When they see children giving a hard time to their mothers, being rude or poring over books that they are not supposed to, grandmothers will usually try to lure them away with stories. “I’ve a nice tale for you all about a demon (or an old woman and her daughter-in-law, or how the young princess outsmarted the dacoits and married a prince), come and hear it,” they say, and the marauding hordes drop whatever unmentionable activities they were involved in, to nuzzle close to the storytellers.
Most of the traditional tales that follow will run along predictable lines and are hugely biased in favour of mothers. Good sons, for example, are those who live with the mother and go out each morning and bring back money and food and gold no matter how the baddies scheme and thwart them. The bad sons, on the other hand, are slothful, listen only to their scheming wives and neglect or throw out their old mother and/or father (mostly the former) and live to regret it. Once they realize the folly of their ways, all is forgiven and everyone lives happily ever after.
Tales about good and bad daughters similarly applaud the humble and obedient among them and run down the older and boastful. Being submissive and diffident, they are also frequently bullied and occasionally banished to a forest where they undergo many tribulations while the bad ones corner parental love and goodies. At the end, however, the Good One is accepted back into the fold and the bad ones are punished.
“Jaise unkey din bahurey vaisey sabke bahurein”, (may everyone’s days take a turn for the better like theirs) used to be my grandmother’s favourite last line. The inescapable moral that all of us younger and much-bullied ugly ducklings longed to hear was that no matter what tribulations they face, the meek do matter and shall inherit the earth. So there!
Another important fixture in women’s stories is the mama (mother’s brother). He pops up routinely in tales and lullabies as a superman everywhere in India. It figures. Like Ruth in the Bible, most Indian women after marriage go through phases when they feel utterly lonely, unloved and disinherited, and long to see members of their natal family.
Since sisters, too, are mostly married away and mothers, given their lack of personal resources and household duties, are housebound, it is to men from their natal families that women look for succour and occasional rescue from the tedium in the father-in-law’s house. So from Bengal to Punjab, we find women spin tales for their children about visits to Nani’s house and the fun that they bring.
As the visiting brother in the tales, Mama is a veritable Santa who comes laden with gifts and invites the married sister and her offspring for family functions and loads her with gifts when she goes back. No wonder in the stories the moon is Chanda Mama, the old woman within the moon is Nani and friendly animals that escort lost children are also Siyar (fox) Mama or Sher (Lion) Mama. Mama’s visits are so important that afternoon story sessions are curtailed on the plea that if one is told stories in the afternoon, the Mama will lose his way to the house.
Most of us may not have realized that in telling these tales the storytellers are reinventing their cloistered lives and giving the weak and the disinherited a space of their own.
As young brides all of them have had to leave their natal family and almost overnight they have been transformed from young and carefree daughters into meek daughters-in-law treated as outsiders for quite some time. As storytellers they seek to recount and repeat the subtleties of the power play and the loss and regaining of power as they have experienced it and their mothers before them. In that sense our grandmothers are all witnesses turned historians. And this is why they flag little moral messages for the children at the end of each tale.
For boys, it is usually that they must be good providers and take good care of their mother. For girls, that being aggressive and loud gets you nowhere, being humble and affectionate bails you out eventually. Humility may seem a less attractive choice in the age of feminism but in the collective experience of women, the meek are better survivors and the non-combative ones usually live happily ever after.
Now that I am a grandmother myself, tales that I heard from countless women in the family seem so different from the grand epics about conquest, serfdom, wars and treaties that men have created and handed down to us as history. The world of these seemingly simple tales of women is rooted in the real emotions mankind has felt since it came into being. But it is also an alternative world with its own ideology. It tells children that they are important and have serious obligations towards grown-ups, in particular the self-effacing mothers. That language is not just for logical communication. It is also for indulging in horseplay, for speaking in rhymes and for hiding and unlocking delicious secrets. And, finally, that grown-ups can sometimes be remarkably obtuse and absurd and it is, therefore, all right to laugh at their follies as a big joke.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org