The good-boy, bad-boy tales

Print edition : November 27, 2015

"Gopal-Rakhal Danva Samas: Uponibeshbad O Bangla Shishu Sahitya", the Bengali original of the book under review.

A collection of Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar's harvest of folklore in the early 20th century.

A collection of folklore that were the harvest of Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar's travels and research in rural Bengal at the beginning of the 20th century.

A 2011 edition of Vidyasagar's "Varnaparichay", first published in 1855, which contained the sternest exposition of the good boy/bad boy binary.

A 2007 edition of the second part of Rabindranath Tagore's "Sahaj Path", first published in the early 1930s. A sense of wonder at the beauty of the world and not an intention to discipline is at the heart of this primer.

A 2014 edition of "Chander Paharh" (Mountain on the Moon) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, first published in 1937. Righftully cherished by generations of young readers, it still carries the stamp of the racial stereotype that saw Africa as the Dark Continent and Africans as barbarians.

A recent edition of "Abol Tabol", a collection of Sukumar Ray's nonsense verse. It was first published in 1923, a few days after the writer's death.

A 2007 edition of "Khai Khai" by Sukumar Ray, a collection of his poems first published in 1950.

Sukumar Ray illustrated his nonsense verses. Here, a page from "Abol Tabol". The words and the images combine to make nonsense of the stranglehold of power over knowledge.

An insightful study of children’s literature produced in colonial Bengal and of Bengali primers written for the early generations of schoolchildren.

WRITING a history of Indian literature is difficult, perhaps even impossible, because of the diverse languages in which literature is produced in the subcontinent. Yet, there are bound to be many parallels in the recent literature histories of the subcontinent, at least from the time of colonial intervention in India. For instance, the contribution of Christian missionaries and of early East India Company officials to the development of Bengali prose and the ways in which the language developed along paths determined by the colonial encounter have parallels in the histories of other Indian languages such as Malayalam. The impact of colonial and imperial intervention in the mainstream literatures of the subcontinent is well explored by now. But then again, the multiplicity of Indian languages makes a comparative study of these histories difficult because they are in most cases written in the language whose literature is being talked about. Translations that make these histories available in English are welcome because they make possible dialogues between languages and literatures that otherwise remain trapped within regional readerships.

The Gopal Rakhal Dialectic: Colonialism and Children’s Literature in Bengal, a translation of Sibaji Bandyopadhyay’s Gopal-Rakhal Dandva Samas: Upanibeshbad O Bangla Shishusahitya (published by Karigar, Kolkata, in 2013 and reprinted in 2015; price Rs.500), is an important contribution to such a dialogue. It is an insightful study of children’s literature produced in colonial Bengal and of Bengali primers written for the early generations of schoolgoing children (mostly little boys, but also a few little girls, at least from the 1850s, after the establishment of John Drinkwater Bethune’s school for girls in Calcutta in 1849——the generation of the elder sisters of Rabindranath Tagore). It explores the ways in which such books both collaborated with and subverted (with increasing sharpness in the 20th century) the colonial project of using education to extract unquestioning allegiance from subject (and subjugated) populations.

Such studies are not unusual anymore in this age of interdisciplinary researches. Sumit Sarkar has commented on the “peculiar bleakness of the world of Varnaparichay” in his book Writing Social History (1997). Nabanita Dev Sen’s “The Essential Orphan: The Girl Child” in the collection of essays called In Search of Sita (Penguin, 2009) gives a moving depiction of the role of vratas, an exclusively female area of religious practice in rural Bengal involving ritual and narrative, in constructing feminine consciousness within patriarchy.

But what marks out Bandyopadhyay’s book, 24 years after the publication of the Bengali original, is the methodology it uses and the way in which it relates the world view projected in children’s literature in colonial Bengal with the imperial control and manipulation of knowledge and of the means of production.

In order to rationalise the 19th and early 20th century middle-class obsession with the “good boy-bad boy” binary, Bandyopadhyay explores the exigencies of social myth-making in a colonial set-up; the constant attempts of the myth-making exercise to transcend history; and its inevitable failure to do so.

He shows how such myth-making is possible and necessary at a particular juncture of history. He analyses the socio-economic and political setting of colonial Bengal and shows how the growth of a tertiary sector in the economy created the need for a particular kind of education policy.

Bandyopadhyay examines the Bengali upper classes’ enthusiastic reception of folklore and folk tales as part of the nationalistic project of the early 20th century. In the late 19th century, Rev. Lalbehari Dey for the first time collected in written form grandmothers’ tales that were the stuff of folklore in the Bengal countryside. In making a transition from an oral tradition to the world of the written word, these stories found an audience that was now in search of its social roots. Bandyopadhyay looks at the work of Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar in the early years of the 20th century. Dakshinaranjan travelled from village to village in the areas around Dhaka and Mymensingh listening to folk tales narrated by old people, noting the diversity of ingredients in folklore and the changes that crept into narratives as the narrator changed, trying to pick out the common threads running through the variations of the same tales.

Tagore wrote the introduction of Dakshinaranjan’s first collection of folk tales, Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandmother’s Bag of Tales), which was first published in 1907. Bandyopadhyay shows how Tagore’s introduction squarely places the collection in opposition to the bookish education that the colonial regime imposed on young minds, contrasting their spontaneity and authentic rural roots with the manufactured quality of the textbooks. Tagore’s reception of the book is grounded in his ideological opposition to imperialism and in his awareness of the links between economic and ideological subjugations. But the poet’s response, the writer points out, is also determined by his class character.

In the final section of the second chapter, Bandyopadhyay analyses one of the stories from Thakurmar Jhuli to show how these folk tales upheld the patriarchal view of a class-divided society where power ultimately rests with figures of male authority, though hints of alternative options remain buried in barely audible murmurs. In a brief overview of the later harvests from Dakshinaranjan’s travels and research, he shows how such tales and the narratives woven around the vratas were part of a social project of educating women in their roles as wives and mothers.

Bandyopadhyay traces the evolution of the education policy of the colonial regime, showing how education was envisioned and used as a tool of control and power. He shows how the writers of Bengali primers, such as Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Madanmohan Tarkalankar, collaborated with this project with their construction of a moral and ethical identity that helped in the production of an “educated”, obedient and diligent workforce qualified to serve in the newly created tertiary sector. Vidyasagar’s Gopal, the good boy, and Rakhal, the bad boy, have gripped the imagination of generations of Bengali children who used (and still use) his Varnaparichay (literally, Introduction to the Alphabet) to read and write the language. Gopal is the good boy who listens to his parents and his teacher, studies diligently, does not lie or steal or attempt any transgression of accepted behaviour. Rakhal, on the other hand, breaks all the rules and is guilty of all possible sins in his boyish world.

The end that awaits each of them is never in doubt in the black-and-white moral universe of 19th century Bengali primers. Gopal lands a government job, which is as far as he can go in the colonial economy once the brief phase of Bengali entrepreneurship is over before the second half of the 19th century. He, of course, lives happily ever after, which gives a fairy-tale quality to his story. Rakhal’s transgressions, on the other hand, result in his being thrown out of the classic spaces of social disciplining, the home and the school. All his plaintive cries evoke no mercy in hearts that his misdemeanours have turned to stone. But if unambiguous fairy-tale endings are predestined for both Gopal and Rakhal, they also have a choice. Rakhal can choose to be good, while Gopal may fall by the wayside if he does not keep to the straight path. These textbooks drew a straight and necessary connection between diligence and happiness, as also between education and livelihood. In the process, they shut out the entire world of toiling people who produced the wealth that ultimately formed the underpinning of colonial power but whose access to education was seriously qualified.

The writer shows how this one-dimensional narrative of individual progress guaranteed by the colonial education system gets repeated in story after story written for children in the colonial period. There is no questioning of existing social and class and power relations in these stories. There is no examining of the quality of happiness promised at the end of years of study or the nature of the freedom that the protagonists have to pursue their dreams. The protagonists are either clearly of middle-class background or they aspire for it, and zamindars are always figures of legitimate authority even if some of them are guilty of abusing it. Bandyopadhyay points out how Vidyasagar, by using only the first names for his good and bad boys, freed up these flat, fairy-tale characters from caste moorings. The message is that opportunities for self-advancement under the new enlightened dispensation depends on the steadfast pursuit of education and not on advantages, or the lack of them, determined by one’s caste. Yet it is only the children of the “bhadralok” section with access to the system of school education who are clearly meant to be the consumers of both the primers and the books of children’s fiction.

In a colonial set-up, where the means of production and capital were controlled by a foreign ruling class, worldly success meant a job in the tertiary sector. The likes of the protagonist of Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) aspire to be game changers in a challenging world waiting to be mastered. But in the children’s literature of the colonised country, the likes of Gopal, tractable, docile, governable and conformable good boys, aspire to be clerks, teachers, or at best bureaucrats rewarded with titles by the Raj. In most cases they come from “bhadralok” families, that is, the families, usually of the upper castes, who use education for self-advancement and do not sully their hands with physical labour. As for the children of peasants, fishermen, cattle-minders and such others who have nothing to sell but their labour, there are only two possibilities. The first possibility is to usher the Rakhals on their way to damnation in the endless leisure that they have because they do not go to school. (That these children may be staying away from school because their families cannot afford to give them an education is of no consequence in these one-dimensional narratives.) The second possibility is that they make their way into the society of pen-pushing “bhadralok” by dint of sheer hard work. The only way forward is to be a “Gopal”. The project of the “bhadralok” class was to make use of the limited opportunities available within the colonial regime to advance in life. “What they wanted to say was this: in spite of the miserable state of affairs in the colony, the social mobility that has been possible in the country will have to be put to some use even in a minimal or insignificant way. One would have to become an able worker; to ensure obedient submissiveness, there was no harm in confining youth in prisons akin to [Jeremy] Bentham’s Panopticon. One cannot expect much from faithful employees. In their eyes, reality was not a social application or process but just a ‘thing out there’. They did not need or be obliged to know anything more than this; they would be grateful to move on unconsciously, obeying the dictates of fate” (Chapter 3, page 172).

‘Ideal’ womanhood

Bandyopadhyay also points out the exquisite irony of the exclusion of girls in Vidyasagar’s educational stories. The man who led the movement of women’s education in Bengal and practically dedicated his life to improving the social situation for women had no place for little girls in the social make-believes that he created. But women cannot be totally wished away in an educational project that seeks to produce conforming citizens.

As the 19th century progressed, there inevitably were, as Bandyopadhyay shows, books that upheld a certain ideal of womanhood. The “new woman” retained all the attributes imposed on her by the Brahminical tradition and was conscious of her own place in a caste-divided social hierarchy. She was dedicated to the service of her family and deferred to patriarchy. But she spoke a language refined by education, which also served to set her apart from women of lower classes and castes. Also, she did not hesitate to use new knowledge introduced by an European ruling class to protect and nurture her family—the practice of better hygiene, for example.

But if there was collaboration with the colonial education policy, there was also dissent and subversion. Bandyopadhyay discusses Tagore’s spirited defence of the indomitable Rakhal as the nation’s hope for a dignified and independent future. In an incisive analysis of Tagore’s Totakahini, he shows Tagore used the fairy-tale format to critique the colonial education policy as one that destroyed freethinking and produced robotic individuals who might offer unquestioning allegiance to power but who were intellectually maimed and emotionally as good as dead. Bandyopadhyay shows how other writers, especially Sukumar Ray, broke from and inverted the Gopal-Rakhal paradigm to explore alternative moral options. The form that they used most often to do this was comedy and satire but also, as in Tagore’s work, poems for and about children.

Bengali children’s fiction, especially in the 20th century, thus increasingly became populated with “Rakhals” who chose “adventure” rather than a settled way of life; that is, they chose alternative and unusual life experiences instead of the security of government jobs. Bandyopadhyay shows how these Rakhals nonetheless carried traces of Gopal in them in the way they continued to subscribe to racial, moral and social stereotypes nurtured by the West and also the ones embedded in the Brahminical world view.

He shows, too, how they carried the inevitable stamp of belonging to a colonised nation in their moral slant and their indifference to, and even disaffection for, worldly success. Quite different from the adventurers in fiction produced in the colonising nation, who unabashedly counted their spoils.

Tagore’s and Sukumar Ray’s were the two voices that most completely demolished accepted stereotypes and exposed their hollowness. Ray’s nonsense verse delightfully makes gibberish of the stranglehold of power over knowledge, while child characters in Tagore’s poems and a few stories speak out in a voice that refuses to be taught or disciplined. Yet even they do not really offer a vision of an alternative way of life. Tagore’s bird in Totakahini must die, while Ray’s characters only demolish and never actually build. They escape the straight and the narrow, but their escape is into an undefined never-never land that does not have any historical reality.

Elegantly written conclusion

In an elegantly written conclusion, Bandyopadhyay shows that Tagore’s own primer for children, Sahajpath (Easy Learning, 1930), though far removed from the stern, heartless pedagogy of Vidyasagar’s Varnaparichay, also displays a sense of the timelessness of existing social relations. The child regains its voice in Tagore but is not able to shake off the privileged background that accepts and demands menial roles from certain sections of society.

Bandyopadhyay’s book was first published in 1991. The translation follows a revised edition of 2013, which the writer says has been influenced by two of his later books ( Abar Shishushikka, or Beginner’s Education Again, 2005, and Bangla Shishusahitye Chhoto Meyera, or The Little Girls in Bengali Children’s Literature, 2007) but remains largely faithful to the 1991 edition. The edition of 2013, reprinted in 2015, carries a foreword/preface by the poet and critic Sankha Ghosh, which has been included in the translation.

The translation is lucid, though some of the peculiarities of the Bengali original remain untranslatable. Bandyopadhyay’s exquisitely crafted prose, irreverent, ironic, racy, sometimes deliberately colloquial and every so often devastating in its understated sarcasm, makes it impossible for the translation to totally capture the flavour of the original.

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