Monday, March 21, 2005

When India met China

I prefer horror and classic literature in my reading list. But once in a while I need a break from the thick, small-font books with long stories and complicated characters. So when the mood comes along I would pick up fiction for young readers, something that I can read in one day.

Last month, apart from Charlotte's Web, which I talked about in a previous post, I also read Seasons of Splendour: Tales, Myths and Legends of India, and Tales of a Chinese Grandmother, among others.

Seasons and Tales are filled with folktales from India and China respectively. What I find interesting is that they both incorporate stories with a certain date and celebrations in the year.

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In Seasons, Madhur Jaffey would talk about her own views and memories of a particular time and follow it with the related folktales. In August, India would celebrate Krishna's birthday and so it's just natural to continue with stories of Krishna, the blue god. In September, there's Moon-day, a time to remember the dead where she also talks about her own grandfather and how he died. To complement this, she told the story of Doda and Dodi, a rich brother and his poor sister. Even though they are so different in stature, they still love each other. It's Doda's wife that's 'unpleasant'. Even when Doda wants to celebrate Moon-day to remember their father's death, she still treated Dodi badly. This style is consistent in every season.

It was with this book that I learned the many festivities that Indians celebrates and its significance like the Dussehra (The Festival of Victory) is when they remember how King Ram defeated Ravan, Holi is the festival of spring, and Karvachauth is when wives fast and pray for the long life of their husbands (cue images from Dulhana Dilwale La Jayenge).

I don't really know much of Indian customs and traditions. The ones that I know of are the ones celebrated here (Deepavali and Thaipusam) and those that I saw in Hindi movies. It doesn't help that Bollywood likes to glamorized their movies instead of telling it as it is. That's how I deduced that Holi is a festival for single boys and girls to mingle and throw colored powder to each other if by chance they get to mark their future mates (cue images from Mohabbatein). What I didn't know is it is also the time when ppl would give thanks to the gods for a bountiful harvest. It is also when they build a huge bonfire to remember Holika, even though wicked at first throw herself in a bonfire to save her innocent nephew. Pretty dramatic if you ask me. You never get to see that in Bollywood movies.

All in all this is a very nice book to get an idea of Indian custom. It is well balanced with a mixture of folktales and legends. And the occasional personal sentiments by the author gives you the sense that between all the tales, myths and legends she's also telling you her life story.

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Tales also has a similar style with Seasons. Instead of incorporating it with personal takes, Frances Carpenter set the story among a fictitious high class family where Lao Lao (Old Old One) would occasionally relate stories to her grandchildren.

The central character, Lao Lao is the head of the large and quite well-off family since her husband died. She's the eldest member and so deserved the highest respect from the whole family. Kind of like Empress Dowager of The Forbidden Palace. I don't know if the stereotype of a matron as a controlling freak and a tyrant is clouding my judgment here but I find it hard to believe the loving and respectful relationship that this family has. She even pass punishments lovingly. Her grandson was asked to pray for forgiveness from the ancestors since he didn't answer when the whole household is looking for him and because he was fighting with his sister, they were 'condemned' to listen to a story of the Kitchen God. No lecture on etiquette, no dissing the parents for raising them badly. Hard to believe.

Well, I learn to ignore this element of the book and concentrate on the stories that the grandmother tells. There are a total of 28 stories ranging from legends of Pan Ku the man who made the world, Gwan Yin the Goddes of Mercy to moral stories in The Wonderful Pear Tree and The Grateful Fox Fairy. There are some good stories like The Mandarin and the Butterflies and The Painted Eyebrow, the latter telling a story why Chinese ladies prefer to paint their eyebrows. A very sweet story actually.

But there are also some unbelieveable stories like The First Emperor's Magic Whip. A legend says "spirits of the mountains themselves helped to roll the stones into their places, and a magic white horse dashed ahead of the wall builders to lay out the way". And the Jade Emperor gave each workman a cord to bind on his wrist so that they can work faster and easier. The Chin Emperor found out about the cord and stole them and braided all of them into a whip. With it he was able to make the rivers stand still, the rocks bleed and continue his ambitious endeavor. The Jade Emperor might as well send a messenger to stop the Emperor in the first place. Unbelieveable.

Another story that kind of tick me off is The Big Feet of Empress Tu Chin. This part of the book started with Yu Lang (the granddaughter) crying in pain because her feet has to be bound. And the grandmother consoled ber by telling the story of Empress Tu Chin. She sleepwalked every night and her husband was concern for her safety. So he decided to cut off eight inches from her twelve-inched feet so that she won't sleepwalk anymore and thus guarantees her safety. At that time big feet was all the rage, so the Empress cried over her ugly small feet. To console her, the emperor ordered every woman in the palace to cut their feet as well and so began the era if small feet. At the end of the story, Yu Lang thanked her grandmother and said, "That is a good story Lao Lao; I have almost forgotten that my poor feet are aching". Unbelieveable.

The fact that one is written by a local and the other by a foreigner might be the reason why I find Seasons more enjoyable than Tales. Tales do have some nicer illustrations but the stories are poorly executed. However this book does not prove that an outsider cannot write about the locals. I've read The Good Earth and I think it's a very good rendition of a Chinaman's life considering Pearl S. Buck is an American. But she has lived there most of her life while Carpenter draws stories from other literary sources. So there's a difference. I guess it is safe to conclude that you must live it to write about it. Must be the reason why most aspiring writers like to live it rough to be inspired (cue images from Moulin Rouge and Try Seventeen).

Which makes me wonder, is my life rough enough? Am I inspired enough? What does it take for me to become a great writer? I want to be immortal! I want my great literary works be praised and admired years after my death! I want a Booker prize! I want a Pulitzer! I want a Nobel Prize! I want it all!!!!

Oh well, I can still dream right?

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