Bedtime tales have been a part of everyone’s childhood. Ajit Baral, the author of this anthology, tells us how as a child, he would fall asleep listening to his big brother narrate folktales of ghosts and demons that stalked the hills in the dead of the night. I do wish he had included some of those demonic tales that, though an integral part of Nepal’s culture, religion and art, are conspicuously missing from this anthology.
In this collection, Baral attempts to recreate the storytelling tradition that most people grow up with, but now no one has time for. The collection has the folksy flavour of Panchtantra and Jataka Tales, teeming with animals that talk to humans (‘The Wily Fox’) and trees looking across mountains in search of brides (‘The Love Story of the Uttis Tree’).
The collection underlines German orientalist Max Müller’s theory about the migration of traditional folk narratives along trade routes across countries and continents. The Nepal tales are variants of folk tales from different parts of India and many of us will recognise the metaphors and patterns under a different name.
The classic tale about the humbling of the mighty elephant by the tiny ant, for example, takes the form of the story of the vain she-rat who wants to marry the most powerful creature in the world. Predictably, after searching for the mightiest among the sun, the clouds, trees and mountains, she discovers that the most powerful creature is the rat, which can burrow deep into mountains.
Makes you wonder, though, why she stopped right there and did not go on in her search by factoring in cats. But I guess the she-rat would not have lived to tell her tale.
Some tales, like ‘The Simpleton’, don’t quite fit. The story’s about a simple young man who tries to follow the advice of this savvy mother with unexpected consequences, especially after some thieves accept him as an apprentice. It ends so abruptly that you wonder whether the author forgot to complete it or whether there are some pages missing from the book. The collection is a little too simplistic for adult reading, but some may argue that’s what folk tales are about.
Still, a more nuanced narrative would have saved the collection from degenerating, in parts, into a Grade 2 textbook. Baral, however, does not fall into the trap of moralising, which is welcome. What makes up for all the minor failings in the narrative are the wonderful illustrations by Durga Baral, who proves again why he is one of Nepal’s most popular cartoonists.