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As a phenomenon, familial cannibalism has deep roots in the old world. The Bible is replete with mention of humans consuming their kin. In our folk literature, the theme has been recorded in at least two stories, both from the Indus Valley.
Famine and a perilous journey for survival brings it up in both cases, and even though the actual act of consumption does not take place in either, in one case the parents decide to kill and eat their child, and in the other a far more horrible scenario unfolds with the children killing their parent.
The first is the tale of king Lal Malook from Sindh. When Lal Malook was an infant, the land was ravaged by famine, and his poor parents set out from their home for the neighbouring land where food was plentiful. But they were too weakened by the hardships of the journey and came near to passing out from hunger. Lal Malook’s father then suggested to his wife that they should cut up and eat their child so they could save their lives and continue on their journey. At first his wife would not agree but in the end she too was driven mad by hunger, and with her agreement the father took away his son to put him to sleep and kill him.
As the child fell asleep the father sighted the carcass of a deer killed by a lion and went to inspect it. When he returned with the deer carcass, he did not find the child where he had left him. His wife and he searched for Lal Malook everywhere, and discovered the signs of a lion having dragged the child into his cave. Convinced that the lion had killed and eaten their son, they resumed their journey.
Meanwhile, Lal Malook was adopted by the lion’s family and grew up feral. Later he was captured by the king and reintroduced into human society. He fell into trouble before long and returned to his lion family for succour. Lal Malook subsequently overcame many challenges, made powerful friends, and became a great hero. His miraculous escape from becoming his parents’ food by the intervention of a beast gives Lal Malook’s life the dimensions of a saint or holy man.
The Tuhfatul Karam of Mir Ali Sher Qani Thattavi places the other event in the middle of the 16th century, in the year 1543. It is said that around that time, Sindh witnessed a great famine. As food dwindled, a woman set out on a journey with her sons to find means of sustenance elsewhere. But on the way they collapsed from starvation. Unable to see her sons suffer the pangs of hunger, the mother told them that she forgave them her blood, and pleaded with them to slaughter her and eat her. She also told them to carry away the rest of her flesh with them to eat on the way so that they could survive, and prayed that they would reach a place where they would be safe from hunger.
At first the children would not hear of it but in the end they did as their mother had instructed them.
They had just cooked some flesh after slaughtering their mother when they were taken into custody for cow slaughter by a group of men who were looking for a stolen cow that was their property. The boys pleaded their innocence and narrated the whole truth. They also showed them their mother’s entrails and other tokens of her existence. But the men would not believe them. They treated them even more severely, and said that it was unthinkable that children would slaughter their own mother. They tied them to trees, and decided to beat them into confessing that it was someone or something else they had killed.
At that moment the entrails of the mother crept towards them. They wrapped themselves around the legs of the men, and kept them from moving towards the boys to hurt them. An old man among the group of men who was versed in such signs understood them, and told his group that indeed the children were innocent of cow slaughter. He explained that they had slaughtered their mother with her express permission, and her love for her children now kept their tormentors from hurting them.
In the second event, a mother’s love crosses the curtain which separates the domains of life and death, and manifests itself through the ghostly movement of viscera to defend her children. But in both stories, as in most events narrated in the Bible, it is the will of the parent which decides on the act of familial cannibalism.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter at @microMAF.
This monthly column explores the curious world of the myths and folk tales of South Asia.