Manjula Padmanabhan (b. 1953), is a fiction writer, artist, playwright and India's first woman cartoonist. In 1997, her play Harvest won first prize in the Onassis Prize for Theater, in Greece. She has published a number of books including a series of picture puzzle books for children. Her most recent book is a science-fiction novel entitled The Island of Lost Girls (Hachette India), set in a future where men and women are combatants in a grim gender battle.
THE PRINCE AND THE STORYTELLERS
There was once a thoughtful and progressive Prince who craved good stories. He announced a competition: the first tale-spinner who could tell a complete story without needing to stop for explanations or revisions would be installed in the palace as Narrator Laureate.
Bards and fabulists soon began to stream in from across the land to entertain the Prince. They were subjected to various elimination rounds until ultimately a small group of finalists was brought before the Prince.
“All right,” said the first teller, “my story is called ‘Little Red Riding Hood’–”
“Sorry,” said the Prince, “I’ve heard that one before. It’s about a piece of clothing, isn’t it?”
“Well … no,” said the teller, “it’s the name of a little girl who wears a red cape that covers her head and shoulders–”
“Then why mention ‘Riding’?” asked the Prince. “Who was riding what? And why didn’t the girl have her own name?”
“Point taken, your Majesty,” said the man. “I’ll start afresh. My story is now called ‘Little Red Dupatta’. It’s about a girl called Manali who lives with her parents near a great forest. Her grandmother, however, lives alone deep within the forest–”
The Prince stopped him. “Right: She’s supposed to deliver food to her grandmother but meets a talking wolf along the way. The wolf runs ahead of her, swallows the grandmother whole and is about to eat the girl too but just then a friendly woodsman appears out of nowhere and kills the wolf–” He shakes his head. “In my view, it’s deeply implausible. I mean, the grandmother returns to life completely unharmed by gastric juices! What are we supposed to learn from this? That girls can behave irresponsibly and grandmothers can live alone in forests so long as there are Woodsmen who can be relied upon to pop up exactly when required!” He shook his head. “Sorry, doesn’t work for me. Next please!”
“My story,” said the next storyteller, an elderly woman, “is about a beautiful girl called Cinderella–”
The Prince stopped her. “I know this one too. Cinderella’s father is a grieving widower. He marries a scheming woman with two vain and foolish daughters of her own. He dies unexpectedly, whereupon the stepmother forces Cinderella to live in the soot and filth of the kitchen. In the end, however, she marries a prince! I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work for me either.”
“That surprises me, Sire,” said the storyteller, undeterred. “If you don’t mind my saying this, perhaps you cannot immediately see the theme of womanly empowerment in this story? The girl takes steps to alter her own fate and succeeds against all odds. For sure, she gets help from a supernatural being, the Fairy Godmother, but the reason she gets that help is her own goodness–”
“Well, you might call it womanly empowerment when a girl takes charge of her own destiny by believing that she deserves to go to a royal ball,” said the Prince. “I call it formidable self-confidence. In my opinion, the supernatural force in the story is Cinderella’s belief in herself in spite of everything that’s been done to crush her. We’re told she’s so modest and sweet-natured that she does nothing to save herself from her cruel stepmother and step-sisters. Yet when she hears of the ball, she literally shoots up from the ashes in order to attend.”
The storyteller arched her eyebrows. “Sire, perhaps you underestimate the resilience of femininity. It is fundamental to all creation. It is what drives the lowliest flower in the fields to attract bees and to bring forth seed–”
The Prince smiled. “Madam, perhaps you underestimate my knowledge of Earth sciences. Yes, Cinderella’s qualities, her beauty and goodness, are the powerhouse behind the whole story. But she didn’t earn those qualities; she was born with them. That suggests the race was rigged from the start. Where is the question of empowerment? She’s merely fulfilling her destiny. The other two girls are described as plain and vain, true enough – but they’re also just young women. Why are they not equally deserving of a happy fate? Which, by the way, in this story is represented by nothing more spectacular than marriage to a prince. That’s a deeply conservative assessment if ever there was one, though I say so myself. Next please.”
In quick succession, the next few storytellers began narratives that were each demolished by the Prince before they could get beyond the title. “The Sleeping Beauty?” he said. “Ah yes, that’s the one where a princess falls asleep for one hundred years yet wakes up fresh as a daisy when kissed by who else, but a prince–”
“Sire,” said the third storyteller, “there are many versions of this story. In all of them, the princess falls into a death-like sleep but the length of time she remains asleep varies.”
“Come, come,” says the Prince. “The underlying message here is about the power of royalty. Look at the consequence of the curse on the princess! Not only is she fast asleep but all the people in the palace remain in suspended animation, untouched by Time, cobwebs, slime, mold, or any other forms of natural decay, while the young woman sleeps.”
“Excuse me, Sir,” said the storyteller, “but aren’t you being a little literal-minded? These are fairy-stories after all. There’s such a thing as suspension of disbelief.”
“Surely I’ve suspended my disbelief quite enough,” said the Prince, “by accepting the existence of a bad-tempered fairy godmother so precise that she can curse a young woman to sleep sixteen years on the dot from her birth? And what about temporal discontinuity? The prince arrives in the sleeping beauty’s future yet when she awakens, they are not only the same age, but they can talk the same language and seem unconcerned about differences in technology that may have occurred during the intervening years.”
“The hundred-year sleep is a plot-device,” insisted the storyteller, a young man who rather fancied his own narrative skills. “It alludes to the regrettable tendency some young women have, of being passive towards their own future well-being. You could say, a ‘sleeping beauty’ is the opposite of a ‘Cinderella’ because she doesn’t engage with her own story, not even to the extent of dressing up for a ball–”
“That’s true,” said the Prince, “and I agree it’s an interesting, attention-getting device. However, I’ve always thought the prince in this story behaves rather strangely. Yes, there are different versions but in all of them he pretty much goes straight up to the princess’s sleeping chamber. In some versions we’re told that she is or was his betrothed, but if so, no explanation is given for the mismatch in age. I mean, if she has fallen asleep for some period of time, surely he was either too young for her when they first met or else he’s grown completely decrepit by the time she’s awake?”
The storyteller wasn’t ready to give up, claiming once again that the Prince was being too literal minded. “All right, then!” exclaimed the Prince, “I wasn’t going to mention my final reason for disliking this story, because it’s a bit indelicate. But you’ve pushed me, so I’ll go ahead and say that I think it’s utterly lacking in common human decency for one person to accost another person when they’re unconscious. Leaving aside the issue of germs and contamination, the fact remains this prince actually kisses a young woman without even trying to wake her up in advance. In my opinion, that represents a violation of her rights as a sovereign human being and provides a very poor example for young people these days. It’s entirely shocking that such stories are considered suitable for children. Next, please?”
The fourth storyteller came forward and introduced his tale. “Oh, Snow-White,” sighed the Prince. “Here we go again. Yet another beautiful princess falls into a death-like sleep only to be revived by yet another royal adventurer who applies his mouth to a girl while she sleeps! It’s really quite depressing.”
“Sire,” said the storyteller, “I accept some of your objections and maybe we can alter those details of the story but – what about the tragic circumstances leading up to this girl’s death-like sleep? What about the courage she shows when she’s abandoned in the woods?”
The Prince purses his lips. “The first part is similar to Cinderella: mother dies, father remarries, step-mother is cruel and ambitious. It’s as if there’s a curse on young beauties, such that their parents are bound to leave them vulnerable to morally bankrupt women. The main difference in this story is the element of royalty and the fact that the step-mother is not merely ill-tempered or scheming but an actual witch with self-image issues. The magic mirror which reveals who is the ‘Fairest of them all’ is an extremely sophisticated plot-device because it has god-like powers. It is not only able to assess beauty in absolute terms, but it’s also able to pinpoint Snow White’s exact location.”
The storyteller, a grey-haired middle-aged man who had once earned a living as a lawyer said, “Your Majesty, based on my experiences, I can assure you that conflicts really do occur between the ladies of a household. Particularly when there are sudden deaths and unprotected nubile daughters. The greed for property combined with the view that young girls do not deserve to control their own wealth causes family members to misbehave–”
“All of what you say is true,” said the Prince. “We must also admire the character of the huntsman who sets the young princess free instead of murdering her, as he was told to do. But what of the seven small men in whose cottage Snow White seeks refuge? They’re described as dwarves living in the deep woods. Yet there’s no explanation given for how they came to be there or how they feed and clothe themselves. No reference is made to parents or indeed to any female dwarves, suggesting that they are spontaneous entities who sprouted full-formed into the story, like mushrooms. They take in a young woman who cleans and cares for them, so we can well understand their fondness for her. Yet neither she nor they express the slightest twitch of desire for one another! Are we supposed to accept that merely by being extremely short, the little men are considered unworthy of passion, either as objects or subjects?”
“Sire,” said the ex-lawyer, “at least consider the fact that when the prince in this story finds the girl, he doesn’t just fall on her and ravish her–”
“Oh indeed,” says the Prince. “But before that phase of the story, we see the evil queen make three attempts to murder the girl, all to no avail! The first couple of times she is thwarted by the dwarves, but the third time, the poisoned morsel of apple lodges in the girl’s throat causing a deep sleep not amounting to death. How is it that even the most powerful evil-doers fail when confronted by beauty and youth? Is there a fundamental imbalance in the Universe favouring the young? And are you, the storyteller, telling me that the good guys are only pretending to put up a fight, because we all know that they are fated to win? If so, I absolutely disapprove of such a conclusion. After all, it is simply not the truth. Age and wisdom, power, wealth, and cunning often do destroy youth and innocence. It takes great effort and real moral force to fight for what we truly believe in. So … no, that story doesn’t work for me either. Next, please?”
The fifth story teller was a young and beautiful woman whose story might have been written about herself, because it was called “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and she herself had that name. Hearing the title, the Prince nodded approvingly. “Ah yes, this is one of the better ones. It has the dead parents, the step-mother and step-sisters, but it’s augmented by the darkly brooding presence of the witch-demon Baba Yaga. She is an excellent character: invincibly powerful, and the heroine truly struggles to get out of her clutches. There’s also the very interesting suggestion that only a dangerous witch can solve the environmental failures being faced by Vasilisa. The underlying message is that important life-threatening problems may require extreme sacrifices. You could say that rulers face these kinds of dangerous choices when making alliances with unreliable neighbours, or use polluting industries in the anticipation of economic progress in the future.”
“So … will you allow me to complete the story, Sire?” asked the storyteller, smiling in a hopeful way.
The Prince shook his head. “I’m sorry, but no. For me the story fails ultimately because the girl succeeds in the same old pre-ordained fashion – that is, she succeeds because she’s fated to succeed. Not only does she remain supremely confident in the face of her step-family’s cruelty but she confronts a powerful witch with nothing more than her own good nature as her shield. Whatever tasks she performs, it is always with superhuman competence. And her ultimate reward is – guess what? – marriage to a prince, of course!” The Prince was about to continue in this vein but he checked himself. The storyteller, he noticed, was looking extremely crest-fallen and discouraged.
“Listen to me, please,” he said to her, using his most friendly voice. “I understand that in your view, the resourcefulness of the heroine and the fact that she’s not born a princess should sway me to her side? Well, think again. For all her accomplishments, Vasilisa’s reward does not go beyond just another high-society alliance. In fact, if you look at all these lady-heroines, it’s the same tedious tale again and again: the grand prize of a girl’s existence is shown to be her marriage to a wealthy and powerful man. We are sometimes told that he’s charming and he might put on a show of bravery, but the most important quality of all is just his status. As a prince myself, maybe I should be delighted to know that I need only exist in order to be considered wildly eligible! But I honestly cannot understand why you, an intelligent and independent-spirited woman, would believe that, too.”
He looked around the room, now addressing all the storytellers. “Even at the level of resourcefulness and character, what is most striking about these heroines is that none of them expresses the slightest interest in men. They don’t engage in any form of seduction, their eyes do not stray by so much as a hair’s breadth towards any males before the moment of their surrender to the Designated One. Nor do they express a fondness for sensual pleasures except in the most oblique ways. For instance, it could be said that the heroine of ‘The Princess and the Pea’ has extremely sensitive skin. And in the ‘Worn Out Dancing Shoes,’ the twelve princesses certainly seem to enjoy dancing. In ‘The Swineherd’, a prince offers a princess a beautiful rose and a sweet-voiced nightingale but she shows him the door, because she cannot appreciate natural gifts. When this same prince disguises himself as a swineherd and shows the girl artificial toys, she’s willing to pay him in kisses in order to possess them. Do I need to add that she ends this story in complete disarray? Her father throws her out for apparently kissing a swineherd and the prince rejects her for being superficial!
“So there you go. Princesses are punished for expressing desire and non-royal heroines can never aspire to anything greater than an advantageous marriage. Given these examples, only the most exceptional and daring of girls would ever dream of breaking the mould.” He turns to the sixth storyteller in line, all but insisting that the young man might try offering a tale with a masculine lead.
“All right,” said the storyteller, “My story is called Jack and the Beanstalk–”
“Oh yes, I know that one,” said the Prince. “And I like it better than the others, because the main character, Jack, isn’t some over-privileged superhero. But there are some objectionable issues in that story, too. We’re given no clear explanation, for instance, why the Giant’s wife is so sympathetic towards Jack. Perhaps she is a normal-sized human? And was she an early abductee? And if so, is she really a slave rather than a wife within the Giant’s home? Similarly, when Jack interacts with objects in the Giant’s house, they appear to be at his scale. After all, when he steals the gold coins they must be the same size as human gold coins or else he could not possibly pick up a whole sack. Ditto for the speaking Harp.”
“Sire,” said the storyteller, interrupting the Prince, “may I suggest shifting your focus just a little? Suppose, for instance, you were to think of the Giant as someone from a bigger and more powerful culture? Suppose this story is really about Colonialism and the suppression of one culture by another? What then? Would it be more attractive to you?”
The Prince nodded thoughtfully. “I like your line of enquiry,” he said, “and there’s certainly a point to it. But it begs the question: why is it acceptable for the hero to behave like a common thief? Is it true that morality doesn’t extend between a dominant being and a subordinate one?” He smiled ironically, realizing that he might be talking about his own situation. “Leaving aside who I am and what I do for a living, if we believe that it’s not all right for a Giant to cook and eat a human being, then why do we think it’s all right for Jack to fool the kindly wife and to steal from the Giant’s home?” He shook his head. “You see, I would like to believe that it’s possible for stories to be interesting and filled with adventure without having to stretch the fabric of decency too much. Next please?”
The seventh storyteller had the appearance of a long-distance traveller. “Your Majesty,” he said, “The story I will tell you is called ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’–”
The Prince interrupted him, as he had done on all the previous occasions, saying, “I’ve heard that one before – if I’m not mistaken, it’s about the young man who hears about a cave of stolen treasure, finds a magic ring and summons a genie …”
The storyteller shook his head, smiling slightly. “No, your Majesty, the story of which you speak involves a young man called Aladdin. He gets locked into a cave full of treasures where he finds a magic lantern and genie. But in the original story there’s no genie. It begins with a simple woodcutter called Ali Baba who happens to overhear a group of forty thieves talking about their treasure-filled cave. He follows them, waits for them to leave and then enters their cave, using the secret password, Open Sesame. He finds the cave filled with treasures, fills one bag of coins and returns to his modest home with it …”
For the next half hour the storyteller continued with the tale, which had many interesting twists and turns, while the Prince listened with close interest. In the course of the story, Morgiana the clever slave-girl who helps Ali Baba foil the murderous thieves is rewarded twice over. First she is freed from slavery when she dispatches 39 of the thieves by pouring boiling oil into the casks in which they are hiding. Then later, when the leader of the gang gets himself invited to Ali Baba’s house for dinner, Morgiana recognizes the last remaining thief and plunges a dagger in his heart. For this act of gallantry, Ali Baba rewards her by arranging her marriage to his own son. At the story’s end, Ali Baba is the only person who still knows how to enter the treasure-filled cave, but he chooses to keep this knowledge to himself without plundering the treasure.
“Wah,” said the Prince, clapping his hands in appreciation. “I like that story! It has many elements of which I approve of – chivalry, resourcefulness, cunning and, best of all a happy ending.” It was clear that he was about to award the final storyteller with the prize, but he could see that the other storytellers in the room were muttering amongst themselves and looking peeved. Being a person who didn’t mind listening to dissenting voices, he invited them to express their objections out loud.
“Well,” said the second teller, the older woman. “To begin with, this is hardly an original story! It just so happens that your Majesty knew the Aladdin version with the genie and the princess but both stories are after all from the same general source–”
The Prince nodded. “That’s true and it’s no surprise. All stories belong to an ocean with many rivers flowing into it. If you recall, I didn’t ask for originality, but a tale that I didn’t feel like interrupting. This is the one that fits my bill. Do you have any other objections?”
The fifth story teller put up his hand. “What about the rather cruel manner in which the slave-girl dispatches the thieves? Why don’t you object to that and call that summary justice? How is it you don’t consider her intelligence as pre-ordained in the way that you have disliked in other stories?”
The Prince smiled. “She is presented to us as a slave girl. That suggests to me that she’s already experienced many difficulties, watching life from the margins, gleaning what she can from her socially disadvantaged perspective. If she learns to be resourceful out of her own thoughtfulness, I consider that not only admirable, but I also understand that it’s in the nature of people who face adversity: they must learn to think for themselves and to be observant.
“When she is rewarded, it takes two forms. First she’s freed and second she merges her reproductive destiny with that of her previous employer’s family, as his daughter-in-law. This suggests to me an elastic and enlightened society, where social mobility is possible even though slavery exists. As a future ruler, I would like to think that my people will be good and honourable. When I find such behaviour in a fictional world, it pleases me and gives me hope. But I am also a prince and as such, it is my prerogative to be capricious. Every story exists within a social construct, a set of conditions. In this story – that is, the one in which I invite you to tell me stories so that I can pick a favourite – the fact that I am described as a prince, suggests not only that I’ll choose one story over all the others but that I will also expect my decision to be accepted without fuss.”
With that, the Prince installed the final storyteller as Narrator Laureate. He gave the other narrators a handful of gold coins each and thanked them for their time. Then he withdrew to his private chambers and the audience came to a close.