Many, many moons ago, there lived a farmer who was poor and very alone. He worked tirelessly to tend to his farm, but each season, the crops failed to survive and he was penniless. It seemed as if misfortune was his only companion, and his young shoulders bent wearily in the harsh summer sun. Yet, he was a good man with simple needs and a clean heart. Unbeknownst to him, he was being watched over from above.
One day, in the midst of a raging storm, the wet winds blew a young woman to his doorstep. She stood at the threshold of his broken hut with a gentle smile and a basket made of grass in her hands. She bore the freshness of springtime and the fragrance of some flowers that he had long forgotten the names of. As she crossed the threshold, she walked straight into his heart. She set the basket down and sat beside him, gently stroking the lines on his forehead. The farmer grew nervous. Was it a dream? Was he so much in despair that he was hallucinating? But there she was, sitting with him, as real as the storm.
“You poor man” she said quietly, “I am here with you now. I will be your wife, I will tend to your home and farm by your side, I will bear our children, and we will be happy. But……” she added mysteriously, “…but there is one condition. You… (she paused a bit, as if wanting to reconsider)…….. you must never open this basket. The day you do, I will be gone from your life forever.”
The farmer sat in stunned silence. He nodded mutely and turned to look at the storm, feeling the presence of another person in his life for the first time. He was overcome with joy and affection, and the years passed quickly by. The farmer and his wife made the hut their home, their crops prospered, they had two lovely children and it seemed that their lives were perfect. Until one day!
One day when he returned home by himself, the farmer’s gaze fell upon the grass basket, dusty and abandoned in a dark corner of their home. He was drawn by his curiosity to know what it was that she wanted to hide from him. “She is now the mother of my children, and we have weathered many a storm together and emerged happy and secure in each other’s affections, there is nothing that can come between us now” he thought to himself and reached out to lift the lid of the basket to look inside.
In the distance, he could hear the sounds of their children returning home; the sound of laughter filled his heart as he looked inside again, and yet again. “What was it that she wanted to hide from me?” he wondered, “She is such a wonderful person, surely she need not have any secret from me now”. As he checked again, he drew back bewildered; there was nothing inside! What sort of condition was this? Nothing?
As he stepped back from the dark corner, the children rushed into his arms and stumbled over each other to tell him what they had seen on their way home. She stood affectionately behind them. Soon the children were distracted by other things and the farmer sat her down and asked: “Why did you make such a scene about that basket? It’s just a grass basket with nothing inside. What was all the fuss about?”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth he saw her face turn pale and distant. She stepped away from him and said calmly, “I warned you not to open that basket. Now I must leave you”. The farmer grew more anxious and spoke urgently, loudly, pleadingly, “But there is nothing….NOTHING…..nothinggg” his voice trailed off as he choked, now desperate to know what had transpired. “Please…tell me…please………….”.
She reached out for the basket, picked it up and went to the children. She stroked them caringly as she moved to the door, saying to the farmer, “You say there was nothing in the basket? Inside this basket was everything that I wanted to keep to myself. You were not willing to live with that, so I must leave”. Her voice fading as she turned back to explain further. “There is another reason why I must leave your world”. With tears rolling down his face he held the children tightly as he heard her parting words: “You say there was nothing? I will not live among a people who believe that there is something only if they can see it. Inside this basket was that part of me that I wanted to keep to myself, and you couldn’t accept that. So I must leave now.” He realised she was not from this world.
The Right to Privacy and Collectivism
“Privacy is a fundamental right, declares the Supreme Court”, the headlines of the Hindu read this morning. It has been declared as intrinsic to life and liberty and an inherent part of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India. Yet, privacy is a complex matter. When we consider our own, it seems quite basic to being human, but when it comes to another person, we often find ourselves slipping, easily making demands on, probing into, violating or even denying the other person the space to be unique or secretive. This is most evident in our relationships within the family.
As a society that places much importance on sociability and family relationships, privacy is sometimes seen as a luxury we cannot afford, and even as a threat. Within the family, we tend to live with open doors and amorphous boundaries, and cherish closeness and communication with others. Living within this constant flow of relationships, private space can easily become forgotten. For cross-cultural psychologists it has been an easy conclusion, rather simplemindedly, that Indians are a “collectivistic” people. Fortunately, there are criticisms of this imposed identity, and Indian psychologists have demonstrated that individualism is very much alive and well, look at our traffic. In an instant, Indian individualism is visible!
The grass basket is essentially a remembered story since we have been unable to find a reference to the original. As a folk-tale from Nigeria, it is likely to have had many authors, and several versions. Although folk stories are steeped in culture, they also have elements that can resonate with human lives everywhere, anywhere. The landscape of folklore is widespread and they can be found “from rural communities and families, wayside inns and resthouses, factory and kitchen, streets and suburbs, even public transport – in fact, any of those places where people meet…..exchange greetings and …form themselves into small verbal communities. A folktale turns up almost anywhere, anytime. It surfaces mostly by allusion, occasionally as a gentle prod to move a cumbersome narrative through, or simply to break the ice. It confirms the solidarity of a group that shares certain knowledge and values on predictably equal terms”. With this story, we can also find resonance with some tales from Hindu mythology. For instance, Indu mentions that stories of Ganga and Shantanu discuss similar themes about space for the self.
Although these are ubiquitous, stories also live on in their re-telling. They stay dormant, held down, locked within words “till you or someone else reads it, brings it to life, and changes it by retelling it”, A. K. Ramanujan writes in his Folk Tales from India. They can also light up spaces that usually remain in darkness or doubt, tell us about things that we find difficult to address in regular conversations, they can bind us together, and they can also divide.
To quote a well-known storyteller Devdutt Pattanaik, stories are told for several reasons, to entertain, explain, inform, educate, persuade, guide, inspire, injure or heal ourselves and/or others. Everyone tells stories. Stories are mostly allegoric, not meant to be taken literally. They are devices with hidden meanings and subtle messages, and obliquity is essential to their narration. In between the words, people can find their own meanings, their own reason. This inherent polysemy makes them powerful cultural tools.
The grass basket can be seen from different perspectives. An intimate group like a family is a collection of individuals with conjugal or filial connections, and there will always be a play between the self and the other, between individual needs and interests of the group, and also the larger social network. Without this elasticity, perhaps families wouldn’t be able to survive. Punya remarks that self-other boundaries is an important element of this story. We believe that this parable allows us to examine these dynamics, despite its reference to an ‘other-world’ from which the woman has come.
Many themes can be pulled out, and our team urged us to open these up for discussion. We can see the woman as selfish and stubborn, the farmer as curious and confident. The story can have hidden meanings about close relationships and privacy, about living together as a family without compromising individuality. We can sit on judgement about or debate the condition placed on an innocent man, the breach of trust by the husband, the irrepressible curiosity of the farmer or his over-confidence in the relationship, the fact that there should be no secrets in close relationships, and that members within a family are not entitled to privacy, or, the right to walk out of a home versus the need to do what is right. These are only some of the issues that came to our minds. We invite you to tell us what the story meant for you, what do you think it brings out, what meanings are contained in the events from your perspective and how would you judge the actors? Would this story apply to relationships with children? Do we think children are entitled to their privacy? Do infants have a private life? If no, then when does self-space emerge? Should children tell their parents everything? Should we be allowed to keep some things to ourselves?
Without taking sides on any of these issues, we invite you to share your thoughts.