The Romance of Raja Rasalu and Other Tales

About This Project


This collection of stories has been put together primarily for pleasure. To share with readers the carnival delights of the Punjabi folk or wondertale. Whether the act of reading these stories is one of discovery or remembrance, will depend on the geographical location and generational difference between readers; between those who come to these stories from another context and those who, while belonging to the culture that has bred them, belong to a generation that knows only the transient pleasures of satellite television and the glitz and glamour of today’s consumerist entertainment. There will be others too, who heard them as children; for well into the twentieth century and many years after the British folklorist, R.C. Temple discovered that “in the Panjab the folktale (was) abundant everywhere … (and) … the wandering bard live(d) in every village and hamlet, in every nursery and zenana, and wherever the women and children congregate,”1 storytelling continued to be part of the family’s evening entertainment. This collection, therefore, is also an attempt to retrieve a rapidly disappearing oral tradition from the clichés and banal uniformities, the unresting images and consumerist extravaganzas that constitute so much of today’s popular cinema and electronic entertainment. To enable the eye to take rest amidst the marvels and wonders of a world that, having withstood the erosions of time, is both strange and familiar in a time grown disenchanted.

For the world of the folktale is full of surprises. Replete with marvels and prodigies, it is also an egalitarian genre. Not only do its roots go back to a time when, as part of the oral tradition, it was communal property and expressed the needs and wishes of ordinary people, and which were to become, with time and the authority of the written word, the repository of marginalized people such as women, mirasis, bhands and others of “that ilk,” but because its form allows for the mingling of the seriousness of the high with the uninhibited humour of the low to grant them equal value. Its eclecticism along with its ability to transgress categorical boundaries and labels extends to language-use and narrative forms, for it draws upon the time-enclosed conventions of the vaar and epic as freely as it does on the open-ended impromptu topicality of jests and riddles, the formal plenitude of the kissa and dastan, the lyricism of the dhola and mahiya, the bawdy irreverence of the sithni as well as the gossip of the marketplace and the intimacies of the zenana to tell its tale,9 even as the promiscuity of its terrain enables the pleasurable convergence of the actual and the fantastic to open up worlds of undreamt possibilities.

The aim of this collection is to restore to ourselves this rich heritage, and in so doing, perhaps to recall the lure of storytelling and a time, when the day’s work done, some aunt, grandmother or father could be persuaded to unravel a story of marvels and wonders to a group of listeners of varied ages, drawn together by the magic of the tale’s unfolding. For the storytelling genre does not know footlights.10 The boundary that demarcates the space between the audience and performance in theatre and the cinema or television screen does not exist here. This is quite literally a dialogic space. The narrative thread may lie firmly in the hands of the storyteller and the trajectory of each telling depend on the mood and memory of the narrator, but the intimacy of the listening circle generates an interaction that is qualitatively different from the relationship between the book and the reader, of the viewer and the cinema screen. Encouraging a more active participation, it makes room for the occasional interjection, nod of recognition or even a question that opens up a new dimension in the tale and listening experience. For if the tale is new for some, for others it traverses familiar ground, drawing upon a common store of cultural memory and earlier tellings. To be part of a storyteller’s audience then, is very different from that of reading a work of fiction, for apart from the seduction of the tale itself, the allure of storytelling lies in its performative dimension; in the intimacy of the connection between the narrator and listeners that suspends disbelief and enables entry into an alternative domain of rich possibility.

The stories in this book have been selected and compiled from four texts transcribed in the latter half of the nineteenth century by British folklorists and comprise The Legends of the Panjab, by R.C.Temple (1884), Tales from the Panjab, by Flora Annie Steel (1894) and Romantic Tales of the Panjab and Folk Tales from the Upper Indus by the Reverend Charles Swynnerton (1893 and 1892 respectively). Few changes have been made to the original texts; some of which are editorial and others necessitated by the amalgamation of three versions of a story into one. In the latter case, details of the version used have been identified in the endnotes. However, in keeping with generic norms, I have exercised my right as storyteller to add a gesture here and remove an embellishment there, so that even though the storyline remains the same, the meaning shifts a little. The stories themselves have been divided into two sections, with the first comprising an aggregate of tales from the Rasalu legend, and the second of shorter stories of adventure, magic, comedy and romance. The former, which has a specific geographical location – for Rasalu was the son of Raja Salwahan of Sialkot and descendent of Vikramjit, “who sold himself in charity three hundred times” [Rasalu’s Birth and Exile] – partakes of the tradition of the vaar or epic and high romance and is replete with doughty deeds, while the latter, for the most part are characterised by the remoteness of their setting and magical interventions, although the comic tale can sometimes provide an exception by laying claims to a particular habitation and name. Swynnerton sets the date of Rasalu around 800 A.D., though he acknowledges that this is largely conjectural as there is no solid historical evidence to support his argument. But his statement that Rasalu lives in popular memory is borne out by the fact that his stories are still part of the repertoire, albeit of a rapidly shrinking circle of storytellers in the towns and villages of the Punjab, and the places associated with him and his brother Puran do exist.13 Tillah Jogian, where he met the fakir lies in the hilly terrain of district Jhelum at not too great a distance from the city of Jhelum, the Gandhgarh hills where Rasalu vanquished the giants and where the youngest, Thirya, lies imprisoned in a cave, are in Attock tehsil south of the Chach plain; the hills of Khairi-Murat, which, quite probably are the same as those of Kharimurti, where the Rani Kokila grew up and lived out her brief span of life among eighty peacocks, eighty-six mainas and eighty parrots that kept company with her, [Rani Kokilan and Raja Rasalu] lie in Fatehjung tehsil not too far from Rawalpindi, while the well associated with his elder brother Puran, is to be found in the environs of Sialkot, where, it is said, women still come to beg the saint’s intercession for sons.

In today’s globalised world riven by greed-driven wars, we are witness to and inscribed in another form of storytelling, where difference is demonised and dreams monitored; where only the things that can be bought have value and where the peoples’ ‘right to choose’ is debased and reduced to a choice of brand names – ‘is it to be Colgate or Forhans? A Nike or Reeboks?’ Now, more than ever, it is time to reclaim and rediscover the magic of the wondertale. Not because it is a rich heritage that we need to conserve – as yet another object in the consumerist fair – but because we dare not lose it. Folk and fairytales build a second life and a second world outside officialdom. On their terrain the accepted hierarchies of the strong and weak, the mighty and the meek, the human and animal, the feminine and masculine are often reversed or subverted to shed a new light on the relations of women and men and between those who have power and those who do not. An imaginative apprehension of the known and knowable world in which the boundaries of the permissible and the impermissible are charted out, these stories are endowed with the potential to “open up spaces for dreaming alternatives.” If we are to counter the dehumanising influences of modern consumerism and resist the lure of its goblin fruit, we need to stake a 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 to rediscover in ourselves, our lost ability to imagine other, 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 – “Listen,” it says, “this is how it was before, but things could change – and they might.”49

Neelam Hussain

Lahore, 200

Price: 3,000 Pak Rs