The independent publishing house Blaft has been responsible for some of the most inventive and good-looking titles in recent Indian publishing, most notably the delightful Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, with its lurid colour plates and line drawings supplementing Pritham K Chakravarthy’s fine English translations. In keeping with Blaft’s unconventional approach to book production, the last 50 pages of their new release Where are You Going, You Monkeys? Folktales from Tamil Nadu are delicately bound together with a scarlet ribbon. This is the “Naughty and Dirty” section of the book and there’s even a statutory warning about it on the back-jacket.
So naturally, the first thing any self-respecting reader will do is to unfasten the “virgin belt” and settle into this series of cheerfully ribald tales told by a twinkle-eyed “Thatha” (Tamil for grandfather, or old man in general). These include the story of the prince who becomes obsessed with finding a four-breasted woman to marry; a very pragmatic explanation for why men don’t have to experience labour pain; and the tale of a woman who seeks help from her father-in-law after a tiny land-crab enters her “burrow” (it’s an extendable story, we’re informed at the end – the imaginative teller can make it last for a long time. I won’t give the details here).
Once you’re done with the Red Section you’ll find there is much more to this anthology, which brings together around a third of the pieces contained in veteran storyteller Ki. Rajanarayanan’s mammoth book Nattupura Kadhai Kalanjiyam. These are short tales (rarely more than two or three pages each) about kings and queens, birds and animals, ghosts and demons, gods and goddesses, and many of them have been compiled, revised and expanded over centuries. Some, such as “A Life in His Stead” (about the faltering integrity of people who offer to exchange their own lives to help save a young boy), are about social hypocrisies while others have a mildly moralistic tinge, but there’s nothing here that can be called heavy-handed; there’s a marvelous lightness of touch throughout. In fact, some of the best pieces seem to exist for no other reason than that they were made up on the spot by storytellers for quick evening entertainment (see the delightfully nonsensical “Four Hundred Goats”, about a father who knows he’s found a well-endowed boy for his daughter when he chances to cross what he thinks is a log bridge). Other stories speak of the Gods in casually flippant terms, as in the tale where Shiva is likened to “our local politicians, who never have time for us”.
As Rajanarayanan (better known as Ki. Ra.) tells us in his introduction, some of these tales “reveal the tension caused by highly moralised sexuality”. It could also be said that they use subversive plots and shocking language as tools of rebellion – to bring unmentionable things out into the open and to shake up the established order. At a time when it’s becoming fashionable to define “Indian culture” as a fixed entity and in the most conservative terms, and to squeeze tradition into an airtight box, these stories are important reading. They are a reminder not just of the difference in the tones of cultural narratives between north and south India but also that folk-tales and oral renderings of all regions – passed down over the centuries by “common folk” – are amorphous, dynamic and not especially respectful of mainstream morality.
P.S. From the Blaft website, here's a short video of Ki. Ra performing a story that couldn't have been included in this book: "The Mute Man Giving Witness".