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West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee writes 'Epang Opang Jhopang'

In what could be an experiment in a new literary genre, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee experiments with nonsense verse

In the heart of the bustling Kolkata International Book Fair, surrounded by stalls of publishers and book sellers from around the world, rises an installation that has been drawing people in hordes. Some pose for selfies against the Bankura horses and pat chitra highlights, others walk into the artistic Bengali cottage. It is actually a stall dedicated to one of the most prolific writers at the fair and, if nothing else, you can walk out with a copy of Trinamool Congress Newspaper priced at R3, two pocket calendars with the party leader’s smiling face and at least a couple of books by her. Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is the star at
the fair grounds, breaking her previous records by releasing 10 titles this year.

A stall at the Kolkata Book Fair exclusively sells books by the state’s CM (below)

"Didi has written 63 books so far," says a polite old man seated near the entrance, who has the onerous task of enticing book lovers into walking in. "All are very good," he adds earnestly, while handing us a pamphlet that lists the titles.

(Left) A stall at the Kolkata Book Fair exclusively sells books by the state’s CM (above)

Mamata Banerjee’s artistic and literary aspirations are not news. The indefatigable ‘Didi’ has been painting the city in her favourite shade of Trinamool Congress Blue and has put her art (with the TMC flower logo and variation of her Maa-Maati-Manush slogan) everywhere from five-star lobbies to book covers.

The cover of Ajob Chhora, which carries the nonsense verses
The cover of Ajob Chhora, which carries the nonsense verses

She has been a prolific writer as well — author bios on her book jackets say she prefers to write late in the night. While most titles have been an extension of the party manifesto and explore topics such as women's and minority rights, unrest in North Bengal etc, she has also dabbled in Bengali poetry and Urdu shayari. But, this year she has broken new literary grounds with three books for children — Shishu Sathi, which means children’s companion, Ajob Chhora or peculiar rhymes and Shishu Katha.

There is also a book on baby names. A party worker manning the counter tells us that the CM is often besieged with requests from new parents to suggest names for their babies. The book — that lists names for children of all communities — is a result of her "thoughtful response to such requests". It is a bestseller at the stall, we are told. These are displayed alongside books on intolerance, Dadri lynching, minority and industrial development reports. Priced at an average of R40, they are little more than booklets in girth.

On social media and at chai breaks, the big talking point has been Banerjee’s attempts at "channelling her inner child" as a well-known author puts it. Refusing to be named (no intellectual, author or academic is willing to go on record evaluating Banerjee’s creative repertoire), this author of several bestselling Bengali titles says, the book of limericks shows how despite her role as CM, she seems to be in touch with a certain innocence, "which should not be confused with her Quixotic approach towards administration." The children’s books, he says, have no political baggage. "And that's interesting," he adds.

Sample this:
Thank You
How are you — Thank you
Greetings — Thank you
Where’s ma? Bow wow
What does it mean? I got Pheu (Bengali for fox)
Got admission? College has queue
Picked up the form? That is due
Thank You — See You
Who’s with you — Friend Piu
Stay well — Bye Bye
Hare Krishna — Hello Hi

While it is nearly impossible to translate the limericks, without losing much of its essence, we try our best with this one:
Epang Opang Jhopang
Epang Opang Jhopang
We are all dang dang
Let’s go see a bull frog
Do they have any legs?

An IIM professor, who too refused to be drawn into any official conversation about the books, observed that most of her verses are either parodies or ‘heavily inspired’ by all-time classics. "You can say the nonsense verses are highly original, and very characteristic of the author, but the slightly more structured and meaningful ones borrow heavily from well-known works of legendary poets," he says of Shishu Sathi, the book that has verses extolling Bengal’s natural beauty and celebrates the state’s cultural, political and literary icons.

Banerjee’s books are published by bonafide publishers — Roli printed her autobiography while her recent titles are with Dey’s Publishing, one of the oldest and biggest names in the business of Bengali titles. While TMC volunteers at the Book Fair are tight lipped about the number of copies sold so far, according to sources, the books on children have been a hit this time, and a few thousands of copies should be sold by Sunday. "Some of her more controversial titles have sold five lakh copies," says an independent publisher.

Senior journalist Sujoy Dhar insists Mamata’s books for children should not be subjected to any form of critical evaluation. "You cannot and should not take them seriously," he says. "Despite what a section of the media or urban elite think of her unique style of functioning, she is actually quite a cool lady, who goes about things the way she wants to. And these verses will definitely make you smile."

Tarit Sen, a businessman from Malda district who was posing against the Bankura horses, a copy of Ajob Chhora in hand, said, "I have heard so much about these books, I wanted to see what they are really like. From the looks of it, moder addyay darun jombe (will be a great hit at a drinking session)."

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