Stranger than fiction: Thought-provoking folktales

Stranger than fiction: Thought-provoking folktales

“If a person masters a hundred folktales,” Ki Ra writes in his Introduction, “his knowledge about the world in general increases.” Certainly, in an age when the few schools that existed only taught a few castes, and that by rote, folktales passed on worldly learning. They are not obsolete now, either, when our government schools still teach by the ‘by-heart’ system.

This delightful collection fully lives up to — enhances — Blaft’s young but confident standing. Ki Ra spent nearly 75 years amassing tales from southern Tamil Nadu, and published them all together at last in one 944-page volume in 2007. The Blaft volume retails the best of them. Ki Ra (now 87) has written much fiction on his own account. His award-winning stories avoid western influences and belong to the Tamil earth. So do these tales.

There are some similarities in subject matter and plot to Panchatantra, of course. (Ki Ra says he was inspired to commit these treasures to paper when he read ‘Decameron’.) But the folktales of south India are not so, shall we say, Sanskritic as those of the north. The old caste system of Tamizhakam differed from the varna system, particularly in lacking the concept of pollution. They also tend to be rawer, more exalting sexuality and the power of the female.

The 110 tales here are divided by category: Birds & Beasts; Gods and Goddesses; Rajas & Ranis; Peys & Pisaasus; Husbands & Wives; Friends & Family; and finally a section of 21 tales titled ‘Naughty & Dirty’. This section has been tied with a red ribbon incorporated in the binding, with a warning printed on it, I suppose as the girlie mags are sold in plastic covers. It’s a nice teaser. These are among the best in the book, because they do not observe convention, and one of the purposes of the folktale is to question accepted wisdom, including morality.

That these tales do with a vengeance. The ascetic’s continence, the God’s divinity, the raja’s justice, even his rights, the woman’s fecundity, the teacher’s learning — all are weighed and often found wanting. The nature of the beast, human, animal or divine, that is the protagonist in all the stories. Not always do they end predictably. The denouement is often comic, sometimes tragic, but ever thought-provoking.

Some of Ki Ra’s tales, in the last section in particular, have a Thatha or ‘grandfather’ telling the stories and responding to questions from the adolescent boys who are his auditors. This is a useful device, and especially when it comes to sex and marriage it is often the elders from outside the family who resolve perplexing issues in rural settings. Thatha tells all the stories, I guess. Listen to some of his wonderful descriptions:

The Raja of Kandiya had a daughter who was very beautiful — so beautiful that even a girl would instantly fall in love with her (‘Idiot’s Canal and Kandiya Canal’). She was beautiful beyond all comparison! Her nose and eyes were the work of a master sculptor, her waist and thighs made of refined sugar (‘The Competition’).

And this, which conveys the ideal of Tamil beauty of old, still to be found nowhere else:
She was a very good looking woman, with a strong, fit body and skin blackened by the sun, who could do the work of five men (‘Alamelu and the Pey’).

Ki Ra’s Introduction is irreverent and informative. Pritham Chakravarthy’s translation is informed and usually elegant. It is also highly colloquial, as befits the subject. But there are some locutions which jar: “A ways down the path”, “snuck behind the house”, “he left to the forest”. And she uses “gallows” as a synonym for “jail”. A trifle better editing…
One question which occurred when I read the ‘Naughty & Dirty’ tales: Why does a woman committing adultery always have to cook a hot meal for the lover she has smuggled in? Do her charms alone not suffice? I suppose all appetites have to be satisfied.