Maithil Women's Tales

Maithil Women's Tales: Storytelling on the Nepal-India Border

Coralynn V. Davis
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 232
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt7zw688
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  • Book Info
    Maithil Women's Tales
    Book Description:

    The Maithil women of the Himalayan region have long explored their individual and collective life experiences by sharing stories with one-another. Sometimes fantastical, sometimes including a kind of magical realism, these tales have helped women create community through a deeply personal and always evolving storytelling form. In Maithil Women's Tales, Coralynn V. Davis investigates how female storytellers weave together their own life experiences--the hardships and the pleasures--with age-old themes. In so doing, Davis demonstrates, they harness folk traditions to grapple with social values, behavioral mores, relationships, and cosmological questions The Maithil womens storytelling tradition flourishes against a backdrop of cultural conventions that suppress women's speech and mobility. Not surprisingly, many tales express the pain of contending with patrilineal household formations, the seclusions of purdah, and an honor system that values modesty and servility in women. Each chapter includes stories and excerpts that reveal Maithil women's gift for rich language, layered plots, and stunning allegory. In addition, Davis provides ethnographic and personal information to reveal the complexity of women's own lives, and includes works painted by Maithil storytellers to illustrate their tales. The result is a fascinating study of being and becoming that will resonate for readers in women's and Hindu studies, folklore, and anthropology.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09630-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Living Story and the Storying of Life
    (pp. 1-21)

    “Khīsā gelait ban me, socha āpnā man me.” “The story went into the forest, the thoughts into one’s own mind,” rhymed Sukumariya Devi Dhanukh. Her tattooed arm first waved outward toward the imagined forest and then drew inward to touch her sternum lightly with gnarled, life-worn fingers. In this manner, Sukumariya Devi brought to an end the tale she had been elaborating. With this rhetorical closing, she also intimated a theory about the relationship between stories, space, and movement on the one hand and thinking, feeling subjects on the other.

    This book explores how storytellers harness the genre of folktale...

  5. Chapter 1 Homo narrans AND THE IRREPRESSIBILITY OF STORIES
    (pp. 23-35)

    “There once was a king who had two horns growing out of his head.”

    A king with two horns? Preposterous! Scandalous! If ever a king would not want a story told about him, this would be it. However, as a close reading and analysis of the King’s Two Horns Tale make unmistakably clear, stories have their own agendas. Not onlywillthey be told, but they willto betold.

    This chapter establishes a series of theoretical premises about storytelling. Moving among several concerns, from the existential to the political, and from the personal to the collective or “folk,” the...

  6. Chapter 2 METAPHYSICAL QUESTIONS OF FORTUNE AND SOCIAL STRATIFICATION
    (pp. 37-65)

    “Doi jana ko kura ta aba ulṭo bhayo.” “Matters between the two people were thus turned upside down.” This quote (in Nepali) from the Second Wife’s Tale (chapter 7) refers to the switching of identities between two women—a servant who becomes a queen and a princess who becomes her servant.¹ The descriptorulṭo,unṭāin Maithili, literally “inverted” or “reversed,” is apt for the concerns raised in this chapter, namely, metaphysical questions of fortune and social stratification. Unṭā can be used in the figurative sense to mean upside down, as opposed to right side up, wherein right side up...

  7. Chapter 3 VIRTUE, TRUTH, AND THE MOTHERLINE OF MORALITY
    (pp. 67-91)

    The Eagle and Jackal Tale, retold here, was the very first Maithil folktale I ever heard. Indeed, it was in stumbling upon this tale that I was first alerted to the fact that Maithil women circulate folktales as a regular part of their lives. In the mid-1990s, while undertaking my doctoral dissertation field research, I began thinking about the multiple and conflicting ways that the term “sister” was being employed at the women’s development center that was, at that time, the institutional focus of my study. While those at the helm of the development center were interested in creating a...

  8. Chapter 4 LOVING COMPASSION, MATERNAL DEVOTION, AND THE YEARNING FOR HOME
    (pp. 93-111)

    The previous chapter demonstrated how Maithil women construct and deconstruct notions of virtue through their engagement with two concepts, dharma and sat. And it examined how staying true in one’s intimate relations is treated as an important form of virtue in Maithil women’s tales. The present chapter elaborates further on this subject, sharpening its focus on tales in which the virtue of compassion is embodied in the persona of the devoted mother. Collectively, Maithil women’s tales assert that maternal devotion presents an especially intensified and idealized form of the otherwise genderun differentiated virtue of compassion. The material in the prior...

  9. Chapter 5 GENDERING SPATIAL ALTERITY: Why the Story Went into the Forest
    (pp. 113-133)

    “Khīsā gelait ban me, socha āpnā man me.” “The story went into the forest, the thoughts into one’s own mind.” As we observed in the introduction, Sukumariya Devi, one of the Maithil women who shared her tales for this study, used this closing formula when bringing her fantastical narratives to an end. It was suggested that with this closing, the physically frail but virtuoso storyteller also intimated a theory about the relationship between stories, space, and movement, on the one hand, and thinking, feeling, embodied subjects, on the other. It is into such forests, figuratively speaking, that women send their...

  10. Chapter 6 PONDS, THE FEMININE DIVINE, AND A SHIFT IN MORAL REGISTER
    (pp. 135-159)

    The region of Mithila is characterized by village clusters on the outskirts and sometimes in the midst of which lie small ponds. While forests are relatively few and far between, ponds are arguably the “single most prominent geological feature” of the Mithila region (Brown 1996, 728); certainly, ponds are an economically, socially, and cosmologically significant element of the Maithil landscape. In many stories featuring ponds and occasionally, by extension, other bodies of water, female characters demonstrate special capacities. Just as ponds in Maithil women’s ceremonial painting are the symbolic locus of auspicious feminine fertility upon which patrilines are utterly dependent...

  11. Chapter 7 TALKING TOOLS, Femina narrans, AND THE IRREPRESSIBILITY OF WOMEN
    (pp. 161-182)

    In chapter 2, we saw that Maithil women narratively frame their own life trajectories around cycles of suffering and that, ideologically speaking, storytelling abilities are correlated with personal experiences of misery. In the folk genre of storytelling, by way of comparison, tales of suffering told by female protagonists are often linked to a positive resolution of the characters’ troubles and to the articulation, indeed to the creation, of those characters’ selves (Ramanujan 1991a). In this final chapter, we begin with a close look at what happens in Maithil women’s folktales when stories of women’s sufferingat the hands of other...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 183-200)
  13. WORKS CITED
    (pp. 201-208)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 209-222)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-224)