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A Flowering Tree

A Woman's Tale

[Note: AKR wrote this essay to be presented as a lecture in 1991 at a conference on language and gender at the University of Minnesota. In this unrevised paper, we have left the oral style intact. Our intention was to indicate the type of in-depth analysis that each of the tales in this volume richly deserves but that unfortunately AKR did not live to complete. —Eds.]

In this short paper, I shall present a story about a woman, told by women in the Kannada-speaking areas of south India, hoping that you will hear even through my translation the voice of the woman teller; then offer a reading of it for discussion; and suggest, in passing, certain characteristics of the genre of women-centered tales.

Indian folktales told around the house usually have animals, men, women, and couples as central characters. There may be other secondary characters like supernatural beings, both divine and demonic, but they are not the focus of domestic oral tales. If the tales are comic, they invert and parody the values of the serious ones. In them kings, tigers, and demons, even gods and goddesses can be figures of fun and act as morons, as they do not in the serious ones. King and clown change places. Thus the folktales of a culture have a number of contrasting genres that are in dialogue with each other. Each kind of tale has special characteristics, its own “chronotope,” if one wishes to invoke Bakhtin.

For instance, animal tales tend to be political: about how the powerless, the small, and the cunning sidestep or outwit the powerful. It is not surprising therefore that the Pañcatantra, a book of tales meant to educate princes on the ways of the world, should consist mostly of animal tales. Where men are the protagonists, especially in tales of quest, women are secondary: they are usually part of the prize, along with half a kingdom; sometimes they help the hero in his quest for the magic flower or do his derring-do (get the milk of a tigress or whatever) and slay the ogre, thereby qualifying him to marry her and receive his half of the kingdom. These stories end in marriage—for they speak of the emancipation of the hero from the parental yoke and the setting up of a new family, as he comes into his own.

In women-centered tales, by contrast, the heroine is either already married or she is married early in the tale, and then the woman's troubles begin. In a tale called “The Crab Prince” or “The Fish Prince” (edikumāra, mīnakumāra), the young woman is often sold or married to a wild, murderous animal bridegroom, and the rest of the story tells you how she made him human, handsome, and gentle. In another, she marries a man fated to die soon, as Savitri does in the classic tale, and vies with Yama, the God of Death, tricking him into giving her husband a long life, among other things. In “The Dead Prince and the Talking Doll” tale (No. 12), he's already dead, astrologers having predicted that he would lie as a dead man till a good woman served him for twelve years (or pulled out the thousands of needles from his body), after which he comes to life.

In such tales, not only is the pattern of the tale different (not easily accommodated by Propp's schemes, which work well for male-centered tales), but the same symbols that occur elsewhere may take on different meanings. For instance, a snake in a male-centered tale is usually something to be killed, a rival phallus, if you will. In women-centered tales, that is, where women are the protagonists and also usually the tellers, snakes are lovers, husbands, uncles, donors, and helpers[1]. Thus, the meaning of the elements, the interpretation of the symbolism, depends on what kind of tale it is: a snake in an animal tale, in a male-centered tale, and in a women-centered tale is not the same animal. Symbols, far from being universal, do not even mean the same thing as you move from genre to genre. So the gender of the genre, if one may speak of such—and surely the gender of the teller, the listener, and the interpreter—becomes important in interpretation. A woman's culturally constructed life-forms, her meaning-universe, is different from a man's in such tales. This simple-minded essay is meant to further the exploration of this universe of women's discourse.[2]

Other kinds of women's tales counter various constructs and stereotypes (held by both men and women), like the passive female victim, conceptions of karma, or even chastity. As I've spoken of these elsewhere, I'd like to talk today of a tale that speaks of a woman's creativity, her agency, and of the way it is bound up with her capacity for speech. The rest of this paper will speak in some detail of one story, “A Flowering Tree” (No. 19), collected in several versions in Karnataka over the past twenty years by me and fellow-folklorists. [AKR's translation of the tale here is omitted.]

One could say many things about this story. For instance, one of its themes resonates with our present concerns with ecology and conservation. Each time the heroine becomes a tree, she begs the person who is with her to treat it/her gently, not to pluck anything more than the flowers. Indeed, we were told by our mothers when we were children not to point to growing plants in the garden with our sharp fingernails, but only with our knuckles; our fingernails might scratch the growing ends. Poems like the following in classical Tamil speak of the sisterhood between a woman and a tree:

What Her Girl Friend Said

to him (on her behalf) when he came by daylight

Playing with friends one time
we pressed a ripe seed
into the white sand
and forgot about it
till it sprouted

and when we nursed it tenderly
pouring sweet milk with melted butter,
Mother said,
“It qualifies
as a sister to you, and it's much better
than you,
praising this laurel tree.”

we're embarrassed
to laugh with you here

O man of the seashore
with glittering waters
where white conch shells,
their spirals turning right,
sound like the soft music
of bards at a feast.

Yet, if you wish,
there's plenty of shade
Anon., Naṟṟiṇai 172 [Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War (1985), p. 33.]

Or the Virasaiva poem that connects the gentle treatment of plants with other kinds of love, by Dasareswara, a saint who wouldn't even pluck flowers for his god but only pick up the ones that had dropped to the ground by themselves:

Knowing one's lowliness
in every word;

the spray of insects in the air
in every gesture of the hand;

things living, things moving
come sprung from the earth
under every footfall;

and when holding a plant
or joining it to another
or in the letting it go

to be all mercy
to be light
as a dusting brush
of peacock feathers:

such moving, such awareness
is love that makes us one
with the Lord
Dasarēśwara [Ramanujan, Speaking of Śiva (1973), pp. 54–55]

When a woman is beautiful, they say in Kannada, “One must wash one's hands to touch her” (kai tolakondu muttabeku).

There is also the suggestion that a tree is vulnerable to careless handling like a woman. A tree that has come to flower or fruit will not be cut down; it is treated as a mother, a woman who has given birth. Thus the metaphoric connections between a tree and a woman are many and varied in the culture. A relevant one here is that the words for “flowering” and “menstruation” are the same in languages like Sanskrit and Tamil. In Sanskrit, a menstruating woman is called a puspavati, “a woman in flower,” and in Tamil, pūttal (“flowering”) means “menstruation.” Menstruation itself is a form and a metaphor for a woman's special creativity. Thus a woman's biological and other kinds of creativity are symbolized by flowering. In this tale, as in a dream, the metaphor is literalized and extended. The heroine literally becomes a tree, producing flowers without number over and over again, as the occasion requires. It is her special gift, which she doesn't wish to squander or even display.

She makes her secret known to her sister first only because they have no money, because she wishes to save her mother from some of the rigors of poverty. After that, her gift becomes known to others and she has to display it at their bidding.

As described in the tale, of the five times she becomes a tree, she does it voluntarily only the first and the last times. The second time, her mother orders her to show her how she has earned her money, because she suspects her of selling her body. Then the prince eavesdrops on one of these transformations and wants to have such a woman for himself. Once he gets her, he compels her to become a tree in his bedchamber on his wedding night, and on every night thereafter. It becomes almost a sexual ritual, a display of her spectacular talent to turn him on, so that they can sleep together on the flowers from her body. Even before she gets used to it, thanks to the flowers that pile up outside her bedroom window, her young adolescent sister-in-law becomes curious, puts her eye to a chink in their door, and wants to show her off to her companions. She uses her clout as an in-law (and her mother's) to coerce her to go with her alone to the orchard; she and her pubescent teenage girlfriends tease her (“Will you do it only for your lovers?”), play on the sexual nature of her talent, and force her to become a tree. And, despite her abject requests not to hurt her, they ravage the tree; when she is returned to her human state, she too is left ravaged, mutilated. It is a progressive series of violations till she finally ends up being a “thing.”

In a way, people have begun to treat her as a thing, asking her “to make a spectacle of herself” by displaying her secret gift. One might say that even the first time she herself becomes a tree to sell her flowers she makes of herself a commodity. The fifth and last time she becomes a tree she has to wait for the right person and the safe occasion, another bedchamber, in an older, married sister-in-law's household, with a husband who has missed her and searched for her and thereby changed.

These five occasions seem pointedly to ask the question: when is a woman safe in such a society? She is safe with her own sister,[3] maybe with her mother, but not quite with a newly wedded husband who cares more for a display of her talent than for her safety, and most certainly not with her teenage sister-in-law or her mother-in-law. She is safe only with a married sister-in-law (who is probably not threatened or envious) and, lastly, with a husband who, through an experience of loss, has matured enough to care for her as a person.

As I said earlier, she is most vulnerable when she is a tree. She can neither speak nor move. She is most open to injury when she is most attractive, when she is exercising her gift of flowering. Each time she becomes a tree, she begs the one who is pouring the water to be careful not to hurt her. Yet, paradoxically, when she is mutilated, she cannot be healed directly. She can be made whole only by becoming the tree again, becoming vulnerable again, and trusting her husband to graft and heal her broken branches.

The recurrent unit of the story is “girl becoming tree becoming girl.” This is also the whole story; the recurrent unit encapsulates the career of this woman in the story. What are the differences between a woman and a tree? A woman can speak, can move, can be an agent in her own behalf in ways that a tree cannot. Yet symbolically speaking, the tree isolates and gives form to her capacity to put forth flowers and fragrance from within, a gift in which she could glory, as well as to the vulnerability that goes with it. It expresses a young woman's desire to flower sexually, and otherwise, as well as the dread of being ravaged that the very gift brings with it. In telling such a tale, older women could be reliving these early, complex, and ambivalent feelings towards their own bodies—and projecting them for younger female listeners.[4] If boys are part of the audience, as they often are, the male could imaginatively participate in them, which might change his sensitiveness towards women.

The repetition of the unit, girl becomes tree becomes girl, marks the divisions of the story, gives it its narrative time, the chronos of the “chronotope.” In a typical male-centered story, it is marked by the adventures of the prince, his failures and final success, often measured in threes. The spaces in the women-centered story are marked by alternations of interior and exterior (the akam and puṟam of classical Tamil poetics), by alternations of domestic and public space in which the action takes place. In this story, the five instances of the transformations move from her own yard to the prince's bedchamber, then to the orchard, where it is most dangerous, and back to a second bedchamber. Indeed one of the oppositions between a woman and a tree is that the former is an interior (akam) being, living both indoors and having an interior space, a heart, all of which are meant by the South Dravidian term akam, while the latter lives outdoors, in public space (puṟam). It is one of the ironies of this story that she is forced to become a tree in the wrong space, in the bedchamber. And when she becomes a tree in the orchard, the greatest harm comes to her. These emphasize the special symbolic charge of the tree: it's not any old tree, but a phase in a human career; its past and future are human and female, capable of living both within and without. Such is the time-space, the chronotope, of this woman's tale. Other women's tales also play with this balance and alternation between interiors and exteriors.

In the orchard, with the wild pubescent girls, she becomes a tree, full of fears that are all too real, and she is unable to return to her whole human female being: she becomes a “thing,” something that has the face of a woman but the helplessness of the tree. She is neither woman nor tree but both, betwixt and between. The “thing” cannot move by itself and does not speak. She lives in the servants' quarters, both within and without. It is only when she speaks to a “significant other,” her husband in this tale, and tells him her story that she is able to return to her original female body. She waits for recognition by him. She waits to tell her story in its entirety and give him instructions on how to heal her: pour water on her, and, when she becomes a tree, to lovingly put back the broken leaves and branches in their place, and pour the water on them—and she will be whole again. This is also the time when she voluntarily and for her own good undergoes the transformation. She has recovered her agency.

I would suggest that agency in these women's tales is connected with their being able to tell their own story and with its being heard.[5] After the first time, every time she protests that she doesn't wish to become a tree she is not heard; she is forced to do so against her will. Many women's tales end with this kind of self-story being told and being heard. Very often, as in the story of “The Dead Prince and the Talking Doll” (No. 12), it is told in the next room to a lamp or a talking doll, which says Hmm Hmm! as a human listener would when he hears a story. And the husband overhears it and learns the truth about his wife. It moves her from being a silent or unheard woman to a speaking person with a story to tell. Indeed, the whole tale tells the story of how this woman acquires a story through experience, mostly suffering; till then she has had no story to tell. In some tales, as in “The Lampstand Woman” (No. 36), this is explicit: she is usually a princess whose life is a blank at the beginning; she marries and her troubles begin. She becomes a servant, usually in her own sister-in-law's house, is accused of stealing a child's necklace, and is punished. Her head is shaved and a lamp is placed on a cow dung patty and slapped on her shaved head. She becomes a living lampstand and has to light the path of visitors. But she hardly speaks till her suffering reaches its nadir, and her husband from whom she is separated arrives, and she has to light his path to his bed. He doesn't recognize her, asks for a story; she tells her own story, and as the story proceeds it dawns on the husband that he is in the presence of his own wife, who is now a Lampstand Woman, to whom all these horrible things have happened unbeknownst to him. When the whole story is recapitulated in her own voice, he recognizes her, and the tale ends in reunion.

One may add that speech not only means agency for the woman but also sexuality. In many Kannada tales, the phrase for sexual intimacy between a woman and a man is “they talked to each other.” In a tale about a husband who is not sleeping with his wife, the forlorn wife is asked by a caring old woman, “Isn't your husband talking to you?” When she hears he is not, she proceeds to find ways of making the husband first talk to the wife even angrily: she asks the young woman to put pebbles in his yogurt or rice, or to pack salt into his curry so that he will get angry with her and they can have words. At the end of “The Dead Prince” story, the prince and the young woman are found “talking to each other all night.”

Since writing the above regarding the transformation of the “dumb” woman to a speaking person, and the relation of speech to a woman's agency, I came across Ruth Bottigheimer's pages on speech in the Grimms' household tales, especially in their “Cinderella” (Bottigheimer 1987:ch. 6). She points out how speech is an indication of power. Many recent sociolinguistic works have been concerned with the question of who speaks when, for discourse is a form of domination, and speech use is “an index of social values and the distribution of power within a society” (Bottigheimer 1987:51. For an extensive bibliography on the subject, see Thorne, Kramarae, and Henley 1983).

In English, one speaks of “having a voice, having a say”; in German, mundig (from the word for “mouth”) means legal majority, legal personhood. The poor do not have it; they are silent. Women, like children, should be seen, not heard. The good woman has a soft low voice and says little: Cordelia in King Lear is praised for it. Eve's sin begins with her speaking to Satan. “Since the early days of the Church, women had been barred from speaking in the house of god, as well as preaching, teaching, or speaking in public,” says Judith Brown in her Immodest Acts, The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (Brown 1986:59–60). There are many jokes about garrulous women: women, generally speaking, are generally speaking.

In the folktales that Wilhelm Grimm rewrote in his later editions, as a male rewriting women's tales, he gives women little direct speech; he also substitutes sagen (“said”) for sprechen (“spoke”), as the latter is more forthright. Sprechen emphasizes the act of speaking, and sagen the content of an utterance (Bottigheimer 1987:55). In W. Grimm's last version of “Cinderella” (1857), Cinderella, the good girl, speaks only once in direct speech; the bad women, the stepsisters and the stepmother, five and seven times; the prince in authority has eight direct speeches, and the ineffectual father only three—and two of them are mere thoughts. However, this feature may be different in different cultures: in Danish variants, where women have greater freedom and power, Cinderella is not gagged as in the German ones. It would be interesting to ask similar questions in the Indian context, especially of tales that are told by both men and women. It would also be important to see how men like myself interpret these tales and what biases they bring to them. That's one of the reasons for presenting this paper to this audience.

The fact that women have either been silent or written for the drawer, as Emily Dickinson did, or written under male disguises and pseudonyms is related to this taboo on women's speech. The many women writers and artists in all three worlds directly address such taboos, both gross and subtle, that still exist across many cultures.


1. See A. K. Ramanujan 1991b; and Sudhir Kakar. [BACK]

2. This essay is part of a series which may be called Women's Tales: They Tell a Different Story. See Ramanujan 1989, 1991b, 1993, 1982b, 1982a. As suggested in these papers, different kinds of women's materials are relevant in constructing proverbs and riddles used by women, women saints' lives and poems, tales and vratakathas told by women in women-only contexts, wedding songs, retellings of myths and epics by women, and so on. Folktales are a part of this “female tradition” yet to be explored and seen as a whole vis-à-vis other parts of the culture. The folktale universe itself (both men's and women's tales) is in a dialogic relation to the more official mythologies of the culture. [BACK]

3. In women's tales, the true antagonist as well as the helper for a woman is another woman, just as in the men's tales the hero battles always with an older male, a father-figure, often with brothers. Stepmothers, stepsisters, mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, rival women who usurp the heroine's place abound in these tales. In the tale of “The Lampstand Woman” (No. 36), even Fate is Mother Fate. (In a man's tale, Outwitting Fate, Fate is Brahma, a male.) Men in women's tales are usually wimps, under the thumbs of their mothers or other wives; mostly they are absent. Sometimes they are even dead, waiting to be revived by their wives' ministrations. Mother-in-law tales in south India have no fathers-in-law. The wife and the mother share a single male figure (who is both son and husband); the older and younger woman are rivals for power over him. In other tales, where the central figure is an active heroine, she may battle with a man, usually a husband—sometimes she has to rescue him from his scrapes, often from bondage to another woman. In a tale called A Wager (an Indian oral tale, found also in the eleventh-century Kathasaritsāgara; it is also the story of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, which he gets from Italian novella writers, who probably got it from India), she talks back or outriddles an arrogant spoiled prince, who vows that he will punish her for outtalking him. In a number of tales with active heroines, as in The Peasant's Clever Daughter, she answers every riddle that the king poses, and wins by outwitting his plans to seduce her; she has the full power of speech and uses it to her and her family's, often to the whole kingdom's, advantage. [BACK]

4. I am indebted to a discussion with Sudhir Kakar for this formulation. [BACK]

5. In other tales there are other ways of being an agent in her own behalf: for instance, in tales of abandoned wives who have to travel, often to rescue their own dastardly husbands, they travel in male disguise—as women writers like George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë often wrote under male pseudonyms. In some tales, they are not safe with their brothers or fathers who have incestuous designs on them, though the folktale universe, as it explores many different emotions and attitudes to the same situation, also presents protective brothers, though rarely protective fathers. [BACK]

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