12 September 2016


Shri-Bishaya by Ramon Muzones, translated from Hiligaynon by Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava (New Day Publishers, 2016)

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Shri-Bishaya by Ramon Muzones was first published as a serial novel in Hiligaynon magazine from 1969 to 1970, two years before the imposition of martial law. It borrowed its title from the ancient kingdom of Southeast Asia, the Srivijaya. It was a fictional adaptation and imaginative fusion of two famous epics from Panay Island in the Visayan region, central Philippines: the Maragtas and Hinilawod. The former was an embellished history of the origin of Visayan people who migrated from Borneo. Shri-Bishaya used the Maragtas as narrative framework of the novel, recounting how ten datus from Borneo fled to Panay Island to escape the despotic ruler Sultan Makatunaw. It described how the datus bought the island from Aetas and the challenges encountered by these new settlers to institute a free, independent government with a new set of laws and system of leadership.

Sultan Makatunaw was a transparent evil character, a composite of familiar rulers of today. He was mercurial, prone to sudden fits of violent temper. Makatunaw's rapacious greed and lust and blatant disregard for human rights reflected (and anticipated) the government under Ferdinand Marcos from late 1960s and onward until his toppling by a popular uprising and revolutionary government in 1986. In "The Maragtas Mystique", the novel's well-researched preface, translator Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava provided ample background in which to view this dictator novel as a form of resistance literature and postcolonial literature, notwithstanding the contested fictional nature of Maragtas as based on a "racist migration theory", according to historian William Henry Scott.

As a dictator novel, it described the injustices of Sultan Makatunaw in suspending due process for individuals who "live in fear and terror, because there is no telling who will be seized next from his home and will never see his family again." Just like in the time of Marcos, the sultan also forbade people from holding peaceful assemblies that might lead to the rise of resistance movements and a revolution to bring him down from power. Under Makatunaw's rule a new edict was issued wherein, based on reports by informers identifying the enemies of the state, "sans prior investigation, a person could be thrown into a river full of man-eating crocodiles, pilloried and fed to the ants, hanged on the lunok tree, buried neck-deep in hot sands, cut, quartered, and fed to wild beasts, and subjected to other forms of gruesome tortures."

Elsewhere, the sultan ordered the kidnapping of people suspected of going against him. "Many residents had been seized unawares in the middle of the night, torn from the embrace of their families, and banished without any trace of their whereabouts." This clearly anticipated the desaparecidos during the time of Marcos, and even up to the present.

As a maritime novel, a rare one in Philippine literature, the novel gave a glimpse of seafaring life at sea, albeit sometimes in magical realist fashion. Maritime wars fought at sea, encounters with cruel pirates, and fantastical sea creatures gave a mythical and adventurous flavor to the novel.

As a costumbrista novel and foundation epic recounting the building of a just and lawful society from a clean slate, it illumined some ancient Visayan character traits, customs, and laws (some already thankfully defunct) to instill disciple among the people.

"You are the oldest and the wisest among the datus I am leaving behind. In your hands I leave the management of the land and the lives of our people," Datu Puti continued.

"Do you have suggestions on what needs to be done?"

"I was thinking of several things. The land we bought is vast, there is a need for you to divide it, and give each datu his share."

"I intend to do that. I plan to give Datu Paiburong and Bangkaya their individual shares."

"That's a good start. But, there must be laws to govern the lives of our people. Have you thought about this?"

"Yes, I have thought up some laws, but there is a need to discuss these with the other datus first."

"Remember that you are starting afresh in this new land. You need to set strong foundations. What laws have you thought up?"

"It's true we are starting a new life in completely new surroundings. People have to work really hard so they will prosper. That is why I thought up a law that punishes heavily those who are lazy and do not provide for their daily needs."

"That's a good idea. What is the punishment for the lazy?"

"The lazy should be arrested and sold as a slave to an affluent family so he will learn the difficulty and value of domestic and farm work. After he learns his lesson he will be allowed to go back home. The cost of his sale will be returned to the buyer and he will no longer be considered a slave, but a timawa or free man who has been redeemed from indolence and is ready to live by the fruits of his labor. But, if it is discovered later that he has reverted back to his old ways, he will be arrested again, and banished into the jungle. He will not be allowed to mingle with other people lest he set a bad example."

"That is very good, Sumakwel. What else have you thought up?"

"Punish heavily the light-fingered. The fingers of a thief should be chopped off."

Datu Puti nodded his head.

Sumakwel continued to explain: "Only men who can support a family or families can marry more than one wife, and will be allowed to have children. The poor should not bear more than two children because it is hard to support or rear them. Children who cannot be supported, should be thrown into the river."

"Isn't it unfair to punish the innocent children for the crime of their parents?"

"This is a warning to those who would like to start a family but cannot afford to do so. The punishment is harsh, but there is a need for a man to learn at the outset his obligations to society and to the state. If he wants to start a family, he should work hard to support his dependents."


"If a man has gotten a woman with child and he abandons her because he has no intention of marrying her, the child should be killed because it is hard for a woman without a husband to support a child. Since the woman has brought shame to her family she cannot inherit anything. The man should be hunted down by the leaders of his district, and when he is caught but continues to refuse to marry the woman he has wronged, he and his child should be buried alive."

"Are you concerned about the honor of the family?"

"Yes, because I want the people to live righteous lives."

"Do you have other laws in mind?"

"I have, but they will have to wait until we will have held a meeting."

"I will not meddle with your affairs; I just want to remind you that we left Bornay because of the rapacity and brutality of the sultan. Let us not stain this new land with blood. This is not just a request, it is a bond because I am entrusting everything here to you."

"I will bear that in mind."

Datu Sumakwel, the leader and lawmaker entrusted by Datu Puti to lead the people prior to the latter's return to Bornay to assuage the anger of Sultan Makatunaw, was here outlining the rigid laws he would institute as leader. By contemporary standards, the laws were unsound and barbaric. And even the resolve of Datu Sumakwel to strictly implement these laws was ultimately tested when he found his own wife Kapinangan was having an affair with his own servant.

A terrible curse afflicted the life of Sumakwel, the wise datu whom everybody looked up to as the epitome of righteous living and good governance. Sumakwel could always be depended upon to implement the will of the people no matter what. But this crisis in his life was not a simple case of a wife's betrayal of her husband. It had other implications. If Kapinangan had committed the crime in Bornay, this would be no problem for Sumakwel but the trickery and treachery was committed in this new land, and there has, as yet, been no precedent regarding this.

The unfaithfulness of Kapinangan was a major plot element that tested the true character of the leader. Can the righteous and just Datu Sumakwel who wanted to set a good example to his people ever forgive the shameful crime committed against him? The novel was a forgiving medium to offer an unusual love story.

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As an adventure story, the novel was replete with magical elements and supernatural powers. When Datu Sumakwel and his babaylan Bangotbanwa climbed a mountain believed to be the home of their comet god, Lord Bulolakaw, they encountered amurukpok, an evil spirit dwelling in the jungle and exercising power over other evil spirits.

Bangotbanwa believed that they had simply disturbed the tranquillity of the denizens of the jungle who sent them the hideous creature. While Sumakwel had the highest regard for the babaylan, in his heart he believed that the world really harbors many evil elements that disturb human relations and hinder prosperity in life. There are malevolent spirits that are out to test man's capacity to take care of his own self.

The evil creatures they encountered, as well as the ones haunting the sea voyage of Datu Labawdungon and Datu Paibare, two main characters in a parallel story, came in various forms, but often in the form of a bakunawa or giant snake. The snake motif and imagery in the novel was like a premonition or prefiguration of the character of Sultan Makatunaw, who manifested such snake-like rapacity that his elimination became the central conundrum of the novel.

Sometimes they heard a screeching sound in front of them, sometimes beside them, and sometimes behind them akin to the hoot of a huge, unseen bird. At times, they would stop dead on their tracks because they would hear a pitiful, ear-splitting, sonorous cry as though someone was being tortured. However, they could not trace the origin of the sound. Their attention was also attracted by the boisterous roar of rushing waters but when they rushed to what they believed was its source, it would suddenly stop, and an eerie silence would suddenly descend on the jungle. They would also hear the grisly cackle of the muwa or the terrible roar of the bawa. But Sumakwel and Bangotbanwa were both busalians endowed with unusual physical prowess and superior kinaadman, fortified with the most potent talismans, curative himag, and tigadlom charm. They had penetrated many a jungle and tested their manhood matching wits with embattled kiwigs, and other wily and supernatural and preternatural creatures.

The charismatic power of the datus, derived from their kinaadman, was the same mythical magic and power possessed by the characters in the earlier translated Muzones novel Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting. Shri-Bishaya was the next logical novel to be translated after Margosatubig, its companion novel. The two shared the author's thematic elements and predilection for magic, monsters, power plays, game of thrones, nation-building, and full-scale war.

Makatunaw had developed an expansionist design over many lands, and he harbored deep desire to punish the ten datus who fled from his kingdom. This novel abounds with political insights of the times. One could detect the current spate of untenable extrajudicial killings on this highly prescient novel.

"Don't believe we are without enemies. Put inside your head that we have secret enemies who are just lying in wait for the right opportunity. Therefore, spread out and disseminate the information that the kingdom is strong and ready to take on any comers. If you catch anybody doing something wrong against the kingdom, I give you the authority to exact the right punishment. You are fully aware that I know how to reward those who are loyal to me," stressed the sultan.

And ...

They celebrated their gathering with abundant food and wine. When the datus went back to their respective districts, life changed. They now enjoyed tremendous power, because they were given by the sultan the authority to exact punishment on any enemy of the kingdom. So, they abused their power. They showed everyone who was who inside the kingdom. [emphases supplied]

The long drawn out final showdown in the novel, between the soldiers of Sultan Makatunaw and the freedom fighters of Datu Labawdungon and Datu Paibare, was meticulous in its plotting. The sultan was fully aware of the brewing war in his kingdom and the people's increasing discontent at his brutality.

Labawdungon and his cohort Paibare were already set on living in another place, in Madyaas, the land where the Bornean datus escaped to. They came back to Bornay, the sultan's seat of power, ostensibly to unseat the sultan in order to satisfy the wishes of their prospective wives, and yet their connection to their former land was bound by kinship and loyalty to its people.

It was finally a race between him and the two datus to manufacture a "deadly weapon that can kill wholesale". The seemingly endless volley of stratagems and art of war tactics from both sides demonstrated how difficult it was to resist tyranny such that rebels and revolutionaries must offer everything just to secure an attractive future for their country.

"I know what you are thinking," said Labawdungon. "We all hold life dear, but more precious is freedom for which we should offer our lives. More important than ourselves is Bornay's future. If we want a peaceful and just rule, we must pay for it, no matter the price."

This statement was almost a tired template for nationalism – dying for one's country, exactly following Benedict Anderson's definition of a nation in his Imagined Communities (1983): "[A nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings."

Dying for the country was dying for a loved one. This equation was not inappropriate given that Labawdungon's motivation for declaring war on the Sultan was not only to free the people of Bornay from the sultan's tyrannical rule, but actually to secure the hand of a woman in marriage who only consented to become his wife if he could bring "the skull of Sultan Makatunaw" as bride price.

This remarkably prescient epico-historical novel did not sacrifice plausibility and authenticity for a diverting narrative of love and war. Dr. Locsin-Nava's translation overall captured the fantastical elements of evil and magic, its dialectical nature, and the aphorisms, hints of sarcasm, irony, and humor of the story. The dialogues often combined proverbs and a mix of idiomatic expressions. Here is a sample pile of idioms from its rich treasury of proverbs.

"It's impossible that nobody will bite if the bait is tasty," Sultan Makatunaw told his two trusted associates, Datu Hatib and Datu Garol. "I'm quite aware that there are people who even if you feed them with your hand will swallow your elbow," the sultan added. "These people are close to me, they help me, follow my every wish, and praise me to my face – that is, for as long as I have something to feed them and I am in power."

"Beloved Sultan," Datu Garol became anxious, "that has never entered my mind. Even if you subject me to a test, I will put my life on the line for the good of the kingdom."

"I'm not referring to the two of you," assured the sultan, "but to those who, while I am in power, praise me to my face but the moment I fall off my perch will devour me. Those people are with us while something is cooking in the pot but not if the food is gone."

"You are right, Beloved Sultan," Datu Garol agreed. "In this world there are bats and butterflies who will only alight when there is honey to suck. I'm sure you know that when a boat begins to list, rats spill over because they do not want to sink with the vessel."

"Because of this," the sultan continued, "we must extend and strengthen the reach of the kingdom so that people have something to suck on. For as long as their stomachs are full people will not entertain destructive thoughts. It is when the stomach growls because it is empty that we put ourselves in danger. We must guard our vessel well so that our enemies will not bore holes in our ship of state."

"It is easy to catch the enemy from the outside but difficult to flush out the enemy from within. It is like squeezing grain from unhulled rice," Datu Hatib added.

"That is what we need to focus on right now so that termites will not eat up the foundation of our house. People with full stomachs are no threat, what we should guard against are hungry people because a hungry man is an angry man," warned the sultan.

Would that this relentless, dynamic, and "proverbial" epic novel will have its epic share of readers.

Related post: http://booktrek.blogspot.com/2016/09/nick-joaquins-small-rowboat.html

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