The Story of a Mussalmani

Last year, while looking up folktales related to the Punjabi winter solstice festival Lohri, I came across the legend of the bandit Dulla Bhatti. Dulla Bhatti was a 16th century “Punjabi Robin Hood” who led a rebellion against the Mughal emperor Akbar. He robbed the Mughal officials who collected taxes and tributes for the emperor, and redistributed the money to the poor. One of the tales told of him is that after a Mughal soldier raped a young Hindu woman, Dulla Bhatti — a Muslim — took her in because no one else would. He arranged her marriage to a Hindu man, gave her a dowry, and even officiated the wedding in as close to an approximation to a Hindu wedding ceremony as he could manage. The stories of Dulla Bhatti are linked to Lohri; you can read my take on that relationship here.

Why am I bringing Dulla Bhatti up now, in the middle of June? Because as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore liked to play with folklore and fairy tale. “The Hungry Stones” is one example that comes to mind; there’s also “Once There Was a King,” “A Fanciful Story” (called “A Kingdom of Cards” in this online translation), and “The Wedding Garland” (“Malyadan” in Bengali — I can’t find it in English online), all of which play with folktale tropes and structure, sometimes explicitly, sometimes more subtly. Tagore’s last short story draft, from about a month and half before his death, is perhaps another example, one with some similarity to the Dulla Bhatti story I mentioned above. In the Oxford Press translation Selected Short Stories, it’s called “The Story of a Mussalmani.”

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On Reading Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

My readers may laugh at my foolishness, but my heart was full of adoration. I offered my worship to the pure joy of living, which is God’s own life.

Up until recently, the only piece by Rabindranath Tagore I knew was the lovely ghost-story/fairy tale “The Hungry Stones”. Ever since I first read it, I’d wanted to read more, yet for whatever reason never got around to it.

Then the other week while wandering the stacks of the San Francisco Main Library, I tripped over the Oxford Press collection Selected Short Stories, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. This was a great place to start; the translations seem excellent (of course, I can’t read the original Bengali to compare), and the volume has an great introduction, with enough information about Tagore’s life and history to give his stories context. All the stories have extensive footnotes, to explain details that would be obvious to a South Asian reader, but not necessarily to a western one: points of Indian culture and history, literary and folkloric references.

I binge-read the whole thing. Then I found other collections on Project Gutenberg, and read more.

There’s all kinds of nerdy pseudo-intellectual things I could say about these stories. I could talk about how I love the way Tagore weaves Indian folklore and mythology through his stories (right down to the choice of characters’ names). Or about his criticism of contemporary Hindu society, with its caste-system and problematic attitude towards women (the editor has a great quote: “a society that cannot protect its women but is inhumanly insistent on their purity”). About the gentle, even sympathetic way he presents his flawed, weak characters — without ever leaving a doubt that, yes, some of them are very flawed indeed.

All of these things are true, and they’re points that I admire. But none of that really describes how I feel. I loved these stories. Some of them made me cry. But to say that isn’t enough. I’m an analytical person by profession, and I have a concrete viewpoint by nature. I often have a hard time describing something as abstract as my reaction to something that I’ve read and loved. So I’ll just quote this, from “The Victory:”

[The poet] took his seat. His hearers trembled with the sadness of an indefinable delight, immense and vague, and they forgot to applaud him.

That’s kind of how I feel about these stories. Often so sad, always so beautiful. Just read them.


Here are some of my favorites (that I could find online):

  • The Kabuliwala: I love this story.
  • The Hungry Stones: Of course.
  • The Renunciation: Pointed attack on the caste-system. Also one of the few instances I can think of in Tagore’s short stories where the heroine’s male ally stands up to society and supports the heroine.
  • The Wife’s Letter: A biting picture of woman’s position in the Hindu society of Tagore’s time. It’s a powerful story, though I like the translation in Selected Short Stories better.

Enjoy.


Image: Rabindranath Tagore, painted by his nephew, painter and cartoonist Gaganendranath Tagore.

Share and Share Alike: A Russian Folktale

Once upon a time there was a young man — let’s call him Ivan — who decided to go out in the world to seek his fortune. When he told his parents of his decision, his father gave Ivan his blessing, and some money for the trip. Ivan used part of this money to buy two fine horses, then off he went.

After traveling a while, he stopped to spend the night at a roadside inn. The inn wasn’t in very good repair, and the woman who ran the inn seemed troubled. As he ate his supper, Ivan noticed some surly-looking men arrive. They peered suspiciously around the place, and spoke to the innkeeper in rude, even threatening tones. After they left, Ivan asked the woman if anything was wrong. She burst into tears.

“My husband died two years ago,” she told Ivan. “But when he died he owed money to those men you saw — and to many other people, too. I can’t pay them back, and so they harass me, and curse my husband’s name — and curse me, too! I don’t know what to do.”

“How much did your husband owe?” Ivan asked.

The widow named a sum. It was exactly the amount of money Ivan had. So Ivan offered to pay the innkeeper’s debts.

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Design of hundred hryvnias bill (Ukraine), Heorhiy Narbut, 1918. Source: Wikiart

The widow was so happy! The next day, when more creditors came by to bother the innkeeper, Ivan paid them off. Word got around, and soon all the dead man’s creditors arrived. Ivan gave each of them their money.

But the widow hadn’t calculated correctly; she’d forgotten a couple of creditors, who of course came by just as Ivan had paid out his last ruble. So Ivan offered them each one of his horses as payment, which they took.

Now the widow and the inn were secure; but Ivan was broke. Should he go back home? What would his father say? Ivan got back on the road, trying to decide what to do.

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Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan

What is not a dream? Who will not end up as a skeleton? We appear as skeletons covered with skin — male and female — and lust after each other. When the breath expires, though, the skin ruptures, sex disappears, and there is no more high or low. Underneath the skin of the person we fondle and caress right now is nothing more than a set of bare bones. Think about it — high and low, young and old, male and female, all are the same.”

–Ikkyū (“Skeletons,” 1457) Translated by John Stevens

 

I was lucky enough to catch the Asian Art Museum’s Seduction exhibit before it closed about a week ago. The exhibit was a view into Japan’s “Floating World,” in particular the Yoshiwara District of Edo, as represented not only in prints and booklets, but in textiles, too. Everything was lovely, but the piece that caught my interest most strongly was Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s diptych Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan:

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Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1845. (Click to enlarge).
Image photographed from the Seduction catalog two-page spread; I couldn’t find this online, and I couldn’t bring myself to rip apart my catalog for a better photo.

Those skeletons! That the piece itself (especially with that title) should get my attention is no surprise, if you read my blog. The story that the diptych refers to worth repeating, too.

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The Enchanted Priest

We just got back from two weeks in Peru and Ecuador (photos here, if you’re interested). Machu Picchu and the Galapagos! It was a wonderful trip. On the last day in Quito, we paid a short visit to the Mindalae (Museo Etnohistorico Del Artesanias Del Ecuador), a small but well-curated ethnographic museum, with an interesting selection of the artwork and craftwork of the various peoples of Ecuador.

In the gift shop, my sister-in-law spotted a collection of Ecuadorean ghost stories (cuentos de aparecidos), which she then waved under my nose. How could I resist?

The cuentos in the collection are all post-colonial, Catholic-oriented ghost stories; mildly disappointing, though not too surprising. The author, Mario Conde, presents them as occurring in specific towns and locales throughout Ecuador (mostly the highlands, and none in the Amazon regions), though most of the stories are found throughout the Christian areas of Ecuador. I should probably give you a story with a specific Ecuadorean beastie, like a duende or a huaca, but the story of the Enchanted Priest caught my eye. It feels just a little bit like something you might find in The Decameron, or The Canterbury Tales: a priest up to sexual mischief.

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Reading Help for the Haunted

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When I realized who the ghost was in the first story of Tim Prasil’s new collection Help for the Haunted, I knew I was in for a good time.

The rest of the volume didn’t disappoint. Help for the Haunted is a fun collection of linked short stories, based around a creative theory as to why ghosts are able to return to the plane of the living, and a cute way of detecting these crossovers. Within that framework fall all manner of ghosts and manifestations; every story offers a different kind.

The tales are tightly enough coupled and have enough progression that I’m tempted to categorize the book as a “short story cycle” style novel. The narrator is Tim’s great-grandaunt Lida Prasilova, writing about her adventures with early twentieth century muckraker journalist and occult detective Vera Van Slyke. I love the rapport between Vera and Lida. They’re like a beer-drinking, ghost-hunting Holmes and Watson, if Holmes and Watson were American women.

Like Holmes, Vera’s mind is dedicated wholly to the information she needs for her job. She’s not much for literature (classical or popular), and she’s hilariously bad with names. She doesn’t have much to do with the opposite sex, mostly I think because they can’t handle her. Lida was a fraudulent medium, whom Vera unmasked. She agrees to help Vera with her exposé of the Spiritualism industry, Spirits Shouldn’t Sneeze (what a great title), and eventually becomes Vera’s assistant — and dearest friend.

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The Miserere by Gustavo Bécquer

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I featured a couple of winter tales by Spanish author and poet Gustavo Bécquer this past December; this week I’m sharing my favorite Bécquer ghost story, “The Miserere , in honor of Holy Week (the week leading into Easter).

In the Abbey of Fitero, the narrator (presumably, Bécquer) discovers a curious piece of sheet music, an unfinished Miserere:

This was what got my attention at first, but when I looked more closely at the sheets of music, I noticed that, instead of the Italian terms they usually use, like maestoso, allegro, ritardando, più vivo, pianissimo, there were some lines written in fine print in German, some of which mentioned things that would be difficult to do, like: “they are creaking…, the bones creak and it should seem like cries that come from the marrow”; or this other one, “the chord moans without being out of tune, the brass thunders but does not deafen; therefore, everything is heard and nothing is lost, and all of this is Humanity that sobs and moans”; and then undoubtedly the strangest of all, at the end of the final verse it declared: “The notes are bones covered with flesh; undying light, the heavens and their harmony…, strength!…, strength and sweetness.”

Naturally, the narrator is curious, and asks the monks about this. An old man then shares with the narrator the story of a musician whose mission in life was to compose the ultimate Miserere (as penance for a youthful crime), and of the ghostly monks, murder victims who died without last rites, who return to the ruins of their monastery every Maundy Thursday (Thursday of Holy Week) to pray for redemption — by singing the Miserere. This is the creepiest of all Bécquer’s ghost stories; the scene where the monks and their monastery come back at the stroke of eleven is just awesome.

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An Afternoon at a Coal Miners’ Cemetery

Did you know there was coal mining in California? I didn’t learn that until recently. This, despite the fact that the Mount Diablo Coalfield, the largest in California, was in Contra Costa, the very county where I was born. From 1850 to 1906, mines in the Mount Diablo Coalfield, many under the operation of the Black Diamond Coal Mining Company, produced 4 million tons of (low grade) coal, the primary source of coal and energy in California over that period. The region was home to five mining towns, the largest and oldest called Nortonville.

In 1885, the Black Diamond company shut down its mines in the region and moved its miners to Black Diamond, Washington, where the mines produced better coal. They dismantled the railways and the towns completely, leaving nothing but some brick foundations in Nortonville, some great piles of dirt where the openings of the mines had been, and the cemetery, now known as Rose Hill Cemetery, which overlooked the town of Somersville.

Here’s Somersville in 1878. You can see the cemetery up on the hill to the right, and the great mounds that mark the openings of the mines.

 

Here’s that region today.

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A view of Rose Hill Cemetery from afar. (Click to enlarge)

 

You can’t see it in this photo, but the mounds over the mine openings remain. Nothing grows on them. The region is now part of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, just outside the city of Antioch.

We visited the park on a cool, overcast March Sunday. Early spring is the best time to visit that area; there are hills that block the ocean breezes from that part of the county, and in the summer it can be twenty degrees warmer — or more — than it is in San Francisco, only an hour away. It can also be very dry and brown. I was a bit worried, since we haven’t had any rain, but the hills were green and blooming with wildflowers.

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(Click to enlarge)

 

By the time we visited the cemetery, in the early afternoon, the clouds were burning off and the sky was turning blue. Continue reading

Of Weasels, Foxes, and Dolphins

I’ve started reading The Legends of the Jews, a collection of Jewish tales and legends (Haggadah) compiled by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg in 1906. It’s an impressive collection. Rabbi Ginzberg’s goal was to gather all the Jewish legends, from their original sources: not only classical Rabbinic literature, also but apocryphal and pseudopigraphical literature — all texts that are not part of the Hebrew Bible, and so not part of the canon. He even delved into early Christian literature.

Furthermore, Jewish legends can be culled not from the writings of the Synagogue alone; they appear also in those of the Church. Certain Jewish works repudiated by the Synagogue were accepted and mothered by the Church. This is the literature usually denominated apocryphal-pseudepigraphic. …

If the Synagogue cast out the pseudepigrapha, and the Church adopted them with a great show of favor, these respective attitudes were not determined arbitrarily or by chance. The pseudepigrapha originated in circles that harbored the germs from which Christianity developed later on. The Church could thus appropriate them as her own with just reason.

[…]

Besides the pseudepigrapha there are other Jewish sources in Christian garb. In the rich literature of the Church Fathers many a Jewish legend lies embalmed which one would seek in vain in Jewish books. It was therefore my special concern to use the writings of the Fathers to the utmost.

— From the Preface of The Legends of the Jews

Quite a scholarly endeavor.  The work encompasses four volumes, and the legends cover the period from before the creation of the world to the story of Esther. And the stories are all told in an engaging manner; I haven’t even gotten to the appearance of Adam and Eve, and already I’m hooked.

As with any collection of folktales, the continuity is loose, at best. Here’s the beginning of the fifth day of Creation:

On the fifth day of creation God took fire and water, and out of these two elements He made the fishes of the sea. The animals in the water are much more numerous than those on land. For every species on land, excepting only the weasel, there is a corresponding species in the water, and, besides, there are many found only in the water.

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Sohni Mahiwal: A Punjabi Folktale

I’ve been quiet of late, for which I apologize. Lots of activity (and deadlines) in the data science side of my life. But I don’t want to abandon the other sides of my life, like Multo or dance. I’ve managed to slip in a little combination of the last two, in a new post I’ve written for the Dholrhythms Dance Company blog.

We have some new choreographies to showcase at our upcoming Non Stop Bhangra performance this Saturday. The theme of the night is Hip-Hop/Bhangra fusion, but surprisingly, the songs we’re debuting are both fairly classic folksongs. One of them, by Surjit Khan, is based on a famous Punjabi love story, Sohni Mahiwal.

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Once upon a time, on the banks of the river Chenab, near the city of Gujrat, lived a potter named Tulla. Tulla’a pottery was famous, and in demand all through Punjab, and even in lands beyond. Tulla had a daughter who was so lovely that he and his wife named her Sohni (“Beautiful”).

Since Sohni grew up in her father’s shop, she learned how to decorate the pitchers and pots that came off his wheel with beautiful designs: flowers and elaborate patterns. And so the family flourished.

One day a rich young Uzbeki merchant came into Tulla’s shop to buy some of his pottery. The merchant’s name was Izzat Baig. Sohni was in the back of the workshop at the time, painting her designs on her father’s pots. Of course, she caught Izzat Baig’s eye. And since the merchant was not only rich, but young and handsome, I imagine he caught her eye too. Izzat wandered around the workshop much longer than he had intended, sneaking glances at Sohni, and bought many more pieces of pottery than he had planned to. And he came back the next day, and the day after that….

You know this doesn’t end well. You can read the rest of the story at the Dholrhythms blog.

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