At some time or the other in our lives, we have all read his words. In subsequent times, those readings have inspired us. Especially in our younger days, his children’s books have played a significant role in shaping our thoughts. Burhi Air Xadhu – literally, Grandmother’s Tales – by Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbarua has been, for generations of Assamese readers, our first lessons in life. Written in a simple yet lucid style, the book is a collection of short tales, each with a moral woven into it. Yet this classic of Assamese literature is not just a few moral tales tied together. Burhi Air Xadhu is Bezbarua’s cudgel to purge the human foibles he saw in the Assamese society of his times. It is also his childhood memories concretised, and the reader’s memories crystallised. As a child, Bezbarua was fortunate to have been influenced by myriad experiences. When his family was in Barpeta, his father Dinanath Bezbarua engaged the services of an elderly relative, Rabinath, to look after the children. A virtual treasure trove of tales, Rabinath soon grew to be his closest companion. The many mythological stories and folktales that Rabinath spun every evening cast a deep impression on the young Bezbarua’s mind. Much later, when he was living far away from Assam, the memory of these tales, ‘recollected in tranquility’, took on a greater significance for the writer. Added to this was the influence on him of the developments in Bengali literature in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The urge to preserve the tales of rural traditional Assamese life took over and Bezbarua began to collate Assamese folktales in the form of three books – Burhi Air Xadhu, Kokadeuta aru Nati Lora and Junuka. In another book, Sadhukathar Kuki, we find two more of these tales incorporated. In all, there were seventy folktales collated by Bezbarua.
In the preface to Burhi Air Xadhu, Bezbarua writes that the inclination towards giving a written form to oral narratives and folktales is a relatively recent trend that started in 1778-79 with the famousCollection of Popular Songs by Johann Gottfried Herder followed in 1811-35 by the famous Brothers Grimm in Germany. In India, pioneers of such efforts include Lal Behari Dey and his Folktales of Bengal(1881), Rabindranath Tagore’s Bauler Gaan (1883), Swadeshi Samaj (1904), Dakhinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli (1907) and Thakurdadar Jhuli (1909). Lakshminath Bezbarua realised the significant influence such writings could have on the Assamese mindset. At the time, Assamese society was reeling under unjust British policies. In 1836, Bengali had been introduced as the official language of Assam and it became the medium of instruction in schools. Being an alien language, its sudden imposition gave students a difficult time. The self-respect of the Assamese was offended, while a sense of inferiority and ignorance also seeped into the minds of the masses regarding their own language and culture. The Bengali subordinates in the administrative machinery of British Assam were rumoured to have helped Henry Hopkinson, the then Commissioner of Assam, argue that Assamese was a mere variant of the Bengali language. Lakshminath himself had learnt his first lessons in the Bengali medium. He however realised the importance of reviving the sagging self-image of the Assamese language and culture. Through his almost single-handed efforts and the magic of his pen, he shaped its future.
In Burhi Air Xadhu, there are thirty tales in total, each set in a rural framework. The stories are taut and fast-paced, and the narrator is omniscient. The book is infused with a sardonic yet gentle humour. Bezbarua seeks to not merely highlight but rectify the weaknesses and shortcomings of men. Even birds, beasts and flowers are symbolic of men and their frailties. In tales like ‘Bandor aru Siyal’ (Monkey and Fox), ‘Mekurir Jiyekor Sadhu’ (Tale of the Cat’s Daughter) and ‘Dhorakauri aru Tiposi Sorai’ (Crow and Tiposi Bird), the characters speak like humans – reminding us of the beast fables of yore. Though told in a light-hearted tone, there are a few tales like ‘Tejimola’ which speak of tragic events.
The other significant aspect of Burhi Air Xadhu is the presence of women characters. Not only is the narrator (in the frame narrative) a woman, a significant number of stories centre around women. In most of the stories, we find significant female characters with an interesting variety in their presentations. While Tejimola is a classic tragic character, Sutibai (in the story ‘Tikhor aru Sutibai’) is an orphan who, along with her brother, must find her way through distressing times.
In the preface to the book, Bezbarua writes: “Folktales are of two broad kinds: one that instructs, and the other that enables men – old and young – to free their thoughts and imaginations in the boundless skies of possibilities.”
In Burhi Air Xadhu, we find a fusion of both. In the same preface, he also writes: “Readers might find similarities between some of the tales in this book and tales from other parts of India, especially Bengal. Owing to this, if they think that these tales are written under the shadow of those foreign tales, then they are wrong. There might be several reasons why folktales of one society match or are similar to those of others. Firstly, these tales are so old that they can be traced to the ancient times when the Aryan race was together… Of course, with time and with different influences, modifications have crept in, even though the skeleton has remained the same. And they cannot change… Secondly, many tales spread from country to another by word of mouth… especially between neighbours…”
These words actually give us a peek into the mind behind the thoughts. Lakshminath Bezbarua was a patriot – his unflinching loyalty to Assamese culture and language and the Assamese nation in general is exemplary, yet he was never prejudiced against any other culture or literature. The tales in Burhi Air Xadhu could easily be relevant to any other community or culture. Bezbarua not only concretized oral tales that had come down to him, he also derived inspiration from non-Assamese literary oeuvres. To the influences of these different cultures he added the hues of Assamese life, so much so that when we, as children or as young adults, read this work we are made to feel as though Burhi Air Xadhu is a crystallisation of our own individual grandmother’s tales.