Who is the Grandmother in Grandmother’s Bag of Tales?

by Sabrina

"Saat Bhai Champa"
Grandmother’s Bag of Tales, popularly known in Bengali (Bangla) as Thakurmar Jhuli is easily one of the best loved collections of children’s stories across the Bengal*. No one knows the exact origin of these stories; they are part of the Bengali folklore** for hundreds of years. Dakkhinaranjan Mitra Majumdar took the initiative to compile these floating, oral folktales into print in 1907. More recently, Oxford brought out a translated collection titled Tales from Thakurmar Jhuli: twelve stories from Bengal (2012) with selected stories from the original compilation. Now, on a personal note, I do not seem to remember my grandmother reading out these stories to me; rather, my mother did and did so with inputs from modern lifestyle to make the stories more relevant and thereby, perhaps rejuvenating the impact of the stories to me. Thus, for example, the story of the sly fox teaching a group of crocodile’s children from Thakurmar Jhuli recreates new meanings to a child-listener as new modern symbols of school, homework, and teachers replace the original. So, in practice, Thakurmar Jhuli still retains its ‘folklore’ quality. The grandmother as a narrator, inside and outside of these stories, is therefore a fluid existence or an idea. But, is the narrator meant to be a woman?

"Neelkamol aar Laalkamol"
No doubt women are the main narrators of the stories of Thakurmar Jhuli. In fact, one can argue that these stories reflect, in some way or the other, the thoughts, fantasies, beliefs, and feelings of the women in the rural Bengal. Women characters here take central positions in the form of a queen or a princess or a home-maker, for instance, in stories like “Kalavati Rajkanya” (Princess Kalavati), “Ghumanto Puri” (The Sleeping Palace), “Kakonmala Kanchonmala”, “Saat Bhai Champa” (Seven Brothers and Champa), “Sheet Basonto” (Winter Spring), “Patal Konya Monimala” (Monimala- the Princess of the Underworld), Shonar Kathi Rupor Kathi (The Golden Wand and the Silver Wand). At the same time, women occupy negative roles too: she is a man-eating demoness in “Neelkamol aar Laalkamol” and in “Daalim Kumar”; a spiteful wife in “Brahmon Brahmoni”. In contrast, women are seen in ordinary and culturally-eulogised roles, for instance, as a simple, good-natured village housewife, or an unmarried village girl in “Sukhu aar Dukhu”. 

"Brahman Brahmani"
Indeed, plots of several of these stories provide a medium through which the village women’s dreams of becoming queens, princesses or to be off on adventures ‘saat samudra tero nadir paar’ (across seven seas and thirteen rivers) could literally come true in the realm of fantasy. In “Kironmala”, the bold and fearless princess Kironmala goes in search of her brothers and other princes, and is on a mission where all men have failed and she fights all evil to win at the end. In “Kakonmala Kanchonmala”, the queen Kanchonmala looks after the kingdom and rules over it as her husband, the king, is taken ill by a very mysterious disease and finally she manages to find a cure for his disease. These roles challenge and disconcert the commonly-held notion of ‘submissive’ and ‘docile’ women in the traditional Bengali (or Indian) societies.    

"Daalim Kumar"
However, the ‘real’ life of the Bengali women is also present, for instance, in the images such as of hair-oil massage in “Kakonmala Kanchonmala” when a demoness troubles a ‘good-natured wife’ by secretly mixing a magical potion in the hair-oil while massaging it into the scalp and hair of another woman effecting a change in the physical form of the victim; the ‘nakshi-katha’ (decorated quilt) in “Kalavati Rajkanya”, when a demoness throws a magical nakshi-kantha at a prince to stall his journey to rescue a princess, from which innumerable soldiers emanate to capture the prince; the superstitious belief in “Brahman Brahmani” when a goddess bestows the gift of bearing a child to the wife of a Brahmin*** by instructing her to eat a certain cucumber. In a similar vein, several instances show the traditional, feudalistic society’s expectations of the woman - ‘a perfect bride ready for marriage’ such as: ‘kunch baran kanya taar megh baran chul’ (a woman as radiant in her complexion as the fruit kunch [Abrus precatorius] and having hair as dark as the rain clouds) (in “Kalavati Rajkanya”); her complexion glowing like a full moon and her beauty like a golden lotus with golden leaves (in “Ghumonto Puri”).

So, who’s the grandmother and/or the narrator? It seems to me she is a woman who represents culture-specific embedded codes and symbols, and simultaneously nurtures visions of breaking those codes.

*loosely used to cover the 250 million Bangla-speakers across the West Bengal of India and Bangladesh.

**Prominent literary and scholarly figures such as Dineschandra Sen (1866-1939), Upendrakishore RoyChowdhury (1863- 1915), Jasimuddin (1904-1976), Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), to name a few, contributed immensely to the recovery and preservation of Bengali folk literature.

*** Brahmin refers to an individual belonging to the Hindu priest, artists, teachers, technicians class (varna or pillar of the society)

Source of images:  Tales from Thakurmar Jhuli: twelve stories from Bengal, Oxford University Press, 2012.