Div­ing into a sea of sto­ries, myths and folk tales

Mint ST - - BOOKS -

pic­ture of re­li­gious and so­cial diver­sity in In­dia, now in­creas­ingly held and cel­e­brated only in the sto­ries that we know and tell each other.

I found some of my favourite sto­ries in this col­lec­tion. The plea­sure of en­coun­ter­ing them again lay in see­ing that they were just a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the ones I knew. In the Kathasar­it­sagara, there is a story about a Bud­dhist monk who rides a gi­gan­tic bull’s tail up to heaven and when he dis­cov­ers its many de­lights, he per­suades his unini­ti­ated broth­ers to come with him. The jour­ney ends badly, with all of them fall­ing to earth. Arora Nayak’s ver­sion has the same story as a Pun­jabi folk tale where the cu­ri­ous tail-grab­ber is a weaver and the fab­u­lous an­i­mal is Ai­ra­vata. Arora Nayak tells us a story about “A Princess, a Me­chan­i­cal Garuda and a Coun­ter­feit Vishnu”. The ver­sion that I know has a cour­te­san in­stead of a princess as the woman for whose love these elab­o­rate ar­range­ments are made.

With story tra­di­tions we are as likely to The Blue Lo­tus—myths And Folktales Of In­dia: By Meena Arora Nayak, Aleph Book Com­pany,

560 pages, ₹999.

meet djinns as we are to meet gand­har­vas, and so it is that we em­bark on grand ad­ven­tures in The Blue Lo­tus. With myths, we fol­low the dizzy­ing shifts of power be­tween the gods and the anti-gods, with the epics we pon­der dilem­mas about dharma and ad­mire the steely courage of men born and bred to be war­riors. An­i­mal sto­ries share wis­dom, folk tales make us laugh but also re­mind us that magic is but a heart­beat away. And there is also that de­light­ful in-be­tween story, not quite a le­gend and not quite a folk tale, that hov­ers around such his­tor­i­cal fig­ures as Ak­bar and Bir­bal, Te­nali Ram, King Vikra­ma­ditya, the Sufi sa­vant Mul­lah Nas­rud­din— these al­low us to ad­mire quick think­ing and a clever wit.

There are surely hun­dreds of col­lec­tions of sto­ries from In­dia in English and each claims a unique in­spi­ra­tion and im­pe­tus. As early as the 1820s, James Tod, an of­fi­cer of the East In­dia Com­pany, was pub­lish­ing what would be­come An­nals And An­tiq­ui­ties Of Ra­jasthan ,a grand and glo­ri­ous mish­mash of le­gend, folk tale and lo­cal oral nar­ra­tives. That col­lec­tion was driven by the de­sire to prove that Ra­jput so­cial and po­lit­i­cal sys­tems were akin to the feu­dal­ism that pre­vailed in the Bri­tish Isles. By the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury, Max Müller had gen­er­ated a wide­spread in­ter­est in San­skrit and the re­li­gions of the sub­con­ti­nent in Europe and this led to “trans­la­tions” of nu­mer­ous In­dian texts, some of which were col­lec­tions of myths while oth­ers were se­lected tales from var­i­ous sources. Whether one reads E.B. Cow­ell’s col­lec­tion of the Pali Jatakas (1895) or C.H. Tawney and N.M. Pen­zer’s con­sci­en­tious trans­la­tion of the en­tire Kathasar­it­sagara (1920s), one can­not help but be struck by the ea­ger­ness of the colo­nial en­ter­prise’s in­tel­lec­tual arm to fathom the so-called “Ori­en­tal” mind and heart.

And so, when­ever we are of­fered the re­mark­able plea­sures of yet an­other col­lec­tion of sto­ries from “In­dia”, we need to ask why and how they are put to­gether. Some­times, it’s sim­ply the com­piler who brings in­ter­est and a point of view to the col­lec­tion—carl Jung, Joseph Camp­bell, Hein­rich Zim­mer and Wendy Doniger are schol­ars who view sto­ries as pos­si­ble win­dows into the in­di­vid­ual hu­man soul or into the col­lec­tive un­con­scious of the hu­man race. The sto­ries cho­sen by Vladimir Propp, Stith Thomp­son and A.K. Ra­manu­jan, be they myths or folk tales, of­fer us ways to think about sto­ries in gen­eral and about nar­ra­tive struc­tures that ap­pear across the world. The struc­tural­ist and lin­guis­tic com­men­taries in which these sto­ries are en­cased sug­gest a tan­ta­liz­ing, if slip­pery, route into how lan­guage works and the com­plex cog­ni­tive and ex­pres­sive path­ways of the brain.

New trans­la­tions of old works are al­ways a good rea­son to make a new com­pi­la­tion of sto­ries—to re­main rel­e­vant and en­gag­ing, sto­ries must speak to us in the reg­is­ters and id­ioms of our time and place. But in the 21st cen­tury, par­tic­u­larly when we deal with myth and epic, we rely more and more on the “reteller”, rather than the trans­la­tor. Iron­i­cally, we are now closer to the modal­i­ties of the oral tra­di­tion than we have been in the last 2,000 years. Retellers read and lis­ten to mul­ti­ple ver­sions of the same story (usu­ally not in the orig­i­nal lan­guage) and rep­re­sent them, in­flected with their own ideologies, im­pulses and em­bel­lish­ments. In her In­tro­duc­tion, Arora Nayak says that when she is re­pro­duc­ing Hindu myths, she reaches back into all the re­sources at her dis­posal. So, rather than give us a story that we might eas­ily find in X or Y text or Pu­rana, she com­bines all the ver­sions that she knows to make her telling as full and as com­pelling as pos­si­ble.

Per­son­ally, I would have pre­ferred more tightly ref­er­enced sources for all the sto­ries in the book, even the ones that are not drawn from mul­ti­ple texts. The book could also have done with more crit­i­cal ma­te­rial from Arora Nayak her­self. The sec­tion “Per­se­cu­tion” con­tains sto­ries of the most as­tound­ing misog­yny from the epics (Mad­havi, Sur­panakha), the Bi­ble (Ta­mar) and var­i­ous folk gen­res, along­side the sto­ries of Ekalavya and Sham­buka. All per­se­cu­tions are not alike and the string­ing to­gether of such com­plex and sanc­tioned mech­a­nisms of dis­crim­i­na­tion on a sin­gle thread is prob­lem­atic.

Arora Nayak’s The Blue Lo­tus comes to us with both the ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of be­ing a col­lec­tion un­clut­tered by any­thing (it would seem) other than the com­piler’s per­sonal choices. Some sto­ries are ob­vi­ously favourites, oth­ers are in the vol­ume clearly to round off the rough edges which will take the col­lec­tion from be­ing one of “Hindu” sto­ries to be­ing one of “In­dian” sto­ries. As we are steadily pushed to­wards a sin­gle nar­ra­tive of state and so­ci­ety, mov­ing from “Hindu” to “In­dian” is a po­lit­i­cal choice on Arora Nayak’s part. It is an im­por­tant choice and one that needs to be no­ticed and lauded. How­ever, this book has much to en­joy apart from its pol­i­tics—ev­ery­one who reads it is sure to find at least one story here that will sur­prise and de­light.

An il­lus­tra­tion of a story from the ‘Kathasar­it­sagara’.

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