Adults never get it, do they? I mean, how many adults do you know who understand what it is like to be eleven and a half years old and running out of chewing gum? They can't remember what they had for breakfast and you think they can recall what it was like to be four-and-a-half feet tall and not being able to reach the top shelf of the cupboard where your grandma had hidden the box of pickles?
Well, there was one adult who always got it. And the amazing thing is that she understood the great problems of growing up even when she was really quite old ... you know like thirty-eight or something .
This was a writer named Lila Majumdar, and I absolutely and utterly adored her books. I fell in love with them when I was eleven and a half, and I still adore them. They are the most battered books in my bookcase and you can still discover ancient bits of potato chips in between the pages. As a kid I loved her books because Lila Majumdar could enter my head, sort of peer around and say, 'Hmmm ... hate Maths, do ya? Flunked in Hindi again? And your angelic kid sister has cute dimples and can sing Rabindra Sangeet and you hate her?' I was convinced she could read my mind. Lila Majumdar was a genius. There was only one problem with her books and that was they were written in Bengali and so only lucky kids (like me), who could read that language, could open their hearts and minds to her.
Luckily for all of you, she has a granddaughter named Srilata Banerjee and oh joy! She has translated her grandma's stories into English, so that my absolutely number one writer for kids can be read by all of you. Now that is what I call a good granddaughter; bless her and may she translate more. And if I could make a few suggestions ... there is a book called Tong Ling (my copy is held together with green electrical tape) and a short story collection called Bagher Chokh (in my copy page 42 is missing) could she do them next please?
When I was growing up there was a totally cool kid's magazine called Sandesh. I discovered Lila Majumdar in the pages of Sandesh and very often her stories were illustrated by this gentleman called Satyajit Ray. That's right guys, the world famous film director! Lila Majumdar was his aunt and the two of them edited the magazine. Satyajit Ray wrote and illustrated the stories about a detective called Feluda and they were great. Lila Majumdar wrote about Goopy and Panchu Mama, Podi- pishi and Thandidi, Birinchi- da and a strange thin man in a lungi and suspiciously oiled curly hair. And I have to admit, Goopy and Podi-pishi were even more interesting. These stories were full of crazy happenings and weird surprises and such great fun.
Now, I have a cousin who, when he was eleven and a half, liked to read under the bed. It was mainly for some peace and quiet and because adults can't crawl under beds, so they can't get there and force you to brush your teeth. My grandma had this high, four-poster bed and on hot summer holiday fternoons he would crawl under it with a handful of biscuits and vanish into the world of Sandesh. If he was feeling kind he would let me join him and we would lie on our stomachs on the cool mosaic floor and read. Occasionally Grandma would peer down and ask, 'Why are you laughing?' and it was because we were reading ... you know who ...
When you read 'The Burmese Box' you'll discover Panchu Mama disappearing under a four-poster bed. Now how did Lila Majumdar know that kids like the underside of beds? Because she must have done the same as a kid and she remembered. That was the magic of her stories.
Also, she always understood. She understood what it felt like to look at a tiffin-carrier full of aloo-puri, mutton cutlets and sweet sohan papri and feel your stomach do these gargling high jumps. She totally sympathized with the tragedy of getting 19/100 in Sanskrit. And she knew adults can't be trusted. They would make wild promises to make you obey and then refuse to cough up the promised gifts. She just knew. Her characters were all so real. We all have grandmothers like Didima, who know all about making the perfect prawn malai curry and what to do when you have an ear ache. And who never lose their cool when you play in the rain and leave muddy footprints on the living-room floor. Mothers are guaranteed to scream, but the grandma types just order the maid to swab them away and make you drink hot chocolate.
Then she even gets the animals right. Like when Goopy sees these red glowing eyes in the dark and meets a totally evil cow. Everyone says cows are benign creatures, but are they really? Not when you are the height of their udders, they aren't. They have these huge, square, white teeth always chewing away and a tail that flicks across your face. Lila Majumdar knew that the truly child-friendly animals are dogs and cats.
She once wrote that her favourite themes were treasure hunts, ghosts, dacoits and mysteries. So in these stories you'll get funny happenings and weird people, sinister men with handkerchiefs tied around their noses and a double dose of pearl necklaces. Also rubies the size of pigeons' eggs and a grandpa in a checked dressing gown talking in the middle of the night with a suspicious thin man with a fat wife. Things happen.
She makes you laugh sure, but her world is also full of strange, sinister and at times pretty unpleasant people. That bearded old man with a benign smile could be planning something dangerous, and can you really trust that bad- tempered woman because she cooks so well? Then there are these dangerous creatures called hulia and hoondar. I have a confession to make, I didn't really know who or what they were but I was quite sure they were after me.
I think Lila Majumdar never really grew up. Lucky you, reading her stories for the first time.
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