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We need another Rasalu

November 05, 2010

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THE ROMANCE OF RAJA RASALU AND OTHER TALES compiled and annotated by Neelam Husain; illustrated by Laila Rahman; pp 304 + 46; Price Rs3,000 (hb); Publishers Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre, PO Box No 3328 Gulberg-II, Lahore (Pakistan).

The reason for the reproduction of folk stories related to an All-Punjab hero, Raja Rasalu, and other tales related to Punjab and the land across the river Indus has been given by compiler Neelam Hussain in the last portion of her introduction to the book: “If we are to counter the dehumanizing influences of modern consumerism and resist the lure of its goblin fruit, we need to stake claim to agency and rewrite our own stories. It is not an impossible task, for stories are being written and rewritten all the time. But in order to do so, we must borrow some of the folktale’s magic; to open our minds and hearts to the whisper of numberless voices that fill the air around us, waiting to be heard, and rediscover in ourselves, our lost ability to imagine others, kinder more tolerant worlds.

“The foremost aim of the folktale is to entertain -- to give pleasure to the listening circle. We have only to accept this offer and pay heed to the storyteller’s voice. This is how it was before, but things could change and they might change.”

The issue is that after partition or independence the reproduction of folktales of different regions was totally ignored by the intelligentsia and the government. Why we the Punjabis, the Pakhtoons, the Sindhis, the Balochis, the Bengalis and the Kashmiris and other smaller nationalities ignored this important base of our history, culture, heritage and traditions.

Lok Virsa was also very shy of producing the chapters of the district gazetteers related to culture, history and heritage because these gazetteers contained the stories of the shameful past performance of the ruling feudal families of Pakistan. Anyhow Lok Virsa did one thing and that is it reproduced books and monologues written by the British administrators on folklores and relevant matters. For instance, no exhaustive book has been written in Urdu on the folktales of Kashmir, therefore, an English book was reproduced.

Likewise many other zones which had books by the British writers were reproduced. But with what point of view the colonialists collected this material is explained by Neelam.

The folktale was devolved by the colonial encounter, not only because it was subjected to the patronising scrutiny of a European aesthetics but because of its association with either subject people and the fact that most often it was repository of the “old wife and the bard” as represented by the “bhats, the mirasi, the bharain, the jogi, the faqir and the ilk, who were at best seen as a sorry set of drunkards.” It merited attention only to the extent that it provided the colonial administration with insight into the ‘native’ mind and “furnished much useful information as to the manners, habits, and feelings of the native Hindostani.”

Ironically this process did not end with the Raj. In the newly-created Pakistan, the folktales along with other narrative forms that comprise the oral tradition, fell foul of officialdom’s post-independence attempt to construct for the people an exclusive ‘Muslim; identity rooted in Saudi Arabia, rather than its own soil.”

The bureaucratic setup was so powerful that from it came the voice that Arabic should be made the national/official language of Pakistan, which incidentally was not in the interest of the ruling political leaders, rulers, classes and the bureaucracy mainly fed on English and Urdu. Arabic seemed to be a threat to vested interests attached with Urdu, therefore, Baba-i-Urdu Maulvi Abdul Haq from Karachi declared publicly that Urdu was the only Islamic language of Pakistan while rest of the languages were non-Islamic which clearly meant Bengali, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushto, Balochi, Kashmiri and their dialects.

In such a situation one can well imagine what treatment was officially extended to the folk heritage of Pakistan. On the other hand such a language was advocated, which had even no folksongs, what to talk of folklore.Neelam, the editor says: “The stories in this book have been selected and compiled from four texts transcribed in the later half of the nineteenth century by British folklorists and comprise the Legends of the Punjab, by R.C. Temple (1884), Tales from the Punjab by Flora Annie Steel (1894), and Romantic Tales of the Punjab and Folk Tales from the upper Indus by Reverend Charles Swynerton (1883) and (1892) respectively.

“Few changes have been made to the original texts; some of which are editorial and other necessitated by the amalgamation of three versions of a story into one.”

The major events of Rasalu’s life are associated with Gandhara and Potohar area and Neelam has maintained the same geographical limits narrated in the aforementioned books and compilers. But our district gezetteers tell us that his traces are also found in far-off Hmimachal Pradesh, Pakpattan, Uch in Bahawalpur, Mari Fort in Dera Ghazi Khan where he classed with Raja Hodi.

Raja Rasalu’s message was fight every oppressor in the shape of man, animal or super human power. Rasalu we still need who could challenge the oppressors of our time. — STM