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First sour, then sweet: women's ritual story telling in the Himalayan foothills.

When there was a break between stories, women coaxed Urmilaji, the acknowledged expert teller.

"Give us the one about the little bread (tikdi)." "Give us the one about the sour berries (avla)." "The one about the sour berries."

We were sitting outdoors, cross-legged on the grass in the village commons, positioned between the tangle of thorny berry bushes and the flowing stream. The stories peculiar to the two rituals that had just been performed had already been told: the story associated with the lamps which women had sent floating downstream, and the story featuring the berry bush which they had just worshipped. Now, women were asking for stories more generally associated with this ritual period in November known as the Five Days of Bhishma.

I had been invited to join this group of related women from the Sood trader caste for several reasons. My American mother had lived in this village in the Himalayan foothill region of Kangra, Northwest India, for almost 18 years. People were used to one or the other of us, or our guests, tagging along at their ritual events. More specifically, I was included in this particular group because of my friendship with Urmilaji. Through a good part of my year of formal fieldwork in Kangra, I had spent many afternoons in Urmilaji's company, listening to and talking about the folktales she knew.

The first time I had asked Urmilaji for a story, she told me six tales without pause, and invited me back to hear more. With her children grown and the advent of television having displaced evening storytelling, Urmilaji seemed to enjoy having a rapt audience. She also expressed hopes that literate children who had no time for stories might some day read these tales. Through the course of several months, she instructed me on all the folktales that she could remember: 21. I often put questions to her about these tales, and she too took it upon herself to instruct me on a range of ritual and cultural meanings embedded in them. Further, she helped me arrange the tales into groups according to the contexts in which they were told. With her help, I was putting together a book of her tales and our conversations about them (Narayan, Earth Into Gold). Now, on my return trip home, she had suggested that I come along to hear some of the tales again in their actual ritual setting.

In this essay, I present the "story of the sour berry" as I taped it amid women's laughter in 1994. The story was told in the Kangra dialect, glossed as Pahari "of the mountains" or more particularly as Kangri "of Kangra." I supplement the tale itself with the commentary I was able to glean from the teller and her listeners. I hope here to demonstrate the value of collaborating with a wise and reflective storyteller in following her fieldwork tips and in framing interpretations of her tales.

Sour Berries

Urmilaji sat at the centre of the cluster of women, her head covered with a shiny pink dupatta scarf. A slight, fine-boned woman with deep brown eyes, she spoke with a measured, gentle voice, rarely gesturing as she told her tales. Around her, female relatives and neighbors dressed in sparkling finery for the ritual were resplendent in the bright November sun. I adjusted my microphone on the tape recorder balanced in the grass.

There was Eleventh, and there was Twelfth: they were two sisters. One of them was very wealthy, and the other one was very poor. The one who was wealthy, she employed the poor one as a servant in her house. The poor one, the servant, would work hard, and would manage to eke out a living for herself this way, poor thing. No matter how hard she worked, her sister would find a way to scold and criticize her.

So the eleventh day of the lunar month (ikadasi) came. She must have observed the fast for this day. Then she picked some sour avla berries and boiled them up.

She was just about to sit down when an old Brahman man came up to her.

"I'd like to spend the night here," he said.

Within herself, she probably felt apprehensive: what was she going to feed him?

She said [slowly], "You can spend the night, but... what will you have to eat?"

"Whatever you're eating," said the old man. "Whatever it is that you'll eat, I'll eat that too."

She had boiled up those sour berries. She ate these herself, and sour berries were what she served him too.

A little ways into the night, the Brahman said, "I have to shit."

"You're so old, how will you go out? Just squat down here: squat here in this corner," she said [with sweet affection].

["So he squatted there," mutters the woman next to Urmilaji].

Some more time passed and then he said, "I have to shit again."

She said, "Then sit in the second corner."

In this way, he filled the four corners with shit that night. Then once again he said he had to go.

"Squat in the middle," she said, "In the morning I can clean it up."

Okay. Enough. When dawn arrived the Brahman vanished.

When she woke up, she looked around. What was there to see? There was gold: gold everywhere. And rubies and diamonds! All of this had become fantastic wealth.

Enough. The poor thing, she spent the whole day clearing this up. Then in the evening she went to her sister's house. "Though all this has happened, my sister, poor thing, might be annoyed with me since I've kept her waiting."

When she went to her sister, the sister was eating. She had come there, not knowing, "Maybe she has work for me to do." She, poor thing, told her sister the truth.

She told her, "This and that happened. Last evening, I was keeping the fast, and had boiled up the sour berries when this Brahman arrived. He said he wanted to stay the night. I said, 'You can certainly stay, but what will I feed you?' He said, 'Whatever you're eating, I'll eat that too.' So I fed him the sour berries, and then at night he squatted down to shit five times. Then in the morning, when I looked at all this it had become gold, silver, rubies, diamonds. I kept clearing this up."

The sister came running to the house. ["To see," prompts the woman to Urmilaji's right, laughing.] To see. What there was to see!

"Now what's the point of your working? You've become rich. But dear," she said [in syrupy tones], "when this Brahman comes again...[Urmilaji smiles, pauses, humor bubbling into her words] sure to send him to my place."

"If he should come again, I'll send him to your house." This sister, she had no sins in her mind. But the other sister, her mind was full of sin!

Enough. So what happened was this. After a few days, the old man came again in the evening. "I would like to stay the night," he said.

She said, "Certainly, sir. Today you must go to my sister's place."

He said, "Fine, I'll go to your sister's."

Enough. So she took him along with her to her sister's place and left him there.

When she left him there, the sister put some sour berries into a pot to boil. She herself ate all sorts of fine things that had been prepared, but for him: sour berries! That's what she fed him.

When night came.... [The assembled women all begin to laugh expectantly], he said, "I have to shit."

"Squat right down!" she said [with verve].

[This invitation brings on more laughter. One woman comments, "Look how she's waiting so expectantly for the morning.]"

So in that same way, he asked to shit five times. He shat in the four corners and in the center too. Then when morning came, the Brahman had vanished.

When she got up, she looked around. What was there to see: the smell rose up and there it was, shit and more shit.

[Urmilaji's audience sways with laughter.]

She saw this and went off to the first sister's house. She said, "Who was it who came to your house, and who was it that you sent to mine? He has shat all over the house. Come along and clean it up!"

She said, "Fine, I'll come and clean it. But tell me, what did you feed him?"

"Sour berries!"

"Look I had absolutely nothing. I had said to him, 'Look I have nothing else for you. What will I feed you?' And he had said, 'I'll eat whatever you are eating.' But what was it that you ate? Did you eat sour berries too that night?"

Then she went and cleaned up all those mounds of shit. And she said, "This was your punishment for eating fine things yourself and just feeding him sour berries."

"Jay ho! Victory!" Urmilaji ended by lowering her head and joining her palms in a salute to the Gods. The other women did the same. Then they all stood up to move back toward the village. The last destination, before everyone returned to their homes, was to scout through an overgrown area of trees, looking for the avla - sour berry tree - to worship. Women anointed the roots of this tree with red vermilion. They also honored it with flower petals, grains of rice, and offerings of water.

The Story in Ritual Context

Across India, observant Hindu women - particularly those of high castes - perform women's rituals (vrata, nompi, nonpu), frequently with accompanying stories.(1) These rituals are believed to bring religious merit to a woman and auspicious well-being to her family. As Urmilaji said, "All these rituals are for two things: a long married life and the long life of a woman's relatives." The stories which are told along with such women's rituals exist within the oral tradition, transmitted from women to other women, and frequently in printed pamphlets too. Even as the rituals provide settings for the appropriate stories to be told, the stories themselves contain references to elements of the ritual and its benefits: reflexivity is thus a central structural characteristic of such tales (Ramanujan 54).

The ritual that in Kangra is known as Panchbhisham "the five days of Bhishma" or Panchbhikham, "the five days of fasting" extends from the eleventh day to the full moon in the lunar month of Karttik (October/November). Through these five days, upper caste women observe the marriage of the sacred basil plants in their courtyards. Some households tend oil lamps which are kept burning continuously through the five days and may become a locus for women to gather and exchange stories. There are various other ritual steps associated with the particular days and related to particular stories.

Sour, smooth and a pale greenish yellow, avla berries are in season at this time. These berries are known to have medicinal properties. A branch laden with berries, or just a handful of berries is offered to the sacred basil goddess in worship. Some women make the berries into a paste to bathe with through ritual early morning baths in cold water through these five days. Many women also observe a restricted diet (no salt, rice, wheat, lentils or vegetables). They may especially eat avla berries. Despite these restrictions on the ideal diet for this time, it is considered meritorious to feed others - particularly men of the high Brahman caste - full meals.

Though Urmilaji told this story on the fourth day of the ritual, it is more specifically associated with the first day of Panch Bhisham, - the eleventh (Pahari ikadasi, Hindi ekadashi) day of the bright half of the lunar fortnight. Many observant Hindus, including Urmilaji, observe fasts for such eleventh days through the year. Eleventh is also the name of one of the sisters (in another retelling, Urmilaji named her as the older one), and further, the eleventh day is when the old Brahman comes to ask for shelter.

This story is told in association with the Five Days of Bhishma in Kangra, though it has a larger life both within India and beyond its borders.(2) I taped it in several variants from Urmilaji and other women. The audience's participation in this particular performance made clear that the women present already knew the tale. They were listening afresh not just for the ritual merit of telling and listening, but also for the sheer delight and hilarity of the story.

The Story in Interpretive Context

Let us look more closely at why the tale was enjoyed, and central meanings drawn out from it in its Kangra context. As Margaret Mills has argued in her study of Afghan storytelling, "we must... confront the fact that our interpretive procedures will remain far different from those indigenous to the social habitat of the stories" (Mills 23).

When Urmilaji herself first told me this tale in March 1991, she finished up with the following comment:

"One should honor a guest. The first one, though she was poor, fed him what she could. The second sister ate fine things herself but she boiled up sour berries for the old man! She did the wrong thing, didn't she?"

"Right," I said.

"She was thinking about herself. If someone is eating two or four things oneself, and there is someone else to entertain outside, they should also be fed fully. This is the wisdom here."

Almost exactly the same words were used by Urmilaji's neighbor, an elderly woman with thick glasses, as we walked the beaten track towards the main road after the retelling on the meadow.

"If someone is wealthy and eating fine food themselves, they should feed this good food to others." she reflected.

Urmilaji's younger sister-in-law added, "She probably thought that you had to feed him sour berries."

"That's it," agreed Urmilaji. "That's what was in her mind: that you had to use the same things."

Another woman whose identity I knew only insofar as the village post office was housed in her home, exclaimed, laughter bubbling between her words, "Look at how she was waiting expectantly but when morning came -"

- "there was a lot to clean up!" put in the woman walking beside her.

"A lot to clean up!"

"It was gold and silver she wanted to clean up," muttered someone from the back of the moving group.

Hospitality, then, was seen as a central message in this story. Indeed, in Kangra - as in South Asia generally - guests (paroune) are treated with enormous, self-effacing respect. As I experienced again and embarrassingly again through my visits to Kangra, the best that a household can offer was brought out for a guest. Meals featured delicacies that would not be part of everyday food, and often other members of the household approvingly watched a guest eat what they would themselves forego. Every visit - even down the road - invariably involved the exhortation to "spend the night" (aj ithu raha). Staying over, an honored guest might occasionally dislodge the eldest male member of the household from the most comfortable bed.

For women, pride taken in the care of guests is also subsumed within the larger framework of "service" (seva). To serve others, particularly those in the in-law's family after marriage, is thought to be a central part of women's role. Deities are served through rituals. Elders (siyane) are served through caring for their personal needs. Families are served through daily feeding. Service is a central aspect of a moral woman's identity, and from selfless service, merit (pun) is gained. As Urmilaji commented about this story, "It's a question of serving with affection. The younger sister served both her elder sister and the old man with affection. She served her sister though her sister did not care for her, and she served the old man though she had nothing. It's all a matter of affection, of the feeling in the heart."

In serving the old man, the virtuous sister goes out of her way not to inconvenience him. Until very recently, there was no plumbing in village homes; outdoor spaces like forests or rocky ravines served as toilets. For an old, weak person - as for a child - such a trek at night can be especially difficult. Urmilaji explained that children were sometimes told to just squat down indoors, and that the mothers would clean up in the morning. Here, the woman's unfinicky offer to clean up the old man's mess is richly rewarded. Since men in upper-caste families would most certainly not be involved in the business of cleaning up polluting faeces, this action shapes the story as being peculiarly about women's experiences. Significantly, in a male retelling of an almost identical ritual tale in Uttar Pradesh studied by Susan Wadley, the entire defecation sequence is altogether bypassed (Wadley, "Katha of Sakat").

Given my past interest in folk narratives told about Hindu religious teachers, (Narayan, Storytellers), I asked "Was the old man a holy man (sadhu)?"

"He was just an old man," said Urmilaji. "She didn't know what he was, except that he was poor and that he was old. So she felt compassion in her heart. She was full of affection for God. And when there's love for God, there is love for others too."

I asked Urmilaji whether she could explain the significance of the sour avla berries. She commented on the general auspiciousness of these berries,(3) and then cited a proverb: 'The words of an old person are like eating a sour berry: first sour, then sweet' (avle da khadiya kanne siyaniya da gilaya pahale koda kanne picche te miththa). As Urmilaji explained, "When you first hear something from an old person, you might not like what they say. But you should listen, because it can come to use later. Old people understand a lot about life." Since stories, like women's rituals generally, were often referred to as "the wisdom of old women" (jhabbariya da gyan), this metafolklore could also be seen as an embedded form of affirmation for the very use of folk stories. Also, the associations with avla would seem to suggest that for Kangra women tied to the daily routine of selfless service of others, sooner or later there may be sweet rewards.


Feminist methodology has alerted us to the importance of developing more egalitarian, collaborative relationships between scholars and their subjects. Compelling examples of the intellectual benefits of interpretive collaborations are increasingly found in folklore literature, particularly for the analyses of life stories (Borland; Cruikshank; Lawless; Saltzman). Since life stories are spun by individuals (albeit according to cultural conventions), when framing interpretations, it makes good sense to confer with the person whose story is being presented. Folktales, however, are so widely shared that there has been a tendency to view them as a collective voicing of the conflicts and concerns within a cultural setting (Bettelheim). It is a rare scholar, such as Kay Stone, who elicits extensive commentaries about folktales from individuals, a practice also known as oral literary criticism (Dundes; Narayan "Practice of Oral Literary Criticism").

Urmilaji had learned many of her stories and their associated rituals from her Tayi Sas, that is, her husband's father's elder brother's wife. To her, Tayi Sas was a quintessential wise woman, a female exemplar. In Urmilaji's reminiscences, Tayi Sas embodied many desired female virtues, including the virtue of selfless service extolled in this tale about the sour berry. Speaking of Tayi Sas and telling me her stories, Urmilaji also reflected on these teachings in light of helping me out in my quest to understand Kangra women's storytelling. As she once said:

That Tayi Sas - she was already old when I was married here. She had enormous wisdom. Whoever she mixed with, she gave them wisdom. Whatever wisdom there was, she had it inside her. When we would sit together, then she would talk about wise things: good talk. Then we lived together for 14 or 15 years. I learned a little wisdom from her: these stories and other things.

She would say, "Speak good words. This is one's own, nothing else is one's own. Even one's body isn't one's own: at one's last minute, it must be left behind. Act towards others without selfishness." For example, when I tell you these things [Urmilaji indicates me, Kirin], they are matters of interest to you. This is work of your interest. So you feel enormously happy with me. You feel, "This is meaningful. These are good words." In this way, she'd say, "Act towards others without selfishness."


Though I have been visiting Kangra since 1975, the fieldwork period during which I extensively worked on Urmilaji's stories was in 1990-91. I am very grateful to Urmilaji for sharing her time, wisdom and good company. I am also extremely grateful to the granting agencies which made fieldwork and subsequent writing possible: the American Institute for Indian Studies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Wisconsin Graduate School, the School of American Research, the Social Science Research Council, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. I am also grateful to Eytan Bercovitch and Jo Radner for comments on this piece.

1 There is a growing literature on the stories that accompany Hindu women's rituals. See, for example, the writings cited below by Gold, Harlan, McGee, Raheja and Gold, Ramanujan, Reynolds, Tiwari and Wadley.

2 This is Tale Type 750B Hospitality Rewarded. Beck, Claus, Goswami and Handoo (151) propose for this tale a new type, 750J Devotion Rewarded as they introduce a varient from Uttar Pradesh, associated with the worship of the deity Sakat. For a more extensive discussion of the Uttar Pradesh variants as associated with Sakat or Ganesh see Wadley "Katha of Sakat" and Tiwari 108-9. These Uttar Pradesh variants feature sisters-in-law related through marriage instead of two sisters. Motifs include Q1.1 Gods (saints) in disguise reward hospitality and punish inhospitality; K1811.2 Deity disguised as old man (woman) visits mortals; K1815 Humble disguise; Q42.3 Generosity to saint (god) in disguise rewarded; J2415 Foolish imitation of lucky man; D1002 Magic excrements; D2102 Gold magically produced; Q292 Inhospitality punished; L50 Victorious youngest daughter.

3 Berries of all sorts appear to be thought auspicious (shubh) partly on account of their association with fertility. At another time, speaking of the thorny bush of berries (baredi) which was also worshipped for November rituals, Urmilaji explained that women worshipped these berry bushes with the prayer for healthy children. Similarly, explicating a song with a mulberry tree in it, she explained that women wished for as many children as the tree gave forth berries.


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Borland, Katherine. "'That's Not What I Said': Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research." Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. Ed. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai. London: Routledge, 1991. 63-76.

Cruikshank, Julie. Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders. Lincoln and London: U. of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Dundes, Alan. "Metafolklore and Oral Literary Criticism." The Monist 60 (1966): 505-16.

Gold, Ann Grodzins. Village Families in Story and Song: An Approach through Women's Oral Tradition in Rajasthan. India kit Series, Outreach Educational Project, South Asia Language and Area Center, University of Chicago, 1982.

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Narayan, Kirin. Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

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Stone, Kay. "The Misuses of Enchantment: Controversies on the Significance of Fairy Tales." Women's Folklore, Women's Culture. Ed. R. Jordan and S. J. Kalcik. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. 125-45.

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-----. "Hindu Women's Family and Household Rites in a North Indian Village." Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives. Ed. Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1989. 72-81.

Kirin Narayan teaches anthropology and South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is the author of Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels, an ethnography, and Love, Stars, and All That, a novel.
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Author:Narayan, Kirin
Publication:Women and Language
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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