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(This article appeared in a publication in U.K.)
Few stories that are recounted from generations to generations can command the pathos and poignancy of two folk icons and Jat youths Heer and Ranjha – the story of the beautiful Heer and the youthful Dheedo Ranjha. Legends have been spun around the story and it now stands as a tale that unites people on either sides of the Punjab – the state that was divided between India and Pakistan after the partition in 1947. The story at once has popular mass appeal and romantic allusions of undying love. Understanding the story of Heer and Ranjha also means understanding the social underpinnings of Punjabi society, and Punjabi culture to be specific.
Beautiful Heer is born into a wealthy Jat family of Sayyal in a village called Jhang. Dheedo Ranjha (Ranjha is his surname) is also born to Jat parents in Takt Hazara by the Chenab (one of the rivers that give Punjab its name, which means land of five rivers). Jats are an enterprising and strongly traditional clan of people who live around Punjab.
Dheedo was his father's favourite son, and the youngest of eight sons of his landlord father. Unlike his brothers who had to cultivate the lands, he led a life of ease playing the wooden flute (Wanjhli or Bansuri), and legend has it that he had bohemian looks and long hair. When their father died, a dispute arose between Dheedo and his brothers over the distribution of land. The brothers had taken possession of the best land to themselves and gave Dheedo only the barren land. He, after a heated argument with his brothers, left home in protest and headed aimlessly southward along the River Chenab until he reached somewhere near the present day Jhang where Heer lived and her tribe the Sayyals ruled.
The chief of Jhang was one Chuchak Sayyal who had an extraordinarily beautiful and headstrong daughter, namely Heer. On meeting Dheedo, Heer is instantly taken by his wild and romantic looks and the soulful tunes of his flute. She persuades her parents to hire Dheedo as a cowherd for their cattle. He is hired, and thus begins the legendary romance between Heer and Dheedo. The two lovers often meet in the forestland along the river where he takes the cattle to graze. While the cattle graze he plays his flute and she listens by his side. The days and months pass in total bliss — one of love and eternal happiness for the lovely couple.
However, Heer’s uncle, Kaido, becomes suspicious and starts spying on her. He gathers sufficient evidence to report about the romance to her parents. The parents admonish her and warn her to stop meeting Dheedo. When she is undeterred they call in the village Qazi, or priest, to advise her.
The Qazi tells her that good girls, when they come out of their home, keep their gaze lowered; that they always keep their families’ honour uppermost; that she should spend time in tiranjans (places where village women gather to spin yarn on spinning wheels and chat). He also reminds her that, being from a higher caste and a renowned family, it is unbecoming of her to mingle with family servants like Dheedo.
Seeing that Heer is committed to her love for Dheedo the Qazi threatens her with a fatwa of death. But Heer is undeterred by his threats. Exasperated by her behaviour, her parents decide to marry her to a man named Saida Khairra from village Rangpur. The wedding ceremony, or nikah, is arranged and the Qazi is invited to perform the ceremony. According to custom, the Qazi first asks the bridegroom if he would accept Heer as his wife, which, the bridegroom readily does. Then the Qazi asks Heer, still very much in love, and her answer is a loud No. When the Qazi insists for an affirmative answer, Heer says, “My nikah was already made with Ranjha in heavens by no less a person than the Prophet himself, and was blessed by God and witnessed by the four angels, Jibraeel, Mikael, Izarael and Israfeel.”
The Qazi goes ahead and solemnizes the marriage, anyway. After the ceremony Heer, in tears, is sent to Rangpur amidst great celebrations. Heer languishes in Rangpur, pining for Dheedo. Meanwhile, Dheedo is heartbroken. He is left to walk the quiet villages on his own until eventually he meets an ascetic Baba Gorakhnath, the founder of the "Kanphata" (pierced ear) sect. He becomes a Jogi, pierces his ears and renounces the material world. Reciting the name of the Lord, "Alakh Niranjan", on his travels around the Punjab, he eventually finds the village where Heer has been married.
Heer also comes to know through her friends that the young handsome jogi in town was none other than her lover. The two meet and, with the help of Heer’s friends and her sister-in-law, Sehti, manage to elope one night.
The two returns to Heer's village, where Heer's parents, convinced about their love, agree to their marriage. However, on the wedding day, Heer's jealous uncle Kaido poisons a sweet Laddu to prevent the marriage from taking place. Heer eats the Laddu. Hearing this unfortunate news, Dheedo rushes to her side full of concern for her, but he is too late, as she has been affected by the poison and dies. Brokenhearted once again, he takes the rest of the poisoned sweet which Heer has eaten and dies by her side.
Thus ended the tragic love story Heer and Dheedo Ranjha.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Then how did she die? Nobody was at home. Her brother telephoned her twice the previous night and didn't get a reply. He got suspicious and went all the way to Thiruvalla, where he found her lying on the floor of the living room. In the big bungalow that was built with the money she earned as a nurse. She lay supine in her Mother Hubbard, her face a ghostly grey, her mouth dry. The bungalow was a two-storied one with four bedrooms for them and her daughter and for guests. It was done in the most modern fashion of the day. But then she went through many hardships before she started earning all that money. Many were the years she spent doing overtime on night shifts in operation theatres in the Persian Gulf city of Muscat to earn enough to make the bungalow.
I know her as a promising student in my class scoring the best marks. She was from a middle class Christina family, the sort who read the bible and prays every day. Her faith was a source of strength and pride to her. She was a good sportsperson and won the school championship trophy five years in a row. Teachers praised her as a model student who will succeed in life, will be an asset to the school and the community and society. Everyone praised her. She was the debating champion, the keen athlete, and nobody could beat her in running and long jump. She was goodlooking with her head full of curly hair and had a graceful walk. All my friends - Chako, Athiran, Chathukutty and Varghese lusted after her voluptuous figure and personage.
"Everybody should learn from Susamma. She is the house captain of the Green House even before she has reached the tenth standard, in the nineth standard itself. Everybody should emulate her hardwork and her application. If only we had more students like her," Basanti-teacher, the teacher assigned to our class said.
Then we graduated and I lost touch. I went away to my job and raised a family in distant Bombay. However, I kept hearing news of her whereabouts whenever I would come on vacation to Thiruvalla. She was married. Her parents – rustic farming people – thought they had a good match because the groom drew a good salary. Then her problems started. Her husband – Thankachen – was a salesman in Bangalore and she shifted to Bangalore to be with him. Thankachen, being a salesman of plastic briefcases travelled on business quite a lot. He had the practicality and easy charm of a salesman and could talk very well. On the rare occasion he was in town he would drink too much and abuse her, beat her. Soon Susamma came to know why. Thankachen had a girlfriend in town and most of the time was spent in her company. He also spent most of his money on her. He found Susamma ordinary and not urbane enough. He got mad when Susamma couldn't use a fork and knife in a restaurant and couldn't use the western closet when on vacation in Goa.
Small differences became great fissures and then chasms. After a fight over the taste of fish curry, Thankachen beat her and left her with a puffed eye and then sought the company of his girlfriend. Susamma packed her bags and went back to live with her parents in Thiruvalla. She lived with her parents for seven years. She made use of this time to apprentice herself in Pushpagiri Hospital as a nurse. She learnt fast, as she was a good student, punctilious in acquiring knowledge and perspicacious in her studies. She soon got a job in the same hospital. She was also declared the best student and scored the highest marks in theory and practicals. During these seven years Thankachen never visited her even once. She is supposed to have said once to my sister Babykutty, "I am a woman who has suffered great emotional turmoil, you can't even imagine what I have been through."
Her next ambition was to go to the Persian Gulf. She got herself a passport. She was soon selected to work in the Royal Hospital of Oman. She did well there, rising fast to be a matron. Her salary induced Thankachen to re-establish contact with her again. He wrote her and asked for forgiveness. The reason was that his girlfriend had left him. He had become an alcoholic.
"I am sorry for all that I did to you. If you take me back I promise to be good to you and mend my ways. I am sure you will consider this in Christ our saviour's name."
Susamma forgave him. He soon got himself a passport and joined her in Muscat, Oman. He got a job as a salesman there. However, his ways hadn't changed. He drank heavily even in the country where drinking of liquors was prohibited. However, he didn't beat her. It was during this time that their daughter Sheena was born. Both Susamma and Thankachen were happy together for some time. Then Thankachen started doubting her and accusing her of being unfaithful. He even went to say Sheena wasn't his daughter.
Again the chain of atrocities against her started. Though Thankachen didn't beat her he was cruel in his words and accused her of being unfaithful. With his drinking the accusations got worse. He accused her of having affairs with doctors. It seemed there was no end to Susamma's tears. That's when she decided enough was enough and decided to come back to live in Thiruvalla.
She bought a plot of land. She built a big bungalow with the money she accumulated in Muscat.
Thankachen, too, gave up his job and came back to live with her. Their daughter started studying in a residential school in Thiruvalla. Their fights would occur even in Thiruvalla. Susamma would go to her ancestral home where her father and mother lived and relate to them about sleepless nights and Thankachen's increasing demands for money to drink. The neighbourhood also came to know of what was happening. They then got used to the nightly shouting matches and to Susamma crying in the night.
Anyway, it was a sad end to such a promising life. A wrong choice of a man had made Susamma's life miserable. But nobody knows how she died. Neighbours said that the night before her death there was a big fight and Susamma was heard crying. The next day Thankachen left for Bombay to see his sister. There were all sorts of stories about her death. People said he killed her with his cruel words. Some say he strangled her before he left, in which case she would have been lying dead in the bungalow for a day. However, her body was warm and had not decayed. Suicide was also ruled out. The police was not summoned as her people didn't want an enquiry. Thankachen came back from Bombay and pleaded innocence.
I attended Susamma's funeral. So did my friend Chako, Athiran, Chathukutty and Varghese, all classmates of hers. We met for tea at my house after the funeral. We mourned the passing of a promising and talented classmate. That's Susamma's story.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
As I, P.K. Koshy, sip my morning tea I look out to see if Waghmare is anywhere around. Question is: Do I want to even see his face on the way to my morning walk? No. He has a car and he has a dog, and I dislike both. And I loathe him. Problem with the dog is it shits everyday before my door and I suspect Waghmare (In Marathi – the killer of tigers) has taught him to do that, I am sure. The sly bastard, I know he is a cunning and crafty man. He works for some life science company and is home most of the time pottering around in his chuddies. His sole aim is to give me a lot of headaches, which I can feel digging its monstrous fangs in my head right now. I know he is around, I can hear him shuffling in the row-house next door. I time his morning walk, which may be over by now. Then he takes his dog out, which too has been completed now that it’s 8 a.m.
The car is another possession of his that I detest, indeed hate. It’s a Maruti Swift, his proud possession, a symbol of his prosperity. I don’t have a car; neither do I have a dog. He parks it right outside my door as if it’s his father’s road, just to make me jealous as I don’t have one. I shouted at him many times. The bastard, he won’t listen to all my ranting, and continues to park it at the entrance of my row-house. I had complained to Oondirmare (literally: the killer of mice) who is our row-house association’s secretary, but he is too much in awe of Waghmare, the killer of tigers. It so turns out that the killer of mice is afraid of the killer of tigers because of reasons I needn’t mention, but then why he is the association’s secretary? Killing rats is not such a big deal, nor tigers, for that matter. His grandfather’s grandfather might have shot at a tiger and missed, and now he carries the name of Waghmare. Doesn’t “mare” mean “act of killing” and not “marnara” meaning “man who kills.” Next time I speak to him I will say this, only to embarrass him a little.
I read the newspaper that has just arrived. A few months back I used to subscribe to two newspapers, but Marykutty told me to cut down on expenses. Now I only get the Hindustan Times to read as I sip tea. Marykutty asks me if I need more tea. I say, “Why you want my tummy to protrude even more like a chakka, a jackfruit?”
My tummy, like all Malayalis’ tummies protrude a bit, no, in fact, more than a bit. It has grown in size since I had retired, last month. They say, the Malayalis I mean, that it’s a sign of prosperity. I think the eating of a lot of carbohydrate-enriched rice – the Malayalis’ staple diet. And, what if my tummy protrudes, whose father’s goes? Like they say in Hindi, “Kiska baap ka kya jata hai.” Waghmare’s tummy also juts out. But he is a pathetic sight in his striped chuddies, jackfruit tummy hanging out, and the exposed thread that holds it to his waist. “Chee, no shame, this man has,” Marykutty would say watching him walking his dog and scratching his arse. And he called me a “besharam” when we had a fight over the dog shit.
That’s why I avoid him during my morning walks. We have fought many times. Over dog poo, over car parking, over overflowing gutters, over hundreds of silly trivial things which he doesn’t have the civility to acknowledge, the illiterate. He has connections and is all the time glued to his phone, talking in the entreatingly cloying voice of his, the moron.
At last, I finish tea, throw away the paper to be read later, and peering carefully through the window to make sure Waghmare wasn’t around, step out. His dog is sitting on his steps panting, and wagging its tail, glad to see me, the abominable creature. But my quarrel is with his master, the chuddy-wallah. I have nothing against you koochi-koo, may you and your master rot! I never wear chuddies like your master does, what an insult, can’t you do something to stop him showing his hirsute legs?
I am dressed in polyester trousers, my checked shirt, and my branded walking shoes. Today I have to visit the office from where I retired after 27 years of service. They are giving me a send-off party, they said, sort of after thought. I am an employee of Bard, no, nowhere related to the poet, but BARD as they call the country’s nuclear research program – Baroodwala Atomic Research Department. I don’t believe in parties, but I think I will go and meet my colleagues, though it might make me teary eyed to see my desk being occupied by a new chokra boy who succeeded me.
I walk along the road that connects to a nature park in Belapur, a road that cut into what they say is a tropical rain forest. The road is full of puddles from last night’s rain, and I avoid dog shit, cow shit, and little puddles that are everywhere. There is garbage lying around thrown by lazy people in the night when no one’s watching. I think this country needs strict laws. They will break laws when no one’s watching. So opportunistic are they! My friend Joseph, the only person I speak with on my walks, says
The OGG consists of retired chootiyas, too far gone to redeem their failing bodies. They spend their morning time gossiping about other walkers, laughing, huffing and puffing their tottering bodies. They don’t get any exercise at all, the way they talk excitedly, badmouthing their former employers, this minister or that, or even the haggard women who come for a walk to escape the drudgery of cooking, washing and cleaning.
I dismiss their jollity as frivolity and only exchange a few polite “Good mornings” with them. They walk so slowly that I feel their bodies would disintegrate and die in a few days. If I become one of them then I would be discussing cardiac arrest, arrhythmia, blood clots and a host of other diseases with them, and would lose my teeth and my confidence. I walk fast and leave them behind. The OGGs are there in practically every part of New Bombay, indeed the world, old men without any meaning in their lives, their minds having been eaten by the moths of mediocrity.
Leaving the OGGs behind I walk to the top of a hill that overlooks the highway to
“Kya Koshy-saab, ithna medition math karo. Kuch duniya ke barre mein bi socho.”
(What Koshy, stop meditating and start thinking about the world.)
I tremble with anger, but I hide it. It’s said: do not pick a fight with people who have nothing to lose. Besides I have to come here tomorrow too.
“You booddhas, you with your gossip and bitterness, you will die fast.”
I didn’t say it in jest, but seriously. It was a curse. I leave them, the old farts, feeling a throb of pain in my temple. I then begin my descent down the hill and the songs of birds grow thicker and louder, a symphony of sounds, which soothes me. I like bird songs. They are so natural and beautiful, their every note so pure. I am more relaxed now. What do those old geezer’s think?
As I near home I see Waghmare looking at me from the terrace of his row house, a sarcastic sort of look. I don’t greet him, the dog. If I greet him, I am sure he will come wagging his tail like his cur. I used to be friendly with him when we had come to live in Belapur, twenty or so years ago. But then there came the fights and I stopped talking to him.
“Who will talk to such a fellow, no manners, keeping dogs that have no sanitary sense?” I ask Marykutty. She has grown fat over the past few years. I tell her to come for a walk in the morning but she won’t listen. Even since Benny, our son, went away to the
I take the 9 a.m. morning train from Belapur. It is crowded and though it originates in Belapur I don’t get a seat as the commuters from Nerul have travelled back to Belapur so that they are assured of a seat. So I stand in the cramped space between two seats. This is the most coveted place to be in the first class compartment, because whenever anyone in those two seats gets up, by the fact of being first in queue, I get to sit down. I know these things. I have travelled on this route for 30 years. It is my routine, rather, was.
But my turn doesn’t come though we have crossed the
When Kurla comes, a lot of young fellows get down. I get a seat vacated by a young chap with a heavy knapsack which almost knocks me down as he swings it on his shoulder. Wonder why they all carry knapsacks these days like menial labourers. They are the people working in the new economies – software, hardware, the outsourcing units – coolies all of them. They dress nattily; listen to pirated music on their iPods, or imitation music players, talk incessantly on the phone – probably to their girlfriends. What’s there so much to talk about, I don’t know. I and Marykutty hardly talk a few words everyday – sometimes, nothing at all. All we have to say have been gone over and exhausted. Now, silence speaks. One such executive type is saying on his cell phone.
“Total weirdo, men, my boss, men. So much like that only, no? Like that mad old uncle deLima, exactly. I feel like giving him two tight slaps, phat, phat. Har, har, har. He tho, I don’t know what to say, [listens] tell me what you did this morning? Had a head bath? What the f*** for? Tell you no, men, you will get a cold and be paying for medicines and stuff. [Listens] That’s cool, men, so, so, nice I feel, whaddappen, no, it’s, sort of, sort of, aaah, heee, hummm....”
What sort of talk is that? This teeny-weeny impudent fellow is talking of slapping his boss. What’s the world coming to? I am glad to be out of their rat race.
At the office everyone gathers around me. As expected, a chokra is sitting on the assistant’s seat that I had vacated. My boss, the director of the nuclear research program, has gone to a meeting with his boss, so I wait in the reception. Everyone is extra nice, which they weren’t when I was working here.
The new assistant apologies profusely. The sort of words I used to employ only a month ago.
“So sorry sir, he will be back soon, sir, will you have some coffee, sir, I am told you like coffee, sir,” then to a shabby individual in a khaki uniform “saab ke liye coffee lana.”
In the conference room they have put a fresh bouquet of flowers, they make me sit beside the boss, Mr. Rao, the man I tolerated with all my patience the last so many years. He is all jolly good manners now. The young assistant – yes, I remember, his name is Krishnakant Sharma – keeps a wrapped rectangular thing before his boss. On it is a card with messages from all my previous colleagues in vivid colours. Krishnakant has brought his cheap digital camera and is clicking pictures of me – of me! I can’t believe it. They are taking pictures of me!
Then everyone troops in and the boss gives a speech in Indian English praising all the qualities I never knew I possessed. Too late! He says I always had a smile on my face, even when he was rude. What to do? So bad no? He couldn’t help it, part of his job. The hypocrite! He doesn’t know what Herculean effort I had to put up, just to listen to his insults, because I had a family to feed, and a job to keep.
Then he takes the rectangular gift and gives it to me. He smiles and asks me to turn towards the camera held by his assistant. Resourceful chap, he is, this Krishnakant Sharma, smart dresser, too. “Smile” he says, and I smile. Only a few front teeth show in the picture, which Sharma comes and shows me on his camera. It’s the age of instant photography; you can see the results in seconds.
Then there’s a round of handshakes and some refreshments are brought in – sodden samosas from the canteen, tea in plastic cups, and a few potato chips.
Is it all I am worth? Have I worked all these years, sacrificing my freedom, my self respect, my joy for this? My colleagues want me to open the gift. I open it and they watch my face. It’s a picture of a waterfall with a wire attached and they say if the wire is plugged in, the waterfall will come alive with the sounds of birds in the background.
“How did you know I like the sound of birds?”
“You told us, didn’t you? Don’t you remember?” A friend, Mr. Muthuraman, who will be retiring next year said, “You said it brings out the poet in you.”
“Oh, so you write poetry, Mr. Koshy, I never knew. What a talented person we have had in our midst. It will be a complete loss, will miss you, really,” Mr. Rao said. The hypocrite!
I felt like telling him, none of my poems are published, all of them were rejected by a world, which is no longer in need of poetry or poets.
A murmur, a titter goes around. “Ah, I never knew he wrote poetry, in Malayalam, it seems, he is from a tradition of poetry, ah, murmur, murmur, titter, titter....”
I eat the soggy samosas, drink the tepid tea.
It’s 1 p.m. I have begun my journey back having had lunch in Swagat Restaurant in what was once the fort area of
With difficulty I make it to Victoria Terminus train station and choose the train to Belapur. Trains are less crowded at this time. There are a lot of women, children, and petty traders in dhotis, kurtas, lehengas, some of them carry big loads on their heads and under their arms.
I, too, am carrying this load, this picture, this burden of my past, the thing that had divested me of my life, my writing, sucked the blood out of me with its dreary routine chores that needed to be done for my boss, which had in turn developed into a habit. Now I had to consciously get out of the habit every day. It sits in my hand, unwieldy, incongruous, obstructing the flow of people. They dash against it, turn and stare, even curse. It nauseates me how they couldn’t think of a better gift. All they could find was an artificial waterfall with artificial bird sounds whereas I like natural bird sounds. How dumb!
The 1.45 p.m. local to Panvel is empty. It passes through Belapur. I climb inside the deserted compartment and sit holding the packet in my lap. I am not sure what to do with it. I hate what it represents, the repression I felt, sacrificing everything for a government job, the dreariness of the function in the morning in which people were so cloyingly sweet. But I could sense their impatience. It was as if they wanted to get rid of me and go back to their work and get on with it. Mr. Rao had looked impatiently at his watch several times, the man who had said, “Mr. Koshy you are too slow with letters, you need to learn to manage your time, speed up, you know. I have no patience for your slowness.” He had the sarcastic look Waghmare sometimes has when he speaks to me. I hate them both – one my former boss, the other still my neighbour. Two unpleasant people who dominated my life these years.
The picture grew heavier as the train progresses on the Harbour Line. Masjid,
I was sweating profusely. Is a stroke coming? Why am I feeling so funny, prickly all over? As the train passes over the
I look back. It lies there floating for a few seconds, then it slowly sinks into the brackish water and mud. I feel light, as if a burden has been lifted, I smile. I will take care of Waghmare when I reach home.