Book Review: Khirer Putul (The doll of condensed milk)

Book Review by Gopal Lahiri

Book: Khirer Putul (The doll of condensed milk)

Author: Abanindranath Tagore
Translated by Amita Ray

Genere: Novel
Publisher: Hawakal Publishers, Kolkata-700049
Price: ₹ 250.00
ISBN 978-93-87883-06-2;

Riveting Fantasy Novel
Abanindranath Tagore, the eminent Bengali painter and writer, has written a few master pieces in children literature. ‘Khirer Putul’ written in 1896, is certainly one of the best children’s fantasy novel in Bengali language and you will get to see the world through a completely different set of eyes.

Abanindranath who was Rabindranath Tagore’s nephew found this story in Mrinalini Devi’s diary after death and the fantasy novel is constructed on the story written in her diary. The beautiful illustrations were done by Abanindranath Tagore himself.

Amita Ray’s English translation has beautifully captured the magical spontaneity and confiding intimacy of the original.

Sanjukta Dasgupta, the noted poet and critic, in her Foreword, has rightly pointed out, ‘in her sensitive and skilful translation, Amita Ray has been able to replicate the swift-flowing lucidity and charm of the original Bangla text by Abanindranath Tagore.’

The qualities that make this touching tale, fascinating are warm, colourful and fanciful characters, all of them are channelled into the making of a few pieces of jewel that will stand the test of time. Bengali children literature boasts of many eminent writers including Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Upendrokishore Roy Choudhuri, Sukumar Roy, Lila Mazumdar among many others. Most of the fantasy novels and stories are inspired by folk lore and folk culture and the textures of tales are interlaced with rituals, allegories, mythical allusions, imageries and nursery rhymes. The imagery comes through in an extraordinary manner in a beautiful aesthetic flow.

It is to be noted that perhaps more than the most genres, folklore and tales depend for their power on the exactness of language. Universal themes – the eternal conflict between good and ugly - count for a great deal, to be sure. But it is the language and lucid text, subtle as well as devious, that slips underneath your nerves and delivers the tales' odd, twisted meanings straight into the heart. Here Abanindranath has collected folk tales that had been sitting deep in the culture for centuries and manages himself heard through his fluid and shining narrative.

Gopal Lahiri
The story revolves around the King of Deepnagar, who has two queens- uncared and poor elder queen Duorani and pampered and beautiful younger queen Suorani and the extraordinary intelligent black monkey. The king has given seven palaces, seven hundred female slaves, precious ornaments from seven kingdoms, seven chariots and seven gardens to his younger queen. Duorani only get a broken home, a deaf and dumb maid, dirty bed and torn cloths. Like many of the folk tales, Khirer Putul is rooted in precise detail but at the same time leaves space for the reader to bring their own ideas and thoughts.

Before embarking  on a journey to far away countries, the king takes leave from his beautiful Suorani asking what gift she wants and she replies that she wants “eight bangles of ruby as red as blood”, “string of ten fiery-red anklets made of gold”, “necklace of those pearls,” “pearls in a distant country as large as the pigeon’s eggs”, and “a sari as blue as the sky, feathery as the wind and light as water”. The king promises her to bring all she desires.

The elder queen Duorani wishes only for the king’s safe journey and nothing else as any other material things are of no use to her because the king no longer loves her. On the king’s insistence, she says that he could bring for her “a black faced monkey”. It is the magic the writer finds in the everyday, the lightness of touch with the intelligence of the monkey that also feel universal, inclusive and comforting to us as a reader. It has also the edge in terms of seeming positive and enchanting. The story has landed us to a place that is at once full of something beautiful and consumed by sorrow but again revert back to the glory.

Amita Ray in her introduction remarked, ‘capturing every nuances of the original text proved a bit tricky at times but it was negotiated without undermining the innate rhythm and essence of the masterpiece’.

Ray’s translation of the original is wonderfully apposite, managing to catch his painterly style and the writers own uncluttered universe Her task has been not so much to add yet another layer of language on top of Abanindranath’s original text, but rather to strip away all those accretions of unwanted images allowing Abanindranath’s work to finally show through in all its glory. A glimpse of her translation is presented below,

Leaving her ramshackle cottage, ragged coverlet and draped in sari of gold threads, Duorani entered the new mansion. She relaxed on a golden cot, had her food served on golden plate, distributed money to the poor and needy. The whole kingdom wished glory to the queen; the younger queen flared up in anger.’

The constant wariness over class, the possibility of fabulous good fortune arriving with child, lingering feelings of ugliness and beauty are all tickled into greater prominence.

Amita Ray is vivid and compelling in this translation work which evoke a feeling of precision and accuracy. She is able to convey the emotion in the most creative ways. One cannot but love the surface simplicity and the layered complexity of the storyline.

News arrived at the royal palace that the elder queen had taken poison. The king hurried to the queen’s mansion. The royal minister followed close on the heels. The royal physician came along chanting the sacred text. Next, starting from the queen’s maids, royal couriers, servants, everyone followed suit.’

The sketches in the book, light and dense, bring all those characters so brilliantly to life. The cover design is arresting and the book takes readers deep inside their heart. Hawakal Publishers deserve plaudits for publishing this wonderful child classic in English translation. A must read for every child as well as for the grown-up.

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