Manik Pir plays as a subaltern trickster
Grandiloquent tales of extra-scriptural Imagination
In isolated rural pockets of the ethno-linguistic region of Bengal, sprawling across an international border separating western Bangladesh and southern West Bengal (India), a Sufi culture-hero popularly known as Manik Pir1 draws a large following from both Hindus as well as Muslims, mostly because of his potency over livestock (specially cows but also water buffalo and goats). Exploits of the pir have been narrated in quite a few puthis (narratives in rhymed metrical verse)2 composed in colonial Bengal. Important among these are Manik Pirer Git by Fakir Muhammad (second half of the 18th century according to Sen 1400: 62), Manik-pirer Jahuranama by Jayraddi (1224 Bengali era, ie, 1817-18 CE, Ghani 2000: 226), Manik Pirer Kechchha by Munsi Muhammad Pijiruddin (mid-19th century, Stewart 2007: 8), and Manik-Pirer Gan by Sekh Habil (circa 19th century).3 Many contemporary scholars have dismissed these narratives as unworthy of critical notice. Wakil Ahmed (1974: 321) rejects them as exaggerated and laden with extra-scriptural imagination, which is the result of direct influence of medieval mangal-kabyas composed by the Hindus. Identifying them as part of a corpus on pir-eulogy, Ghani (2000: 224-227) finds them grandiloquent tales that are devoid of inner significance, philosophical knowledge, and truth.
This essay challenges the view of the scholars by arguing that the puthis need to be read as articulations of 'infrapolitics' of the subaltern classes, which, as James C Scott (1990: 19) explains, 'is a wide variety of low-profile forms of resistance that dare not speak in their own name,' but effectively generates 'resistance of a different kind: dispersed in the fields we do not conventionally associate with the political; residing sometimes in what looks like cultural difference" (O'Hanlon 2000: 110). Its 'invisibility' is largely by design and is part of a tactical choice of the subaltern classes when they face any blend of fear, intimidation and, borrowing a phrase from Marx (1965: 737), 'the dull compulsion of economic relation' that enforces subjection. Hardly traceable in the 'public transcript,' (ie, 'the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate,' Scott 1990: 2), the infrapolitics of the subaltern classes is articulated as 'hidden transcript' or the 'discourse that takes place 'offstage,' beyond direct observation by the powerholders' (Scott 1990: 4). A substantial part of popular ('folk') culture of the subaltern classes, such as tales, performances, songs and rituals, operates in a third realm that lies strategically between the realms of the public and the hidden transcripts, where they voice disguised ideological insubordination and critiques the dominant classes 'while hiding behind anonymity or behind innocuous understanding of their conduct' (Scott 1990: xiii).
Taking up the project of examining grandiloquent tales of Manik Pir that are laden with extra-scriptural imagination, this essay undertakes a nuanced reading of the tales that operate in the third realm where the critique and ideological insubordination 'has had to costume itself and speak more warily,' (Scott 1990: 165). It proceeds in three sections. The first maps the identity of Manik Pir as narrated in various performances, oral narratives and the puthis, and argues that it is necessary to conceive of the pir as a trickster who plays a perpetual game of hide-and-seek in a maze of contradictory accounts. The following two sections demonstrate how the trickster is mobilized to resist Christian evangelism that served as a complicit agent of the British colonizers (section two) and for mitigating or denying claims made on the subaltern classes by landlords, kings and the state and advance its own claim on land (section three). It concludes by urging the scholars of popular/'folk' culture to abandon their myopic vision and recognize that that subaltern religious consciousness is not necessarily 'self-deception' (Gramsci 1971: 326-327). The 'folk' 'know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than [the intellectual] and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves' (Foucault and Deleuze 1977: 207).
Evading Identity: Playing Multiplicity
Manik Pir has baffled scholars who have attempted to trace his identity. Roy (1983: 212) admits, his 'identity cannot be easily established.' Karim (2003: 313) believes he is one of '[a] number of imaginary Pirs [who] receive reverence from credulous masses.' In a similar view Haq (1975: 293) observes: 'a pure legendary and mythical character of the saint gives us full justification to call him another idealised creation of both Hindu and Muslim minds.' Voicing quite a similar view, Roy (1983: 212) maintains, Bengali Muslim 'folk' created Manik Pir from local non-Muslim divinities. He further suggests the source of Manik Pir is Gorakshanatha,4 with whom he comes closest in resembling. Supporting this view Wakil Ahmed (2003: 89) observes, Manik Pir is not an 'historically authenticated pir,' but is 'the Muslim version of Gorakkhanath [Goraksanatha].'5 Adding a different note, Tony K Stewart (2007: 1) maintains, he is a mythic pir 'only in the sense that his stories do not yield to the standards of positivistic evidence that still seem to rule these classifications of history for many scholars in South Asia, but he is very real to the many millions who have heard and continue to circulate his tales.'
On the other hand, Dineshchandra Sen (1920: 123) asserts, 'in spite of all the legends, however, he [ie, Manik Pir] is not an imaginary character and must have lived as a saint or prophet in Bengal sometime after Muhammadan conquest.' Similarly, Basu (1978: 184) suggests that Manik Pir may very well have been a historic figure in the early years of Muslim rule in Bengal when the Sufi mystics proselytised the people extensively. Because of his paranormal skill in healing domestic animals, he came to be venerated by the people, and was later deified. Sukumar Sen (1398: 408) goes further to assert that Manik Pir is not a composite creation like Satya Pir, but was Prophet Mani who founded Manichaeism.6 The Sufis accepted Mani as a pir and a compassionate divine healer comparable to Jesus (Sen 1398: 408).7
Most performances held in honour of Manik Pir in contemporary Bangladesh narrate the pir as the son of Badsah Karam-din (Karam or Kalam)8 and Queen Dudh Bibi. However, an oral tradition prevalent in Suya-gram and surrounding villages in Kotalipada administrative subdistrict under Gopalganj district, and recounted by Mohammad Abdul Latif Sekh (a gayen of Gazir Gan from Unasiya village in Kotdlipada),9 identifies him as a cowherd born in an impoverished family some three to five hundred years ago. As a little boy aged between eight to ten years, he became attracted to a dervish named Ashraf-ul-Imadi of a nearby astana (hermitage) and began visiting him in the afternoons, leaving the cows under his care unattended. Inevitably, the cows destroyed the paddy of nearby farmland, and the enraged farmers complained to Manik's father. The latter took the young boy to task and forbade him to visit the dervish. Manik was distraught but had to comply. One night he dreamt of the dervish urging him to visit the astana. But Manik was fearful to follow the dervish's urging. The next day, one of the disciples of the dervish visited him in person and communicated to him his master's message that the young boy should visit him. Unable to turn down the request, Manik complied. When the dervish heard the reason for Manik's absence, he said, 'Since you have been punished for leaving the cows unattended in order to visit me, I bless you that none of your cows will cause any more harm to any farmer. Furthermore, if any cow or other livestock is struck with sickness, it will be relieved if the owner pledges to offer sinni in your name. My child, follow your heart's bidding and your name will be remembered as long as this world exists.' This young boy grew up to be the famous Manik Pir. The practice of go-falgun in Jessore district, observed on the last day of the month of Phalgun (mid-February to mid-March) when farmers owning cows used to bathe them and then set on eda or temporary freedom in the name of Manik Shah, to graze freely for the entire month of Chaitra (mid-March to mid-April), appears to be reminiscent of this tradition prevalent in Kotalipada.10
Another oral tradition prevalent in Sylhet also ascribes historicity to Manik Pir by claiming that he arrived in Bengal in 1303, with the renowned Sufi mystic Shah Jalal Mujarrad-i-Yamani11 (d 1346) and his legendary band of 360 auliyas.12 According to this tradition, Manik Pir was born in 1186, at a village called Kubia near Ta'izz in Yemen. His father was an affluent merchant of Ta'izz and became drawn to mysticism when he came in contact with Shah Jalal. At the time of his arrival in Bengal, Manik Pir was accompanied by a young boy who is today known as Chhoto Pir (lit, the 'Young Pir'). The latter, born in 1299, was also from Kubia and a son of another affluent merchant. It is said, Chhoto Pir became drawn to mysticism at the age of two. Manik Pir and Chhoto Pir were intimately close to each other, so much so that they are still known as manik-jod (lit, 'a pair of manik or jewels'). As close companions of Shah Jalal (popularly ranked 9th and 10th in order of importance after Shah Jalal), they participated with him in the famous battle against Gauda Gobinda, the Hindu king of Sylhet.13 They travelled to different parts of Bengal in order to preach Islam, but their centre for Sufi practice was Manik Pirer Tila in Sylhet city, where they lie buried. The two died at the same time and on the same day in 1305. Today, people offer milk and fruits in honour of Manik Pir because he used to live entirely on these (Rahman 1999: 8-13). To this account, the khadem (caretaker) of the mazar of Manik Pir (at Manik Pirer Tila, Sylhet), whose family holds the post by heredity, adds the following. After his arrival in Bengal, the first astana of Manik Pir was at Balur Bazar in Jessore. From there he travelled to Manik-gonj (a town to the north of Dhaka) and resided here for a long time. Hence, the town was named after him. From Minikganj, he came straight to Sylhet.14
The identity of the pir, as mapped in the puthis, is anything but homogenous. In Jayraddi's Manik-pier Jahuranama, Manik Pir is the son of another famous pir named Badar. His mother Dudh Bibi is a Hindu princess from Delhi whom Badar converts into a Muslim and marries, and then sets off to Chittagong. Away from her husband, Dudh Bibi unites with Badar in a dream and as a result, conceives. Fearing social scandal, Dudh Bibi abandons the child in a copper casket and sets it adrift on a stream. A gardener named Madhu discovers the casket and brings up the boy (Roy 1983: 243-245). In another unnamed account, a princess named Dudh Bibi goes bathing in a river and discovers a child inside a bush. When asked who he is, the child replies he is a wanderer who has no mother or father (Basu 1978: 182). In Munsi Muhammad Pijiruddin's Manik Pirer Keccha, he is the son of a prosperous man named Kumaruddin Shaha and a beautiful woman named Dudhbibi (Stewart 2007: 10). In Manik Pirer Git by Fakir Muhammad, the poet refuses to name any human parents of Manik Pir and instead suggests his self-generation (Sen 1398: 409). In Manik-pirer Gan composed by Shekh Habil, he is introduced as a prince, the son of Badsha Karamdin and Surat-bibi (Roy 1993: 248). What remains constant in most cases is the name of the mother, which is Dudh Bibi (lit, 'Milk Lady').
It is indeed possible to trace a consistent and plausible account of the origin of Manik Pir if one pieces together selected elements drawn from all sources. His name appears to have been Ashraf-ul-Imadi (as in the Gopalganj account), who was a prince (as in most indigenous performances as well as Suha1-i-Yaman, a Persian hagiography of Shah Jalal)15 or a son of a merchant (as in Muhammad Pijiruddin's literary account and in the oral account from Sylhet). He arrived in Bengal from Yemen as a companion of Shah Jalal in early 14th century. His actual name is now forgotten because people remember him as the pair (jod) he formed with it young follower of his (the young cowherd in the Gopalganj account, Chhoto Pir in the Sylhet account and Gopta in many indigenous performances). Because they earned the love and respect of the local populace, they were referred to as Manik-jod or the 'Pair of Jewels.' Manik Pir is the abbreviated version of this name. His first Astana was at Balur Bazar in Jessore, as asserted by the khadem of the mazar of Manik Pir in Sylhet. This is also echoed in Manik Jatra.16 which identifies Balur Bazar as the first site where Manik Pir revealed his keramat or miracles. Presence of a mazar at Baliyar Math or Beler Math (Jessore cantonment) further substantiate the claim of the khadem. Before settling in Sylhet, he spent some time at Manik-ganj, as in the claim made by the khadem and echoed in a popular doggerel from Manik-ganj, which asserts that the town was named after Manik Shadhu, ie, a saint named Manik.17
However, the construction of identity as made above can only be a conjecture. This is because when all (and not selected) accounts of identity are considered together, (he cumulative representation of Manik Pir emerges as an aberrant and ambivalent figure. Whereas in most of indigenous performances of Bangladesh, he is a prince born of immaculate conception or parthenogenesis (see Ahmed, forthcoming), the two oral narratives disclaim his royal pedigree and assert that he was born out of conjugal union of humans. Although Muhammad Pijiruddin also has him born out of conjugal union, he is shown as the son of a wealthy merchant (as in the oral narrative from Sylhet), who is sold to another merchant named Badarjinda Shah (as in no other account) and is brought up by the latter's wife Churat Bibi (see Stewart 2007: 12-13). In Jayraddi's Manik-pirer Jahurnama, he is identified as the son of Badar, another famous pir but there is a hint at illegitimacy in the account. The same hint resurfaces in the unnamed account recounted by Basu (1978: 182), where the parents are unknown. Fakir Muhammad's narrative boldly situates the pir exterior to the domain of the Omnipotent and hints that he was self-created. The poet even dares to prostrate to the pir's throne and declare that all are created in his shelter. Thus challenging the fundamental principle of Islamic faith that there is no god but Allah, he usurps Allah's omnipotent authority, and appropriates for the pir the authority of not one who intercedes with Allah on behalf of the believer but one who is potent to fulfil the desire of the believer all by himself. However, in Pijiruddin's Manik Pirer Kechchaa, Manik Pir's potency rests entirely on the will of Allah. Conceived thus in ambivalence and aberrance, Manik Pir evades identity and plays a perpetual game of hide-and-seek in multiplicity and difference, by shape-shifting and evading, slipping out of one frame and appearing in another through a maze of contradictory accounts that the narratives trace.
If Manik Pir, who evades all attempts to be pinned down and yield a definitive identity, is a popular creation– as indeed he must be even if there was a historically 'authentic' person as the 'root' of the creation--one must be wonderstruck at the range or their creativity and the flair of their craft. Perhaps the maze of contradictory accounts that all the narratives trace is a clear indication that he is meant to be shape-shifting, evading, and circumventing. Although many contemporary scholars have dismissed these narratives as unworthy of critical notice, we need not assume that the peasants and artisans of colonial Bengal had nothing better to do than spin inconsequential fairy tales. Hence, instead of dismissing the tales of Manik Pir as grandiloquent fables that are devoid of inner significance, it may be a more viable and worthwhile project to ask: what purpose does the aberrant and ambivalent representation of Manik Pir serve? What consequence is his representation meant to achieve? A careful reading of some of the texts may well reveal that Manik Pir serves us a trickster who 'makes his successful way through a treacherous environment of enemies out to defeat him not by his strength but by his wit and cunning' (Scott 1990: 162).
Trickster Resisting Colonization
The disguised ideological insubordination inscribed innocuously in the grandiloquent tale Manik-pirer Gan composed by Sekh Habil in the colonial era articulates a struggle against Christian evangelism as a complicit agent of colonization. How Manik Pir successfully negotiates a treacherous terrain by his wit and cunning needs to be read in the historical context of the missionary project in British India. For this purpose, the testimony of a British colonial civil servant named Arthur Mayhew (who served as a Director of public institutions in colonial India) may offer a 'dispassionate' estimate, and may be acceptable as 'neutral' view by those who suspect nationalist historians from South Asia.
Although the 1698-charter of the English East India Company pledged 'active support of evangelical projects' (Mayhew 1929: 30), when it was at the helm of governing Bengal in the second half of the 18th century, the Company categorically refused entry permits to the Christian missionaries who were enthused to save the wretched souls of the heathen in Bengal. The vigilant eyes of the directors of the Company were so severe that William Carey (1761-1834) was obliged to enter the colony as an illegal immigrant.18 The reason was not so much respect for native faiths. As Said (200l: 100) points out, 'to colonize meant at first the identification--indeed, the creation–of interests; these could be commercial, communicational, religious, military, cultural.' The interest of the Company was strictly material advancement through commence; hence it felt no obligation to risk its dividends 'by any steps that might land to tumult or uprising' (44).19 This policy began to change after Carey demonstrated with his missionary work 'that enthusiastic sectarians, even when drawn front the "lower classes." can assist and strengthen established authority' (110). When interest was thus identified,--indeed, created--'the Christianization of the government' (77) began in earnest. The Charter of 1813 grunted to the Company incorporated a 'horrible' resolution passed in the House of Commons;20 which 'was the characteristically neat rounding of a design that gave legal security and protection it) all reasonable and prudent measures for demonstrating that England was a Christian country and wished India to be the same' (102-103).
As an example of 'how far and in what ways they [ie the Christian missionaries) assisted and stimulated the civil authorities, in legislative, administrative, and educational spheres' (107), Mayhew refers to the example of Bishop Reginald Haber of Calcutta (1823-I826).21 who 'regarded the maintenance of the British empire as essential fur the evangelisation of India. And nothing, not even the prohibition of such a ghastly business as suttee, could be approved if it involved a risk to the Empir (118). This principle as enunciated by Haber 'was effectively impressed by Dalhousie22 on the official world' (120). A 'large and distinguished band of capable and resolute government officers who did not hesitate openly to proclaim their allegiance to the Christian faith' (138), and who are hailed as 'bold, independent and yet Christian rulers' in George Smith's Twelve Indian Statesman (1897, cited in Mayhew 121), amply suggests 'manifest Christianity' (121) in the elite echelon of the British colonial administration.23 Yet, it was in the educational system that the Christian agencies were 'able to demonstrate most effectively their usefulness to the State' and it was here that there was 'a tendency to identify the interests of file Government and Christian missions' (160).24 Indeed, Thomas B. Macaulay and Charles E. Trevelyan25 both 'believed that large and continuous dosage of western knowledge would not only purge India of Hindu and Islamic religions, but also build up a new India with all essentially Christian constitution' (165-166).
However, cautions Mayhew. the 'manifest Christianity' of the band mentioned above were not "the explicit policy of a responsible government' ( 126), because the overt policy of the colonial government was 'neutrality' (156) and hence, it 'shrank timidly front any alert identification with Christian propaganda' (149). As Mayhew explains, 'what really influenced the Government, and still more the Directors at home, was their responsibility for the maintenance of law and order in India, and their dread of endangering imperial interest or prosperity of the country by popular discontent and suspicion' (178). In 1858, the manifest policy of 'neutrality' changed to that of 'toleration' (187). Nevertheless, the intent remained the same, as the following declaration by Prime Minister Palmerstone made two years after the War of 1857, drives home the point: 'It is not only our duty, but in our own interests, to promote the diffusion of Christianity as far as possible throughout the length and breadth of India' (cited in Mayhew 194).26 The British colony of India was no exceptional case as regards Christian evangelism serving colonial interest; other European colonies in South Asia bear more explicitly violent histories.27
Against this political backdrop where the colonized face any blend of fear, intimidation and 'the dull compulsion of economic relation' that enforces subjection (Marx 1965: 737), Shekh Habil's Manik Pir contests as a divine healer with another famous healer, who was none other than Isa or Jesus. As Shekh Habil recounts, Manik Pir proposes to Isa that they should preach their missions jointly. Isa is reluctant and so he attempts to get out of the embarrassing situation by challenging Manik that if he, really exerts power over diseases, he should strike him down. Manik is reluctant but as Isa persists, he invokes Jvarasur. the personification of fever. No sooner does he appear then Tsai is struck down with high fever. The ailing prophet recovers only after firistas (angels) fetch the liver of a young boy from Arabia whose parents had lost seven children. When Manik Pir is given the liver, he recites the kalima and touches Isa's body. Isa recovers instantly. But Manik Pir is no child-devouring monster. So he sets out with Isa for the boy's home and brings him back to life. Before departing, Isa urges the family to remain unfaltering in their devotion to Manik Pir (Roy 1983: 245-248).
In Manik-pirer Gan, Shekh Habil is aware that Manik Pir would be unable to win any direct confrontation, as he is weaker than his colonizing antagonists. However, the author is also conscious of the habits of the missionaries. These, as PC Mozoomadar, a late nineteenth-century follower of Rammohun Roy, observes in The Oriental Christ (Boston, Mass., 1883), include a continuous babbling of 'blood and fire and hell.' Further:
No sacred notions are sacred to him [ie, the missionary], unless he has taught them. All self-sacrifice, which he does not understand, is delusion to him. All scriptures are false which have grown up outside of his disposition, climate, and nationality. Wherever he goes, men learn to beware of him. He is a Mleccha to Hindus, a Kaffir to Mohammedans, a rock of offence to everybody. He is tolerated because he carries with him the imperial prestige of a conquering race (cited in Potts 1967: 209).28
Manik Pir is pitted against antagonists such as these, many of whom, considered the Muslims 'sealed up in their delusions,' so much so that 'they cannot bear a single syllable of Mohometanism to be disputed' and each 'a murderer in his heart' (cited from the journal of William Ward, in Polls 1967: 218).29 By taking advantage of the missionary's bigotry leading to blindness and hence, lack of knowledge regarding popular Islam, Shekh Habil employs Manik Pir as a 'deceiver' type of trickster to outmanoeuvre the missionary, and win by humour, wit and guile. Instead of jihadi rancour, Manik Pir encounters Jesus (here, the sign of the Christian mission) with a proposition of joint venture. It is only when he is rejected and goaded that he displays his superior skill. The disguised ideological insubordination of Manik-pirer Gan, 'as it were, presses against and tests the limits of what may be safely ventured in terms of a reply to the public transcript of deference and conformity' (Scott 1990: 164-165) that was prevalent in colonial India. It laughs at Christ's defeat, makes hint acknowledge the superiority of Manik Pir and preach the efficacy of his cult. It is thus that a grandiloquent tale articulated in the third realm that lies strategically between the realms of the public and the hidden transcripts, 'dares to preserve as much as possible of the rhetorical force of the hidden transcript while skirting danger' (Scott 1990: 165). What could be it dallier way of duping Christian evangelism and resisting colonization?
Trickster Resisting the Dominant Classes
An exploit of Manik Pir in Fakir Muhummad's Manik Pirer Git begins with the pir and his companion Haraj Ali travelling to Mecca. Because it gets to prayer time, the pir sets down his blanket, the asa and the magical pair of golden sabots (aside a river near a woodland and begins it) say the prayer with his companion. At that time, a cowherd of the Bagdi caste ranted Dukhiya (lit the 'Destitute') and his mother were in the woodland, grazing cattle. Dukhiya catches a sight of the pir and his companion observing their curious Islamic ritual, and decides to watch at close quarter. When he spies the golden sabots, he steals them forthwith. His mother scolds him fearing reprisal from the two fakirs but Dukhiya silences her by assuring that the two have no knowledge of his act.
The cowherd sets off for the royal marketplace to sell his booty but no merchant is prepared to buy the sabots of a fakir. One of them offers Dukhiya some money and advises him to go home immediately in order to avoid trouble. The cowherd procures food and a sumptuous bed, and returns home with the sabots. The mother and son consume an extravagant meal and contentedly retire oil their newly acquired bed (Sen 1400: 63).
This is how fakir Muhammad plants the inciting incident in Manik Pirer Git, which sets in motion a chain of events ending with Dukhiya's marriage with a princess. In choosing to begin as a tale of theft, the poet plays light-heartedly with one of the oldest legends of the world. ie, the theft of fire (Rickets 1966: 334). Right at the outset, Fakir Muhammad underscores Dukhiya's subalternity in economic, religious, and ethnic terms by identifying him as a Bagdi. In other words, Dukhiya belongs to a 'a cultivating, fishing and menial caste of Central and Western Bengal, who appear from their features and complextion [sic.] to be of Dravidian descent, and closely akin to the tribes whom [...I we may call aboriginal'(extract from Risley <1891: 37-43> in Mitra 1953: 244). Unfettered by moral qualms or conscicrifious behaviour, Dukhiya the subaltern slides easily into the shadowy realm of thievery and the short-lived luxury that it may fetch. And when the owner of the sabots and his companion trace him back to his house, Dukhiya's mother attempts to fend them off by dexterous application of, borrowing a phrase from Scott (1985: 285), 'the art of dissimulation.' Firstly she claims that there is not even a penny at home; then she claims that her son is not at home, and has not been home for seven days. When Manik Pir insists, that Dukhiya is very much inside, lying on bed, the woman cheekily asks how can he know unless he is a thief. She swears again that her son is not at home. Fed up with her deceit, Manik Pir rebukes her and the mother goes back tearfully. She complains to her son for the crisis he has invited on them.
Now the poet sets up a stimulating confrontation between a subaltern and a miracle worker. The subaltern appears playing a macho role, and shows a greater skill in the art of dissimulation than his mother. He scolds the fakirs for trying to take advantage of a woman and claims to base just returned home after seven days. But the miracle worker dismisses his feint and orders him to get his sabots immediately. Dukhiya responds by appearing to acknowledge his guilt and attempts to arouse the pir's pity by spinning out a woeful tale of poverty. He is so poor, he says, that he cannot even marry. He fancied his chance by selling the golden sabots. The pir laughs at Dukhiya's simulation and promises to marry him to the daughter of King Bir Simha (the reigning monarch of the kingdom Dukhiya lives in) but demands his sabots. However, Dukhiya will not submit so easily. He plays at being apprehensive of the king's outrage. Will he not lose his head if the king learns that a Bagdi cowherd desires to marry his daughter? Why lose his life in attempting the impossible? Rather, he Says, he would be content to marry a Bagdi girl and live contently within his means. But Manik Pir pursues his prey relentlessly. 'Do as you wish,' he says, 'but produce my sabots at this instant.' This time Dukhiya denies any knowledge of the stolen object. 'I was merely humouring you, sir. What business would I have with your sabots?' Manik Pir discloses that the merchant at the marketplace bears witness to his act of theft. Left with no alternative, Dukhiya does what a subaltern would do when cornered in it blind alley. He submits to the pir by grabbing his feet and begs him to have him married to the princess 'before the saliva he spits on the ground dries up.' Surprisingly, Manik Pir accedes to the request with an oath uttered thrice to make the marriage inevitable and sets for the palace (Sen 1400: 63-64).
By thus having Manik Pir accede to Dukhiya's request in order to recover his sabots, and not play his miracles as he did on Isa, Fakir Muhammad bonds two independent personalities into a trickster and sets off on a project to subvert a third party: the king as the representation of the elite classes and upper castes. Unlike aboriginal-mythical trickster characters (such as the Coyote, Nanabush or the Raven) common among the North American First Nations, Fakir Muhammad's trickster is an amalgam of Manik Pir as a 'culture-hero' and Dukhiya as its binary opposite, i.e., a 'selfish buffoon.' Dukhiya's 'selfish' drive 'is oriented toward the gratification of his enormous appetite for food and sex' (Carroll 1984: 106); as a 'buffoon,' he causes to backfire the elaborate deceits that the culture hero devises in order to satisfy his appetites and leave hint looking incredibly foolish. This artistic strategy allows the poet to set up Dukhiya its the bull of laughter in the public transcript, and mask his ideological insubordination against the ruling elite. Some indications that Dukhiya's enormous appetite for food and marriage (by extension, sex) have also been extracted above. It remains to be seen as to how Fakir Muhammad represents Dukhiya in the same role after Manik Pir sets out in his mission in acquiescence to his request, and how the merged duo (Manik Pir and Dukhiya) function as a trickster as they make way through a treacherous environment of enemies by wit, guile, and cunning, so as to undermine the ruling elite.
Manik Pir appears at the court of King Bir Simha, having shape-shifted to the guise of a Brahmana. Typically as a trickster, he knows the habits of his enemy and sets out to deceive him by taking advantage of his greed, gullibility and haste. He goes into the offensive as he strikes a terrifying note to the royal court by refusing to acknowledge the assembly's pranam (obeisance) to him, because, he thunders, the king has failed in his duty as a fattier to have his daughter married, although the princess is twelve and well-past marriageable age.30 Then, employing the art of dissimulation with greater skill than Dukhiya, he discloses that he can get the princess married to a prince named Durgata-nandan (lit. the 'Son of the distressed', in effect, a euphemism for Dukhiya). He dupes the king into believing that the 'Prince' is the son of the most illustrious king Ganga and the most eligible bachelor around. He cautions Bir Simha that if he loses this chance of getting his daughter married to the 'prince' who has fortunately camped in the neighbourhood for hunting, she will remain a spinster all her life. Having struck terror at the king's heart, the pir obtains his solemn pledge uttered thrice to make the marriage irrevocable, and returns to Dukhiya after shape-shifting back to his self.
However, Dukhiya the selfish buffoon suspects foul play: the pir must be trying to double-cross or cheat him! How else could he return so soon? Hence, instead of returning the sabots, he demands to see the princess. When the pir reminds him that a bridegroom cannot see the bride before the marriage, Dukhiya demands to satisfy his appetite for physical pleasure by desiring the ritual of turmeric bath (with all ritual accessories including turmeric, oil and perfume), and to eat the choicest sweets served in such ceremonies. The pir obliges. Then the buffoon demands musicians to accompany his bridal party. The culture-hero obliges again. Then Dukhiya desires a display of fireworks as a part of his marriage celebration. And his wish is fulfilled again. Not satisfied, the buffoon demands that his bridal party cannot proceed in darkness and there must be arrangements for illumination. The pir calls upon all the tigers of the forest to accompany the bridegroom as torch-bearers.
When the bridal party nears the royal palace, the pir shape-shifts again as a Brahmana, and sets out to take advantage of the king's gullibility by informing him that the bridal party has arrived. The king is curious and so he goes to the palace roof. To his horror, he sees tigers in the bridal party! Immediately he pleads to the Brahman to dismiss them and arrive at the palace only with the bridegroom. This request is readily acceded to and Manik Pir dismisses the tigers. At the bridal-hall, the king requests the groom to occupy his seat on a golden couch but the selfish buffoon is now terrified. Ile chooses what he has always done as a cowherd and sits on the floor. The pir slaps the cowherd invisibly as his elaborate deceit appears to backfire and forces Dukhiya to occupy the golden couch. When he is offered food oil a gold plate, the poor cowherd, who never tasted such dishes, is unable to eat, looks incredibly foolish, and begins to cry. When it is time to perform the marriage ritual of tying the knot between the bride and tile groom, the pir fears that Dukhiya's foolishness will jeopardise his elaborate scheme because lie will be unable to recite the marriage mantras in Sanskrit. Hence, in it fit of feigned anger, he orders the king to forgo all rituals and let the bride and the groom enjoy themselves while the guests enjoy their food. The king is displeased but is forced to comply with the wishes of the Brahmana. At the golden nuptial chamber, Dukhiya is struck by the beauty of the princess and takes her to be a goddess. The buffoon jeopardises the pir's scheme again when he makes repeated obeisance to her. The princess laughs, which scares Dukhiya even more. He decides not to bother her and sheepishly sleeps on the floor.
The next morning, when the king learns about the buffoonery of his son-in-law, he summons the Brahmanas and questions him why the bridegroom cried last night instead of eating the food offered to him. The Brahmana/Pir tries to dupe the king by arguing that the food was overspiced; further, he says, the groom was terribly upset because his parents and relatives were absent in the marriage ceremony. However, the king is suspicious and enquires why the bridegroom made repeated obeisance to the bride. The Brahmana/Pir has the bridegroom fetched in the king's presence, exercises his supernatural power, and controls Dukhiya's speech. I fence Dukhiya replies in fearless manner that he was so displeased with the bed that his gesture expressed sarcasm. Carried away by his confidence, lie jeopardises the pir's scheme again by claiming, among other marks of affluence, he possesses an army of nine hundred thousand dogs. The king demands to see for himself, and asks Dukhiya to mount a horse of his choice. The poor cowherd makes a fool of himself again by choosing the feeblest horse and mounting it facing the tail. In order to save the situation, the pir switches the horse's head with the tail. By the time the royal party arrives at Dukhiya's cottage, the pir has already transformed it into a golden palace and employs all the diseases that he commands to serve as attendants. This time the pir shape-shifts to the guise of Dukhiya's (imagined) father and plays on the king's gullibility by appearing as an old man devoted completely to (Hindu) religious rituals. The king is completely duped this time and offers the groom half of his kingdom.
When the king departs, Manik Pir shifts back to his divine self and demands his sabots. Because he is a tough customer to handle. Dukhiya insists that he should be blessed with at least three and a half sons before he parts with such a valuable object. Manik Pir laughs at his protégée's selfish buffoonery and says, 'You cannot forget the characteristics of a cowherd even though you are now a king of an extensive kingdom!' So, to prove that he has indeed acquired regal stature. Dukhiya has to part with the stolen sabots. Manik Pir departs for Mecca and Dukhiya offers oblation due to a pir with great pomp and fanfare (Sen 1400: 64-70).
As recounted in Fakir Muhammad's Manik Pirer Git, Dukhiya's stealing of the pir's golden sabots is a typical enactment of the infrapolitics of the subaltern classes, but, as the poet wishes to show, misdirected because the pir is not the class enemy. Rather, his representation stands for a culture-heroltrickster who acts for mitigating or denying claims made on the 'low-caste' Hindus by landlords, kings and the state (as by Dukhiya's marriage with the princess) and advance its own claim on land (as by Dukhiya's winning half of the kingdom). Thus celebrating the victory of a trickster's evasion, deceit, and cunning, Manik Pirer Git displays clear signs of class resistance, if, by this term, we may include:
any acts by members of subordinate class that is or are intended to mitigate or deny claims (for example, rents, taxes, prestige) made on that loss by superordinate classes (for example, landlords, large farmers, the state) or to advance its own claims (for example, work, land, charity, respect) vis-à-vis those superordinate classes (Scott 1985: 290).
This is not to deny that Manik Pirer Git is permeated with 'common sense', ie, 'uncritical and largely unconscious way of perceiving and understanding the world that has become 'common'' (Hoare and Smith in Gramsci 1971: 322), and 'the incoherent set of generally held assumptions and beliefs common to any society' (Hoare and Smith in Gramsci 1971: 323). The starkest example of this 'common sense' is the text's implicit demand that the people must submit to Manik Pir with unquestioned devotion if they are to bring change to their material condition. Obviously, 'common sense is an ambiguous, contradictory and multiform concept, and that to refer to common sense as a confirmation of truth is nonsense' (Gramsci 1971: 423). Nevertheless, the cult as 'a unity of faith between a conception of the world and a corresponding noun of conduct' (Gramsci 1971: 326) does not signify self-deception of the followers. Rather, '[i]t signifies that the social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic' (Gramsci 1971: 326). That conception clearly exhibits the capability of identifying points of antagonistic interest regarding claim on land and prestige of the 'low-caste' Hindus against landlords, kings, and the state.
However, the signs of class resistance need not mask the intention of imposing the habitus of the cult of Manik Pir on popular Hinduism. By beginning with a challenge tossed by a 'low' caste Hindu to Manik Pir (as in Dukhiya's stealing of the sabots) and meeting the challenge not by aggression as displayed in another exploit of the pir named 'Kanu Ghoser Pala,' but by acceding to demands of the 'low' caste Hindu, Fakir Muhammad befriends popular Hinduism with tact and discretion. But he ends the narrative by forcing Dukhiya to prove that he has acquired regal stature and thus to renounce his instinctive impulses toward the immediate gratification of his sexual desire. This strategy allows the cult of Manik Pir to extend (what Carroll <1981: 305> would argue after Freud) as its 'civilizing' influence over Dukhiya. By thus exerting control over the selfish buffoon, the cult of seeks to monopolize of the legitimate exercise of the power over the on the marginalized Hindus.
It should thus be clear that representations of Manik Pir, as crafted in written narratives of colonial Bengal, has more to offer than grandiloquent tales devoid of inner significance, philosophical knowledge, and 'truth.' He eludes or perhaps refuses to be named as a historical personality and continuously elides a definite identity, choosing rather to reside the fictive world of popular imagination. His representations function as a trickster who fools the colonizers and joins the subalterns in a struggle against the dominant classes. At the same time, it imposes the habitus of the cult. The scholars, who have dismissed such narratives as unworthy of critical notice, have missed the point that a grandiloquent tale generated from popular culture and articulated the third realm that lies strategically between the realms of the public and the hidden transcripts are intentionally constructed to appear exaggerated, pretentious and superficial. This is because the 'appearance' masks insidious intentions that speak warily in tire face of dull compulsion of economic relation. If one cares to peel away the mask with the skill of nuanced reading, one may uncover disguised ideological insubordination and critiques of the dominant classes.
Two important inferences may be drawn from the deliberations presented above. Firstly, that subaltern religious consciousness is not necessarily 'self-deception' (Gramsci 1971: 326-327) or 'inverted consciousness of the world' (Marx 1975: 244) of 'potatoes in a sack' (Marx 1977: 317). Rather, it can generate 'the general framework for real political activity' (Gramsci 1971: 337). Under the circumstances of 'the dull compulsion of economic relation' that enforces subjection, the infrapolitics of the subaltern classes enact discreet strategies and disguised efforts which arc all aimed at minimizing or thwarting attempts of material appropriation of labour, production and property by the dominant classes. 'This is a politics of disguise and anonymity that takes place in public view but is designed to have a double meaning or to shield the identity of the actors' (Scott 1990: 19).
Secondly, the utility of the term 'folk,' much influenced by theorizing of mechanical Marxism, is now exhausted. Cramped in a binary vision of the centre/periphery hierarchical opposition with its attendant attributes, folk/urban categories are shells and corpses of colonial era that seek to situate military and knowledge bases in Europe and the US at the Imperial centre and the reinscribe the marginality for the postcolonial location. A transformation is much needed, but for this to come about, the postcolonial Intellectuals and the folklorists need to recognize that the people often referred to as the 'folk' 'know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he [sic.) and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves' (Foucault and Deleuze 1977: 207). They also need to realize that 'movement always happens behind the thinker's back, or in the moment when he [sic.) blinks. But during this time, while [the intellectuals] turn in circles among these questions, there are becomings which are silently at work, which are almost imperceptible' (Deleuze and Parnet 1987: 2).
SYED JAMIL AHMED is a proactive theatre personality and scholar, and professor at the Department of Theatre, University of Dhaka. He is the author of In Praise of Niranjan: Islam, Theatre and Bangladesh, Reading Against the Orientalist Grain: Performance and Politics, and a number of vernacular publications on theatre and performances of the region. He is also member of the editorial board of Depart.
* This essay was first presented at the SAARC Folklore Festival organized by the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature, in Delhi in December 2007 and forms an important entry to the book tilted Folklore in Context: Essays in Honor of Shamsuzzaman Khan, edited by Firoz Mahmud, published by UPL in 2010.
- The term pir, derived from the Persian, denotes a spiritual director or guide among the Sufis.
- As Husain (1960: xxi) observes, 'the standard measure used in the puthi is rhymed payar couplets, in which each line consists of fourteen aksharas or syllables, with a caesura at the end of the eighth. 'Syllable' is not a precise translation of 'akshara' but is the nearest approximation to it.'
- Further, Zakaria (1989: xxxiv) reports the name of three separate texts titled Manik Pirer Gan by Naser Sahid, Bayan-ddin, and Khoda Neoyaj. Another text exists by the title of Manik Pir Gan by Satyen Roy (Stewart 2007: 4). Apparently, this is the only text by a Hindu author. The dates of composition of these four texts are unknown but they may be presumed to be within the period of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
- Goraksanatha was one of the nine nathas or masters of the Natha cult, which was popular in medieval Bengal.
- In the cited entry, Wakil Ahmed does not offer any reason or evidence to establish his argument. Roy cites Dasgupta (1969: 371), who in turn cites two secondary sources. The source in question is a version of 'Kanu Ghoser Pala' discussed above. In the version cited by Dasgupta, Manik Pir appears as a disciple of GoraksanAtha (who is represented here as a god of the cattle). However, Goraksanatha does not appear in the texts discussed by Zakaria (2004: 17-24), Sen (1400: 62-70), Saidur ( 1993: 33-83) or even Roy (1983: 245-248); nor does he feature in any of the performances discussed in this essay. Further, Manik Pir is also shown to appear also with Sona Pir (discussed in Section 1), Satya Pir (see Brahma 1989: 207-208) and Gazi Pir (as in Gazir Pat, see Ahmed 2000: 329-333). He is even described as a disciple of Madar Pir in the performance of Jahurul Islam. These appearances underscore heterogeneity of popular culture of rural areas; they arise as a consequence of struggle for power among various cults. It is often the strategy of each cult to prove its efficacy over another rival cult by showing the rival's deity/deified figure as subservient to its own cult-head. Hence we may safely dispense with the view of Wakil Ahmed and Asim Roy.
- Manichaeism was a strong and viable Gnostic religion founded in the third century AD by a Persian nobleman, Mani (circa 216-277). The religion was syncretistic, having borrowed from Zoroastrian Dualism, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics and Christian elements. At its height, Manichaeism was one of the most widespread religions in the world.
- Unfortunately, Sen does not offer evidence to justify his argument, except pointing out that the birth of Manik and Ilahi's creation of diseases, as described in Fakir Muhammad's text discussed above, indicates Manichean struggle between Good and Evil (Sen 1398: 413, note 78). Muhammad Shahidullah (1999: 187) rejects this view as laughable because the name of Manik Pir exists nowhere in Iran, Afghanistan and India (beyond Bengal). Similarly, Tony K. Stewart rejects Sen's assertion as speculation because it is "based on extremely flimsy evidence: a single line in a text that is not only vague, but when I look at the critically edited version of it, the reference is not there at all" (communication received by e-mail, 26 September 2007).
- In 'Maniker Janma' (lit, 'The Birth of Manik') as performed in Manik Pirer Gan by Sahar Ali from Akhrakhola village in Satkhira, the pir is described as the son of Badsah Karam-din. A slightly different name, Kalam Badsah (King Kalam), is found in the performance text of Jahurul Islam, the gayen of a Manik Pirer Gan troupe from Balisisa-Sherpur village in Mirpur sub-district (Kustiya). It appears to be a mispronounced derivative of Karam-din.
- Mohammad Abdul Latif sekh heard this anecdote recounting the 'origin' and 'identity' of Manik Pir from his preceptor, Bellal Kadir (another gayen of Gazir Gan from Badakota Jayram-patti village in Agul-jhara sub-district under Barisal administrative district), some 30 years ago.
- Interview with Mohammad Abdul Latif Sekh Bayati (a performer of Gazir Gan from Unasiya village in Kotalipada sub-district) at Kotalipada on 8 December 2007.
- Sah Jalal is a Sufi saint who 'is largely responsible for the propagation of Islam in the Eastern part of Bengal and Western part of Assam' and commands great respect of the Muslims of Bengal and Assam (Haq 1975: 218). Ibn-Batutah, in his account of travels in Bengal, records meeting him in 1345.
- An auliya is a religious mendicant who has attained mastery over spiritual matters.
- According to Haq (1975: 224), the battle was fought in 1303 and was led by Sikandar Khan (a commander under Sultan Samsuddin Firuz Sah of Bengal) in conjunction with the army of 360 dervishes under Sah Jalal.
- Interview with Muhammad Abdul Mumin, the khadem (caretaker) of the mazar of Manik Pir, In Sylhet on 24 December 2007.
- Suhal-i-Yaman was compiled in 1860 by Nasiruddin Haldar (a munsif, i.e., an officer trying suits at the lowest civil court, of Sylhet). Accourding to this source, Sah Jalal left Yemen with a prince as his companion and arrived in Delhi where Nizamuddin Auliya gave him a cordial; reception. Then he left for Bengal but nothing definite about his activities of this initial period is recorded. But it gives a detailed description of the battle of Sikandar Khan against Gauda Gobinda, where he participated with his band of 360dervishes. It ascribes credit of defeating Gauda Gobinada to Sah Jalal (Haq 1975: 218-224).
- Manik Jatra is a performance held in honour of Manik Pir in Satkhira, south-western Bangladesh. For details, see Ahmed (forthcoming).
- The rhyme runs as follows: 'Manik Sadhu caila gela / Khali ganj paida ralo' (Ashgar 1986. 111). Literary translation of the rhyme is: Manik Sadhu departed, leaving behind the ganj empty. A sadhu denotes a saint, and a ganj, a trade-centre. The implied meaning is clear: when the saint departed, he left behind a life-less town.
- Carey smuggled himself into Bengal on board a Danish East Indiaman in 1793. His observation on Bengali (Hindu) culture is worth noting. 'Amongst these idolaters,' he found "no God but a log of wood, or a monkey, no Saviour but the Ganges; no worship but that paid to abominable idols and that connected with dances, songs and unutterable impurities; no morality, for how should a people be moral whose gods are monsters of vice' (Carey cited in Smith 1909: 52-53).
- As Mayhew (1939: 50) explains:
- It had not always been so. Up till the end of the seventeenth century there was a general recognition that plantations and colonising agencies were responsible for the propagation as well as the upkeep of religion. The instruction of Edward VI to navigators [was) that 'the service of Christianity must be the chief interest of such as shall make any attempt at foreign discovery.'
- The resolution read: 'that is our duty to promote the interests and happiness of the native inhabitants of the British Dominion in India and that such measures ought to be adopted as may tend to the introduction among them any useful knowledge, and of religious and moral improvement' (Mayhew 1929: 100). This resolution was "made financially practicable by providing for the annual allotment by the Company of one lakh (one hundred thousand) of rupees" (Mayhew 1929: 100-101).
- Till 1833, the sec of the Bishop of Calcutta included Sri Lanka, Australia as well as the entire colonial India.
- James Andrew Broun Ramsay Dalhousie (1812-1860) was the British governor-general of India from 1847 to 1856.
- This 'band' included Governors and Commissioners of provinces such as "the Lawrences, James Outram, Herbert Edwardes, Mountstuart, Elphinstone, Robert Grant and James Thomason, Bartle Frere, Montgomery, McLeod, and Thornton, Muir and Durand" (Mayhew 1929: 121).
- Perhaps this is most apparent in servicing the Baptist mission college at Srerampore, which Carey conceived as a 'Christian Benares' (Mayhew 1929: 162).
- Macaulay is remembered mostly for inaugurating a national system of education in colonial India that reflected 'Western' outlook, and for drafting a penal code that later became the basis of Indian criminal law. It may be worthwhile to mention, 'Macaulay prophesied that in forty years' time there would not be an idolator (sic.) left in Bengal' (Mayhew 1929: 166). Trevelyan was a member of the Bengal Council and later became a Director of the East India Company.
- Charles Wood, the Secretary of State for India, goes even further when he says, 'every additional Christian is an additional bond of union of this country and an additional source of strength to the Empire' (Mayhew 1929: 194).
- Francis Xavier (1506-1552), canonized as a saint and acclaimed as the greatest Roman Catholic missionary of modern times, executed his project in the Portuguese colonies of the mid-16th century under the patronage of the Portuguese crown. Consequently, as Mayhew observes, he was able to exert a "very distinct pressure," if not forcible conversion (1929: 39). Xavier's 'civilizing' mission made a clear distinction between the Hindus and the Muslims.
- Hindus were too useful to be suppressed, but the choicest posts in Government service as well as exemption from naval service were promised to converts, who received free rice from the Treasury as a mark of official approval. Political and religious expansion was assisted by a state subsidy for mixed marriages. Mohammedans were treated with less consideration and would undoubtedly have been suppressed if the State could have had its way (Mayhew 1929: 39-40).
- In 1642, when the Dutch began to occupy the coastal provinces of Sri Lanka, the colonial administration forbade the erection of temples and 'pagan' pilgrimages, reserved government appointments only for Christians and treated non-attendance at religious schools as a State offence. Consequently, by 1685, the missionary project in the island recorded 320,(00 natives as converts (Mayhew 1929: 40).
- Although Potts (1967: 209) protests that Mozoomdar's assertions are 'partially inaccurate in essence,' nevertheless, 'most of the charges could apply equally to both the earlier and the later nineteenth-century missionary.'
- William Ward was a Baptist missionary and a close associate of Carey who was active in Bengal from 1799 to 1823.
- As Mayhew (1929:221) observes, even in early 20th century, it was 'generally admitted that for a Brahmin anyhow, the postmen of a daughter's marriage until after the age of puberty [was] a deadly sin, punishable in this life by outcasting, and involving terrible retribution after death'
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