Folktales, epic narratives and legends connect people to their land, to an identity and to each other. Tales from Bengal is a classic collection of folk narratives from a master storyteller, Upendrakishore RayChoudhury. Most of the stories in this book are naturally culture specific but, through their rootedness, runs a tendril of universality in their portrayal of human and animal behaviour. The depiction of one-upmanship and the inventiveness of plot and narration are outstanding features of these tales, as indeed a certain preoccupation with food!
Those who have read or heard these stories as children, perhaps in the original Bengali, will travel back with ease to the time when a little weaver bird could outwit a king, when a swarm of mosquitoes made an elephant promise to drink up the ocean and when a wicked tiger was tricked into getting back into his cage. For this generation of children, however, brought up on Aesop’s fables and Grimm’s fairytales, these stories would open up an entirely new world. Unlike the grandmother in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, the Old Humpback here is helped by her granddaughter to save herself from the hungry animals waiting to eat her. Again, unlike the fables of Aesop, these stories do not offer any moral teachings, which is delightful. Their irreverence is extensive enough to cover even the tiger who is shown not as a fearsome, ruthless beast but as a naive, rather stupid creature.
The tiger in these tales is in complete contrast to William Blake’s magnificent inhabitant of “the forests of the night”; both creatures can be seen symbolically too. Blake depicts the tiger as power, as the great mystery of creation, as unimaginable beauty. In Upendrakishore’s tales, the tiger could be the un-sophisticate, the villager visiting the city, the gullible citizen.
Indeed, many of the stories are political in their implications and it would be a wise grown-up who hints at this when sharing these stories with children. That is one of the ways to make these stories relevant to older age-groups as well. Of course, the robust humour is sure to be refreshing even to jaded video game aficionados.
Translating from our regional languages with all their musicality and their sound and word play is enormously tough. However, the translator of this collection, Paushali Ganguli, has kept the English version readable and grammatically correct, even with the piquant rhyming verses.
The publishers have been generous with the space provided for illustrations. Gautam Benegal has been faithful to the text and the pictures are colourful and engaging. One only wished that the depiction of tigers standing on one another could have been a full-page illustration.
The book is a treasure that a family with young children could grow up sharing.
Author: Upendrakishore RayChoudhury
Translator: Paushali Ganguli
Illustrator: Gautam Benegal
Om Kidz, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Anthology