Life’s lessons coated in mirth
As we grow up, what we read informs and contours our outlook on life — then, and in days to come. At the same time, as cultural documents of a particular society of a particular time our readings become mirrors of our lives and, later on, our pasts; forming golden memories of young minds. As time rolls on, and changes creep into society, such readings familiarize succeeding generations with a life gone by.
Such experiences have informed the childhood and adolescence of generations of Assamese listeners and readers of Saanto-Sisto, Hristo-Pusto, Mohadusto (“The Quiet, the Robust, the Very, Very Naughty”) by eminent litterateur, filmmaker, visionary Bhabendra Nath Saikia. Originally a series of plays for the All India Radio, Guwahati, aired in the 1970s, they were published in book form in 1998.
The world Dr. Saikia presents in this work is urbane, yet one in which values and traditions are still alive. Though the stains of corruption are discernible, the children that populate this work and their families are presented as a foil to it. And yet, the characters are not ideal; the writer presents them as fallible humans. The characterization is realistic, which makes them as familiar as the people we find in our immediate vicinities — irrespective of culture, time, and space.
Saanto-Sisto, Hristo-Pusto, Mohadusto begins thus: “What are Runi, Baapu, Monu and Bhulu’s real names? It’s okay, leave it; what will you do by knowing anyway? The entire neighbourhood, even much of the town, knows them by the names they are known at home. In fact, so many of you know them by the same! … Runi is Runi only.”
Indeed! Runi is Runi only. Just as, Baapu is Baapu, Monu is Monu and Bhulu, Bhulu only.
And, the neighbourhood in which they live? Even we do not know the real name. Calling it, ‘our neighbourhood — our neighbourhood’ has almost christened it the same. That is your neighbourhood too. After all, your locality or neighbourhood too is quite like the one in which Runi and the others live. Exactly the same. And so, you’d not have any difficulty even if you didn’t know the name Runi-Baapu-Monu-Bhulu’s neighbourhood.
Similarly, the town in which Runi-Baapu-Monu-Bhulu live, is — say,--‘our town’. The town in which you live and in which they live, is the same. You too may call it, ‘Our Town’.” (Santo-Sisto, p.1)
In this way the opening chapter “Let me Tell You a Few Things First” introduces us to the four main characters of this work—two brothers, Baapu and Monu, their sister, Runi and their neighbour and friend, Bhulu; and the locale. The narrator’s voice is that of the author. Each of the stories is titled “Incident” e.g., and each of these ‘Incidents’ is a lesson in humanity, honesty, and truthfulness. At the same time, by deeming the locale ‘Our Neighbourhood’ and ‘Our Town’, the writer imparts universality to the text.
‘First Incident’ i.e. the first story, is about the virtue of honesty, and how elders at times tend to be bogged down in the same vices they teach their own children to avoid. In the midst of playing a unique game of jotting down numbers of passing cars, a car hits a man and flees. Baapu, Monu and Bhulu the three young boys at once raise a hue and cry; a crowd gathers and a couple of young men carry the injured to the hospital. Because the boys had jotted down the car’s number, the owner of that car, a powerful government official visits the children’s families later that evening —threatening Monu-Baapu’s father with dire consequences and tries to bribe Bhulu’s family. The dilemma that ensues in the children’s minds is portrayed vividly by the writer:
Monu—What shall we do now? How can we claim something to be untrue when we know that it is the truth?
Runi—Indeed! But then, speaking the truth will land father in trouble!
Baapu—We’ve already told the people the car’s number!
Runi—But you haven’t given a statement before the police. The police may even come here to enquire about the matter. And father says—if that man dies in the hospital, it will become a very big issue.
Baapu—Ish! You know, that man is so poor. They say he runs a tiny stall near the railway station.
Monu—That means, shall we lie before the police?” [Santo-Sisto, p. 15]
Later at night:
Monu (to his father)—Then why will everyone call us wrong? I can’t utter any lie, and I won’t. Nor can I tear out those pages from our copies where we have written the numbers. It is you elders who teach us not to be dishonest!”
The teary defiance of the children forces the elders to adhere to the principles they have taught their children but which in a quandary they may have shirked from. Though this is not mentioned anywhere, the indications are palpable enough.
In ‘Incident Two’, the children cook up an imaginary recipe—a wooden shavings korabba (which is a pun on morabba) containing all possible spices, herbs and oils generally found in recipe books (as it is, the children read the different recipe books and copies at hand and add whatever ingredient they feel like adding from there). They send the imaginary recipe to a popular women’s magazine in the name of their mothers. This mischief turns serious when the magazine publishes it. And the unsuspecting mothers are furious. To salvage the situation, Runi the eldest of the four writes four different letters to the editor, the children copy them out in their respective hands and give four imaginary names. Though offered in a mirthful garb, this way the writer offers a satirical take on vain extravagances in which people are often entrapped. Runi reads out one of the letters, and here, we discern the writer’s voice clear enough:
“Runi—Today, we have to endure such struggles to manage our basic necessities of life.
‘Incident Three’ is about human greed. It involves, apart from the four children and their parents, the domestic help Aapa and Runi-Baapu-Monu’s aunt. Soon after the lady visits, she raises a hue and cry over a lost purse, implicating Aapa of theft. Runi’s father beats Aapaa, who is of Monu’s age, and has been a trustworthy servant. Eventually, the children prove Aapaa’s innocence and the aunt’s greed (who had created the furore to extract some money from her brother). At the end of this ‘Incident’, Monu the youngest and his father are shown in conversation:
Monu—Father, you beat Aapa in vain. He was innocent.
Monu—if something is lost, why do you all grab hold of the servant at once?
Father remained silent
Monu—Without finding out whether he has actually taken away that thing or not, why do you beat him that way?
Silence reigned for a few moments more.
Monu—You know father, what Baapu was saying?
Monu—He said, Aapa is my age after all! If we didn’t have anything to eat, then, even I would have had been a servant at someone’s house--would have been beaten this way!
Father looked in another direction, and remained silent. “ [Santo-Sisto, p.53]
The father is eventually made to agree to apologize to the servant. Though, once again, the father’s objection to apologizing is not explicitly shown, the lines (as in the lines above), reveal the father’s discomfort and embarrassment.
In each of the incidents cited above, we see the children act with a certain degree of maturity. Despite their constant fights and squabbles, their pranks, their lives have an innocence about them, which is gradually seen to be eroding in our times. For, the world the children inhabit in this work is one devoid of television and computers, the children read, paint, invent new games to pass the time; and in all these (as substantiated by different incidents in this book) there is a warmth of feeling, a camaraderie, which is often missed in today’s age of competition. In ‘Seventh Incident’ (the last chapter in the book), Monu and Bhulu have a fight over Monu’s torn painting. When the fight snowballs into a bigger fight, and Bhulu and Monu stop talking to each other, Baapu behaves rudely to Monu (his own brother) and threatens to cease all conversation with him till he makes up with Bhulu. When this does not have any effect, Runi and Baapu, with their father’s support bring the two squabbling friends together.
Of course, this work provides many a hilarious moment, such that the reader, whether a child, adolescent or adult, hardly becomes aware of the lessons the writer has unconsciously instilled into him. For instance, when Runi’s parents return late from an emergency visit to the grandmother, they have to convince the children, left alone at home for the first time, that they aren’t ghosts; and they spend an entire evening discussing ghosts and spirits:
Father banged hard on the door.
Father—Runi, Runi! What’s the matter? Runi!
The four children held onto each other and entered the drawing room.
Monu—Runi! please don’t open the door! What if our parents have come here as ghosts? They were supposed to reach home by ten.
Bhulu—Yes, Runi Baideu, please don’t open the door. Gh-o-s-t!
Father—Baapu, why don’t you open the door?
Baapu—We won’t, you’re ghosts.
Baapu—You both are ghosts
Father—Have you all turned crazy? Open the door I say!
Monu —Please don’t open it, Baapu.
Baapu—Go away! You ghost. We have mustard seeds in our hands. Red chillies. We sprinkle on you right now. Go away!
Father—What has happened to them?
Mother—Baapu! What’s the matter? Open the door.
Baapu—We know all the tricks of the ghost. Go away!
Baapu—If you are really human, tell us your name.
Mother was on the verge of tears. After she tells her name:
Baapu—What is the name of that male ghost?
Father was beside himself with anger. He shouted.
Father—Open the Door, I say!
Watchman—Bhaiti, please open the door. These are your parents. And nobody else.
Monu—Oh! Oh! That’s the watchman’s ghost. They have killed him first and now turned him into a ghost. What shall we do now, Runi? [Santo-Sisto, p. 91-92]
In 2009, talented Assamese filmmaker Simanta Phukan made a short movie based on the first story from Santo-Sisto, Hristo-Pusto, Mohadusto ‘First Incident’. This was a hugely successful venture, such that in subsequent years, the filmmaker came up with sequels to the first one, based on the other ‘Incidents’.
Erstwhile listeners of the radio series loved to show their children, and in many an instance their grandchildren, the screen adaptation of the lives of the characters they had fallen in love with when they themselves were young. For a later generation, which had read the book first, watching the innocent children and their pranks on screen had a different thrill; for the characters they had coloured with their imagination while reading were brought to life on screen. Of course, these movies were released in the format of video films which is in itself an important part of the entertainment industry in Assam.
With a doctorate in Nuclear Physics, internationally feted filmmaker Bhabendra Nath Saikia has, in a lifetime of creativity written extensively on, and for children and young adults. Apart from Santo-Sisto, Hristo-Pusto, Mohadusto his works include—Moromor Deuta (Dear Father)—a novel that highlights the bond between a child and his father; Mohadustor Dustobudhi (Mischief)—vignettes of innocent mischief, Tumalokar Bhal Houk ( May you Prosper)—a series of advice to young children, Morom (Love). He was also the founder editor of Xofura, a popular Assamese children’s magazine. Santo-Sisto, Hristo-Pusto, Mohadusto blends all these together—coating life’s lessons in mirthful and pleasing hues.
Santo-Sisto,Hristo-Pusto ,Mohadusto, Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Nayantara Prakashan, College Hostel Road, Guwahati 1998(first edition), 2002(present edition).