God, in his wisdom, has created millions and billions of people, but the expectations of those people are far from satisfied. They say ‘Now we want to create people of our own.’ So as the gods played with their living dolls, people began to play with their living dolls, dolls they had created themselves. Then children clamoured, ‘Tell us a story,’ meaning ‘Make people out of words.’
I never had a grandfather, they sadly died too soon. I used to have a daydream that JD Salinger was my granddad – I liked to think of being the grandchild of a recluse in the woods, telling his tales to me alone.
So I was envious when I picked up a copy of He (Shey) and saw that it was written by the Bengalese writer to satisfy his nine year old granddaughter’s demand for stories. Reading it, I was captivated as Nandini surely was but pleased to find it is not ‘simply’ a children’s book. It may have begun as such but, as the author wrote in a letter to Balaichand Mukhopadhyay, it developed into something more mature than dismissive critics at the time concluded:
They do not realize how the story has grown like its author –from aush to aman, from aman to chaitali.
(Yeah, I had to look it up too. Aush is the monsoon crop of rice and aman is the winter crop; the richest and most important crop of the harvesting year is chaitali.)
Like Alices’s Adventures in Wonderland, Tagore’s stories are whimsical, playful surreal and satirical – caricaturing Hindu deities and mythology as well as social structures under the Raj. He plays on words and alternate meaning, probing the nature of language and meaning-making and man’s need to fabricate reality. ‘Shey’ is the Bengali third-person pronoun ‘He’ and He – the mischievous hero of the stories – is constituted entirely of words so that Tagore “can do what I like with him, without fear of tripping on any awkward questions.”
This He of ours is rare in the extreme – a man in a million. He has an unequalled gift for inventing untruths. It’s my great good fortune to have found such a person to help me make my impossible tales. I sometimes present this native of Make-Believe-and-Wonder Land before Pupu-didi – her eyes grow round with pleasure when she sees him. In her delight, she stuffs him with specially ordered jalebis. He loves jalebis with a passion, and chamcham sold in Sikdarpara Lane. Pupu-didi asks him, ‘Where do you live?’ He replies, ‘In Which Town, down Question-Mark Alley.’
I love this book, it was such a sweet find in a small town in central Kerala. I’d never heard of Rabindranath Tagore before which is to my shame as the prolific writer was a Nobel prize winner and the recipient of a knighthood which he later renounced following the British massacre of peaceful protesters in 1919.
He (Shey) will interest anyone who is curious about Indian literature but the beautiful translation has a broader appeal and will delight fans of Lewis Carroll, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, or those of us who continue to nurture the child inside us.