In a celebration of Manipur’s oral art of storytelling, scholar L Somi Roy’s new children’s book will engage and enthrall in equal measure
And that is why a magic bamboo grows on Karang Island. Artworks/Sapha Yumnam
Jataka Tales meets Aesop’s Fables. Readers of a certain vintage who were exposed to these two streams of classical children’s literature might find a connection with the world that comes to life in L Somi Roy’s And That is Why (Penguin). Wise owls, scheming jackals, jabbering monkeys and marauding cats formed part of the literary landscape that imparted simple, relatable life lessons, which remain relevant till date. Birds and animals are the key protagonists in the 12 magical stories that salute Manipur’s rich legacy of storytelling. Roy sought oral sources gathered from scholars, balladeers and archivists from his home state to showcase it to the rest of the world.
Extracts from an interview with Roy.
Could you tell us how you went about your research where oral traditions played a huge role?
I had written up the story of the famous heirloom black rice of Manipur as found in the manuscript called Poireiton Khunthokpa, or the Travels of Prince Poireiton, before the current book. That led me to the discovery of oral traditions that complement the text. So, I consulted my friend and Pena [traditional Manipuri mono string instrument] balladeer Mayanglambam Mangangsana about the oral versions of the stories. Like, for instance, in the story of the deer, divine intervention comes to the rescue of the goddess, whereas in Mangangsana’s ballad, a pretty little fish saves her. Guess which one I adopted for my retelling!
Illustration from the story And that is why Manipur is the birthplace of polo
How long did the process take from idea to final book?
Looking back at earlier versions for my manuscript digitisation and pony preservation projects, I would say the process goes back to around 2005. As a children’s book, I started writing this in 2019.
As a writer, what was your primary task after you gained access to these beautiful stories?
I am not a writer. I mean, not in the literal sense. I approached children’s literature in much the same way I use polo for the Manipuri pony preservation project; as a strategy, a tool for cultural reframing and repurposing. True, my interest in manuscripts began with international scholarly research, but once I tucked into these stories for children, my singular interest was what would appeal to the child reader. What would amuse her? What would not bore him? The challenge was to weave the archival, ritualistic, textual, and oral variations into one single narrative. For, there are many, many versions as you might imagine of mythology expressed in word and song over centuries.
L Somi Roy is actively involved in the conservation of the Manipuri pony. Pic courtesy/Nan Melville
What has been the initial reaction, especially from children so far?
I sent early drafts to my friends’ kids aged between nine and 13 years. One girl was drawn to the poop story. Yes, she was at that age. Ten-year-old Jessica had serious questions and comments about the mother pied cuckoo. I loved it so much that I requested my publisher to use it as the book cover blurb. In Manipur, the book generated interest across the board. We are not a material culture, and the manuscript tradition is our supreme patrimony. Seeing Manipuri mythology cast as once-upon-a-time to happily-ever-after tales to be exported to the outside world seems to have struck a chord for the community as a whole.
Tell us more about the striking illustrations by Sapha Yumnam? How did both of you work to arrive at the artwork?
Discovering Sapha’s work has been amazing. I had quietly despaired of finding the right art for the book. He is a young modern artist; the only one working with the old Subika style of the manuscripts. I fell in love with his artwork instantly, and so did my publisher. I left it to him to create one major painting per story that collaged elements from them. But I got him to do the smaller ones in the style of a manuscript leaf with Meitei Mayek inscriptions of nursery rhymes. We argued about one bird, and that is all I will say!
As a Manipuri author, do you feel that children’s literature from the Northeast is under-represented?
Absolutely. This is the publisher’s first children’s book from the Northeast. And there are so many wonderful stories here; not just mythology but also folk tales. They express a unique world-view. I chose myths with birds and animals because, well, it’s birds and animals.