After reading few stories from ‘Thakur maa’r jhuli’, Namira Hossain tries to understand the motive behind such fairy tales
Tales and myths are found in every culture – they served as explanations for things the human mind did not understand such as why thunder and lightning exist and also to amuse and entertain. Similarly, fairy tales follow the typical structure of stories whereby the world is polarised into simplistic notions of good and evil and more often than not, it is ‘good’ that prevails. There are no nuances, no shades of grey between the blurred lines of black and white, just stories of inherently flawed characters, which have appealed to children and adults alike for many years.
It is perhaps only recently, that the fairytale has been taken into questioning – asking whether these stories and these characters should be shared with children who are still in their formative years. If video games and television shows are considered to have poor messages for children with the focus being on violence and sex, one can say that in those factors, that fairy tales are not too far behind.
It goes further than political correctness too. Whether you are talking about Hans Christian Anderson, The Brothers Grimm or even the sugarcoated modern re-tellings by Disney – the lessons contained in those stories have appalling lessons for children.
Take Cinderella for instance – it basically teaches us that unattractive people are evil (the stepsisters) and all it takes is beauty to get by and snag a rich husband. Don’t agree? Look no further for examples than Snow White – an older woman who is so obsessed with being the most beautiful that she goes through extreme lengths by trying to extricate her stepdaughter’s heart, who is forced to run away and act as an indentured servant to some ‘little people’ and then, the coup de grâce – she falls into a wakeless slumber by consuming a poisoned apple and is finally awoken by a kiss from Prince Charming who marries her right away. Because, didn’t you all know? A kiss without consent is the best form of courtship.
There maybe some, who think that my thinking is too ‘international’ and that our children should be exposed more to our own culture and have Bengali folk tales read to them. After all, all these warped messages cannot possibly be found in our own myths and stories right? Surely, they can provide our children with not only entertainment, but also the ‘right’ kind of lessons they can take on board. These thoughts led me to explore ‘Thakurmar Jhuli’ (Grandmother’s Bag of Stories), a collection of Bengali folk tales that were published in 1907 and is our very own answer to the Brother’s Grimm. Re-examining these stories also leaves a lot to be desired if we are looking for characters who will be inspirational for young children.
In Exhibit A, we have Ajakumar. On the onset, it seems innocuous enough – with an old woman calling all the children to sit down and listen to her story. But in the very first line, we are exposed to the insidious trappings of patriarchy. The story is about a king and his two wives. Can you guess what their defining characters maybe? Of course, one is beautiful and kind and the other is ill-tempered and envious – because, can there ever be different kinds of women? In the story, the younger queen (Chotorani) is so consumed by her jealousy that she gives an ultimatum to the the king that he must turn his older queen and her daughter away.
The king is also weak-willed and cannot refuse her, so in a compromise, he has her sent off to the deep, dark jungle (parallels to Red Riding Hood there) to pick flowers at the whim of the evil and horrible Chotorani. What follows is a serious of dangerous situations, where she is saved by a mysterious stranger who never shows himself. Finally, in one of their interactions, the mysterious stranger says he would only reveal himself if they get married. The mother of the distraught princess also encourages this marriage because he had previously saved her. Long story cut short, it had actually been a prince who had been cursed and turned into a snake, leading to a happily ever after ending for the young princess. But the story does not end without the wrath of the Chotorani who, then, in a morally repulsive move insists to the king that he must marry off their daughter to a snake as well.
Another story, Shat Ma-er Ek Chhele, once again shows a king with multiple wives – and their only purpose in the story is to make the king happy by bestowing a child upon the king’s lap. He becomes bewitched by an evil entity, who (wait for it) asks him to banish all his wives from his kingdom. In the end, their only son saves the kingdom from this awful entity and restores balance to the kingdom.
The last story, was Noon-er Goon. And here, we finally we have an antagonist who is not a woman, but yet another weak and vain king. He believes the only purposes of his daughters are to praise him and unhappy upon being compared to salt, he banishes his youngest daughter forcing her to marry a beggar.
The redeeming factor is that at the end, all the characters realise the error of their ways and so they all become better people who do not give in to the same old follies. What is needed, is a major shake up of these antiquated stories and exposure different kinds of tales for children where the characters can serve as better role models. It is easy to dismiss the harmful messages of these stories, but if they are to be shared by children there should be some discussion on why these values are antiquated. Of course, escapism never hurt anybody and exposure to these stories does not mean that the children will not be able to grow up to be empowered free thinking individuals, but it also does not hurt to be mindful about what we expose our children to.