To Sanitize or Not to Sanitize

Dr. Madhu Mitra


"But that's not the way the story ends," my brother protested, surprised that I had forgotten the dramatic climax of one of our favorite childhood tales.  "The brother and sister kill the tiger cubs and truss them up above the kitchen stove; the blood dripping from their bodies creates little hisses of steam as they fall into the fire, and the tiger thinks his dinner is being cooked. . . ."

My brother was referring to one of the stories from Tuntuni's Book, a collection of Bengali folk tales we never tired of hearing when we were children.  My mother realized that with some help from Tuntuni (a tiny tailorbird) and Majantali Sarkar (a wily tomcat) and Boka Jola (a foolish weaver) and Buddhur Baap (Buddhu's father), she could make us eat the healthiest and the blandest of vegetables.  She could, for instance, distract me from picking out the onions in the daal (they tasted fleshy, like earthworms, I told her; she wondered-reasonably-how I knew what earthworms tasted like) with the story of Tuntuni's attempts to get a thorn out of her foot.  When I was old enough to read, I put myself in charge of helping my brother fall asleep by reading to him the heroic tale of a little bird outsmarting the king, or the sad one of a naive crocodile entrusting his babies to the care of a cunning fox, or the funny one about a foolish weaver who submerged his feverish mother in the river because that was how he had cooled his sickle.  My brother had his favorites and I had mine, but we worked out an amicable understanding by which both of us delved into the stories as often as we could.

And now, encouraged by a grant from the Minnesota Humanities Commission, I was back amid the Tuntuni tales, translating some of them into English for a sabbatical project.  My brother, on whom I was trying out an early draft of one of the stories, objected to the way I had cleaned up the ending-I had hidden the carcasses of tiger cubs and mopped up every drop of blood.  In my story the cubs are simply locked up in another room while the brother and sister make their escape.  Of course I remembered how our story ended, I told my brother, but could he imagine any publisher of children's stories touching one that ended with the slaughter of baby animals? Could he imagine parents reading such a story to their child at bedtime?  My brother looked thoughtful.  "But ours did," he said.  "Do you think we were damaged by those stories?"

I wonder: is it possible to pinpoint the source of damage so precisely, if damage has been done?  Can stories that gave us so much pleasure and nurtured our imagination (and got us to eat our food, my mother reminds me) also have caused some imperceptible harm?  Impossible, I declare.  But I know that if I were a parent reading to my child at bedtime, I would probably skip that story.

We didn't grow up with the ubiquitous presence of violent images around us.  But then neither did we know how adorably cute little tiger cubs look.  Perhaps that explains the difference between the way we read those stories and the way they might be read today.  Perhaps we knew instinctively what the old storyteller in Ngugi wa Thiongo's Devil on the Cross says: "Stories are not about ogres or about animals or about men.  All stories are about human beings."  Folktales especially are always about human beings.  The Tuntuni stories are not about birds or foxes or tigers; they are about the anxieties and the struggles of the Bengali peasant.  But I'm not sure we can read folktales these days without assigning autonomy to the various characters.  Have we lost our ability to read folktales as tales about folks?  I don't know.  For now, I have decided not to translate that particular story at all.