On what is popularly called the “gym wall” at Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere, a story of an elephant and a tailor unfolds through a series of hand-drawn sketches. The celebrated folktale goes like this: once upon a time in a small village lived an elephant and a tailor. Both were fast friends, and whenever the elephant (led by his mahout) passed by the tailor’s shop, it would be gifted with a bunch of ripe bananas. One day, however, the tailor wasn’t in the best of moods and when his giant friend came to pay him a visit, he angrily pricked it with one of his needles. The poor elephant, visibly upset, trod away in silence, for his daily bath to the river. Some time later it emerged at the tailor’s window and showered him and his entire shop with dirty water. The elephant had stored in his trunk dirty water from the river and decided to teach his friend a lesson. The story takes me back to almost 20 years ago, and my Ammama’s words: “Karma. If you do something bad, then you will pay for it.”
My holiday at Vasundhara Resort in Kerala brought back more than one childhood memory. Intricate murals and installations can be found across the landscape of the resort. The lobby had rows of elephant trunks under fluorescent parasols, and it stirred up memories from a Thrissur Pooram long ago. The gym wall, alongside a passageway I walked by every morning, had a pictorial representation of The Elephant and the Tailor folktale. Told exclusively through pictures, the sequential narrative was one of my favourite summer holiday stories I would hear at our family home in Champakalam.
Ammama was my first story-teller. During summer holidays, my siblings and I would sleep by her side, and she would regale us with different folktales: stories from the Indian epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, stories which were passed down to her mother from her mother, and stories she would even make up on demand — adopting different voices for different categories, transcending genders and forms. We would fall asleep to them on many a summer night, and dream of talking monkeys, evil kings, and shrewd crows.
Folklore of Kerala can be said to fall under two categories: children’s’ stories, though embedded with playful and mischievous characters, always had an underlying moral. The second category referred to the more philosophical ones that touched upon existential issues. Mythology too plays a huge part in the folklore cannon. For example, the Parasurama legend relates to the origin of Kerala, while the well-known demon-king Mahabali’s story is about how the festival of Onam came to be celebrated.
A story that is often cited is the tale of Naranath Bhranthan or the Prophet Lunatic from Naranam. Bhranthan is said to have been born about 1500 years back as the son of Vararuchi, a famous astrologer. In everyone’s eyes, he was a mad man — he wore his hair loose, he had a long, straggly beard, and he wandered from place to place. He would often be seen rolling a big boulder to the top of a hill. It was evident that the method was extremely unfulfilling: the stone was so big and the hill so steep that one push up meant the stone would fall two feet down. Often his clothes would tear, he would bleed, but he would still continue, undaunted. When he finally got the stone atop the hill, he would immediately kick it back down the hill, and start laughing and clapping loudly.
There are several philosophical interpretations about why Naranath Bhranthan did this. Some say he was ridiculing the habit of human nature to work very hard for a future that they might not even enjoy. Another interpretation could be that much struggle is required to move up in life, but it is very easy to lose that position. The story shares common threads with the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, who was punished for his deceitfulness and asked to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down. Albus Camus in his 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” said that those who punished Sisyphus felt that there is “no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”
Perhaps the go-to book for any Malayalam folktale is the Aithihyamala. Published in 1909 by Kottarthil Sankunni, a Sanskrit-Malayalam scholar, the book is a collection of century-old stories from Kerala: hundreds of legends about magicians, rulers, poets, and animals abound. The folklore of Kerala has also been preserved in the rich collection of folk songs that originated in the state.
While listening to these tales that still have the ability to resonate with contemporary life today, I marvelled at how the rich folklore of Kerala effortlessly comes alive — be it via gym walls in resorts or Ammama’s stories — preserved for the generations to come through these living traditions.
( Cover illustration: Shreyas Krishnan)