Nonsense verse written a century ago still relevant for our rulers and bizarre rules

Sukumar Ray’s poetry resonates even a century later. What does that say about our rules and rulers?

Nonsense verse written a century ago still relevant for our rulers and bizarre rules

Sanjukta Basu

He is known as the poet of nonsense verse in Bengali meant for children and written a century ago. But there is greater appreciation now of his verse as satire. A re-look at the poems suggest that the more things change, the more they remain the same!

Take for example the verse ‘Ekushey Ain’ or 21 Rules, published in 1922 and barely a month before colonial rulers cracked down on writers and poets. The poem speaks of bizarre laws that provided for the arrest of poets and punishment for snoring. Strict rules were laid down for people who tumbled down the road, the punishment for which was a fine of Rs 21, an astronomical sum a century ago. And if you sneezed without a license, the cops would force you to sneeze 21 times, the poet added with his tongue-in-cheek.

Translations never quite do justice to the original or manage to evoke the outrage and laughter that his poems, still very popular in Bengal, trigger. Some of them were brilliantly translated by Satyajit Ray, the poet’s son and celebrated director.

Comparing the ruler to an eccentric lord Shiva (remember the North Indian phrase Shiv Ji ki Baraat?), this is what Sukumar Ray penned :

“In Shiva's homeland, the rules are quite strange, as I can truly attest,
If someone slips, and falls by err, police come by to arrest.
Your ordeal continues inside of a court room,
Where judges are ready to fine you a fortune…” -

“But this isn't the worst of it, by any means really,
for those who write poems, their punishment is silly,
they're placed in a cage under strict lock and key,
with no chance of exile, or option to flee…

One last offence, that's punishable by law,
Is snoring at all - it's seen as a flaw…”

“For sneezing before six, a ticket is needed,
Without this in hand, you will be ill-treated -
They beat you like drums, and snuff up your nose,
You sneeze not just once, but 21 blows!
The fine for teeth-chattering is 4 Rupees flat,
For growing a moustache a bit more than that -

A hundred years later, life is imitating art in India and adults are getting arrested for falling in love or following a religion of their choice. Stand-up comics and cartoonists are getting hauled up for contempt of court. What does it tell us about rulers? In a poem on the ‘King of Bombaria’, he wrote:

The queen, who seldom goes to bed,
Straps a pillow round her head.
The courtiers - or so I'm told -
Turn cartwheels when they have a cold

As 2020 draws to a close, India more than ever resembles the empire of Bombaria.

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