Saturday, April 22, 2023

Book Review: Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? By Ki Rajanarayanan

Folk tales are codes of human history transferred to us from the past. Tales that are invented, told, and retold numerous times by numerous generations come with valuable information embedded within them. Folk tales attain a life of their own by collecting sediments from different parts of the world and from different generations of people. Decoding them and extracting these sediments is an almost impossible, though immensely rewarding, task.

I am more interested in just enjoying them, and wondering who else have relished these tales in the long past. I love to imagine that when I hear or read a folk tale, I become one with all its previous listeners, essentially nullifying the space and time separating us. So, when Blaft Publications offered a collection of Tamil folk tales translated in English, in return of an honest review, I was more than delighted. 

I really believe that a folk tale is more alive when someone narrates it. The expressions of the story teller, her tone, pitch and pauses, the reactions of listeners, their laughs, gasps and exclamations, everything makes it more and more alive. When a folk tale is written on paper and recorded, it suddenly become imprisoned, and stop being an organic entity that metamorphoses everytime it is delivered depending on the person who tells it and the period and place in which it is told. 

But the bad news is that, the oral transmission of folk tales is a dying art, as more visually appealing media are replacing old story tellers. Comics, series and movies have created new age folk tales with new age sensibilities that the present generation can identify. World over, ancient folk tales are slowly getting forgotten and along with them, a reservoir of ancient knowledge are breathing the last breaths. So it is the necessity of the times to record and prevent the mass extinction. 

I have read several collections of folk tales, written with the noble intention of preservation. But as written in most of their foreword sections, they have been edited out to satisfy the modern reader's sensibilities. Many stories are edited with the intention of ironing out the parts that are politically incorrect for containing racism, body shaming or sexism. But I believe that this exercise hampers the intention of preservation and stops representing the times when they were told and retold. 

Where Are You Going You Monkeys, the collection of Tamil folk tales by Ki Rajanarayanan, thankfully is one that tries really hard to reduce the distance between oral and written formats of story telling. There is no interference from the collector's or translator's side, except certain footnotes that illuminate certain aspects of the stories that may be alien for today's readers. Author doesn't shy away from stories that portray the primeval value system of the narrators and that makes reading this collection a raw experience. The innocent sensibility of villagers- their prejudices, superstitions, social and economic behavioural patterns and above all their sharp humor, oozes out of the stories. 

Ki Rajanarayanan known also as Ki. Ra is a Tamil folklorist and Sahitya Academy Award recipient. He spent decades collecting folk tales and as per his introduction of the book, he took care to collect them directly from old persons who told these stories after hearing it orally from their ancestors. The folk tales that he collected were published in a Tamil book of around 900 pages. This English translation is an excerpt of that master volume written in Tamil. Translations are bound to miss many crucial linguistic and cultural elements. While translating a book of orally transmitted stories, told in colloquial language, it is difficult to do cent percent justice. But to the credit of the translator Pritham K Chakravarthy, it doesn't feel like the book has lost anything significant in translation. 

The stories are divided into seven sections based on their themes. There are sections dedicated to stories on animals, Gods, Kings, ghosts, married couples, friends and family. In the end there is a section for dirty stories, which is rare in a folk tale collection. Old classic collections like Chaucer'sThe Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio's The Decameron, The Arabian Nights and Madanakamarajan Tales contains tales with sex as the background. Probably because until very recently, folk tales were told for a general audience. But the tales of magic, prince and princess are now totally relegated to kids. That is how there emerged totally sanitised kids friendly versions of fairy tales by Disney and other productions. Collectors usually censor dirty stories or plainly ignore them. The result is the fall of a wealth of such stories into oblivion. 

The stories are narrated in a way that instruct the reader how to retell it to an audience. It is obvious that the writer had a passionate intention to keep the tradition of telling stories alive. Most striking in these stories is their irreverent attitude to the hierarchial structure of the society. We read stories that lampoon kings, queens, priests and even deities. Many stories deal with serious issues like adultery, poverty, greed and treachery. The value systems that are portrayed in many stories are very plastic and doesn't mirror the moralistic beliefs of larger society. This portrayal of staunch defiance that are conveyed by these stories commonly told by lowest denomination of society makes these folk tales engrossing to read. 

Today we have standup comedians who are excellent and entertaining story tellers. But the collective generational wisdom that equips a teller of folk tales is missing in them. Many of the stories may contain elements that are totally alien to a modern individual. But if we go a little deep, we can unfurl a treasure chest of practical understanding that is still relevant to live an enriched life.