Retelling the medieval legend of Heer-Ranjha, Manjul Bajaj taps the freedom of the folk tale and fable, combined with psychological immediacy, to bring readers up close to the Punjab of Akbar’s time. Fusing elements from some of the best known renderings of the story—by Damodar Gulati, Waris Shah, Kishan Singh Arif and Na’at—Bajaj’s reimagining also adds to them and seeks its place as “one of many originals, no more, no less”, among the hundred written versions in existence.
Dreamy Deedho Ranjha wants no truck with male prerogatives, such as the exercise of ownership. Combative Heer Syal takes up for others and will not stand to be overlooked in a world of men. They symbolise everlastingly “the men and women we did not become and the social order we did not choose”. This may be why, as Bajaj suggests, the story has been cherished, as a dream, an unfinished business.
The following are excerpts from the book.
Deedho No More
Every morning began with a bath in the cool river water. Leaving my clothes on the riverbank, I would plunge in for a swift swim, the river’s strong current a challenge to my limbs. That done, I walked around till I found the finest bits of pasture for the herd to graze upon. While the cattle grazed, I would sit under the shade of some tree and eat my morning meal of stale bread with raw onions and green chillies, glugging down the accompanying pitcher of buttermilk in a few quick gulps. As morning turned to noon, and the coolness of water began to call out to the cattle, we headed back to the river. The buffaloes would sit about in the shallows, caked in wet mud, their bellies swollen and sated, their breath rising and ebbing, their bodies in communion with the spirit of the earth. On some afternoons I would search out conversation with a boatman or with the occasional wise man who may have come down from the snow-clad Himalayan peaks for a short respite in the plains before disappearing again into his pristine cave. On others I would stretch out for a nap. My brothers’ wives complained that I was unmindful of saying the five prayers that should ritually interrupt every man’s day. But, in truth, my entire day passed like an unbroken prayer.
My music was the purest form of worship. I searched for the perfect bamboo reed and fashioned it into a flute. Placing my lips sideways against the wood, my breath blowing through its hollow length, my fingers lightly moving across it, my mind poised at the edge of existence, I pulled out the day’s tune from the sky of all possibilities. I played with all my heart and for all I was worth, each time, every time. The buffaloes would fall into stillness, only their limpid black eyes alive to the music, glittering, sentient. The cows, the goats, the stray curs, the wandering mendicants, the boatmen on the river, the girls come to fill water, all of them would be drawn into the umbra of the music and become still. The trees, the birds nesting inside them, the clouds, the river rushes and reeds, all at rapt attention, listening to Ranjha on the riverbank playing his flute. However, my growing reputation as a flautist in the surrounding villages disturbed my mother deeply. It wasn’t a man’s work, she despaired. Her disapproval burnt into me softly, with its steady, dull heat, like the ashes from the coal oven on which she cooked our meals. The ashes looked innocuous but I, who was inside their folds, felt their burn reaching my heart and singeing it. ‘Let the boy follow his heart,’ Father said.
‘It is not without reason that the head and shoulders are placed above the heart in the human body. If you permit him to continue like this, mindless and irresponsible of life’s demands, who will feed him once we are gone?’ countered Mother.
‘The All Seeing, Almighty Allah who feeds us all,’ Father responded, his face wreathed in his customary smile, his gaze conciliatory. He did not wish for this to become another reason for Mother’s growing displeasure with me.
Mother’s quiet anger could rage like the summer west wind, the hot and dry loo breeze, relentless and sapping when it was in season, reaching into the cool depths of the heart and leaving it dried out and shrivelled at the edges.
A Man and a Goat
He spoke to me. Miles upon miles of monologue flowed off his tongue. His heart was heavy and I felt good that I could help lighten his load. That is the beauty of travel. Leave two creatures alone and they fall into step with each other, develop an empathy that overcomes barriers of species or creed. In the regimented life of a village or town, each creature is bound to his own role in the economy, his own slot in the social space, caged inside his own narrow conception of the other’s place in the scheme of life. But leave them alone on the road, the sky above them and the ground beneath, united by their basic survival needs to find water, food and solace, and they can discover the whole firmament in each other’s eyes, the oneness of the soul that permeates the living world.
He called me Nanhi.
‘Nanhi,’ he said with a sigh during our very first chat, ‘whoever wields the stick owns the buffalo.’ We were sitting on a knoll together, tired after walking silently for many miles. It was three or four days since we had left Jhang Syal. I did not know which way we were headed. I don’t think he did either, but the sun used to rise on our backsides and set in our eyes.
I knew, of course, that he was speaking metaphorically. About power and resources. Those who had the power appropriated what they wanted and others learnt to do without. It was an eye-opener for me. I realised with a shock that what separated man from other species was also what separated man from man. Man hadn’t just hijacked the planet from under the noses of the other species but carried the tendency to appropriate by force from his own kind too. Ranjha was heartbroken because his bride, Heer, had been herded into the compound of the Kheras using the stick of wealth. Moreover, his own claims to property, and the power that came with it, had been wrested away through cunning by his brothers. Though he hadn’t put up much of a fight either.