New wine in old bottle : Folktales of Manipur 2.0


Ranjan Yumnam
Feathers, Fools and Farts : Manipuri Folktales Retold, a creative collaboration of Messrs. Somi Roy, Dr Hindustani Thangjam and Dr Yumnam Sapha, is an anthology of folktales of Manipur dressed in new clothes apt for a modern audience. It has all the usual ingredients of magic, sorcery, demons, heroes, tricksters, good and the evil, beauty, love, betrayal and avarice and many more. But before we enter their wondrous world inhabited by shape shifting creatures and men, let’s tiptoe just a little bit, to look at the generic nature of the origin and structure of folktales as a category of human imagination.
It goes without saying that everybody loves a good story. Especially if the story is relatable to our life, customs, traditions, worldview and the society of which we are a part. Any piece of gossip that involves people or events that can be remotely identified with or meaningful to us is a source of avid interest and urgency than the same happening elsewhere. Editors of newspapers know this well, and it is not uncommon to see the National dailies becoming more like local publications in terms of its content bias towards events occurring here and nearby. Going local means appealing directly to what matters to us. Give us our daily Biren instead of Biden, any day.
Again, human beings are always on the lookout for patterns to seek meanings and make sense of the world which is essentially indifferent to them. The world is complex and unpredictable. We trudge, drudge and die with dust. Much like the Sisyphus in the Greek Mythology, we keep on pushing the heavy boulder up the mountain only to slip off its cliff on reaching the zenith. What is the purpose of life ? Is there God ? Why was I born ? How should I live ? Why is there evil ? Why is there something rather than nothing ? Why are things the way they are ? Is there life after death ? There are no clear answers to these eternal questions. These are hard nuts to crack.
Religions will have you believe that God created the world for a purpose codified in the sacred texts of the various creeds. Have faith, no fumbling please. Philosophy has been trying to wisen up with reasoning, arguments, logic, linguistic analysis, rhetoric, daydreaming and plain mudslinging. Psychologists and neurologists have jumped onto the bandwagon and seem almost psychic in saying that everything is due to the neurons firing and functioning in a certain way in our brain. Science, since Democritus, has been saying it is the atoms, laws of physical world, that produce cause and effect and that everything in the universe is determined following the immutable laws. Until Quantum physics plays the Devil’s Advocate and throws cold water on all these theories and like the movie of its namesake proclaims: Everything, Everywhere All At Once. Darwin and Dawkin have replaced Gods and deities— creationism be damned. This vicious and mind-boggling cycle of explaining the universe is an ongoing story waiting for a black swan to dislodge another purple swan.
May be life is to be understood backwards but lived forward as Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard said. In the same breath, Friedrich Nietzsche succinctly put it: “Existence precedes Essence”, referring to the endless choices that we are compelled to make as we go about living our life without a definitive manual for living.  I am quoting all these dead philosophers because our need to find meanings in life is a universal quest and all we end up is believing in one narrative or the other—secular or ecclesiastical. The menu of such grand narratives has only grown larger as philosophy, cults, religion, science have mushroomed since the days of ancient cave arts. And Mythology is also just a narrative, signposts to anchor our lives in a sea of uncertainty. The beauty about mythology is that it deals with weighty matters in layman bites that can be chewed in leisure with pleasure.
Nevertheless, the catch is : It amazes us no end that themes and moral lessons that underlie all the myths of the world are universal in nature and common irrespective of their origin across millennia, a plausible testament to the fact that human condition with its grappling of the moral dilemma, injustice, hopes and fears is universal.
Thinkers and psychologists too have wrung their heads over this commonality in myths that transcends race, religions, history and epochs. It seems mythologies and folktales always carry the same heat signature, so to say, with only slight tinkering here and there in the narrative, playing with degrees and intensity of values, permutation of characters and scenarios. Themes such as creation of universe, rewards and punishments, divine powers, heroism, truth, triumph of good over evil, filial piety, sacrifice, altruism, faith, love, kinship etc. involving natural calamities, magic, tricksters, witches are the essential stuff of all mythology that have captured the fascination of anyone anywhere of any age.
Carl Jung called this universality of themes and characters found in the mythologies “the Archetypes” and theorized that there is a “collective unconscious’ immanent in the human species and the recurrence of the archetypes in myths only proves that basically we all face the same existential crisis in one way or the other. Before Jung, the entire edifice of psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud was premised on the Greek mythology of Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother, interpreting myths as cathartic and engendering social cohesion. The anthropologist Levi De Strauss, after studying 500 myths and folktales of the world, concluded that the individual elements of all myths may be different aligning with the features of the society from which they emerged, but the structure of the myths remains fundamental and conforms to the universal themes. Dear Annoyed Reader, I want to bring in Naom Chomsky here and quickly mention his “universal grammar” but let’s jump to the fun fart. Enough of mumbo jumbo already.
Manipur being a civilization of 2000 years has a rich treasure trove of its own myths and folktales. And these genres have been documented by many literary persons, historians, cultural aficionadas. The stalwart among them is L Somi Roy, son of the venerable and beloved MK Binodini, a royal figure and arguably the Virginia Woolf of Manipur as a feminist and literary doyen during her time. Carrying the torch forward left behind by MK Binodini and furthering her legacy, Somi Roy sprang into the cultural and literary firmament with his book, “The Princess and the Political Agent”, an English translation of his beloved mother’s novel “Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi” which was published by the Penguin as a Modern Classic. He has translated other works as well and churned out original books but for the sake of brevity, let’s say Somi Roy is a man of letters and intellect with a royal pedigree having a rare gift for discovering Manipur’s great cultural artefacts and bringing them into the mainstream. Prior to Feathers, Fools and Farts, he had another feather in his hat in the form of And That Is Why: Manipuri Myths Retold (pourquoi sub-genre). After the success of these books, his latest work is the wonderfully illustrated Feathers, Fools and Farts: Manipuri Folktales Retold, the subject of this review.
On the face of it, it is quite strange that myths and folktales which are supposed to be transmitted from one generation to another through oral tradition or verbal retelling are now printed in indelible ink, mass produced with plots frozen between pages. Yet there are valid reasons for transformation of something innately oral into tales embossed in permanent media formats.
One reason I could surmise: In this age of social media, instant gratification, video games and short attention span, the indigenous folktales may get lost under the weight of mythologies from influential Upanisads and transcontinental western civilizations. Two, we need to reinvent our folktales for relevancy reflecting modern ethos, lifestyle and aspirations of the new generation. Third, to turn our folktales into a work of art for pleasure and beauty that can be seen on a coffee table, photographed with an iPhone, touched, gaped at and shared in the Tik Toks.
All of these objectives have been achieved by Feathers, Fools and Farts created by L Somi Roy, Hindustani Thangjam and Yumnam Sapha.  They are the three musketeers that have disrupted the folktales scene of Manipur and created a ruckus with their brilliant vision, cleverness of language and aesthetic treatment of their material.
I guess much of the heavy lifting in conceptualisation, defining the scope and vision and publication of this book is done by L Somi Roy as the avuncular writer and thinker. And that reflects pervasively in reading the book and you inevitably get the lurking presence of a mature, sophisticated and cultural revivalist working the magic of his craft.
As folktales are well known, I won’t be indulging in the absurdity of parroting the retelling of the stories from this fantastic book as I hate the spoiler alerts from myself or others. Secondly, I also don’t want to rob you of the raw satisfaction, awe and wonder one gets from reading first hand the anthology and appreciating the design, illustration, colours, elegance of typesets, etc. visible prominently in this book. Any paraphrasing of the folktales in this book will be akin to a cheap dumbing-down and sloppy mimicry of the unique form and style of the folktales woven by the authors with a flamboyant flavour and I will be doing a great disservice to them should it to happen. Suffice it to say that the book contains 9 iconic folktales of Manipur in 10 chapters, including Hanuba Hanubi Panthaba, Keibu Keioiba, Sandrenbi Cheisra, Tapta, etc.
However, I will leave tantalizing hints of some pleasant surprises you can expect from the book. You will find mention of Pizza, Christmas, Momos, etc. when you are least prepared for encountering them.  As you go unsuspectingly with the predictable flow of the popular folktales, your sense of familiarity and therefore control over the story will be shaken like an earthquake had just struck. Familiar characters in the stories have been swapped with a sleigh of subtle authorial hand and your moral hinges may come crashing down without any magic wand being used.  The English language is used like it’s a rocket science for evoking the intended emotional response and for imparting special effects to the story telling. The only flipside to this is that too much of good things is an assault on our senses and cognitive threshold. But all is forgiven. You deserve the book you read.
Finally, let’s dive into the artistic beauty of this farting monster of a book. Tamo Somi Roy told me that his book is not just a book of Manipur’s folktales but also a vehicle for bringing the Manipur’s unsung art form known as the Subika paintings to the notice of a global audience. “Manipur is renowned in the world as the place of performative arts and skills such as its Classical dance forms, martial art, Polo, but not so much in the medium of paint, brushes and canvas. Promotion of Subika Artform will change that,” opines Somi. The genius hand behind the Subika-inspired illustrations is Dr Yumnam Sapha, an Assistant Professor at the MU and a Manipur State Kala Akademy awardee.
Needless to say, the masterful illustrations of Yumnam Sapha are a beauty to behold, so much so that at times, it led me to harbour a fleeting illusion that Feathers, Fools and Farts is an Art Catalogue of Sotheby’s punctuated by pretentious text descriptions by Somi and Hindustani playing catch up. If not for the wonderful panoply of folktales retold in a refreshing style and tenor, the 3 Fs is a book worth buying only for admiring and enjoying the sensations of looking at art to ‘unself’ yourself and be transported to another transcendental world as Iris Murdoch might have said. It’s quite evident that Yumnam Sapha needs a gallery now, more than a book—an aspiration Somi Roy could give wings to, given his expertise and reach in the art scene in New York and the global stage.
I thoroughly enjoy reading Feathers, Fools and Farts. I am confident that you—My Dear Intrigued Reader—will love it from the first page to the last few pages where the profiles of the creators are featured with PUFFIN’s insignia and all, an imprint of Penquin Random House.  
Roy & Hindustani’s cocktails are as Indian or universal as any Manipuri concoctions and I suspect that they will agree with my rather clairvoyant feeling that they will read my story of their storybook again to find out what they missed and what omission I committed. Which only proves how predictable is our love for narratives and stories in a world that is mysterious and indifferent to us, which is a truth of mythic proportions. But again, is myth a truth or a falsehood ? Another thought for another day.
For now, cheers to the team behind the 3 Fs.