Children’s Books and my Father: A Remembrance

Culture and memory share a root, like branches of the same plant. That root is us, human beings, in our most creative and unself-conscious renditions. Once again, after the whirlwind of systemic violence and structural upheaval engineered through the COVID19 pandemic response, the time has come to honour the memory of those we love who have been lost to the novel coronavirus. My father, the late Professor Manabendra Bandyopadhyay (1938-2020), was one such deep loss. 

Although he had been suffering from loss of sight and other health issues in his last few years,  for over half a century, he contributed vastly to the field of Bengali literature and poetry, fiction/poetry in translation, and critical approaches to the early discipline of comparative literature— from the late 1950s until his retirement from teaching at the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. In his participation in the cultural and socio-political world of Bangla letters, my father often searched out unusual or unique writers— “against the grain”. While in his translations for adults, he often examined and explored different schools of writing from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, it was his love of books for kids that had a big impact on me as a  young reader and thinker. 

For my father, books for children were as eclectic and engaging as those for adults. He presented me with hundreds of books over the years, and it is especially those books of childhood I often turn to, for a break from the grinding neo-liberal world with its anxieties, bleakness, and inhumanity. 

I fondly remember a range of books from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, to Toronto poet’s Dennis Lee’s Wiggle to the Laundromat. Along with these, Andrew Salkey, George Lamming, James Kruss, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Erich Kastner, Rhoda Power, Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne,  and the inimitable Tove Jansson made paths into the rich and exciting world of books, a world that was both escape and confirmation, at different times. Through the reading of such international cast of characters, historical moments and types of books, my interest in historical periods, and how people live in different times and places, was piqued. 

In particular, I am grateful to my father for sharing his love of Indigenous and Aboriginal cultures from both Turtle Island and Australia. This awareness of the space I inhabited as a brown child of an immigrant parent to Canada, set me apart from other primary and middle school children as did my experience of racism from a very early age at the hands of my peers in the pristine provincial primary schools of Ontario of the 1970s. 

But when reading, the ability to imagine other worlds and ways of being, allowed me to understand and perhaps at a young age, confront the reality of racial inequality which I experienced. Books like Aguhana, Half-Breed, The Island of the Dolphins, A Nice Fire and Some Moon Pennies gave me a glimpse of a world that was made invisible and silent in the Canadian educational system, that of First Nations, Metis,  and Inuit peoples. Stories by Lois Lenski based on interviews with children and families, gave me an idea of how  working class and rural children, especially girls,  lived as recently as the 1930s-50s in the various United States of America, and how important they were to household economies as recently as the ‘50s and ‘60s. Stories about Harriet Tubman and Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave, were a part of my personal canon, as much as Anne Frank and Laura Ingalls Wilder were the staple authors for little girls at the school library. 

In remembrance of the important role that fiction and poetry has played in my own life,  I offer up today’s blog post as a tribute to all those amazing writers who tackled the daunting task of writing gripping and memorable fiction for children, writing that satisfies at any age, books such as Alice in Wonderland, and those of Roald Dahl.  And through acknowledging them, I acknowledge the fount of this fictional diversity, my father. 

Yellow Butterflies, Kaushalya Bannerji, August 2022

This week on the second anniversary of his passing, I have been thinking of him even more. When my partner planted a butterfly bush in his honour, butterflies immediately came to visit. White, orange-patterned, and yellow, they fluttered down to the purple, pink and red flowers. We will always think of our absent loved ones when the butterflies float and dance by us on their invisible currents.

I want to end by sharing a musical piece about the world of Macondo,  from One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A  Colombian Nobel-winning writer who was popularized in Bangla by my father, and whose work he explored for many years. Here the lyrics are by Mexican accordionist and composer Celso Pina and performed by Leiden (Cuba-Mexico) and Andrea Echeverri (Colombia) formerly of the group Los Aterciepelados (The Velvet Ones). I am sure he would have enjoyed hearing this rendition.

Macondo by Celso Pina (Mexico) (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji)

The hundred years of Macondo, sound, sound, in the air

And the years of Gabriel trumpeting, trumpeting, his announcement!

Enchained,  Macondo dreams along with José Arcadio

And although life is a whirlwind of memories

Aureliano’s sorrows, are four

The beauties of Remedios, violins

The passions of Amaranta, guitar

And the spell of Melquiades is the oboe

Úrsula, one hundred years, loneliness, Macondo

Úrsula, one hundred years, loneliness, Macondo

You are the epic of a forgotten town

Forged in a hundred years of love and history

You are epic of a forgotten town

Forged in a hundred years of love and history

I imagine and live again

In my memor,  burned by the sun

Yellow Butterflies,  Mauricio Babylonia

Yellow butterflies flying free

Yellow Butterflies,  Mauricio Babylonia

Yellow butterflies flying free

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