100 Years of ‘Abol Tabol’ & the Magic of Nonsense: The Mad Genius of Sukumar Ray

Abol Tabol has delighted readers for generations and was first published in 1923, India was ruled by the British.

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Hindi Female

Indian Author Sukumar Ray's unique work of literary nonsense verse – Abol Tabol, completed 100 years on 2 October 2023. 

Nonsense rhymes are great subsets of English literature, many consider it the first entry into the world of poetry. Interestingly, nonsense rhyme is also considered an act of defiance, especially against the ruling class.

Abol Tabol has delighted readers for generations. When it was first published in 1923, India was ruled by the British.

The Los Angeles Public Library quotes the Encyclopedia Britannica in saying nonsense verse is defined as "humourous or whimsical verse that differs from other comic verse in its resistance to any rational or allegorical interpretation. Though it often makes use of coined, meaningless words, it is unlike the gibberish of children’s counting rhymes in that it makes these words sound purposeful.”


Packing Wit & Humour Into Nonsense Verse

Nonsense verse dates back to 1846, with the publication of Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense. 

Originally written in Bengali, the translation of Abol Tabol in English is available as The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray by Sukanta Chaudhuri and contains 44 of the 52 rhymes in Abol-Tabol along with almost the full story from the novella Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La.

The translated version comes with an introduction by Ray’s celebrated filmmaker son Satyajit Ray. 

“Sukumar Ray’s works had a great influence on Bengali literature. Ray’s father Upendrakishore was also a famous writer and a friend of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s famous bard, and a Nobel laureate. Tagore also influenced Sukumar Ray and his son, Satyajit. The relevance of Abol Tabol will continue for some more centuries, this is not something to be replaced with artificial intelligence (AI) or ChatGPT,” says politician turned-author Nirbed Roy.

Kolkata’s seasoned poet and writer Srijato Bandyopadhyay feels Sukumar Ray gained tremendous popularity mainly because he created likeable characters to support his poems. “His work is distinctly different from English nonsense. Sukumar Ray placed his characters very close to real Indian life and achieved great nonsensicality. It has great relevance.”  

The translation – claim experts – is an ideal initiation into the magic of Sukumar Ray, born in an era that many say was the pinnacle of the Bengal Renaissance. 

Dr Ifte Choudhury, an architect by profession, and a faculty in the Department of Construction Science at Texas A&M University, has written in vivid detail about Sukumar Ray and his works, more importantly Abol Tabol which translates into Nonsense. 

Writes Choudhury: “I was introduced to Abol Tabol at a very early age and was fascinated by this unique work. The surreal characters and places became a reality to me. In order to make my virtual “friends” adapt to the new setting, I began to translate the poems keeping the essence intact with subtle changes in ambiance. Thus, Kathburo became “Woody”, Burir Bari turned into a “Crooked House” and Hukumukho Hyangla was renamed “The Geek”. I have made an effort to keep the original spirit of the work as much as possible. This is my homage to one of the greatest masters of nonsense literature.”


Of Geese, Hedgehogs, and Hedgehogeese

The goose and the hedgehog, not following grammar 

Formed Hedgehogoose Corporation, only last summer. 

The seagull told tortoise, “Come on, let’s have some fun

And make Tortoiseagull the largest merger under the sun.

Cockatiel-headed lizard had a diet problem that may look silly

How could he give up eating worms switching to green chili?

Goat had a hidden agenda; he always had this idea in mind

To form a joint venture, for which flamingo was a good find. 

The giraffe was really tired of roaming around in the prairie

He yearned to gang up with the eagle, a thought really eerie. 

Is it the mad-cow disease? the heifer asks herself loosely

I wonder why the wretched rooster follows me so closely.

The whalephant is in doldrums; he isn’t really full of glee

While elephant loves the jungle, whale yearns for the sea

A lack of horns gave the leopard a severe manic depression

Growing antlers was the cure, thanks to deer’s contribution.


Come all of you packed with whims

Riding on a carriage full of dreams

Come on all crazies chasing a fantasy

Clashing the cymbals hard around rims

Go to a place of genuinely weird songs

Where no tune is ever right or wrong

Travel to a place with blow of the wind

Let your mind float a distance long.

Crazy curious minds wander around

Dancing all the way without any care

Come on in and do the real grotesque

No code or rule can hold you back here

With bizarre moves and flawed decisions

We paint the land red, make the bells chime

Come on everyone and make some errors

In a land of absurdity laced with rhyme.

Michael Heyman, scholar and writer of literary nonsense and children’s literature, and a professor of literature at Berklee College of Music, is full of praise for Abol Tabol.

“After the 1923 publication of Sukumar Ray’s seminal book of Bengali nonsense literature, Abol Tabol, nobody dared to translate it into English. Bengalis tended to revere Ray’s masterful, layered language and cultural clout as sacred—a kind of perfect, and perfectly impenetrable (to an English speaker) literary play. It would take Ray’s son, the famous author and filmmaker Satyajit, to break that taboo with his small, limited-run translation of his father’s book, in 1970.”

Even Satyajit Ray, however, contended that certain pieces were impossible to translate — until 1987, when the next translator, Sukanta Chaudhuri came along, who in Ray’s own words, produced a very able and imaginative translation [which] is a refutation of my contention.

‘Retained in Translation’

Still, pieces were left out, to be partly filled in by more recent translators, most notably Sampurna Chattarji in her celebrated 2004 volume. These ever-bolder attempts at translation have not happened because Bengalis have suddenly discovered new means of translation — nor because they have simply compromised more. Rather, they have come to realise that nonsense literature, though it presents special challenges, is, like most other texts, translatable.”

Heyman says in the West, translations of nonsense literature have also been “far and few, far and few,”. And most nonsense literature actually is dominated by logical, rather than linguistic play, making it far easier to translate than deniers might imagine. 

“In Sukumar Ray’s Mish-Mash, for instance, we are presented with a bestiary of portmanteau animals, such as the “Duckupine,” a curious combination of duck and porcupine. “The last couplet mostly operates according to Bengali wordplay.

The original line, “Shingher shing nei mone bhari koshto,” translates literally to “The lion was desperate to own a pair of horns,” but the play here is that the word for horn, “shing,” is a part of the possessive form of lion, “shingher.”  

Heyman says in English, “a lion wanting horns is simply arbitrary and doesn’t capture the humour, but it just so happens that another animal with “horn” in its name also lacks horns, the hornbill bird”.  

Sukumar Ray was extremely passionate about nonsense, he wanted it to be totally free and full of whimsy.

(Shantanu Guha Ray is the Asia Editor of Central European News, UK and Zenger News, US. He is also a columnist with Moneycontrol. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Satyajit Ray   Bengali Language   Poems 

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