"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, which 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 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”

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.