Indian Folktales from Mauritius
Translated by Dawood Auleear and Lee Haring. Edited by Dawood Auleear and Lee Haring. 2006. Nungambakkam: National Folklore Support Centre. 116 pages. ISBN: 81-901481-7-6 (soft cover).
Reviewed by Mahendra K. Mishra, Independent Scholar
[Review length: 917 words • Review posted on October 10, 2007 In Journal of Folklore Research, Indiana University Press, Bloomington]
This collection of folktales from Mauritius by Dawood Auleear and Lee Haring, with its focus upon narratives that have been brought from one country to another and that cut across geography, language, and time, reminds one of the old theory of the migration of folktales from India to Europe.
The compilation is drawn from the migrant people of Bhojpur in the Bihar province of India, who in 1833 revolted against British rule in India and were shipped out to the southwest Indian Ocean island of Mauritius as indentured laborers. The Bhojpuri people became the major force in the shaping of the culture of Mauritius, numbering as they do 250,000 persons and so constituting a fifth of the total population of the country. Knowledgeable and powerful peoples with exploitative worldviews tend to impose their culture on the land they rule, but the Bhojpuri people in Mauritius have reversed the top-down approach of enculturation, maintaining their ethnic identity and group solidarity by establishing instead a culture of their own in their adoptive land.
Culture is maintained through language and customs. Although the Bhojpuri people have adopted the material culture of Mauritius in order to earn their livelihood, they have maintained their cultural identity by retaining their own language, which has given them the strength of solidarity during their residence in a new land as indentured laborers.
The question arises how the Bhojpuri people have maintained their culture through their folklore. Isolated as a group, they have kept their songs, tales, and proverbs alive in their collective memory so as to compensate for the natural loss they faced.
The stories collected by Dawood Auleear in the course of 1985 represent the range of Bhojpuri folktales. The king and his ministers, clever thieves, skillful brothers, clever girls, devouring monsters, and oil-makers appear as protagonists. Moral stories such as “Hospitality Rewarded” are also included. In all there are eighteen nicely selected oral tales.
The tale, “Son Avenges Father,” about a corrupt minister, presents the eternal truth of the victory of knowledge over power. A mendicant and an ozir (minister) were friends. The ozir killed the fortune-telling mendicant in order to take possession of the treasure that the latter had discovered, but in the course of time the mendicant’s son came to be a fortune-teller and attracted the attention of the king, which led to the hanging of the corrupt minister for his misconduct. The tale shows that, however late, justice is done.
Another story, “Wicked King Caused to Repent,” illustrates the proverb “good action results in good, and bad action results in bad.” A king did not feed the poor during his lifetime, so that after his death he was given blood and pus to eat, whereas his soldiers had delicious food. To change this situation the king, on the advice of Hatim Tai (a saint), ordered half of his property to be used for feeding the poor. Thereafter the king had good food.
“King Discovered Thieves” is a clever story about a search for the wisest person. After the king’s minister declared that thieves were the wisest and most intelligent of persons, the king had to see for himself. Disguising himself, he joined a band of thieves.
“Precepts Bought Prove Correct” is a tale about a merchant’s son who purchased a letter by means of which he could tell the future. The queen tested him three times, but the information contained in the letter preserved the youth from danger.
“Four Skilful Brothers” is a story about the journeys of an iron-smith and a goldsmith. “The Clever Peasant Girl” is a nice tale about a girl who won the king by means of her wit and thereby saved her father’s life. “The Swallowing Monster” is a long narrative featuring two tales of royal families, full of fantasy and based upon samudrika viday (knowledge of the future).
“The Rich Sister and the Poor Sister” tells how the rich sister became poor and the poor sister became rich. God changed their fortunes to accord with their temperaments. Another story, “Father Tricks his Avaricious Son,” is about the distribution of property between two sons. One son wanted to take all the property, and the other did not, but in the end the father gave them nothing at all inasmuch as the sons were more interested in their father’s income than in repaying their debt.
“Hospitality Rewarded” tells about the attempt of a poor Brahmin and his wife to appease a god who was disguised as a sadhu (saint), by selling the wife’s hair. The poor couple got ample land and property in turn. “Syar’s Attempt to Kill Human” is a story about a lion that tried to eat a grandfather and grandson, but failed.
The tale “Outcast Girls” is about a girl who was tortured by her stepmother. The girl was reared by a snake, who actually was a boy with a snake-skin. Burning the snake-skin, she discovered that the young boy was none other than the king himself. “The Old Woman” is a chain tale with animate and inanimate characters as protagonists.
The present compilation attempts to build a bridge between written and spoken tales by presenting the content of the tales in a natural narrative form. The tales explored here by Dawood Auleear and Lee Haring will certainly cause readers in India and elsewhere to reflect on how, centuries after a people’s migration and resettlement, their culture and language can survive in the service of group solidarity and ethnic identity.