Vol. 5 Num 716 Sat. June 03, 2006  

Letter from Stockholm
Astrid Lindgren and the Inner Child

Was it really twenty years ago? It seems so remote now. We were growing up in the heart of a Dhaka that was yet to be gorged by the huge apartments. Our community lived like an extended family. We could have easily invaded the lanes in front of our houses, erected cricket stamps or badminton nets for our games, and stopped the rickshaws from entering our 'boundary.' Our 'uncles' would walk the rest of the way 'without complaints.' It seems so unreal now, so pristine.

My younger sister, who was probably four or five at that time, was very temperamental. Often she would 'leave' the house. She would have had her bags packed and hit the road. Probably, my mother had told her off for spending too much time in the bath or playing with dirt. And lo, she was on her way! Our match would stop for a while, and a parade would take place with my sulky sister at its head, all the way up to the end of the lane leading to the main road. She would ultimately get a piggyback ride home from one of us, and even a candy to smoothen her rough feathers. It seems so distant now.

Somehow I am transported back to the memory lane. And the books responsible for my mental-trek, oddly enough, belong to Sweden's most loved children's author, Astrid Lindgren. She was growing up at the beginning of the twentieth century in a small farming town called Vimmerby, which now houses a theme park, Astrid Lindgren's World. She died in 2002 at the age of 95, leaving a streak of eighty books that celebrate the indomitable joy and unrestrained freedom of childhood. The strength, the kindness, and the unpredictability of Astrid's characters are essentially Swedish. In a rather channelled way the twin pistons of strong head and tender heart drive the welfare system of Sweden. Astrid's popularity in this context is all too predictable. Then again these local characteristics are unmistakably global. Astrid once said, "Inside, I will always be a country girl from Vimmerby. I write for my inner child." It is this inner child of Astrid that struck me at a more rudimentary level. Amid bricks and mortars, she reminded me of what it takes to be a childa human being at its nascent state, a 'noble savage' in Rosseau's term. Elsewhere Astrid said, "The best thing about my childhood was that we enjoyed just the right amount of safety and freedom." It is precisely this attitude that was part my generations' growing up, which unfortunately is absent in the whiz kids of today's cyber generation.

When we got here in Stockholm, an expatriate Bangladeshi, Liakat Hossain, presented us with a handful of books that he had translated. Issues more urgent kept me from reading them. It was soon to be changed, though. I overheard my wife reading stories of Bullerby, Lotta and Emile while putting our daughter Shamael to bed. The nine-year-old immediately identified herself with the characters, which I learnt, were from Astrid Lindgren. My daughter doesn't have the upbringing of her parents. She is more like a spring chicken from a poultry farm, spending half of her life abroad with her diplomat mother. Somehow even she realised that there was a bit of Lotta and Emile in her. She is sulky, imaginative, and always hungry for attention. If she does not get the treatment that she thinks she deserves, she will jump to the conclusion that the whole world is against her; yet a trickle of sweet-talk will wash away the sandcastle of her sulk.

I started reading the books I had in hand in Bengali translation: Bullerby Boken, Lotta på Bråkmakargatan, and Emil In Lönneberga. I ended up reading about Astrid Lindgren, and came to know what a remarkable person she was. To give you a taste of her sense of wry wit, here is an anecdote. At the age of ninety, Astrid was designated "Swede of the Year." Her modest response was: "We've chosen an old person who is deaf and dumb and half blind. ... People around the world will think all Swedes are like this!"

Astrid's career as a writer began rather 'accidentally.' A 38-eight-year old office secretary and mother of two, Astrid tripped on ice while visiting Stockholm in 1945. To make her stay in the hospital bearable she decided to write down all the stories she used to tell her children. She wrote about Pippi Longstockings, the strongest and richest girl of the world. Pippi can pick up a horse in one hand, yet she will not use her strength to fight. She can carry gold coins in her pocket to buy her own stuff, yet she will not be nasty to anyone. Pippi was an instant hit. It was a time when Europe was trying to put the nightmares of the World Wars behind her. Breathing into the air of fresh possibilities, Pippi could claim: "We live in a free country, don't we? Aren't you allowed to walk wherever you like?" Astrid gave voice to the inner urge of living in a free world with the excitement of confronting life with the curiosity of a child.

Pippi is the most famous of all Astrid's characters. The moment you land in Sweden, and you enter the airport souvenir shops, you shall see the Pippi dolls with her characteristic freckled nose and pigtailed blonde hair. Lotta, Emile, and the children of Bullerby are equally famous. Astrid's books have been translated in more than eighty different languages. There have been numerous films based on these stories too.

Emile, for instance, is a five-year-old boy who gave a new meaning to the word 'naughty.' He would hook up his younger sister on a flag-pole and let her fly like a Danish flag, he would eat up the food reserved for the guests, he would start chewing green leaves as a protest against his vegetable diet, he would get his head stuck in a soup bowl, he would swallow a coin and ask his dad for a loan to buy breads to help the coin come out in order to help him pay back the loan. Well, you get the picture!

Lotta is a stubborn girl who walked away from her house as she dreamt that her brothers had beaten her pig-doll that she imagined to be a bear. She would start living on her own in her aunt's house, even though she was just five. She would stand angrily on the stairs and tell her mother, "I can drink the chocolate milk now if it is absolutely essential." The Bullerby children reflect Astrid's own childhood. It allows a wonderful access to the imaginative mindscape of a child as well as a rich depiction of Swedish communal life.

Indeed, by offering Astrid Lindgren in Bengali translation, Liakat Hossain has done the readers in Bangladesh a great favour. These books feature Swedish illustrations, a bonus for the readers as they help contextualising the stories. I have one small reservation about the translation, though. In his effort to be honest to the original Swedish, some of the syntax and expressions of the books may sound odd to Bengali ears. For example, Lotta goes to live in "khaala Berry-r" (Aunt Berry's) house after leaving her place. In Bangla, the natural expression would be Berry-Khaala-r bashaai. The translator told me that he had to work under specific instructions by the Astrid Lindgren's agency to be literal in his translation. I appreciate Liakat's position, and having read his other prose works I know of his ability to write in fluent and flowery style. In a way Liakat's deviation from the ordinary syntax and native expressions actually serve the reader; it constantly reminds her that she is dealing with a local story with a global appeal.

Shamsad Mortuza teaches English at Jahanagirnagar University. The books are published and marketed through Pathshaala, Shahbag.