Between Change and Stillness of Time, Mamang Dai Tells the Legends of Pensam

Stories are an intrinsic part of who we are. They define us; they have been with us since times immemorial. The book, Legends of Pensam by Mamang Dai tries to recreate something similar through its story- a timeless, universal tale of human togetherness and struggle. Contrary to the title, the novel is not just a collection of folktales or legends. Rather the legends about common people and their deeds that have been passed down from one generation to the next and therefore have become folklore/legends in themselves. The stories of common people are portrayed and interwoven with folktales which make it seem as if the folktales are living and breathing through the lives of the people. 

 

The unnamed female narrator has gone back to her hometown in Arunachal Pradesh and is a participant in these stories rather than the storyteller. She also invites her friend, Mona and Jules to visit her village and to meet the people there. 

 

The Legends of Pensam is divided into four parts: Diary of the World, Songs of the Rhapsodist, Daughters of the Village, and Matter of Time

 

The first part presents an introduction to this world of forests, folklore, and its people. It sets the stage for the characters: the narrator visiting her village and staying there, her inviting Mona, Hoxo and his family. 

The second part invites the reader to be part of a dance drama that tells the tale of the white man colonizing these forests and about a violent turn of events. The dance drama is staged for a festival, but also for Mona and Jules. As a reader, you too gaze at one aspect of the culture and are one with the story. The rhapsodist also regales the reader and perhaps even Mona and Jules with other such stories – one where the wind howls and dust swirling confused the rhapsodist; one where he narrates how the Migu and Sirum clans were united by bonds of blood and kinship. 

 

The third part is my favourite as it shifts the perspective from a storyteller/rhapsodist to women and their lives; how their stories percolate generations as well. For example, Hoxo’s wife is Losi. Losi’s mother, Nenem, was rumoured to have had an affair with a British Officer, David, who was posted in her village, Pigo town. All that Losi knows about that relationship comes from stories and from a photograph she has of David and Nenem. This incident shows us family history as being a part of their collective history/understanding of place and time. The narrator also speaks in this part of her own relationship with the village, of her mother’s death, and how the village called out to her to visit and settle there once again.

 

The final part mixes a tenuous sense of timeless with the ever increasing modern sensibilities that are now inseparable to life in the towns and villages of Arunachal. One example the book uses is film-making and music and how both are used for preserving one’s culture. It captures the notions of inevitable change yet also how things remain unchanged. 

That is the hallmark of this novel: it conveys both these paradoxical elements – of relentless change and of the immutable lingering on. The novel does not lament change but marvels at it. It marvels at the persistence of human dreams and desires of joy and happiness, that co-exist under the vastness of the limitless blue sky. 

Perhaps, this is why we are always living in “Pensam” which among the Adi tribe of Arunachal means “in-between.” We are always in between a world that is fast changing and a world that is frozen in time. 

 

Book Review – Anukrti Upadhyay’s Daura

An enigmatic sarangiya player sweeps a district collector/officer off his feet with his magical tunes in a distant desert region of Rajasthan state in India. 

 

Sarangiyathe person who plays the sarangi (a rectangular string instrument).

 

No, Daura by Anukrti Upadhyay isn’t a romantic tale set in the twilight of the dusky dunes but the novel is steeped in different ideas of romance – romancing nature, the romance present in the state’s folktales and folksongs, romance of the music, and the most prevalent of all: the romance of the mysterious and the magical. 

 

Daura is Anukrti Upadhyay’s one of the first books in English. She also writes in Hindi. A District Collector or DC (a government officer who governs a division of the state called a district). He is unnamed and very enthusiastic about exploring the culture and tradition of the desert folks which is why he is often touring the district he governs (much to the dismay of his orderly, who is happy to be ensconced in his town life and engaging in urban activities rather than rural pastimes). The collector, on the other hand, shows kindness to their way of life, is happy to partake in it, and happier even to be regaled by their music and dance at the dak bangla (a bungalow) in the remote desert of the district. 

 

He is just and not a slave to his power. He does away with all forms of red tape to give back to the tribes people the land that is rightfully theirs. He is mesmerized by a sarangiya’s skill at playing his sarangi. But the sarangiya is a nomad, not one to be at the beck and call of superior government officials. Though, when he can, he does fascinate the DC with folk tales particularly one about a princess who turned into a tree to be freed from her ungracious suitors. The tree that has trapped the princess bears an eerie similarity to the one and only lush tree close to the bungalow. This tree’s origins itself are unknown, and no one can explain this green anomaly in the middle of barrenness. Except the sarangiya who not only is skilled at playing his sarangi but is also knowledgeable in the folklore of the desert. The sarangiya reveals how he had a vision of the princess through his music. The DC also got a glimpse, not once, but twice and the sarangiya attributed these visions to the DC’s strong faith. The DC then descends into a state suffused with these visions. He cuts himself off from the real world, from his work and inhabits the mythic to eventually become a myth himself. 

 

While the central character is the DC, his voice and thoughts come much later in the novel. Daura is told through the perspectives of several other characters on the margins. Their narratives are in the form of an interview. The interviews are part of the larger investigation being carried out by the state government to find out what happened to the DC. Thus, the voices of his orderly, of the tehsildar (the district is divided further into many talukas, which are further divided into tehsils and the officer responsible for a tehsil is the tehsildar), of the Nat girls (who belong to the local tribes who used to perform folk songs and dances close to the DC’s bungalow), the security guard, the camel herder come before the DC’s point of view. Their stories have a conversational tone because they are part of an investigation where the individuals are answering questions. 

 

The DC’s voice is seen through his journal entries.  After the journal entries, the novel depicts various persons conducting this investigation and presenting a plethora of reports. These include the medical officer, the Chief Secretary and the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP). It is the SSP’s report that finally concludes the novel and sheds a bureaucratic light on a very mythic occurrence in the dak bangla: the merging of the DC into the tree and his transformation into a folk God of sorts. The people thereafter call him, Dev, meaning a male God. 

 

Anukrti Upadhyay has thus merged two disparate worlds of the rural people and their world of myths and beliefs with the rational, cold and calculating world of the government. This merger is possible by the unique form of this novel: a government report, but one which still retains its fable like tone (at least in the first half) because of its interview format that is able to bring out the features and views of each character. For example, the orderly is condescending toward the tribes and their way of life. He does not appreciate their friendly attitude with his sahib. He also detests the distant desert and its vast empty space he does not know how to fill. He supports the idea of status and believes that propriety befitting a person’s position must be followed strictly. The tehsildar is obsequious, yet hard working. However, like the orderly, he also believes that things should go according to a certain process and not in haphazard or arbitrary manner that the DC employed by bypassing the bureaucracy in doing his official work.  The security guard has a completely opposite outlook. He seems averse to facts and to rigid ideas of wrong and right. His unwillingness to admit anything as true or false perturbs the logical mindset of the investigator. He speaks in riddles and in a roundabout manner. His understanding of the world is subjective and not based on hard facts. 

 

The camel herder’s interview holds more concrete information about the sarangiya and talks of his own relation with the musician. Interestingly, the novel does not have a section dedicated to the sarangiya himself. He speaks in no interviews and writes no journals from which his own views can be gleaned. He is constructed out of the others’ voices and opinions and not his own thoughts. This element is also what heightens his aura of mystery which makes him illusory and imaginary akin to the many folktales he spins and weaves with his music. 

 

The narratives of the latter part of the novel are very matter of fact in tone as they stick to the point and do not reveal anything about the person other than the facts of their position or findings. The exception is the SSP’s report that includes verbatim (as possibly close to the original as it can be) conversations that he had with different characters in the book about events that led to the DC’s disappearance. The narratives also depict how the two worlds are as separate as can be. One is old worldly, superstitious yet vivacious and passionate and the other, though run by a modern democratic government, is more impersonal and factual. Yet they meet together and clash in this tale of two worlds.   

 

The ending of the novel is also an ending of the SSP’s report. He categorically states that all protocols have been followed in dealing with this strange matter and have been accordingly dealt with in keeping with prior permission and approvals granted by the officers involved. And with that one dull thud, the magical journey comes to an end. We see the crux of the story unfolding through myriad colourful characters which is then taken over by the soulless state machinery. The form of the novel also satirises the red tape and its lack of imagination and empathy in dealing with the public and the marginalised. It brings to focus the idea that the government may be replete with status, positions, and protocols but is bereft of any humanity. 

John D. Batten illustrator

12 Folktale Collections to Read from India!

For thousands of years, folktales have been a medium for communities to narrate their stories and preserve their wisdom, their culture, values and traditions. We must have all heard of random stories and folk tales from our elders. If not heard, then definitely read tales and fables popular in India.

A.K. Ramanujan’s Folktales of India was a definitive collection of 110 folktales collected from all corners of the country and translated from different languages by an Indian. But if you are the one who wants to explore more folktales, the list below will come in handy!

The Seer presents 12 folktale collections to read from all across India. These collections will take you travelling from deep seas to the jungles of Central India and from the majestic peaks of the Himalayas to the dense forests of the North East.

 

Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar by Nalin Verma

Published this year in October, this collection of stories brings together intriguing animal and human characters that narrate the age old wisdom of the villages of Bihar. Buy the book here.

 

Seven blind men and an elephant is a parable found in Indian traditions. It is particularly used in Jainism to explain the doctrine of multi-sidedness (anekantavada) of Ultimate Reality, Absolute Truth. It is also called the theory of non-onesidedness, non-absolutism, manifoldness, many pointedness by scholars.
Romana Klee | Seven blind men and an elephant is a parable found in Indian traditions. It is particularly used in Jainism to explain the doctrine of multi-sidedness (anekantavada) of Ultimate Reality, Absolute Truth. It is also called the theory of non-onesidedness, non-absolutism, manifoldness, many pointedness by scholars.

 


Folk Tales from the Nilgiri Hills
compiled and edited by Madhavi Ravindranath

Folk Tales from the Nilgiri Hills came about as a result of All India Radio’s Ooty’s program head, Madhavi Ravindranath’s labour of love to collect folktales from the various tribes residing in the Nilgiris. They were first recorded and then broadcast as part of the radio show, ‘Malai Makkal Maanaadu’ (Gathering of the hill people). The book was published by Tamil Nadu’s Hill Area Development Programme.

 


First there was Woman and Other Stories: Folktales of the Dungri Garasiya Bhils
retold by Marija Sres

Dungri Garasiya Bhils live in northern Gujarat, southern Rajasthan and some parts of Madhya Pradesh as well. Marija Sres (originally from former Yugoslavia) came to India in 1974 and studied Gujarati in Ahmedabad, eventually completing her B.A. in Gujarati. This collection, published by Zubaan Books, presents folktales she has collected and translated over the years. The titular creation myth is a unique narrative of how the woman was created first by Kudrat (or Nature). The other stories also similarly capture the values and customs intrinsic to the Dungri Garasiya way of life. Get your copy here!

 


Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends by Kynpham Sing Nongkyrih

For centuries, Khasis have preserved their language by telling stories and passing them onto their younger generations. In this book, Nongkyrih brings alive the legends and tales that are part of the ethos of Khasi contemporary life till today. Buy the copy here.

 


Tales from the Kathasaritsagara
by Somdeva, translated from Sanskrit by Arshia Sattar

Originally written in Sanskrit, Kathasaritsagara was compiled by the Kashmiri Shaivite Brahmin, Somdev, in about 1070 C.E. Kathasaritsagara means “Ocean of a Stream of Stories.” Katha means stories, sarit means river or stream and sagara means the ocean. The frame story of King Naravahanadatta forms the outer narrative while including several stories within stories much like The Arabian Nights and Panchtantra. Yet, unlike many ancient fables, these stories do not preach moral lessons. Rather they portray lives lived through pleasure and experience.

Get your copy here or read an online version of a different translation here.

A literary tidbit: This style of using a frame narrative is often used by contemporary fabulists and writers too! For example, Salman Rushdie in his book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, not only pays tribute to the title of Kathasaritsagara but also creates a whole new magical realist world that gives insights into the creation of stories and their purpose!

 


Konkani Folktales
retold by Olivinho J.E. Gomes

Konkani is one of the languages included in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution. In 1992, with the 71st Amendment, three languages, Konkani, Manipuri and Nepali were included. Published by National Book Trust of India, Konkani Folktales is a rollicking collection of stories that depicts peculiar habits of Konkani speaking communities from their food to clothing to dances. Buy your copy here.

 


Speaking to an Elephant and Other Tales from the Kadars
by Manish Chandi

This is a must read for its interweaving of gorgeous illustrations and line drawings with the forest stories of the Kadars. Kadars are an indigenous people living in different parts of South India namely Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The stories in this collection narrate their utmost reverence to the forests they call home and emphasize their belief systems that revolve around forests and the spirits that reside therein. Grab this beautiful copy here.

 

The woman and the mongoose Panchatantra fable is engraved in many historic Hindu temples such as at the 8th-century Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal (the middle panel).
Ms_Sarah_Welch | The woman and the mongoose Panchatantra fable is engraved in many historic Hindu temples such as at the 8th-century Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal (the middle panel).

 


Where Gods Dwell
by Kusum Budhwar

From forests of the south, let us now move to the valleys of Kumaon. Kusum Budhwar brings together the folk stories that dwell in the mountains of Kumaon and Garwhal regions. Where Gods Dwell is divided into different sections based on varied themes. One unique aspect of this book is its inclusion of folk songs and romantic ballads of the region. This puts the spotlight on the role of folk music and songs in preserving our values and culture. Each story is also accompanied by detailed explanations given by the author. This helps us readers to know more about the context of each story. Buy your copy here.

 


A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold
by Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton

Beginning with an insightful introduction to the Lotha Naga way of life, this is a collection of 30 folk tales that tell myriad folk tales from those that explain certain phenomena occurring around us to those that explain the origins of their world. All in all these stories mirror a society and its beliefs. This book is published by Adivaani, a publication house that publishes indigenous literature from all different parts of the country. Know more about their books here.

Get your copy of A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold here.

Read an extract of the book here.

 

page1-695px-Puran_Bhagat_-_Qadir_Yar.pdf
Puran Bhagat is a Punjabi folktale by Qadir Yar.


Shehzadi Mircha: Folktales from the Punjab (Ruskin Bond Selection)
by Flora Annie Steel

This is an old colonial collection of folktales reminiscent of bygone North Indian cultures and customs, particularly Punjab. Beautifully illustrated by John Lockwood Kipling, the stories were collected in the 19th century by Flora Annie Steel. Read a charming extract here and then if you feel like it, buy it here.

 


Folktales of Odisha
collected by Mahendra Kumar Mishra

Published by National Book Trust of India, Folktales of Odisha comprises of 51 stories that form an integral part of the numerous communities of Odisha be it rural or coastal. All the stories impart useful lessons and morals on conducting one’s behavior and are a celebration of the state’s diversity and cultures. Get your copy here.

 

Illustration in Folk-tales of Bengal by w:Lal Behari Dey
w:Warwick Goble [Public domain] | Illustration in Folk-tales of Bengal by w:Lal Behari Dey


One Hundred and One Folktales from India
by Eunice De Souza

Curiously titled after Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights, this folktale collection is vast and varied and like A.K. Ramanujan’s work, has stories from all across the country. Minimally illustrated, this book forms a comprehensive and magical introduction to the world of folklore. Buy your copy here.

 

Find More Online:

But what if you are not in the mood to spend now, what with the expensive festive season ending or you do not want to unnecessarily add to your ever increasing TBR pile? Yet you are still interested to know more folklore?

Worry not! Because there are several resources online where you could read these short folk tales any time and entertain yourself and along the way, learn a thing or two!

Talking Myths is an online repository of folktales from different states of India. Easy to navigate and the stories are published in big, readable fonts. You can navigate the page through the different categories of folktales or through location too! What’s more is that if you have a folk tale you want to contribute, you can do so by clicking here.

Storyweaver is a wonderful open source platform for stories and is created by Pratham Books. Primarily for children, this site hosts stories in different languages. A fun, interactive way to read and create stories of all kinds!

If you cannot get your hands on his other works, Ramanujan’s , A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India, is available online here. This collection boasts of beautiful Kannada folktales which were collected as a result of Ramanujan’s tireless work over a period of about 30 years from the 1950s to the 1970s.

 

References:

The Master Story Tellers

A few days ago during the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, I was almost done for the day when the Master of Ceremony announced that the next event was going to be a performance by Padma Bhushan Teejan Bai. Only the mention of Padma Bhushan made me stay back. When Teejan Bai began with her Pandavani, I was happy that I stayed back. Although I barely understood the language, she was so fascinating and inspiring with her songs. It was one of those moments when you realize that certain arts are so powerful that they appeal to you breaking through the barriers of language. Continue reading “The Master Story Tellers”