Mythology for the Millennial: The magical power of an old woman's story, and a baby girl who heard 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. All right, now I've put the caveat in place, let's get down to it.

Remember chain letters? I'm not sure you do, but in a nutshell: You'd get this letter (an actual badly photocopied sheet in my own youth, which turned into an email later) which told a story and then it said, “If you don't pass on this story to ten new people, something awful will happen to you. Neha didn't circulate the letter and then her dog died and then her father got into an accident and then she got cancer. Do you want to be like Neha? Do you?”

Apparently, on the day of rathasaptami in the month of Magha, if you don't drop everything and listen to an old woman telling you some stories in praise of the sun god, dreadful things will happen to you, according to a Telugu folk tale. Ramanujan's English version is called A Story In Search of an Audience but really, it could also be called You Too Could Be An Influencer, Just Follow This Easy Step!

 Mythology for the Millennial: The magical power of an old womans story, and a baby girl who heard it

Moral of the story: Always listen to old ladies who tell stories about the sun god. Wikimedia Commons

Here's the story, abridged considerably: Once upon a time there was an old woman who, during the month of Magha (about January or February) on the day of rathasaptami (Surya's birthday, which also marks the day spring begins and is a nice thing to celebrate) had to go tell someone the story of Surya so she'd get double blessings, go up to heaven etc etc. But her fam was too busy to listen to her — sons had to go to court and her daughter-in-law was taking care of her baby. The old woman goes next to the riverside, where some women were washing their clothes, but they had to rush home. Everyone she meets basically turns her down, and unknown to her, she's leaving a swathe of destruction in her wake, like Typhoid Mary. The sons are punished, the daughter-in-law's baby almost dies, the women at the river were abused by their mothers-in-law, and so on and so forth.

The old woman's still making her way through the city and she finds a pregnant woman who says she'll listen, but she falls asleep before the old woman can get started. But, her unborn baby pipes up then and says, “You can totally tell me the story!” And the old woman is so pleased that after she finishes her tale, she blesses the baby with lots of richness and magic. The pregnant woman wakes up then, and the old woman leaves, just saying, “Let me know when your baby is born and what gender it is,” since they didn't have ultrasound machines in Ye Olde Days.

The woman gives birth to a daughter, which is a little weird with a set up like that, because what can a daughter do for glory in this patriarchal world into which she was born? Normally, the blessings and magic are for sons, who take them and go on to become rich and famous. Nevertheless, it is a little girl, and the old woman makes a sari cradle for her, which you can still see people use these days if you walk through a Delhi park some evening.

Now, it so happens that the king of the country was going for a walk through the forest. He saw this cradle, and the birds around said to the king, “This baby is actually meant to be your wife, so please take her home.” Which is a creepy thing for even “the birds” to say, so nice spin there, Uncle Pedo. Although that's unfair, even though he's all about the baby wife, he does wait till she's old enough — by which they mean, when she hits puberty — before he marries her. Here's an even more disturbing thing: No one actually tells the mother that her baby daughter is being taken away to be the king's bride. Nope, he just slings her into a palanquin and rides off into the sunset. As they pass through the country, barren fields are suddenly lush and old cows give milk and the queen, this dude's wife, falls pregnant, despite not being able to have a baby before.

But the old queen is not terribly delighted with the Baby Wife. She's super jealous, because Baby Wife can do no wrong, and all sorts of riches come into the kingdom — cows give milk, you know the drill by now. The Cradle Snatcher King is delighted, but, man-like, wants to test drive his wife's powers. So he goes to the old queen's quarters, takes poison and dies. The old queen is all, “Oh my god” and “We have to commit sati by jumping on our husband's funeral pyre.” (Which is not something I thought they did in South India, so look at that. Folk tales still educational!) Baby Wife is all for the sati, but before she can go, some old Brahman comes into her rooms and does a whole song and dance about hospitality until revealing himself to be the sun god himself, the one whose story she heard while still a fetus. He gives her some turmeric rice and she sprinkles it on her husband's corpse and lo and behold, he's up and about.

Finally, Cradle Snatcher asks Baby Wife how come she's so cool and magical, and maaaaybe you should have asked this before you decided to pull a Romeo, but fine, not everything in a chain letter has to make sense. And she tells him about the old woman and the story and Cradle Snatcher makes his wives do all the rituals, because he wants to be cool and magical too, and that's the end of this story. Which is bizarre in the way only folktales can be.

Moral: Always listen to old ladies, and when you can't listen to old ladies, kidnap a baby and raise it to be your wife. Maybe ignore that last part, but still, forward this story to everyone you know, or else!

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

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 14:51:05 IST