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The storyteller

Mahim Pratap Singh
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Eighty six-year-old Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha spent his writing years bringing life to rural folklore

Vijaydan Detha:Retold folktales exquisitely.PHOTOS: Rupayan Sansthan, Borunda
Vijaydan Detha:Retold folktales exquisitely.PHOTOS: Rupayan Sansthan, Borunda

When Vijaydan Detha, the legendary Rajasthani short story writer was tipped to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011 that eventually went to Tomas Transtromer, a journalist asked him how he felt.

“Even a stone would be happy with such news,” Bijji, as he is affectionately known, had said in his true dry wit style.

If Rajasthan is known for its vivid colours, Bijji is acknowledged as an artiste who brought these hues to life with the deft strokes of his pen in the form of a range of exquisitely told folktales.

Known mainly for his short stories that are drawn almost exclusively from traditional folklore, Bijji has written prolifically in both Rajasthani and Hindi, although the former remains his medium of choice.

He received the Padma Shri in 2007 for his contribution to literature and education and the Sahitya Akademi award for Baatan ri Phulwaari , a 13-volume anthology of folktales.

Born on September 1st, 1926 in the Bardic community of Charans of Rajasthan, Detha moved to Jodhpur after spending a few years in his native village Borunda. 

Although immensely influenced by the writings of Karl Marx, Lenin and Engels, he wasn't a “card-holder”, unlike his dear friend, the folk anthropologist late Dr. Komal Kothari.

It was Dr. Kothari, who advised Bijji to write in his native language if he wanted to make his mark and so in 1958, Bijji returned to Borunda, starting a career that resulted in over 800 short stories, many of which were adapted for the screen and the theatre.

The most recent being Amol Palekar's Paheli (2005), which was a remake of Mani Kaul's Duvidha (1973) based on Detha's short story of the same name. Renowned theatre director Habib Tanvir adapted his Charandas Chor into a massively successful play which was also made into a film by Shyam Benegal.

Now 86, Bijji mostly stays at home, making an exception in December last year when he went to receive the Rajasthan Ratna award in Jaipur.

The women in his stories

The most fascinating aspect of Bijji's story-telling, arguably, is his portrayal of women. Despite being rustic feminine beauties situated in traditional, often conservative, social landscapes, they learn to be equally strong and assertive as their men, and with ease. They represent, at once, the invigorating incense of tradition and the charming spunk of modernity.

An example of how spirited his women could get is his short story Dohari Zindagi (Dual Life), where he starts off with an absurd situation caused by a man's obsession to keep his word to his dear friend about getting their offspring married. 

When both end up having daughters, one of them hides the gender of his child from the world and raises her as a boy. As the story develops, Detha makes his male characters take the lie to its illogical conclusion eventually causing the two girls to be married.

And from there on, he embarks on a fantastic build-up, beautifully sacrificing beliefs at the altar of romance and poetic justice. He establishes an enchanting relationship between the two girls, who, aided by a group of ghosts, shun family and society and set up a magical single-pillared palace and start to live separately as a couple.

Bijji describes in detail their intense physical and spiritual relationship, told through intricately poetic yet casual conversations.

Then, one of the girls asks the ghost-chief to turn her into a man so they could live a "normal, married life". And as she becomes a man, their perfect world suffers the inequality, arrogance and loveless-ness of a typical heterosexual, male-dominated relationship. Hurt, the woman leaves the man, who realises what he has lost and reverts to womanhood.

The narrative concludes with the two girls living together for eternity, with “no man daring to come within 24 miles of the single-pillared palace,” in the process forming a story far ahead of its times and much beyond the constraints of its space.

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