When a beloved author we read as children in our favourite children’s magazines, newspaper supplements and books said she’d write a story to celebrate our travelling children’s bookshop’s fourth birthday, it felt like happiness had been gathered from the four corners of the earth and sent our way.
Reading Poile Sengupta’s stories as children often conjured an image of her in our heads – of a lady who knew what children liked to read and who wrote about it with the sort of humour and candour that we rarely encountered as children. How could an adult writer decipher a child’s world so empathetically, so believably, so humorously, so magically?
When we first met Poile (much later as adults), it turns out we were instinctively right. Poile Sengupta was just what a good writer for children should be like, with a round smiling face framed by great masses of curly hair, eyes that twinkle and a mouth ever ready to spread into a wide grin! Not just that she was a teller of tales like no other, crafting words with precision and poetry, to conjure a rainbow of human emotions.
Novelist, poet, playwright and short fiction writer, for both children and adults, Poile Sengupta, writes a charming children’s story in celebration of Funky Rainbow’s fourth birthday this month. Thank you, Poile, for a gift like no other – our very own four-leaf clover!
FOUR (by Poile Sengupta)
“Tomorrow is my birthday,” sang Ela to Cat. “Tomorrow I will be four years old. Imagine that! I will be four years old.”
“So what?” yawned Cat, her eyes half closed. “I have four legs today, I will have four legs tomorrow and four legs every day.”
“I too have four legs,” barked Dog, running in and knocking down Ela’s books and her crayon box. “See I have four legs.” Dog lay down on his back and put up his four legs. “See,” Dog said again.
“Oh Dog,” said Ela, putting her crayons back into her box. “You always mess up my things. I had kept four crayons here for colouring, and now there are only three. Here is the red, the yellow and the green. Where is the white one? Look for it, Dog.”
Dog barked, but did not search much for the lost crayon.
“There is a crayon under my chair,” said Grandma as she came in with her newspaper. “Look, Ela.”
Yes, there was a white crayon under Grandma’s tall chair.
“Oh!” said Ela. “Your chair has four legs too, Grandma. Just like Cat and Dog.”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Grandma, as she sat down. “And I have four eyes.”
“No, you have only two eyes, Grandma. Just like me and Cat and Dog. Only two eyes.”
“But when I wear my glasses I have four,” said Grandma as she put on her spectacles.
“Oh yes,” laughed Ela. “Now you have four eyes.”
“And how many fingers do you think you have, Ela?” asked Grandma.
“Fingers?” said Ela. “I have five fingers of course.”
“No, you have four fingers and a thumb. A thumb is a thumb, not a finger.”
“Hmm!” said Ela. “Four seems a very important number.”
“It is! It is!” somebody hooted from outside. It was Car. “See, I have four wheels. And I can go in four directions.”
“Direc-things? What are direc-things?” asked Ela.
“Directions are the ways Car can go,” answered Grandma. “If Car goes towards the sun in the morning, it is going towards the east.”
“And opposite the east is the west,” said Car.
“So, if I am looking at the sun in the morning, with my four eyes,” explained Grandma, “I am looking in the direction of the east. But in the evening, if I look at the sun, that would be in the direction of the west.”
“Oh!” said Ela slowly, thinking. “But that’s only two direc-things!”
“You are right,” said Grandma. “If I am facing the east, then the south is to my right.”
“And what about your left side?” asked Ela.
“That is the north,” said Grandma.
“East, west north south,” hooted Car from outside. “East, west, north, south.”
“Stop making such a noise,” grumbled Cat. She got up, jumped into Grandma’s lap and decided to go to sleep. Cat rolled herself into a ball and none of her four legs could be seen.
“East, west, north, south,” barked Dog. “East, west, north, south.”
“East, west, north, south,” sang Ela. “East, west, north, south.”
“What a lot of noise here!” exclaimed Ela’s father as he came into the room with Ela’s mother. “What is happening?”
“I just found out how important four is,” said Ela, hugging her father’s legs and then her mother’s. “There are so many things that are four. Just like I will be tomorrow.”
“And what presents do you think you will get tomorrow?” asked Ela’s mother, smiling. “Will there be four presents?”
“I think I will get more than four presents,” said Ela. “But they will all have four in them.”
Ela did get more than four presents on her birthday. And they did have four in them. Can you guess some of the presents she got?
ABOUT POILE SENGUPTA
Poile Sengupta began writing for children when she was in college. In 1968, she began “A Letter to You”, a humour column for the children’s magazine, Children’s World, which ran for nearly three decades. In the 1980s, she was a regular contributor to the now defunct children’s magazine Target. She has written columns for children in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, The Times of India, Bangalore, and in Midday, Mumbai. Her fiction for children includes Role Call, Role Call Again, Vikram and Vetal and Vikramaditya’s Throne. Her picture books for children include The Way to My Friend’s House, The Story of the Road, How the Path Grew and Water Flowers among others. Her stories have been included in several anthologies, among them The Puffin Treasury of Modern Indian Stories, The Puffin Book of Funny Stories, Favourite Stories for Boys and Favourite Stories for Girls, A Clear Blue Sky and Bad Moon Rising, all from Puffin, Sorry, Best Friend and One World, both from Tulika, and The Best of Target. Role Call has been translated and published in Bhasa Indonesia and Vikram and Vetal in French.
Sengupta the playwright has a book of six plays published by Routledge – Women Centre Stage, 2010. She turned to drama with Mangalam which won a special award at The Hindu-Madras Players playscripts competition in 1993 and was first published, in Body Blows, an anthology of plays by three women playwrights, by Seagull Publishers, Kolkata, 2000. Keats was a Tuber was shortlisted and received a special mention at the 1996 British Council International New Playwriting Competition. Samara’s Song was one of three plays in the final shortlist of The Hindu Metroplus Playscripts Competition, 2008. In 1999-2000, Sengupta received a Senior Fellowship for Literature of the Department of Culture, Government of India, to write plays for children. A set of seven one Act plays for children – Good Heavens! – was published by Puffin in 2006.
Sengupta’s book of poems A Woman Speaks was published by Writers Workshop in 1991. Her short story Ammulu was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth short story prize.
Sengupta’s first novel for adults Inga was published in October 2014 and has received critical acclaim.