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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Story of Heer Ranjha

The Legendary Love of Heer and Ranjha

(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

Susamma's Story

Nobody knows how Susamma died. Some say she was killed, some say it was suicide, some say it was a natural death – a heart attack. Her husband was not at home. So a murder was ruled out. She had a red mark on her neck. People interpreted this as suicide by hanging. But then how can she die if she tied the knot, changed her mind, and decided not to kill herself? I knew Susamma wouldn't kill herself. Even though she went through many hardships she always bore it with a smile and a kind word. No, Susamma can't kill herself. She is not that type.

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.