Author Archives: Shrestha Vijayendra

The Seven Fishes – Telugu Bedtime Story

“Once upon a time, there was a king who had seven sons. One day, the seven princes went out hunting; each of the princes caught one fish and laid them out on the ground to dry. However, all but one fish dried. The king as the fish:

‘Fish, why did you not dry?’

The fish said to the king: ‘King, there is hay on the ground so I could not dry.

The king asked the grass: ‘Hay, why are you still on the ground?’

The grass replied: ‘The cow did not eat me.’

The king asked the cow: ‘Cow, why did you not eat the hay?’

The cow replied: ‘The farmer did not feed me the hay.’

The king asked the farmer: ‘Farmer, why did you not feed the cow hay?’

The farmer replied: ‘My mother did not feed me today.’

The king asked the farmer’s mother: ‘Mother, why did you not feed your son the farmer?

The mother replied: ‘The little baby was crying, so I didn’t feed the farmer.’

The  king asked the little baby: ‘Why were you crying?’

The baby replied: ‘The ant bit me.’

The king asked the ant: ‘Ant, why did you bite the baby?

The ant replied: ‘If the baby stick her finger in my home, will I not bite her?’

Context: This tale is a classic Telugu bedtime story for children that I have heard many times growing up. The informant, GH, re-told me a bedtime story on a stressful night, which was a story that she herself had heard when she was a child. GH always remembers her mother and her own childhood whenever she tells the story to my sister and I, and feels more connected with her family by passing down this family story to the next generation. GH thinks that bedtime stories are an important part of childhood–not only to help the parents put their rowdy kids to sleep–but also to develop the children’s understanding of their culture and cultivate interest in reading. She believes that bedtime stories are very important in producing a love for stories, story-telling, and reading in children, which is crucial in a child’s development. Along with this, GH believes that bedtime stories are important for creating a bond between parents and their child.

Analysis: This story has the components of common bedtime stories, such as various animals, kings, and princes. Along with this, it reflects the agrarian society present in much of Andhra Pradesh, the Indian state in which most Telugu people live. The moral of the story also reflects the idea that even a small being, in this case an ant, is capable of creating a big change. In India, most of society is either working class or in poverty, so the moral is representative of the power of the “little man”. The story explains how even the small players can create a chain effect that impacts many different people. Many Indian folktales usually involve how some sort of smart, small animal–such as a crow–vanquishing a large, dumb animal such as a lion. The smart small animals uses their intelligence to outsmart a brawny animal that is trying to overpower them. While the story of seven fishes does not necessarily follow a small animal vanquishing a larger animal, but the ant’s anger towards having his home destroyed leads to a pretty large effect that impacts many members of the society, even going all the way up to the princes of the land.

Along with this, many Indian stories will show that kings that communicate with their subjects and the people in their kingdom will be the most successful and noble rulers. While the role and personality of the king is not explicitly described in this particular story, the king was able to find out the reason why his son’s fish had not dried because he had a good relationship with his subjects–and interestingly, the animals–of his kingdom. If he did not have this relationship, he would not have been able to find the cause of his problem and probably would have had to use a fear factor to get the answers that he wanted. This is an important commentary on the societal hierarchy that is present in India. In Indian society, when the ruler or monarch of a specific region is disrespectful of the common folk, regardless of caste or religion, then it it will be difficult to have a good rapport with them.

There are also particular folklore techniques used in this story that enable those performing it to remember it with ease. Even as a child, I was able to know the story and know exactly what would happen next because of the format and progression of the story. The repetition of the flow, along with cause-and-effect style allow the story to be easily recalled and performed–especially over the various children’s sleepless nights. For bedtime stories especially, the performer of the story needs to be able to recall properly; if the story-teller beings to forget what happens, then the audience will get confused or upset that the story is not being told “correctly.”

This story has significance for GH and myself as this story has been passed down the generations of our family. The story is also one that is specific to the region from which GH is from, so knowing this story is a way to define the region from which the individual is. I had heard this story on many nights before bed, so know whenever my family or I hear the story, we immediately feel calm–or even sleepy–even if it is the middle of the day.

Serbian Derogatory Roma Joke

“So a Roma woman, a gypsy woman, goes to the gynecologist, and the gynecologist has his gloves on. He notices that his gloves are ripped and notices that his wedding ring has fallen into the gypsy woman’s vagina, So he goes and he looks around and then sticks his head in, and then he sticks his whole body in, and he he is walking around in her vagina. And he sees another man in there who seems to be looking for something. He says to the man, “Hey I lost my ring, have you seen my ring?” And the other man says to him, “No, have you seen my horses?”

Context: This informant, SM, is half-Serbian and was telling my friends and I about a specifically vulgar and racist joke that she has heard other Serbian folks tell her. She explains that the Roma people are all over Europe and some parts of Asia, and are nomadic people. They are known as “gypsy” people, which is a derogatory term as they do not like being called as such. Serbians do not have a positive outlook on the Roma people, as they are seen as beggars and pickpockets. SM explains that sometimes they [gypsies] even use their children to get sympathy and get more money. The stereotype that is used by this joke is that Roma women have a lot of children, hence the size of the woman’s genitals in the story. The joke stuck with SM because of how derogatory and misogynistic it was. SM does not agree with this derogatory speech towards this specific ethnic group, and whenever telling the joke she prefaces by stating her own views towards the joke.

Analysis: Jokes, especially crude ones, are incredibly telling and descriptive of the culture from which the joke emerged. Jokes are a reflection of the things that a particular culture find humorous or witty, or can be a way to allow the persistence of certain stereotypes and essentially make fun of them. For example, the ample number of “blonde” jokes that are basically just jokes about how dumb blonde people–specifically women–are. These jokes allowed the spread of this stereotype across various American communities, leaving many blonde people the burden of having to prove their intelligence–even though none of this is rooted in fact. In this case, the Roma people, and the Roma women are being put down in a racist way, and is a reflection of certain Serbian communities’ views on the ethnic group. The experiences and observations of the Roma People by the Serbian society have influenced the way that they perceive these people. These stereotypes bleed into their jokes as a way to connect with the rest of their community, despite its provocative nature.

Along with this, there is a specific demographic to whom we tell stereotypic jokes. SM would never repeat this joke in front of a Roma person, in fear of offending them or them thinking that she shared the views espoused by the joke. This shows that we alter the way that we share folklore based on the context and the audience.

Holi – Hindu Festival

“So Holi is a Hindu festival, traditionally a religious festival, that kind of symbolizes the beginning of spring and the end of winter. It’s kind of like a fun festival where people kind of get together and meet people and have fun. It usually involves wearing white clothing and throwing vibrant, colored power at each other; there is usually a lot of music and street food involved as well.  However, in recent years, more people who aren’t Hindu have been participating, and it’s become more of a cultural thing that a lot of people celebrate rather than just a strictly religious Hindu celebration. This is kind of due to the fact that we throw colored powder at each other, and people see that as a lot of fun. So a lot more people have gotten involved, especially in the United States and other western countries, where they kind of do a similar thing where they throw colors at each other like Color Runs and such. So Holi has kind of moved to the rest of the world instead of just sticking in one culture.”

Context: The informant is an Indian American student. The informant was describing the spring festival Holi to her roommates following USC’s plan to have a Holi celebration on campus in order to explain exactly what it was. The roommates had heard of the holiday, but wanted to know about why the holiday was celebrated. As shown in the text, SV sees the festival as an easily transmutable tradition that can participated in by anyone, regardless of their culture, religion, or status.

Analysis: The spread of religious festivals and occasions to various regions of the world that may not know that religious backstory is reminiscent of a more secular shift by the ritual. The shift of the Holi festival to other areas of the world demonstrates the universal appeal of the customs associated with the festival. This is demonstrated by the adoption of throwing colored powder in the Color Run, a secular, non-Hindu activity. Having a particular aspect of a festival to be so widely loved allows many people to participate and increase awareness of respective holiday. This is evidenced in the fact that often the parts of each culture that members of other cultures will remember are associated with festivals or holidays. For example, when we think of American holidays, we think of Thanksgiving–which is quite appealing food-wise. This holiday is usually one that is inclusive, and many families will invite others to come and eat with them.

While some would think that this could be seen as cultural appropriation, this goes against the spirit of Holi. In India, where there is a strict socioeconomic hierarchy, Holi is one of the few days of the year where everybody, regardless of religion or caste can go into the streets and celebrate spring. It is an amazing festival that brings everyone together. Therefore, allowing other people–either non-Hindu or not Indians–to participate in Holi, demonstrates the openness of the festival.

Struwwelpeter – German Folktale to Frighten Children

“Struwwelpeter is the villain in the story, and is about a boy that does not want to cut his nails despite his parents advice, and he is warned of the villain/demon type figure–Struwwelpeter–who has curly blond hair, at least that is what he looked like in the book. He also had very, very long fingernails, and wore this sort of tunic outfit with pants.

So basically, if the young boy refused to cut his nails, his parents told him that Struwwelpeter would come. The boy refused to cut his nails, and Struwwelpeter came in the middle of the night. He cut off not only the boy’s nails but also the boy’s fingers, so he didn’t have any fingers.”

Context: The informant, ML, and myself were talking about the stories that we were told as children that would keep us in line. The informant, being of German descent told me this story that scared him as a child. Struwwelpeter is a German folktale. His mother was read this story as a child, and she used to be terrified by it. This story teaches a lesson in a very brutal, typically German way, according to ML. Most of the German children’s folktales are pretty gruesome, and follows the nature of German parental “advice-giving”. ML’s grandfather used to tell him that the way to get a child to not go near the stove was to hold one of their hands over the burners and possibly singe their hand a little bit, so that it would hurt and they would know that touching the stove in the future would hurt.

Analysis: I agree with ML’s insights as to the pattern this folktale follows. One of the most famous collections of German folklore was the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The stories, while still reminiscent of the tale circulating in German oral history, were “cleaned up”–removing violence and sex–to cater to a wider, and younger audience.For example, Rapunzel was supposed to be impregnated by the prince who visits her tower, but later editions of the Grimms removed this reference to sex, particularly the pre-marital kind. However, the tales from which the Grimm’s stories were derived from children’s folklore aimed to scare the youth into abiding by certain rules and obeying what their parents and society told them; in this case, you must cut your nails if you want do not want to be mangled by this terrifying demon figure.

Along with this, the context in which ML was taught this folk belief shows how folklore can change over time. The informant was told the story by his mother in a way that shows that she was told this story to scare her as a child, but she was not going to use the same story to scare her child. In this way, ML’s mother is no longer spreading this belief as something that the informant should be believing, but rather as a way to connect with her child. Folklore is shown as a way to connect various generations together through similar experiences; in this case, the reluctance for children to cut their nails is somewhat universal. For another version of this tale, see Spence, Robert, et al. Struwwelhitler A Nazi Story Book by Dr. Schrecklichkeit (Philip and Robert Spence). Autorenhaus-Verlag, 2014.

Itchy Palms – Ukrainian Superstition

“My grandmother tells me that if you have itchy palms, that means that someone will be at the door soon and you will need to shake their hand.”

Context: The informant, TH, is a second-generation Ukrainian-American. She lives with her Ukrainian immigrant grandparents, and tell my friends and I various slightly absurd and random superstitions that her grandmother reminds her of. For TH, she does not actually believe in this superstition, but regardless she still brings it up if she sees me itching my palms.

Analysis: This superstition contains many of the qualities that folk belief and superstitions contain. While most superstitions are somewhat confusing and irrational to people outside that culture, it is rooted in certain traditions and beliefs of the culture. In Ukrainian culture, the doorway and the threshold holds a special power; thus there are various superstitions involving doors. For example, you are not allowed to sit on a doorstep because the ashes of the family’s ancestors would be buried under the doorstep. While the informant did not actually know this backstory, there is some importance that is held for doorways in Ukrainian culture which is evidenced by this superstition.

On a side note, it is also interesting to see another sign superstition that involves itchy palms–the one that is more widely known in the U.S. is that itchy palms means that you receive some money soon. This is an interesting dichotomy, and shows the difference between the two cultures. For Americans, we look favorably upon money and see it as something we all want, while in Ukraine, itchy palms is sometime equated with having to shake hands with someone. This could be indicative of the power that the threshold holds, and also the Ukrainian value of hospitality and generosity. Many Ukrainian festivals and traditions are open to people of all cultures and faiths, and always feed their guests well.