It's a tale of magic and monsters, of beautiful princesses and wicked queens. A classical story of a long-lost child, set adrift upon the waters, and a mystical bond she has with another creature. A folktale of love, betrayal, and danger. And what’s more, it’s completely Nusantara (of the Malaysian or Indonesian archipelago) in origin.
Indie publisher Raman Krishnan first encountered the tale of Bidasari while looking through his library a few years ago. It was a short story version, contained in a volume of the Journal Of The Malaysian Branch Of The Royal Asiatic Society. He was immediately struck by it.
“You never really associate fairytales with Malay or Asian culture. We think they are from Western culture because of what we’ve been told since young. So I was very impressed to find this. It had no pretence of history, no pretence of politics, nothing! The essence of a fairytale is that it doesn’t have to have any meaning. It’s just a lovely story,” says Raman, 70, at a recent interview at his bookstore, Silverfish Books, in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.
Last month Silverfish Books published Bidasari And The Djinn, a “boutique” book containing the famous tale retold by local author Ninot Aziz (real name Zalina Abdul Aziz). The book is fully illustrated, with gorgeous black and white art by Dani Warguide, Walid Muhammad and Shimo Manaf.
Framed as a story an old djinn is telling children, the book tells the tale of Bidasari, a princess whose parents are forced to abandon at birth to save her from a monster. She is adopted by a merchant and his wife, who discover her life has a magical bond with a fish.
Bidasari grows up, and her beauty attracts the attention of a wicked queen, who longs to destroy her. The story contains elements similar to those found in the Western fairytales of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.
While the book makes for a slim volume, its journey to publishing was a long one, and probably deserves a hikayat (saga) of it’s own.
Raman’s first attempt at publishing this story was in 2012. He released The Epic Of Bidasari, a translation of the story by C.C. Starkweather, told in its original verse form. While this version was very true to its source material, it did not make a large impact on Malaysian readers.
In 2014, Raman met Ninot, who was a participant in a story-writing contest he was judging. Her story was titled “Onangkiu Princess Of Gellanggui”, and was a retelling of a story from the famed Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals).
“I read her story, and I said, wow, this was what I was looking for.
“It was a Malaysian hikayat story, but told from a different point of view!” Raman recalls. He approached Ninot, and the two decided to collaborate.
In creating his book, Raman drew inspiration for the book’s look and format from another illustrated fairytale book: Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper And The Spindle (2013), with illustrations by Chris Riddell.
“That book was an European folktale. But I was insistent, I wanted something Malaysian. I emphasised, for the art, I did not want anything that did not look Malaysian. No manga-style drawings or Mat Salleh Hang Tuahs! If the characters were Malay, then they had to look Malay,” he says, still sounding rather fierce about it!
Speaking at the same interview, Ninot, 54, says that writing the book was quite an experience, as she had always been a huge fan of traditional Malay folktales. Many of her books feature Malaysian legends, a theme she picked up after she discovered her five daughters were familiar with myths and legends from other countries but few from Malaysia.
“I grew up with all the hikayat. I grew up with Malim Deman, Panji Semerang, Awang Sulong Merah Muda, those kinds of stories. My grandfather was a headmaster, and he had cupboards and cupboards of books. I read them, alongside Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew,” says Ninot, whose previous books include Srikandi (2011), Hikayat (2012), Nik And The Sunset Ship (2015), and Siti (2017).
“I also read fairytales from all around the world. But I never really considered Malay legends to be fairytales. To me, they were the hikayat.”
Writing the book was a challenging process for Ninot, as Raman emphasised that a good quality product was key.
“It was a long process, because what I was used to writing, and what he wanted ... there was a gap. I think that process made the book what it was.
“I’ve been quite used to writing in a certain manner. But what Mr Raman brought to me, was asking me to look at things from a different angle, how I approached the story, how (the book) should stay true to the story,” says Ninot.
“Sometimes, as a writer you can go anywhere. So Mr Raman constantly brought me back to the story. That was the important thing.”
Apart from the writing, the art of Bidasari and the Djinn was just as important to the book. Ninot first discovered artist Dani Warguide online.
“His work is very detailed. He drew images of Melaka that blew me away.
“They weren’t the typical huts and jetties, they were magnificent structures that blew me away,” Ninot says.
Ninot contacted Dani, who joined the project. The artist is responsible for, among other things, the illustration of the djinn in the book. Midway during the project however, Dani moved into another line of work and could not finish the artwork; he passed the project on to fellow artist Walid Muhammad. Another illustrator, Shimo Manaf, was brought in to complete other parts of the book’s art.
Raman took the book to the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, where it attracted a lot of interest. Boutique books like this, he says, are the way to go – it is important to maintain the high quality for the reading public.
“Our publishing industry in Malaysia is almost dead. Worldwide, the industry is not doing well at all. They dare not buy new writers. The market has been killed. Publishers dump books at cheap prices, it devalues them,” says Raman.
“A book to me, is a boutique product. I want to produce boutique books, collector’s items. Books that have value in them, which you are proud to show off and present. Not bought just to be read but to be kept.
“If you want Malaysians to buy Malaysian books, we have to give them something of quality.”
Both Raman and Ninot hope to produce a series of books like this in future.
They have many ideas: one legend, Puteri Saadong, is mentioned a lot. (Puteri Saadong was a legendary princess of Kelantan, who becomes the concubine of the King of Siam to save her people).
They hope to work with the public sector and patrons of the arts, among others, to get the books produced.
Raman also hopes that Bidasari And The Djinn can be showcased in local libraries, to reach as many people as possible.
“Our local stories are so rich and diverse. We have to be excited about them. We need to see them on the screen, everywhere. They belong to all of us,” Ninot says.