When Rapunzel Met Sombre, Dhoti-Clad Men: Tales From Yesteryear
The mind, with memory in tow, has strange ways. A sudden bout of forgetfulness, a hurried flash of remembrance, an unlikely association – there is a haphazard thrill to the madness.
I vividly remember one sultry evening steeped in an eleven-year-old’s concerns. I was alternating between the Mahabharata and my treasured collection of fairy tales – two radically different worlds – none of which had lost their familiar charm, but had strictly compartmentalised themselves in my head.
While the Pandavas conjured up visuals of sombre men in white dhotis, making life-altering decisions, the Rapunzel and Cinderella narratives were mulled over Cheetos and Pepsi.
That particular night, to my horror, I dreamt of Rapunzel looking down at Arjuna from her tower, her face lit, her cheeks flushed. Rapunzel’s Prince, on the other hand, lounged behind a bougainvillea bush, chatting up Krishna who was decked as a woman. I remember trying to reach out, trying hard to break free and disentangle the worlds. They couldn’t possibly intermingle! Everything looked out of place. I was left with that inexplicable feeling of sand running through my fingers.
The next morning at breakfast, I had some serious questions for my parents. Did Rapunzel know Arjuna could metamorphose as and when he wanted? Did she know he could turn himself into a woman? If she found out, how exactly would she appear in my next dream?
Somehow I don’t remember the exact words my father used. But it was a brief discussion.
That night, over dinner, he broached the topic on sensing my grave concern. He told me that sometimes the oddest of things are clubbed together; it doesn’t mean they are wrong – it just means we need to find a way to fit all the pieces of the puzzle.
I remember reading about a documentary trying to reimagine popular fairytales. Here, Rapunzel has a hair-loss problem and Prince Charming is from the LGBT community and so on and so forth. It brought back a wild gush of memories.
And Voila! I saw the postcolonial child’s silver lining. I had had best of both worlds. Without realising, a child’s wonder and imagination had strung these worlds together and taught me a huge lesson in receptivity and social sensitivity.
Over the years, I’ve come across numerous readings calling out the problematic depictions of women, gender and traditions in the Mahabharata. Nevertheless, even a cursory reading of the epic is enough to portray the fierceness and flexibility that identity is given.
Gods reincarnating, men turning into women, women turning into men, negotiations based on identities- – is a world with an agency of its own. It is a world which inspires us to embrace the power of choice. The choice might often be based on privilege, but that definitely can’t be an excuse to not engage.
When taught right, our children will find no anomaly in Shikhandi, born a woman and later turned into a man, who had helped the Pandavas win the Kurukshetra War. They will find no anomaly in Arjuna, who had turned into a eunuch for a year. Neither will they be stumped by the traditionalism of a Cinderella or a Snow White. Princes can be happy with Princesses. Princes can be happy with Princes too.