The Fabled Life of Aesop

When we think of literary bodies of work that have endured over Millenia, we think of epics such as the Mahabharatha, Ramayana, Iliad and Odyssey, or the Bible. But there are so many endearing little tales that have endured just as long, and have passed down morals, lessons and fun along the way.  I am referring to stories such as Aesop’s Fables & Panchatantra tales.

The library had a wonderful picture book on The Fabled Life of Aesop: the book was not just a collection of his most fables, but the life of the slave we think was Aesop. 

 

Written by Ian Lendler, and illustrated by Caldecott winner, Pamela Zagarenski, it is a book with marvelous reading material, and highly imaginative pictures.

2500 years ago, a baby boy named Aesop was born to slave parents in Greece. Aesop, as a child born to slaves, was taken from his parents and sent to work in the hot grape fields of Samos. As a slave, Aesop learnt to speak carefully. One of his friends who talked about their master’s smelly feet was taken away and was never seen or heard of again. So, the slaves learnt to speak in code.

 “Did you hear about the lion? He stepped on a thorn and his paw got infected.”

“Oh!” said Aesop. “So that’s why his paw smells!”

Aesop learned to speak in code.

I could not help remembering this snippet from a poem by Margarita Engle in the book, Enchanted Air :

Tyrants always

try to control communication.

They always

fail.

The human spirit is not meant to be caged, and tyranny somehow tries to do just that every time. 

Aesop’s talent in spinning stories with morals using the animals around him was soon noticed by his master Xanthus, and he was tasked with more challenging tasks in helping his master’s life. One time when his master had a falling out with his friend, Aesop was called to mediate. Aesop was but a young boy and he was scared. If either his master or his friend felt offended, they had the power to put him to death. So, he came up with a story about the lion and a boar who fought over who should drink first at the watering hole. It was only when they noticed vultures circling overhead that they realized it was better to share the water rather than have the vultures eat the loser.

The master, Xanthus, and his friend, Jadon, were so impressed with Aesop, they sought an amicable resolution. As a peace offering, Aesop was sold to Jadon who continued to seek Aesop’s help in his business and personal affairs.

Aesop’s stories helped his masters live their lives with honesty, humility, and kindness. His stories warned against greed and deceit. 

Many of them taught another hidden lesson as well. It was something no master would pick up, but every slave or powerless person would understand. “

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Eventually, Aesop was set free, and his stories have been handed down from generation to generation helping millions of us glean the wisdom and morality handed down by these endearing tales.

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Freedom

I have often wondered about what it means to be human. Is it opposable thumbs, or imagination, or tool use, or brain to body ratio, or empathy? Maybe the complex combination of all these things, and the collective will to make things better in spite of all our failures is what sets us apart.

We have heard of scalded cats staying away from milk. Maybe our power is in ensuring that we do not  make the same mistake again and again,but learn from it.  

The world around us always has lessons for us: Octopii, whales, monkeys, dogs, crows, geese, herons, squirrels, rabbits, trees, and to that I am grateful.

 

Moments of Love & Power

Half a decade has passed in a heartbeat, yet I can hear the clear voice of the then elementary school going daughter ringing out in the aisles of the toy store : “Oh! That isn’t sexist at all!”

I laughed, the proud, indulgent laugh of a strong girl’s mother, even as I hushed her.

We had gone looking for a bow and arrow as a gift for her then toddler brother. His fascination for the super-hero phase was just starting and she wanted to get him his own Quiver of Arrows. After looking hither and thither, the heart sinking just a little bit at the amount of plastic and mass produced toys, we bobbed up to the lady in the front desk to ask where we can find bows and arrows for young children.

“In the first row of the boys’ section. “ she said, and I thanked her.
“Oh! That isn’t sexist at all!” said the daughter to me in her clear, ringing voice, as we left the puzzled clerk who had heard the daughter’s remarks. I laughed, hoping that this clear sense would always aid her as she navigated life.

I was reminded of that scene as I held the Forest of Enchantments in my hand. I hoped it would assuage a little of the disappointment I have had with Sita’s characterization in the epic. Every time somebody sang the virtues of Rama the Just, and Rama the Virtuous and Rama the Obedient, I was sure I was not the only one in the room whose thoughts were clouded by his treatment of Sita.

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There was no justice there. The virtuous man would have overcome his doubts, believed and trusted the one he loved, and helped right the wrong of perception. He could have set the tone for innocent-until-proven-guilty with ease.

The obedient man could easily have made a case for the need for civic disobedience and charted the course of millions by his actions, but the epic fell short. Always.

He was a human incarnate after all – so his flaws were there, was all I was given by way of explanation along with being hushed for asking inconvenient questions.

While the book bore the hallmark of Chitra Banerjee’s poetic twists and turns, coupled with the magical realism, there were a few areas in which I wished she had done better. The epic of Ramayana is a well-known one and while she cannot be expected to go over all the nuances and side-stories, there are places where, had she spent more time on certain aspects would have made it a more enjoyable and nuanced read.

Like the relationship between Lakshmana and Sita for instance. 14 years in a small hiking and camping group of 3 is a long time, and one in which I am sure a person of Sita’s calibre would definitely have formed a relationship of mutual respect with her brother-in-law, even if he had left her sister back in the palaces to protect his mothers. That would have meant it was harder for Rama to do the things he did to Sita for his own brother would have chastised him for it, and that in turn would have humanized Rama’s flaws to a greater extent. As such there is a little of the anguish but how much of that is Sita’s hope?

The book, however, was still an enjoyable read with the author’s many meditations on the different aspects of love. The kind of love that makes you do unimaginable things, the forces of love when thrown together with duty, loyalty and ambition, the feelings that love can engender, the kinds of things love can make one do. The kinds of clarity love brings in complicated situations; and its paradox more apparent in our lives than we realize: the kinds of complications it can bring to otherwise clear situations.

I could not help thinking of Jane Austen’s words on Love – “There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.” It was true – the intensity, kinds and forms of love were always unique, and ever evolving.

Do we ever meditate on love the way we do on our breaths?

In short, I expected the book to be the one the now teenaged daughter goes to, and understands clearly the Sita who would have been happy to hear her ‘sexist’ comment in the aisles. The author tried to bring it out, but I am not so sure. The epics don’t always give you a lot to play with when it comes to sexism.

Why must a loving heart not make a power move?

Also read: Mary Beard on Women & Power

https://www.npr.org/…/what-history-and-fiction-teach-us-abo…

https://www.theguardian.com/…/women-and-power-a-manifesto-b…

The Epic of Whalayana

The mother has been reading The Ramayana. She is especially fond of the Sundarakandam. For a few months, any good is attributed to the Sundarakandam readings. Anything bad is soothed away with the assurance that her Sundarakandam chantings will make it better. It takes her several weeks to make it through a complete reading. The Ramayana is a long epic, and lilts rhythmically. Reading this epic soothes her, and every now and then with touching belief, she has a go at it.

I like the Ramayana too for its main storyline, and its myriad side stories. I do think Sita could have been a pluckier heroine, but then I remember that these tales were passed down from one generation to the next, each one, quite probably, embellishing the epics a little to make sure their ideal version of the woman is subtly inserted in there. (Another post for another day)

It is interesting to think of how our epics and ballads have helped shape human history. Artifacts and natural phenomena shaped our myths, and particularly gifted story-tellers were always a treasured people. We truly believed that story-telling was the single distinguishing feature of our species. After all, imagination is a task much higher on the cognitive scale than living & feeling. 

‘Did you know? We used to have a Professor who could chant every verse and explain it so beautifully? From memory! In those days, our professors used to remember Shakespeare, entire Sanskrit texts, and eloquently recite from memory. ‘ said the father, and waxed as eloquently about the good old days; his fervor growing as he spoke of the stellar nature of his professors, about how they learnt and memorized Shakespeare and the Sanskrit texts from their forefathers. 

I smiled at the pride in his voice when he thought of his long-dead professors. For millennia we thought we were the only ones capable of passing on this kind of generational wisdom and knowledge. But that is not the case. Take the enormously intelligent whales and dolphins for instance. Carl Sagan, the physicist, writes about these intelligent creatures often. In his essay on dolphin sounds, he writes of Elvar the Dolphin who knows up to 50 English sounds and can use them in context. 

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Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan:

Some whale sounds are called songs, but we are still ignorant of their true nature and meaning. They range over a broad band of frequencies, down to well below the lowest sound the human ear can detect. A typical whale song lasts for perhaps 15 minutes; the longest about an hour. Often it is repeated, identically beat for beat, measure for measure, note for note. 

Very often, the members of the group will sing the same song together. By some mutual consensus, some collaborative song-writing, the piece changes month by month, slowly and predictably. These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I would love to hear and understand the generational wisdom that these large benevolent creatures have for living in the oceans. The ever changing oceans must be a rich source of material. Do they have heroes vs villains, good vs evil, or things much more complex and intriguing than simple story lines like that? 

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Quote:

They have no manipulative organs, they make no engineering constructs, but they are social creatures. They hunt, swim, fish, browse, frolic, mate, play, run from predators. There may be a great deal to talk about.

If human beings have a fault, it is assuming our anthropomorphic abilities are the pinnacle of what is possible. I must remember that until recently, we did not know whale songs existed. 

The sea is as near as we come to another world. – Ann Stevenson

Coming up next: The Inner Life of Animals

Squirrels, Berries & Fringe Myths

We had been on a trip to Crater Lake over the summer. Among other things, we hiked a little bit around the lake, taking in the marvelous view. The lake is a mesmerizing sight sparkling in its deep, pristine blue. We indulged ourselves in small hikes that afforded us beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding Cascade mountains merging into the Sierra Nevadas in the South. It was one of those places where nature cures, nature soothes and all that. The son is my ardent nature companion, and the pair of us went looking for pinecones and acorns.  It was steep going.

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We stopped at one place to take a few breaths at a spectacular rock placed there for the purpose and we saw a little squirrel. We may have been nervous during the hike, but it did little to wrack the squirrel. Up close the son noticed that unlike the squirrels near where we live, these fellas were smaller and had stripes across their back. He said in his excited voice that these were the ones that had helped Rama build his bridge and nearly gave the poor squirrel heart failure with his excitement.

I peered closely, and so it was. Here were little squirrels that looked like the squirrels mentioned in the ancient myth of Ramayana. According to the story, the little squirrels were helping Lord Rama’s army build a bridge from India to Lanka so that he could save his kidnapped wife, Sita, from the clutches of the evil demon-king Ravana, in their own small way, with little rocks and acorns.  Lord Rama was so impressed with them, that he picked one of them up and stroked its back lovingly. The legend goes on to say that is why squirrels have stripes. The son had heard the story before, and  was understandably excited when he saw the stripes the squirrel’s back. I suppose the story must have sounded silly to him when it said, “That is why squirrels have stripes on their backs.” Because the ones he sees do not have stripes on their backs, and that is the sort of discrepancy that will keep the fellow puzzled and curious for days.

<Squirrels with stripes on their backs>

Chipmunks or Squirrels
Pic obtained via google search

I was reminded of that little story when I read the news items that Remains of the Day had won the Nobel Prize. Remains of the Day examines the concept of work, and why it is an important factor in man’s life. Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 10.08.53 AMHow often have we been asked our names, followed by a what-do-you-do? How does one attach a sense of importance to one’s work, and feel purposeful about it? Sometimes, it is by means of attaching ourselves to the goal of the entity you work for like the squirrels did. But maybe, it is to the concept of work that we need to attach our purpose to like the bees do.

This year Deepavali – the festival of lights came like the coat-tails of a comet after a string of tragic events – fires, shootings, floods: catastrophes both man-made and natural shook the populace. But now is a good time to throw our mind back to these oft forgotten little mythological tales, the fringe stories that provide food for thought. I must remember to tell them the hilarious tale of the old lady, Sabari, tasting the berries before giving them to Lord Rama.

I looked forward to the chat with the children while drawing up a rangoli outside the house using colored chalk. It is a beautiful feeling of light. The triumph of good over evil, a call to nurture our inner light and so much more.

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Mythology, fairy tales, and magic are all so beautifully interwoven in our magic of story-telling. Heroism and quests for the inner self are never jaded. Starting from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Avatars of Vishnu,  Ramayana & Mahabharatha,  Odyssey & Iliad, the Bible and right down to Harry Potter, it is a story line that always enthralls, and is ever relevant.

I’ve come to the conclusion that mythology is really a form of archaeological psychology. Mythology gives you a sense of what a people believes, what they fear. George Lucas

In all these millennia, it seems little has changed, and so much has.

Please share some of your favorite fringe tales – I would love to hear them.