“Myths, legends, tales, they are all part of our heritage which mark the way we think, live and see the world,” critic Carla Bianpoen writes in her introduction to Toeti Heraty’s Calon Arang.

The book-length verse narrative, subtitled ‘The Story of a Woman Sacrificed to Patriarchy’, was first published in Indonesian in 2000 and translated into English in 2006.

It is the late Indonesian poet and philosopher Heraty’s retelling of the legend of a widow with a mastery of the dark arts, and her male adversaries — which include her son-in-law — who plot to wrest a magic book from her and rob her of her supernatural strength. They win, and she dies in order to save her only daughter’s marriage.

Heraty uses this 11th century story, which she sees as a “myth of a mother’s love against the state”, to examine the unequal relations between men and women and the economic powers invested in the patriarchal order. In doing so, she frequently refers to contemporary events in her country — such as women’s demonstrations against rising milk prices in Jakarta in 1998 — and elsewhere in the world to underscore her point.

Occasionally, Heraty’s self-described “lyrical prose” is overwhelmed by these multiple references — as I found when I worked with her on a final, polished draft of the book-length poem. But her purpose is evident from the outset: to break new ground in the remaking of an old story.

Interestingly, Heraty’s older contemporary, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, has also retold the story of Calon Arang in a fairly straightforward, traditional style as a myth or fable about the endless war between the forces of light and darkness, reminding us how one tale can grow in different directions depending on the narrator’s perspective.

I was reminded of these vastly different retellings of the story of Calon Arang when I rang up a number of friends to ask about Sindhi oral narratives other than Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s iconic heroines. This was for a keynote presentation I was preparing for ‘Globalising Lokloric Wisdom’, an international conference on folklore in Pakistani languages, recently held at the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

The first response came from an art historian from Karachi: “Moriro!” I thought I knew the story of the disabled fisherman who rescued his six brothers from a whale — or a crocodile — from a version in the Risalo. But when I turned to the book, I found that Bhitai had presented the story only in flashes and fragments. I began listening to video and audio versions in Sindhi — some set in the context of history — only to find that there were as many versions as there were tellers.

Sometimes, the brothers died and only their corpses were retrieved for burial. In other versions, they were rescued alive. What we do know is that there is a gravesite in Karachi believed to be the brothers’ resting place.

I also found that the word commonly translated as ‘crocodile’ — an unlikely visitor to the Arabian or any other sea — probably refers to the shark that inhabits Karachi’s waters, which would cancel out a miraculous rescue.

When I called my novelist friend, Taha Kehar, he too remembered the story of Moriro and shared his own multilingual version, based on a recording by his late mother, a doctor. Here, Moriro and his brothers are the sons of Mai Kolachi.

She is the central figure of another local legend, in which the eponymous heroine goes out to rescue her boys from the eye of a great storm and is immortalised in the name of our native city. That Taha included a strong woman in his version, told by her mother to his mother, made an intriguing end to my search.

Another story I took to the conference was the ballad of Daya Gujjar, a bandit goaded by a greedy wife to rob the queen of her jewels, forgiven by the king and eventually condemned to the gallows by the queen’s brother. I had heard my mother, and then my grandmother, sing it all throughout my childhood.

Part story and part song, it’s in an easy, vernacular Hindustani, but I haven’t been able to trace a written version apart from a few scattered verses which give us the shape of the entire legend. These are in an essay titled ‘Jaahil Aurton Ke Geet’ [Songs of Unlettered Women], written by my grandmother’s brother Rafi Ajmeri, which I came upon in my 40s.

In his essay, Ajmeri attempts to give the songs of the unlettered their rightful due as valid artforms, but he doesn’t mention where he actually collected this particular song, which he claims to have heard sung around an evening bonfire by village women.

When he heard me recite verses of the song on stage, a student of English literature remarked that the story may well die with me and asked me to record the extant verses on video for him.

The issues of transmission, preservation, literary retellings, orality and the role of digital technology in recording Pakistani folklore were among the issues discussed at the conference. Evidently, there are epics and romances in which our poets — such as the aforementioned Bhitai in Sindhi, as well as Waris Shah and Qasim Yar in the Punjabi Heer and Puran Bhagat respectively — have preserved for posterity versions that have now gained a certain canonical authority, especially in the case of Bhitai’s feminine protagonists.

But numerous other stories — and also the ‘song of unlettered women’ — need to be recorded before they are lost. Academics may echo Bianpoen’s thoughts, or differ in their answer to the matter of their relevance to our times. But my response to one question was embodied in a mesmerising performance by the storyteller Warda Shehzadi in her beautiful narration, in Urdu, of the mystical Balochi love story of Mast Tawakali and his beloved Sammo.

A story told to a living audience, in song or as prose, has at least as much impact as a novel or a book of poems read in solitude. It was, for me, the conference’s undoubted epiphany.

The columnist is a London-based short story writer and novelist

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 8th, 2022

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