Monday, August 30, 2010

Carriers of Oral Tradition

This topic suggested itself to me yesterday when I came across a reference to Chanson de Rolland. The very mention of the epic and I found myself in the midst of a royal banquet in honour of Charlemagne emprior (Malayalam corruption for emperor . Tho’ chakravarthy is the word, this is the term my story teller used). A little hungry boy runs into the hall and snatches the hors d’oeuvre from the emperor’s table and dashes out. The emperor orders the boy to be brought in and soon discovers it is none other than his nephew Rolland, whose mother had been banished from the kingdom. The exploits of Rolland then came to me in snatches. I remembered the sense of horror that gripped me at the image of Oliver with his body full of cuts and scratches from the battle being dropped into the well of salt. The Saracens were the villains, I remember, and Charlemagne’s army that Rolland joined was God’s favourite. I remember the final scene of the epic where Rolland, knowing he is about to die, breaks his sword to smithereens, knocking it again and again on a rock. He did not want anyone else to use his precious sword!

The above details may not be accurate for many reasons. It is recaptured from memory of the story I heard as a child from Cicily thathi (thathi is a word for sister among a certain community of Kerala Christians), the seamstress who’d been around in my house ever since I remember. I must have been around 5 or 6 when my brothers and I, with our mouths hanging open at the sheer power of her story telling , sat in front of Cicily thathi as she embroidered delicate flowers on the bed sheets or pillow covers or table cloth or sarees.

Thathi told us a lot of other stories too. Of those, I was fascinated by the story of Pulomaja, the virtuous princess who guarded her chastity fiercely.

The source of her Charlemagne stories was the verses of chavittu nadakom, a Christian art form popular in rural kerala in those days. She was a voracious reader who read novels, magazines, newspapers. She had studied only up to the 4th standard, but was a huge repository of stories, which she gathered not only from what she read, but also from what she heard from her elders.

This set me thinking. Who were the story tellers that shaped my imagination as a child? My mother? No. Not really. She didn’t tell me stories when I was a kid. She did when I grew up and had children of my own. But when I was a school going kid in the lower primary, I used to tell her stories and episodes from school and she used them as illustrations to impart to me practical and spiritual wisdom. But amma was not a storyteller.

Most of the stories I heard were from the domestic helps we had in the house – and we had quite a number . Those were difficult days and amma used to look for the slightest excuse to engage these helps so that they’d get at least 2 square meals a day. Thus it was that there was Cicily thathi who told us literary stories, Rosa cheduthy (term of respect for elder sister) and Maria cheduthy who told us stories handed down by word of mouth.

The cheduthys were not literate and so their stories had a different quality. Besides, they were not discreet enough to know that certain details should not be shared with the children of a very prudish Syrian Catholic family. Their stories sent us into peals of laughter. They were rich in physical description. The women who were the face for vices were invariably shrivelled versions of once well endowed wanton ladies. Mariacheduthy took immense pleasure in graphically describing the now pathetic condition of these sinful women. I once shared the details with amma who was furious and admonished the two cheduthys.

But Maria cheduthy could not be stopped. She resorted to blackmail. She said she wouldn’t tell us any story if we shared them with amma. My brothers, who preferred outdoor games, were not affected by the threat. But I loved Mariacheduthy’s stories with the sleaze she injected into the story of saints and virtuous people and her demo in the form of dance (this almost seventy year old lady showed me how Salome danced to seduce Herod!) and mimicry (she could imitate the emperor’s gait as well as the old wicked half naked witch, bent double on a dirty stick with her shaky grating voice).

Looking back, I realise that a whole new world opened out to me during the time I spent in the company of these cheduthys. Many looked askance at amma for allowing me to spend so much time in the company of ‘those’ people. But I loved them and their stories. The values imbedded in their stories were the same that were taught by amma and my catechism teachers. In the stories told by the cheduthys and lessons taught by the nuns I learnt the same thing – the greatest sins were those against love and chastity. I learnt that there was no sin on earth that God wouldn’t forgive; so there should be nothing on earth that i too can’t forgive. Only, the cheduthy’s had a way of making the value system appear more attractive.

Sometimes, these stories acquired a class colour. I remember Veroni cheduthy, who came into my world when i was a little older, telling me that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to go to heaven. I laughed out loud ‘cos i knew what she was getting at (she was taken to task by amma for playing truant for a week) and also ‘cos i was taught in my catechism class damage control strategies for being economically better off than her. She became furious at my reaction, and came close to me, stuck her face close to mine and said, wagging a her furious forefinger at me: “You wait and see. When you are roasting in hell, i’ll be reclining against the chest of father Abraham up there in heaven. And when you ask for a drop of water to quench your thirst, i will not give you”. She then did a right about turn and walked off from me, throwing a couple of backward glances to see how the idea appealed to me. Her face, however, was beatific, probably at the thought of amma and me roasting in hell!

I wonder if we have that category of people anymore in Kerala. Highly improbable. Universal literacy dealt the first deathblow to them by giving access to all potential carriers of oral tradition to newspapers, ma magazines and serious magazines. And now with the onslaught of the visual media, who has the time or inclination to be carriers or recipients of oral tradition?


  1. At first, I couldn't make heads or tails of your post. So I started from the last paragraph, in a reverse order. Then it started rolling. I could see the scenes so well! To embellish my imagination I gave the Chedathys the dress of the Trichur Xian ladies with Mundu and Chatta and that huge things they wore in the ears.

    What is missing is a sample of their sleazy stories! :D

  2. As I always say,times have changed. I don't even know if those stories would be appealing to our own children.
    We had a Chedathi who used to work for us,and then another neighbor Kunjommichettan,who was the official singer of our church.I grew up with their children.All the stories of my childhood,were from Annamma chechi,who was this Kunjommichettan's daughter.Often,these stories were all about those lovely princes and beautiful princesses.I heard a Malayalam version of Cinderella from her.I can understand now,because that Chechi remained unmarried.She was not good looking,and then they were poor too.
    My children would probably laugh at me.Times have changed.

  3. @dr antony
    yes. u r right. these stories may hold no appeal to the present high tech generation with no sense of history. but if our generation could undertake to record the stories told to us in our childhood, and record the stories straight from our parents' generation from those who was still alive, we'd be doingd a favour to posterity.

    @ balachandran
    the sleaze was hardly anything - but couldnt be tolerated in conservative SC families which spoke only in euphimisms.
    oh yes. you r right. both the cheduthys wore mundu and chatta and wore those gigntic gold rings o the upper lobe of the ear while the lower lobes were extended almost to their shoulders. and mariacheduthy's challa was thre quarter sleeved.
    'So I started from the last paragraph, in a reverse order' - gosh! has my thinking become topsy turvy?:-).

  4. Like you said, this category of people has almost vanished. Finding regular domestic help is a chore in itself these days! And to find people who not just did their chore but went on to entertain with their knowledge of history...phew, I guess you were plain lucky! And loved the way you went on to narrate the whole thing...could actually visualise it:)

  5. I heard most stories from my great-granny. She had stories that would run days, and yes, an oral tradition.

    Like Maria Chedathi you mention, the tribe will find it hard to survive, not because there're fewer people with her skills available but because there're fewer listeners now, in this digital age!

  6. @ RGB
    i think we should be glad that this category of people is no longer there - i mean the illiterate and the distressngly poor. the state should take the credit for improving their lot.

    yet one cant help indulging in nostalgia - -
    @ anil Kurup
    i agree with you. people today dont listen - how can it when they are at work for more than 12 hrs and have deadlines to beat - and when they have ears plugged with pod or cell phone.

    oral tradition survives is a culture where people have time, leisure, and perhaps where money is a precious commodity.

  7. I am not wise or knowledgeable enough to make the suggestion, but do look at this way:

    In the opening paragraph, give a story in narrative form, followed with a description of the Chedathys. Their dramatic gestures, the way they walk in the traditional dress ( yes, the description of the dress too) and follow that with the first paragraph of introduction. Finally the summing up.

    How does it look? The reason I suggest this is because when I read the first paragraph, I couldn't clearly see where I was going.

    Hope I have the liberty to say this. :)

  8. @balachandran
    sure. all suggestions welcome. truly appreciated sir.

    just that for me the blogsphere is a space for stream of conscousness - and editing has never been my cup of tea, so i guess these things happen:-). shall be more careful in future.

  9. There is an old world charm to your posts that I thoroughly enjoy.I belong to the generation who have been cheated of the pleasures of animated story telling,but I have this to add - the disappearance of the oral tradition has as much to do with the restlessness of the hi-tech generation as to its busy,career-oriented parents.Sigh...those story-telling sessions I missed..

  10. you narrate beautifully ma'am, with the sure touch of a natural story teller. the characters come alive, so does the general ambience of the world you describe. surely you owe it to the Chedathys too!!!

  11. @ manoranjini

    good to know you think these story sessions are worth missing.

    @ venugopal

    thank you sir.a real morale booster.

  12. enjoyed this. mom was not a story teller but my older sis was always game. my two little ones are also suckers for story telling any time esp before going to bed. hoping it will continue..your story reminds me a little of madhavikkutty who was practically reared by the helpers at her ancestral home..


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