The Romance of Raja Rasalu

By Raza Rumi

Story telling has been a primordial urge, never quite expressed in its fullest measure, but always lingering and floating like life. There was a sub-continent before the colonial interaction that brought in its wake an aesthetic hardened by the industrial revolution and its uniformity of life and space. This was a world rich with myriad identities, of whispers and tales all interlaced in a peculiarly complex kaleidoscope. Since the 19th century that particular aspect of folk story telling and transfer of generational accounts gave way to what is now known as education and knowledge – instruments and reflections of power and a linear world view set elsewhere but adapted awkwardly to the local context.
This is why Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre in Lahore, under the leadership of Neelum Hussain, have undertaken the challenging task of reclaiming the rich heritage that lies in our folklore especially that of the Punjab. “The Romance of Raja Rasalu and Other Tales” is a stunning compilation of the romance of Punjab’s legendary hero, Raja Rasalu and, while it draws heavily on the colonial storytellers, the book twists the narrative in a manner that brings us closer to the origins of our cultural sensibilities. The tales are sheer magic. The romance, the intrigue, the bravery and the integrated nature of human existence where it finds communication even with birds and trees comes to a full life throughout the narrative.

It is one thing to produce an admirable compendium but it is another matter to ensure that the purpose and spirit of the tales are adequately reflected in the illustrations. This particular touch of originality is provided by the eminent artist Laila Rehman whose breathtakingly attractive illustrations add a new layer of meaning and sensibility to the folk stories. It is, therefore, as has been rightly stated in the introduction, a book for pleasure: a pleasure that moves beyond the immediate and the momentary and merges into the real or imagined pleasure of living. Laila’s paintings and sketches are evocative enough to generate a parallel story within the larger narrative. It is as if the reader is traversing into several worlds. One minute you are locked in the words with imagination rescuing the linearity of the printed letters and another minute imagination and its scope are enlarged, tossed over and often chastened by the sheer colours and experiments of the palette. The sketches, graphics and canvasses become alive and converse with the reader.

The compilation of stories works in a twofold manner whereby the first section deals with Raja Rasalu’s entire legend. Rasalu was the son of Raja Salwahan of Sialkot and a descendant of Vikramjit. The epic narrates high romance and Rasalu’s grand deeds with tons of magic and comedy. It is said that Rasalu’s legend corresponds to 800 A.D. even though there is no evidence to confirm it. But the tales of his life have been preserved by the circle of story tellers in the Punjabi settlements. Rasalu is embedded in our part of the Punjab; for instance, Tilla Jogian (where he meets the legendary fakir) is close to Jhelum city, the location where Rasalu defeated the giants is located in today’s Attock and so on. However, the tales are not geographically specific or fixed in any moment of time for, like any other folk narration, these tales deal with essential urges and imperatives of human existence-the need to live, seek and attain.</div>
<div>The second collection of stories pertains to shorter versions of particular tales invoking magic, romance and comedy. These are particularly delightful for many of them are funny, sometimes bawdy and amazingly pertinent even in the fissured and depressing globalised world we live in.

Neelum Hussain provides an erudite introduction that compares the various versions, elaborates on their nuanced differentials and sets the context for the lay and specialised reader alike. For instance, she mentions how the Punjabi wonder tales, not unlike South Asian in general, twist gender identities and play with the fixed notions of personal identity. For instance, Rasalu’s “betrothed” teases him:
“Ho rider of the dark grey mare
Did you forget to bind your hair?
Like some girls’ all loosely tied
It flies about from side to side”
But the wonderland does far more than just such wordplay. It also blurs the differences between heroes and villains and urges the understanding of the villain. Such fluidity in these tales also confirms their egalitarianism and focus on the human. Above all, as Neelum Hussain, aptly puts “There is no room for any dogma in the comic tale.” This is why the folk and fairy tales and the world they weave are beyond the confines and oppressive structures imposed by the clergy and the establishment.
The lived experience of ordinary people or the common folk, as we often call them rather brutishly, is what that makes these tales universally accessible, understandable and enjoyable.
The three sources of the book’s materials are: Flora Annie Steel, R.C. Templeton and Charles Swynnerton, the colonial researchers who so painstakingly transcribed these tales from the Punjabi language through primary sources i.e. the bards and story tellers. Notwithstanding the warnings given by Edward Said in accepting colonial Orientalism, one has to ruefully admit that such an incisive and thorough labour of love was only done by the “white masters.” South Asia’s repugnant ruling classes remain bickering pygmies to date. And, about the scholarship and originality of knowledge production, the less said the better for the two centuries old drought refuses to go away. Specifically, this is truer for Pakistan than perhaps the other South Asian countries. For the Pakistani establishment and intelligentsia, increasingly becoming inseparable, have discarded and trashed their heritage in the pursuit of power, be it the Oxbridge brigade or the US mainstream lackeys, their intellect, alas, remains subservient and refuses to leave the dome like a trapped pigeon.
Hence my boundless excitement and absolute pleasure to have encountered the  ‘The Romance of Raja Rasalu and Other Tales’ that defies obscurantism and our collective inertia. I only wish that this book could become more accessible to a wider array of readers, children and students across Pakistan. More importantly, it should be published in Urdu language for a broader audience within the country. Some day we have to rescue our rich secular and egalitarian heritage. I think a great beginning has been made by Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre. Continue reading “The Romance of Raja Rasalu”