Swamiji, a Hindu holy man, is the central character of
Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels. He reclines in a
deck chair in his modern apartment in western India, telling subtle
and entertaining folk narratives to his assorted gatherings. Among
the listeners is Kirin Narayan, who knew Swamiji when she was a
child in India and who has returned from America as an
anthropologist. In her book Narayan builds on Swamiji's tales and
his audiences' interpretations to ask why religious teachings the
world over are so often couched in stories.
For centuries, religious teachers from many traditions have used
stories to instruct their followers. When Swamiji tells a story,
the local barber rocks in helpless laughter, and a sari-wearing
French nurse looks on enrapt. Farmers make decisions based on the
tales, and American psychotherapists take notes that link the
storytelling to their own practices. Narayan herself is a key
character in this ethnography. As both a local woman and a foreign
academic, she is somewhere between participant and observer,
reacting to the nuances of fieldwork with a sensitivity that only
such a position can bring.
Each story s reproduced in its evocative performance setting.
Narayan supplements eight folk narratives with discussions of
audience participation and response as well as relevant Hindu
themes. All these stories focus on the complex figure of the Hindu
ascetic and so sharpen our understanding of renunciation and gurus
in South Asia.
While Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels raises
provocative theoretical issues, it is also a moving human document.
Swamiji, with his droll characterizations, inventive mind, and
generous spirit, is a memorable character. The book contributes to
a growing interdisciplinary literature on narrative. It will be
particularly valuable to students and scholars of anthropology,
folklore, performance studies, religions, and South Asian
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