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Diving into a sea of stories, myths and folk tales

This compendium of myths and folk tales from the subcontinent affords us pleasure as well as insights into the politics of storytelling

An illustration of a story from the ‘Kathasaritsagara’.  Photo courtesy: San Diego Museum of Art
An illustration of a story from the ‘Kathasaritsagara’. Photo courtesy: San Diego Museum of Art

Any collection of myths and folk tales from the subcontinent should turn out to be a rollicking compendium of fabulous stories. Meena Arora Nayak’s collection, The Blue Lotus, fulfils that expectation easily and with some elan. Oft-repeated stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, well-known myths from the Puranas, animal stories from the Jatakas and the Panchatantra that have brightened up our childhoods, fantastical tales that have survived the destruction of the Brihatkatha, folk stories that we know from our part of the subcontinent—these familiars rub shoulders within this volume with stories that are perhaps less widely known, such as those from the Bible and the life of the Prophet Mohammad and from Persian and Zoroastrian texts. There are even a couple of pieces (I’m not sure that I would call them stories) from the Talmud, rounding off a 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 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.

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