A Flowering Tree and other Oral Tales from India: The art of attracting really good fortune

  • Renuka Narayanan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 02, 2014 15:55 IST

The gods of good fortune prefer clean places to dirty ones. It is as straight as that. A lively folk endorsement of this proven life code in Kannada is translated by the late great AK Ramanujan (1929-1993) in the collection called A Flowering Tree and other Oral Tales from India.

Compiled after Ramanujan's death, it was published by the University of California Press in 1997 and also in India that year in Viking by Penguin India (Pvt) Ltd. It's an easy, pleasant read with a twist of wit that few are likely to find boring.

Stories from this collection, if not already included, would genuinely enrich our school syllabi in every


, teaching children the best of those positive and practical Indian cultural values that inexplicably fell into the dustbin of history but are now being recalled nationwide.

How Ramanujan gathered these precious pieces of our timeless heritage is interesting. A post-graduate in English literature from the University of Mysore, he undertook a series of jobs as a young lecturer in the 1950s at colleges in Karnataka, including in Belgaum. It was in those days that he began to collect folk tales in Kannada from a wide range of people, showing an early sensitivity to women's versions. The tales have resonance in other Indian


, in Sanskrit, and in international folk tales. The collection embodies Ramanujan's first and final project in documenting Indian heritage and making it accessible to more people.

The story about cleanliness attracting Lakshmi is called King and Peasant. A raja and rani who live a very happy, prosperous life are travelling through their country when they notice a peasant and his wife toiling in the sun. The raja feels sorry but the rani says it's because they live in dirt and tells the king that she can turn around the peasant's fortunes in six months if she changes places with his wife (it becomes subtly clear that this is a platonic arrangement).

The peasant's wife goes to the palace and the rani goes to the hut. As suspected, the hut is a place of the dirt, disorder and junk of years. The rani begins to tackle it systematically and imposes a few house rules. In particular, she tells the peasant, "Appa, you must go out to work every day and never come home empty-handed. Even if you don't find work some days, at least pick up a stick to bring home."

She encourages the peasant to make an effort and improves his life steadily. He brings home a dead snake one day and the rani makes him throw it up on the roof. To eat the snake, a passing garuda drops the ruby necklace it had picked up somewhere and flown off with.

Meanwhile, the palace has turned into a dump and things go missing every day. The raja begs the rani to return, since she has achieved the promised better times. The tale's teaching agenda: luck that drops from the sky is but the badam on the substantial kheer of good processes as lifestyle.

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Pick, hoard, read: Books for Rs. 25 at Harper Collins Faridabad sale
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