By Poushali Bhadury
It was terribly hot. I lay in the shade of a tree, feeling quite limp. I had put down my handkerchief on the grass: I reached out for it to fan myself, when suddenly it called out ‘Miaouw!’
Here was a pretty puzzle. I looked around and found that it wasn’t a handkerchief any longer. It had become a plump ginger cat with bushy whiskers, staring at me in the boldest way.
‘Bother!’ I said. ‘My handkerchief’s turned into a cat.’
‘What’s bothering you?’ answered the Cat. ‘Now you have an egg, and then suddenly it turns into a fine quacky duck. It’s happening all the time.’
I thought for a while and said, ‘But what should I call you now? You aren’t really a cat, you’re a handkerchief.’
‘Please yourself,’ he replied. ‘You can call me a cat, or a handkerchief, or even a semi-colon.’
‘Why a semi-colon?’ I asked.
‘Can’t you tell?’ said the Cat, winking and sniggering in a most irritating manner. I felt rather embarrassed, for apparently I should have known all about the semi-colon. ‘Ah!’ I said quickly. ‘Now I see your point.’
‘Of course you do,’ said the Cat, pleased. ‘S for semi-colon, p for handkerchief, c for cat—and that’s the way to spell ‘spectacles’! Simple, isn’t it?’
— Sukumar Ray, “Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La” (“A Topsy-turvy Tale”). 1922. The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray. Introd. Satyajit Ray. Trans. Sukanta Chaudhuri. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987. 47.
We meet this cat (who is really a handkerchief) in the opening passages of Sukumar Ray’s “Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La” (literally, the consonants H, J, B, R and L in the Bengali script—thus titularly alluding to the idea of naming as nonsense), arguably “the finest piece of nonsense in Bengali prose,” as Satyajit Ray termed it. In his (translated) introduction to the OUP edition, Satyajit goes on to draw the connections between Lewis Carroll’s work and his dad’s nonsense novella, thus:
[T]he tale is obviously influenced by Alice in Wonderland. There is the same falling asleep on the grass; the same dream; the same pageant of known and half-known beasts and humans; the same hits at linguistic lapses, social customs and legal procedures; and finally the return to reality.
Alice as a literary influence for “Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La” immediately brings the Cheshire cat to mind, of course. Indeed, in their love for baffling, nonsensical philosophical conversations, tendency to appear and disappear at will, and a sheer sense of grinning mischief, the cats may as well be cousins. Ray’s cat (as well as the other members of his menagerie) is an essentially local character, however. This situatedness is one that is specifically grounded in a Bengali sensibility, expressed most vividly through unrestrained linguistic play. This cat, in other words, is a function of language in its most arbitrary manifestations.
It is fitting, then, that the enigmatic, transformative power of Ray’s handkerchief-cat is its most evocative feature. This cat exists in its own plane, that of linguistic nonsense, which is crafted of a deliberate absence of logic and demonstrates a “multiplicity of meaning [coexisting] with a simultaneous absence of meaning” (Wim Tigges, An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense, 255). The cat is both there and not there (a precursor to Schrodinger’s cat, that other famous feline?). It cannot be pinned down or defined, and true to the philosophy of nonsense, it resists classification. It is baroque, this cat, born of those dark corners that have no place in the classical, logical, classificatory mind except perhaps as expressed through its negative dimensions. Rather, one notices it into being, and interacts with it without any obligation to comprehend. To understand this cat, then, one has to encounter it, and let this encounter reverberate through one’s mindscape.
A colonial cat—nestled in a text translated sixty-five years after it was written, and still languishing in virtual obscurity within the canon of international children’s literature: perhaps the time is ripe for such encounters now?
Poushali is a PhD student.