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?