Chennai Journal
Sunday, July 17, 2005
Birthday Tales and Fairy Tales

Today is my birthday and the practice here is for the birthday person to give sweets to those they meet, so we went to the grocery store on the corner and picked up some Ferraro Rocher candy to take into work tomorrow. The weather was great---cooler than it’s been for a while, almost like a Midwest summer day. Also started taking fish oil to improve my memory---since turning 50 it feels like my mental hard drive is continually full....

When I lived in Japan I used to read children’s books as a way of improving my Japanese –biographies of famous Japanese historical figures and fairy tales such as Momotaro (Peach Boy). A side benefit was that I got a good insight into the cultural values of the society, often transmitted in children’s stories.

So when I got to India I started browsing through bookstores for Indian children's stories. I bought a CD of “Grandma’s Tales” in English and Tamil and what appeared to be the most common books in the children’s section of the bookstores. Among these, the Panchatantra (Sanskrit for Five parts) features tales about animals with five distinct themes: discord among friends, gaining friends, of crows and owls, loss of gains, and imprudence. Although some references in the tales or the characters may seem unfamiliar, the morals of the stories are remarkably universal--“knowledge is important but common sense is more essential” and “one should not imitate others, it only brings misery.”

If some of the tales have a ring of familiarity, it is also because the Panchatantra, which is more than 2500 years old, found its way to Persia, Arabia, and Europe and parts of Southeast Asia via travelers and spice traders. Traces may even be found in Grimm’s fairy tales. The influence seems to extend to the present day. If you are a Godfather fan, you will recall that famous admonition repeated by Michael Corleone--“keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” The theme of the third set of Panchatantra tales, crows and owls, begins with the phrase “trust not even a close friend who earlier was your enemy.”

The stories are still told to children by parents and grandparents, and feature prominently in India parenting websites (for more see

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