Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Making a Mango Whistle, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, reviewed by Malarvizhi Jayanth

Making a Mango Whistle by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay hovers between childhood and adulthood, dreams and death, magic and fear. It is a book for adults, young readers, film buffs and the literarily-inclined – many people will find much to appeal to them in this book that is intended for children.

The ghost of Satyajit Ray's Panther Panchali hangs heavily over the book for the contemporary reader. The cover art invokes it with the iconic image of Durga and her mother fussing over Apu on his first day to school. The images that flit through the reader's head are from the film.

Adapted for children from the novel Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, the narrative occasionally zooms in intensely on the emotion of a child. In a sequence where Apu watches a kite soar, he feels strongly the pull of a desire for freedom, followed immediately by a desire for the security of his mother's arms. At other times, it describes adult social politics with an assumed neutrality and distance, though it is always clear where the author's sympathies lie.

The many kinds of fruit and who has access to which, the haunted tree, the politics of who a fallen fruit can belong to – all the intertwined relations of nature and culture of the time animate the childhoods of Durga and Apu, children of an impoverished Brahmin family. The interventions of man seem minimal in this landscape that is circa early 20th century rural Bengal. The railway is a source of exquisite wonder and deferring the dream of seeing it terribly painful for the two children

Spoiler alert:

For someone who has seen Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, the delight of the book is rediscovering Durga. A brave, untamed, much-maligned and much-beloved girl child, well-versed in the lore of the natural world but less sure-footed in negotiating tricky societal structures and adult power games. Her death feels far more traumatic in the book after having followed her through several adventures - gathering forbidden fruit and dragging her unloved elderly relative back home and standing up defiantly to the bossy adult women around her.

Spoiler ends.

This conflicted narrative is presented in all its complexity in the adaptation. The book suddenly seems to talk to young people and suddenly to adults. It blur genres in an interesting manner, though Penguin has clearly demarcated this Puffin Classic for a younger audience. It has also been positioned as a potential textbook with additional information about the author and some truly provocative questions that can spark off crucial discussions on the cultural and natural worlds we inhabit.

Also included is a brief description of how a mango whistle is made. This being a very whimsical book, it hasn't made up it's mind on what it wants to be. It doesn't use the title through the narrative, and the reader is left wondering what it means. The doubt is cleared, thanks to the kind people at Penguin.

The translation by Rimli Bhattacharya mostly works well, retaining several names in Bengali and providing a glossary. The reader is also left wondering if the original Bengali version has the same (delightfully) split personality – wandering between a complex adult world and the child's simple explorations and attempts to come to terms with it – or if this personality has been found in translation.

My suggestion: Read this book with a curious child. It will open up new worlds for both of you.

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