Planting Taro: Subverting the Tale


 – Ningombam Rojibala – Dr Rojio’s play not only subverts the old familiar folktale, the tale of being exploited, but also contextualizes it in the present scenario, simultaneously proposing a solution for the dismal condition of Manipuri society.

Planting Taro, a play directed by Dr Usham Rojio, is an adaptation of the folktale Hanuba Hanubi Paan Thaba (The old man and woman Planting Taro) from Manipur. When I watched the premiere of the play Planting Taro in MDU on 15th of April 2018, I recalled the way my grandfather narrated the story during my childhood.  I listened to him with an avid ear as he mimicked the characters, making me visualize the story. This folktale has been around in various forms in Manipuri society. I thought that the play would be a reiteration of the same old folktale. Many expected that the folktale shall reach into the core of nostalgia for childhood and comfort us. However, what is compelling is that the playwright in a thought provoking manner twists the folktale in his attempt at subverting the exploitative politics and deceitful lures of various stakeholders in Manipur. In his interpretation of the folktale, Rojio offers an analogy between the fraudulent monkeys of the folktale and the corrupt imposters of present-day Manipur. Interestingly, he plays with the conventions, reinventing the tale for subversion of familiar narratives.


The Original Tale

Like his other grandchildren, I learnt from my grandfather that the story is about an old couple who were outwitted by some fraudulent monkeys. When the old couple were planting taro in their kitchen garden, some monkeys came and mocked at the procedure of their planting. The monkeys outwitted the couple by suggesting that they plant perfectly boiled taro by wrapping it in banana leaves if they wanted to find the taro fully grown the next morning. The gullible old couple carried out the same as suggested. The monkeys come in the night and devour the entire lot of boiled taros and replace those with the already grown inedible wild taros. Next morning, the old couple was amazed seeing the fully grown taros. When they cook it for a meal, they find it to be allergic. The old man cries ‘hanubi hentak’. Hentak is an indigenous food of Manipur which is prepared by crushing dried small fish with a local herb called hongu. Hentak soothes the itchy allergic sensation which is caused by the wild taro. In retaliation to this fraudulent act, the old couple plans an entrapment for the monkeys. The old man pretends to be dead and his wife wails ‘paan chaduna chatkhiba mairen chaduna hallak o (left by eating taro, return by eating pumpkin)’. Hearing the hanubi (old woman) wailing, the monkeys come to the old couple’s home. Grasping the opportunity, the old man canes the monkeys for deceiving them. While all the grimaces and gestures of my grandfather to mimic the characters as well as to indicate the situation of the tale remain etched in my memory, Rojio’s Planting Taro produced a different picture of the same folktale as it was represented in an altogether different manner.

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Subverting the Tale

Contextualizing the folktale in the present corrupt society of Manipur, the play represents two factions of the people of Manipur. On the one hand, are the common people who lead a simple life. They are represented by the old couple and other peasants in the play; and their contraposition are the fraudulent monkeys who symbolize the various agencies of corruption in Manipur.
In Rojio’s play, it is the old man who outwits the fraudulent monkeys.  He plans an entrapment for the fraudulent monkeys to teach them a lesson for trying to deceive the simple and honest peasants of the village. Leaving the audience in suspense, the old man orders to carry out the same procedure as suggested by the fraudulent monkeys. In the night, the monkeys come and dig out the boiled taros. No sooner do they dig out the boiled taros that another group of monkeys arrive. The newly arrived monkeys claim their share of the boiled taros. A combat soon ensues between the two groups of monkeys over the matter of sharing the boiled taros. Then, a third group of monkeys – a minister and his followers – arrived as a sympathizer to the quarrelling monkeys. When the two quarrelling groups of monkeys sought help for justice from the minister, the minister suggested that they should share everything among themselves whenever any one of them gains anything. Agreeing to this suggestion, the minister divided the boiled taros among themselves. In this way, the minister tricked the other groups of monkeys. These groups of monkeys appear to be symbolic of various stakeholders, be it Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) or Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) or ministers or any other bureaucratic officials or even the non-state agents, who claim their share from the hard earned money of the common people. Thus, the play exposes various practices of corruption, trickeries of ministers and stakeholders in the present day society of Manipur.

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The play becomes intensely subversive as it unfurls towards its climax. When the groups of monkeys, including the minister’s group eat the boiled taro, it turns out to be the inedible wild taro. Contrary to the original folktale, it is the old man who makes all the fraudulent monkeys suffer the itchy allergic sensation of wild taro. Spluttering with indignation, the old couple and the fellow peasants express their abhorrence for the deceitful monkeys. It is in this twist from the original folktale that the playwright’s social, political, and economic consciousness of Manipur is rendered in the play. Accepting the unacceptable has become very normal in Manipur and Planting Taro subverts this normalcy.

In the original folktale, the old man cries ‘hanubi hentak’. In Rojio’s play, it is the fraudulent monkeys who cry for hentak by saying ‘neta hentak’. Then the old couple along with the other peasants hold their agricultural tools in their hands and surround the fraudulent monkeys and in utter disgust, they spit at them. The dialogue which the old man renders to his fellow villagers in the beginning of the play ‘khutta paibada lai oi haiduna khutlai hairibani’ becomes immensely significant at this moment. To translate it roughly, it means that agricultural tools when held in your hands become god, the savior. That is why this tool is called khutlai (khut=hand lai=god). The symbolic meaning that tools which are used for earning livelihood and bringing prosperity to the village can also become a weapon to defy any form of exploitation is significant. Now, in that dire condition of allergy, will the Neta, minister who himself is in need of hentak, give hentak to the other monkeys?

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Rojio’s play not only subverts the old familiar folktale, the tale of being exploited, but also contextualizes it in the present scenario, simultaneously proposing a solution for the dismal condition of Manipuri society. The play’s message is clear: unity among the native people is important to defend themselves from any form of exploitation – be it the colonizers or bureaucrats or the stakeholders. The play proposes that the community as a whole should think of a way which will not only protect them from any deceitful act but also teach all the frauds a lesson rather than taking revenge after having being fooled by the monkeys, as happens in the folktale.

In this regard, the song which the old couple along with their fellow peasants sing while tilling their land is significant. It is in this song that the playwright has offered a solution to the current dismal condition of Manipuri society. The song reiterates that ‘unity of the people’ should be the strategy of resistance against exploiters. From the very beginning, the play represents a setting of a united, cooperative, and communitarian picture unlike the isolated and individual household of the old couple in the original folktale.

The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Department of English, Delhi University. The article is first published at “Eclectic Northeast”.


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