I’m a sucker for folklore and fairy tales. I feel like everyone says that. Well, I say it too. Combine that with a predisposition to whimsically splurge buying books and a University Bookstore sale, and that’s how you get your hands on a copy of this gem. Narayan was a folklorist at the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater, and I suppose she used this book in one of her classes. Someone sold it back to the bookstore I couldn’t be happier with their decision.
Narayan has collected here a sample of Kangra folktales told in the mountain dialect of northern India.
Here’s the soundbite on the back cover:
Twenty-one tales of women’s ritual power and adventure quests
At first, this deterred me from reading the book. I was a different person then and didn’t fancy myself interested in women writers. Classic, right? If you’re reading this post and have reservations about this book because it’s about tales of women’s ritual power and adventure quests, please rethink a lot of things, but especially this book. I finally found the right time in my life to read this and here is what I found.
I opened the volume expecting the formulaic foreword, introduction, translator’s note, table of contents, and twenty-one back-to-back stories with occasional footnotes. What I encountered was a study on storytelling, relationships, culture, and character in an innovative form I’ve never heard of or seen. Yes, Narayan has included a preface, introduction, and afterword, but that is where the similarities with my expectations end. The tales storyteller Urmila Devi Sood recounts are short, usually five pages or less. The book is 225 pages long, leaving about 115 pages unaccounted for based on how I imagined the book.
As it turns out, each story is individually prefaced and followed by Urmilaji (the respectful name Narayan uses for her cohort) and Narayan’s contexualization and explication of the stories, mixed in with a delightful amount of Narayan’s beautiful and exact prose. While they sit together through seasons and temperamental weather, Urmilaji weaving stories she learned from her father and her community, Narayan transcribing, recording, and offering opinions, we see the two grow very close. Their respecting, admiring relationship is in stark contrast to the cold, often neglectful relationships between women in the various stories and we see in full detail the common struggle of a woman in Kangra society, divided between two homes, taking on the numerous duties the mother-in-law once held.
The story told outside the stories is as touching and compelling as the masterfully told and translated folktales themselves. Right from the first, I was grabbed by these wonderful tales. A few of the stories stand out as exceptional, even among the high average quality of the collection: “Across the Seven Seas,” “The Twelve Years of Affliction,” “Love Like Salt,” and “The Devouring Demoness.”
As the end draws near, Narayan and Urmilaji, now intimately comfortable with one another engage in enrapturing dialog about the final stories and Narayan recounts their conversations fondly. In my opinion, this isn’t a collection of folktales. It’s a reflection on Narayan’s fieldwork and a closely personal examination of how relationships develop. It’s a piece of fieldwork unmatched by any I’ve seen. I became deeply entrenched in the frequent meetings of the two outstanding women.
By the end of the last chapter, I was nearly in tears.
Read this book.