A Tale of Fairy Tales

Munmi Buragohain

  1. Once upon a time in Holland, there was a little girl named Audrey who ate tulips.

                It wasn’t because she loved flowers though – it was because she was so hungry. Life in Holland during the Second World War was hard. There was never enough food on the table and Audrey often felt the pangs of hunger in her empty stomach….”

– These lines are from a children’s bedtime story book I had read in a bookstore in the city of Oxford. In this seemingly unconventional fairy tale, the little girl referred is the same Audrey Hepburn, the iconic actress and fashion icon of 50’s.

                More than a year ago, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I boarded a train from Birmingham station to Oxford, England. The English countryside always mesmerized me but the idea of exploring a new city – the city of Dreaming Spires – made the journey more delightful. On my way out of the train station, I grabbed a copy of the free map of Oxford as I had planned for a walking tour of the city as suggested by my British colleagues. We know Oxford is home to one of the oldest learning institutions in the world, the University of Oxford, and the buildings and halls of these 39 colleges stand true to this legacy. I started with the Balliol College which was established on 1296 A.D. and then visited the University Church of St. Mary,Trinity College, Radcliffe Camera (which is actually a library), Museum of History and Science, Ashmolean Museum among others. I try not to miss visiting the museums in a new city as they reflect the heritageand history of that city, though a lot of Indian artifacts can be found adorning the museums across UK. Many scenes from the Harry Potter movies where filmed in these Oxford colleges (remember the dark halls of Hogwarts), so the stores were filled with Harry Potter franchise merchandise, including magic wands anda life-size Dobby.Once in a while, college students in the robes can be seen cycling across the streets. The author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, was a Mathematics professor in Oxford University and his book about Alice was inspired in this beautiful city.

The 1000 years old Oxford Castle and Prison, now converted to a hotel named Malmiason, is believed to be haunted among many other old buildings in this city. The not-so-faint-hearted can enjoy the thrill of the famous midnight Ghost tours of Oxford, but I was not up for it. Funny enough, back home in Birmingham where I lived then, the Townhall was considered to be haunted by the spirit of author Charles Dickens. I had to cross this Townhall on most days while returning from work and the evening lights, the chill in the wind and silhouettes of the shadows of its pillars would spook me out.

                Finally, by late afternoon, I reacheda famous bookstore called Blackwell which was situated right across the street from the Trinity College. It hadmany floors dedicated to different genres of books and the basement was filled with postcards and souvenirs. There was cosy café attached where people were reading quietly with their cuppa. Blackwell turned out to be heaven for book lovers and the most enriching experience of my trip that day. Apart from medical books, college textbooks, literature, it had a huge collection of books including Indian mythology.

To my surprise, the entrance of the floor had a rack of books called ‘Mystery Books’ and every book was wrapped in brown paper andbelow the rack, the display read – ‘It’s Time To STOP Judging a Book by its Cover.’ Each of these mystery book had letter cut-outs describing a line or two about that book and you had to buy them without looking at the book cover.What was even more wonderful, as I browsed through the bookshelves, there were small handwritten cards with a gist of the story of a book recommended for new readers. The store assistants had actually read most of the books in their sections and would patiently provide an unbiased description of the books we are looking for. Sadly, this is not an option nowadays while we buy books online and this adds to the agony of being deprived of a nice reading.I was looking for a birthday gift for my 2-year old, the book keeper guided me to the toddler’s books section. Just then a mother with two children walked into the kid’s section and enquired about nice story books for both kids. The assistant pulled out a book from the rack and said she had read it the previous night and narrated to them about the adventures in that book, while the kids listened to her wide-eyed. We know how impactful stories are on little minds, as they help children form the notion about the world outside their own circle of family and friends.

Walking around the latest launched section, I noticed a book called ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’. I sat by the window-side to read it and was impressed by the simple stories and the illustrations. Each of the story began in a format similar to a fairy tale – ‘Once upon a time ….‘ and provided an simple story describing the lives of iconic women from present times as well as history. It included athletes Serena Williams, Simone Biles as well as computer programmer Ada Lovelace and legendary Pocahontas. I never knew that there ever existed a women pirate till I read this book. It also tells the story of how German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the most powerfulwomen in the world today, hated the Berlin Wall that divided East Germany and West Germany even as a little girl andrefused to spy on her colleagues. She was exceptional in academics and even holds a Doctorate in Quantum Chemistry. British actress Audrey Hepburn,considered one of the most beautiful women of all times, had also spent much of her life feeding hungry malnourished children around the world with UNICEF, because she had known the pain of hunger as little girl and ate tulip bulbs in hunger. Today, a breed of tulips in Holland are named in honour of her humanitarian work.

I am not going to review the book here, I wasmoreimpressed by the subject of story-telling in this book and returned home happily with my bookhaul.

There are so many real-life princess stories which the children of our land should know like Joymoti, Kanaklata, Pratima Pandey, Hima Das, Dr. Mamoni Roisom Goswami etc. Sadly only a few names from India show up in the list of women in this book – Lakshmi Bai being one of them. Nevertheless, the noble effort taken by the authors to celebrate the courage, determination and success of women tugs at our hearts and aims to inspire both girls and boys. Instead of the run-of-the-mill fairy tales about fictional damsels in distress being rescued by a random handsome prince (or a frog or a beast), it tells a straightforward and crisp summary of lives of real women who dared to think differently and struggled to achieve their dreams. I believe such matter-of-fact stories can provide ample food for thought in young malleable minds.

Yes, all stories for little girls (and boys) need not have a beautiful Princess and a Prince Charming and not always the Princess needs to be rescued by a Knight in Shining armour like these stories. As a little girl, I had read stories of Tejimola, Silonir Jiyek, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty etc. But most of these famous (and borrowed) fairy tales still depict the medieval English society centred around Ballroom courtship with slender, fair-skinned girls dancing in embellished ball-gowns. While I do encourage fantasy and imagination in kids, the entire idea of defining a woman by her physical appearance, her attire and the sole purpose of her life being married to a prince is cringeworthy. Much of this can be attributedto the Disney movies which have unfailingly shown the women as the epitome of elegance and beauty only,conveniently leaving out other fields like sports, music and science and culture. Not to mention the female antagonist frequently portrayed as the evil stepmother or the scary witch.I wonder if suchstories hold relevance anymoreas they would foster more self-doubt and self-pity instead of self-confidence – these Disney Princess stereotypesneed revamping and retelling to suit today’s age.

As we complete two decades of this millennium, women around the world have broken barriers, each creating a remarkable story worth telling. It also brings hope that such examples would encourage the kids and millennials to try, fail and try again and in the process, overcome the fear of making mistakes. At the end of the day, no amount of guidance and teaching can exceed the learning gained from one’s own experience.


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