Tag Archives: Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury

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.

 

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.