Did you know that at the base of the 2,000 year old Grand Anicut dam in Tamil Nadu (15 km from Trichy) lies a Hanuman temple which was built by British engineer Capt. J.L. Calddell 200 years ago, after Lord Hanuman (or Anjaneya) appeared to him in a dream? I bet you also didn’t know about the ancient tsunami that engulfed the port of Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu, references of which are found in a Tamil text, Manimekhalai, dated back to second century CE! All of this and more has found its way into Renuka Narayanan’s latest collection of tales from the Upanishads, Jatakas and Indie folklore, The Path of Light.
Over the course of its twenty-seven stories, it successfully inspires wonder at the ‘vast heritage of Indian story-telling – its depth and range, its inventiveness and subtle in-house cues’. A thematic alignment is though not pronounced in the stories but they sufficiently manage to convey the easy necessity of driving home the point with fables. It could certainly be put to more use in contemporary times when arguments are seldom loaded with anything but jargon. For instance, tales (The Performance) such as that of the king of Vijaynagar, Narasimha Nayaka, a connoisseur of performing arts, narrate the delightful daring of artists of Kuchelapuram (later known as Kuchipudi) who risked their lives to convey an important message to the king through their craft.
Although the thread that does exist in the bulk of these Jataka tales is the many reincarnations of Buddha (called Bodhisattva) before he was born as prince Siddhartha. In all of these he is bestowed with abundant wit and wisdom like the one in which a carpenter asks his not-so-bright son to rid him of the mosquito sitting atop his pate while the carpenter is hard at work. The son swings the axe and splits the father’s head in two. The Bodhisattva, a passer-by, remarks ‘Better a clever enemy than a foolish well-wisher!’
Rivers such as the Yamuna, Kaveri and Iravati, the city of Benaras, the foothills of Himalayas all serve as majestic settings to these mysterious and magical stories that were born to enlighten ‘our very own’. Pingala’s story by Vyasa in particular begs attention and forces me to borrow the author’s own words for the lack of a more suitable description to bring out the ironic depth of the life of a public woman by being carefully positioned in Videha, or the city of Vaidehi Sita – “Realizing the world of unstated significance in that location made me feel close to the subversive mind of the master story-teller who delighted in chiaroscuro, in playing with shades and contrasts.”
Other personal favourites in the collection are the stories of Manohra, a kinnari princess (half-human, half-avian creature) which is found in the Suthon Jataka and Adhik Maas (the Orphan Month), the extra month that comes by in the Indian lunar calendar every thirty two months. The boy who was sold will easily capture the reader’s interest for it being set in the times of Raja Harishchandra, when the gods walked openly amongst the mortals. This rarely heard story from the Aitareya Brahmana section of the Rig Veda is juxtapositioned against all that we have been told about the honest and noble king. Those interested in digging into other related legends associated with the king can refer to the Markandeya Purana and Devi-Bhagavata Purana.
Narayanan’s narration is laced with a candour that almost makes her seem like the original story-teller, bringing out the flair and faults of men and monks alike. While doing the same she also presents us with a regular irregularity of human life that transcends different ages and worlds. These stories are much more than just a happy reminder of our rich heritage of story-telling and must be cherished widely.