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Folk-Tales of
Bengal

Preface

 


In my Peasant Life in Bengal I make the peasant boy Govinda spend some hours every evening in listening to stories told by an old man, who was called Sambhu's mother, and who was the best story-teller in the village. On reading that passage, Captain R. C. Temple, of the Bengal Staff Corps, son of the distinguished Indian administrator Sir Richard Temple, wrote to me to say how interesting it would be to get a collection of those unwritten stories which old women in India recite to little children in the evenings, and to ask whether I could not make such a collection. As I was no stranger to the Mahrchen of the Brothers Grimm, to the Norse Tales so admirably told by Dasent, to Arnason's Icelandic Stories translated by Powell, to the Highland Stories done into English by Campbell, and to the fairy stories collected by other writers, and as I believed that the collection suggested would be a contribution, however slight, to that daily increasing literature of folk-lore and comparative mythology which, like comparative philosophy, proves that the swarthy and half-naked peasants on the banks of the Ganges is a cousin, albeit to the hundredth remove, to the fair-skinned and well-dressed Englishman on the banks of the Thames, I readily caught up the idea and cast about for materials. But where was an old story-telling woman to be got? I had myself, when a little boy, heard hundreds -- it would be no exaggeration to say thousands -- of fairy tales from that same old woman, Sambhu's mother -- for she was no fictitious person; she actually lived in the flesh and bore that name; but I had nearly forgotten those stories, at any rate they had all got confused in my head, the tail of one story being joined to the head of another, and the head of a third to the tail of a fourth. How I wished that poor Sambhu's mother had been alive! But she had gone long, and her son Sambhu, too, had followed her thither. After a great deal of search I found my Gammer Grethel -- though not half so old as the Frau Viehmannin of Hesse-Cassel -- in the person of a Bengali Christian woman, who, when a little girl and living in her heathen home, had heard many stories from her old grandmother. She was a good story-teller, but her stock was not large; and after I had heard all from her I had to look about for fresh sources. An old Brahman told me two stories; an old barber, three; an old servant of mine told me two; and the rest I heard from another old Brahman. None of my authorities knew English; they all told the stories in Bengali, and I translated them into English when I came home. I heard many more stories than those contained in the following pages; but I rejected a great many, as they appeared to me to contain spurious additions to the original stories which I had heard when a boy. I have reason to believe that the stories given in this book are a genuine sample of the old old stories told by old Bengali women from age to age through hundred generations.

Sambhu's mother used always to end every one of her stories -- and every orthodox Bengali story-teller does the same -- with repeating the following formula :-

Thus my story endeth,

The Natiya-thorn withereth;

"Why, O Natiya-thorn, dost wither?"

"Why, does thy cow on me browse?"

"Why, O cow, dost thou browse?"

"Why, does thy neat-herd not tend me?"

"Why, O neat-herd, dost not tend the cow?"

"Why does thy daughter-in-law not give me rice?"

"Why, O daughter-in-law, dost not give rice?"

"Why does my child cry?"

"Why, O child, dost thou cry?"

"Why does the ant bite me?"

"Why, O ant, dost thou bite?"

Koot! koot! koot!

What these lines mean, why they are repeated at the end of every story, and what the connection is of the several parts to one another, I do not know. Perhaps the whole is a string of nonsense purposely put together to amuse little children.

 

Hooghly College,

February 27, 1883.

LAL BEHARI DAY

 

 


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