Babban Hajjam book coverThe story of Babban Hajjam is a familiar old tale in many parts of India. Author Ira Saxena has written a version that shifts the tale’s moral burden from the traditional victim main character, the barber Babban, not to the oppressor king but instead to the royal’s body shame and insecurity.

  • Title: The Tale of Babban Hajjam
  • Author: Ira Saxena
  • Illustrator: Mayukh Ghosh
  • Reading level: From 5 years
  • Date published: 2018
  • Publisher: Karadi Tales
  • Country: India
  • Country printed in: India
  • Eco-friendly Printing: None specified
  • This book bought from Zakatha, the online Indian kids book store in Singapore

I found this book in Singapore during the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) that ran from September 6 – 8. I knew nothing about the story of Babban Hajjam but a quick online search showed me it was an old folktale from India.

The story: A king has a secret under his turban that he expects his barbers to keep. To make sure his secret doesn’t get out the king gets rid of the barbers after each visit. Babban Hajjam pleads for his life but must never speak of what’s under the king’s turban. But he could not keep it in.

The traditional and widely-accepted moral of the story appears to be that the barber should have kept the king’s secret instead of relieving himself of it by shouting it into a well where it was ‘absorbed’ by a sapling that grew and was later made into musical instruments that went on to reveal the secret in the king’s own royal court. Traditional versions of the story were not too kind to Babban Hajjam, with most inflicting the barber, and his predecessors, with some sort of punishment.

Ira Saxena’s storytelling is steady and solid. In her version of Babban Hajjam, the king’s secret is indeed revealed in the same way as in the old folktale but the response to it is different. What the oppressor king considered shameful on his body was instead laughed away by the public and the king was liberated of his crippling insecurity. In the end, we see the king celebrating and finally being able to show his true self to the world. The population at large is all the better for the king being rid of the insecurity that had led him to persecute and punish their people.

Babban Hajjams and all the other persecuted royal barbers of old are redeemed by Saxena’s story! Now my appetite is whetted for re-told old folktales whose stories evolve with changing social attitudes and norms.