Subcontinental Nights
Harbans Singh

Wonder Tales of South Asia
by Simon Digby. Oxford. Pages 303. Rs 295.

Wonder Tales of South AsiaSimon Digby offers a bouquet of wonder tales from the subcontinent to readers who have a lust for romances and anecdotes from the mediaeval period. The tales also cater to the tastes of persons who like to study with scholarly devotion the subject of immortal beings, their love for the mortals and the tales that straddle the world of morality and worldly wisdom. There is enough for both in this collection translated from Nepali, Urdu and Hindi.

The Background of The Tales by the author gives us a rich insight into the social and psychological contexts of the tales. The first two stories, the Nepali Madhumalti and Madhukar and the Urdu The Flower of Bakawali, though attributed to authors who had them published, could as well have been tales narrated every night by grandmothers or groups of travellers around the world.

Both stories are always so close and yet manage to continue themselves, much like the tales of the weary-eyed grandmother, who is coaxed into narrating another story before sleep finally overwhelms. Like magic, she can knit another episode and weave it into the main story. The heroes of both stories end up having a number of wives, all happily living under the same roof without any malice.

However, if one can read the first two stories for the fairy tales that these are, one cannot escape serious reading into the subsequent tales, especially those of Sufi flavour. There are episodes in The Tale of Gorakhnath that we have heard from some elderly persons in the family at some point. These are tales set in a period when the influence of Islam was growing and momentous changes were taking place. Gorakhnath’s supposed visit to Mecca and initiation of four disciples into Yoga seem to be desperate attempts at establishing the reach and supremacy of his spiritual powers.

Gorakhnath’s legend is probably a curtain raiser to what follows in the anecdotes about the Sufi saints. The reader should be forgiven for finding a purpose in these tales. Probably these were meant to present the softer and philosophical face of Islam. These tales establish the ascendancy of Islam; the confrontation of the Sufis and the Jogis and their flying competition is just an example.

The stories set in India convey the cultural capitulation of the Brahmincal India. Even the story of Bakawali, which could so easily be, as the author has pointed out in his notes, of the "Bagia-wali-Mai" (the Goddess of the Garden) giving birth to the mighty River Narmada, has had to undergo cultural transformation, which can be benignly explained as the fusion of the two cultures. However, the Persianisation of this legend is symbolic of the appropriation of the local legends by the newly emerging dominant political and cultural order.

The choice of the tales and the order in which these are placed is appropriate and rightly ends with the journey to Varanasi by Ganga Ram, the Headman, and Bulakhi Ram, the Barber. This tale belongs to that fine tradition of Indian folk tradition where complex human experiences are packed in a riddle and a challenge, which turn out to be simple and virtuous responses to complicated situations. The book encapsulates the spirit of the sub-continental romance.