A number of Bangla tales dedicated to the fictional or mythic holy men (pīrs) and women (bibīs) in the Muslim community have circulated widely over the last five centuries alongside the tales of their historical counterparts. They are still printed and told today, and performed regularly in public, especially in the Sunderbans, the mangrove swamps in the southern reaches of Bangladesh and West Bengal. Among them are figures such as the itinerant veterinarian Mānik Pīr, the tamer of tigers Baḍakhān Gājī and his female counterpart Bonbibī, and the matron of cholera Olābibī. Because of the way they defy the strictly demarcated categories that have come to define Hindu and Muslim in the last two centuries, Orientalist scholars, conservative Muslim factions, linguists, and literary historians have until recently rejected or ignored altogether this group of stories as as purely entertaining with no religious, linguistic, or literary merit. I argue that not only are these fictions religious, they create an important space within the limiting strictures of Islamic theology, history, and law that allows people to exercise their imagination to investigate alternative worlds. These texts simultaneously offer a critique of religion and society through their parodies, rather than articulating doctrine or theology. Because they are fictions, any approach to their religiosity must use hermeneutic strategies suited to the literary world in which they operate. But the imagination exercised in these tales is not unlimited, rather the parameters of the discursive arena in which they operate—the imaginaire—can be defined by two types of presuppositions and two types of intertextuality that both enable and constrain what is possible to express. Using the example of the tales of the conflict between Dakṣiṇ Rāy and Baḍakhān Gāji, and the later appropriation by Bonbibī, we can identify not only the structures of the imaginaire, but the processes by which different authors several centuries apart construct and inhabit that discursive space for their own distinct religious purposes.
Prof. Tony K. Stewart specializes in the literatures and religions of the Bangla-speaking world, with a special emphasis on the early modern period. His most recent monograph, The Final Word: the Caitanya Caritāmṛta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (Oxford, 2010), culminated a decades-long study of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographical tradition that included translating with Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, Harvard Oriental Series no. 56 (Harvard, 1999). From the literatures of the Muslim–Hindu mythic figure, Satya Pīr, he published Fabulous Females and Peerless Pīrs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (Oxford, 2004) and is currently working on a monograph on the popular Bangla romance literatures of the pīrs. With prominent American poet Chase Twichell, he has published the first ever translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s pseudonymous Bhānusiṃha poetry titled The Lover of God (Copper Canyon, 2003). Stewart currently holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities and serves as a Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University.