By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University, Texas Ambassador for USBBY
In the theory of “suspension of disbelief” as suggested by British poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it is the storyteller or author who must spin such a compelling tale that the listener/reader will accept a fantasy as a plausible reality. In Tiger Moon, author Antonia Michaelis takes readers on a magical journey of love, deception, courage, fear, and sacrifice in India. Framed like the story of Scheherazade who told her tales for 1,001 nights in order to escape death, Safia tells her tale to Lalit, a servant who is supposed to be guarding her while she awaits her marriage night. On that night, her wealthy husband will learn she is not a virgin and will have the right to kill her.
The story Safia tells Lalit is of the thief Farhad, an unlikely hero, who is chosen by the Hindu deity Lord Krishna to rescue his daughter who happens to be Safia herself. While Safia is telling the story to Lalit, Farhad is retelling the same story to listeners on his journey. He tells of the tests he has faced on his quest to deliver the bloodstone to ransom Krishna’s daughter and save her from the evil demon Ravana. (See a review in WOW Reviews.)
“Once upon a time… While he [Farhad] told the story, it was as if he were listening to someone else tell it. His spirit rose above the river and saw the big thief and the little one lying on the banks of the Ganges under the starlight, listening to words running through the night… [The story] told itself more easily every time, and its words were scented with jasmine and tasted of dates from the palm under which the princess had been dreaming when the demon carried her away. And there was hope in them—a hope so improbable that a fairy tale was the only place for it: the hope of freedom” (Michaelis 242). In many cultures a variant of “Once upon a time…” has the power to transport the story listener/reader to another place and another time and the possibility of traveling vicariously on someone else’s journey.
Author Michaelis weaves the stories within the story seamlessly into the text. Born in Germany, Michaelis taught for one year in southern India, where she was introduced to Hindu religion and culture. Hindu deities and the ancient stories about their lives and interventions in human affairs permeate this novel. Readers who are familiar with these gods and goddesses and their stories may connect more completely with the characters and situations presented in Tiger Moon. Readers who may not be knowledgeable may be motivated to learn more about Hinduism, the third largest religion in the world that predates Christianity by about 1500 years.
In Tiger Moon, Krishna is the god who sets the story in motion by commanding Farhad to secure the bloodstone and use it as ransom for the life of Krishna’s daughter Safia. In order to achieve this feat, Farhad changes his identity multiple times. This parallels the incarnations of the god Vishnu, the “Preserver,” who in his eighth reincarnation was Krishna. The Hindu gods and goddesses are often known by different names based on their incarnation and depending on their karmic task and their involvement in mortal affairs. When Farhad changes his name, he is able to slip from the clutches of his nemesis and progress closer and closer to success on his hero’s journey. (Likewise, his nemesis often changes his identity and tricks Farhad over and over again.)
Like Minli who is accompanied by a flightless dragon in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Lin), Farhad has a “helper” animal on his hero’s journey—a white tiger named Nitish, which means “Lord of the Right Way” in Hindi. In choosing this name, author Michaelis seems to assure readers that in the end righteousness will prevail and good will win out over evil. The names of Hindu gods and goddesses who have parts to play in this novel carry meanings that illuminate their roles in the story.
The same is true for the characters in Tiger Moon. Safia, whose name means “virtue,” does not believe she is as virtuous as her name suggests. She adopts another name “Rafa,” which means full moon, for on the next full moon she will reap the effect of her previous actions, her karma. Lalit, whose name means “The Beautiful One,” listens to Safia/Rafa’s story and falls in love with her. But Lalit is not his real name; it is Lagan, which means “The Right Time.” These characters’ names carry meaning and suggest their karma, or actions. Karma proposes that what happens in our lives is a direct consequence of our actions. Life, then, is about learning through one’s actions.
“The best stories we can give our children, whether they are stories that have been kept alive through the centuries by that word of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation we call oral transmission or the tales that we were made up only yesterday—the best of these stories touch that larger dream, greater vision, that infinite knowing. They are the most potent kind of magic, these tales, for they catch a glimpse of the soul underneath the skin” (Yolen 57). In this quote from her book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, Jane Yolen could have been talking about the story and the stories within the story of Tiger Moon. By the end of this hero’s journey, readers have seen the souls of Safia, Farhad, and Lalit and are better for having lived through their stories.
How did the stories within the story of Tiger Moon impact your understanding of the novel? Were there stories that encouraged you to learn more about a particular Hindu god or goddess? How would changing the cultural context change this novel? Is that even possible?
Next Week: Heartsinger by Karlijn Stoffels, translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson
Lin, Grace. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.
Michaelis, Antonia. Tiger Moon. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Amulet Books, 2006/2008. Print.
Moreillon, Judi. Tiger Moon. WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures. Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2012. <http://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/reviewii4/12/>.
Yolen, Jane. Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood. New York: Philomel, 1981. Print.
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