It is said of Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay that he wrote about children in such a way that even adults understood what it was like to be a child. Making a Mango Whistle, the story of Apu and Durga’s growing-up years in the village of Nishchindipur in Bengal, is a good example of that.
The original, Aam Aanthir Benphu, was written 63 years ago when Bandopadhyay condensed Pather Panchali (filmed by Satyajit Ray) for children. His work was as colourful as that of the other great Indian writer, R.K. Narayan, who wrote in English. Swami and Apu could easily have been two sides of the same coin. Making a Mango Whistle (a whistle made out of a mango seed) has been translated into English by Rimli Bhattacharya.
Six-year-old Apu and his older sister Durga go through the usual childlike pranks—and pangs—like any other pair of siblings. The sister is the more mischievous of the two. From stealing fruits from the neighbour’s orchard to fighting with other kids to organizing a picnic where they cook their own food with no adult interference, both brother and sister enjoy themselves thoroughly till, one day, tragedy strikes without warning.
Though some of it may have been lost in translation, Durga’s attachment to her aunt, the duo’s excitement during a jatra (performance by a travelling troupe of actors), their anxious anticipation of chancing upon a train as they wander out of the village in the vain hope of spotting the railroad, and Apu’s accidental meeting with the village ‘witch’ are magic moments.
Poverty is not a dampener of exuberance. There is one instance, however, when Apu runs into reality. While accompanying his father, a priest, on his travels, he gets to eat tasty food and watches the children of the house play with expensive toys. His heart goes out to his sister back home who has to make do with nuts and seeds for toys.
Touching and humorous, the book strikes a chord with children and adults. In the introduction, Sharmila Tagore, who plays Apu’s wife in Ray’s film, calls Making a Mango Whistle a comforting, healing book. It took another genius with, according to Tagore, his “childlike sense of wonder” to transform the book into film. The Apu trilogy is often confused to be more Satyajit Ray than Bandopadhyay. For today’s generation, Making a Mango Whistle is a view into an idyllic world, drastically different from the one they know today. The book is significant also because it highlights how far India, as a country, has evolved.
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