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When nonsense makes the best sense

Bengali writer Sukumar Ray’s timeless children’s classic finds a new life in English translation

An illustration by Sukumar Ray from ‘Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law’.
An illustration by Sukumar Ray from ‘Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law’.

In 1921, two years before his untimely death at the age of 35, writer, illustrator and editor Sukumar Ray (also remembered as the father of Satyajit Ray) published Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law—an absurdist tale in Bengali for young readers. The story is a timeless classic, as enduring in its appeal as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Like John Tenniel’s pen-and-ink drawings for Alice In Wonderland, Ray illustrated his eccentric cast in his inimitable style, giving each character a life beyond the page. Almost a century later, the story is still uproariously funny for young and older readers alike, but notoriously difficult to render into English.

Arunava Sinha valiantly rises to the challenge of translating Ray’s uniquely nonsensical Bengali into credibly nonsensical English. In Habber-Jabber-Law, he comes up with a text that is as close to the original as any true fan of Ray could wish for. In 2004, poet Sampurna Chattarji had taken a stab at Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law and rendered it faithfully, albeit a bit stiffly. Sinha’s version is more inspired, unafraid to take chances with tone and diction, or even to upgrade Ray’s bizarre colloquialisms. Bengali readers of a certain generation may sneer at “Gechchho-Dada" being rechristened “Bigtree Bro", but it sounds just about right for the intended readership circa 2020.

Habber-Jabber-Law begins on a hot summer afternoon, like Alice In Wonderland, with the unnamed protagonist, a boy who is “eight years and three months old", discovering that his handkerchief has transformed into a talking cat. This curious turn of events leads to curiouser encounters: with an accountant raven, a pair of identical bald brothers who live in a tree trunk, a weird hybrid creature with a habit of bursting into uncontrolled laughter, a grammarian goat, and so on. The grand finale takes place in a courtroom, where Ray stages a cynical parody of the legal justice system.

Like all great children’s literature, Habber-Jabber-Law can be read on multiple levels. For children, the wordplay andcomic implausibility of the plot may be an endless source of fascination. But adults will relish the sly undercurrent of social satire that runs through it all. In the world of Habber-Jabber-Law, seven twos don’t make 14 and people begin to grow younger when they turn 40. The laws of our world may not be as outrageous yet but at times Ray’s nonsense does seem to make the most sense.

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