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Traceries of Human Interactions


Susan Visvanathan

TALES ONCE TOLD: LEGENDS OF KERALA
By Abraham Eraly
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2006, pp. 200, Rs. 200.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 12 December 2006

Abraham Eraly has selected and transcribed a collection of legends from Kottarathil Sankunni’s  Aithihyamala which is an eight volume work published between 1909 and 1934. The translation of the chosen stories is easy and lucid, with no embellishment. Eraly has the confidence of someone who understands the culture and the varieties of communities which integrate in the fabric or canvas of daily interaction. So, essentially, the stories are historical figures, and the legends woven around them. While it is difficult to date these stories, unless one is a Malayali conversant with dating techniques, the stories have a timeless quality about them.     In some sense, it is a work which revels in the innocence and the depravity that often go together. I always believe that people who say they have no interest in money or power are often interested in the use-value of things. By this primary commitment to consumption they remain composed about their inability to protect anyone’s rights. A lot of the questions of human rights and identity are often interpenetrated by this ability to hide under the “conventions” called our culture. So, hopefully, the legal questions of what are democratic rights will inform the nature of modernity, while the stuff of legendary prowess may remain with us for purposes of entertainment, or for interpreting stereotypical representations, where we are forced to conform with tradition because it is the habit of our respective communities to expect this from us. When we passed the station called Tenali on our annual visits to Kerala, my father was always genuinely excited and pleased. “Tenali Raman!”   he would say ... and then tell me about him. The story I found most interesting was about the king under-paying Tenali who then  in revenge, reared a stallion with very little food (just enough to stay alive and healthy but behave neurotically) and he gifted this horse to the king. There is danger in that! Whether it is Tenali or Birbal in Akbar’s court or Sakthan Thamburan in Kerala’s legend, there is a sense of danger and laughter which accompanies them—a ruthlessness and a fearlessness. It is not surprising that the jester (sometimes he is the grave-digger)   in Shakespeare is so significant as the site of wisdom; and a jester-king as Sakthan Thamburan has power beyond all others.     Eraly provides notes to help us, in the preface. They are not very intrusive, but in ...


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