Time was when we thought Abol Tabol represented the beginning and the end of Indian nonsense. For those unsanctified by a bhadralok pedigree, this also meant that until Sukanta Chaudhuri’s wonderful English translation of Sukumar Ray came to be published in 1987, almost nothing nonsensical was remotely Indian and vice versa. The only form of nonsense to be recognized as such was the poetry of Edward Lear, with the Old Man of Madras who rode a cream-coloured ass and the horrid Old Man of Calcutta who perpetually ate bread and butter; and, of course, the Chuprassies, Dobies and Goreewallahs of The Cummerbund. It is a pleasure therefore to finally discover a nonsensical lineage, a thoroughbred Indian tradition of nonsense. It is reassuring, above all, to find a sense of humour in the nation’s collective family tree that spans several Indian languages from Marathi and Mizo to Tamil and Oriya.
Indeed, it now appears that the familiar rhymes of a Hindi-speaking childhood—Akkad Bakkad Bambe Bo—and the schoolroom poems of Imperial Punjab mocking the death of the English sovereign—ABC tu kitthe gayee si/ Edward mar gaya, onnu pittan gayee si—were actually forms of nonsense verse, though not accorded that formal literary status.
The two big sections of this book are on Literary Nonsense (from Kabir and Tenali Raman through Sukumar Ray and Rabindranath Tagore to many contemporary writers of nonsense in the Indian languages as well as in English) and Folk Nonsense (which encompasses nursery rhymes, lullabies, game rhymes, verse for festivals and weddings and just plain folk tales). In addition, there is a section on Nonsense in the Hindi cinema and a last section presenting some upcoming writers of nonsense. Finally, and most appropriately, there is an Appendix with a selection of Lear’s poetry that has an Indian flavour. Together, these add up to a substantial enough corpus to justify the name given by Sukumar Ray to ‘the spirit of whimsy’, the Tenth Rasa.
Several poems in this anthology convey the wonder of combining meaning and meaninglessness—so characteristic of nonsense—most compellingly. Take Anushka Ravishankar’s ‘The Discovery of India’. My cousin Nibboo—Boo for short
Once traversed India South to North At Parur he was very pleased He said, ‘I am—’ And then he sneezed Srirangapatnam turned him soft He sighed ‘I do—’ And then he coughed At Wardha he was feeling well He claimed ‘I can—’ And then he fell In Meerut he was rather mild He said ‘I will—’ And then he smiled Ferozepur filled him with fear He cried ‘I think!’ Then disappeared Boo got famous overnight— He proved Descartes Wasn’t right.
This, of course, is a poem originally written in English. Not all the translations work as well, as this sample from a Marathi original, ‘A Little More Introduction’ shows.
Old Professor Solemnface Makes very studious comments; A few of these mischievous drops I sprinkled onto his garments.
The delight of sound and the phonetic quality of wordplay are the very essence of nonsense. This is obviously the hardest to accomplish in translation, but this excerpt from a Marathi poem—‘The Bathing Hymn’—does it admirably, playfully deploying Sanskrit phonetics.
Om havum bathum namaha Om take offum clothesum namaha On the body applyum oilum namaha Scrubscrubum namaha rubrubum namaha Scrubscrubum namaha.
In fact, a few verses in this anthology actually manage to combine the pleasure of nonsense sound with linguistic crossovers, as in Sampurna Chattarji’s ‘Very Fishy’.
There was a fish who called himself THANKYOUBHERYMAACH. Till the fishermen caught and salted him And ate him with boiled starch.
While the phonetics and the interplay of words and meaninglessness often succeed, even in translation, imitating the form of, say, the limerick or the clerihew produces rather less exciting results, as this clerihew by translated from the Bengali original shows:
It was Acharya Jagdish Bose who Declared plants to be animals too The only thing surprising about that Would be getting surprised by such old hat.
One of the most exciting discoveries of this book is the stunning similarity between a certain type of nonsense verse—here labelled as Thorn Texts, because they generally begin with a thorn—in at least six different Indian languages, including Urdu. I will quote only one relatively short ‘thorn text’, ‘A Story About a Story’, translated from the Gujarati.
Here’s a story about a story: There was once a ber tree It had an eighteen and a half foot thorn. On its tip were three villages. Two were empty and no one lived in the third at all. In it lived three Brahmins, Two were fasting and one ate nothing at all. The Brahmin had three cows at home, Two were infertile and one could never have a baby at all. The cow gave birth to three calves, Two weren’t there and one didn’t exist at all. The calf ploughed three fields, Two were barren and nothing grew in one.
Once one has read the other seven thorn texts, the idea of India gets a new lease of life. Postmodernism, the learned introduction tells us apparently without irony or even the trace of a smirk, is the grandchild of nonsense. When they discover their (in my view, impeccable) intellectual pedigree, the more serious postmodernist scholars will probably crumple into unmitigated melancholy. As far as I am concerned, give me the grandparents any day.
Niraja Gopal Jayal is probably the only Indian political scientist to be a confirmed admirer of the Canadian political theorist Stephen Leacock, author of Nonsense Novels (1911) and other works of nonsense prose.