Sunday, April 08, 2007

Podi-pishi, R.I.P.

Leela Mazumdar passed away last Thursday (April 5). For those who have not the good fortune of reading her, I think it would be appropriate to introduce her as Satyajit Ray's paternal aunt (pishi). She was a co-editor (along with Ray) of the children's magazine Sandesh (founded by Ray's father, Sukumar Ray).
She was a perceptive commentator on women's issues, wrote some extremely popular cookbooks and had a wonderful sense of humour. But what sets her apart in the pantheon of literary greats in Bengal is her calibre as a writer for children.

There are several criteria for writing successfully for children.
Probably, the most important one is a grasp on child psychology, by which one is able to understand what goes on in a child's mind.
How does a child perceive adults? How does he interpret mythology? Who are his heroes? And how does he justify being wrong? Each one of these questions were answered through her stories so many times and in such entertaining formats that they have stayed with readers.
In her stories, the adults - good or bad - are described in detail from some very interesting perspectives - shoes, toes, elbows. I had noticed that majority of her villains' have scruffy shoes, crinkled elbows and cracked nails. If you think about it, then you realise that the height from which children view the world is your waist and they form opinions basis what they see from that height!
Children - who are more modern than adults by at least a generation - would also take a sceptical view of the mythological heroes. In one of her hilarious plays, Bhim is actually a cry-baby who acts macho in front of outsiders. Everybody hates Yudisthir for his holier-than-thou ways. Kunti has regular tiffs with her daughters-in-law.
Only in Leela Mazumdar's stories have I found the narrator to have lost out completely, been completely villainous and yet justify all his actions plausibly. In Notun Chheley Notobor (A New Boy in Class), the narrator and his gang get completely outsmarted by a new boy in class and yet remain completely identifiable.

One more criterion for writing for children could be the believability.
Even as Harry Potter wields his wand and zips around on his Firebolt, there is an element of everyboy in him. He struggles in his Potions class. He misses Quidditch matches as punishment. His girlfriend leaves him.
Leela Mazumdar's heroes are boys from the neighbourhood, who sometimes perform feats without realising. And then accept the credit - without letting anybody on to the fact that they were scared out of their wits! This is oh-so-true of most of the 'brave' things we have done as children (or for that matter, as adults!) but it takes an author of uncommon perception to articulate it well.
Where does fantasy start and reality end? In one of her stories, a boy imagines his tutor to be a black magician who turns his students into goats. A perfectly normal conversation between the tutor and his wife acquires a twist like no other as it gets interpreted as a plan to turn the boy into a goat as well!

And finally, the most important test of children's literature is its readability by adults.
Generations of Bengali kids have grown up and continued to re-read, re-laugh and re-re-read the adventures of Gupi, Noga, Badyinath, Pnachu-da and my absolute favourite - Podi pishi!
Her two most famous books - Din-Dupurey (In Broad Daylight) and Podi-pishir Bormi Baksho (Aunt Podi's Burmese Box) remain the touchstone of children's imagination.
They have fired millions of imaginations and lit up lives - as children and adults go on a treasure hunt (yet again) to find where Podi-pishi's box really is! What they find is not a simple and happy ending to a lovely story, but a lifetime of romance with the written word.

Thank you, Podi-pishi.


nilendu said...

Anandabazar came out with a good profile -

Leela Majumder was one of the editors of Sandesh for a while in early 80s. Her last writings probably appeared in the "pujabarshikis" around 85-87. She completely lost her memory and could not recognize anyone for last several years. After Nirad C Chowdhury she is the first notable Bengali to have lived 100 years. Her auto-biographies published from Ananda ("Kheror Khata" and "Pakdondi") are must reads for anyone interested in old times.

DD said...

thanks for this post. though there is google news, news of her death did not reach me even after 5 days. her books remain an integral part of my growing up.

Rimi said...

I don't know if you've read her 'Bari Chol'. It's a wonderful, wonderful story. It was one of my absolute favourites as a child, right from the day I first read it in a pujabarshiki. 'Utshob', I think it was called, or 'Chhutir Moja'. Come think of it, I don't even know whether those pujabarshikis are published anymore.

Dipta, if you take post requests, and I think you do, would you please do a series on children's lit. in Bengali? I for one would be delighted.

Shreemoyee said...

fitting. Thanks for writing it.