by Debarun Sarkar
Every Bengali child grows up with Thakurmar Jhuli. They are the canonical set of fairy tales and folk tales–the stories told and retold countless times. Growing up on the western coast of India, I had no affinity with Bengali culture or literature, but every night when my mother couldn’t improvise anymore, an old hardbound copy of Thakurmar Jhuli would eventually come out of the cupboard. Growing up away from Bengal made my mother try harder to pass on whatever stories she had to tell.
The book went through so many years of reading to various children that barely any of the pages were held with the binder. The pages slipped over, spilled out held together by measly threads. The book was difficult to read because of its sliding papers, so on some nights my grandfather and grandmother would borrow tropes from the Thakurmar Jhuli and Hindu myths to create stories. Unlike my mother, they didn’t struggle with the act of storytelling without reference. It was as if my grandparents were a dynamic database of folk-tales algorithmically churning out new combinations.
Indian myths were once folktales and fairy tales bereft of institutionalized religiousness. It isn’t surprising that my grandparents switched between folk and religious forms unhesitatingly. Regional variations in the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana are now well-known fact with deviations of minor deities and themes. Stories of some deities did not even exist in neighbouring regions. I was told constantly from childhood of how the myths represented certain historical imaginations–folk historiography accounted for the transformation of princes and princesses into Gods and Goddesses.
The most common motif that my grandfather would borrow from the stories and repeat was the separation of two princely brothers during their search for a princess kidnapped by a monster. Eventually two knives would be planted at a tree and the brothers would head separate ways. The knife would rust if the respective brother died. One brother always died, and one rescued the princess. Flying chariots were also common, fueled by the Indian mythical TV series that were being aired on national television–adaptations of Mahabharata and Ramayana.
A copy of the book still exists in my new house tucked away with old cassettes and CDs. All the stories have not stayed with me after so many years, but what fascinates me in retrospect is the zeal of storytelling that my grandparents displayed, reinventing narratives everyday in the anonymity of private lives. The closest analogy of such acts of storytelling that I can think of in the present are the fan fiction writers of today, delving into storytelling without any desire for immediate material gains.
Debarun Sarkar is currently based in Calcutta. Recent works have appeared in or are forthcoming in 1:1000, Cadaverine Magazine, Bottle Rockets, Wild Plum, Ink Sweat and Tears, among others. He is a staff writer at Newfound and an editor The Murmur House.
Image from the Thakurmar Jhuli (1907) by Dakkhinaranjan Mitra Majumder.