Thursday 17 August 2017

"Tales from India" - by Bali Rai

Wicked magicians, wise priests, handsome princes, beautiful princesses - along with greedy tigers and sly jackals. What's not to love? I'm delighted to welcome Bali Rai to the blog to talk about his new book of fairy tales and folk tales from India. Prepare for enchantment! 

This collection came about after a lunchtime conversation. It was one of those casual, almost throwaway moments. As a British-born child of Indian parents, my knowledge of Asian folk tales was shamefully limited. Of course I knew the famous ones, but they were just the beginning. My parents never had the privilege of hearing such stories at school, because they never went to school. As a result, they had no way of passing these tales on to their children.

            And in my British schools, the concept of Indian storytelling was almost non-existent. We were never taught about India’s rich folk tale heritage and ancient cultures (likewise China and Africa). Most of us didn’t realise that fairy tales and stories of talking animals existed in our parents’ traditions too. Folk tales, and stories generally, seemed to be a Western thing. It was as though we were being invited into a secret club, to which our ancestors had not previously belonged.

            So when a casual idea became a concrete project, I had to discover India’s rich folk tale heritage as a beginner. I found amazing and often magical tales, full of adventure and trickery, and infused with deeper messages about morality, Life and the world around us. From wicked magicians to wise old priests, charming princes and beautiful princesses – every aspect of the Western tales I’d heard in childhood were present here, too.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect was how similar these Indian tales were to those of the Western tradition. Of particular interest were the Indian tales compiled by Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916). These were published in 1912, and form the basis for much of this collection. Punchkin immediately reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin, and many of the animal tales would find a happy home in Aesop or Kipling.

Of course, there are many differences, too. The Indian tales feel darker in places, and perhaps more moralistic too. Neither do they make allowances for the sensitivity or age of readers. Whilst ostensibly a children’s story, in The Peacock and The Crane the penalty for pride and boastfulness is death rather than a lesson well-learnt. Ditto any modern concepts of political correctness. There are helpless and passive princesses, and wizened old crones aplenty, not to mention heroes who seem only to relish the acquisition of material wealth. However, this tallies with their western counterparts, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too critical.

The rest of the collection comprises retellings of the Akbar and Birbal tales from India’s Mughal period, and other gems that I discovered in passing. Better known than most other Indian tales and widely read in the sub-continent, the Akbar and Birbal stories are wonderfully simple yet leave a lasting impression. Birbal is the patient and wise teacher and Akbar an often impetuous and boastful pupil. Their friendship is warm and full of charm and makes these tales a delight.

In reworking these stories, I will admit to plenty of creative licence. I wanted to make these stories accessible and readable for western audiences of all stripes. As such, many of the previously published versions needed polishing and editing. Joseph Jacob’s original versions were of particular concern and have seen the greatest changes, although the others have been re-imagined too. Keen to keep this collection secular, I have steered clear of religion where possible. I have also removed archaic and often offensive terms, as well as re-working the roles of women in one or two cases. 

Continuity and plotting were also an issue. For some of these tales, my starting point was just a few badly translated lines found online, or in obscure, often self-published books. For others, I had dense passages to work through, most of which lacked clarity. In one case, an entire section seemed to be missing. Where possible, I stuck to the original plot lines rigidly. For others, this was almost infeasible, and so I imagined and wrote new connecting scenes. All of this was done to enhance the reading experience and simplify often complicated language.

They aim of this project is to widen potential readership, and take these tales to an audience yet to benefit from reading them. Reworking folk tales can be a hazardous business, and often people become attached to their own versions of a particular tale. I meant no disrespect in modernising these tales. Think of them simply as remixes, intended to engage and enchant modern readers, and to lure them further into Indian folklore. 

'Tales from India' by Bali Rai is published by Puffin Classics

Bali Rai is the multi-award winning author of over 30 young adult, teen and children's books. His edgy, boundary-pushing writing style has made him extremely popular on the school visit circuit across the world and his books are widely taught. Passionate about promoting reading and literacy for young people, he is an ambassador for the Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead project, was involved in the BBC’s Love To Read campaign, and also speaks about issues around diversity, representation, and in defence of multiculturalism. Regularly invited to speak on panels and at conferences, he is also patron of an arts charity and a literature festival. Bali is a politics graduate and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate of letters. His first novel, (Un)arranged Marriage was published in 2001, and his most recent YA novel, Web of Darkness, won three awards and received widespread acclaim. He is currently working on a new YA title, as well as two series for younger readers. His latest title, TheHarder They Fall, is available now.


  1. Totally fascinating to hear about the problems Bali had to overcome to make these tales accessible and relevant for today - especially re women - and I look forward to reading them.

  2. Totally intriguing! Will definitely seek out your tales. I remember my eyes being opened by my Indian boyfriend years ago to just a tiny fraction of India's literary heritage & being so shocked I'd never heard any of these stories before.

  3. I shall buy this! The first second-hand book I remember buying for myself, age about 10, was Romila Thapar's Indian Tales, from a bookshop in Broadstairs...

  4. School cannot and should not attempt to cover all facettes of life. Teaching about many different cultures would be too great of a challenge for both the curriculum and the teacher. Especially with fairy tales I can see the difficulties since it is easier to for the teacher to focus on and easier for the children to understand, one subtype of fairy tales and in Europe that would be the European Fairytale as defined by Max L├╝thi. (However Indian fairy tales especially are very similar to their European cousins and could likely be integrated into a curriculum without much ado) That said our current approach to teaching culture seems very oldfashioned. While in earlier decades it made sense to focus on the one predominant culture in a country, because 90% of the class would belong to that culture, but when half or even the majority of the class belong to so called "minorities" that approach becomes flawed.

    I had a subject in elementary school. It was called "Heimat- und Sachkunde. It was meant to teach the students about their surroundings, before secondary schools would delve into geography and history of the wporld (or at leasrt Europe). Heimat means "home". We learned about my home. Our village, our region, our Bundesland. But my home wasn' the home of the boy who moved over from Saxony, a Bundesland that just a few years prior had belonged to a different country and who some children were not allowed to play with for that reason. It wasn't the home of the circus girl who had joined us for a few months and who almost none of us were allowed to play with. It wasn't the home of the boy from Italy. It was the home of the boy from Turkey. But he knew he also had a different home where his grandparents lived. They learned about the culture the now lived in, but they didn't learn about their home. Even then I understood that this wasn't fair. Perhaps the attempt was to make them feel at home in our village, but looking at the grades they got and their general disinterest in the subject, that attempt wasn't very successful.

    In 9th grade I joined a project meant to help elementary school children from other countries learn German. Most of them were Turkish, this was before the refugee rush. One year we decided to do a project with the group about fairy tales. We picked a few standard Grimm tales, but also wanted to include fairy tales from the cultures the children came from. To our shock barely a child could tell us one. A few may just have been too shy or too unsure about their German skills, but many honestly didn't know any. It was only then that I realized that many immigrants not only didn't learn about their home in Heimat-und Sachkunde, they didn't learn about their home at home. And despite what some perhaps well-meaning, but misinformed individuals might think: Being removed from your native clture does not make you integrate into the "main" culture faster. Those children were not at home in their parent's birth country, but they were not at home in Germany either. They only were in our project in the first place because they had difficulties learning the language. Teaching children, both immigrants and natives about the culture that other children in the class, isn't an eexcuse for immigrants not to adapt to a life in the country that can hopefully one day become their home, it encourages a mutual understanding and helps the students understand that you don't have to choose one over the other. Like the boy from Turkey you can have two homes.

  5. Thanks for your interesting post. To the best of my knowledge, though,fairy tales from *any* nation do not currently form much if any part of the English school curriculum. It's a shame your little Turkish little boy could not tell a Turkish fairy tale: but I don't think the issues Bali addresses in this post, or indeed in his book, are questions of integration. You can indeed have two homes and it's good to have stories from both of them available in a child-friendly format. I'm looking forward very much to reading these!

  6. It sounds like a wonderful book - I wonder if I can get it in ebook?