“On land a tiger, in the water a crocodile” (dangay bagh, jale kumir), a much livelier version of our “Between a rock and a hard place” or even “Scylla and Charybdis,” is an old Bengali saying about the dangers of the Sundarbans (“beautiful forests” or “mangrove forests”). This is an area of swamps and wild, jungly islands created by the braided tributaries of three of the largest rivers in the world, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna, at the delta of the Bay of Bengal in Northeast India. (The area is probably best known to American readers through Amitav Ghosh’s 2004 novel The Hungry Tide.) Needle at the Bottom of the Sea: Bengali Tales from the Land of the Eighteen Tides is a collection of five long stories from the Sundarbans, dating back to the seventeenth century CE, translated from the Bangla by Tony K. Stewart, a scholar at Vanderbilt University who has published several acclaimed books about the religions and literatures of Bengal, with a contribution by Ayesha A. Irani.
What links these five texts, by five authors, is an attempt to mediate a number of oppositions. Tigers (royal Bengals) and crocodiles (several species, flanked by cobras, kraits, vipers, and pythons) appear as enemies not only of humans but of each other. These animals are then drafted into the armies of warring kings, primarily but not only Hindus versus Muslims. The hostilities even spill over into the narrative frame when a minor Hindu deity, after criticizing (in great detail) previous storytellers who were artless or just kept repeating what everyone already knew, commissions the author of one text and warns him, “Should any person fail to appreciate your poem in the proper manner, my tigers will slay every member of his lineage.” Surely few obtuse readers (or snide reviewers) have ever been so threatened.
The precariousness of life in the Sundarbans may eventually have made the various hostilities of the Bengalis so counterproductive that it inspired these storytellers to resolve their antagonisms in a delicate entente cordiale between gods and humans, humans and animals, men and women, and Muslims and Hindus. This last tension is of particular interest in light of the political situation in India today. Literary historians in Calcutta in the nineteenth century, generally regarding Muslim literature as somehow not truly Bengali, paid little attention to the Sundarban genre, and even today many people view the Muslim element of these texts as an alien intrusion.
But the sort of simplistic thinking that regards the combination of Hindu and Muslim as unthinkable is, as Stewart remarks, “largely a product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when religious affiliations had become political identities based on exclusion.” Earlier, the Sundarban texts introduced a Muslim element into stories that first arose in local Bengali Hindu culture and at the same time wrote Bengal into the broader realms of Islamic literature. By the eighteenth century Islam had begun to be woven into Bengali society. These stories demonstrate how deeply what we tend to regard as Arabic and Persian and Turkish ideas, indeed Muslim ideas—which the present Indian government regards as non-Indian—are embedded in Indian storytelling and culture.
Though the stories often reveal significant differences and hostilities between Hindus and Muslims, they equate the Hindu god Krishna’s heaven (Vaikuntha) with the Muslim heaven, and Hindu temples with mosques. The many Sufi saints (pirs) are depicted as the equals of the many deities (including the goddesses of smallpox and cholera) in the Bengali Hindu pantheon, which by this time already functioned as a kind of serial monotheism, with different gods having primacy at different times. The personae of the Hebrew Bible, too, are caught up in the tales. One story, “Curbing the Hubris of Moses,” from a seventeenth-century life of Muhammad by Saiyad Sultan, retells the famous Quranic story of God teaching Moses a lesson; in this version, the part played by the Quranic al-Khidr is now played by the Bengali Khoyaj Khijir, the perfected teacher of the Sufi saints, closely associated with the Sundarbans. Allah recommends that Moses (here called Musa) consult Khoyaj as his guru, and Khoyaj, in the course of three adventures, makes Moses realize how foolish and boastful he has been.
The Bengali Sufi saint Satya Pir, who appears often in these stories, is a composite of the Hindu deity Vishnu and the Prophet Muhammad or Allah; Allah is sometimes called Niranjan (the Stainless), a Sanskrit epithet usually reserved for the Hindu god Krishna. Satya Pir frequently comes to the rescue of his human protégé, the Sufi warrior saint Bada Khan, generally known as Gaji. In “Scouring the World for Campavati” by Abdul Ohab, an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century text, the stakes are no longer sectarian but more broadly religious and philosophical, and the enemy is not an alien god or king, let alone a tiger or a crocodile, but a woman. The theme of religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims provides the background—in one incident, Gaji transforms all his tigers into sheep for a while, which might be read as a satire on the many conversions in this story—but the real conflict lies in the threat that married life, and the love of one’s children, poses for the would-be celibate.
Here is a short summary of this long story: Prince Gaji wants to become a phakir (an itinerant Sufi mendicant), but his father violently objects and sets out a number of trials for him—including finding a needle at the bottom of the sea—to prove that he is fit to be a phakir. With the help of Khoyaj Khijir, Gaji finds the needle and, abandoning his cruel father, departs with his brother Kalu to live as wandering Sufis. They come to a country ruled by a Hindu king, who hears them saying their prayers and tells his constable to get rid of them. Everywhere they travel in that region, they encounter only native inhabitants of Hindustan; there is not a Muslim to be found. When they beg, the locals beat them. Eventually Lord Niranjan intervenes and makes the entire kingdom Muslim. The brothers live there for a while in great honor.
Then, one night, seven fairies see Gaji and wonder if any woman can match his beauty. They have heard of the beautiful Princess Campavati in a Brahman city, so they pick up Gaji’s cot while he sleeps, fly off with him, and lay him down beside the sleeping Campavati. When the two awake, they are passionately captivated by each other and tell their stories, but then she cries out in verse:
You, a mochalman [Muslim],
managed to get into my private quarters!
When my father lays hold of you,
he will dispatch you to Daksina Ray’s quarters to be cut to pieces.
Gaji replies, “Yes, you are a brahman beauty and I a jaban [Muslim]—but I certainly do not wish to die.” He slips one of his rings on her finger and places her ring on his own, and they fall asleep again. Then the fairies carry him back to his brother Kalu. Gaji wakes up with her ring on his finger and weeps uncontrollably. Kalu says, “She is hindu and you are mochalman…. How is it possible for a hindu to be joined together with a mochalman?” Eventually the Hindu god Shiva and his wife intervene to help Gaji marry Campavati.
Gaji and Campavati live together in ecstasy until Kalu begins to lament that Gaji has forgotten about giving up his kingdom to become a phakir:
Know that any woman is born a ghoul, a rakkasi…. In this life your heart can only pledge to one love. If you give that to your wife, what will you give to Khoda [God]? When you produce a child…[and] look into the child’s face, your love for Khoda will fade and evaporate.
Gaji agrees to leave that very night when Campavati is asleep. But she remains awake, and when Gaji gets up she clasps his feet and insists on coming along. Soon, however, he finds her a burden: “When people meet us, they will laugh and say, ‘What kind of phakir keeps a woman for company?’”
So Gaji magically transforms Campavati, sometimes into a yellow turmeric flower that he secures inside his turban, sometimes into a ring that he wears on his finger. But he turns her back into a woman when he wants her to cook or sleep with him. Finally, he transforms her into a sandpaper tree and leaves her behind when he goes on further adventures; even as a tree, she weeps. After performing many miracles and converting many people to Islam, Gaji changes Campavati back into a beautiful woman, and they reign as king and queen for many years.
Kalu is clearly the mouthpiece for the misogyny in this story, but Gaji quickly tires of his wife, and it is his idea, not Kalu’s, to transform her. The jaw-dropping sexism of shrinking a woman (and keeping her constantly in your sights) in order to control her, reviving her only for her to play cook or whore, is not, alas, a fantasy limited to Bengal. It appears in other folktales, primarily though not only in South and East Asia, and we may recognize a variant of it in the novel (1972) and films (1975; 2004) The Stepford Wives. But the American version of the myth blossomed in greater detail in a speech that Humphrey Bogart made to Lizabeth Scott in the 1947 film noir Dead Reckoning:
Women ought to come capsule-sized, about four inches high. When a man goes out of an evening, he just puts her in his pocket and takes her along with him, and that way he knows exactly where she is. He gets to his favorite restaurant, he puts her on the table and lets her run around among the coffee cups while he swaps a few lies with his pals, without danger of interruption. And when it comes that time in the evening when he wants her full-sized and beautiful, he just waves his hand and there she is, full-sized…. But if she starts to interrupt, he just shrinks her back to pocket-sized and puts her away.
When Scott inevitably betrays him, gets shot, and lies dying, she says to him, “I’m so scared. I wish you could put me in your pocket now.” Unlike Gaji, Bogart doesn’t even want his wife to cook for him, just to be there for him in bed.
Ruling out the likelihood that one of the screenwriters spent his idle hours browsing through eighteenth-century Bengali texts, we are left with the possibility of an ancient, worldwide male network handing this story down through generations, or a Jungian archetype lodging in the male mind. (There might be a related nongendered variant too, as suggested by the 1989 film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Significantly, Gaji and Campavati are not said to have children, perhaps to avoid the conflict that Kalu had warned Gaji about.)
The sexist rap for the Bengali text looks even worse when we consider the source of the story of the magically transported, disappearing bridegroom, which does not involve any female shrinkage. This protofeminist story appears in what Stewart refers to as “a titillating scene from Qamar al-Zaman in the Arabian Nights.” In that famous and much retold tale, the jinns, struck by the beauty of Prince Qamar, carry his unconscious body to Princess Budur in the night, as usual for comparative purposes. They exchange rings, the jinns carry him back again, and so forth.
But there are two significant differences between this text and the story of Gaji and Campavati. First, in the Nights story, while Prince Qamar lives in Arabia, Princess Budur is the daughter of the emperor of China; this geographical and ethnic difference is changed, in the Bengali story, to the religious gulf between a Hindu princess and a Muslim prince, both living in India. And second, though the prince in the Nights story does, as usual, abandon the princess after the wedding night, she is not changed into a helpless miniature of herself but rather masquerades as a man, becomes a great emperor, and in that role subjects the prince (who does not recognize her) to the humiliating threat of homosexual rape before she finally reveals herself to be a woman—indeed his woman. She is the magician and calls the shots.
The older form of the tale in the Nights may be Indian rather than Arabian. The stories gathered in this broad corpus have been retold hundreds of times, in many languages, over many centuries, in various collections; people tell them in different ways, adding new ones and adding new details to the old ones. The commonly cited terms for this collection (The Arabian Nights or The Thousand and One Nights) are quite misleading, indeed a double falsehood: there aren’t always 1,001 stories, and they are not necessarily Arabian, but Persian, Indian, sometimes Greek. (They might as well be called The Indian Nights, just as we should really call Arabic numerals Indian numerals.)
Many of the images and dramatis personae of this corpus—particularly though not only in the European translations—are Orientalist (yes, Orientals can be Orientalist, too): the wicked wazir, the oversexed pasha, the whorish women, the cruel slave owner. Sundarban stories like the tale of Campavati reflect this sexism, but often they show how complex and human those women’s worlds were: not set apart, like a harem, but part of the real world, with all of its conflicts, including its sexism.
The theme of the magical disappearance of the one-night-stand lover also appears in an episode embedded in another story from the Sundarbans, included in Needle at the Bottom of the Sea, that regards women with a jaundiced eye. A young man named Madan attends the ceremony in which the princess Kuntala is to choose her bridegroom. She selects him; that night they consummate their marriage. In the morning, while she sleeps, Madan vanishes, but he leaves his bride a detailed account of his true story (written on the edge of her sari with her mascara pencil), concluding, “If you are truly a sati, a devoted wife, you will seek and find me.” She searches for him and eventually, with the help of Satya Pir, finds him, and Madan and his princess are reunited. Here, at least, is a virtuous woman.
But Madan’s adventure is part of a longer story by Kavi Vallabh, entitled “Wayward Wives and Their Magical Flying Tree,” involving two women, one named Sumati (Good Sense) and the other Kumati (Bad Sense), though both of them turn out to be far more Ku than Su. They are married to Madan’s two older brothers, merchants who depart on a business trip. After twelve years the childless wives seek refuge with Shiva, but Satya Pir hears their prayers and appears to them as a handsome phakir. He tells them to worship Satya Pir; they protest that that would make them lose caste, would make them Muslims. But he reassures them by appearing as Shiva and telling them to ask Satya Pir to return their husbands so that they can have sons.
Unwilling to wait for their husbands to return, the women ask Satya Pir to make them into birds to fly to their husbands; instead, Satya Pir teaches them a mantra to make a tree carry them through the air. Once they have the mantra, however, they decide to use it not to travel to their husbands but to go to the celebration in which the princess Kuntala is to choose her husband. (This is where Madan’s encounter with Kuntala takes place.) After several adventures, Satya Pir magically brings the brothers home to their wives, who lie about their escapades and are welcomed by their foolish husbands, until Satya Pir exposes their hypocrisy. And there (in a scene reminiscent of the ending of Così fan tutte) the story ends.
Two stories in this collection, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, further enrich the complex presentation of religion and politics in the Sundarbans. “The Auspicious Tale of the Lord of the Southern Regions” by Krsnaram Das and “Glorifying the Protective Matron of the Jungle” by Mohammad Khater share a cast of characters centering around Gaji and his enemy Dakshin Ray (King of the South), a minor Hindu deity in the lineage of the great god Shiva. (Dakshin Ray was the power behind Campavati’s royal father, and it was he who threatened the poet at the start of his story.)
Dakshin Ray and Gaji are subject to numerous petty antagonisms; they fight about pride and prestige and money. A merchant threatens Dakshin Ray, “If you do not extend your affectionate regard and I were to die, what would happen to your reputation for sublime glory?” And Dakshin Ray’s wife nags him to help the merchant, saying:
You are going to suffer such shame in the assembly of the gods, how will you even show your face?…
If the son of the merchant dies, who will serve you ever again?
Meanwhile Gaji complains that his name is not as well respected as Dakshin Ray’s and that he does not have as much wealth or as many courtiers. He also accuses Dakshin Ray of what sounds a lot like early colonization or a protection racket: “Every day his bare fists pummel people into bloody submission. He seizes their land and with a flourish produces a document that testifies to his ownership, that claims it as his property.” In the end, their armies fight (a lot of tigers are involved on both sides). The two leaders engage in single combat, die, and are revived by Satya Pir, who insists that they become brothers.
On one occasion Dakshin Ray creates a magical palace on an island in the middle of the ocean where different species—humans, tigers, peacocks, serpents, lions, and elephants—live side by side. Yet most of the people who come to this island cannot see “the magical illusion conjured up by God,” and it becomes another metaphor for the blindness of religious intolerance. But then the supreme god appears to both Gaji and Dakshin Ray:
Half of the body was a dazzling white,
the other half the deep indigo of rain clouds,
the Koran in one hand and Puran [a Hindu mythological text] in the other.
Both men beheld
the exact same vision at the same time, and both fell and grasped his feet.
The lord of the universe lifted them up,
placed one’s hand in the other, and made them to understand they must establish a formal pact of friendship.
When a man plans to sacrifice his nephew to Dakshin Ray, a female Sufi mendicant named Bonbibi saves the boy. Thus, as Stewart puts it, the text “reconfigures the two sets of tensions—Hindu versus Muslim; human love versus divine love—into a struggle between a benevolent, compassionate justice and rapacious greed.”
Stewart’s notes are packed with enough solid, occasionally fascinating scholarship to satisfy the most nitpicky academic, but not so extensive as to infuriate the casual reader. The translations are careful rather than graceful, often idiomatic and colloquial. For the most part, the text is rendered in standard literary English, but there is a lot of ribaldry, innuendo, and explicit language in the original text, where the translation sinks—or, as the case may be, rises—to the vernacular. On six occasions a person calls another “daughter-fucker” (beti-cod) or “sister-fucker” (shala), literal translations of the Bangla, which at first jarred upon my ears, accustomed as I am to both writing and reading translations that (especially when published in India) avoid obscenity. (Other scholars of Bengali texts dealing with the issue of such language have tended to excise the offending words.)
It is Gaji who uses beti-cod and shala three out of the six times that they occur. Such usage suggests that he and the vague or generic Sufism he represents have come from elsewhere—that, to native Bengalis, he is an uncouth barbarian warrior-saint who does not understand how to speak proper Bangla. The other characters who use these obscene terms are a chief of police, an army of phakirs, and the wife of a man who suffers from a giant testicular tumor. They apparently use such language to mark the object of the insult as lower-class, though we may also read it as a sign of the low class of the speaker. (Though Gaji is a prince, he is a Muslim prince.) The choice of the best register in which to translate these terms turns on the questions of not only the genre in which the text was written and the social class of the speaker, but also the social class and moment in history of the reader. For what jars our ears now may sound just fine a few years from now. Stewart has made a brave and vivid choice here.
The vernacular tone also occasionally seeps even into the words of the storyteller, as in this prayer:
Whether a crocodile attacks in the Ganga’s waters,
or one pisses away money out of spite and anger, or screams deprecations at one’s wayward horse—
no ignoramus would deny, and
everyone else knows fully well, that in the end the root of all problems is the fruit of one’s karma.
The slanginess of “pisses away” and, to a lesser extent, “ignoramus” helps the anglophone reader enter this world in which karma supplies the ultimate explanation of the often bizarre adventures of the human spirit so richly explored in these stories.