Feminine Mythique History & Culture

Better, spill the beans

A.K. Ramanujan’s collection has a wonderful folk tale about an old woman, who is mistreated by her four sons and daughters-in-law. Unable to express herself, she keeps her grievances locked inside her — and soon, over time, these woes turn into fat. Now, her family taunts and treats her worse. She grows fatter and fatter.

One day, she leaves, and comes across an old, abandoned, roofless house. She steps inside the house, turns to the first wall and begins speaking of her grievances with her first son. The wall, unable to bear the weight of this woman’s grief, collapses. She turns to the second wall, and relates all her complaints with her second son. This wall, too, collapses. And so she does this to the third wall, and the fourth wall. The whole house comes crashing down. But the old woman is now thin, her huge weight having disappeared. She steps out, light and free.

This folk tale seems to suggest that unspoken words have the power to bring houses — or even institutions — down. Yet we are compelled to speak. Secrets, or whatever we hold back within us, can create pain.

A story and a song

There’s another folk tale that Ramanujan tells — a famous one, which is used in Girish Karnad’s ‘Nagamandala’ — about a woman who has a story and a song inside her, but who can’t sing or tell this story to anyone. The story and the song desire to free themselves and escape one day while the woman sleeps with her mouth open, transforming themselves into a pair of men’s shoes and a coat. The woman’s husband, coming home, becomes suspicious when he sees these strange shoes and coat.

The couple quarrel, the man leaves and sleeps in the temple that night. The flames from the lamps of the village gather in the temple during the night to discuss the day’s doings — and from their conversation, the man learns the truth about his wife. He returns home, and the couple are reconciled. But the ending is bittersweet — the man asks his wife about the story and song — but now that these have left her, she has forgotten them.

Here, what is unspoken becomes mischievous — that which we do not express, will escape us and can create havoc if we ignore it. But the protagonists in both these tales are women — women who, because of an unsympathetic family or husband, cannot express themselves. But as the tales suggest, the words will come out.

There’s a Buddhist tale, in the commentary of the Terigatha, an ancient collection of poetry that features verses by Buddhist nuns, that shares resonances with these folktales. Here, the protagonist is a wife, who wishes to leave her husband — she yearns to be instructed in the Buddhist teachings. Her husband refuses to let her go. But this wish of hers can’t be stifled or denied.

One day, while she is cooking, the flame bursts out of the stove, turning into a giant fire, engulfing all the food she is cooking in a flash. she realises the impermanence of all things and this teaching helps her attain the liberation she seeks. It is as if her wish has escaped her — much like the way the story and the song escaped the woman — and taken the shape of a flame to instruct her.

These stories, to me, contain powerful, necessary truths that warn us that what we seek to suppress, will eventually burst out; those who are rendered voiceless or prevented from pursuing what they wish — eventually their voices can bring houses down, their wishes can transform into giant, liberating flames.

The writer is the author of ‘The Mahabharatha - A Child’s View’, ‘Sita’s Ramayana,’ and ‘The Missing Queen’

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2021 5:07:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/on-folk-tales-women-and-the-unspoken-words/article19682990.ece

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