Residence: Rhode Island
Date of Performance/Collection: 03/10/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Hindi, Telugu
“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.