Watching an expanding healthy population of tiny sun birds in my garden always reminds me of the childhood tale of ‘Podna and Podni’. Now ‘The Podnas’ are members of the feathered family, who remain tiny even when fully grown. Members of my generation were raised on stories featuring wild and fantastic creatures, wizards, kings and queens, princes and princesses, giants and fairies. Many of these tales were passed down orally by parents and grandparents, who spent quality time with their offspring as “the prince struck down the giant”. Then two things happened – first media technology assumed the role of story tellers and second, modern life on the fast track put time at a premium. The end result was, that the familiar scene of a storytelling mother surrounded by a group of wide eyed youngsters gradually became extinct.

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I first heard the story of the ‘Podna and Podni’ from my late mother and passed it down to my two generations. My reward is the fascination, when my little granddaughter tells the tale with small childish embellishments in her newly acquired vocabulary. I particularly like the part, where the ‘Podni’ is captured and imprisoned by the ‘Raja’, forcing the ‘podna’ to declare war on the villain. The stark incongruity of the venture generates its own charisma – a tiny bird taking on the mighty ruler with all his men at arms. Our hero’s resolve is reflected in his lyrical description of preparations for the mission, “Sarkandon ki gari banai do mendak jotay jaen. Raja maari podni hum bair basaanay jaen” (I have fashioned a chariot from bull rushes and harnessed two frogs to it. The Raja has ‘killed’ my ‘podni’ and I go to fulfill my destiny as an enemy). I am happy to say that the tale does not end in tragedy, since the ‘podni’ is found to be alive and returns home with her mate, after a successful rescue.

Some of these stories were exceedingly funny and childish imagination made them funnier. Take for example the tale of the three female mice, who were siblings. One named ‘Chak Siri’ lived behind the ‘chakki’ or milling stone in a soldier’s house, the second ‘Khet Siri’ resided in a wheat field, while the third ‘Rah Siri’ had made her home next to a road frequented by horsemen and carts. At this point a cavalryman returning home on leave astride his noble steed, enters the story. Riding along between ripening wheat fields, engrossed in happy thoughts, the soldier hears a tiny voice from somewhere between the horse’s forelegs. Closer scrutiny reveals a tiny mouse hopping up and down excitedly and proclaiming, “E mian ghoray swar lumbi choti barkhurdar, ek sandesa letay jana, kehna behna Chak Siri se, Khet Siri ne kaha bahna Rah Siri to mar gaee”. (Hark o young horseman with the long hair, take a message for my sister ‘Chak Siri’. Say ‘Khet Siri’ sends her tidings that sister ‘Rah Siri’ is dead). As the soldier sat down to have dinner with his wife, he narrated his strange encounter. Suddenly, out jumped a tiny mouse from behind the ‘chakki’. The rodent hopped around the kitchen beating her head and exclaiming “Hai hai behna aaj marin ke kal marin, hai hai behna ghoray talay aeen, hai hai behna chakray talle aen” (O woe, o woe. Sister did you die today or yesterday? O woe, o woe sister were you run over by a horse or a cart?). This story had no ending, but just imagining a mouse beating her head and the vocabulary accompanying it, was enough to make us laugh.

Gone too, is the story of the ‘Chirriya and Chirra’, the two House Sparrows, who cooked Khichri and how the female of the couple ate it all, while her mate was out on some errand. What follows becomes incomparably funny with the ‘wife’ pretending that her eyes hurt and she therefore cannot open the door to let the ‘Chirra’ in. This story too has an ending, which would not go down well with Female Rights activists.

The stories of our childhood were treasures that needed to be preserved, their oral rendition strengthened family bonding and provided healthy activity. I really miss ‘Sheikh Chilli’ and ‘Boojh Bhujakar’ and the smiles their escapades generated and I feel upset to see our traditional home grown characters such as Ali Baba and Sindbad being kept alive by the West and Hollywood – something that we should have done.

 

The writer is a historian.