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When the world turned upside down

  • Two new books help young readers make sense of chaos and nonsense
  • One is a quirky collaboration between two poets, and the other is a poignant graphic novel

Cover image of Nadya-a graphic novel.
Cover image of Nadya-a graphic novel.

A contemporary writer attempting nonsense verse has a formidable legacy to look back to. From Lewis Carroll to Edward Lear to Sukumar Ray, literary geniuses across the centuries have lent this genre a unique flavour and subversive appeal. Only a special affinity with language can inspire nonce words and the gift of teasing meanings out of senseless vocabulary. It’s a tough ask, even for the most gifted wielders of words.

In The Bhyabachyaka And Other Wild Poems (Scholastic, 295), poets Sampurna Chattarji and Eurig Salisbury set out to write a series of nonsense poems based on real and made-up words. The result is mostly entertaining, forging a delightful bridge between cultures. Divided into four sections, there are poems based on Bangla-Welsh words (bhyabachyaka, gordobh, nyakami, llyamysten, crair, ffwchnedd), poems drawing on gibberish (plbw, ploc, typopotamus, driftoronomy), “culturally meaningful words" (Kathak, cholo, eisteddfod, hiraeth) and, finally, on long and short place names (Sblot, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch).

Salisbury, of Welsh ethnicity, responds to cues from Bengali words without being necessarily aware of their meaning. Chattarji does the same with Welsh. The common ground between the two languages is their potential for onomatopoeia. But because of the disjuncture between the poets’ understanding of the words and their implementation, the outcome is funny, though probably more hilarious for those who either know Bengali or Welsh and, in the rare instance, both (It’s not a llama from Paloma/ Nor a llano in the pllano). Although not everything rhymes, there is enough going on to get your tongue all twisted up. The illustrations, by Saswata and Susruta Mukherjee, are reminiscent of the pen-and-ink drawings in Ray’s Abol Tabol.

Debasmita Dasgupta’s graphic novel, Nadya (Scholastic, 495), explores topsy-turvy in a different sense. Her subject is graver, and her artwork has the feel of an urban fairy tale. The story centres around Nadya, a young girl whose life is upended one day by her parents’ separation.

As her beloved father walks out of what was once a happy family, Nadya’s world crumbles. She misses him painfully and feels a stab of resentment towards her mother, holding her responsible for the disintegration of their lives. Heartbroken, Nadya flees home and runs into the woods, where dangers lurk. Dasgupta uses text sparsely, letting her art do most of the talking. Explaining the workings of the adult mind to young readers, especially the more unsavoury aspects of it, is hard, and Nadya rises to the challenge valiantly.

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