Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne: the magical world of Upendrakishore Roychoudhury, Translated by Swagata Deb; Penguin, India; 2004; 167 Pages; ISBN:0-14333589-8 Upendrakishore's stories translated by:
The Stupid Tiger.
, Translated by William Radice; HarperCollins, India; 1981; 113 Pages; ISBN: 81-7223-388-4
Majantali and Co.
, Translated by Madhuchhanda Karlekar; Thema; 1997; 25 Pages; ISBN: 81-86017-09-7
Deb (2004), Karlekar (1997), and Radice (1981).
There was once a man who could sing only one song, which he
sang constantly. The people around him got rather tired of this song and
chased him into the jungle, where he met his future friend, a man who
had been similarly thrown out of his village for incessant drumming.
By this point, many Bengalis will have identified the characters and the
book, a beloved cornerstone of children's literature in Bengal. Goopy
Gyne, the singer, and Bagha Byne, the 'tiger-like drummer', are the main
characters in the eponymous story by Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri.
Upendrakishore died in 1915 at the age of 52. In his relatively short
life he had utilized his remarkable talents as a painter, a musician and
an amateur astronomer, had founded his own printing company, and most
memorably, had started Sandesh, the children's magazine. Sandesh was
continued after his death by his son, the writer Sukumar Ray, and his
filmmaker grandson Satyajit Ray. Over the last few years, much of
Upendrakishore's children's writing has been translated into English and
other languages. The most recent of these translations is Goopy Gyne
Bagha Byne: The magical world of Upendrakishore Roychoudhury, a
translation by Swagata Deb published by Penguin.
As a huge Feluda fan who discovered the books late in life through a
Penguin translation, I was looking forward to more from the First Family
of Bengali culture. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was made into a film by
Satyajit Ray in 1968; it was wildly successful in Bengal but apparently
did not fare as well outside. Was this because the stories themselves
were too rooted in a time, or place, or style to be enjoyed outside
Bengal? Or was it the film that did not travel well? There are no
subtitled versions of the film and even the Bengali version is hard to
find, so only a fortunate few can answer these questions for themselves.
The translations are a step in the right direction, allowing readers to
form their own opinions about the stories.
The film certainly had some non-Bengali aficionados: more than 20
years later, Salman Rushdie named the plentymaw fish in Haroun and the
Sea of Stories after Goopy and Bagha.
Back to Goopy and Bagha in the jungle. Each heard the loud sounds of the
other's 'music' in the distance and at first was terrified but then
recognized the other as a soulmate. Their friendship survived many
adventures with ghosts, guards, kings, and magical objects. Creative
tricks allowed them to escape trouble, and the story ends satisfactorily
with marriage to the king's daughters. In 25 pages, an imaginative plot
is combined with distinctively local references.
Ray's film made this story famous, but Upendrakishore's other stories
are just as entertaining. The translator, Swagata Deb, has chosen to
organize them into Tales of Men, Tales of Grandmothers, Tales of Birds,
Tales of Foxes, and Tales of a Cat. Many of these tales were originally
part of Upendrakishore's Tuntunir Boi -- the Tailor-Bird's Book --
which was first published in 1901 with illustrations by Upendrakishore
himself. (His artistic abilities were clearly shared by other members of
the family; both Sukumar Ray and Satyajit Ray were excellent artists)
Illustrations by Upendrakishore, Sukumar, and Satyajit
Upendrakishore's tales usually involve an inventive character who uses a
combination of luck and trickery to solve a problem. There are often
enchanted objects and creatures, such as a trumpet that makes everyone
dance, or a horse that can fly and predict the future. This collection
includes something for everyone. Those who like underdog stories will
enjoy the ones about Tuntuni the tailor-bird, who outwits cats and
kings. Older children will enjoy performing a play called Kenaram
Becharam, where the poor servant Kenaram gets even with his mean master
with the help of a magical trumpet. There's the monkey prince and the
clever Dukhiram and even the hideous Ghangosaur, a creature that is
one-third beast, one-third bird, and one-third demon.
One story that begs to be read aloud is 'Poor Granny Licey', with a poem
that builds up line by line:
Poor old Granny Licey died,
For seven days the stork cried,
All the waters turned to white,
Elephant's tail fell out of sight,
The tree all her leaves did shed,
The bird lost one eye from her head,
The cowherd's stick stuck to his hand,
The maid's sieve stuck to her headband,
The dish stuck to queen's hand so fair,
And I got stuck to this chair!
Two older English translations of Upendrakishore's stories also exist.
In 1997 Thema brought out Majantali & Co., a 25-page, low-cost volume
that includes three stories. It is ably translated by Madhuchhanda
Karlekar and illustrated by Gautam Chattopadhyay. It includes one
feature that is notably lacking in the Penguin translation -- an
introduction. Just one page long, it is brief but effective in providing
some background about the author and the stories. The Penguin edition
would have been considerably enhanced by a few well-written pages about
Upendrakishore and the times in which he wrote and published these
An earlier collection called The Stupid Tiger was brought out in 1981 by
HarperCollins. it is a bargain at Rs. 50, but has its own
peculiarities. The front cover prominently displays the name of William
Radice, the translator, and only the back cover mentions that
Upendrakishore was the original author, an arrangement which may irk
some readers. Perhaps this was an editorial decision that irked the
translator too, as the book ends with a rather apologetic note from
Radice: "The Stupid Tiger [..] is not my own collection of Bengali folk
tales; neither have I told the stories in my own words".
These are details; what of the content? The HarperCollins edition
contains 20 stories, and the Penguin edition contains 18, with several
overlaps. The HarperCollins version has mostly animal stories, while
the Penguin edition spends more time with humans. Both translations are
written in a simple, pleasant style, with more fanciful flourishes in
the Penguin version. Consider the beginning of 'The Sparrow and the
One day the sparrow said, 'Wife, I wish I had some sweet cakes to
'Bring me the ingredients for sweet cakes', said his wife, 'and I'll make some.'
-The Stupid Tiger, Radice (HarperCollins) pg 48.
Ah, wife, I want to eat some pithe', Mr Sparrow told Mrs Sparrow one
'I can't make pithe just like that', said Mrs Sparrow. 'I need
flour, I need jaggery, I need bananas, I need milk, and I need wood. Get
me all these, and I'll make you pithe.'
-Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Deb (Penguin) p 118.
This particular story demonstrates some of the complexities of a
translator's task. The Radice translation follows Upendrakishore's
original plot: the sparrows eat most of the delicious pithes and lay out
a few for the tiger. The tiger complains that his pithes taste of flour,
sawdust and cowdung, for no apparent reason that Upendrakishore or
Radice can provide. In the Penguin edition, Deb was apparently
dissatisfied with this lack of logic, and returned to the original
Bengali folk tales from whence this story originated. In her version,
the sparrows eat all the pithes and make a few fake ones out of
flour, sawdust and cowdung to fool the tiger.
Illustrations from "The Stupid Tiger", and "Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.."
Thema's Majantali & Co. has the best illustrations for younger
children. The Stupid Tiger is illustrated by William Rushton in a
formal and decorative rather than illustrative style. His drawing
that accompanies the Majantali Sarkar story is particularly appealing,
but I must confess to liking the Penguin illustrations the best. Its
cover has a pen-and-ink drawing by Dipankar Bhattacharya that perfectly
captures the ethos of Goopy and Bagha. More lovely drawings await
within; they are clever and distinctive, and redolent of
Upendrakishore's own charming artwork.
Upendrakishore's stories are a valuable addition to any child's
bookshelf, and it is a pleasure to see them in translations that make
them accessible to a wider audience.
Published May 28, 2004