Rajasthan is famous for its folk tales that have been passed down from one generation to the next for hundreds of years—stories told to children by their mothers and grandmothers at bedtime, or cited in sermons by monks to illustrate a point, or narrated by men lounging in village chowks, or presented as vrat kathas, when women observe fasts, or narrated by storytellers at gatherings specially hosted for the occasion. And every time the stories are retold, new textures and layers get added to them, reshaping them and giving them a new meaning.
Vishes Kothari’s book Timeless Tales from Marwar now comes as a translation of the most popular fables passed down the ages in the Thar region of Rajasthan from Rajasthani to English. Within its pages are stories of handsome rajkanwars, wicked witches, demanding beauties, exploitative thakars, miserly seths, cunning ghosts, talking animals, clever insects, benevolent snakes and more.
The blueprint for the book is the late Vijaydan Detha’s book Batan ri Phulwari (which translates to ‘Garden of Tales’)—a 14-volume collection of stories drawing on Rajasthani folklore, collected and written by Detha over nearly five decades. Having written more than 800 short stories over his lifetime, Detha received a host of awards and honours for his work, some notable ones being Rajasthan Ratna Award, Padma Shri and Sahitya Akademi Award for Rajasthani. He became a household name after some of his timeless classics were adapted into major plays and movies, including Paheli, Charandas Chor and Duvidha.
The late Vijaydan Detha
Born into the Charan caste of bards and poets in 1926, Detha was a passionate collector of Rajasthani folk tales and believed in their undying relevance for modern society. The folk tales in Batan ri Phulwari are mostly from Borunda, his village in the Marwar region of Rajasthan, and its surroundings. Some of the stories came to Detha from caste genealogists and musicians, or from wandering bards and minstrels and also from monks.
Most of them he collected assiduously and tirelessly from village women, however, as becomes evident when he says in an epigraph to a story in Timeless Tales from Marwar,
“My village was my university, and my literary education, if any, came from rural women who always had so many interesting stories, anecdotes and wisdom to share. When men my age went out to hunt or drink. I used to sit in my courtyard listening to what the women had to say, their gossip, their tall tales.”
But instead of transcribing stories as they were told to him, Detha recreated the stories’ traditional forms with his art and imagination, often instilling new meanings and contemporary themes in them to appeal to his audiences.
In Timeless Tales from Marwar, Vishes Kothari has accomplished a task no less daunting than Detha, however. His success in translating Detha’s work in all its vibrancy and vitality into a completely different language and for a modern audience spells out his own excellence as a storyteller. While translating the stories from Rajasthani to English, he has tried to conserve their regional and tonal aspects—two factors which often get wiped out in the act of translation—as much as possible. Further, to preserve the orality and whimsy of the stories, he has sprinkled Rajasthani words throughout the prose and used footnotes where appropriate. He has also used transliterated sentence structures liberally to retain the texture of the originals. The book is also peppered with onomatopoeic words, considering that he has retained typical Rajasthani phrases such as ‘gapak-gapak’ of food being gulped down, the ‘ganan-ganan-ganan’ of the spinning wheel spinning, and the ‘dham-dham’ of stairs being climbed. Thus, while Timeless Tales from Marwar is a compilation of Detha’s stories, the book in its English avatar also belongs to the translator.
Timeless Tales from Marwar
Author: Vijaydan Detha
Translator: Vishes Kothari
Publisher: Puffin Classics (Penguin Random House)