“Indian Nonsense”

I came across an anthology called The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense, while browsing in a bookstore in suburban Philadelphia. The book is a collection of nonsensical poems and short stories from all over India, most of them translated into English. It’s one of those rare Penguin India titles that ended up getting distributed in the U.S. (An earlier book that I discovered in exactly the same way, was Samit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies. Also, I should point out that the editors of The Tenth Rasa have started a blog to promote the book.)

I’ll say a bit more about the idea behind the collection below, but what I have in mind for this post is a celebration of nonsense by example, not so much a thorough review (I’m also curious to know whether readers can remember their own South Asian nonsense rhymes, in any language. Anyone? Translations would be nice, but not required).

For now it might make sense to start with a couple of poems. First, the spirit of the collection is perhaps best captured by a favorite Sukumar Ray poem, “Abol Tabol,” (translated alternatively as “Gibberish” or “Gibberish Gibberish” to catch the reduplication), first published in Ray’s book of the same title in 1923:

Come happy fool whimsical cool
Come dreaming dancing fancy-free,
Come mad musician glad glusician
Beating your drum with glee.
Come O come where mad songs are sung
Without any meaning or tune,
Come to the place where without a trace
Your mind floats off like a loon.
Come scatterbrain up tidy lane
Wake, shake and rattle ‘n roll,
Come lawless creatures with willful features
Each unbound and clueless soul.
Nonsensical ways topsy-turvy gaze
Stay delirious all the time,
So come you travelers to the world of babblers
And the beat of impossible rhyme.
(Translated by Sampurna Chattarji from the Bengali)

(“Glusician” is not a typo, by the way; its utter unjustifiability is in some sense the point of the poem.)

Another of my favorites from the collection is an almost-limerick, originally written in Oriya by a writer named J.P. Das, and is called “Vain Cock”:

Taught to say ku-ku-du-koo, ku-ku-du-koo
He only said, ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’
Such a vain cock—
You’re in for a shock:
Not tandoori, you’ll only be stew.

(The joke here of course is that in many Indian languages a rooster’s cry is rendered along the lines of ‘ku-ku-du-koo’, and presumably in the Oriya version of “Vain Cock” the phrase “cock-a-doodle-doo” is rendered phonetically exactly as in English. The Vain cock, in short, is due for stew because of irremediable Anglophilic tendencies in his onomotopoeic ejaculation.)

And yet one more, this time by Annada Sankar Ray.

“What the Little Girl Learnt”

A-ha!
Yes ma!
Baa baa black sheep
Have you any wool?
No ma! No ma!
That’s all bull.
Not black, not a sheep.
Not at all woolly.
So where’ll I get wool?
You’re wrong, fully.
(Translated from Bengali by Sampurna Chattarji)

We obviously lose a little here in translation from the Bengali, especially at the end. But the point still comes through: “No ma! no ma!/That’s all bull” is a way of talking back to the dominance of English nursery rhymes in India, even outside of “English medium” elite spaces. Shakespeare and Dickens may have begun to give way to Tagore and Rushdie in Indian English literature classrooms, but “Baa baa black sheep” and the gloom-filled “Ring a Ring a rosies” still rule the nursery rhyme canon. (In this case, “black sheep” also has a certain possible racial tinge, which Ray seems to be resisting.)

Other nonsense rhymes in The Tenth Rasa have a bit of an anti-colonial flavor to them as well. For instance, there’s a Tamil folk rhyme translated by V. Geetha:

Mister Rat, Mister Rat
Where are you going?
I’m going off to London
To see Elizabeth Queen.
You’ve got to cross the seven seas
Pray, what’s your solution?
I’ll buy a ticket for a plane
And fly across the ocean.
You will get hungry on the way
Pray, what will you eat?
I’ll buy bajjis and vadas, hot,
And give myself a treat.

(Vadas, yum. Exactly what I would want to eat if I were going on a journey across the seven seas, to see the Queen of England…)

The many words for different kinds of food, in different Indian languages, is also widespread theme, as we see in a short tidbit from Sampurna Chattarji’s collection, “The Food Finagle: A Culinary Caper”:

Idli lost its fiddli
Dosa lost its crown
Wada lost its violin
And let the whole band down.

(The above was originally written in English, and part of the pleasure here is in hearing the sound of south Indian dishes – Idli, Dosa, Wada – spilling phonetically into English.)

As I hope these examples illustrate the pickings in The Tenth Rasa are quite rich. People who haven’t been exposed to this type of writing before might want to also get ahold of Sukumar Ray’s wonderful Abol-Tabol, for which a quite decent English translation is available.

And Heyman, Satpathy, and Ravishankar have piqued my curiosity about the Indian experiences and writings of the father of English nonsense writing, Edward Lear (Lear spent two years in India, and left an extensive travel journal, as well as a handful of excellent poems, including “The Akond of Swat” and “The Cummerbund”)

For the curious, here is a bit more on the way this volume was put together:

The Title. The title is an allusion to Bharata’s Natya Shastra, which has a famous chart of the nine literary Rasas, or moods (“spirits”): love, anger, the comic/happy, disgust, heroism, compassion, fear, wonder, and peace. The one that was missing was perhaps the rasa of “whimsy” – or nonsense. The Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore noticed the absence, and suggested that a tenth rasa might be needed (he also published a volume of writing for children, as well as a collection of Bengali folk rhyms called Khapchhada (1937), which has never been translated in its entirety. And Sukumar Ray, the most famous Indian nonsensicalist of all (the Indian Lewis Caroll) took up this charge quite directly, which contained an apologia at the beginning of the Bengali edition: “This book was conceived in the spirit of whimsy. It is not meant for those who do not enjoy that spirit.” In his introduction to The Tenth Rasa, Heyman points out that the Bengali for “spirit of whimsy” is “kheyaal rawsh” – where “rawsh” is the Bangla version of “rasa.” Thus, The Tenth Rasa.

The Sense in Nonsense. Some readers might think we are just talking about “pure” nonsense, but Heyman defines the specific literary genre he is working with quite carefully:

We may begin by classifying literary nonsense texts as those where there is a type of balance between ‘sense’ and ‘non-sense.’ Such balance is necessary if the text is not to become either plane sense, as in a best-selling crime novel, or utter gibberish, as in a baby’s babbling. The former is unremarkable, the latter, unintelligible. Good nonsense engages the reader; it must ‘invite interpretation’, implying that sense can be made, but at the same time it must foil attempts to make sense in many of the traditional ways.

In order to keep the balance, the ‘sense’ side of the scale must weigh heavily: Nonsense thus tends to be written in tight structures, that is, with strict poetic form or within the bounds of formal prose. It also usually follows meticulously many rules of language, like grammar, syntax and phonetics. Nonsense stories are about identifiable characters and the usually simple plots are understandable.

In short, in order to be interesting, nonsense has to be carefully crafted; it usually bowdlerizes the kinds of literary forms with which we’re most familiar.

A little bit later, Heyman describes the distinction he makes between nonsense and related genres like riddles, fantasy, and fables:

Jokes, riddles, light verse, fantasy, fables—none of these forms is in itself nonsense. A joke is funny because it makes sense; nonsense is funny because it does not. A riddle is clever because, eventually, it makes sense; nonsense is clever in how it suggestively does not. Light verse, fantasy, fables… nonsense can live in any of these forms and more. Indeed, it thrives on some overarching form that gives it some recognizable shape and meaning—something to make sure the nonsense techniques do not make the text explode into boring gibberish—yet the form itself provides only such (necessary) restraints; it does not equal nonsense. Thus, nonsense is a kind of parasite inhabiting a host form, yet it has a life of its own.

In short, what we’re speaking of is not just any old bakwas, but the most refined rubbish.

24 thoughts on ““Indian Nonsense”

  1. Oh, this is just a gorgeous post. I didn’t know a thing about nonsense stories or poems! Thank you for introducing them to me :)

  2. Okay, I’m sorry, I’m so in love with these poems I have to say, again: GORGEOUS

  3. Amardeep, you seem to have a real talent for fishing out all kinds of interesting stuff. I’m a huge fan of nonsense and have to say this is one of the most delightful posts I’ve come across.

  4. Edward Lear (Lear spent two years in India, and left an extensive travel journal, as well as a handful of excellent poems, including “The Akond of Swat” and “The Cummerbund”)

    Wow, I had no clue that Lear was in India. Meanwhile: Andrew Robinson’s ‘Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker,’ has a big section on the quirky Ray family, including interesting biographical details on Sukumar Ray.

    Nice post.

  5. Man go Man go idly Man go idly to some bar Chill he

    But a chick in Sam’s bar? None

    Man go Picky man go Picky man go to doll Idly

  6. I know it’s been more than 20 years since the movie came out, but I can;t get this gem out of my head

    “Salaam seth, Salaam seth Apne laayak kuch kaam seth Ap to khaye Murg-Mussalam Apun ke liye to bus rice plate”

    ROughly translates to

    “Greetings sir, Greeting sir Any work for me? You eat Chicken For me, it is just rice plate”

  7. That’s neat. Does the collection include the non-English versions next to it? What a nice idea.

    I sort of remember the beginning of a Marathi children’s nonsense poem “bad bad geet” used for choosing who is it for games like tag(think eenie meenie)–”Adam tadam tad tad baaja huka tikka re shwas” sometimes it went longer to talk about a veda raja/crazy king with a limping horse. Anybody know the whole thing?

  8. Great post. Although not a well-known fact, Satyajit Ray kept up his father’s tradition to the best of his ability. He used to regularly write nonsense rhymes, primarily transcreations inspired by Lear, Carroll, Belloc and Thompson, for children’s journal Sandesh. Most of these rhymes as well as Satyajit’s English translation of ten of his father’s poems were compiled in a book “toRay b(N)adha ghoRar dim” — third last line of the poem “Abol tabol”. In the foreword of the book, Satyajit noted – “If nonsense works are translated verbatim the spirit of the original cannot be retained more often than not. So liberties had to be taken with some of the poems translated. The limericks by Lear were no direct translations; fresh ones were composed by following the illustrations done by Lear”.

    Introduction of Andrew Robinson’s Inner Eye mentions the limerick Ray wrote anticipating his meeting with prince Charles that never took place because Ray had a heart attack days before his flight was to depart — [link]

    When Bonnie Prince Charlie met Life-Fellow Ray He really couldn’t think quite what to say Then he thought it’d be dandy To ask ‘Have you seen Gandhi?’ But Ray beat him to it to his utter dismay

  9. DJ Drrrty Poonjabi — touche! (Someone should do a Bhangra compilation called “Punjabi Nonsense”)

    Incidentally, there are a couple of nonsensical Punjabi folk/wedding songs included in the collection. One of them is actually X-rated!

  10. Wow the poems here brings a lot of fond memories from childhood !

    we used to have contest in schools ( back in India of course) for fun / harmless / mindless poems and folks used to freak out .. the winner had rights to sketch his / her poem in the schools graffiti wall ( with charcoal and color chalk ! .. spray paints were too costly for us and the school .. …we had a legal graffiti wall at least )

  11. 6 · Manju said

    Man goMan go idlyMan go idly to some barChill he

    I LOVE THIS !! It would work soo much better, though, if there were such things as mango idlies, but i would presume that they would taste disgusting if there were.

  12. I am surprised that no one has mentioned Gulzar yet. In Hindi he is probably the most well-known writer who has successfully ventured into this tricky form of poetry. Here’s an example:

    आपा की आपड़ी / aapaa kii aapa.Dii पानी में जा पड़ी / paanii me.n jaa pa.Dii आपा को धूप में सुखाओ / aapaa ko dhuup me.n sukhaao आपा को इस्तरी कराओ / aapaa ko istarii karaao

    Apart from the nonsensicalness, the phonetics of the limreick are absolutely delicious. A translation is simply not going to cut it, so I will not even try it.

  13. Here’s a related thing on the same topic.

    There is a form called “ढकोसला/Dhakosalaa” which can be put into the genre of nonsensical poetry. In this form, you write a couplet that has a valid first line, but the second line is out of context and rhyme with the first line in such a way that it invokes hilarity. We used to do that a lot when we were kids. An example in Hindi:

    आज की शाम सुहानी है, हवा ठंढी है

    ज़रा देखो तो दाल कच्ची तो नहीं रह गई

    aaj kii shaam suhaanii hai, hawaa Tha.nDhii hai zaraa dekho to daal kachchii to nahii.n rah gaii

    Man! this is one of my favorite topics.

  14. 15 · fallen jhumki said

    I LOVE THIS !! It would work soo much better, though, if there were such things as mango idlies, but i would presume that they would taste disgusting if there were.

    Why speculate idly in the age of Google? There are mango idlis. And I bet they taste fine too. Although these are rava (suji) idlis, not rice flour idlis, I can see how those might not work with mangoes… on the other hand maybe those would be fine too. (Of course, I had no idea there were mango idlis before I Googled) :)

    I discovered there were also other kinds of idlis, such as those made from jackfruit, and eaten with mango chutney!

  15. Ah, Benny Lava, that’s very popular on the Internet, but it’s amateurish in its predictable Freudian story-line. His mom was a minor, so he goes after a woman who’s into high-school girls. Boring!

  16. Inky Pinky Ponky Father Had a Donkey Donkey Died, Father Cried Inky Pinky Ponky

    From my childhood in Hyderabad