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A Wise Bird and its Keeper


Rukun Advani


A.K. Ramanujan's work shows that the traditional folk repertoire of stories and village lore can provide more penetrating insights into the workings of cultures, texts, and social systems than modern criticism. He may have liked this folktale, given below, which I heard from a village bard. The tale is being retold all over India and has taken many shapes, depending on where it is told and who is telling it. Perhaps it is among the many folktales that Ramanujan himself collected in the Indian hinterland. Still, my retelling of this tale is bound in some ways to be a telling different from his and everyone else's; and being now a tale told to a different audience, and in a different context, it will provide weight to his opinion that tales must bear many tellings-300 at least, he felt-for there's no telling what each new telling will tell. This is even truer of the most popular tales, such as the Ramayana, which is a bird of many feathers, each feather worth a whole bird, each feather almost in itself a different bird. This is the folktale as I heard it. A caveat though: for it is not in fact as I heard it. I heard it in Hindi, and now I find, translating it to English, that it sounds strangely different from how it sounded in Hindi. I do not know how such things happen, but the bard who narrated the tale also said the world is difficult to fathom, words are hard to pin down, and stories the hardest. Some bird catchers in the mighty West happened to catch an exceptional owl which had flown there all the way from the East. Though it looked piercingly in all directions, the bird seemed happiest looking East. Having grown fond of its wise visage, and sensing that by its oriental gaze the bird might be expressing a yearning for the regions from whence it had come, the bird catchers offered their rare owl to an Indian zookeeper on condition that the zookeeper agreed to look after the bird for the entire duration of its life, allow it to fly wherever it wished, and ensure, even when it had passed its prime, that it could fly about freely and come home to be nurtured when it pleased, until its natural end. Delighted to get such a fine specimen for his zoo, the ...


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