Today’s Nonsense

The Times of India put out a new broadsheet called Ei Samay (This Time) and asked me to write a piece about HJBRL, the book I translated a while ago. This article is the first piece of writing I’ve done that’s been translated. You can read the Bengali version here.

Today’s Nonsense

There’s a big white building with stately columns about 10 minutes from my house in San Francisco. It used to be a church, except instead of statues of Jesus it now houses server stacks. This building belongs to the Internet Archive, a digital library that’s on a mission to scan and catalog every word that has ever been printed or typed. It’s common knowledge that the best way to bring down a civilization is to burn its books. But burning isn’t the only way to kill a book. Neglecting and allowing it to molder untouched except by pulp-loving insects is a slower and more painful death.

Apparently the members of my generation are subjecting the classics of Bengali literature to this cruel fate. Or at least, that’s what people keep telling me. Not having lived in Kolkata for a very long time, I have no first-hand knowledge of the matter. I’m a firm believer that no one has a duty to prop up artifacts of a dying culture if they are no longer of use. However, I have a hard time believing that this could be the fate of Sukumar Ray’s Ha Ja Ba Ra La.

The turgid and old-fashioned language of most classics bore me, and there are just too many books in the world to waste time reading ones I don’t enjoy. But I have always loved the odd interplay of cultural specificity and universality of Ray’s stories. I translated Ha Ja Ba Ra La into English when I was fifteen in order to share it with my friends. The language is so casual that it could have been written two days ago. Ray’s words are sweet and chewy like sandesh. Even when the jokes are based in Bengali wordplay, they remain culturally fluid—I can’t think of a language where a father-in-law named Cookie isn’t funny.

Another great thing about Ray is that he didn’t deal with morals. I never really appreciated the subtle beauty of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dakghor or any such stories that I suspected were trying to teach me a lesson by tugging at my heartstrings. Tagore’s Amol didn’t talk like I did. He was too sincere and limpid. I liked books with disruptive characters. I saw myself in Sunil Ganguly’s Kakababu stories and Soviet propaganda books about roving gangs of feral children. As a kid, I related to the genderless protagonist in Ha Ja Ba Ra La who questioned every absurd explanation she was fed. I must admit that I now relate more to the overly academic goat who gives lectures on the edibility of various furnishings.

As I get older, new things catch my attention. A couple nights ago my roommates and I were winding down after a night of drinking and talking about immortality. One of them mentioned a jellyfish that ages up to a certain point and then begins to get younger and younger, eventually becoming a polyp, and then aging upward again. This process can go on indefinitely. I squealed and jumped out of bed to scribble this piece of information down. Surely I don’t need to point out the parallels between this biologically immortal jellyfish and Ray’s age-flipping old man who cycles between age ten and forty? Did he know about this jellyfish, or is the natural world absurd enough to de-absurdify even the most nonsensical literature? Isn’t the mystery of Gechodada’s current location simply an example of Zeno’s paradox? The tape measure that measures everything as 26 inches an illustration of Maslow’s Hammer?

Martin Gardner once wrote that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a deeply upsetting children’s book because it deals with philosophical concepts that unsettle even adults. Ha Ja Ba Ra La is similar in many respects. It contains a dream architecture that muddles the boundaries between signifier and signified. But children seem to be less disturbed by this instability if only because they haven’t lived in the world of symbols for very long. During childhood, events simply seem to unfold without rhyme or reason. Like the confused young protagonist, I quickly came to understand that I cannot control anything and must be content with observing and reacting. I think the process of aging erodes this understanding of reality to our own detriment.

Cultures can’t be preserved like airtight jars of pickles, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I’m dropping off my dusty collection of classic Bengali literature to the Internet Archive because I simply don’t have the time or desire to sift through the pastoral dramas of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay or the measured meters of Tagore’s love poems from an unrecognizable era. But Ha Ja Ba Ra La doesn’t need this kind of archiving yet. It’s a living, breathing text. Its language and satire remain as piercing as ever. There’s no need to look backward or make temporal concessions in order to find every joke and every grinning, snuffling character alive for our age.


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