We are a nation of probably one of the longest oral traditions that even time swears by. Every region, down to the most fundamental geographical unit, can boast of a rich history of narratives that have trickled down several generations, sometimes, several thousand years, and meandered through the years to crystallize a cult status for themselves, their appeal, only increasing with time.
“U Manik Raitong” is an epitome of this nature of lore that has passed into timelessness.
Belonging to the mystic lands of Meghalaya, U Manik Raitong today survives as a cultural phenomenon that almost every Khasi child is accustomed to through and through. His name still rings a potent memory, surviving today as the name of a Government building, the pseudonym of a radio jockey, adapted and made into films, plays, and well appreciated by several sources in popular culture as the evergreen image of a grandiloquent tragic hero.
…It was the time when the seven kingdoms ruled the Khasi Heartland. One of the “Hima” (states) was ruled by an illustrious king, the Syiem, who his people greatly adored. He was married to a beautiful damsel of his village whom he loved dearly. One day, however, for the sake of State Affairs, the Syiem had to leave for the other provinces and could not return until a prolonged time. With the announcement of the Syiem’s departure began a dry spell of loneliness for his beloved young queen, who was only pushed into greater depths of apathy with her husband’s absence. Things, however, changed one night….”
One night as she lay wide awake, a certain sound reached her ears that pierced right through her senses. As if enchanted by the sound, she crept out of the house, at the dark hours of midnight, trailing behind the sound waves in search of the enigmatic source. Soon she found herself standing before a hut, far away from the palace. Her knocks went unattended…as she finally broke into the house, she found standing before her a strong, masculine youth wrapped in traditional garb, his lips weaving the most soulful tune on his flute….what a sight to marvel… she mistook him for the prince at first. Still, for all she knew, he was the vagabond roaming about the streets in the daylight covered in ashes, cursed and resented by all.”
“Manik was an orphan, no members of his clan were alive, and thus he was shunned by others as he was considered an ill-omen. However, these young souls hemmed in a beautiful bond of music and love that one day the queen, Lieng Makaw, was found expectant with his child.
While initially reluctant, Manik soon started awaiting her arrival, and soon, their midnight tryst became a daily affair. A beautiful baby boy was born to her, and his crooning woke the whole “hima” into a state of perplexion. What would their beloved King think! Indeed, coincidental to the baby’s birth came the news of the Syiem’s arrival. The people geared up in excitement to welcome back their king, only to have a wave of fear lurking behind.
The King was devastated to hear the account of his beloved wife’s philandering and masked his broken-heartedness with a stern mask, determined to find out the compliant male. His Minister called for a gathering of all the males of the “hima” who would be required to present the crying baby with a bunch of bananas. The father would be the one from whom the baby accepted the fruit. On a destined day, all the men gathered, getting on with their turn one after another, much to the chagrin and bewilderment of the King. He reassured if his Minister had indeed called for every male of the town to find out that Manik Raitong was missing amongst them…
“Manik? But he’s a wretch! We did not even consider him eligible.”
Yet upon orders, Manik, laden with ash, arrived at the palace. Upon slowly nearing the child, the crying baby broke out into a glee, gladly accepting the fruit he offered. The King, the Ministers, and every member of the Hima were shocked to their wits…it was none other than the wretched Manik who had violated the Queen!
Thus the hardened King announced that Manik must be thrown alive into a burning pyre. Greeting his last moments, Manik bathed and dressed into his best attire and played his treasured flute one last time. The people were enamored by his handsome beauty, one that always escaped under the heap of ashes. He rendered the most melancholic tune on his flute that only reduced everyone into a sea of tears. Meanwhile, Lieng Makaw was growing unbearably impatient as the King put her under house arrest; she was thus oblivious of what was happening. She only heard the noise, the din, and the flute. Finally, she escaped out of the palace while tying her anklets to her kitten to assure the King of her presence. Wrapped in a shawl, Lieng Makaw spotted Manik planting his flute on the soil amidst the mourning people and about to leap into the burning pyre. Without a moment of consideration, she threw her shawl aside and leaped into the fire, giving herself to the flames along with him…
Thus these two lovers unable to live together greeted their togetherness in death, bequeathing their love to immortality that lives on….
U Manik Raitong as a narrative inspires love, passion, and pathos, stirring our deepest sentiments and melancholia, hence remaining a classic tragedy, although contained within the frame of folklore. More so, Manik Raitong immerses them all in a beautiful musical catharsis and thus inspires music too. The Khasis, in fact, consider Manik Raitong as the spring-well of their musical legacy, which indeed overflows with an earthly mysticism.
However, reading Manik Raitong reminded me of another saga that has attained a deific status through the length and breadth of our country. Derived from local traditions and worshiped in temples, the lovers came alive in the 12th CE text of “Geetagovindam,” written by Jayadeva. Replete with erotic and utterly soulful verses, the Geetagovindam narrates the story of Radha and Krisna, their trysts, and their fate doomed to an unrequited love…It surprises me how well it resonates with the theme of “U Manik Raitong.” The social and moral pressures ran both down, glared upon by moral prudery, and questioned societal boundaries. I have always been surprised by how the 9th CE tale of “Laila-Majnu,” written by Ghaznavi, was repeated along the same lines of familial prejudice and unrequited love in the magnum opus; of Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet.”
Both churned out soulful melodies; in both, the hero bewitches the heroine with the tune he weaves. It is wonderful how these two different narrative traditions overlap at so many points and how the flute and the music become motifs common to both traditions. Jayadeva’s verses enunciate how as the first wave of Krishna’s music reached her ears, she would leave behind her whole world to join him as if succumbing to the compulsion that his music propelled. Lieng Makaw, too leaves aside her queenly decorum. The music thus stands in the narratives as a quiet zephyr of rebellion that propels the lovers to move ahead while leaving behind the world they came from. To me, it seems like a metaphorical revolt against societal shame and barriers.
Love is an omnipotent force and not just Radha-Krishna or U Manik Raitong. Still, but unrequited love as a theme has inspired amny bardic imagination in different narrative traditions of our country. Yet while the classical tradition looms large in our imagination, the folklores only recede to the periphery.