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The Genius Making Sense With His “Nonsense’

The Genius Making Sense With His “Nonsense’

Sukumar Roy

Son of acclaimed story writer Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury and father of Oscar-winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray – Sukumar Roy is an icon of modern Indian innovative literature. His book Abol-Tabol (Nonsical Mnemonics), with whimsical poems soaked in epic sense of humour, word selection and creative limericks, still regale readers of all ages.  Our Star writer, Somashis Gupta, duly highlights the life and work of Sukumar Roy, who, in a short span of 36 years, created a literary empire for Bengali literature.

কাঠ বুড়ো  (Kath Buro), তাস গরু  (Tash Goru), হুক মুখ হ্যাংলা  (Huko Mukho Hangla) , কুমড়ো পটাশ (Kumro Potash)….

Perhaps there is not a single Bengali who is not fascinated with these characters. These are the characters of the most unique stories of হেশোরাম  হুশিয়ার  (Heshoram Hushiar) in two incredible books  Abol Tabol and Hojoborolo.

The creator of these characters was Sukumar Roy. His creative excellence may have been germinated as a child. Born on the 30th of October 1887, Roy was always surrounded by family members who were creative geniuses of those times.

His father, Kamodaranjan, was the adopted son of Horikrishno Roy Chowdhury, the Zamindar of  Mashuagram. After adoption, Kamodaranjan was called Upendrokishore. He was the second of the five brothers.

His elder Sharada Ranjan was a Sanskrit and Mathematics scholar whose books were used as study materials for students. Besides being a professor in the Metropolitan College, Sharada Ranjan was also identified as the best-known cricketer of his times.

Upendra Kishore was not a player, though, but was a storehouse of various skills. His forte included printing and publishing; he was a painter, a scientist, a brilliant child fiction writer and an eminent musician. Upendra Kishore was the only Indian at that time whose writings and photographs were published in the eminent Penrose Annual of England.

Characters created by Sukumar Ray - কাঠ বুড়ো (Kath Buro), তাস গরু (Tash Goru), হুক মুখ হ্যাংলা (Huko Mukho Hangla) , কুমড়ো পটাশ (Kumro Potash)....
Characters created by Sukumar Ray – হুক মুখ হ্যাংলা (Huko Mukho Hangla) , কুমড়ো পটাশ (Kumro Potash) তাস গরু (Tash Goru) and কাঠ বুড়ো (Kath Buro)

Upendra, along with his brothers Kuloda and Pramoda, adopted the Brahmo religion. In the course of time, Upendra married Bidhumukhi, the daughter of Dwarkanath Gongopadhyay, a leading figure of Brahmo Samaj.

Upendra had shifted to Calcutta by then and started residing in 13 Cornwallis Street. His wife Bidhumukhi gave birth to 6 children. The second child was Sukumar Roy.

After passing from City school, Sukumar graduated from Presidency College with Honours in both Physics and Chemistry. His faculty included another tremendous iconic figure of Bengal Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy.

It was during his college days Sukumar first started expressing his creativity. He formed the Nonsense Club, which used to publish a handwritten magazine called Share botrish bhaja. (Thirty-two and a half fries). Roy’s hilarious creations were first published in the pages of this magazine.

Ray also had written two plays Jhalapala and Lakhaner shakti shill, which The Nonsense Club members enacted. Both are hilarious masterpieces.

In the year 1895, Ray established a printing press named “U Ray and Sons”. Later in 1911, at the age of 23, he went to London for studying Photoengraving and Lithography at London County Council School. After one year in London, he continued his studies in Manchester, where he was trained in Chromolithography and litho-drawing in the Municipal School of Technology.

During this time, in 1912, Tagore visited England with his translation of Gitanjali. Many Bengalis who were studying in England were followers of Tagore. Sukumar was one of them, and he, on one of the occasions, read a piece on Rabindranath Tagore, which was also published in the famous Quest magazine of England. This was the first English article that acquainted the English speaking world o Tagore.

While Sukumar was in England, his father had started publishing a monthly children’s magazine called Sandesh.  Sukumar returned to India in 1913 after passing all his exams with distinctions and a bronze medal. In the span of the next two months, he got in holy wedlock with Shuprobha.

The family shifted to 100 Gorpar Road in 1914. The press was operated from the front portion while the living quarters were located at the back facing south. After his father’s death, Sukumar took up the responsibility of Sandesh. The first composition of Sukumar for Sandesh was Khichuri, later included in the famous collection Abol-Tabol. Such convoluted verse and such pictures could have only been created by Sukumar Roy, the father of Indian Nonsense Rhyme. One such example is Hash chilo sojaru, the translated version by Ifti Chaudhuri goes like this.–.

Of Geese, Hedgehogs, and Hedgehogeese

 The goose and the hedgehog, not following grammar,
Formed Hedgehogoose Corporation, only last summer.
The seagull told tortoise, “Come on, let’s have some fun,
And make Tortoiseagull the largest merger under the sun.

Cockatiel-headed lizard had a diet problem that may look silly:
How could he give up eating worms switching to green chilli?
Goat had a hidden agenda; he always had this idea in mind,
To form a joint venture, for which flamingo was a good find.

The giraffe was really tired of roaming around in the prairie
He yearned to gang up with the eagle, a thought really eerie.
“Is it the mad-cow disease?” the heifer asks herself loosely,
“I wonder why the wretched rooster follows me so closely.

The whalephant is in doldrums; he isn’t really full of glee;
While elephant loves the jungle, whale yearns for the sea.
A lack of horns gave the leopard a severe manic depression;
Growing antlers was the cure, thanks to deer’s contribution.

Sukumar continued the high standard of Shondesh set by Upendra Kishore with equal enthusiasm. The entire family was a part of this enigmatic magazine. Besides the family, other renowned authors contributed to Sandesh. Those writings are still cherished even after so many years.

Illustrations from "Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary" and "Khudor Kawl"
Illustrations from “Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary” and “Khudor Kawl”

The versatility of Sukumar and his thirst for new things was unending. He had given seven names to just one handwritten notebook. The Unnecessary notebook. The Nonsense Notebook, The Fanciful Notebook, The Notebook for Drafts, The Just Like That NoteBook, The Wasted Notebook, The Collection of Notebooks. With its beautiful scribbles, riddles, and notes, this notebook gives us an insight into Sukumar Roy’s mind.

In 1915 he formed a Monday Shomelon club, which attracted the Bengali intellectual youth immensely. They included Poet Satendranath Dutta, Ajit Kumar Chakraborty, Atul Prasad Sen, Sunity Kumar Chattopadhyay, Kalidas Nag etc.

The invitation to the club meetings was unique in their contents and composed personally by Ray himself. These invitations were always in verse and automatically attracted the invitee. One such was—

সম্পাদক  ব্যাকুব
কথা যে দিয়েছে ডুব
এদিকে যে হায় হায়
ক্লাব টি তো যায় যায়

তাই বলি সোমবারে
মোদো গৃহে গরপাড়ে
দিলে সবে পদধূলি
ক্লাব টা রে তুলে ধরি

রকমারি পুথি যত
নিজ নিজ রুচি মতো
আনিবেন সাথে সবে
কিছু কিছু পাঠ হবে

See Also
Shidol Chutney

করজরে বার বার
নিবেদিছে শুকুমার

The secretary is missing
He might have gone fishing
The club in the mean time
Is missing it’s rhyme

So this Monday
Punch the Bundy
My house in Gorpar
A day filled with fun jar

Bring all the books you like
No not for a hike
We can read a few
To make the fun stew

We have come so far
No turning back says Shukumar

Discussion in these clubs included poetry, literature, philosophy, politics etc; in fact, nothing was left out. Besides other great compositions by the members, Sukumar personally wrote two plays during these days. One was Chalachitra Chanchari and the other Shobdo Kolpo Droom

In 1921 at the age of 33, Sukumar fell ill with a tropical disease that knew no cure during those times. His son Satyajit Ray was born the same year. Despite his illness, Sukumar continued writing for Sandesh.

Hozoborolo, which was written during this time, remains the best hilarious writing cherished by readers. Hozoborolo was an inspiration from Lewis Carrol’s Alice In Wonderland. In this, he takes us to the world of fantasy and dreams.

Artwork from “Hozorobolo”

In 1922, Sukumar was elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. Later in 1923, Ateeter Chhobi –A history of Brahmo Samaj for children was completed by him. His health was deteriorating, but his creativity was unabated. He published a printer’s manual, which comes in handy even today. A new book of verses was taking shape in tiny pieces.  He was writing the Mahabharata in verse. A recuperation visit to Shodhpur led to the famous painting of Sunset on the Ganges. A dummy copy of Abol Tabol was prepared with his sketches. Even he designed the coloured cover for the book with his own hands, but unfortunately, Sukumar did not live to see the print.  In his last verse, he foretells his death. For the sake of a global audience, a translated version is—

Today before I leave.
I shall speak my heart out, I believe
Even if it is absurd
Even if you don’t understand a word

I will let my imagination flow on this day
There is no one who can stop me today
It’s time for me to sleep now
My song is over, so time to end the show.

On the 10th of September 1923, Sukumar Roy passed away at the age of 36. His death brought in absences in the field of Bengali literature.  Many writers would come and go, but Sukumar Roy can never be replaced. Keep smiling, Sukumar Roy, wherever you are.

References : Sandesh Potrika, Satyajit Ray interviews, write-ups and documentary.

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