Review: “Khirer Putul – the doll of condensed milk” by Abanindranath Tagore (Translation by Amita Ray)

Kolkata: Hawakal Publishers, 2018.
Price Rs. 250. ISBN 13-978-93-87883-06-2.
Pages 72.
Reviewed by Amit Shankar Saha

Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabndranath Tagore, was a wonderful painter. He also wrote quite a few tales for children and Khirer Putul is one of them, which was first published in the year 1896. The original story may have been inspired by traditional Bengali folk lore and folk culture but as Prof. Sanjukta Dasgupta points out in her Foreword that “the source narrative of Khirer Putul was an unpublished fairy tale in Rabindranath Tagore’s wife Mrinalini Devi’s draft collection of fairy tales and fantasies” from where Abanindranath Tagore borrowed the idea of his story. Prof. Dasgupta also points out that it is an “overtly patriarchal text” but every text in history has a context and has to be read within the prevailing parameters of the time, age and culture it belongs to. Moreover, Abanindranath Tagore was a wonderful painter and for him he was merely translating into written words a story that is best expressed in the oral tradition and it is here that his ability as a painter come to the fore. So, let us not read Khirer Putul as a lexical text but see it as a visual text, where the artist may have the liberty to stretch the contour of the eyes of a character outside the circumference of the face and yet not be visually absurd. Let us read Khirer Putul as a painting from a bygone era embedded in our mind as a past consciousness.

Dear readers, let us for the moment forget our theories of gender binaries, awareness of stereotypes, and logic of rational thinking. Let us for the moment willingly suspend our disbelief. Let us not judge why a male-heir producing queen be privileged over one who could not beget a son, let us not find logic in how a king who sails out with seven ships and on his voyage spends seven ships of gold to buy gifts and yet return with his seven ships intact, let us not smirk at the conveniences of coincidences that propel the story. We are in a story where everyone, even the king, believes what a black face monkey says. So, let us go back a few years of our lives when we were quick to believe that monkeys can talk. The imagination of a child is not the black and white of words but that of colours of a painting. Khirer Putul is a visual text where the opulence is brought out through the expression of colours. That is how it was and that is how it has always been if you go across the seven seas and thirteen rivers of the imagination of your childhood. This once-upon-a-time story of a king with two queens – the suffering elder Duorani and the pampered younger Suorani – and the change of fortunes that come about in their lives is an old tale of triumph of good over evil. But it is ironic in its fantasy where at the onset we know that “jewels and ornaments as vast as that of seven kingdoms taken together” filled the chests of Suorani. This is where Abanindranath Tagore incites the mind of a young reader to imagine beyond the possible – the contour of the eye stretches beyond the circumference of the face.

Dear readers, look when the king wishes to travel to countries far and wide (without his wives) what does Suorani asks him to bring for her – bangles of ruby as red as blood, fiery-red anklets made of gold, necklace of pearls as large as pigeon’s eggs, and a sari blue as the sky, feathery as the wind and light as water. Visualize. Visualize with the awe of a child. And what does Duorani asks to bring – a black faced monkey. Do I see a smile on your child-face? When the king takes all the luxurious gifts to Suorani and she tries them on, none fits – they are either too big, or too loose or too short even though the king claims that he bought them of right measurement. It is at this point that the black faced monkey, bought by a minister from a merchant’s ship in a magician’s land, makes his first utterance of wisdom: “Unless one is very fortunate and virtuous, the sari woven by a nymph and necklace crafted by a mystical serpent princess cannot be worn.” If the black faced monkey plays a cameo in this visual drama then he plays it to the hilt, to put the cliché mildly. He assumes the role of the schemer of the plot, a part that seemed to be of Suorani at the start, he assumes the role of the absent son of Duorani, even becoming her confidante, he assumes the role of a messenger between the king and Duorani and eventually he assumes the role of a trusted advisor to the king, whom he readily believes and follows. He becomes the trusted native of the empire.

So, aided by the black faced monkey, fortunes turn, especially for Duorani. Naturally, when the king hears the news from the monkey that his elder queen is pregnant with a son he starts to favour her in keeping with the patriarchal archetype that he is portrayed in. But Abanindranath Tagore seems to mock at this archetype because the king has been gulled, the news is false. The king is even tricked by the monkey into believing that if the king sees his son before he is married then the king will turn blind. The monkey even has the temerity and chutzpah to dress a doll of condensed milk as the son of the king and take it in a palanquin for marriage. But a bigger trick remains in the bag of the black faced monkey, a trick that will lead the story to its conclusion – the tricking of goddess Sasthi, the benefactress of children. Visualize this scene when the mashi-pisi of sleep (aunts of sleep) make the real world fall asleep and goddess Sasthi gives divine vision to the monkey and a “whole realm of children under the banyan tree opened up in the monkey’s vision…” Who are these happy children from another dimension lost to the real world? To give away the last part of the story for a new reader will be a sacrilege for everyone has to make his or her own leap of imagination.

But the review will not be completed without mentioning the merits of this translation into English of the Bengali original. Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Task of a Translator” says, “While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds.” It is with this finesse and adherence that Amita Roy’s translation comes to the fore. She knows the inadequacies of language in translating cultures but she also knows that it is through language only mediation can happen and that is what she does successfully. The lyricism of Bengali may not be there in English but the ethos remains in the translation. What Abanindranath Tagore paints in the fairy tale and what Amita Ray transfers in this English translation opens a world of fantasy for us as if we are all black faced monkeys and we have been given a divine vision. And we are all gazing at a portrait in a canvas where the contour of the eye keeps coming out of the circumference of the face.

Reviewer’s bio:

Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Seacom Skills University. He is an award-winning poet and short story writer and has been widely published nationally and internationally. He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets. He has co-edited an anthology of short stories titled
Dynami Zois and has authored a collection of poems titled Balconies of Time.