Monday, February 25, 2008

Baba Yaga...Turn Your Back to the Forest, Your Front to Me

To some degree the 80's when I was growing up India--or at least Allahabad-- was frozen. Like a country under a magic spell, a tableau frozen inside an enchanted globe. News arrived slowly and then only via newspapers. The world was in balance: the might United States on one side arrayed against the mysteriously great Soviet Union. Of course, despite India's non-aligned status we were technically on the side of the Soviets. So, Indian kids got subscriptions to Sputnik magazine and every winter we waited impatiently, waiting for the notice in the Northern India Patrika or for a giant billboard to go up announcing the return of the Soviet Book Fair.

All the books were hardbound, and cheap, so incredibly cheap. Even at that time buying a paperback from Universal or Wheeler bookstore would set you back at least a hundred. But these beautifully bound and illustrated books were barely 20 or 30 rupees. Of course, there were the grown-up books as well, the Tolstoy's and the Pearl S. Buck's, but I lived for the Russian fairy tale books. And my favorite stories were of the Baba Yaga, the old witch crone who lived in a hut that stood on the legs of a chicken and rotated. It remained closed to the rosy-cheeked girl or boy who invariably found their way there en route to some grand adventure. But the door remained close until the hero or heroine said, "Turn your back to the forest, your front to me."

We read Western fairy tales too, the Grimm Brothers for instance. We watched Disney movies but the hold of these Russian fairy tales appealed to a darker, more elemental and undeniably exotic part of us. The boys and girls in the stories had cheeks that glowed bright pink and clothes that were intricate and colorful. And, of course, there were few Prince Charmings...not because there was no romance (there was) but because there were to be no princes in an egalitarian, communist view. And, girls were not always rescued, sometimes they were the rescuers, the hero. If there was a tale with royalty involved, it was always an old Tsardom. There were few magic slippers or grand balls, and usually the protagonists were peasants on some quest for love or to rescue a parent or lover.

Unfortunately I don't seem to have saved any of these treasures. So now I am wondering if I might be able to find some of these tales from my childhood. I think my favorite was Vasilisa the Beautiful, a Cinderalla-like tale with a magical doll instead of a fairy godmother.

So...I feel like I am on the cusp of a quest myself. And on one of my walks I might just wander into the cool depths of an ancient forest and find a house spinning on spindly legs. But I am prepared...and I still remember what I have to say. And I know I will triumph over Baba Yaga.


Bina said...

I have one of those Baba Yaga books from when I was little. I'd be happy to make a copy and send it to you, but the illustrations would be lost...

Jawahara Saidullah said...

Thanks, Bina...I think I'm going to try and find some. But if I can't then I might ask for a photocopy of Vasilisa or something. :-)

dipali said...

I remember reading and loving the Russian books. The first one was a Hindi 'Roosi Lok Kahaaniyan', which my uncle used to read to us. I loved the story of the gulgula- I still remember some of it.