There is perhaps not a single child growing up in a Bengali household who has not heard Lila Majumdar’s stories at least once. She lived till the ripe old age of 100, and wrote a range of books on a variety of subjects. She had her own radio programme, wrote cookery books and also translated other famous writers, such as Abanindranath Tagore. However, it is as a writer of children’s books that she remains enduringly popular.
Born in the illustrious Ray Chaudhuri family of Calcutta, Lila Majumdar was a niece of Upendra Kishore Ray Chaudhuri who began the children’s magazine Sandesh. The magazine flourished under his son, Sukumar and grandson, Satyajit. Lila Majumdar remained associated with the magazine very actively right till the 1990s; her first story appeared here when she was only 14.
It is Lila Majumdar’s daughter, Kamala Chatterjee, who has now translated her book, The Yellow Bird into English, bringing Lila Majumdar to a wider audience. This book (হলদে পাখির পালক) in its original Bangla won the President’s award for best children’s book in 1960. It is Lila Majumdar’s granddaughter, Srilata Banerjee who in turn translated two of the former’s equally popular stories into English. These have appeared as ‘The Burmese Box: Two Novellas’, a translation that brings under a single cover two different books in Bangla published at different times—Podipishir Bormi-Baksho (পদীপিসীর বর্মী বাক্স) in 1953 and Goopyr Gupto Khata (গুপীর গুপ্ত খাতা) in 1957.
Banerjee, in her translator’s note, states that it is more a ‘transcription’ (an approximate rendering of Majumdar’s writing) than a faithful translation but all the same, it brings to life a world just as Lila Majumdar created.
Having begun writing for children at an early age, Lila Majumdar well knew and understood them. And as in her stories such as these recently translated ones, where she slowly builds up suspense, there are also elements of familiarity a child knows, so that the latter is not thrust straightaway into the unknown. So you step into Lila Majumdar’s world and find yourself in a world of fabulous treasure, secret tunnels and routes, as also loving grandmothers and other elderly aunts, and usually a couple of skinny men who appear extremely suspicious. But then this world turns out to be full of surprises. The treasure , more often than not, goes missing, grandmas can be suspects too, and eleven year boys can stand accused of murder.
The narrator in these (translated) stories is usually a small boy who knows the odds in living in a world run and managed by adults. And adults came in various shapes and sizes, and are so hard to understand.
The Yellow Bird
The eponymous 'Yellow Bird' is a strange, magical, little seen bird. Yet whenever it is known to appear, animals turn to human beings or behave in strange ways. The story about the yellow bird is one of many stories narrated by Jhogru, who has been working as a domestic help in Rumu and Bogey’s house for many years. The children are upset because Bhulo, a street dog they have picked up and want to keep as a pet, suddenly goes missing. He has done this before but on one occasion he simply doesn’t reappear.
A child’s loss can be bewildering, hard to explain and understand but Jhogru empathizes and seems to understand this all too well. And to make them forget the missing Bhulo, he does all he can to take them to a magical, fantasy world, usually his home village located in Dumka, in present day Jharkhand state.
All Jhogru’s stories are fantastic and unbelievable and Bogey, the know-all, sceptical boy, is rightfully suspicious. But Rumu, his more credulous younger sister, finds them comforting. There is adventure and also magic in the commonplace, as Jhogru’s stories show. The yellow bird, says Jhogru, is rarely seen but whoever has seen it, like his brother in faraway Dumka is struck by a strange restlessness and is compelled to leave home forever.
He goes on to describe the magic “manja” that makes kites fly high in the sky. And then he tells them the story about the babu who came from the city promising to make glass. He proceeds to lock himself in a room for days on end and doesn’t emerge. This makes Jhogru’s grandfather lose patience and he breaks the door open. But the man has disappeared, leaving a few things behind. It is when the angry grandfather throws his leftover stuff into the fire, glass pieces magically appear in the fire.
There is the horse that can also fly. When Bogey is openly disbelieving about this, Jhogru assures him that he does know about flying horses for he had worked as a stable hand once. He tells the story of a strange boat that appears in the river once near his home with a lovely damsel in it.
Jhogru finds a story for every occasion even as the children wait for Bhulo to come. There is the bear that the sardar (the village chief) just cannot bring himself to kill, as the creature looks at him in mute pity. He has a story about the strange old man at the fair who sells Bogey and Rumu funny shaped boxes, one of which contains the seeds of the ‘gunamoni’ tree, that grows astonishingly quickly once planted. Then of course there is the tiger in Burma who crept into a hut where Jhogru was sleeping and still didn’t harm anyone.
Jhogru’s repertoire of stories never seems to run out, even if Bhulo chooses to come back. Does he? The Yellow Bird is a great book, especially for reading aloud to children, and it is replete with shadow black and white illustrations by Ajanta Guhathakurta.
The Burmese Box: Two Novellas
This story begins soon after Goopy in the story called ‘Goopy’s Secret Diary’ becomes an unwitting part of an adventure when he accompanies Shyamadas-kaka, Birinchi-da, Thandidi on a strange secret trip.
But they run into an unexpected crowd, and in the fracas that ensues, a slick skinny young man slips a pearl necklace inside Shyamadas-kaka’s kurta. Later in the middle of the night, finding themselves in a dark forest, they take shelter in a deserted lonely mansion, inhabited by all sorts of strange people.
There is an old lady who by magic produces a wonderful meal, and soon other intriguing characters appear - a bearded man who is inordinately fond of his cow and her calf, a thin skinny man, and last, the slick young man who had stepped out of the crowds only some hours before, also reappears, and he searches their room when he thinks they are asleep.
A second necklace appears in Shyamadas-kaka’s pocket, even as the police turn up the next day, and launch a search for the desperate criminals. But apart from Goopy, they (the inmates of the house) have all disappeared.
As he tries to deflect accusations of having himself spirited them away or even killed them, Goopy falls through the bathroom and enters an altogether different world, a tunnel leads him into a strange room, that is peopled by a terrible looking, very carnivorous cow. In this room, where he thinks he is all alone and very hungry, suddenly people begin to appear, in very many ways. A loft opens up and someone comes falling down, someone else angrily knocks on the door demanding to be let in, and then of course, there are those who are found in the ancient wooden cupboards in the room.
And there Goopy slowly uncovers the mystery of the pearl necklace but there are one too many false necklaces, creating for great merriment in the end. The real reason why Goopy’s three eccentric relatives were on the run also comes to light. Thandidi is upset because her brother has been gifting away precious family heirlooms to his ‘guru’; Birinchi-da just doesn’t want to get married, despite a girl being ‘selected’ by his father and Shyamadas-kaka has had an argument that soon generated into fisticuffs, on a question over who was the better footballer.
Jewels, a secret room with a largely unnoticed entrance, and suspicious relatives also appear in the novella that follows, The Burmese Box. The story intersperses the past with the present,
Panchu-mama is returning home to look for Podi-pishi’s Burmese box. The story moves to the past and describes the scary journey Podi-pishi once made through a dense and dark jungle to meet her younger brother. He is a suspicious character, in league with bandits and dacoits but Podi-pishi is more than a match for all of them. She is built on very strong lines and the force of her personality is overbearing. She can shout down any opponent. And any command will have all her younger relatives rush to do her bidding.
The Burmese box is one that is filled with precious jewels of every kind that is somehow misplaced soon after Podi-pishi returns home and she simply cannot remember what could have happened to it or who she could have given it to. The mystery of the missing Burmese box is something that has haunted the family long after Podi-pishi herself has passed away.
And so it is, years later that the young narrator finds himself returning to meet his didima with his uncle Panchu-mama, who appears a lackadaisical ne-er do well but is determined to find the box and is no end suspicious of his family.
On the way, there appears a skinny over-earnest guy who shows a great interest in the story of the Burmese box.
They soon reach a lonely mansion deep in the forest, which then suddenly erupts with relatives – a scenario that is the staple of Lila Majumdar’s fictional world. Didima, shejo dadamoshai, and sundry other aunts and uncles, and everyone it seems is looking for the Burmese box. It is Didima, who is Panchu-mama’s suspect number 1, who tells Goopy the story of Podi-pishi how even as she lay dying, finally discovered what had happened to the Burmese box. There are other stories besides the one Didima tells of Podi-pishi’s good for nothing yet warm-hearted son, Goja, who discovers riches overnight and showers everyone with gifts. There is also the story of how a staircase built because a younger uncle of the family wanted to bring home an English wife, ‘a mem’, was later dismantled. And therein lies the secret of the Burmese box.
The two novellas make for breathtaking reading. At no point, from one page to another, is there any let-up in the suspense. And intermeshed in all this, are the young narrator’s helpless and still wry observations about adults and what strange creatures they are. Mansions, forests, eccentric relatives, ghosts or huliyas, boxes and strange rooms filled with jewels – Lila Majumdar built an entire whole world for children and made it believable, and hard to get out of. It’s a book that you will read with pleasure and feel sorry once it’s over.
Some of the relationships mentioned above are described by the appendage to the names and are as follows.