Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-Two Languages.

Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-Two Languages. – book reviews

K. Narayana Chandran

Once told, a tale finishes one round, and always awaits another teller, another round. “Every tale here is only one telling,” cautions A. K. Ramanujan prefacing his collection, “held down in writing for the nonce till you or someone else reads it, brings it to life, and changes it by retelling it.” A mini-theatrical ensemble, a tale carries much else besides its text – the context that invites the telling, the responses it evokes, the metamorphic potential of its scenic particulars in each region, culture or mind. Collected in print, the tales seem to lose somewhat of the life we value in the conditions of their performance. Ramanujan is aware of this. He arranges his tales, therefore, in “cycles” rather than in thematic series, much as he would “arrange a book of poems, so that they are in dialogue with each other and together create a world through point and counterpoint.”

One couldn’t have asked for more. The Introduction to Folktales from India affords us a panoramic view of the vast and exciting “field” of a folklorist – rural communities and families, wayside inns and resthouses, factory and kitchen, streets and suburbs, even public transport – in fact, any of those places where people meet or are in hurried transit, exchange greetings and begin to form themselves into small verbal communities. A folktale turns up almost anywhere, anytime. It surfaces mostly by allusion, occasionally as a gentle prod to move a cumbersome narrative through, or simply to break the ice. It confirms the solidarity of a group that shares certain knowledge and values on predictably equal terms. This is much truer, remarks Ramanujan, of the tales from the non-Sanskrit, non-literate, oral traditions in India. The advantage of breaking the time-honored barriers between the classical (Sanskrit, Pali), and the desi (folk/popular/regional) traditions is in the synoptic view of “an interacting cultural continuum” that results. The tales themselves testify to a larger cultural matrix of folk forms, narrative conventions and modes, and to an intertextuality that unbinds our literary fixities involving the “Little” or the “Great” traditions of India and our allegiance to either of them.

The tales of the revered pan-Indian systems were well served by Sanskrit and Pali, and had long been anthologized in Pancatantra, the Kathasaritsagara, the Hindu and Jain Puranas, and the Jatakas of the Buddhist tradition. Ramanujan excludes these tales in order to catch the most fleeting of Indian oral tales in their moments of drift or flight – that is, from one actual teller to another, and not from any recorded, literary texts. Further, his arrangement of these into subgeneric “cycles” such as male- and female-centered tales, familial tales, tales about fate, death, gods and demons, ghosts, etc., trickster/jester tales, animal tales, and stories upon stories, seeks to disprove, rather than prove, their commonly ascribed homogeneity within specific classes or groups. The degree of thematic significance is only appropriate to the telling of each story, each a point to the counterpoint of another in the same cycle. For example, the tales that thematize fate, parent-sibling relationships, or worldly wisdom, often present mutually incompatible ideologies and beliefs. A good many tales afford cross-cultural perspectives too. Set, for instance, beside some of those Renaissance tales involving the transmigration of souls, the following prompts reflection on the cultural bases of wit and humor, or the pedagogical imperatives therein:

Living Like a Pig


One day, a guru foresaw in a flash of vision what he would be in his next life. So he called his favorite disciple and asked him what he would do for his guru in return for all he had received. The disciple said he would do whatever his guru asked him to do.

Having received this promise, the guru said, “Then this is what I’d like you to do for me. I’ve just learned that when I die, which will be very soon, I’m going to be reborn as a pig. Do you see that sow eating garbage there in the yard? I’m going to be reborn as the fourth piglet of its next litter. You’ll recognize me by a mark on my brow. When that sow has littered, find the fourth piglet with a mark on its brow and, with one stroke of your knife, slaughter it. I’ll then be released from a pig’s life. Will you do this for me?”

The disciple was sad to hear all this, but he agreed to do as he had promised.

Soon after this conversation, the guru did die. And the sow did have a litter of four little pigs. One day, the disciple sharpened his knife and picked out the fourth little pig, which did indeed have a mark on its brow. Just as he was about to bring down his knife to slit its throat, the little pig suddenly spoke. “Stop! Don’t kill me!” it screamed.

Before the disciple could recover from the shock of hearing the little pig speak in a human voice, it said, “Don’t kill me. I want to live on as a pig. When I asked you to dispatch me, I didn’t know what a pig’s life would be like. It’s great. Just let me go.”

That the general reader and the more knowledgeable student of short fiction will find this collection wholly engaging is beyond reasonable doubt. And so would a teacher who wants to choose from Indian folktales for comparative or illustrative purposes. Of special interest to the latter will be those “Stories upon Stories” in here: “Tell it to the Walls” (Tamil), “The Barber’s Secret” (Tamil), “A Story in Search of an Audience” (Telugu), or a semi-meta-fictional chain-tale, “The Dove’s Egg” (Malayalam). Tales demand to be told, not so much for the benefit of the teller or the listener, as for their own benefit. “Untold Stories” (Gondi) tells us why.

Ruskin Bond collects 21 ghost stories, nine of them by non-Indians (mostly British) and the rest by Indian-English writers. All of the stories are set in India except A. Conan Doyle’s “Brown Hand” in which an Indian ghost stalks the foggy streets of London, and Lafcadio Hearn’s “A Ghost,” an enchantingly Poesque “dream,” a sally of reflections on being haunted: “so frequently does a certain hazy presence intrude itself upon the visual memory.” After the first couple of stories, one can no longer bear to suppress a suspicion: are we being urged to revise our basic notions of the genre, or those of the subject it treats? Indeed Bond’s collection arrays a whole range of ghostly avataras: the unlaid ghost of a Chandala – one of the lowest Indian castes whose very sight “pollutes” a Brahmin – of the Kritakrita legend (“Underdone, overdone, undone,” translated from the Sanskrit by F. W. Bain); the metamorphic ghost of a deadly cobra (“The Meerut Graveyard” by John Lang): the “ghost” of a buried toy (“Fritz” by Satyajit Ray); an unburied corpse in an Indian village (“The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes” by Rudyard Kipling); the wild uneasy Spirit of Ranken, the doctor, who always makes a “fourth” at Sammy’s table (“The Fourth Man” by Hilton Brown). For a time we may feel compelled to grant the “ghost” whatever allowance the word needs in any given context, but we are hardly sure that certain other stories in Bond are ghost stories, no matter how often we refuse to cross ourselves or how willingly we suspend our disbelief. For example, A. C. Renny’s “The Fire-Jogi” is a miracle-dealer, and is alive. C. A. Kincaid’s “Werewolf” is a man-turned-beast story. In Kipling’s “Mark of the Beast” and R. K. Narayan’s “Around the Temple,” the uncanny in the service of the irrational prompts belief in the sufferers. O. V. Vijayan’s “Little Ones” are a far cry from the ghosts we know of; they are “gentle luminescences, soft green and red, glimmering like stardust” that belong with poltergeists and the winged tortoises of a child’s fantasy. Jug Suraiya’s “A Shade Too Soon” and Ravi Shankar’s “Mixed Blood” are well within the precincts of certain ghostly experiences, but the real ghost gives us the slip in both.

Reading these volumes, one cannot help being struck by a sense of loss of one kind or another. A. K. Ramanujan is no longer with us. Did he not leave us all too soon, in the middle of an engrossing tale, as it were? And gone too, we realize, are our childhood stories, their first tellers, those places and times that made us wholly receptive to ghosts we pitied or envied by turns. Which, indeed, makes one wonder whether there is any tale that does not bring back its own “ghosts,” any that does not ring a reminiscent bell or make one long for an old teller’s familiar gesture or pose.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Studies in Short Fiction

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group