It was an April morning, a month before my 8th birthday, when my father decided to give me my birthday present in advance. “It is a book all girls are said to love. I’m sure you will too,” he said, handing me a well wrapped parcel, “This is a Bengali translation of the original book, just out in the market. I am afraid you wouldn’t be able to read the original right now but I am sure you will some day.”
I unwrapped my gift curiously. Out tumbled a thick book with a glossy cover depicting four little girls in long dresses. It was called “ Little Women”. The author was Louisa May Alcott. It had been translated into Bengali by Pratibha Devi. I turned the pages eagerly. It seemed to be one big story split into chapters. How strange! So far only short stories (mainly comprising folk and fairy tales and stories of adventure) had come my way. This was something quite new.
“It is a novel for young girls” said my father, “I am sure you will enjoy the story although the characters belong to a different country. I know that won’t matter. You have already heard stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and others.”
“I am sure I shall” I said, “I am dying to read it right now.”
“I am told it is a very good translation” said my father. The translator, Pratibha Debi, was new and it was her first translation. In fact, she was to be one of my professors in college in the years to come. But neither of us knew it then!
It was indeed a brilliant translation because after reading a page or two I quite forgot that I was reading a story set in Boston about four American girls with a lifestyle totally different from ours. The Marches came alive from the very first page and I felt I knew them as well as I did my own people and had no trouble whatsoever following their adventures, the ups and downs in their life, their problems and the way they tackled life. Perhaps I was too young to understand all the nitty gritties of the plot but the story in general attracted me as nothing else had ever done before. I rushed through the book the first time. Then savoured every page slowly in my second. Soon I was reading and re-reading it until I virtually knew the whole story by heart! When I finally read it in English four years later I felt I already knew every word! It was to become my most favourite book and the one that inspired me most of all for all time to come! In fact I keep reading it even now and enjoy it every time.
For those who have not read the book here is a brief synopsis of the story.
Little Women is the story of four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March - set in Boston, Massachusetts. It has for its backdrop the time during the American Civil War. The father of the four sisters is away, serving as a Civil War Preacher at the Front (because he is too old to fight as a soldier) while their mother works to run the household with a little help from the two elder daughters. The Marches are poor but they do not lack either happiness or excitement. They entertain themselves by producing plays and a weekly newspaper. In due course they befriend Theodore Lawrence, who is their next door neighbour and an old friend of their grandfather. He joins in all their hobbies and fun. They manage to enjoy life with pranks and jokes; picnics and gifts, making new friends. Jo gets her first story published. Then their father is wounded and their mother has to rush in order to nurse him. They have very little money and nothing worth selling. Then Jo cuts off her beautiful hair and sells it to raise a little extra money for her father. Beth falls seriously ill while their mother is away and the sisters have an anxious time. But all is well when their mother returns with their injured father and Meg gets engaged to Laurie’s tutor Mr. Brooke who had been a great support to her parents and they settle down happily.
It is a very simple story, simply told. But it touches the heart from the word go and everything about the story sounds not just plausible but absolutely real. The characters are real too and delightfully human, not plaster saints too good to be true! The kind of trials they face – Meg who hates her poverty and longs for pretty things, Jo who longs to read and travel but can’t because she has to help keep the home fire burning and has a temper that flares up quite often, Beth who longs to learn music and is too shy to meet strangers and Amy who wants to be beautiful and rich and is sometimes vindictive – are the sort that any girl belonging to any country can face some time or the other. Despite being set in America the story is universal in theme and expression. The gifts and failings of the characters in the story are human and do not belong to any country or culture in particular. It upholds simple human values without preaching. That is why the book transcends borders so wonderfully. As a writer I have always felt that this ability is something worth striving for.
I’d like to conclude by mentioning some facts about Louisa May Alcott’s life that my readers might not recall offhand.
Born on November 29, 1832, she was the second daughter of Amos. B. Alcott, a teacher by profession and a close friend of Ralph Emerson. The family moved to Boston when Louisa was very young. They were poor and Louisa and her sister Anna taught small children and did laundry for people to help their parents run the family.
Louisa always had a flair for writing. In 1852 her first poem, "Sunlight", was published in Peterson's magazine. Three years later in 1855 her first book, Flower Fables, was published. She went to Washington DC in 1862 to serve as a Civil War nurse. Her experiences there prompted her to write Hospital Sketches which was published in 1863. After that her publisher Thomas Niles, told her that he wanted her to write "a girls story". So Louisa wrote Little Women, largely based on her own experience of growing up with her three sisters. So the story happened to be largely autobiographical. Many of the incidents in the book were taken from real life. The novel, published on September 30, 1868, was an instant success and sold more than 2,000 copies immediately. In fact the entire reading public was so taken with Louisa's story that her publisher begged for a sequel. April 14, 1869 saw the release of the second volume – Good Wives - with more than 13,000 copies being sold immediately. The story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy had launched Louisa into stardom and helped to take care of the family's financial problems thereafter.
If some of you have not read this book or have forgotten the story, I’d request you to take it from your library and read it once again. Also remember, the story of the March family continues in three subsequent books – Good wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys – all of them equally delightful. Her other popular books include An Old-fashioned Girl, Under the Lilacs, Eight Cousins, and Rose in Bloom, among others. Louisa May Alcott never married and remained with what remained of her family. The last of the March books, Jo’s Boys, was published in 1886. She passed away on March 4, 1888 at the age of 56. But she left behind her a legacy of wonderful books, to be loved and cherished for generations to come.