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Manjul Bajaj: Why Are The Legendary Star Crossed Lovers Heer-Ranjha Relevant Even Today?

Posted: May 3, 2020

Heer was a badass woman who followed her own heart, enough for a patriarchal society to stop their daughters from listening to her story. In Search of Heer, with author Manjul Bajaj.

Bollywood has made sure that most people in the subcontinent have heard the story of Heer and Ranjha, the star crossed couple from Punjab.

There are many versions of this story.

These are stories that have travelled across borders, generations, religions and class. They have inspired young lovers, made older ones weep, appeared in dreams of princesses and slaves alike and have the ability to soften even the coldest of hearts. These are the legendary loves stories that have been passed down from one generation to another through ballads, poems, folk songs and literature.

Romeo-Juliet, Sony-Mahewal, Laila-Majnu and Heer-Ranjha are all iconic lovers who have inspired many authors, singers, painters and poets. One such artist that we are in conversation with today is writer and poet Manjul Bajaj. Ms Bajaj has previously authored Come, Before Evening Falls and Another Man’s Wife. She has also authored Elbie’s Quest and Nargisa’s Adventures. Her latest book In Search of Heer is a modern retelling of the romantic classic of Heer-Ranjha.

The tragic romance of Heer Syal and Deedho Ranjha has been told orally and on papers numerous times in the past. The reason for this iteration Manjul Bajaj has mentioned previously is the new generation of audience that does not read Punjabi, Sindhi or Urdu used in previous retellings. The book has a fresh narrative with strong feminist ideals and values which will help the newer generation to relate and understand the characters and their decisions better. My favourite part of the book is the use of different point of views from nature that questions humanity and its value system.

Origin and time period

The legend of Heer-Ranjha has no known origin time, it has existed for too long to pin point exactly when and how it started. So fixing a time period for a retelling and sticking to it is crucial. Manjul explains why.

“See, I had to take a decision, I know Heer-Ranjha also belongs to the oral tradition; it’s been around for some time. The first person to write it was Damodar Das Arora during Akbar’s time, so I have fixed my story during that period because once you go beyond the written coding them you don’t know how far back the story travels. The story was sung and Damodar wrote it down and the way he wrote it down was as an eye witness’s account, so I have taken him at face value and said ‘okay this took place in Akbar’s time’.”

Although the story of Heer-Ranjha is known by most of us, there are some discrepancies in belief regarding their status-quo. The author gives us a summarised introduction of their story,

“He is a landlord’s son and he leaves his family after a dispute with his brother over land and he comes to Heer’s house and she steals him into her family as a cowherd. She is already in love with him; it was a love at first sight, the love over many lifetimes, that kind of love. So she recognises him as a murshid or teacher of sorts and smuggles him into her life as a family cowherd and he becomes an employee of the family.”

Renaming a Retelling

The decision to name the book In Search of Heer was done to highlight the feminist values of Heer and how we, as modern women have much to learn from the woman who fought every social, cultural and religious norm for her love. We are all in a way searching for Heer within ourselves.

Manjul confirms this. “The book, at least half of it is in Ranjha’s voice, so it’s his search for Heer then it’s also all our search for Heer, for the woman who is free, for the woman who knows her mind, for the woman who has agency, for the woman who can speak for herself. She is very articulate; she argues her case with the religious establishment, the Qazis, her mother herself. She doesn’t let others speak for her. My book is mostly based on Waris Shah’s Heer, but for Heer’s character itself I have drawn on Damodar’s version, in which she is a trained warrior, so my Heer is also a trained warrior. This is the Heer we are searching for, the empowered woman, who knows her mind, who can speak for herself, who doesn’t have to make a conventional arranged marriage, she married for love, she can marry beyond class boundaries, it’s about being able to say no to being submissive, for being in charge of your life.”

And even in 2020 we have yet to learn to cheer for a woman who speaks her mind whether we like what she says or not.

So how does a story of a rebellious pair who challenges social boundaries become a legend?

It always made me curious as to how the story that is so predominantly defiant to social norms becomes a legend even in traditional settings, but Manjul explains that it is largely because we are mourning as well as fantasizing her valour and beauty,

“All the places where most popular love stories emerge from are somewhere between the west Punjab, Persia, Kashmir and Rajasthan region. These are the most patriarchal of societies, these are the societies controlling women in many ways and this is where honour killings take place, this is where the woman is oppressed in many ways and these are the region where our stories are coming from. A part of it is mourning that part of our self. We are mourning those women that we have not allowed our daughters to become, we are mourning for those men who no longer have Heers in their lives, we fantasise about this beautiful, empowered woman, but you actually end up with a tragic love story.”

Their extraordinary devotion to one another

The real tragedy of their story as Manjul describes is how even with their unyielding love, they were manipulated by the system but they still didn’t give up.

The author describes, “The tragedy was that she was forced to marry someone else. That’s the other thing I find really interesting about this story, this is a woman who does not stop speaking the truth, but the system is larger than her. So she gets manoeuvred into a marriage into a larger, wealthier family and even then, this is a pair of lovers who know their minds so much that he goes along in her as part of the marriage party. As she goes to her husband’s home, Ranjha is going with her. So you have to not only lionise the woman of valour but also lionise the man whose ego is not his biggest priority.”

Ranjha – a feminist man ahead of his time

Whenever we talk about love stories from feminist perspective we focus largely on the woman and how she rebelled for her love but the very basis of a romance is that it’s a mutual partnership. Especially in a story like this we cannot forget the strength of Ranjha who refuses to submit to the society’s mould of masculinity.

From his early youth itself Ranjha is not enamoured material things. Manjul reasons this, “Ranjha is like ‘okay, I don’t want land, I don’t want wealth, I am a musician and I want to play music’, and any life that allows him to do that is the life for him. So this is a celebration of a man who refuses to bow down to the whole economic system.”

Manjul further throws light on the underlying reasoning for her respect for Ranjha. “I feel that it’s not just that the patriarchy is a cultural norm, it’s equally an economic norm. It operates on two legs, the one is the unpaid labour of women and the other is the wanton destruction of nature, and on this is supported this edifice of modern civilisation. And here you have a man who is willing to say no to that. To say that ‘I don’t need to exert power, I don’t need to have wealth, I don’t need to bequeath things to my children to matter.’ That this man is then able to live with a woman who is empowered because he does not need free labour from her, is admirable.”

And this is why we have to commend Ranjha along with Heer. The author reminds us that patriarchy is not about men and women but about gender roles. Men are not the only ones to be blamed for propagating the beliefs.

“So there is a character in the book called Malki who is a very important character,” continues Manjul Bajaj. “She is Heer’s mother, and a flag bearer for patriarchy. She is a woman oppressing her own daughter and expects that because her daughter is the most beautiful in the land she should marry the richest man in land. That’s how the equation works in patriarchy.”

This, says Manjul Bajaj, is the link between capitalism, consumerism, the labour of women, destruction of the environment. But that does not make this a heavy read. It’s a very alive, passionate book about two people and their journey, and all of these issues make up the backdrop to their story.

This book is a shining example that even age old stories can be adapted in newer contexts that holds people’s imagination and intrigue.

Women not allowed to hear Heer’s story

I was surprised when I found out that the epic was once controlled and regulated, with women being stopped from even listening to it.

Manjul theorizes the reason for this restriction, “See, this is a story of a married woman who has an affair. When she is married off, she takes Ranjha with her. Even though she loved him before she got married, it’s still a story of infidelity, and that’s a huge threat to a patriarchal society. Also, Heer takes on the religious establishment, she takes on her mother, she takes on her brother, she takes on everybody and insists that truth is with her.

That is not something that Punjab wants its daughters to hear. At the same time they want to cry about it because she is this fascinating woman and she dies for love. It’s the split in you, yourselves – it’s cathartic, but you don’t want the women to hear Heer’s story.”

Heer’s agency taken away by a patriarchal tradition

Various steps were taken to turn this story of rebellion and righteousness into one of devotion and submission. Heer’s personality was altered after her death to make her into society’s version of an ideal role model for young women. She was rendered harmless, but to what extent?

Manjul answers, “So the Syal, which is Heer’s family, don’t allow the story of Heer to be told as it was. What’s told is that there is a shrine for her just outside Jhang, which is called Mai Heer ka Darbar.”

“This girl was never a mother; she was a lover,” Manjul continues. “So by calling her Mai Heer, her claws have been taken out; she has been made into a mother who grants the wishes of women wanting to be married. So her sexual agency has been taken away in her death, and women are praying to her for the same husband that she had rejected. It’s subversion and rewriting of the tale.” At many levels, this appropriation is very interesting.

Manjul goes ahead, filling in the extent to which this has happened. “In the 70s there was a film made in Pakistan about Heer. In Jhang, which is Heer’s hometown, there were riots and they didn’t allow it to be screened there. So in Jhang, where Heer belongs, she is not the daughter you celebrate. There are pockets where you celebrate her, or you celebrate the death of the two, you cry for the Heer Ranjha love story. But Heer as a woman is not what you want your daughters to be. You will never find many girls in Punjab called Heer, though very recently people are calling their daughters Heer again. She was not celebrated where she belonged but the larger Punjab, yes.”

The extent of censorship that has been put on our women never fails to surprise me.

Sufi culture and other retellings

There have been others who have portrayed Heer in their perspective in various works and the story also is part of Sufi culture and folk lore. Manjul offers how these have influenced her book,

“Actually Waris Shah who wrote it in the 1766, was doing a modern re- telling. The Sufis have always sung about this since long before, and in the Sufi tradition it’s like a surrender of mind over soul. But it is also a human flesh-and-blood love story, and my retelling is more physical and romantic; I haven’t only subscribed to the spiritual aspect to it.”

There is another famous Punjabi poem by Amrita Singh where she talks about Heer, “She’s talking to Waris Shah, that you cried about one Heer and now after partition a million Heers have died and where are you, would you want to write a new poem, so Aaj aakhan Waris Shah Nu is really a poem about partition.”

Personal experience of Heer’s story

Manjul’s parents both grew up in the undivided Punjab so the story was a part of her childhood. She recollects some childhood memories –

“When I grew up we were already across the border, my parents moved after Partition. At weddings or family gatherings, there would be uncles or aunts who would sing from Waris Shah’s Heer, and it’s very beautiful and the music is haunting. I can’t say I have been prevented from hearing it, but in the traditional village set up it would be men who would go to listen to Heer, women wouldn’t. I mean a lot of villages, not all but the closer you get to Jhang, the more she is seen as an erring daughter and then in a larger sort of pantheon she is also this beautiful fabulous woman. And Mai Heer ka Darbaar is just outside Jhang. The film I spoke about earlier was also banned in Jhang. In fact Nadeem Aslam, a Pakistani author, wrote this book called A Blind Man’s Garden in which he has created a fictional town in her honour called Heer, because in Jhang you are not allowed to take Heer’s name in the sense that she was completely disfranchised there.”

Relevance in modern times

The rendition of popular folklore reminds us how little progress has been made in terms of values, rules and beliefs. The moral policing that existed in Akbar’s time (Damodar Das was in Akbar’s time), continue to this day. The cultural and social barriers limiting women still hold strong.

Manjul agrees to this and adds, “Things change that is why I think we have to keep telling these stories changing them a bit but recovering those characters because those characters are ourselves, we may not be warriors, but we are women with PhDs, degrees in Engineering and Architecture and Medicine, sitting at home and raising families.”

Isn’t that the modern equivalence of warriors?

“Yeah, what I mean is there is still a level of disenfranchisement happening. You are trained to be a ‘warrior’ in some field, which you might have to give up for real societal considerations. So all of those stories exist, the relevance of it still exists, the context of it changes. You still have honour killings in which the couple that are running away are showing on YouTube that their family is threatening them. Technology has changed, the facts have not changed. Honour is still such a big deal.”

Manjul’s previous book Come, Before Evening Falls delves deeper into the issue of honour killings by khap panchayat.

Questioning the society

The deep philosophical elements in this book make it insightful and interesting.

Ms Bajaj has questioned the value system of society; not just in terms of Indian culture but the entire human race. The story of the book is narrated in many voices that are of otherwise mute animals and birds, which makes the reader realise how human beings as a species have dominated and destroyed other species instead of co-existing with them, and now its insatiable greed has led to the destruction and domination of certain communities within the species itself. 

“I have questioned the value system in the society through the book. That is why I have multiple narrators,” says Manjul. “There is a part where a goat narrates and says, ‘Goats, of course, don’t care too much about paternity. We have no property to bequeath.’ And at one place, Ranjha is having a conversation with the goat about how human beings have damaged the eco-system for their own gains, including for food, and says. ‘We are constantly tilling, hoeing, weeding, watering, and tending to it (land), in an effort to grow food. What is food anyway but tomorrow’s shit? Is our shit any better than yours, or the tiger’s or the camel’s?'”

There is a whole horde of narrators from nature, that put the spotlight on the problematic values and activities of human beings. Like when you have pigeons questioning the morality of men regarding sexual abuse, and discussing gendered division of labour. ‘Even the hatching of eggs is done collaboratively…. And no self-respecting, able-bodied male pigeon would think it was his female partner’s job to serve him food. And yet, human beings are considered the more advanced of the two species. At least in their own lexicon.'”

Advice to aspiring writers

Manjul concludes with some insightful advice for budding authors,

“If you want to write, write every day,” she says. “Because between being an author and wanting to be an author, there is only one difference, everybody has stories, the person who sits down and writes becomes the author and the person who keeps saying I also have a story does not. So it’s really all about getting out there and doing it if you want to, it’s not going happen on its own.”

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First post draft created by Asefa Hafeez.

Image source: Facebook, Amazon, and By IbnazharOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

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