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.”
The story takes place some time in the eighteenth century, the Nawabi era, during a period of great instability. When the parents of a young and beautiful brahman girl die, her uncle takes her in. The uncle is quite fond of his niece, Kamala, but the rest of the family (especially Kamala’s aunt) are openly resentful of having another mouth to feed — especially because she’s a good-looking girl, which is sure to mean trouble. Eventually, the family arranges a marriage for her, to a rich but feckless man from another village. Her husband-to-be insists on a showy wedding, in spite of Kamala’s uncle’s worries that the spectacle will attract the wrong kind of attention (unstable times, remember?).
Sure enough, bandits attack the wedding party as they return to the groom’s home. Everyone flees, abandoning the bride in her palanquin. A man named Habir Khan arrives and protects her. He offers Kamala shelter in his home. Kamala hesitates, but Khan assures here that “true Muslims respect devout brahmans” and she will be perfectly safe. Since she has no other choice, she agrees.
Khan sets up Kamala in one of the wings of his house, where she discovers an altar to Shiva, and an elderly brahman to assist her in her prayers and rituals. This wing of the house is called “the Rajputani’s wing” after Khan’s mother, a Rajput Hindu who continued to practice her religion even after marrying a Muslim. Though Khan didn’t take his mother’s religion, he honors her memory by offering shelter to Hindu women oppressed or ostracized by their own people (just as his mother had, apparently).
Kamala begs Khan to bring her to her uncle’s house. Khan agrees, but warns her that they won’t take her back. As he predicted, Kamala’s aunt refuses to let Kamala back in the house, because she’s been staying with an infidel and has disgraced them. Her uncle won’t stand up to his wife, for fear of the family losing their caste if they take Kamala back.
So Kamala returns to Habir Khan’s house. They treat her well, even making sure that all her servants are Hindu. She eventually falls in love with one of Khan’s sons, voluntarily converts to Islam, and marries him.
Sometime later, Kamala’s uncle’s daughter Surala gets married. Again, the same bandits attack the wedding party, and again, Habir Khan’s people intervene. When the bride’s family tries to escape (leaving the bride in the palanquin — again), they run into a woman holding a spear decorated with Habir Khan’s pennant.
She said to Sarala, ‘Don’t be afraid, sister. I have brought you the assurance of shelter from someone who shelters everyone, someone who isn’t concerned with caste or religion.
‘Uncle, my pranams to you. Don’t worry, I shan’t actually touch your feet. Now take Sarala back to your home. She has not been contaminated by any touch. Tell Aunt that when I grew up with the food and clothes that she unwillingly gave me, I never dreamed I would be able to repay my debts in this way. Please take this red silk sari I have brought for Serala, and this brocade cushion. And if ever she is in distress, remember she has a Mussalman sister to protect her.’
Of course I don’t know that Tagore borrowed elements from a Punjabi folktale when he composed this tale; it’s simply a cool idea that I’d like to be true. The Bengal region, like the Punjab region, has a large Muslim population (and like Punjab, Bengal was eventually partitioned); Tagore could easily have come up with the situation in “Story of a Mussalmani” without reference to external folktales. Tagore’s story isn’t a perfect parallel to the Dulla Bhatti tale, either. Both stories do center around Hindu women who have been disgraced through no fault of their own — rape, abandonment — and must turn to an outsider, a non-coreligionist, for help. The hypocrisy of abandoning such victimized women in the name of religious purity (or just in the name of “respectability”) shows up often in Tagore’s stories. That idea that he might have borrowed from an existing folktale to underscore this issue appeals to me.
Tagore was familiar with aspects of Punjabi culture; he visited Amritsar as a child, he wrote essays about Sikhism, and poems about the Sikh gurus. Most famously, Tagore renounced his knighthood in protest after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, when British troops fired on a nonviolent crowd of protesters (and worshippers who happened to be in the area for Vaisakhi) in an enclosed area for ten minutes.
And it’s worth mentioning that one of Tagore’s strongest and most independent female characters (at least among the stories that I’ve read) is Punjabi: Sohini, the heroine of “The Laboratory,” published in the fall of 1940, about six months before Tagore died. Sohini is smart and strong, not cowed by convention or societal norms, and loves her Bengali husband as an equal, or nearly so (they had a mentor and protégé relationship; far different from a ‘lord master and his chattel’ relationship). Again, Tagore uses an outsider to model desirable behavior.
Tagore never completed “The Story of a Mussalmani,” so we don’t know what shape the story would have taken in its final form. But even in it’s draft form, it’s interesting.
Illustration: Asoka’s Queen by Abanindranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s nephew), 1910. Source: WikiArt