#DesiReads: Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai reads from her anthology, The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long

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Hello and welcome to Episode 41 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai reading from a new collection titled The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long: Folktales, Legends, and Modern Lore of India. These stories were selected and edited by her from various authors and sources.

#DESIREADS WITH LOPAMUDRA MAITRA BAJPAIINTRODUCTION

Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai is a a visual anthropologist, writer, and international columnist. She teaches at universities in India and abroad. Her work focuses on the history, popular culture and communication, and Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of India and South Asia. She is a guest faculty member at Symbiosis University, Pune. She has been a Culture Specialist (Research) at SAARC Cultural Center, Colombo, Sri Lanka; a Research Grant Fellow (Indian High Commission, Sri Lanka), and an Assistant Professor at Symbiosis University, Pune. She has also worked as a correspondent at The Indian Express and The Statesman and she continues to be a regular columnist for international dailies in her areas of research. She has represented India at various international conferences especially concerning Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH.) She has written more than 30 research papers in various international books and journals and this is her fourth book-length work.

The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long: Folktales, Legends, and Modern Lore of India, edited by Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai, is a selection of 108 fabulous folk tales, legends, and stories from more than fifty-seven languages and dialects. From Jammu and Kashmir in the north to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the south, from Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, and all the other states and union territories of India in between, these include tales of heroes and heroines, of ordinary men and women, of wicked mothers-in-law and foolish sons-in-law, of love lost and won, of a tree who loved a girl, of seers and wise men, of chudails, werewolves, and wizards, of a potter girl and the divine cow, of demoiselle cranes and humans transforming into elephants, of how the woodpecker got its crest, and much, much more. Startlingly original, brilliant, wise, and often funny, these stories will delight readers of all ages.

The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long: Folktales, Legends, and Modern Lore of India, edited by Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai, is a selection of 108 stories from >57 languages & dialects. An excerpt from the editor. #desireads .@DesiBooks

The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the website.

And now, here’s Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai.

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DESIREADS WITH LOPAMUDRA MAITRA BAJPAI

[Excerpted with permission from The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long: Folktales, Legends, and Modern Lore of India, edited by Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai. Copyright © 2021 Gayatri Avinash Joshi, Jitu Mishra, Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai.]

Hello everyone. I’m Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai. Thanks to Jenny Bhatt and Desi Books for having me over here. Today, I am here to read two stories from my recently released book. The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long: Folktales, Legends, and Modern Lore of India, from Aleph Book Company, Rupa Publishing House. This was released very recently on August 2021.

The two stories that I have chosen today to read for Desi Books are titled ‘Friend’; the story is from Maharashtra. And the other one is titled ‘Khichan’s Demoiselle Cranes and a True Reflection of Atithi Devo Bhava‘. This one is from Rajasthan.

Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai reads a charming little Marathi/Konkan folktale, ‘Friend’, from the time of the Peshwas. From the collection The Owl Delivered Good News All Night Long. #DesiReads .@DesiBooks

Firstly, I would like to read the story ‘Friend’ from Maharashtra. A little about the story. The story, ‘Friend’s’ original name is ‘Maitran’. It is, actually, the format of the story is an old form of Marathi spoken during the time of the Peshwas in the coastal and Konkan region. It has been translated and retold by myself after a narration by Gitanjali Avinash Joshi of Pune. A resident of Gwalior had once narrated the story in its original form to the author, Gitanjali Joshi. It is important to mention that the story belongs to an old form of the Marathi language and particularly belonged to the region of Konkan. This is greatly different from the present Marathi language spoken in the region at present. Gwalior is, at present, in the state of Madhya Pradesh but was once ruled by the Marathas.

A compassionate story of a very young girl, newly-married. Here goes. The story titled ‘Friend’.

This is a story of a long time ago. There lived a young girl named Saee. At thirteen years of age, she was married off to a man much older than herself. In those days, girls were married as soon as they attained puberty. Thus, little Saee went off to live with her in-laws. However, she found a very different surrounding at her in-laws as her husband was mostly away at work for long hours and Saee was left alone at home. At her parents’ home, there were many cousins with whom Saee would talk and play at all times. However, at her in-laws’, Saee felt very lonely. Her mother-in-law was not a very interactive person does. So Saee began to feel very lonely.

One day Saee’s mother told her to speak to a lizard in the kitchen to share her loneliness. And one day soon, Saee spotted a lizard close to the cooking area in the kitchen. She was delighted and she began to talk to the lizard every day. She felt the lizard responded by making a sympathetic chuk-chuk sound. From that day onwards, Saee’s life changed. She became much happier as she’d found someone to talk to. She would pour her heart out and talk to the lizard as if the lizard could hear her and reply to her as well. She would often leave small amounts of milk and kheer for the lizard, and would be happy to see the lizard lap it up.

A few times, Saee’s mother-in-law caught her talking to herself in the kitchen and thought that her daughter-in-law was acting very strange. This even encouraged the mother-in-law to keep a close eye on Saee. Days passed. And one day, Saee noticed that the lizard was getting fat and she realized that the lizard was pregnant. “Oh, there is good news. I am so happy for you,” she said. And she took it upon herself to feed the lizard with food that would nourish an expecting mother. She even did her best to keep her happy and kept speaking to her about the baby that was due to arrive soon.

One day, during one of these conversations, Saee mentioned, “I believe that you will be blessed with a bonny baby boy. It will be a smiling child, and that would be so wonderful!” And Saee felt happy within herself, as if she was having an actual dialogue with another person.

However, soon, that day itself, the lizard went missing. Saee thought that the lizard must have gone to her mother’s house for her delivery. She thought happily, I wonder what the lizard will give birth to? A girl or a boy?

The same night that the lizard went missing, there was a loud knock at the door. Saee’s husband opened the door and found a group of people outside who were taller than regular humans and wore old-fashioned clothes. There were soldiers, there were performing girls who were dancing, attendants who carried platters full of gifts including jewelry, fruits and sweetmeats, and two very tall palki bearers who carried a decorated palki, that is, a palanquin.

The tallest person, who was standing closest to the door, bowed in salutation. He had a big moustache and carried a mashaal or a torch. He said, “Greetings. Our Queen has been blessed with a son. Just as Saee Madam had predicted. Our Queen has sent us to fetch Saee Madam for a ceremony at the palace. She wants to convey her gratitude to her. Saee Madam had taken excellent care of her, especially during her pregnancy.” And the tall man stopped as abruptly as he had begun, anticipating an answer.

Saee’s husband and mother-in-law stood awe-struck and speechless while an overwhelmed Saee couldn’t believe her ears and fainted.


Next. I would like to move on to my next story. From Rajasthan, a story that highlights the need to have a friend and a relation with the environment and the nature around us. The title of the story is ‘Khichaan’s Demoiselle Cranes and a True Reflection of Atithi Devo Bhava‘. The story is from Rajasthan. It’s in Marwari and it has been written by Jitu Mishra.

Rajasthani modern lore, ‘Khichaan’s Demoiselle Cranes and a True Reflection of Atithi Devo Bhava’. Read by Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai from the collection The Owl Delivered Good News All Night Long. #DesiReads .@DesiBooks

Situated on a major trade junction from the times of medieval India, the Thar desert of Rajasthan has been a stronghold of Jainism for hundreds of years. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, as trade diminished, large numbers of Jain merchants moved out in search of work to places as far off as Chennai, Mysore, Kolkata, Delhi, and Mumbai. The roads of Khichan have several palatial havelis which have been abandoned and left behind. Sometimes, the residents pay an annual visit during the chomas for a couple of months.

Today, Ratanlalji, who is mentioned in the story, is a legendary figure as he alone had taken care of the conservation of thousands of demoiselle cranes that came to the sleepy village of Khichan every winter from time immemorial. It was because of Ratanlalji’s dedication and vision that the cranes got the food they needed in the Chugga Ghar and, therefore, did not ravage the farmlands of Khichan and the surrounding villages. As a result, they have become guests who are received very warmly even in present times.

The story ‘Khichaan’s Demoiselle Cranes and a True Reflection of Atithi Devo Bhava‘. From Rajasthan.

As dawn breaks over the sleepy village of Khichan during the winter months, the palatial havelis wake up from their deep slumber to the chaotic krok-krok calls of thousands of demoiselle cranes in the skies above. The scene appears spectacular for visitors. But, for the villagers, it is just another morning of celebrating life with the wind visitors during the winter months every year. These are migratory birds, the demoiselle cranes. Every year, towards the end of August, just after the monsoon rains have ceased, they fly in flocks from their breeding grounds on the plains and steppes of Eurasia and Mongolia to the Thar desert. All of a sudden, the sleepy village of Khichan is transformed into a chaotic, noisy place. The birds descend upon the village to feed and rest throughout the day, only to retire for the night on a nearby mound. The next morning the cranes are back again.

A large space has been demarcated and fenced to feed the cranes every morning. Every day, throughout the season, between November to February, 500 kilos of grains are spread on the ground for the birds. This is all paid for by donations from the Jain community of the village. After the cranes have had their breakfast, they gather beside the pond.

The story of Khichan’s association with the migratory birds is ancient but their conservation effort is only five decades old and has a connection with Orissa. It all started with Ratanlal Maloo’s uncle, who was originally from Khichan but had settled down in Orissa. One day, he left Orissa for Khichan along with Ratanlal Maloo to take care of his aging grandmother, who was ailing and had recently celebrated her hundredth birthday. Little did either of them know, at that time, that the decision of returning to their roots would change not only Ratanlal’s life but also the lives of thousands of innocent birds.

Once in Khichan, Ratanlal found it difficult to sit idle and his uncle entrusted him with a job: that of feeding grains to pigeons, sparrows, and peacocks that frequented a particular place on the outskirts of the village. Being devout Jains, both Ratanlal and his wife liked the idea. They carried sacks full of grains to the feeding ground and distributed them amongst the birds. Initially, there were only squirrels,sparrows, pigeons, and occasionally peacocks. But one fine day in September, he saw, for the first time, a dozen large black and gray birds feeding. On inquiry, the villagers told him that they were migratory birds that frequented Khichan every single winter. They were called demoiselle cranes or kurja in Rajasthani.

Ratanlal started observing them closely. Their numbers increased to eighty by November. But, in February, all of them disappeared overnight. He had to wait for another year. This time, their number was a hundred and fifty or so. This number kept on increasing and, at present, there is a staggering number of around 25,000 cranes who frequent the area and feed and reside during the migratory season in the area.

In the initial stages, it was not an easy task for Ratanlal. As the number of cranes increased, often, the village dogs would attack the cranes, leaving them dead or badly injured. To protect the birds, Ratanlal first convinced the village panchayat to allocate a suitable space on the outskirts of the village. Later, he coaxed the local people from the Jain community to help him build a six-foot high fence in that area. The enclosed area was called the Chugga Ghar or the feeding home. Ratanlal then got a granary to store grains, which drew donations that started pouring in from members of the Jain community from all over the village. He also got a room constructed to treat the injured cranes.

Today, in the winter months, standing on a nearby terrace beside the Chugga Ghar at the break of dawn, one can witness a beautiful spectacle: flocks of demoiselle cranes marching toward the Chugga Ghar. Apart from being a spectacular display of wildlife, it is associated with a spiritual connection aptly described by the Sanskrit phrase, Atithi Devo Bhava, or, “a visitor is like a god.”

After they have been fed, the cranes head off to the nearby lake, Vijayasagar. Here, they can be seen gobbling copious quantities of pebbles that are found in abundance on the lakeshore. A strange habit, it may seem. But this process aids in digestion. Since the grains are eaten whole, the pebbles act as a digesting agent. And, just before sunset, the cranes call it a day and fly away to Malher Rim, a sand dune about twenty-five kilometers away from Khichan, where they spend the night standing on one leg. The next morning, these beautiful birds are back in Khichan.

Thank you for listening.

The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long: Folktales, Legends, and Modern Lore of India, edited by Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai, is a selection of 108 stories from >57 languages & dialects. An excerpt from the editor. #desireads .@DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 41 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiReads segment was from Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai reading from a new collection titled The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long: Folktales, Legends, and Modern Lore of India. These stories were selected and edited by her from various authors and sources.

Episode 42 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Email at desibooks@desibooks.co. And please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. That’s desibooks.co.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

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