- Overhearing Human and Animal Languages
Considering how many children have had to learn to overhear what's beingkept from them, someone should write a history of eavesdropping(Schenda 196-201). After all, it has long been a practice of anthropologists and folklorists. Sir James George Frazer's gigantic accumulation of materials overheard from field investigators inflated one of his books, The Golden Bough, to twelve volumes followed by a supplement. That "Frazer was not a field worker" is common knowledge. "He never laid eyes upon a real 'savage' " (Kardiner and Preble 90); he was little attracted by direct human contact of any sort. So assiduously did he avoid witnessing customs and traditions directly that other anthropologists at first faulted him for his lack of field experience, which for them was an initiatory rite. But Frazer knew what he was about; he preferred to eavesdrop, like someone reading the script of a play, or like the king, in the following tale, who has magic knowledge of the language of animals. The reader is invited to eavesdrop with us.1
(Scene: A house in The Vale, a village in northern Mauritius, 11 May 1990. Dawood Auleear, a local teacher and an officer at the mosque, has assembled three local elders and seven younger men for a recording session. All are Muslim "Indo Mauritians," descendants of indentured laborers and other immigrants from the subcontinent. These immigrants have been a presence in all Southwest Indian Ocean islands since the seventeenth century.2Like everyone else in Mauritius, they are bilingual or trilingual. Today as usual, they speak Bhojpuri, a derivative of Hindi. [End Page 100] In the presence of foreign researcher Lee Haring, who is there to listen in, Dawood Auleear begins by asking the three elders when, in former times, people would tell stories and sing songs. Their answers follow. Two of them, not always agreeing, chaff each other.)
Where and when was that done?
At night, under the verandah of a shop.
Who was the storyteller?
Who? the singer?
No, the teller, the storyteller.
The story didn't take place at Madhawa's shop [a different shop].
Where was the story being told?
In the baitka [Indians' village club], and at some old woman's or man's place. (He validates himself as a performer by giving a history of earlier practices, especially of listening and hearing.) In the old days there weren't villages like this, but there was camp and camp, estate [and] estate. Then during summer, two, three old women, men would sit and start telling stories among themselves. That's how it used to be. And at their place those small, small children who didn't know, eight or ten would gather there to listen to songs or stories. When the crowd gathered like that, like that, here and there, here and there, everywhere it was done. Me too: when I came [here?] after getting married, I first heard stories from his [Teller B's] mother. His mother used to tell stories of her time, and I listened to her. They lived in that house. So that's how, that's how it used to be done. And no stories from books!
The story was told orally.
So you're telling us that when all work was finished, and the day was over, they told stories?
Eh, after eating and drinking at night they used to sit on hot nights. Then it went up to ten, eleven o'clock. (He begins teasing his neighbor.) Ask him, he's two years older than me.
The truth is that when people finished eating, drinking in the evening, around seven p.m., then they'd start chatting among themselves. Storytelling would start, and it was hot like this. Then among themselves they would start telling stories. There, ten people, fifteen people-the children, during those days in order to lend their ears to come there by moonlight.
(asserting more authority by...