Curated by digital guest editors for September 2023, Shahbano and Alia Bilgrami. Rayika Choudri’s brooding atmospheric piece Mai reimagines the famous Sindhi legend of Mai Kolachi and her various manifestations in local folklore. A fascinating and stark look at motherhood and myth in fishing communities, this piece beautifully connects different versions of the legend into Mai as a ‘keeper of stories’. The piece is accompanied by three photographs from Malika Abbas.
The story of Mai Kolachi, often credited as a source for the name of the city of Karachi, is both well known and not known at all. Details are sparse and the legend merges into others so easily that the figure of Mai has become multiple and mysterious—who was she really and which version is true? Perhaps some of the varying accounts emerged from things that really happened, but to other women. And over time and telling, they may have slipped away from where they began, only to alight upon Mai—the one and the many. A keeper of stories.
A long time ago, a woman walks along the banks of a dwindled river, weighing a decision. The river, along which she and her family are settled, was once a jewel of freshwater and fish. Now, they have to travel long distances with fishing nets and water vessels and to find pasture for their goats. The scatter of crops they used to grow nearby have long-ago withered. Fewer traders pass through here now and the nearest market has shrunk in terms of size and wares. In addition to all this, the woman, whose eyesight has weakened, may have almost stepped on a black snake near the pebbly margins of the dried riverbed. We’re not sure what God she prays to as the snake loops and slinks away from her. But this encounter, she decides, is another sign.
The woman has no husband left, but many children and grandchildren and even a couple of great grandchildren. She announces that the time has come, at least for her own clan and all other families in their settlement who are in agreement, to leave this riverbank. “Roll up your mats,” she tells them. “We have to move on.” And she mends a pair of leather sandals for herself in preparation for the journey.
It isn’t hard to convince her family, who pack up their things from the huts and shelters they have been living in all these years. They are joined by a couple of other families who have tired of their difficulties in this place. So, with their clothes, cooking pots, water vessels, sleeping mats, fishing nets, portions of dry salted fish and whatever else they are easily able to wind up and carry with them, they set out, goats in tow, in search of a new home.
You may ask how they have all chosen to follow this woman. In this land of ours, this history of ours. This present time of ours, even. But in this tribe, she is the one they seek out when trouble arrives. She remembers cures that they quickly forget. She is prudent in managing their food stock. She drives a hard bargain, but when traders in the market see her small, straight-backed figure shuffling by, they wish her a long life and mostly mean it as well. She offers them prayers, advice and gossip and remembers all their children’s names. Her calculations are sound. She can negotiate arguments, not just within her own family but, at times, between families. Feuding cousins and neighbours have been brought together by her impartial judgement and fair solutions. She can bellow with righteous anger when she feels it is needed and, most often, at her own children. But she is also kind and can tell a joke, which is a good skill to have when blood runs high.
In addition to all this, she tells them about her dream. “A small bird sat on my hand and spoke to me with human words. It said it would lead me to a new home and then it flew up into the sky. I followed it for a long time. Until, at last, it led me to a river so full of fish, you could run your hand through the water a single time and manage to catch one in your palm.”
News of this dream spreads, and they think of it often when they are tired from walking all day.
Meanwhile, this woman with grey-streaked hair whose first name we don’t know, we will call Mai out of respect.
But before we go on, there is another.
In front of a row of fisherfolk huts, she sits in the sand. Her face is unclear at first – too many of us jostling the lens. Allow me, if you will, to frame her for you. To pull focus on her dark hair tied back into a scanty braid; her broad forehead and resolute nose; her slim and contemplative lips and her eyes that flash and crinkle at the others around her and that also trail out, from time to time, across the sand and outcrops of rock to where the sea lies deep and full, but empty of boats.
The sky is thick and grey. An angry tide has been rising.
She has a name, but this could be anything, so we’ll call her Mai as well. She is only about forty though, surrounded by a group of other women. Some are working on a new fishing net pooled between them. Others tend to the scatter of young children and babies in their midst. Mai’s own daughter is feeding her newborn just behind the doorway of the hut behind them.
All able menfolk and older boys have been out to sea since the previous evening, but those men who have become too old or frail stay behind in the village. Some can still fish for their families in shallow waters and will wade out with the younger boys, lunging with their casting nets at any glitter of prey they can spy while trying not to be outdone by their juniors. Or they might take the smaller boats out, not too far. They know, as well, to keep their distance from where the women are gathered and to announce themselves loudly if they must approach.
You may ask how they have all chosen to follow this woman. In this land of ours, this history of ours. This present time of ours, even. But in this tribe, she is the one they seek out when trouble arrives. She remembers cures that they quickly forget. She is prudent in managing their food stock. She drives a hard bargain, but when traders in the market see her small, straight-backed figure shuffling by, they wish her a long life
One of these men, however, shuffles along the shore singing songs and kicking at the waves that are growing more unruly, rising higher up the beach. He is not so old, but he has forgotten everyone, including himself. He can no longer go out to sea with the others. He doesn’t recognise his wife or children. He grasps for things that aren’t there and talks to invisible creatures. They say he has been bewitched. And though they have called the holy man to drive the magic out of him, it seems it is too late. The magic has won. The man is lost. When he wanders up the beach, too close to them for their liking, they call out to the children to chase him away.
The fishing net the women are making out of cotton twine has a wide mesh, good for catching large fish while letting smaller ones slip through. Mai puts the twine down for a moment and looks back out to sea. They are all shooting glances at the darkening clouds and then at each other.
“God be with them,” Mai’s aunt says as Mai’s daughter comes out of the hut with her baby girl and sits down with them.
“Give her to me,” says Mai and takes her granddaughter into her arms. She rubs her back and sings softly into her ear.
The women discuss whose turn it is to bring water and food and do household chores for another who isn’t here with them, but who has been mourning the loss of her son. He had gone out to sea two weeks ago with his father and brothers and was bitten by a sea snake while trying to free it from their net. The bereft mother has spent the weeks since then barely speaking, barely rising.
“She doesn’t eat. She just cries.”
“It only just happened.”
They are familiar with this unravelling pain. Most have lost children. Miscarriages, illnesses, children who never get to grow up, sons lost at sea, daughters in childbirth. She herself lost the youngest of her five daughters and the baby boy she was to give birth to two years ago. She remembers the moment the midwife leaned back from the mat, arms covered in blood, all efforts come to a stop. Nothing left to do but accept defeat.
Mai’s youngest daughter had been the clingiest of all her children when she was small. She can still feel her little arms circling her knees and hear her calling out for her. Wailing for her, even. Even after she was married, she would wrap Mai in long warm embraces and letting go seemed to require more effort from her than holding on. She died with her head in Mai’s lap. Her arms lay flat and still beside her. It was Mai who needed to be pried away.
The clouds open on the women. They wrap up the net and twine and retreat into their huts with their children.
The boats are still nowhere to be seen.
Mai the traveller tells her grandchildren and all the others gathered around her that she once saw a Jinn sitting under a tree.
They have pitched makeshift tents for the night and fires have been lit. Since they are, by now, low on rations of salted fish and wheat, some goats have been cooked and so they are better fed and in better spirits tonight. Especially the children who are travelling for the first time, leaving all they have ever known behind them.
Mai’s audience is enthralled. She says she was very young, just a little girl, no older than—and she points at one of her granddaughters. Your age, she says. And the Jinn was a very handsome young man, but she could tell what he was by the way his hair floated around his face and the way his eyes glowed. He was sitting under a date palm. This was when Mai and her family had travelled inland from their fishing village for the date harvest, setting up camp for some months. Many had come from far away for the harvest. The camps were lively and she made new friends to play with. But on this occasion, one late afternoon, she wandered away from the camp by herself.
Mai’s granddaughter looks back at her with her eyes as round as the moon. It doesn’t matter how many times she has heard this story, she will hear it again with full wonder.
“Did he say anything to you?”
“He did this,” she said, curling her hand inwards in a beckoning gesture. “To call me to him.”
But she ran away and when she told her parents what had happened, they took her to a holy man who gave her an amulet to keep her safe. And for good measure, some time later, her father got her a wolf’s tooth, which she also wore around her neck. She never saw the Jinn again, she assures them all. And she has since passed this wolf’s tooth on to her firstborn child and he to his. Her eldest grandson now rubs the tooth around his neck proudly while the others peer at the yellowing fang. Some day, when she is older, he will pass it on to his own baby daughter. Mai’s hand goes up to the empty place where it used to rest at her own collar bone. Sometimes, she feels as though her parents are still alive, but living on a faraway island. And yet, at the same time, they can feel as close as the faces around her, flickering in firelight.
Mai shakes her head at them. “Ever since then,” she says with a wistful look on her face, “I can never pass a date tree, or even eat a date, without saying a prayer.”
By nightfall, the world is roaring. The mat hanging in the hut’s doorway rustles back and forth in the wind and rain slips in through holes in the roof where thatch and mud have crumbled. It drips on the other Mai and on her son—her youngest, ten years old. He stands at the window, his worried face lit up by flashes of lightning. He is her only living son, and she thanks God he is still too young to go out to sea with his father. She thinks of her husband in the boat with his brothers, battling a raging sea.
The empty place on the sleeping mat beside her is dense with his absence—the place where he would lie, his head resting on the bent crook of his arm. Or sidled up to her, his breath on her neck.
Mai has known her husband since they were children. They would play together on the beach, acting out tales of fishermen slaying sea monsters or saints who rode on the backs of fish. He was wiry even as a child, and she remembers him pretending to be the sea monster, arms spread wide, stamping up the beach. “I haven’t eaten for months! I will eat all of you!” It had made Mai and the others laugh to see the scrawniest among them claim them all as his meal.
And once, when the other children decided to shun her after she had pushed one of them down in anger, causing him to cut his elbow—it was her husband who came out to where she was crying by herself to try and cheer her up. “Don’t worry about them,” he told her. “I’m friends with this seagull. Should I tell him to chase them down the beach for you? He can do potty on their heads if you like.” They have lived together now for more than twenty years, and they still joke about the seagull when one of them is upset with someone else. They have four living daughters, all married, and one young son. They have five grandchildren. They have shared the loss of a daughter, an infant son and a baby grandson. She is unable to think of him out at sea and not feel the surge and drop of waves in her own stomach.
Mai’s brothers are out there too. Her brothers-in-law and sons-in-law and uncles. She prays continuously for all of them to return safely. Her daughters come and go from the hut as well along with her grandchildren.
Then, finally, after what feels like an age, there are shouts. They’ve come back.
Mai wraps herself up in her chaddar and goes down to the shore with the others, carrying drinking water for those who have returned. They are all drenched and dishevelled, pulling themselves and their boats ashore, gasping about the current and the rain and the waves. But Mai cannot find her husband among them. She searches the shore and sees that her husband’s brothers are also missing. She counts the boats and realises that they have not returned.
“Where is he?” she cries at her son-in-law who has collapsed against the side of the boat, attempting to gather his strength. But he doesn’t know. They lost sight of his boat several hours ago. “You have to go back out and find him!” Mai shouts, looming over him.
“Amma,” her daughter says behind her. She tries to pull her mother away.
Meanwhile, Mai’s son-in-law shakes his head. “I can’t,” he says. He has, after all, just escaped this storm with his life still his own.
Mai runs up to her brother and pleads with him to go back out, but he shakes his head as well. “I can’t, Mai. We didn’t know we would ever get back again. We have no strength left in us.”
“You can’t leave him!” she cries.
“They might still come back. God might bring them home.” He tries to reassure her, but he doesn’t look convinced.
Mai is somehow guided by the others back to her hut and then left for some time while the fishermen are tended to after their ordeal.
“He’ll come back, won’t he?” her son asks her, his voice wavering.
She puts her arms around him but says nothing. Then she releases him and tells him to go help the others.
There is no one there to notice her wrapping up water and rations into a blanket with shaking hands. No one sees her carry a lit lantern back to the shore where she chooses one of the smaller boats, dragging it into the churning sea.
It isn’t until her son comes back to the hut that Mai’s absence is realised.
Mai rowed and fished with her brothers when she was small and then again with her husband after they were married. He would take her fishing not too far from the shore of the village and they would cast nets together.
Once, when the fish were slow to be caught, he called out to the ocean. “Why are you being so mean to me, ocean? Are you jealous that I have now taken a wife?”
“Don’t!” Mai had chided. “Don’t disrespect the sea!” There was no telling how his jest would be taken by the spirit of the ocean.
He had hung his head, as though in shame. “You’re right. I am so sorry, beautiful ocean! Please forgive me! I am a silly man with a wise wife!”
This tone did not seem like an improvement to Mai.
She remembers this day as she now pleads with the ocean to save her husband and to lead her to him.
The boat lurches back and forth so violently that she has to grip the sides and oars with all her strength. Her attempt to keep a lit lantern on the boat is short-lived. The rain and splashing sea water soon extinguish the lantern and then proceed to sweep it overboard.
Nearly swept overboard herself, she has the sudden sense that she is going to die in this ceaseless dark. How could she ever have imagined she would be able to find her husband in a wide, stormy sea with all its unpredictable currents? How can she even be sure that he’s still alive?
With this thought, her mind goes to each of her children and her grandchildren. The ones who live and the ones who have died. Each one appears like a glowing ember in her mind.
Her daughters are grown at least, she thinks. They are married. They will be alright. And her son— she closes her eyes. Her daughters will take care of him. But will they ever forgive her for leaving them all?
At this point, you might protest—all this made-up progeny, you say. The Mai you know had seven sons. Six of whom were sturdy and strapping and done in by a giant crocodile in a swirling whirlpool. The seventh, Moriro—disabled and not on the boat with his brothers during that fateful fishing expedition—devises an elaborate trap to avenge their deaths: a spiked iron cage dropped in the water, tethered by a pulley system to buffaloes on land. And Moriro himself as bait. This Mai may have gone to see the slain monster dragged ashore. The bitter triumph of her last living son—a boy, so often discounted, now crowned a hero. Her memory of each lost child, a spiked trap in her own heart, impaling her if she tried to close in. She may have gone home after this and curled up on her mat. She may have slept a great deal in the days, weeks and months to follow. She may have been asleep even when she was awake. But there is pride in her heart as well like fragrance drifting through ruins.
But no—this was yet another. The Mai out in the ocean is someone else, thinking that if only she could find her husband—if for nothing else, that they could die together—it would make it all so much easier. But she is so alone out here. So small and tiny in this terrible rage.
She doesn’t know how long she has been out at sea, but eventually, light seems to grow around her. And though the sun cannot find a break in the storm clouds, she can see better in the brightening glow.
She can see, for instance, a small shape on the horizon. She waves and shouts. She doesn’t think her voice has carried. But she tries to take the boat forward towards the shape, and the sea allows her this. The waves are still strong, but less violent than before.
Her muscles move with renewed strength as she makes her way closer to the shape. And the closer she gets, the more her heart leaps. It is a boat. It is the right way up. She can’t see anyone yet. But wait, now she can. Someone moves on board. And then someone else. They have seen her and, in a few minutes, she can see her husband—he’s alive! His brothers are too. And now he is rubbing his eyes in amazement.
“Are you real?” he calls out when they are close enough to hear each other.
The men have lost their oars and their drinking water has run out. The boat has been filling slowly with sea water from a crack in the side and they have been using whatever strength they had left to empty it out with their cans, so as not to sink.
When Mai rows up alongside them, the men transfer into the smaller boat. They guzzle the water Mai has brought them and eat the rations. Once revived, they pick up the oars and, though they are exhausted, they start to row. They are aided by a lull in the storm. They are not sure if they are even rowing in the right direction but, hours later, they see a shoreline. And later still, they see it is the right one—some miles away from their village, but their shoreline all the same.
God’s mercy, Mai thinks, and forgiveness perhaps for an old slight. She could just as easily have been carried in some other direction. Or have been too late or have drowned alone. But as they draw closer to the shore, and she watches her husband rowing with his brothers, she knows this as well that, for all his relief at being alive still, he will struggle later. He will be a man rescued by his wife and it will sting. But they have been through so much together, she thinks, wiping sea water and tears from her face. And they will get through that as well. She’s not sorry at all.
Here, says Mai, the traveller. They have arrived at a shore where nearby groves of trees are speckled with birds of all kinds—not only small, like Mai’s dream-messenger, but an array of swooping sizes and colours, sounds and shapes, rising and settling in the branches. She squints at them as they dive into the water for their meals.
The travellers’ hearts have been lightened these last few days as they walked along channels of deep river water and salty creeks with crabs shuffling over bordering rocks. They have feasted and bathed and scooped rich soil into their palms. A sense of home has already dawned amongst them.
Mai sits on the sand, rubbing her blistered feet and watching her grandchildren play. The water is striped with sunset. The moment itself seems to shimmer in her sight. Past and future flow into each other like duelling currents of the whirlpool they have passed on their way to this place.
And now she is looking at me. Holding me to account perhaps?
If she were joined on this shore by the other Mais, and if they were all to take stock of what I have spun out of spare material, they may not recognise themselves. They may well be aghast at the liberties I have taken. And I do, of course, owe them an apology. I have tried to exchange the unknowable with hearsay. I have had the audacity to mix their courage and sorrow into plumes of my own make-believe. But it is only so I can picture them with greater ease. I seek the usual things here—salve and grit. A little luminescence like the kind you might find in some broken seawater.
“Is this the place you saw in your dream?”
Mai blinks us all away as her eldest grandson walks up to her and sits down beside her.
“What if I said no?” she asks. “If I said we have a long way to go still, would you fall unconscious?”
“Yes, like this!” Her grandson falls back on the sand, pretending to faint.
She laughs. “Then yes, this is the place I saw in my dream.”
The children are now chasing after a goat’s kid who has wandered into their midst. They try to shepherd it back to its mother.
“All this water,” her grandson says, sitting up again. “We could live here forever.”
“I don’t know about forever,” says Mai. She grips his shoulder with affection. “But tomorrow we can start to build.”
A note on the photos: All photos are courtesy of Malika Abbas. Malika’s work reflects a bittersweet journey that most of us can relate to. Loss, joy, regret, acceptance and submission are words that she chooses to describe her series Come a Little Closer. Documenting day to day life after her mother was diagnosed with cancer helped her cope with the situation that slowly unfolded – the happy and sad moments and the trauma. The family dealt with a great deal of pain and grief following her mother's passing, each close relation in their own way. Malika subconsciously archived it all. Through this incredibly poignant series, the viewer can see how she manages to come to terms with her feelings.
Rayika Choudri is a writer based in Karachi with a background in media production and filmmaking.
Malika Abbas is a visual artist from Karachi, Pakistan. She trained and graduated in miniature painting with a minor in photography and uses various artistic media in her work. Her photography and miniature work (or sometimes a mixure of both) is inspired by her personal life, the traumatic loss of her mother and the intense experience of becoming a mother herself. Malika was a photojournalist and archivist for the White Star PVT Ltd Agency, a subsidiary of the DAWN Media Group. She has curated numerous exhibitions and is currently a curator at AAN Museum and Art Space and a photography teacher at AIFD (Asian Institute of Fashion Design) in Karachi. She curated the exhibitions Badal Do for the School of Writing in 2017 and 2019. Her work has been exhibited extensively and published in The First Post (India), Parsi Khabar, Herald Magazine and DAWN Newspaper, among others.