Aadil Hussain problematizes the portrayal of sinister and fear-inducing female figures in traditional folktales from multiple cultures, starting with his own.
I can't agree with Margaret Halsey when she describes folklore as “a collection of ridiculous notions held by other people, but not by you and me.” I would rather believe Grandma, who would say that folklore forms the base to the superstructure of our culture. Yet, when I look back at all the folktales I was told since an early age, I wish some of them never reach future generations, given their patriarchal overtones and how they have been received and remained in our culture. In particular, I am at odds with tale of the Raantas, in the way it had been narrated to me while I was still a child.
Since folklore contains discourse that shapes both the imagination and perception on which the consciousness of a child is framed, the ancient male-dominated cultures perhaps unintentionally introduced gender construction in folktales as an expression of the gendered order and social structure of societies in the past that got carried over to future generations. These tales firstly created a demarcation between male and female sexes, portraying them as opposites in the ‘good versus evil’ sort of way and then allowed the former to dominate the latter on the basis of these essentialised oppositions.
Raantas was perhaps the first word that evoked the first fear in me. How can I forget her when she has snatched half of my freedom as a child? As far back as I can I remember, in my childhood days, I insisted on having a certain access not typically available to a child. Every time I wanted my siblings to sympathise with me, every time I wanted to accompany Abbu outside, every time I refused to eat food or I wouldn't go to sleep, Ammi would invoke her notorious name:
"Walai Raantsay Ninne!"
Come, Raantas, and take him away!
No sooner was her name mentioned, I would turn dumb and hide myself behind the curtains or creep inside Grandma's pheran. If I still continued to be persistent in my weeping and complaint, my sister would knock the window stealthily and mimic some eerie female voice announcing my name and impersonating the Raantas, that in those early years of my childlike imagination was very real. How I disliked this Raantas, with an innocent and childish hatred, for being my enemy, with such dark feelings about how I even wanted to kill her in self-defence, until I grew older and became familiar with the realities of my world.
I came to know later why this creature was evoked repeatedly in my household when the same prank was being tried on my younger brother and, of course, I was obviously too old to fall for it. The Raantas is basically a mythical creature from Kashmiri folklore. She is usually supposed to reside in heavily forested areas and frequently visits nearby villages during winters. In folklore, she is considered a conniving seducer of men, a robber of children and a wild misogynist trying to murder and disfigure unassuming women that she takes by surprise.
The first story associated with the Raantas that I can recollect was about her victim Sataar from the time when the agricultural farmlands, where now orchards stand, were extensively populated by rice crops. In that particular tale, Sataar works late one evening gathering the day's harvest into small heaps. Unexpectedly, his wife appears to help him to finish the job sooner than later. At first, Sataar feels glad about having company, but soon enough he is horrified at the way his wife works in the faint darkness of sundown. She gathers the harvest spread over large plots at once into her arms for a single heap formation. A wise man, Sataar gets the clue and manages, at last, to hide inside the gathered heap. Maddened to see him lost, the woman magically metamorphoses into the Raantas, crying "Satan Watnien Gonni Karimae, Kotu Gookh Sataaro?"
Harvests from seven fields I gathered for you, where did you go, O Sataar?
She then destroys the entire heap and takes Sataar along with her.
One day, seven years later, Sataar coaxes the Raantas’ small children to teach him how the stone at the entry of the cave, where they are living and he is held captive, can be moved for him to go outside and hopefully escape. Escaping successfully, he is able to make his entry back into his village where the people initially mistake him for a yahoo, Wanne Mohnew, but he is ultimately recognised.
Daadi (my grandma) would tease me telling me that people like Sataar could give an exact description of the Raantas, since they had been lucky enough to escape her sinister grip. This creature is like a humanoid, save certain features: her feet, marked by sharp claw-like fingers, are turned backwards like her hands; with a heavily haired body, her hair extends down to her feet. She is purely a nocturnal being. Legend has it that if a human being sees her in front of a fire, she can catch it wildly. Apart from fire, some even say that a special hair, when recognised and taken out of her body, gives one control over her superhuman power. The Raantas is believed to possess some magic, with the ability to disguise herself as any human being, which gives her the power to deceive anyone.
Another story is that of Mokhtah, a young Kashmiri lady, who burns the Raantas alive. Mokhtah's husband, being a handsome man, is often sought by the Raantas, who appears in the guise of a policeman or sometimes as a forester, but each time Mokhtah recognises her. Haunted by her visits, Mokhtah visits some religious sage who tells her how she can get rid of this sinister creature. In the darkness of a wintry mid-night, finally, disguised as her sister-in-law seeking help from her brother after being thrown out by her in-laws, when the Raantas visits Mokhtah's house crying, Mokhtah, from the first floor, drops a burning Kangri over her and the Raantas disappears forever.
Analysing this tale of the Raantas from the perspective of gender roles, one wonders about the gender of the Raantas. A simple and innocent question comes to mind: why does the Raantas always and only appear as a female figure? And if female, why can't be there a matching male figure in the folktale who might be called a Raantuk? Is it possible that the tale sets a gendered bias in the minds of children early on since there is no male composite to the figure of the Rantaas? One raises these questions to ponder on the sexual stratification that gets introduced in early childhood, especially among young boys, who indirectly are taught to fear and look down upon the feminine presented in these negative depictions. Evaluating the previous versions of folktales where the Rantaas appears in her “sinister” feminine form, the tales seem to indicate hatred and competition among women to safeguard their husbands given the negative portrayal of the Raantas as the evil and wretched witch-like demonic woman figure. Deep down, as if permeating from folkloric tradition, each wife begins to take another woman as a husband hunter of the likes of the Raantas. Even today, a woman who does not act accordingly to social norms or behaves in some sort of manner considered rogue or unruly is shockingly or even jokingly called a Raantas.
With all of the above considered, to reflect on the Raantas as a means to denounce the patriarchy in the world of folklore singularly attributed to Kashmiri tradition would be an injustice to Kashmiri folklore in itself. In fact, such patriarchal tales with their negative portrayals are present in almost every folkloric tradition starting from Asia, Europe to America. In every culture, a counterpart or comparative figure, more or less, exists of this mythical creature constructing the feminine as wicked, jealous, evil or inauspicious. In European (Slavic) folklore, for example, the composite of the Raantas as a fear-inducing spirit is the figure of the Kikimora, a legendary female creature haunting houses. She is depicted as an ugly hunch-backed, thin and scruffy old woman with a pointed nose and dishevelled hair who is usually associated with bad tidings. It is believed that she disguises herself as a beautiful woman and appears in the dreams of men to torture them with desire, creating a chasm in relationships with their wives. Like the Raantas, and albeit in dreams, she will try to strangle women, apart from making them believe that their husbands are suitors of other women, thereby inciting all sorts of jealousy. Again, like the Raantas, she is believed to kidnap children, due to which parents often evoke this creature as an attempt to frighten kids to get them to do certain things or behave a certain way.
Apart from the Kikimora, we have other versions of folklore where only the female sex is used, perhaps, because of the dark nature of the stories where they are antagonistic, villainous figures or bearers of bad omens. In Celtic folklore, for example, there is a female spirit called the Banshee (The Wailing Woman), who again is associated with the foreboding of death, misery and misfortune. In one folkloric tale, the Banshee has actually been a transformed "Keener"—a female who was paid to weep for the deceased in Ireland—again with rotten teeth, long fingernails, blood-shot red eyes from crying endlessly, white hair and an open screaming mouth to construct this folkloric figure believed to forebode death by her "screams" or "caoines". In Indonesian folklore, the Pontianak is another female spirit that causes fear and has roots in some great tragedy.
Another figure originating from the times of colonial Mexico is La Llorona, who after discovering the faithlessness of her husband first drowns her two children in a fit of blind jealousy to punish her husband, and then drowns herself in regret for the unforgivable crime she has committed. It is believed that in order to get salvation, her soul is still wandering the earth in a sort of indefinite purgatory, seeking her two children and wailing continuously for them. Her wailing, if heard, brings death and misfortune. Parents in Mexico and some parts of Latin America try to frighten their children by evoking her figure the way parents in Kashmir mention the Raantas, by making them believe La Llorona will kidnap them by mistaking them for her own children if they do not behave accordingly.
As such, there are multiple negative portrayals of the feminine and the figure of the evil and wretched demonic woman just as there are positive ones. Here, the main discussion has been specifically on the negative ones that create a legacy of fear in the hearts of children, and even adults prone to believing in the supernatural beyond the immediately empirical. Considered from a theoretical standpoint when assessing discourses found in different forms of storytelling, Michel Foucault’s concept of power plays an important role in these folktales. In Foucault’s writing, discourse is viewed as the base of knowledge and knowledge is considered as the base of power. In such terms, the oral folklore of times past has been framed mostly by men in such a way that besides providing the male sex with a great amount of power, it maintains the institutional hegemony for such power to be never questioned by the opposite sex. A negative female depiction in one part of the world, say in Kashmir’s vast folkloric tradition is synonymous to another negative female depiction in other cultures and traditions, from Europe to the Americas.
If studied together, one can perhaps establish the historical male domination in culture and storytelling from a patriarchal angle. If considered further, take for example that these folktales have been narrated to children especially by women themselves, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc. In addition, through its repetition across generations, the real meaning of such folklore, by itself, gets promoted, constructing the gender stratification that underlies its creation and perpetuation, yet hiding its capacity to fix meanings and gender intentions—revealing itself as a generally accepted normative truth. Where in such circumstances could such folkloric traditions be appropriated in a contemporary sense to provide gender-equal depictions of the Raantuk, El Lloron, The Male Banshee or The Male Kikimora? If such questions or propositions incite laughter, well, then again they reify the persisting thought that in historical narratives and key discourses men are capable of no wrong, while women in multiple ways are to be depicted as wretched, evil, jealous, disloyal, conniving and scheming. Again, the question in one about framing and asking such questions from very particular examples of depiction, in this case the gendered negative folkloric kind.
One may also see the Althusserian binary of male and female at work in such folklore. In order to feel superiority, the male sex needed to set itself against some inferiority which could act as a measuring stick for it. Since women formed a part of their household and were essential to familial bonds, they couldn’t directly use them as measuring sticks, constructing instead an imaginary version of the female as a strange fear-inducing outsider, the alien, as the other, as the unfamiliar and sinister figure, away from the relative intimacy of the household. In such considerations, as it appears, the folkloric traditions of the past, at a worldwide level, in multiple cultures, associated all the wickedness and the fear they evoke with this imaginary and mythical feminine sex. In a nutshell, it is quite unfortunate the way patriarchal power and its abuses are prevalent or performed in negative depictions in key folklore to establish certain gendered power, best read as literature than anything else. To maintain such power, the initial knowledge available to children has been employed cruelly without any regard to the psychological effects it will have on them, even though most of us, if not all of us, know how to distinguish between folkloric myth and social reality after a certain age. The need of the hour is to scrutinise such folklore and to reconsider and question the portions based on sexual stratification, while at the same time appreciating a vast history where women and female figures are depicted in a positive light with positive character traits and formidable qualities easily associated with their male counterparts in longstanding traditions.