Stories hidden within stories

Ankita Rajasekharan

There was once a young, cheerful child. She loved skipping and climbing up monkey-bars. The only thing she liked more than playing in the park were toffees and candies! One evening, she came home to a large jar of toffees sitting unattended on the table. It was a clear glass spherical jar with a small mouth, but big enough for the girl to put her little fist in and grab all the toffees she could. And that is exactly what she did! Climbing on to a chair, she reached for the jar and put her hand in, excited at this unexpected loot! Grabbing on to all the toffees she could, she attempted to pull her hand out and found herself stuck. She tugged and pulled, to no avail. Quickly panicking, she began to weep. Her mother came out hearing this and chuckled gently on seeing the scene. She comforted the little girl and asked that she let go off some of the toffees she was clutching on to. The little girl’s hand would still not come out of the jar. She let go of a few more toffees until there were only two in her fist. Now, the little girl’s hand, without all those toffees swelling it up, slid out easily. Handing over one toffee to her mother and peeling open one for herself, they both enjoyed the toffees. The little girl had learnt her lesson and was no longer greedy for more than she could have!

My mother had narrated this story to me as a 6-7 year old, tactfully just around when we had been invited over by our neighbours for evening tea. Dressed in clean clothes, I was on my best behaviour as I seated myself next to mum. Aunty brought out a plate piled up with soan-papadi, placed it on the teapoy in front of me and went in for more. I immediately leaned in to help myself! My mum tugged at me and reminded me of the toffee-girl story. I whispered to her, I’d take only one! My mum tugged again and reminded me how the girl got into trouble for taking the toffee without being offered. I was to wait for the host to come back out, offer the sweets and then politely take only one or two at most.

That story had more for me to learn from than the obvious. It was a gentle nudge in teaching me etiquette and polite ways of being in society. This wasn’t a quick lesson; it’d take several stories to train one in ways of understanding and interacting with the world. Humans and storytelling may share an almost equal timeline of existence. For as long as we have been able to communicate, we have tried to handover and carry down stories of our times – past, present, and future. “Story is an important way to establish the individual and cultural self” (Akar Vural, 2014). Stories have been how we imparted integral wisdom of the living and the dead, of medicine and magic, of laws and chaos, of observations and imaginations, of wars and love, of faith and myths. Every story has a few key literary elements – characters (who it is about), themes (what it is about), setting (where and when it is taking place), plot (what is going wrong, how it is made right). These form the skeletal frame of the story over which all other details are built. Intertwined in these details come hidden messages for the reader, absorbed, often, unintentionally. A story about an unlikely relationship between a crocodile and a monkey that feeds him sweet mangoes could just be about loyalty and betrayal in friendship. And yet, it is a lot more than that. Most retellings of the famous Panchatantra tale go something like this – A monkey and crocodile become friends, with the monkey dropping down sweet fruits to the crocodile. One day, the crocodile carries home a few fruits for his wife who wonders how sweet the monkey’s heart must be from eating all these sweet fruits and asks her husband to bring home the monkey so she may taste the heart. The crocodile is heartbroken but wants to please his wife – the story goes on, with the crocodile finally getting fooled and the monkey breaking their friendship. Depending on which version of the story one encounters, the story goes beyond loyalty in friendship and quick wit. It also imparts the stereotype of the ‘jealous’ wife who wanted more attention from her husband (https://www.tell-a-tale.com/panchatantra-monkey-crocodile/), the ‘greedy’ and ‘cunning’ wife who tricked her husband into betraying his friend (https://byjus.com/kids-learning/panchatantra-stories-the-monkey-and-the-crocodile/), crocodiles as creatures that are evil, plotting, and untrustworthy (https://www.vedantu.com/stories/the-crocodile-and-the-monkey). It doesn’t take much thinking to arrive at examples of many more stories that corroborate these stereotypes – both children’s stories and movie scripts. The narratives of wives being envious and villainous are plentiful and so are narratives of the reptile world being cunning and vengeful. Myriad stories and myths combine the two as well, of vengeful women who turn into snakes, of vengeance seeking snakes turning into beautiful women to prey on unsuspecting men.

Stories carry within them hidden themes with unintended (or perhaps less explicit) lessons, values, and insights. In the language of pedagogy and schooling, a ‘hidden curriculum’ deals with tacit ways in which knowledge and behaviour get constructed, outside the usual course materials and formally scheduled lessons (McLaren, 1994). The stories we take to our children also carry an element of this hidden curriculum – unintended impressions of the world we inhabit. A case could however be made for the hidden curriculum not being so unintended/thoughtless. Quite often, hidden curricula within stories help maintain the status quo in society, help maintain prejudices and stereotypes – the story of witches for example. Most fables and tales that speak of forests and humans may have a character of a witch – very often, a lone woman with magical prowess hidden away in the darkest part of the jungle; someone to be feared, kept away from; someone with curses on her finger tips; someone usually portrayed as being haggard, unkempt, wrinkly with sagging skin and old. A wizard on the other hand, is a male magician, with much the same powers and knowledge of potions and spells – but see how the vocabulary has changed? Curses to spells. A wizard isn’t a haggard, unkempt one. A wizard is wise, is sought for wisdom in a time of need, a witch is sought to dispel a curse (most likely cast by her previously – think, Beauty and the Beast) or is often the antihero (think the Disney movie – Tangled). This plays well into the narrative of the actual history of lone women and medicine women who were feared and misunderstood for they did not fall into the prototype of a woman – one seeking family, serving the dominant sex. ‘Witch-hunts’ were true of our history and in a redefined way, continue to exist. And yet, there are the alternatives to this biased narrative. ‘Witches’ are seeing a comeback with a renewed connotation. Hayao Miyazaki from the well-known and loved Ghibli studios came out with Kiki’s Delivery Service’ in 1989, a touching story of a 13-year old witch seeking her purpose and role in the world as a witch – a world in which Miyazaki did not write witches as evil or uncommon, a world where witches lived amidst the common folk, looked and spoke much like them, even were troubled by self-esteem and self-doubt… all this while flying atop a broom! In more recent literature, we have Rachael Griffin’s book The Nature of Witches, published in 2021. The premise of the story being of witches and humans coexisting, with the witches controlling the climate that is quickly getting out of hand owing to human actions. Only one witch may be able to turn things around and she is still learning to navigate her magical powers going through very much human like challenges as a teenager – friendship, self-doubt, courage, and love. And then of course you have the Harry Potter series with a much more layered view of magic and witchcraft.

Stories hold the potential of creating a mirage and a reflection of the world we find ourselves in. It becomes crucial to look for the stories within stories – stories of gendered roles, of political ideologies, of class prejudices, of power dynamics, of beauty and body images, of race and ethnicity, of kinship and separation with the natural world. Within the scope of this article, we have only dipped ankle-deep in our exploration of hidden stories of gendered roles and perspectives of our lived and imagined worlds. Taking a pause here, with an invitation to keep our ears and eyes open to read between and within the lines, question the play of characters, and re-imagine stories where necessary.

References

  1. Akar Vural, Ruken. (2014). Stories and Hidden Curriculum: Do We Need to Re-think About Stories in Drama?
  2. McLaren, P. L. (1994). Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education (2nd Edition). New York: Longman.

The author is an educator and nature enthusiast. She enjoys working with children on nature and art based explorations, spending time in the natural environment, observing and documenting small happenings in nature. She has been working as an educator for over seven years now. She can be reached at 27.ankita@gmail.com.

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