Mythology for the Millennial: From Gujarat's folktales, a strange fable topped with backwards feminism

  • As someone who likes to look up old folktales, I can tell you all stories are the same, whether they're from Greece or Britain or France or India.

  • I'm recounting here a strange story — a pastiche of all sorts of different moral lessons, and at the same time, tinged with a sort of backwards feminism that is quite inspiring, despite the weirdness of the rest of it.

I'm taking a brief hiatus from the traditional mythology of the Vedas and the Puranas and exploring folk tales instead. Folktales are usually about the common person, someone like you and me, going through something and learning a lesson as a result, no godly interference usually. But, they're tied up with myths because both were originally passed down orally, both have a larger narrative at the core, though the scope might change. I'm using AK Ramanujan's Folktales from India, which is a great resource, even if all you want is some really good stories.

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There are only nine original plots in the world, someone said. As a writer, I'm pretty sure of the accuracy of this statement. As a reader, I'm convinced. And as someone who likes to look up old folk tales — well, the stories are the same, whether they're from Greece or Britain or France or right here in our country.

What if I were to tell you that I found one such story? King Lear gives way to Beauty and the Beast, moves swiftly on to the myth of Cupid and Psyche — all contained in one ancient folk tale? You'd want to hear more, right? Well, strap in, because this is a strange story, a pastiche of all sorts of different moral lessons, and at the same time, tinged with a sort of backwards feminism that is quite inspiring, despite the weirdness of the rest of it.

Our tale begins in Gujarat, where a sultan was hanging out with his seven daughters, as sultans tend to do. He also loves his youngest daughter the most — stellar parenting example — and seems to not notice that this makes her sisters full of jealousy and hatred; but why should he notice? He's above it all. Anyhow, one day, as a fun and awkward family game he asks all seven of children whether their general good fortune comes from his kismet or lucky stars, or theirs. Six girls go, “Yours obviously, pops” because they knew how to flatter and please their father and the seventh, our nameless heroine, said, “Er, I don't think your stars could affect me, so maybe my luck is mine after all.”

The sultan is furious and banishes her, even though one assumes her forthrightness is what made her a favourite, but let's not quibble. Soon after, he's going on a trip and has a large ship set up and everything, kisses his six other daughters goodbye, promises to bring them back lavish presents, but on the final day, the ship just won't move. The astrologers tell him it's because he hasn't asked his youngest daughter what she wants as a gift — hard lines on the tough parenting approach — so the sultan has to send off some guys to go find her and ask her. By this time, our heroine is a godly woman, saying her prayers a lot and everything, and when the soldiers come to demand a demand from her, she tells them, “Wait.”

 Mythology for the Millennial: From Gujarats folktales, a strange fable topped with backwards feminism

AK Ramanujan's Folktales from India is a great resource, even if all you want is some really good stories. (Penguin Randomhouse)

But fools that they are, they run back to the sultan and say, “She's asked for something called wait”, and the sultan is super annoyed, because wtf is a wait, bro and no one seems to have any common sense in this story, so we'll move swiftly along to the end of his journey. An old woman says she has a “wait stone” in her backyard and the sultan is welcome to it, so they take the stone and give it to the youngest princess, and she uses it to scrub her clothes. After some time of this, the stone breaks open and she sees a fan inside it, which she waves, and a handsome prince emerges.

“I'm Prince Wait,” he says, because of course that's his name, and I feel like this name should be a clue about how long you'll be hanging out fully dressed in the living room while your husband takes ten thousand years just to get out of the shower, but the princess — unlike me — is super delighted. As I suppose is natural, seeing as she's been living alone and godly-ly all these years.

Prince Wait explains that a forward swoosh of the fan will bring him to her and a backward swoosh sends him back to his parents' house and then he hangs out with her for the next six months, never leaving her side. (But would he be summoned to her no matter what he was doing? What if he was in the loo? That would be awkward — emerging through this timey wimey portal with your pants around your legs.)

The six older sisters hear about this and are super jealous, because they too would like husbands they can command and dismiss with a flick of a fan. Prince Wait is suspicious of these sisters, and tells his partner (they're not married yet) to not entertain them and also to please send him back to his parents, because he misses them.

Obviously while he's gone, the other princesses sabotage the relationship by putting glass and poison among the sheets, and when he lies down, the prince is injured and flies back home. The princess disguises herself as a vaid, or travelling doctor, and smears some magic bird poo on him after listening to two birds talk about how that's the only thing that'll save the prince. She asks for his ring as payment and goes home and waves the fan about again. Prince Wait is still pissed and is all, “Why don't you just hang out with your sisters if you love them so much?” and she's like “No, wait, I'm the person who saved you” and he's impressed and they get married and the whole point of this story is to circle back to the beginning because her dad is invited to the wedding, and the youngest princess is all, “See? I told you it was my own good luck”, and he is forced to agree.

I guess the moral of the story, because these stories must always have morals, is never underestimate how long it'll take someone to say 'I told you so'. Also, try and avoid having six older sisters who all kind of hate you.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

Updated Date: Jul 17, 2019 09:58:48 IST