Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Of folktales and Tumblebook*****

Once upon a time, in a little village in Assam, lived a poor old childless couple who couldn't afford to make ends meet. In their old age, they were blessed with a girl child whom they decided they couldn't keep, so they left her in the jungle. Now this child, after some time, landed up with an eagle, who decided to bring her up as her own child. So the girl grew up in the eyerie, with everything a human child could need being provided by the eagle mother. When the girl was a young maiden, the mother went away for a short while after teaching her daughter a song to call her in case of an emergency. The emergency arose in the form of a merchant who happened to sit under the tree for rest, and glanced up at the eagle daughter. The girl had never seen men, though she had heard tell of them, so she called for her mother. The eagle mother thought the chappie looked prosperous and smart, so she inquired further into his prospects. Turned out he had seven wives, but was most happy to take the eighth pretty young one, so the marriage was duly solemnized.
Now the other seven wives were duly jealous of this young one, who never did any work but sat pretty all day long, so they cornered her one day and asked her to cook a meal. The eagle daughter naturally had never done any such work before so she called up her mother, and found that all she had to do was to put two pots to boil with rice and vegetables in them. The other seven wives ate and ate and threw and threw (covertly of course) but the utterly delicious food lasted on. Defeated they next asked her to clean a barn which she did by gently moving one stick of the broom all around. But the last straw was her making clothes for the husband by locking some cotton in boxes while they toiled and cleaned cotton, and spun thread, and wove clothes, and dyed, and cut and sewed. So they lured the eagle mother down and killed her, and in the absence of the husband, sold her to a river trader. Some time later, as the merchant was sitting by the river, he heard a familiar voice from a boat, singing the sad song of eagle daughter's life. Husband and wife were reunited, the wife duly hidden in a wooden box while the merchant went back home and talked to the other seven. Pretending disbelief in their version of the girl's disappearance, he made them walk across a deep ditch over a thin thread, which broke under all except the seventh who it transpired had been in the kitchen at the time of the conspiracy.

So the merchant lived happily everafter with the seventh wife and the eighth.
As a child, one of the most enduring memories I have is of the summer vacations with long empty days spent doing nothing, or exploring in the sheer June heat, oblivious to it all. In the afternoon, if one were lucky, and definitely in the night, nani spun her stories. Folktales for the most part, but also short stories by famous authors adapted for children among other things. That despite this, and the many many more stories my own mother gave me, I have no recollection of the stories I heard is a terrible loss for the next generation. So when I found this book called 'Folktales of India' by A.K.Ramanujan, published by the NBT, I was thrilled. But apart from discovering that most of these stories were unfamiliar, I found many more questions than I had anticipated. A folktale is truly a democratic mirror; for the people, of the people and by the people. At one time, their very distance from the present made them attractive, believable because so unreal. But now, look closely into its fabric, and what do you see, with grown up eyes?
  • So many of the folktales are about the poor downtrodden peasant or woodcutter or gatherer; almost an equal number about kings and castles and exotica. Would this one count as a 'middle class' tale, with the merchant as one of its protagonists? I am afraid I am going to remember it as the poor couple's story who couldn't afford to keep a child with them. What about you?
  • The little girl child whom nobody wanted, ever. Always it is the girl who is abandoned; the boys are lost or misplaced. Or so it seems to me. Are your recollections different?
  • Wonder how the eagle taught the, er, human graces about natural functions if not food to her daughter? And how did she feed a neonate? How did she teach her speech? Oh, sorry, of course the eagle conversed in human language. But how high was the tree, and how is it that it took sixteen years for the girl to see a man? And oh, how did she learn to walk on land after her arboreal life? But these are mere trifles in the face of mighty magic. Belief in magic is a prerequisite for listening to a folktale. Did you have doubts as a child?
  • But, what kind of a society was that - is that - which permits a man married seven times to be an attractive groom, even if he is not quite the maharajah?
  • And imagine the scenario in the household in real life. Seven wives toiling away, cooking, cleaning, waiting for and fighting for a morsel of attention from the husband who is bewitched by the new one? Women with no stature save that of the amount of attention (and its associated affluence) that the man decides to bestow upon them? No choices, no will, no means of attaining anything at all in life except through this man to whom they are yoked. All their life's force, and mind's energy spent in trying to eke out a living in this small universe of theirs. What choice do you have if your life stage is that small? Wiles, lies and gossip - what else serves? Not a deep knowledge of international affairs, not the application of mass psychology to a nation waiting to be swayed, nor the Kautilyan principles of war among clans and states. And so they are punished. But punished for what? What is it actually that these women paid for with their lives? The killing of a bird? The inhumanity of their behaviour towards the young woman? The plotting against her life - if it is construed that way? Yes, they were definitely wrong, but increase the scale a million fold, and is the politic sacrifice of a part of your nation - or party - in the greater good - is that viewed in the same light? Or was the punishment for removing the young plaything of their lord, of daring to be anything but the maids in that household now that this new one was home?
  • The merchant's 'magnanimity' in taking the girl back to his bosom after she had spent days with another man (what, you don't think he wanted a young nubile woman to simply gut his fish, do you?) is also quite a contrast to the maryada purushottam's prescriptions. Very interesting, don't you think, that the object of desire remained desirable with no moral high horse to ride? What is your interpretation?
Ok, now to Tumblebook.

The Tumblebook library is a Toronto based online collection of animated electronic version of popular 'paper' story books. The books are photographed (I think) in such a way as to create movement, and some animation, a voice over, and text (which is highlighted as it is read) added later. The result are very impressive, with no loss of the appeal of the original artwork but with added animation which holds interest. The Tumblebook is full page with its own controls. Each title has associated quizzes and/or games, and teacher notes for integration in the classroom activity. There are a sufficient number of titles, and new ones are being added, so you have a lot to do here :) There are also read-along books for middle and high schoolers, and an audio library for adults (see note below for usage).

The drawback to this excellent site is that it is only meant for libraries and schools - at $399 per year. No individual memberships. Rather unfortunate, but if your library or kid's school offers this as part of their online access, do take advantage of having someone else reading a story aloud :) since remote access is allowed.

The url -

P.S. The first photo above is the home page, and the second a screenshot of one of the featured stories, but the links will not likely take you to this home page but an 'access denied' page since you are not going from a library.

P.P.S. While on folktales, here is a little link to some folktales from Thailand - I can't vouch for the other links here, but do follow the ones under the heading folktales for some fun :)

Edit 21st Sep. 2008 - I realized - much later - that I had mixed up stories a bit. The parents in the folktale were actually young, but the father did not want a girl child, so the mother had decided to abandon her. Even sadder.

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