burmese Box and Other Stories

Anu Kumar has another interesting guest post on a Bengali book translated into English. Do read on. I am extremely glad that she takes time to write and introduce us to some great children's books from Indian languages. Thank you, Anu Kumar.

The Burmese Box and Other Stories
By Lila Majumdar
Translated by Srilata Banerjee
With an introduction by Subhadra Sengupta
Puffin Books, 2010
Cover Page Illustration by Sayantan Halder

When you step into Lila Majumdar’s world, you encounter a world of fabulous treasure, secret tunnels and routes, loving grandmas or elderly ladies, and usually a couple of skinny men who appear extremely suspicious. But then this world turns out to be full of surprises.

The treasure goes missing, grandmas can be suspects too, and eleven year boys can stand accused of murder.

Lila Majumdar much loved writer for children’s books is now finally available in English. After the Yellow Bird (which Anu Kumar provided a guest post some time back - please check the link), two of her novellas have now appeared, translated this time by her granddaughter, Srilata Banerjee. In her translator’s note, she states that it more a transcription than a translation and all the same, it brings to life the world Lila Majumdar created.

Having begun writing for children, she well knew and understood them. So in her stories, as she slowly builds up suspense, there are also elements of familiarity, so that a child is not thrust straightaway into the unknown.

The narrator in both these stories is a small boy who knows the odds in living in a world run and managed by adults. And adults came in various shapes and sizes, and are so hard to understand.

In Goopy’s Secret Diary, he becomes an unwitting part of an adventure when he accompanies Shyamadas kaka, Biranchidi, Thandidi on a strange secret trip. They don’t tell him where they are off to, but their behavior is very suspicious. Finally they admit they have to run because the ‘huliya’, a species of ghosts, is after them.

But they run into crowds, a slick skinny young man, as it turns out, slips a pearl necklace inside Shyamadas kaka’s kurta, and then in the middle of the night, finding themselves in a dark forest, they take shelter in a strange mansion.

There is an old lady who by magic produces a wonderful meal, and later other intriguing characters appear - a bearded man who is inordinately fond of his cow and her calf, a thin skinny man, and the slick, skinny looking youth reappears, who searches their room when he thinks they are asleep..

A second necklace appears in Shyamadas Kaka’s pocket, even as the police turn up the next day, and launch a search for the desperate criminals. But apart from Goopy, they have all disappeared.
As he tries to deflect accusations of having himself spirited them away or even killed them, Goopy falls through the bathroom and enters an altogether different world, a tunnel leads him into a strange room, that is peopled by a terrible looking, very carnivorous cow. In this room, where he thinks he is all alone and very hungry, suddenly people begin to appear, in very many ways. A loft opens up and someone comes falling down, someone else angrily knocks on the door demanding to be let in, and then of course, there are those who are found in the ancient wooden cupboards in the room.

And there Goopy slowly uncovers the mystery of the pearl necklace but there is one too many false necklaces, creating for great merriment in the end. The real reason why Goopy three eccentric relatives were on the run also comes to light. Thandidi is upset because her brother has been gifting away precious family heirlooms to his ‘guru’; Biranchi da just doesn’t want to get married, despite a girl being chosen by his father and Shyamadas kaka because he had an argument that generated into fisticuffs, with someone over who was the better footballer.

Jewels, a secret room with a largely unnoticed entrance, suspicious relatives also appear in the shorter novella , The Burmese Box. The story intersperses the past with the present, Panchu Mama is returning home to look for Podi Pishi’s Burmese Box. The story moves to the past and describes the scary journey Podi Pishi once made through a dense and dark jungle to meet her younger brother. He is a suspicious character, in league with bandits and dacoits but Podi pishi is more than a match for all of them. She is built on very strong lines and the force of her personality is overbearing. She can shout down any opponent. And any command will have all her younger relatives rush to do her bidding.

The Burmese box is one that is filled with precious jewels of every kind that is somehow misplaced soon after Podi pishi returns home and she simply cannot remember what could have happened to it or who she could have given it to. The mystery of the missing Burmese Box is something that has haunted the family long after Podi Pishi herself has passed away.

And so it is, years later that the young narrator finds himself returning to meet his ‘didima’ with his uncle Panchu mama, who appears a lackadaisical ne-er do well but is determined to find the box and is no end suspicious of his family.

On the way, there appears a skinny over-earnest guy who shows a great interest in the story of the Burmese Box.

They soon reach a lonely mansion deep in the forest, which then suddenly erupts with relatives. Didima, shejo dadamoshai, and sundry other aunts and uncles, and everyone it seems is looking for the Burmese Box. It is Didima, who is Panchu mama’s suspect number 1, who tells Goopy the story of Podi Pishi how even as she lay dying, finally discovered what had happened to the Burmese Box. There are other stories besides the one Didima tells of Podi pishi’s good for nothing yet warm-hearted son, Goja, who discovers riches overnight and showers everyone with gifts. There is also the story of how a staircase built because a younger uncle of the family wanted to bring home an English wife, ‘a mem’, was later dismantled. And therein lies the secret of the Burmese Box.

The two novellas make for breathtaking reading. Nowhere, from one page to another, is there any let-up in the suspense. And intermeshed in all this, are the young narrator’s helpless and still wry observations about adults and what strange creatures they are. Mansions, forests, eccentric relatives, ghosts or huliyas, boxes and strange rooms filled with jewels – Lila Majumdar built an entire whole world for children and made it believable, and hard to get out of. It’s a book that you will read with pleasure and feel sorry once it’s over.


Choxbox said...

Wow. What a gem. Have a list of books to seek out in my next bookshop jaunt. Adding this one to it.

Thanks Anu, please do keep telling us of more like this one.

Will read the book and get back to comment.

Sayantan Halder said...

thank u .... anu..... best wishes

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