Kirin Narayan is an anthropologist who collected these stories in an extended series of interactions with Urmila Devi Sood, a Hindu Indian woman from a the small town of Kangra. Narayan maintains the careful structure of scientific “field work” in this book by writing it as an extended narrative. She faithfully relates the conversations that lead up to the telling of each tale, and inserts breaks in the tales to record the interjections of the listeners who are present, as well family members who enter or leave the room. Narayan preserves the spoken nature of these stories by almost directly transcribing Urmila’s words rather than editing or rewriting them to create a smoother flow.
The tales in this collection are divided into two types, women’s ritual tales and “winter tales” — tales told chiefly to entertain. Narayan asks Urmila to describe the settings and proper uses for the ritual tales, and Urmila adds extensive commentary on the symbolic meanings of specific elements within each tale. Urmila’s sister, Nirmala, also interjects interesting commentary from time to time. Urmila is a traditionally pious woman who sees the tales from a theological perspective. Nirmala takes a more modern viewpoint and interprets the tales anthropologically.
The figure of Honi in these stories is particularly interesting. Honi is sometimes perceived as a sort of goddess, but can also be, like Providence or Lady Luck, simply a name given to the force that brings times of terrible, unexplainable misfortune. As Urmila says in one story, “King Bhoj was after all a great King. It was just when Honi came to him that things had changed. Honi comes to some people for eighteen years, to some for twelve years… but it destroys whatever a person has.” In stories involving Honi, characters achieve heroic stature by remaining steadfast in their principles and enduring until things change for the better.
Another story, “Love like Salt” surprises the reader by being delightfully like Shakespeare’s play King Lear. In Urmila’s telling, a King asks his three daughters to proclaim their love for him. Two of the daughters say that their love is sweet like crystallized sugar and sweetened milk. The third daughter says that her love is like salt, that is plain itself but adds essential taste to all foods. Naturally, her father drives her away in anger for her practical answer, but her truthful and faithful nature leads her to a happy marriage and a life of good work and great wealth.
(Oxford University Press, 1997)