Once Upon a Time

Santosh Singh
Once Upon a Time

Book cover of The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar

Title: The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar
Author: Nalin Verma
Publication: Rupa Publications India
Pages: 208 pages
Price: Rs 295

There is hardly anyone who has not grown up with some variation or another of grandparents’ tales. Fairies, demons, kings, queens, lions, tigers and sundry birds have all done the talking in everyone’s childhood. But these are fast fading now under the onslaught of smartphones; an art that was once lovingly passed on from one generation to the next is now eroding quickly as parents and grandparents lose out to electronic devices when it comes to storytelling.

This makes Nalin Verma’s second book, The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar, an important work. Before this, Verma, co-authored Lalu Prasad Yadav’s autobiography, From Gopalganj to Raisina. But Verma’s folktales certainly hit the spot, perhaps even more than his political work, because he has grown up with some of the tales he narrates in the book. Giving a written form to the verbal art of storytelling is the prime objective here. The idea is to preserve folktales that are often treated casually, even though they nurture a morality that may be too subtle for many. Perhaps that is the reason they are usually understood better when we grow up.

A set of 37 stories such as, ‘The sparrow and her crumbs’, ‘The stork and her new husband’, ‘The lioness and the cow’, and ‘Saranga and Sadabrij’ may have as its setting a nondescript village in Siwan, in Bihar. But it has a universality that transcends its immediate geography. The author has also retold two particularly famous stories of Bhojpuri legend: Bhikhari Thakur-Gabarghichor and Beti Bechwa, which used to be staged in most Poorvanchal villages between the 1970s and 1990s. Verma has given due credit to the tellers or re-tellers of some of these stories, from his grandfather to his fellow villagers — Gauri Chamar to Patru Ahir, Dasrath Lohar to his primary school teacher, Phuleshwar Pandey.

The author has refrained from tampering with the storyline in any way, narrating the stories the way he had heard them. Some stories are light reads, as folktales are wont to be, but some — like ‘Saranga’, ‘Sadabrij’ and Bhikhari Thakur’s two stories — are more intense. While the former is a strong love story, the latter two stories trace the great migration from Bihar and its fallout. ‘Munshi and Raiji’, which has as its backdrop British-ruled India, talks about the rawness of village life, and delivers a nuanced message about the need for education.

The book is about preserving and nourishing one’s cultural roots. The Hitopadesa, Panchtantra and Jatak Kathas have lasting values because of their rawness and simplicity. Verma says that our societies have many rustic folk tales to offer, but he regrets that there has been very little attempt to give them the form of books. The Great Folk Tales of Bihar is a serious attempt to store and preserve verbal history, and it reminds us that narration from the likes of unlettered Patru Ahir and Dasrath Lohar should continue to regale generations.