Tag Archives: Swapna Dutta

Ramapada Chowdhury’s Second Encounter

Ramapada Chowdhury, Second Encounter (Je Jekhane Danriye 1972, translation by Swapna Dutta,  Niyogi Books 2016)

9385285440.jpgIt’s easy for English-speaking readers to forget that a vast amount of writing exists in the world independent of the English language: neither written in English nor translated into it. In India, I’m told, there are a number of languages in which novels can find much greater audiences than the one we Anglophones arrogantly assume to be universal.

Bengali is one of those languages. It’s the language of the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and we Anglophones are fortunate enough to have had at lest some of their work translated for us. (Satyajit Ray was one of the names my oldest brother used to conjure up the great world of Culture when he came home from his first term at University – along with Tolstoy, Tchaikowsky and Kurosawa.)

jejakhanedanriye.jpgRamapada Chowdhury’s 1972 novella Je Jekhane Danriye is a gem that would have remained invisible to non-Bengali readers if Swapna Dutta’s love for it hadn’t led her to make it available to us. A film version was released in 1974, but there’s very little information about it on IMDB. The poster for the film seriously misrepresents the book.

It’s a story of young love revisited: two people, each married with a child, meet up again after a twenty-year separation. In their teenage years they had lived near each other and developed a mutual infatuation, which was never consummated in so much as a direct exchange of words. Each of them has cherished the thrilling memory and found solace in it in the midst of humdrum reality, and now it seems a spark has been reignited.

But this is not a Mills and Boon romance. The emotional weight of the book hangs on the question of what twenty years can mean in a person’s life. Not only do individuals mature and make choices, but social mores change: while twenty years previously young people could only gaze raptly at each other from their restricted lives, the current teenagers roam the countryside together day and night. Both main characters agonise over the meaning of their rekindled feelings, for themselves, for each other, for their spouses, and for their children (who are engaged in a teenage romance of their own).

By serendipity, I’ve been reading the poems of C P Cavafy at the same time as Second Encounter. I plan to write a little bit about Cavafy in a couple of days, but for now I just want to refer to the many poems in which a fifty year old man looks back yearningly to objects of desire from his 20s. Cavafy’s poems never test nostalgic desire against any kind of reality. He would probably have rejected Second Encounter‘s meditations as appallingly anti-romantic, but I can’t help feeling he might have been a happier human if he had read it and taken its wisdom on board.

In case you’re interested in learning more: I came across a documentary on Ramapada Chowdhury on YouTube, made, I think, by one of his grandchildren. Now in his 90s, he mentions this little book, which the English subtitles call Where One Stands, and says that it was influenced by ‘One Day after 20 Years’, a poem by Bengali poet Jibanananda Das (there’s a poem at that link called ‘After 25 Years’, which may be the one he means).

Mahabharata for young (and English-speaking western) readers

Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Mahabharata for Young Readers translated from Bengali by Swapna Dutta (The Book Mine, Hachette India  2015)

9350099985.jpg I expect my readers are generally familiar with the notion of divine inspiration: God, or a god, breathes life into a mere human’s writing. Sometimes a writer even claims to literally take dictation from a spirit being. The great Indian epic the Mahabharata happened the other way around. It was written down by the elephant god Ganesh, taking four-handed dictation at speed from the more-or-less human Vyasadeva. Ganesh is traditionally shown with one broken tusk because when a nib of one of his pens broke Ganesh snapped off part of a tusk and  dipped it in ink to keep up with Vyasa’s stream of words.

Since that mythic event there have been many translations of the Mahabharata, some of them into English. It’s roughly a hundred years since Upendrakishore Ray Chowdury published his Chheleder Mahabharat, a version for Bengali children. Only now has this pint-sized version found its way into English, thanks to the labours of children’s writer and blogger Swapna Dutta. It would be a challenging read for most children in my part of the world – no illustrations and a lot of unfamiliar concepts – but those who rise to the challenge will be well rewarded, as I was by Kingsley’s Heroes.

The book tells of a longlasting feud between two noble families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, which culminates in an epic battle that leaves millions of corpses piled on the ground. Within that framework is an extraordinarily rich compendium of tales – of magic, nobility, craftiness, romance and treachery, of words which, once uttered, bind the speaker in unexpected ways. Some of them are familiar to me from my time editing a children’s magazine. Others are so archetypal that I feel I ought to know them  (and am pleased that now I do!).  For example, when the five Pandava brothers return home from an adventure where one of them has won the hand of a beautiful woman, the bridegroom-to-be calls out to their mother, ‘Come and see the beautiful thing I have found.’ From inside the house, their mother replies, ‘Make sure you share it with your brothers.’ In the world of the Mahabharata these words are binding, and the brothers must find a way for all five of them to marry her. (They do, with happy results.)

Familiar names inhabit the pages, notably Arjuna,the great warrior, and Krishna, here Arjuna’s charioteer. There are many others, like the women Kunti and Draupadi (the bride of all five Pandavas), who ought to be better known.

Of course, this version is no substitute for the thing itself. Among the incidents considered not suitable for children, for example is the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna when the latter has misgivings about going into battle and slaying an awful lot of people. This conversation is passed over in a sentence here:

Krishna’s words were long enough to fill up an entire book that came to be known as the Bhagavad-Gita which you should read for yourself when you are older.

The Bhagavad-Gita is 700 verses long, and according to Wikipedia ‘presents a synthesis of the Brahmanical concept of Dharma, theistic bhakti, the yogic ideals of moksha through jnana, bhakti, karma, and Raja Yoga … and Samkhya philosophy’. And there are other bits where our narrator tells us that someone explained the meaning of life but doesn’t burden us with the content. I imagine that both my relief at not having to read the philosophy right then in the middle of the action, and my curiosity about what Krishna said are exactly what Upendrakishore Ray Chowdury hoped to rouse in his young readers.

Given that the lengthy philosophising is omitted, is there anything for the reader besides superhero murderousness and charming folktales?

Well, yes. There’s a lot here to grab the imagination and engage the moral intelligence, not to mention stirring curiosity about the possible historical events that lie behind the tale. Ii imagine every reader will find something different here. For me, possibly the most moving thing was the way, even though at the surface level there seems to be a massive celebration of violence, there is also a tremendous sense that the warriors are trapped, that many of them are fighting against their will, obliged by codes of honour and obligations of loyalty to fight and kill close relatives, whom they love dearly. The famous World War One episode of the Christmas Truce, where soldiers played and sang together for a day before going back to killing each other, could have come from these pages.

Don’t take my word for it. I was given my copy by Hachette India, but you can buy one for about $20 here.

 

Asia Literary Review 26 & 27

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 26, [Northern] Winter 2014
———————————————————- 27, [Northern] Spring 2015

ALR26How cool is it that there’s a quarterly journal dedicated to literature from Asia that’s either written in English or translated into it? Such a gift to those of us who don’t speak or read any Asian languages!

After a two year hiatus, Asia Literary Review revived in November last year with Issue 26, under new ownership and with a greater focus on its digital platform. Martin Alexander is still editor.

Issue 26 is a feast. Of the many interesting things, let me mention some of the non-fiction:

  • Sister Philomena’s Veil by Kavita Jindal, a memoir of schooldays in a convent in India, which has a similar subcontinental girls-own adventure flavour to Swapna Dutta’s Juneli stories, but takes an altogether darker turn
  • The Secret Happy Life of Uncle Renfeng by Fan Dai, an extraordinary account of a life, which would be satisfying if it was an exemplary tale, and is all the more so when one realises at the end that it’s the story of the writer’s actual uncle
  • Eid in Oghi by Nighat Gandhi, in which the author, described in her bio as ‘a writer, mother, Sufi wanderer and mental health counsellor’, visits a village in dangerously tribal region of Pakistan and comes to know, like and admire the women who are her hosts, so that we too come to line and admire them.

There’s also plenty of fiction and poetry. I particularly enjoyed two dystopian stories, Michael Vatikiotis’ A Case of Penetration and Dipika Mukherjee’s Conjuror of Divinity, though the latter may well be too realistic a tale of the rich and ruthless to be really a dystopia. I also enjoyed Eliza Vitri Handayani’s From Now On Everything Will Be Different, an Indonesian romantic comedy gone wrong.

Among the many poems I was struck by Yong Shu Hoong’s prose poems Tanglin Halt and After the Fire; Kathleen Hellen’s Salmon Said Surrender, which captures a moment when history pushes into the present moment. Justin Hill’s translations of six poems introduced me to T’ang poet Yu Xuanji. I was prompted to go looking for other translations by this, from ‘On a winter’s night I wrote this poem for Wen Ting Yun’:

Shit happens.
I think now I’ve found fulfilment.
Success follows failure follows what?
There’s a third way forward.

I found one by Leonard Ng, here, which translates the same lines as:

Thoughts scattered and released, at last I found fulfilment:
through the emptiness of rise and fall, I saw True Mind.

And I learned again that to really understand a poem in translation you need to read at least one other translation. ‘Thoughts scattered and released’ is almost certainly more literal, but ‘Shit happens’ brings the shrugging of meaning home more sharply. And what if it’s a vulgarity? Yu Xuanji was after all a courtesan.

alr27Issue 27 is, if anything even richer. It has its share of dystopian fiction, this time – perversely – a Singapore buried deep in ice in ‘And Now There Came Both Mist and Snow by Clara Chow, and of strong non-fiction, including:

  • The Sinking City‘ by Bill Tarrant, about Jakarta, which is literally sinking, and a disaster waiting to happen
  • ‘The West Sea Battle’ by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, an account of his debriefing North Korean sailors after a skirmish, trying to persuade them to tell what actually happened rather than the politically desired version
  • Challenging Convention – The Kung Fu Nuns’ by Namgay Zam, about a striking (pun intended) feminist initiative in Nepal and Bhutan.

The fiction includes a number of stories that feel only slightly removed from reportage: Beijing Hospital by Jeremy Tiang, an account of an expat hospital experience; ‘Comfort Woman Eleanor’ by James Tam, an altogether uglier crosscultural encounter that’s particularly telling at the time of Prime Minister Abe’s too-litle-too-late apology for Japan’s wartime atrocities; Phillip Y Kim’s ‘Run’, a family encounter in the midst of the recent Hong Kong demonstrations.

Again, there’s plenty of poetry, including the marvellous, long, elegiac ‘Peng Chau’ by living Chinese poet Zheng Danyi, translated by Luo Hui. According to Wikipedia Peng Chau is a small island near Hong Kong less than one square kilometre in area, ‘known for its small island lifestyle’. Really, I didn’t need to consult Wikipedia, when the poem includes this:

Post office and doctor’s office, one each, police station
and fire station, one each

One laundry shop, called ‘Laundry Shop’
One bakery, called ‘Bakery’
One library, called ‘Library’

Tin Hau Temple, one and only
Mother Dragon Temple, one

Daoist, Buddhist, Catholic Protestant –
one each in peaceful co-existence.

There’s much more, in that poem, and in the journal.

I am grateful to the editors for my complimentary digital subscription, beginning with Issue 26.

More of Swapna Dutta’s Juneli, plus my Sonnet No 1

Swapna Dutta, Juneli at Avila’s (©1992, CinnamonTeal Publishing 2014)
——, An Exciting Term (©1992, CinnamonTeal Publishing 2014)

1ja 1et Swapna Dutta’s serial about a girl named Juneli who goes to boarding school was first published in the English-language Indian children’s magazineChildren’s World between 1978 and 1985. The serial proved very popular with young readers, and in the early 1990s HarperCollins published three Juneli books. This year the stories have found another lease of life as CinnamonTeal brings them out in three ebooks. All three books include the illustrations that Swapna’s daughter Sawan, then still a teenager, drew for the HarperCollins books, and the cover images are also Sawan’s (which were not used as covers of the print edition).

When I wrote a blog post about the first book, Juneli’s First Term, I hope I communicated how charmed I was by Juneli’s benign experience of boarding school. That benign quality continues in these books. There are scrapes and japes, mysteries and adventures in a setting that owes equal amounts to the pre–Harry Potter boarding school genre and Swapna’s own childhood experience at an English-speaking boarding school run for Indian girls by Carmelite nuns. Juneli now knows the ropes and has earned the respect and affection of most of her classmates, and the not-quite-enmity of a couple of snobbish malcontents. A kitchen mishap from the first book is a continuing source of embarrassment and comedy, and now we hold our breath each time there is a cooking exercise.

If you have a taste for boarding-schools stories or if you’re looking for a gift for a young person with such a taste, and want to add a little Indian flavour to your/their reading, I recommend these three little books.You can buy them from http://www.dogearsetc.com/. They are very reasonably priced by Australian standards. (I received complimentary copies, and Swapna is a friend.)

Moving right along: for the last few years I have set myself the task of writing 14 sonnets for the blog in November. Here goes with Sonnet No 1 for 2014, inspired by the Juneli books, along with Sugata Mistra’s wonderful TED talks maintaining that schools are an obsolete tool of empire, and Matilda the Musical which I’ve just seen on Broadway with its monstrous Miss Trunchbull, who couldn’t be more different from Juneli’s kind Mother Benedicta.

Sonnet No 1
Knead memories to make art. Punch, pull
fold, punch again, let stand, then bake.
So Dahl’s tormentor became Trunchbull,
real nuns did Swapna’s teachers make.
Both real schools served empire’s agenda.
Both fictions, one harsh, one most tender,
resist. Matilda, Juneli,
are naughty as they need to be.
In school, by monster or sweet mother
we’re taught to play our ordained parts,
ignore the whispers of our hearts,
but if we reach for one another,
each one giving what she has,
that may be good enough for jazz.

Swapna Dutta’s Juneli’s First Term

Swapna Dutta, Juneli’s First Term (1992, CinnamonTeal Publishing 2014)

1jftBefore I was sent off to boarding school when I was 13, I enjoyed the tales of English boarding schools in the Boys Own and (yes, I read them too!) Girls Own annuals that occasionally found their way into our house. They were tales from another era, another planet almost – and I wasn’t surprised when my own boarding school experience had very little of their camaraderie, independence and adventure (though it did have some of the bullying – poor Billy Bunter!).

Similar stories captured the hearts of Swapna Dutta as a Bengali child a decade or so earlier, and of young Juneli, protagonist of this book a decade or so later. If Juneli’s First Term and its popularity with Indian children when first published are any evidence, the romance of those British stories (the Chalet School series is the name here that rings a bell) were closer to the experience Indian girls sent to missionary schools than they were for a North Queensland boy sent to a Brisbane Christian Brothers school.

Juneli lives in a remote place with only her widowed father and the servants for company. She is happy enough, but when she discovers her mother’s trove of boarding-school story books she yearns for the life she reads about there, for companionship and adventures with children her own age, and to learn from teachers other than her father. At the urging of his long-absent sister, Juneli’s loving father sends her to a boarding school, and it turns out to be just as wonderful as she had hoped, with samosas instead of cream buns and illicit play with colours on the festival of Holi instead of midnight feasts.

There is unpleasantness of course: a snobbish girl and her hangers-on make trouble, a cooking class goes seriously wrong, an innocent joke about a flamboyant male teacher brings shame on Juneli. These episodes ring true, but so does the overarching benignness of school life.

The book is illustrated by the author’s daughter Sawan Dutta. She did the illustrations for the original publication when she was barely out of school. For that edition, her cover image wasn’t used, but it graces this e-book, and it’s hard to see why it wasn’t used the first time.

I guess any boarding school book without magic and a cosmic villain who must not be named will seem pallid in this post-Potter days, but what this book lacks in spells and sorcery it makes up for in warmth and quiet celebration of ordinary things – with two added bonuses: for Indian readers as I imagine, the chance to see their own reality mirrored in the genre, and for westerners, a gentle example of the colonised speaking back.

You can buy the book from Dogears etc. for 99 rupees, which is about $1.75 Australian. I don’t know if there are any plans to bring out ebooks of the rest of the Juneli series.

I should mention that Swapna is a friend of mine, and that my copy of the book is a gift from her.

Ramayana for children (and westerners) in English

Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Ramayana for Young Readers (translated by Swapna Dutta, The Book Mine, Hachette India 2013)

1rtl;dr: If you’re as ignorant of Indian culture as I am, this book will go a long way to filling gaps. You can buy an ebook from Hachette UK for less than $20 Australian.

The Ramayana, one of the two great epics of Hinduism, dates from well before the common era and its images and characters permeate Indian and related art. Most moderately literate westerners are at least vaguely aware of it, and have surely encountered art derived from it: monkeys battling demons in the Balinese Kecak dance; images or reliefs of Rama and Sita, possibly with a golden deer; paintings and statues of Hanuman the monkey god carrying a mountain; Javanese shadow puppets; chants of ‘Hare Rama’ in western city streets. But few of us have read even a fraction of its 24 thousand verses. This little book, just 165 small pages plus some child-friendly notes, is of course no substitute for reading the original Valmiki Ramayan, but it does tell pretty much the whole story, and enables us to put those fragments in context.

The Chheleder Ramayan, the Bengali book of which this is a translation, has its own distinctive history. Its author, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (1863–1915), was a famous Bengali polymath, friend of the even more famous Rabindranath Tagore and grandfather of filmmaker Satyajit Ray. He had a personal mission to make literary works available for young people, and retold not only the Ramayana but also the other great epic, the Mahabharata. He’s not the only one to have retold these works. Indeed, the translator Swapna Dutta lists several Ramayanas that she has read. But his retelling holds a special place as a project to make the story available to early 20th century Bengali-reading children. This translation makes his Ramayana available in English for the first time.

Like all epics, it contains an awful lot of fighting, so much so that at times it reads like the script for a computer game. In the great climactic battle between the monkey army and the demons, you can almost see the game move up a level, as the lower ranking warriors are all killed or worn out and the next rank come to the fore with increasingly powerful weapons, until at the end it is the two mighty figures of Rama and Ravana facing off with nuclear-level arsenals. I have no idea how this plays out in the original, or how gripping it would be for a young western reader with no prior knowledge of the characters or the different supernatural beings, but even though I was never in doubt who would prevail, I stayed engaged.

This Rama is not a god, but an extraordinary man. His great prowess as a warrior is overshadowed by his superhuman sweetness. The story is set in motion when one of his father’s wives, incited to jealousy by an Iago-like maid, tricks King Dashratha into denying Rama his birthright as heir to the throne and sending him into exile. While Rama’s mother, the people of the kingdom, and Rama’s brothers, including the brother who is to be king instead of him, urge him to resist this manifestly unjust treatment, he refuses and accepts his father’s decrees with extraordinary persistence. He is a model of kindness, forgiveness, trusting openness.

The story stands by itself, but it’s all the richer for the many echoes (or are they foreshadowings?) of episodes from other great tales like The Iliad, tales of Greek, Roman and Norse gods, or the biblical the story of David.

My copy came free from Hachette India, and Swapna Dutta is a friend of mine from my days as editor of a children’s magazine. Swapna and her publisher have given me a great gift. There’s a preview on Google Books, and you can buy an ebook or a hard copy from Hachette UK.

Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Lonely Monarch

Sunil Gangopadhyay, The Lonely Monarch (2005, translated from Bengali by Swapna Dutta, Hachette India 2013)

IMG_0723 My high school French and Latin teacher, Brother Gerard, taught us a healthy respect for the art of translation. When he wrote ‘Excellent attempt’ in the margin of one of my exercises, he explained that it was high praise, that all anyone could aspire to was an attempt at translation – the thing itself must remain forever elusive: if you stay too close to the original, your translation won’t sound like natural English, and if you produce something that feels natural in English you will have lost the feel of the original. Kumārajīva (343–430 CE), one of the sub-continent’s great translators of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, said that translation was like ‘chewing rice for others, which would not only lose its original taste, but also make people feel like vomiting’. (Translations of his statement differ.) So translators are heroic people who serve the common good, building bridges between cultures that might otherwise remain dangerously ignorant of each other, but they do so knowing that page after page, book after book, they must fail.

I don’t know any Bengali at all, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Swapna Dutta’s translation of Sunil Gangopadhyay‘s Nihsanga Samrat. But it gave me that delicious sense of access to a place that would have remained closed to me without her labours. The eponymous lonely monarch is Sisirkumar Bhaduri (1889–1959), a pioneer of Bengali theatre, or at least a fictional stand-in for him, as this is a fictional rendition of the real Sisirkumar’s life. His theatrical project was to Bengal roughly what Louis Esson’s  Pioneer Players were to Australia, not quite a national theatre but a profound influence on audiences’ tastes, though the comparison underplays the significance of Sisirkumar. The theatre as he found it was ruled by Western conventions, women actors were generally prostitutes, the emphasis was on spectacle. He and his colleagues reached for a theatre that incorporated traditional jatra forms; his partner Kankabati was an educated woman who became even more acclaimed as an actor than he was; his plays were often adaptations from serious novels.

Calcutta (as it is called here) had a thriving theatre scene in the 1920s and 30s, rich with artistic ambition, greed, brilliant collaboration, vicious competition, surprising acts of generosity, sweet loyalty, despair, alcoholism, romance … Sisir, as he was known to his friends, was at the heart of it as an actor–producer. In a postscript to her translator’s note, Swapna Dutta gives brief introductions to twenty characters who were important personalities of the time ‘whom people outside Bengal might not know’: poets, artists, playwrights, scholars, political figures. Without this help, the sense of a flourishing cultural scene would still have been vividly realised, but for foreign readers like me the names would have passed in a blur (actually, they still mostly did, but now I knew the nature of the blur!). Some names didn’t need a note: the great Rabindranath Tagore is partly a kind of tutelary deity whose approval is beyond price for the younger generation, and partly the esteemed elder whose mould they need to break; Sunil Gangopadhyay himself makes a brief appearance as a young man among Sisir’s admirers; and Satyajit Ray, Bengali director of many great films including Pather Panchali, has a moment towards the end of the book.

Sisirkumar takes a troupe of actors to New York in 1930. The trip has its disastrous moments, but it starts with a rapturous welcome. A young Indian man living in New York explains:

Ordinary Americans hardly ever come across Indians. Most of them are under the impression that Indian women are either kept under lock and key or burnt as a sati; that young children who enter the river are devoured by crocodiles; that the roads in India are packed with sadhus and yogis, tigers and snakes. They are clueless about our art, culture, literature or music.

Although there’s no whiff of an instructional intention in this book, I’m at least a little less clueless for having read and enjoyed it.

(Sisirkumar Bhaduri does have a Wikipedia entry, but it doesn’t say very much, and IMDb lists the eight films that he directed and acted in, which were very much a sideshow to his career in the live theatre.)

Full disclosure: Swapna Dutta is a friend of mine, though we’ve never met in person. She contributed a number of elegant stories to The School Magazine when I was editor, including retellings from Hindu and Buddhist classics as well as original stories, and we have stayed in touch by email since. Hachette India sent me a complimentary copy of this book.

By Swapna Dutta

Swapna Dutta and Geeta Vadhera, The Sun Fairies (National Book Trust, India 1994, 2001)
Swapna Dutta, Plays from India, illustrated by Baraan Ijlal (Rupa & Co 2003)
Swapna Dutta, Folk Tales of West Bengal , illustrated by Neeta Gangopadhya (Children’s Book Trust 2009)
Sucitrā Bhaṭṭācārya, The Arakiel Diamond, translated by Swapna Dutta and illustrated by Agantuk (Ponytale Books 2011)

My friend Swapna Dutta is a writer, translator and editor, mainly of children’s literature, who lives in Bangalore, in southern India. The School Magazine published some of her stories when I was editor, and she and I have kept in touch over the intervening years. Swapna mentioned in a recent email that she had translated a children’s book, The Arakiel Diamond, from Bengali into English, and asked if I’d like a copy. Of course I was interested, and a couple of days later it arrived in my letter box, with three other books. It’s been a treat and an education to read all four.

The Sun Fairies is a tiny picture book that plays around with science and fantasy. That is to say, it’s a fanciful account of the origin of clouds – some fairies who live in the sun build castles in the sky so it won’t be so bare and empty – that ends up being a decorative but accurate account of how the water cycle works: the cloud castles are made from water, air and dust, and when they get too heavy they fall to the earth as water. The fairies have discovered ‘a never-ending game’. The illustrations, by Geeta Vadhera, are fabulous. I see from the Internet that Ms Vadhera has gone on to international renown. This may be her only children’s book.

In some ways each of the other books is a work of translation. In Plays from India three episodes from Indian history are shaped into dramas suitable for performance by school students. In my ignorance I don’t know whether the stories would be familiar to most Indian students, so I can’t tell whether the history or the theatre is the main point. I was interested in both.

Folk Tales of West Bengal retells sixteen tales. Swapna has an article at papertigers from which I learned that what the Grimms were for Germany, and Moe & Asbjørnsen for Norway, the imposingly named Dakshinaranjan Mitra-Mazumdar was for what is now Bangladesh and West Bengal. At least some of the tales here were collected by him in the first decades of last century. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has entered the woods of Re-enchantment, there’s a lot in these stories that’s familiar to a reader brought up on European-origin fairy stories: kings and princesses, talking animals, metamorphoses, riddles, lost and found children, supernatural beings who reward the humble and punish the greedy. There’s also a lot that’s different: the heroine of the first story, for instance, is not a seventh child but a seventh wife. This blending of familiar and unfamiliar makes for a delightful read.

The Arakiel Diamond is the only book in my swag that is not Swapna’s original work. It’s a detective story for young readers, one of a series featuring a Bengali housewife and her niece. A wealthy man dies. His most precious possession, the eponymous diamond, has gone missing, and almost everyone in his household – and there are many – has had motive and opportunity to steal it. The plot has exactly the twists you’d expect, but the detectives’ relationship and the details of their domestic life are well captured, and I learned a lot about the Armenian community in Calcutta, in a way that reminds me of grown-up detective writers (Sarah Paretsky comes to mind) who take us to a new subculture in each novel.

The four books had me reflecting on multiculturalism in children’s literature. We used to make fun of the way US children’s publishers, apparently believing that their intended readers would shrink from anything not immediately recognisable as of the US, would re-edit books from elsewhere in the English-speaking world to remove unsightly exotica. They weren’t just wanting a world where British characters spend dollars and cents, or Australians walk on a pavement, weird as such a world might be. I remember hearing of a New Zealand novel whose publisher suggested the book’s Maori issues might be more accessible to US children if the setting was changed to California – that author held firm and the book still found readers, even got made into a movie.

I wish now to acknowledge that I’m a bit of a kettle to the US publishers’ pot. Though I enjoyed the slight cultural disorientation I felt as I read these books, I caught myself thinking young readers would be put off by it. To make the books accessible to Australian 11-year olds, the unexamined internal argument went, you’d have to do something about lakh and crorelunghi, salwar shameez and rakhi, not to mention the nitty-gritties of the game of chess or a casual use of thrice in conversation. On reflection, I think that argument profoundly misunderstands how young people read. The only thing that universally distinguishes young from adult readers is that the young ones are younger. One result of this is that they know they don’t know everything about the world, and mostly when they read there are words they don’t recognise but have to guess from the context. (I loved and understood pulverise and invulnerable in Superman comics long before I could define them.) So you might not know what a lunghi is, but the context tells you it’s an article of clothing, and there’s even an illustration to help. Likewise, lakh and crore are obviously big numbers, and that’s all you need to know. As I remember back to my own childhood reading, I think such things would have added spice to the book: if I was young now, I might even have fun googling them. As for nitty-gritties and thrice, I do think we can trust young readers to recognise when a word or a turn of phrase belongs to a different place. (Both my sons say zed in spite of seeing quite a lot of Sesame Street when young.)