Reading a book from every country in the world would be nigh on impossible without the schemes and initiatives that exist to promote the work of emerging authors on the global literary stage. The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program is one of the most established of these, and it was on the list of its alumni, who hail from more than 140 countries, that I came across Ajit Baral.
Even with the exposure from IWP, Ajit Baral’s English language collection of Nepalese folk tales was not easy to come by. In fact, I had to get it shipped from India via Penguin when the usual online retailers drew a blank.
Luckily Baral’s lively retelling of 31 largely oral folktales never before rendered in English is worth the effort. Illustrated by Nepalese cartoonist Durga Baral, they present a vibrant picture of some of the myths, legends, themes and cultures that have shaped the Himalayan nation.
Irreverent, funny and occasionally disturbing, the stories evoke a world full of contradictions, frustrations and marvels. Gods walk the earth, bickering and betting, ghosts steal people’s coats, rats get married and tigers talk.
Some of the tales, like the story about the old man who tries to cheat death and learns the hard way why endless life is not a good thing or the yarn about the vain Uttis tree that falls over a cliff in shock when it is insulted and is left clinging on for all eternity, have an Aesopian quality and seem to serve to explain some of life’s mysteries.
Others, like the story about the scheming barber who ends up being burnt to death when his plans backfire, seem more calculated to raise a laugh at a crook getting his just deserts.
Yet these are largely not moral tales. In fact it is rare that the good win out over the bad. If there is a common theme, it is the punishment of short-sightedness, dullness and stupidity and the rewarding of cunning and quick-wittedness — that and pushing coins up animals’ bottoms to make them appear to pass money, which happens in a surprisingly high number of these tales and which I’m at a loss to explain. If anyone from Nepal (or elsewhere for that matter) can offer a reason for this I’d be intrigued!
All in all, though, it’s the qualities that make for a good storyteller that carry the day — as must have been the case for the people who first told these tales, those who passed them down, and for Baral, who opens them up to a new audience today.
The Lazy Conman and Other Stories by Ajit Baral, illustrated by Durga Baral. Publisher: Penguin India (2009)