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
"Why does thy daughter-in-law not give me
"Why, O daughter-in-law, dost not give
"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.
February 27, 1883.