In almost all communities, themes and characters in stories have been used as a way to instil some values and as a successful means of character-building in children. These stories are passed by the families down the generations or included in the books as part of their school syllabus. Some of them have actually become dated with changing times and merit a relook. We do have publications in the west of "politically correct" bed time stories and "politically correct" bible stories etc...Without going that far, I can think of a few stories which I have questioned during the process of growing up.
For example there is this story which all children in our family know. It is about this young girl living with her step mother and a wicked (surprise surprise!) step-sister. One day her stepmother turns her out of the house for some minor unwitting lapse and as she wends her way through the forest crying she meets an old woman who is stern but relents to let her spend the night in her hut. Everytime the old lady gives the young girl a choice of boarding preferences (ex: warm water or coldwater for bath? old dress or a new one for changing into? left over food or fresh food?) the girl, as she is accustomed to hardship, chooses the modest option. But she is actually rewarded with the best dress, expensive gifts, a festive meal and of course pleanty of warm water for a bath. When she returns home with all these, the step mother is pleased and the greedy step-sister decides to go to the old lady's house hoping to claim her share of goodies. She is given the same objective choices and ( in spite of the other sister leaking the paper)) ticks all the wrong answers and is sent home with a nice thrashing.
Moral of the story? Greed is punished while humility and modesty are always rewarded.
Needless to say, the modest one was the role model till one went to college. There one met "go-getters" and were told to "hitch your wagon to the star" and that is when one began to question if stories such as the above blunted the edge of ambition and let you be too complacent and satisfied with what you demand from the world. Vaish has a nice post on Casabianca where she raises some good questions too.

Other characters which seemed so worship-worthy on the screen or in books include the ever-sacrificing woman who would burn herself like a candle to give light to others; who would subject herself to exploitation just to save her family from trouble; who would allow herself to be held to ransom for the sake of her love without uttering a word to anyone,even while being aware of all her legal rights. Time was when such women seemed worthy of a shrine but now such behaviour makes no sense to me - it seems that they need a good psychiatrist as there must be something very wrong with such women (sado-masochistic tendencies). Laws are there to be enforced dammit - Keeping quiet when you are raped or abused is not endurance, it is abetting in a crime. What has education taught you?

And then there is the story of men like Jay gatsby where the woman he loves does not consider him good enough for her ( rich enough sometimes) and so he spends all his life proving to himself that he can make it too. Then she eventually returns, and the man , having waited all his life for this one moment, offers himself, all his fortune and his life at her feet (so she can kick him around). So why do we think he is so great for being so spineless? I just want to shake these men and scream: "look around man, it is not like the male female ratio is so poor that there is just this one woman for you! And if she was the last female on Earth you still deserve better!"
And what is worse, I despise these men when they take on the responsibility for some crime the selfish woman commits and actually end up in the Gaol or the gallows.
Seems like these kind of men are better off there!
8 Responses
  1. Swapnil Says:

    There is this story I was made to read as a kid. Son is madly in love with a woman and the woman asks for the mother's heart as a precondition for marriage. This guy kills his mother (after mommy agrees to it of course), pulls out the heart and goes running to his love. On the way, he trips and falls. A voice from the heart says, "Son, did you hurt yourself?"
    Even as an 8-10 year old I first thought “Ghastly” and then thought “How stupid!”

  2. Anonymous Says:

    'Amma Amma kozakattaikku vaalu undodi?' I am sure you are talking about this story. I think this one is the bane of my life.I still can't get over the way this story has conditioned my life. Every bit of the narration as I heard it in my childhood is so vivid in my memory including the mouse in the 'vanali' in the kitchen of the house I grew up. Obviously, I was the GOOD GIRL.
    On the contrary I happened to read Roald Dahl's 'George's marvellous medicine'. just yesterday(one of his most controvertial children's stories)While I was reading it, it struck me as an odd story for kids(again my conditioning?) but later I felt it's okay as kids are smart and they can just read the story for pure fun.And why not.?( What if George really wants to punish his Grandma for being so nasty?)So What?
    Wish we had more stories like these when we were growing up rather than Raja Harishchandra stories which makes people unfit to operate in the present society.May be until next JANMA? ha ha..

  3. Ram Says:

    Excellent! Swapnil's point buttresses this beautifully. You might have noticed that I've always expressed myself forcefully against preachy stuff that romanticises things that are normally not practised in the least by the preachers themselves. Of course, if something is done genuinely and not out of expectation of social approbation or fear of social sanctions, I have nothing against it. The sad reality, alas, is that most "sacrifices" are forced.

  4. Mahadevan Says:

    These moral stories are like hand-holding - they have relevance only upto certain point of time. This aspect the parents/elders fail to realise. The confidence level of Public School children is quite high because they have been asked to fend for themselves, at a very early age.Look at the NDA boys! Confidence personified.

    Perhaps, our value systems need a relook.

  5. marX Says:

    ei, i knew of that story. As a child my reaction was: "Can anybody do that?" Well, there is nothing wrong in believing people have the capability to sacrifice. There may be a reasoning behind those stories. Children learn from it. But the bad part is it distorts reality.

  6. Paavai Says:

    I have a different perspective. Only when things are exaggerated, it sinks at least a wee bit into the human psyche. These stories have shaped my personality in a positive manner. As we grow up we see them as analogies for something else and get the true essence.

    The cruel step sister can be seen as an analogy to the advertisements in today's world,where everything is about instant gratification and short cuts.

    It is not masochism, but a conscious effort to lead a balanced life and not get carried away by material aspects of life. Vivekananda was not a public school product and very few people can match his confidence and courage of conviction. Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by Harischandra story. (one may have different thoughts about his ideologies in other aspects of life though). I was reading Jeyakanthan and he writes about why he told LIES .. for example his characters led a ideal life - a girl who goes in a stranger's car and succumbs to his sexual overtures leads a life of a celibate, the uncle who tries to exploit her - goes to Kasi to repent for his misdeeds - JK says that these characters are lies and he is happy to have told these lies, so that in a morally corrupt world there is something somewhere that talks about ideals. We need these ideals repeated in the form of a mother's heart asking 'did you hurt yourself' so that kids dont send their parents to old age homes and see the sacrifice and actions of their parents and relate to this story.

  7. Usha Says:

    swapnil: :). We have aproverb i Tamil which says that a mother's heart is crazy and a son's heart is Stony!

    Shalini: Same story - and we heard the story so many times for that beautifu' dialogue "amma ,amma..kozhakattaiku..."
    These stories were meant to condition and they did that expertly- dumbing us down a bit in the process. I had not read this Dahl story - did after your comment and loved it!

    Ram: Ya it is the delusional aspect of this kind of sacrifice in relationships that I am talking about - there are sacrifices of the another variety that I have seen and admired too.

    Mahadevan: I guess that is the greatness of some of our epics - you read them at each age and you find the relevance.

    MarX: It requiresa lot of careful evaluation on what you are holding up as an example or lofty before an impressionable child. As for distorting reality, sooner or later the scales fall off and we see it like it is.

    Paavai: I was thinking of ila nerangalil when I was writing it. Jeyakanthan's stories , by showing raw reality as it is, made me growout of these childhood illusions.I do not know why he called his portrayals "lies" - looking around I'd say that these are the "real" people one encounters and hence like Ganga we should know how to handle them with strength.

  8. Wild Reeds Says:

    Hi Usha,
    Beautiful post.
    Have added you to my blog roll.