Author Archives: Sanjana Manchala

Akbar and Birbal: The Ten Fools

Item:

“Emperors seem to be really whimsical people, who also have a lot of time on their hands. Actually, I don’t know if it’s all emperors or just Akbar. Anyway, one day, on a whim, Akbar decided that he wanted to find the ten biggest fools in his kingdom, because he’d had enough of being surrounded by clever and scholarly men. What a novel idea, don’t you think? So he sends his incredibly smart and witty minister Birbal, solver of every problem in his kingdom, out to retrieve these ten foolish men. He eventually returned with eight men, among whom some were supremely idiotic. Let me enlighten you. One of these guys was carrying a bale of hay while riding a horse. So Birbal goes up to this dude and asks him why he’s carrying the hay when he’s riding a horse, and so the guy replies that it’s because his horse is really, really old and weak and that he doesn’t want to burden him any further. I know, right? Now listen to this. Another guy was running down the road really fast and he collided with Birbal. The minister asks the guy where he’s off to in such a hurry and you won’t believe what the guy says. He says that he was saying his prayers in the mosque that morning and wanted to see how far his voice reached. So, duh, the first thought that came to his mind was chasing his voice. And okay, okay, last one. This third genius is looking for something in the street at night, and he can’t seem to find it. He’s looking under a streetlamp.  Birbal stumbles across him, quite literally, and asks him what he’s looking for so frantically. He explains that he lost his wedding ring in a dark galli (alley) a short ways away. So obviously, Birbal is confused and asks him why he isn’t looking in the alley, and in the street instead. Get this. This brilliant guy says that he’s looking in the main road because there’s more light there. Isn’t that hilarious? And so he takes these supremely stupid eight guys back to Akbar, who is upset that there’s only eight of them. So Birbal says, quite frankly, that Akbar is the ninth fool for thinking of such a pointless task. Offended, the Emperor demands who the tenth one is, to which Birbal just deadpans: ‘Me, of course, for agreeing to carry out such a pointless task.’ Ha ha ha!”

Context:

I was told the background of this story in due time: “There are several versions of this story, but the one with Birbal and the Ten Fools is the most popular. There’s a few other ones, though, like The Four Fools and Birbal, and also one that’s more or less the same as the one I just told you, except that the Rajput Birbal is replaced with a South Indian clever minister figure called Tenali Rama and the Emperor Akbar is replaced by the corresponding king – Raja Krishnadevaraya. I just chose this one because I like Birbal more than Tenali Rama and it’s funnier, because there are more idiots. I think the point that’s proven here is that a person who chooses to record the number of idiots in his vicinity is a bigger idiot than all of them combined, because there is no end to the idiots in any given part of the world.”

Analysis:

The notable point here is that the active participant, who is relating the legend, acknowledges that there are several versions and variants of this story, making the main frame of the story a taletype, and the multiple specimens of this story, told all over India, oikotypes. He also relates the story in a very humorous manner and involves the audience directly by laughing with them and asking them rhetorical, “Am I right?”-type questions to keep them engaged. In addition to this, he mentions two different (in region) but very similar (in character) elements to the story – the half-historical and half-legendary characters of Birbal and Tenali Rama, who are well-known all over the Indian subcontinent and are vehicles for many similar stories. Another point to be noted is the presence of a wedding ring in the story. The wedding ring is a traditionally Western and Christian concept that is a modern introduction into Indian culture, where a mangalsutra (wedding necklace) is more prevalent. It’s interesting because this variation in the story must have been quite recent, and also must have been engineered for the story to appeal to a wider audience.

Finally, this story is, essentially, a joke, but also a legend, because it takes place in the real world and may well have happened. Its humor mainly relies in the supreme stupidity of the people Birbal encounters, and the punchline, in which both the minister and the emperor realize that they were pretty idiotic themselves by wasting a week on such a nonsensical quest. The narrative poses the idea that one may have one’s moments of sheer brilliance, but no matter a person’s stature, an emperor, a clever minister, or a mere pauper, everyone has their own unique quirks, whims, and the capacity to be almost mind-numbingly idiotic when given the opportunity.

How The Bulbul Became King Of The Birds

Item:

“Once, there was a hornbill. He was the king of the birds, but he was mean and horrible, so they all hated him. But because he was really strong, no one could say anything to him, much less do anything about his tyranny. One day, however, the wise old owl had had enough of the hornbill’s bad attitude and cruelty, so he devised a plan to dethrone him and make the kind, gentle bulbul the queen of the birds instead. He called a meeting of all the birds except the tyrant King Hornbill, and shared his scheme – They would host a contest of strength, in which the bulbul and the hornbill would each have to stand on a branch forcefully, or peck it in some other versions, until it came crashing down. But what the hornbill wouldn’t know was that the, um, the woodpecker would have pecked away at the bulbul’s branch beforehand, weakening it already. Whoever succeeded in breaking their branch was the winner and the ruler of the the birds. And so, they carried it out, and took the proposition to the hornbill, who, being proud of his strength, arrogantly accepted the challenge without a second thought. He was unaware of the scheming that had already happened, obviously. So then the, uh, right, the bulbul and the hornbill stood on their respective branches. Before the hornbill’s horrified eyes, the bulbul’s branch came apart from the tree in less than ten seconds with a loud crack. Because he had accepted the challenge already, there was nothing he could do to go back on his word. So, disgraced and defeated, he left. And that’s how the awesome bulbul became the queen of birds.”

Context:

The informant related the context of his story to me: “It was actually pretty cool – I’d read both the versions of the story, one, as you know, in Amar Chitra Katha comics, and the other in a book of Indian folktales and legends. But I liked the one with the standing more than the one with the pecking, because it seemed more embarrassing for the hornbill, and so that’s the one I decided to tell you.”

Analysis:

This tale has the makings of a classic fable. Not only are there talking animals, but there is also a theme that is explored and built up to at the end of the story, which is demonstrated throughout the events that occur during the story. When examined closely, it reveals a moral of the triumph over adversity – adversity in this case being the tyrannical hornbill – employing cleverness and strength in numbers. The bulbul, the owl, and the woodpecker, all relatively small birds when compared to the large and imposing hornbill, team up together to take down their cruel king and succeed in doing so through devising a smart plan, proving that might isn’t always right, and brain is stronger than brawn.
*Citation: Kadam, Dilip. Amar Chitra Katha Special Edition – Panchatantra Tales. Mumbai: ACK Media, n.d. Comic Book.

Hiding The Groom’s Shoes

Item:

“One of the most elaborately staged pranks at a desi (typically North Indian or Pakistani) wedding is the theft of the groom’s shoes by the bride’s younger sisters and female cousins. The groom has to bargain for his shoes to be returned to him with these young girls, often offering them money, sweets, and jewelry in exchange for them. It has become a tradition emblematic to our weddings.”

Context:

The interviewee related her experience with this tradition to me: “The first time I got the chance to have my cousins do this for me was when I was getting married to your uncle. It was hilarious. He was running around, looking for the shoes like some desperate fellow, and they managed to swindle about a thousand rupees each from him! Not to mention all the sweets they got in exchange. It was amazing.”

Analysis:

There are a few explanations for this ritual-impeding prank. The first is that the Indian groom, who has to arrive at the wedding venue from another location, some distance away,and usually on a horse or an elephant, cannot proceed with the actual wedding sacraments if he doesn’t have his shoes with him. This, effectively, would put a stop to the wedding and interrupt the smooth flowing of a very important liminal period in one’s life – the time in which one is a groom, not yet married, and not really unmarried either. Secondly, India, being a rather patriarchal society, sees a wedding as the groom’s family taking possession of the bride. Therefore, in retaliation, the girls from the bride’s side take their revenge, symbolically and humorously, by stealing an important component of the groom’s outfit and thereby threatening the marriage. The money is supposed to be a sort of compensation for the bride being taken away. And finally, and perhaps rather obscurely, is the deeply-entrenched ancient practice of child-betrothal and child marriage in Indian society. In a time when children were the main participants in these weddings, these little games would have assuaged their confusion and engaged their attention to the very religious, and sometimes pretty long-winded sacraments.

A Very Indian Joke

Item:

“In India, it is not uncommon – actually, scratch that, it is incredibly common to make tongue-in-cheek jokes against members of other cultures. They are not meant to be offended, because everyone makes such jokes against others. This is one of them. Pay close attention: Three men – a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim – are in a boat, and it is starting to sink because the boat is too heavy to stay afloat. In order to keep the boat from sinking, the three men all decide to make compromises and throw something overboard to lighten the load. The Hindu says, ‘I’m going to throw my Rolex overboard. I’ve got two or three more watches like this at home.’ And so he does. The Christian takes off his impressive top-hat and antique walking cane and promptly throws them over, saying, ‘I’ve got several more of these at home as well.’ The Muslim, to the shock of the other two men, picks up his wife and deposits her unceremoniously into the ocean, proclaiming, ‘I’m throwing my wife overboard. I’ve got several more wives like this at home!'”

Context:

The informant related his experience with this joke: “It was actually my brother-in-law who had come up with this joke after he’d had a little too much to…well, you know. He told me the joke at a party some sixty years ago, but I didn’t find it as funny as he did, perhaps because I was slightly more sober than he was. But only slightly. However, I must confess that did steal the joke from him, obviously because I’m the better joke-teller. Don’t look at me like that, I’m not making it up! I actually modified it a little and then told it at a dinner. It got many more laughs than when he told it. See?”

Analysis:

As the informant said, in India, it is very common to make jokes about other cultures, religions, and ethnic subgroups, poking fun at things that are stereotypical to their particular community. In this particular blason populaire, there are stereotypes of more than one group. In India, there are three distinct images – the Hindu man dressed in a very Spartan manner, with cotton everything except for his expensive gold watch; the Christian man with his tailored suit, felt top-hat, and wooden walking cane; and the Muslim man with his train of wives. Out of all of the three stereotypes, this joke exploits, in particular, the image of the polygamous Muslim, a depiction that has particular popularity among the socially and sexually conservative Hindu community. These two communities have been at odds with each other since the Partition in 1947, and therefore, many ethnic jokes have sprung up from this division in both communities, exploiting stereotypes on either side of the great divide.

A Falsified Superstition

Item and Context:

“When I was a kid, I read ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ like nobody’s business. Like, I would just devour them. And so, when I discovered that there was one called ‘Tintin in Tibet’, of course I was delighted, being of half-Tibetan ancestry. While I was reading it, I found this superstition in there where one of the sherpas, the mountain guide dudes, tells Captain Haddock, who is notorious for flouting other people’s cultures and traditions, that he isn’t supposed to pass a chorten, a Buddhist monk’s memorial structure, on the right, because it will ‘unleash the demons’. Weirdly enough, when I went to Tibet a few years ago for a family trip, we went hiking up in the Himalayan foothills, where there happened to be a ton of chortens just dotting the hillsides. We were accompanied by a couple of local sherpas, who found it supremely bizarre that I was doing everything I could to veer left as I passed them by, so that I wouldn’t offend anyone. I saw them laughing at me, and so I asked them, simultaneously embarrassed and confused, what they found so funny. They asked me if I’d read any Tintin comics before, and so I told them yes. To my amazement, they started laughing even harder at this. I was growing increasingly upset, and so I asked them what the hell was going on. They told me, trying desperately to keep their faces straight, that they had seen several American and European tourists doing the same thing that I was doing because they had read the Tintin comic. With one final snort of laughter, they informed me that the superstition from the comic wasn’t a real Buddhist superstition, and that the guy who created them, Hergé, completely made it up!”

Analysis:

This is an example of “fakelore”, which later grew into something a lot of people believed in because it was propagated by such a popular franchise, much like the series of Paul Bunyan stories, which was actually created by the logging industry to encourage the locals to believe that logging was a great American tradition. A question is brought up here – if the practice is conducted by a lot of people today, is it still fakelore or is it now folklore? Maybe because the society in which this practice was supposedly traditional never did it in the first place, it’s fakelore, but because there are people who believe in it now because they grew up on the Tintin franchise, it has now transformed into folklore.