Buro Angla and Nils: A tale of transmigration of stories
September, 2004: In Lund University, Sweden. Three months later, on December 26 of same year the infamous Tsunami would wreak havoc in the Indian Ocean; many Swedes would lose families and friends vacationing in Southeast Asia. But, in September, there was no portent in the air. A deep autumn had arrived with wet leaves on the ground and a nip in the air. Though I have been to many other countries, this was my first time in Sweden.
The Swedish money looked different, with different faces on notes of different denominations. A Swedish colleague pointed out that the face on the 100 Kronor note is that of famous 18th CE Swedish botanist Carlolus Linnaeus, who is now claimed to be a pioneer in ecology. But, it was the 20 Kronor (Tjugo Kronor) note that caught my eyes. A face of a woman was printed in purple on it against a greenish background. The face was mature and profound with character etched in its lines: I saw an elderly lady, dressed dignifiedly in a fur collar, a hat, and a locket, with wise eyes that had seen much. For me, however, the picture on the other side of the 20 Kronor note was a total surprise: A picture of wild geese flying high over the flatland, and a thumb-sized boy with a cap is up in the air on the back of a white goose, and way below the squares and the rectangles of farmland plots look like a big chequecloth! It immediately reminded me of Buro Angla, the exquisite book by Abanindranath Thakur (Tagore), which I have always found a joy to read. The colleague identified the lady in the note as Selma Lagerlöf, a famous Swedish novelist. He further added that the picture of the tiny boy on the back of a goose on the other side of the note is from a very popular novel by Lagerlöf. The words stayed in my mind.
After I got my membership card from Lunds Stadsbibliotek, I pointed at the pictures on both sides of the 20 Kronor note to the library staff in the counter and told her: I want to read in English the famous book by this lady, which has the story of this boy on the flying goose. It took her a while to locate an English translation, but when it came, I saw that the book’s title was ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Nils’, translated by Velma Swanston Howard, illustrated by H Baumhauer, printed from The Murray Printing Company, Massachusetts, and published by Pantheon Books. The copyright years were 1907 and 1911, but the translation was first published in September 1947. In the preface the translator mentions that certain amount of geographical details from the original has been left out in the translation, and that Lagerlöf herself had helped the translator to edit and shorten certain chapters, where she thought the content would be of interest only to the local Swedes of a particular region. My Swedish friends were happy to know that I had brought this ‘classic’ home from the library and told me that the Swedish schools used it once to teach Swedish geography to the children.
The real surprise, however, was waiting for me in the pages of the book. What seemed only a faint possibility, when I saw the picture of boy on a flying goose on the 20 Kronor note, slowly emerged as a certainty. It was absolutely Buro Angla, unquestionably. Pages after pages contained narratives and verbal images that since childhood I have accepted fondly as Abanindranath's own. Nils is this naughty farmboy, the son of hardworking, poor, peasant parents. He is a lazy, self-centered boy, who is full of mischief, and takes pleasure in terrorizing and tormenting the birds and the animals in the farm in his leisure time. One day, his pranks led him to serious trouble. The boy was turned into a 'Thumbietot', i.e., 'Buro Angla' (Trans. Thumb sized), by the curse of Goa-nisse (Ganesh?), the elf-king. Then, the thumbsized Nils had to face the wrath and the taunts from the creatures around: Retorts from the birds, the maltreatment from the cat, the familiar incident in the cowshed of cows reminding him of how he used to put bees in their ears. And then, the well-known story of being suddenly airborne as he desperately held on tight onto the neck of a farm goosy-gander as it tried to join a migrating flock of wild geese flying high above the farm. Of course, Lagerlöf’s farm goosey-gander has not heard the name of Subachani, and it is tame, but not lame. However, there is no mistake that the plots are the same. The leader of the wild geese pack is Akka (in Abanindranath’s story it is ‘Chaka’). The flight led by Akka travels over many districts, and we hear the same enjoyable repartee between the wild geese in sky and the high and mighty roosters on the ground announcing the name and description of the places they are flying over, and at the end of the day the kind gesture by the farm goosey-gander as it tries to feed a raw fish to the Thumbietot, and a bond of friendship is forged. This is also when the enmity with the fox begins. Just as Nils does not come from Amtali village, very understandably, the fox is also not Chandpuri (i.e. from Chandpur). In Lagerlöf’s writing, it is Mr Smirre Fox, i.e. the cunning fox, of Vomb lake. And the attack by the fox takes place, not on a sandbank in the river as in Buro Angla, but on a loosely floating, large slab of ice on Vomb Lake, where the geese took shelter for the night and the fox tiptoed in as soon as a corner of it touched the shore. Then comes the story of the fox grabbing a goose by the wing, and Nils mistaking the fox for a strange-looking dog. Undaunted, despite his size, Nils chases the fox heroically until the goose is saved, and holds on fast onto the foxtail as the angry fox spins around to try to catch him instead. Finally, Nils takes shelter on a tall tree; below, the fox sits in waiting throughout the night. Then, as the sun rises, the familiar fun story begins. Throughout the day, the geese of Akka’s flock, one after the other, baits, provokes, and mocks the fox by flying low right by the nose of the fox until Smirre is too exhausted with chasing in vain; and Nils is rescued by the geese from the tree. Then come the stories of a castle (Glimminge) full of black rats and grey rats, of the rescue of a lady squirrel by Nils from a farmhouse where she was kept captive. The farm gander gets very busy helping an injured goose with a very pretty head and with feathers like satin, the geese take shelter in a dark mountain cave on a stormy, rainy night in the company of a big old ram and the docile sheep, then comes the episode of the great crane dance on Kullaberg, and Nils getting kidnapped by the crows at the suggestion of the fox, and so on. Anyone who has read Buro Angla should be able to relate to each of these events.
I soon realized that the stories are the same, and the sequence of the events also is more or less the same; except that in Abanindranath’s writing the stories and characters have received an amazing makeover with the earthen hues of Bengal against the backdrop of nature of Bengal. Lagerlöf's novel is much larger than Buro Angla, and it has many more stories illuminating so many different aspects of life. For example, there is the story of an island which actually is supposed to be a big petrified butterfly! It still longs for its wings, and that is why people who go to this island have a longing and wistfulness. There is also the marvelous story of a city called Vineta that was cursed to sink to the bottom of the sea, because its people were arrogant and flamboyant. The city was given a chance to rise up from the ocean floor and to redeem itself for just one night in the year. By chance, Nils was there on the night the city rose, but could not save the city as much as he wanted to. There is also a long, touching story about a dog and a moose that itself could be a novella.
Of course, the common link among these and to many other stories is the Thumbietot aka Nils. Through these tales, one gets to see how the mischievous boy slowly transforms into a kind soul who helps and empathizes with the others; the people, and the animals, the birds, which he earlier liked to torment. At the end, Lagerlöf herself enters the story and tells us how she found this story of Nils after regaining her childhood home and returning to it after many years.
Who is this Selma Lagerlöf? Born in 1858, Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf was the first woman author to get the Nobel Prize in literature in 1909. Daughter of a retired army officer, Selma was born in South Sweden, and she grew up listening to fairy tales and folklores from her grandma. Selma was a teacher by profession. After the death of her father, the family home had to be sold off. In 1904, Selma bought back the same house, and finished the story of Nils in this house.
In 1901, Selma Lagerlöf was commissioned to write a textbook for the Swedish elementary school to acquaint little children with the Swedish provinces, their landscapes, animals, and the culture. This book turned out to be The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (Nils Holgerssons underbara resa), which took Lagerlöf many years to complete. But, the novel on Nils is not her only novel. Upto 1930 Selma had travelled to many countries and had continued to write. She had an activist side as well. After WWII broke out, she had helped some German intellectuals and artists to escape the Nazi reign of terror, and had saved a few from the concentration camp by arranging Swedish visa for them. In 1939, when Sweden's neighbor Finland was attacked by Russia, she donated her Nobel gold medal to Finland in support of Finland and as a protest against the aggression.
Lagerlöf's life trajectory was from 1858 to 1940, and Abanindranath's time was 1871 to 1951. What first struck me as a possibility was that of a rare coincidence that is no less than a miracle. Is it possible that two almost contemporary authors have independently come up with two separate but same or similar stories? Are not Leibniz and Newton both credited with the independent invention of calculus? But in the case of adventures of Nils and Buro Angla, there were just too many similarities. I did not know exactly when Abanindranath wrote Buro Angla and when it was first published. But the copy of Buro Angla that I had, and still have, is the 5th Signet edition from Signet Press, Bengali year 1378, and it has no, and I mean not a single, reference either to Selma Lagerlöf or to her famous Swedish novel. It does not even carry a simple statement anywhere that Abanindranath's Buro Angla is created in the image of a novel from a foreign land.
I hope the readers understand how very genuine and complete my surprise and shock was. I simply was not prepared for this; blame it on my being so underread, but I did not know that I would find Buro Angla on the Swedish soil, and that too as the famous Nils of Scandinavia. The cobbled streets over which I walked everyday, the tall buildings with gothic ornamental gables that cast their long shadows over the Lund Cathedral, the sun-starved whiteness of the complexions all around, the unfamiliar chatter, none of these helped one bit to alleviate the indistinct unease in my mind. In utter amazement and confusion, I decided to write about my experience, and at the behest of Damayanti Basu Singh sent the article to Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) in September 2004. The title of the article was Buro Angla tumi kar? (Buro Angla, Who do you belong to? Trans. by author). In it, I specifically mentioned that the aim and intention of my article was not to dethrone Abanindranath or to sully his image in any way, but to raise certain questions: What is the connection between Swedish Nils and Bengali Ridoy? How exactly did this book arrive in the hands of Abanindranath, and what or who prompted him to tell the story in Bangla imbuing it with the sights, smells, and the beauty of Bengal? Most importantly, why there is no mention that Buro Angla is a re-creation based on another literary work? When does an 'inspired' creation get an identity of its own? Does it ever get a separate identity? In one sense Abanindranath's Shakuntala, Rajkahini are also not original tales. In his own inimitable way, Abanindranth put life into the stories of others. Was Buro Angla a similar attempt? I kept the tone a little provocative and ended the article asking the scholars and readers of Bengal to shed some light on these questions.
My article got published on ABP editorial page (page 5) on December 2 2004, Agrahayan 16 1411. Miles and miles away from home, at first I had no idea that it did. The first inkling, that people have read it, came to me through emails, from my husband, Nirupam Chakraborti, who mentioned that the article has been published, and from a friend who showered praise for my Bengali. Then few other emails followed. Someone I did not know sent a message from UK through Lund University system administrator that he has read the article and has really liked it.
Then, on December 15 2004, ABP published 8 letters of different sizes, perhaps after being edited, with the title ‘Buro Angla Aban Thakurer-e’ (Buro Angla definitely belongs to Aban Thakur, trans by author). I do not know how many letters ABP received in total, but they published only 8. The volume of the responses and the passion in them touched me. What emerged from all those letters was an amazing collage of information, for which bits and pieces were volunteered by each respondent, and which was quilted together by our collective memory. This was crowdsourcing at its best, unearthing information that I at least had no access to earlier, and I am sure there were many like me who simply had no idea about it. When I returned to India after several months, people actually came up to me and confided to me that they too had no idea about all this and the article and the letters that followed had been an eye opener for them.
What emerged from the ABP letters was important data on book history, on Abanindranath, and also on the Bengali readership. The most vocal claim perhaps was that Abanindranath never tried to hide the source or the inspiration of Buro Angla. In Abanindranath's hands, the transformation of Swedish Nils into Bengali Ridoy was a complete transcreation. Mrinal Ghosh of Kolkata-110 informed that Buro Angla first came out as a serial novel in the periodical Mouchak (Bengali year 1327-28) and subsequently was published as a book by M C Sarkar and Sons (Bengali year 1348). The first published edition did contain the information that it is inspired by Lagerlöf’s novel, but it also said that the book is “not a mere translation…entirely a book of Bengal”. One of the respondents (Jayanti Sanyal of Kolkata -29) wrote that in the preface of that first edition Sudhir Chandra Sarkar wrote that the straw doll of Nils on a goose, that is available in shops during Christmastime in Sweden (This I can vouch for from my personal experience) was sent to Abanindranath by his French friend Andre Karpeles. Letters also mentioned that scholars such as Pulin Bihari Sen, Bhudeb Chaudhuri, too had mentioned the link between Buro Angla and Lagerlöf’s ‘Wonderful adventures of Nils’ in different erudite tomes. Buddhadeva Bose also apparently had mentioned that Buro Angla and Alor Phulki both are based on stories from abroad. One pedantic respondent rather curtly guided me to the pages 172-173 of the 5th volume of History of Bengali Literature by Sukumar Sen.
I remember that a respondent (Utpal Mukhopadhyay, Teacher at Barasat Satya Bharati Vidyalaya) made a very interesting observation that there might have been direct contact between Lagerlöf and Abanindranath. For, he mentioned, Abanindranath’s Khirer putul was translated in French by Andre Karpeles and Amiya Chakravarty, and the same book was translated in Swedish as Ostdockan by Ella Myrin Hilborn. The letter claimed that for both the French and the Swedish translations, Selma Lagerlöf wrote the introductions! The hint perhaps was that this direct connection, if true, absolves Abanindranath of any charge of ‘lifting’ the story without proper acknowledgement. But I was more grateful to know about Khirer Putul turning into Ostdockan. When I searched for Ostdockan in the Lund public library system, my initial investigation showed that Lagerlöf wrote the preface only for the French translation. But, when this French translation was translated in Swedish, the preface also got translated in Swedish. The funny part of the investigation was that I found that Ostdockan in the public library system bore the name of Rabindranath Tagore as the author!
However, what also painfully emerged from the letters was the regrettable fact of an important omission, no matter how inadvertent, that happened at the hands of publishers. It became apparent that though the author of Buro Angla and the first edition publisher acknowledged the link to The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, in the subsequent editions and reprints more recent publishers of Buro Angla have not bothered to include that information. So, what may have been common information for a certain generation was lost to another, simply because the continuity of book information was not maintained by the publishers. The information that belonged to public domain and should have been made accessible to any reader of Buro Angla had become an esoteric fact. A book is never just a book, it is an important document of its time. Erasure or omission of information about it is a kind of distortion of history.
And there is always the possibility that one might read only Buro Angla, and not books on Buro Angla. Consider for a moment this altered scenario. Consider that instead of me being in Sweden, a Swede had come to India and had come to find the spitting image of Nils Holgerssen, someone he has grown up with since his childhood, in Ridoy of Amtoli in the story of Buro Angla, and had written back to a leading Swedish daily about his ‘findings’. He may have been amused to find Nils so well-settled in Bengal and ensconced in the hearts of the Bengalis. But what are the chances that all this information that the ABP readers together have brought forth be available to him? What have we done to ensure that the story behind the story of Buro Angla gets told to whosoever reads or comes to know of Buro Angla? This is what I mentioned in my thanksgiving rejoinder (published in ABP editorial page, January 18 2005). For, the link between the story of Wonderful Adventures of Nils and Buro Angla adds, not just a chapter on the history of two famous personalities, but also a chapter on the transmigration of wonderful stories across the geographical barriers.
I also wrote that in the internet age with incredible data mining made possible by the search engines, there is no excuse for keeping the creation story of Buro Angla confined only to the pages of few selected books or to the memory of the few lucky ones. There are plenty of admirers and avid readers of Bengali literature, who may not be students of history of Bengali Literature and may not have gone through the pages 172-173 of History of Bengali Literature by Sukumar Sen, but we owe this interesting information about Buro Angla to all of them, regardless of who they are and where they are.
Apart from the letters which were published, there were also letters written directly to me, and sometimes with just ‘Lund university, Sweden’ as the address. I was impressed that they reached me nonetheless. These were open, honest letters conveying the simple message that the writers liked my article. The warm wishes expressed in Bangla exuded enough warmth for me in my lonely hours in that winter. There was one letter, however, that I remember because of its unusual content. Touching briefly on the article, it went straight to the point to ask me to find a job for the letter-writer anywhere in Sweden! Who said Bengalis are not go-getters?
Ok, so how does one settle the original question: Buro Angla, who do you belong to? I think the respondents together had made it clear that though Nils belongs to Lagerlöf, Buro Angla belongs unquestionably to Aban Thakur. But if you ask me, I would say both Nils and Ridoy belong actually to all of us, the readers. For me, this incident was a process of getting reacquainted with Buro Angla, and sharing him with the readers of Nils. This was a rediscovery of Buro Angla placed against a vast backdrop that stretched over two continents in another time.
June 2011. Nirupam is in Turku, Finland. In June, the beautiful Aurajoki River actually flows through the city of Turku, after being frozen solid during the winter months. And in the waters of Aurajoki, one June day Nirupam finds some decorative replicas of geese, but on the back of one of the geese stands a small humanoid figure. He sends a picture of that with the title 'Buro Angla landed on River Aurajuki' to me and others. To that, Samir, the editor of Parabaas, replies: “Umm, I am wondering if the picture you have sent is that of Nils. Few years back, there was this article, you know, by someone called Chhanda who wrote from Sweden in ABP about Nils and Buro Angla.....”. I sigh and think to myself: Some stories are such that they never end.
Published November, 2011
Chhanda Chakraborti is a philosopher and a Professor of Philosophy at the Dept of Humanities and Social Science,...
Illustrations taken from Wikipedia and Reminiscences.
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