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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Two More Literary Excavations

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I found and posted a couple more of my old short stories to Ephemera. I think this is it. Now I have to write more new ones….

I wrote Sally: A Fantasy a few years back to tell out loud at this kind of variety show thing a few friends of mine and I put on. We had a little social writing group together. One of my friends is an actress/dancer who wanted a venue for her one-woman monologues; another is an experimental documentary filmmaker who wanted a venue to try out her foray into live multimedia storytelling. Me? I was just there, and needed something to perform. And you know I like ghost stories.

Today is Marta’s birthday. It’s a big one: she’s turning seventy. All Marta really wants for her birthday is to see her grandkids. She hardly ever sees them, because her daughter, Ruth, is always “too busy” to come visit. She’s also “too busy” to talk on the phone, and she never invites Marta over, either. Marta can count on the fingers of one hand how often she’s seen Ruth’s family in the last few years.

She lives alone, with a cat named Valentino, and a hallucination named Sally.

The piece was well received, as I recall; several folks in the audience said that it had them on edge of their seat. Reading it back now, I still like it well enough, but I find it somehow unsatisfying from a craft point of view. In particular, the present-tense that I used doesn’t sit too well with me, though it felt natural in the oral storytelling. But it seemed worth putting up, and so I did.

Horsefly is something I worked on and then abandoned. The first draft of it is substantially what I posted to Ephemera; but I tried to fill it out, make it longer, extend it into the past and future of that single day. It didn’t go anywhere, and reading it back now, I like the short piece that I started with. I think it’s all it needs to be. The hypercritical part of my mind thinks that the characters are a bit one-dimensional; but maybe that’s inevitable in a piece this short? As with fairy tales, maybe brevity forces you to deal in archetypes rather than fully-realized, contradictory beings. Or maybe that’s all baloney and I’m just being hypercritical. Anyway, I like the ending, and so up on Ephemera it goes.

The mattress springs creaked overhead as he awoke and rolled over in bed. The coffee had just finished brewing, but the eggs weren’t done. I turned up the flame and stirred the eggs around in the frying pan even faster, keeping one ear attuned to the rasp of the springs and the creaking of the floorboards.

Clang clang.

I grabbed a plate from the cupboard and scooped the eggs on. A gobbet of egg missed the plate and fell to the breakfast tray. Oh, I would hear about that — but no time to deal with it now. Plate on the tray, napkin, fork, knife, coffee cup, coffee. The carafe dribbled as I poured the fresh brew; I mopped the drops off the saucer, and the drips from his cup, then carefully carried the tray up the stairs.

Clang clang.

Tom was sitting up in bed, his left hand just about to hit the little silver bell on the bedside table, the kind of bell you sometimes see at the desks of hotels. Tom had been a month in a convalescent home for intensive physical therapy after he’d broken his hip. When he was ready to be discharged, a young aide there had shown me how to buy the bell online. Like many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hope you enjoy.


Image: The Reader, Frederico Zandomeneghi. Sourced from WikiArt.

Charlemagne, the Snake, and the Magic Ring

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When Charlemagne was King of the Franks, legend says, he had a pillar erected in front of his palace, with a bell attached. If anyone wanted to appeal to the King for justice, all he had to do was ring that bell, and he would be immediately conducted to the King to have his case heard.

One evening, when Charlemagne was at dinner, he heard the bell ring. He sent a servant out to see who it was, but the servant returned, saying that when he opened the door he found no one. Dinner progressed; the bell rang again. Same result. When the bell rang the third time, the monarch himself rose and went to the door.

At the pillar, he found a snake wrapped around the pull-rope of the bell, using its weight to ring it. The palace servants tried to drive the snake away, but Charlemagne stopped them.

“Clearly,” he said, “the beast has come to have its case heard. And so it shall.”

And he asked the creature what it wanted.

The snake seemed to bow before the King, and then slithered away, looking behind itself as if it wanted them to follow. They followed the snake back to its nest, where they discovered a huge, poisonous toad sitting among the snake’s eggs, quite comfortable. The snake looked up at them, as if pleading.

The King ordered his servants to take the toad away and burn it; then he and his court returned to the palace.

At the next evening’s dinner, to everyone’s surprise, the snake suddenly entered the Great Hall. It glided straight to the King’s table, bowed, then came up onto the table and dropped a magnificent diamond into the King’s wine glass. It bowed again, and then left.

The King had the diamond set into a beautiful gold ring, which he then gave to his Queen, Fastrada.

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A Darkish Little Fairy Tale, or An Anecdote on Writing

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A cool fact about aspens (from Wikipedia):

All of the aspens typically grow in large clonal colonies, derived from a single seedling, and spread by means of root suckers; new stems in the colony may appear at up to 30–40 m (98–131 ft) from the parent tree. Each individual tree can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony is long-lived. In some cases, this is for thousands of years, sending up new trunks as the older trunks die off above ground. For this reason, it is considered to be an indicator of ancient woodlands. One such colony in Utah, given the nickname of “Pando”, is estimated to be 80,000 years old, making it possibly the oldest living colony of aspens. Some aspen colonies become very large with time, spreading about 1 m (3.3 ft) per year, eventually covering many hectares.

In other words, a stand of aspens is really one organism. It’s like planting a piece of ginger root: eventually, these narrow, green, bamboo-like stalks will sprout from the rhizome. If you’ve buried the ginger, then each stalk looks like an individual plant, but they’re really all sprouts from the same root. Aspens are kind of the same way.

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A Winter Tale Double-Feature from Gustavo Bécquer

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Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870) was born in Seville and later moved to Madrid, without achieving either economic success or artistic acclaim.

That’s from the introduction — my translation of it, actually — to the unit on Bécquer from an old undergraduate Spanish reader of mine (believe it or not, I have a Minor in Spanish Literature, though you’d never guess it now). And it goes on to say that Bécquer was sickly all his life, too. Isn’t that the perfect introduction to a Romantic artist?

Bécquer, who was a poet, prose stylist, and painter, was once referred to as “the Spanish Poe.” I’m not sure who originated that description, and honestly, I don’t see it myself. I like much of Poe’s writing (and adore some of it), but his horror and gothic work has the miasma of insanity to it, the sense of staring into an internal abyss. To read Poe’s horror is to breathe in sickness. Bécquer did occasionally write about lonely and obsessed young men (much like himself, maybe?), but those pieces feel more like E.T.A. Hoffman to me — though his protagonists are much less emo. The air is cleaner in a Bécquer piece than in one of Poe’s.

If we have to make an analogy, then I would say that Bécquer is the Spanish Lafcadio Hearn, at least with respect to his prose. That doesn’t have the same zing to it as “the Spanish Poe,” but it’s more accurate. Hearn also has a Romantic sensibility in his writing; in addition, he has a sense of wanderlust, of curiosity about other communities and their cultures, and a taste for folklore. Many of Bécquer’s supernatural tales are framed as stories that he picked up on his travels through Spain, and are often connected to specific physical landmarks. They remind me of reading Hearn’s In Ghostly Japan — except Hearn was writing about an exotic locale  (even though he eventually chose to stay in Japan and become, as much as possible, Japanese), and Bécquer is writing about his own country.

But enough introduction. On to the winter tales:

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At Chrighton Abbey

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Today’s winter tale is a moody, slightly longer piece by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 – 1915), a Victorian gothic writer most famous for the sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret.

In “At Chrighton Abbey,” Sarah Chrighton, a governess and poor relation of the distinguished Chrighton family, comes home for the Christmas holiday after several years of living abroad. She has a happy reunion with Squire Chrighton and his family, and meets the fiancé of her younger cousin Edward (the heir apparent). Edward’s mother is not overly fond of her future daughter-in-law, but is relieved that her son is marrying soon. For tragic endings stalk the sons of the Chrighton family, especially the unmarried ones.

The story revolves around Edward’s relationship with his fiancé Julia Tremaine. She’s a striking (and rich) woman, but not well liked by the rest of the Chrighton family, including Sarah.

She was tall and slim, and carried her head and neck with a stately air, which struck me more than anything in that first glance. Yes, she was handsome, undeniably handsome; and my cousin had been right when she said I could not fail to admire her; but to me the dazzlingly fair face with its perfect features, the marked aquiline nose, the short upper lip expressive of unmitigated pride, the full cold blue eyes, pencilled brows, and aureole of pale golden hair, were the very reverse of sympathetic. That Miss Tremaine must needs be universally admired, it was impossible to doubt; but I could not understand how any man could fall in love with such a woman.

Julia’s behavior doesn’t endear her to Sarah, either. She seems stuck-up, and more, as when she declines to accompany Edward and other members of the family on their gift-giving visits to the tenants of the estate.

‘I don’t like poor people,’ she said. ‘I daresay it sounds very dreadful, but it’s just as well to confess my iniquity at once. I never can get on with them, or they with me. I am not simpatica, I suppose…. It is better that I should not affect any feminine virtues which I do not possess.’

Not a politically correct thing to say.

Reading the story, though, I couldn’t help feel an empathy, even a sympathy for Julia Tremaine — and I suspect that this was Ms. Braddon’s intent. Because while Julia is stubborn, and way too proud, on closer examination she doesn’t seem arrogant or self-absorbed; she seems introverted and shy. There’s a large house party going on at Chrighton Abbey; Julia refuses to sing or play the piano for the company, though she’s clearly extremely talented in both directions (and will sing and play for just the family). She doesn’t sled, or skate, or play billiards, but prefers to sit in a corner of the drawing room doing stitching and beadwork. Even her dislike for the company of poor people comes partly from her general discomfort around strangers, and partly from a discomfort with what she sees as “cringing” — that is, having to pretend more gratitude than they really feel — when the tenants receive charity from the estate owners. And I can see her point.

And, unlike the usual haughty beauty in stories like this one, she genuinely loves Edward, though one suspects the marriage will be rocky.

Will love be enough?

As ghost stories go, this one is a fairly mild one, but I like it because Braddon subverts the stereotypical characters of an English gothic. Julia is one example; in addition there is Squire Chrighton, who hates fox-hunting and would rather hide in his library reading Greek than cavort with his guests. And even though Sarah is a poor relation, she is treated with respect and genuine affection by the richer members of her family and their household. Braddon writes with ironic bemusement about upper-class Victorian society; yet all the while she manages to maintain an anxious mood in the story, a feeling of impending doom.

You can read “At Chrighton Abbey” here. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.


Account Rendered

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William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) is a member of that distinguished group, doctors who became writers, in such company as Arthur Conan Doyle, Weir Mitchell, and David H. Keller. He’s probably best known for the uber-creepy tale “The Beast With Five Fingers”, and the disquieting “August Heat,” but he wrote a lot of other macabre stories, both supernatural and otherwise. His style is brisk, with a dry humor; I like him a lot. If you’ve never read him before — and too many people haven’t — you should.

Today’s winter tale, “Account Rendered,” is part of his series Twelve Strange Tales, or as I like to think of it, the “Nurse Wilkie series,” which was published posthumously in 1951 as part of the collection The Arm of Mrs. Egan and other stories. The stories record the various macabre experiences that the nurse narrator (identified in a few of the stories as Nurse Wilkie) experiences in the course of her professional life. Most of the stories are crime stories, but there are a few supernatural tales as well, including this one.

Nurses at the time of Harvey’s medical practice seem to have occupied a limbo space between servant and gentlewoman (much like governesses and tutors, I imagine), and as members of an (at the time) all-female profession were largely undervalued. Dr. Harvey seems to have paid attention to his nurses, as people as well as colleagues; he voices Wilkie in a really empathetic and convincing way. He must have been a good doctor to work with (and to hear Wilkie talk, not all of them were).

In “Account Rendered,” our nurse and her uncle, a physician, meet a man with a strange desire: to be anesthetized on a certain December date, at midnight. And he’s willing to pay a lot for it. But why?

As the clock struck one Mr. Tolson stirred uneasily and began to mutter to himself. A little later he opened his eyes.

“Where am I?” he asked. “Where has he gone to?”

“Dr. Parkinson has been called out to a case,” I replied. “He will be back very soon.”

“It’s all over then,” he said. “it’s all safely over,” and he closed his eyes with a weary sigh of satisfaction….

Needless to say, this evening was not the last time that the narrator hears about Mr. Tolson.

You can read “Account Rendered” here.

Enjoy.


  • The image is Goya Attended by Doctor Arrieta by Francisco Goya, 1820. Source: WikiArt
  • Wordsworth has a good, inexpensive collection of Harvey’s short stories called The Beast With Five Fingers. I recommend it.
  • The list of all the winter tales I’ve blogged about previously is here.

Winter Tales Time! The Crown Derby Plate

The tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas is an old one, mostly a British one, I think, perhaps dating back before Marlowe. While it’s not one my family indulged in, it’s one I’ve happily adopted. Every year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I like to share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around.

I try to focus on stories set on or around Christmas, or at least in winter. Sometimes, I’ll feature ghost stories that were originally published as contributions to the Christmas edition of a literary magazine. And often I’ll feature something that feels “winter tale-ish” to me, regardless of when it takes place.

This year, I’ll start with one from Marjorie Bowen (1885 – 1952), British author of historical romances and gothic horror: “The Crown Derby Plate.”

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Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very much like to do so, “particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost.”

And of course, Ms. Pym, china collector and antique shop proprietor, gets her wish….

I’ll admit, it’s rather easy to guess the ending of this one, but it’s a fun, comic ghost story. I married into a family of antiquers, and I can rather imagine my mother-in-law or sister-in-law pulling a Martha Pym. Though I’m pretty sure my mother-in-law would keep the plate.

You can read “The Crown Derby Plate” here, at Project Gutenberg Australia.

Enjoy.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

My review of Wordsworth’s collection of Marjorie Bowen stories, The Bishop of Hell, is here.

The Crown Derby plate pictured is circa 1790-1795, painted by William Billingsley. Image: Wikimedia

A Twenty-first Century Ghost Town

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I’m walking through the housing development where my parents live, in the Sierra foothills, a half-hour out of Reno. I can’t get over how silent it is. No cars drive by; no music or conversation leaks out of the houses that I pass. No birds. No insects. The sounds of the highway and the town don’t reach out here. There’s nothing but the sound of my footsteps. Even the lone dog that finally barks as I pass only serves to accentuate the stillness.

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Before there was Multo…

… there was Ephemera, a blog I originally had to share little pieces I wrote with my friends. I stopped using it after I started Multo, but I never deleted it.

I’ve been unearthing a few other pieces I wrote back in those days, pieces I wrote for writing classes and whatnot. Most of them are cringeworthy, but a few I can read and think, “Huh. Not too bad.”

Of all the old pieces I found, the one I like best is “Temptation,” which has a bit of a fantastic theme, and so fits with this blog. I’ve put it up on Ephemera, along with a couple of others, just because.

“Eating alone again, I see.” His tongue tickles my left ear as he whispers this, sliding past my shoulder to slip into the place across from me in the diner booth. “This is getting to be a habit.”

“She was tired. And I don’t like conversation over breakfast, anyway,” I reply, hoping that for once he’ll get the hint. He just tilts his diamond-shaped head to one side and smirks, his tongue continuing to flick in and out. The waitress comes by to take his order: rabbit, live, and a bowl of water. I look down at my plate and concentrate on my bacon and eggs over hard, hoping he’ll just find a newspaper and not torture me. But no.

When I wrote it, the group I read it to didn’t get it, but I’m hoping that people more attuned to the sort of things I like to read might be in a better position to see what I was trying to do.

Read the rest here.

Hope you enjoy.