Around the turn of the 19th century, a Bengali called Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar embarked on a mission to collect oral folk tales of kings and queens, monsters and fairies, from the villages of undivided Bengal. Like the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, who had undertaken a similar venture in rural Germany a century earlier, Mitra Majumdar set out to create a repository of stories that would be lost if they were not documented and preserved. It was also his way of countering the stranglehold of the British Raj over Indian society. At a time when familiar ways of life were being erased by colonisation, these Old Wives’ Tales sought to remind urban readers of their antecedents.
Mitra Majumdar’s efforts were published as Thakurmar Jhuli (1907), literally Grandmother’s Bag of Tales, an anthology of fantastical stories loved by generations of Bengali children and endorsed by none other than Rabindranath Tagore. A century later, still in print, their appeal is undiminished, at least for those who grew up on such stories before the internet changed the lives of children forever.
Writer Sutapa Basu infuses fresh energy into Mitra Majumdar’s stories in her new translation. While she sticks to the original Bengali title, tinged with a rustic cosiness, she adds a subtitle to indicate the variety of characters that populate these tales. “Princesses, Monsters and Magical Creatures” are indeed the fixtures in all the stories, along with animals and trees that talk, snakes that zealously guard diamonds, and ogres who assume human form. In the universe of these tales, the princes are almost always handsome and chivalrous, while the princesses are damsels in distress. There are wily queens and uxorious kings, who unquestioningly accept they have fathered mice and tadpoles. In the end, the good are rewarded, and evil punished.
Entertaining as these tales are, especially to those who are already familiar with them, and despite Basu’s credible job at rendering the originals, the world view presented by these stories does feel far removed from the concerns and preoccupations of contemporary children’s writing—and I say this as an avid fan. Crass sexism, social hierarchies and senseless cruelties are the stuff of Thakurmar Jhuli, riveting as the stories still might be.
Yet there is perhaps a case to be made for a counter-intuitive reading of the book, as an object lesson in how different our values are now from the days of yore.