The moment I read ‘Arun, Barun, Kironmala’, ‘Sukhu and Dukhu’ and ‘Saat Bhai Champa’ I had regressed to being a wide eyed seven year old listening breathlessly to my maternal grandmother, my Didima, weaving her magic around a Bengali rupkatha. She knew every story of Dakshinaranjan’s Thakurmar Jhuli (grandmother’s bag of stories) and narrated them with superlative drama. So I am one of those fortunate people who grew up with a storytelling grandma though, technically speaking, she was not my thakurma. Bossy, paan chewing thakurma, my paternal grandmother, was much too pragmatic to fill my head with fantasy, she taught me feminism instead. Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar (1877-1957) was among the most popular and prolific writers for children in early twentieth century. His collection Thakurmar Jhuli has been in print since it was first published in 1907. He specialized in folk tales and what made this book so readable was his voice. At a time when Bangla was still written with a heavy dose of Sanskritized words, he wrote in an easy going, colloquial Bengali and packed the stories with catchy rhymes. I can still recite the ‘saat bhai champa‘ rhyme and the one the fox sang as he was hurt by a thorn of the brinjal plant, which is a sort of ‘oof! ouch!’ poem.
In an excellent introduction Bharati Ray writes that these stories were called rupkatha or imaginative tales that is derived from aparup katha or wonderful tales. ‘It is translated into English as “fairy tales” though that does not signify its true description. There are no fairies, at least not many (not even one in the book under consideration)… primarily, however rupkathas belong to the genre of folk tales.’
So what Dakshinaranjan did was to gather together Bengali oral traditions of storytelling that was carried down through generations by common people, often grandmas. These are tales that evolved with every telling and are a sort of communal and anonymous creations. Most interestingly they reflect the popular imagination about people and places, especially evil characters. There are no fairies but what you have instead is a gory team of malevolent, multi-fanged, drooling rakshasas and rakshasis —our very own family of demons.
When I was listening to Didima all I was waiting for was the triumph of good over evil but reading the tales with a greyer head what I immediately noticed was that a majority of the evil characters are rakshasis—virulently female. They are always full of malice towards the angelic prince, princess or the good king and positively vicious to the queen. Clearly, in Bengali tradition, evil is more often female and I wonder why there were so many Surpanakhas in these stories but no Ravana.
Now let us dip into grandma’s pitara. These are all happenings in a nowhere land, ‘to the east of north and the north of east’ where there are diamond mountains and trees of gold, fabulous palaces, benign moon mothers, flying horses and talking animals. There are also a surprisingly large number of dim, clueless kings, like the one in the story about the three siblings Arun, Barun and Kironmala, who is witless enough to believe that his queen gave birth to kittens and puppies.
What will delight children is that unlike say, the Panchatantra or the Jataka tales, there is no overt moralizing here. The messages are woven in much more subtly. In ‘Sukhu Dukhu’ for example, it is the girl who is hard working, obedient and modest who triumphs over her feisty, spoilt brat sister. When given the chance to choose, she takes the simplest clothes, the plainest food and the smallest box of gifts. She is exactly the kind of good girl every grandma approves of—docile, obedient and suffering from low self esteem.
Dakshinaranjan compiled these stories in 1907 and so they must have been in circulation for at least a century before that. Reading them you discover a pattern and get an interesting view of the kind of stories that appealed to people. Rakshasis often entered homes disguised as human beings to wreak havoc. Men often had multiple wives and at least one of them would be a rakshasi. This reflected the battles for supremacy in the women’s quarters that all joint families faced.
The rakshasis often hanker to eat the handsome young men like the delectable Dalim Kumar, the pomegra-nate prince. In the eyes of all good wives and mothers, they are like those seductive young women in low slung saris and kohled eyes who flutter their eyelashes at the innocent young men in the puja pandal!
Dakshinaranjan chose stories about kings, brahmans, demons and children much more than folk tales about animals and birds. There is only one here about the clever fox who was too clever for his own good and lost his nose because of it. Some of the finest animal folk tales were collected by Satyajit Ray’s grandfather Upendra Kishore Roychaudhuri in his timeless ‘Tuntunir Boi’ which has my favourite weaver bird, Tuntuni, who is not just clever and enterprising but also has a sense of humour.
Translator Sukhendu Roy had quite a challenge with these stories. He excels at capturing the essence of the rhymes and that is not easy to do. However I wish he had chosen a more easy-going, story teller’s voice for the narrative. These stories can’t be read out aloud because they are told in a formal, strictly grammatical English when we needed lively dialogues, colourful descriptions and crazy sound effects. Dakshinarajan succeeded in making the stories truly in a grandma’s voice but in English they read more like a class lesson in school.
The illustrations by Dean Gasper and Sourav Chatterjee are delicately and sensitively drawn and have that old world feel that goes just perfectly with the stories. I loved the one of Buddhu the monkey prince with his drum, leading a procession of men. I just wish they were in colour. Imagine what Kironmala would look like in a bright pink sari!
An oral tradition thrives in a society where a majority of the people are illiterate. In the Preface to the original edition we have Rabindranath Tagore lamenting at the dying tradition of grandma’s telling stories and in today’s nuclear families there are even fewer of them. What we do have are young parents desperately looking for picture books they can read to that wide awake little face on the pillow. After all one of the purposes of fairy tales is to make a child fall asleep. Also parents are all keen to read aloud genuinely Indian tales. So if these stories could be turned into picture books with luscious colour illustrations and a true read-aloud storytelling voice, Indian parents everywhere will thank you.
What I love about books like these is that our solemn educationists would find much to object to. To the delight of children there is no moralizing and the world is divided into a stark black and white with no confusing greys. There are wonderfully ghastly things happening like a mountain of laughing skulls, a snake coming out of a sleeping princess’s nose and lots of wicked sisters. They are fantastical, illogical, bizarre and best of all gloriously, politically incorrect.
Grandmas knew what kids like listening to. Here’s a description of the kingdom of Yama, the god of death, ‘Then they faced a hill of bones. Below this hill surged a torrential river of blood. Somewhere a skull baring its teeth laughed out loudly, trying to scare the Prince.’ That is when you shut your eyes tight and fell asleep.
Subhadra Sen Gupta has written over twenty-five books for children including mysteries, historical adventures, ghost stories and comic books.