The Blue Bead : About the Author
A novelist and a non-fiction writer from the British Raj era, Norah Burke was born on 2nd August 1907 in Bedford, New England. She spent much of her childhood in India where her father was posted as a forest officer. The Indian wildlife and the natural setting of the jungles, grasslands and the mountain foothills had a considerable influence on her writing. Burke started writing when she was young (and by young, we mean eight years old ) and even came up with her own magazine titled The Monthly Dorrit. 1919 saw her return to England and begin her formal education and by 1933 she had published her first novel, Dark Road. By 1950 she had authored about one dozen novels, numerous short stories and a significant collection of non-fiction writings . Her works mainly catered to the European audience and gained great popularity across Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic.
Burke’s travel writing and autobiographical accounts of adventure were especially popular and included books like Jungle Child, Tiger Country, The Midnight Forest and Jungle Days. Her close association with wildlife and nature in the British Raj India is reflected in many of such works, one of which includes the short story The Blue Bead.
Norah Burke died in 1976 in Suffolk, England.
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THE BLUE BEAD | SUMMARY
On the face of it, the story follows a day in the life of an ‘Indian’ girl who saves a Gujjar woman from being shred to pieces by a crocodile. At the end of her rather adventurous day, what becomes more eventful for the little girl is having come across a blue bead (actually a broken neck of a bottle) rather than having saved the woman from the jaws of the croc.
The story opens with a detailed description of the crocodile:
“The mugger crocodile, blackish brown above and yellow white under, lay motionless, able to wait forever till food came. This antediluvian saurian- this prehistoric juggernaut, ferocious and formidable, a vast force in water, propelled by the unimaginable and irresistible power of the huge tail, lay lapped by ripples, a throb in his throat.”
Following this description, the life-history of the croc from its birth to its present stage is traced. The masterly use of a sensory language to bring alive the scenes in the story cannot be less emphasized. The senses of the reader – sight, sound smell, touch and taste are instantly captured by words like ‘blackish brown’ , ‘yellow white’ (sight) , ‘putrid‘ (smell), ‘soft underneath‘ (touch), ‘plop off‘ (sound) etc.
The reptile is described as a ferocious creature which overcame various dangers as a young croc, saving himself from falling prey to birds and carnivorous fishes until he grew into a full grown adult: a fearless beast whose armored skin was strong enough to stop rifle bullets. The ferocity of the crocodile is also reflected in the list of his food items which begins with small creatures and is gradually amplified to cover large ones as well. The menu begins with fish, monkeys, ducks, deer and progresses to encompass a ‘parasite-infested pie dog’ and a ‘skeleton of a cow’ before finally being topped off with a half-burned body of an Indian. The reader is made to feel the danger of the predator up-close and personal. After providing a two-page description of the crocodile, the narrator fleetingly mentions the presence of a blue bead which is accomplished in two swift lines.
Following the crocodile’s description, we are introduced to Sibia, a thin, carefree girl who is the ‘same color as the ground‘ and is dressed in a skirt and a sari made of a torn rag. She’s portrayed as an exotic beauty of a child-woman with her “ebony hair and great eyes and her skin of oiled brown cream”
Though all Sibia had of her own was a piece of rag, she had seen and desired the glass beads and glass bangles that the stalls in the bazaars would often display. She had also been to the bazaar in the little town near the railhead where she’d come across a variety of people, dogs, monkeys, a sweetmeat stall which sold honey confections , a cloth stall which had rolls of cotton cloth straight form the mills and various fascinating items like tin trays from Birmingham and a box out of which jumped a yellow wooden chicken the moment one pressed on it.
However, Sibia’s life wasn’t easy at all. All she had ever owned was a rag and her meals consisted of a chapatti with chillies and rancid butter. Moreover, as the narrator says, she was a girl who had been “marked for work“. Sibia had to do plenty of chores from a very young age from gathering firewood to fetching water to cutting grass for fodder- she had done it all.
We then find Sibia on her way to the river with her mother and other women, carrying a sickle and a homemade hayfork. They pass by a Gujjar encampment and another description of the “Indian” way of life is presented before the readers. A broad, sweeping statement is made about the Gujjars :
“They were Man in the wandering Pastoral Age, not Stone Age Hunters, and not yet Cultivators.”
Sibia’s mother and her friends spend their time fetching paper grass in exchange for a little sum of money. The women with their sickles move towards the hillside in a noisy chatter so as to frighten off the crocodiles. They busy themselves the entire day gathering paper grass .By the time the women leave the place, Sibia is left behind. She decides to return home after loitering around for sometime. When she gets halfway through, a Gujjar woman carrying vessels to fetch water from the river is attacked by the crocodile lying on wait. The crocodile lunges at the unsuspecting woman and begins ripping her leg apart. Sibia comes to the rescue and, as an example of the daily jungle heroism, she drives the hayfork right into the eye of the crocodile and the bloody reptile retreats. Sibia then drops the fainting woman to her Gujjar camp, goes back to the crime scene to collect her belongings and in the process finds a blue bead (actually the neck of a broken glass bottle) and is spellbound by wonder.
” Then there it lay in her wet palm, perfect, even pierced ready for use, with the sunset shuffled about inside it like gold-dust. All her heart went up in flames of joy.“
She twists the bead into the top of her skirt and returns home,glad at the eventful day.
The narrator then describes all kinds of danger frequenting the place, like snakes, malaria mosquitoes and morose elephants, none of which intimidate Sibia.
Upon returning home, her mother expresses concern :
“I thought something must have happened to you.” And Sibia, bursting with joy, cried ” Something did! I found a blue bead for my necklace , look!“
THE BLUE BEAD | ANALYSIS
While reading The Blue Bead by Norah Burke, we have to bear in mind a couple of things and ask ourselves a couple of questions before drawing our conclusions. The setting, the subject, the audience, the historical background and the mode of representation must be sufficiently dealt with if one is to analyze this apparently simple story about a girl, a bead and a crocodile.
The style of Nora Burke’s writing and the language she deploys to affect the reader’s perception of what is being said is truly remarkable. The brilliant description of the crocodile instantly grabs the reader’s attention and one is introduced to him in the middle of the action. Consider the syntax in the opening line of the story :
“From deep water came the crocodile.“
By reversing the traditional subject-verb-object structure of the sentence, Burke creates a certain tension within the sentence structure leading to the delayed entry of the subject (crocodile) which intrigues the reader. Burke creates a sense of mystery while introducing the crocodile to the reader in such a manner that s/he is intrigued by the beast and is made to crave for more information about the reptile. That’s exactly what Burke does in the next paragraph. She gives a fantastic description of the crocodile. After providing a two-page description of the animal, the narrator fleetingly mentions the presence of a blue bead which is done within two swift lines.
Also, when viewed thematically, one notices that the unassuming blue bead becomes the subject of the protagonist’s (Sibia’s) interest as opposed to the crocodile : the reversal of the traditional subject-verb-object sentence structure, as it were, on a symbolic level within the story.
The manner in which Sibia is introduced to the readers and the diction deployed in describing her features is of special significance :
“With her ebony hair and great eyes, and her skin of oiled brown cream, she was a happy immature child-woman about twelve years old. Bare foot, of course, and often goosey-cold on a winter morning, and born to toil.”
The abovementioned depiction of Sibia, along with numerous other descriptions scattered around the story might as well be labeled as the exoticization of the Native. One must not forget that The Blue Bead is a story based in colonial India. Burke, for all her empathic description of the ‘Indian Life’ doesn’t seem to have altogether escaped the Oriental influence. This is especially true when we take into account her audience which is primarily British. She must also have been quite aware of the language registry used to describe the natives. Although Sibia is referred to as a jolly girl, the words used to describe her can be attributed more to a bird than to a woman. Some such descriptions include :
“…she came on wings, choosing her footing in mid-air even without thinking about it.”
“…her imagination took her in swooping flight.”
“…and she could look down over the river as if she were a bird.”
Add to this, it would serve us well to remember that Sibia is hardly a human name. In terms of wildlife, Sibia is actually the genus of a bird ( e.g. Rufus Sibia) found in different parts of India. Often, sibias are brown in color, very much like the Sibia in the story. Considering Burke’s background as the daughter of a forest officer, this fact shouldn’t have been lost on her altogether. Surely, being termed as a bird may be seen as a compliment by some ( which is ridiculous, say “Yo mama’s a penguin”) but what shouldn’t be forgotten is that this story is being written at a time when African kids of Sibia’s age are being caged in zoos as an object of curiosity ( yes you heard that right).
Having said that, we cannot claim that it is the outright dehumanization of the little girl considering the empathic treatment that has been given to the protagonist. We might also appreciate a colonial writer’s attempt at presenting a sneak-peek in the daily life of a tribal child and depicting the daily heroism of the little girl.
Because Burke’s audience was overwhelmingly European, we are told that “Sibia knew what finery was” and thus we are taken on a walk (remember Burke’s audience) through “all the milling people, and the dogs, and monkeys full of fleas, the idling, gossiping, bargaining humanity spitting beetlejuice…”. Finally the scene is topped with the figure of a sacred bull . Holy Cow! Literally.
A paragraph full of stereotypes is indeed a perfect voyeur-food for your audience who might not be able to come to British India but may wish to experience it in some way or the other. Therefore, it only becomes natural that among the “wonders” to see for the Indian girl is a number of “tin trays from Birmingham” (Yes! that’s civilization for you right in the middle of the colonial jungle). Remember, colonies were exploited not only for extracting their natural resources like the cotton and paper grass as mentioned in the story, but also by being converted into markets where ‘wonders’ like Birmingham tin trays could be sold (for the benefit of humanity of course).
Burke is emphatic in her description of the hardships of women who had to risk their lives and who laboured to collect the papergrass in order to support themselves. The narrator provides a very vivid depiction of the day-to-day lives of the women when she says “The women toiled all day long at this work and the agents sat on silk cushions smoking hookah .” The topic of female labour in colonial India (like any other place across any other timeline) is a subject which hasn’t been given as great an attention as it merits. We might as well thank Burke for providing a glimpse of the same.
While it is true that the story has tried to bring to light the suffering of women and children in colonial India, questions like why is Burke writing the way she is and whom is she writing for,are very important ones that one must ask. It is perfectly fine to represent and appreciate the daily jungle heroism of people like Sibia. However, eulogising it becomes a dangerous affair. True, Sibia has overcome this crocodile and isn’t afraid of the dangers of the jungle. But what next? What about the other crocodiles, tigers, elephants and snakes which still remain? What about the countless Sibias of the colonial Raj or for that matter, the forest dwellers of contemporary India?
Today, Sibia escapes the crocodile. Tomorrow she might not be as lucky. Moreover, luck doesn’t replace the exploitative system of colonial rule which dictates Sibia’s daily life and of which Nora Burke is very much a part of.
Consider the line right in the beginning of the story used while describing the crocodile:
“He was twice the length of a tall man; and inside him, among the stones which he had swallowed to aid digestion, rolled a silver bracelet.”
This might as well have been another Sibia, whose story we shall never hear.