We continue to be amazed by the ways in which contemporary storytellers reference the love legend of Heer-Ranjha. The latest one we have got acquainted with is Nadeem Aslam, the British Pakistani novelist whose new book The Blind Man’s Garden is set in a fictional town called Heer.
If one is looking to identify characters in the novel that are based on Heer, Ranjha, Kaido, Chuchak and Malki and Baba Gorakhnath, the principal characters in the Heer-Ranjha story, one is likely to chance upon nothing other than disappointment. Aslam’s reinvention is not limited to a fresh retelling with new elements of character, plot, setting or narrative voice thrown in. It also goes beyond mere analogy or allegory. There is, instead, a purposeful engagement with the spirit of the story, its themes and tensions, and with the social and cultural meanings it holds for the people in Punjab.
Aslam’s Heer is a small town located near Gujranwala in Pakistan, and is home to the chief protagonists in this remarkable novel written in the context of the American ‘War on Terror’ following terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 and its immediate impact on everyday life in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One may wonder why he felt the need to invent a fictitious place when he could have easily used the setting of any existing small town in Pakistan to locate his characters.
In an interview with Nauman Khalid of Huffington Post in April 2013, Aslam explained his subversive agenda. He shared that while Heer is celebrated as a heroine in most parts of Punjab, she is considered a disgraced woman by the clan she rebelled against for the lover she ran away with. Her descendants, who live in Jhang, a town in Pakistan, apparently did not allow a film about Heer Ranjha to be screened in Jhang. Aslam’s response to this incident was: “Okay you don’t want her in your town; I am going to give her an entire town.”
In his fiction, Aslam wants to reclaim for Heer the space she deserves. He plans to set all of his future novels in this town of his own making. For him, the Heer of the legend is not just a heroine; she represents what is ideal. In an article published in the March 2013 issue of First City magazine, he was quoted saying, “Heer Ranjha is a very simple Romeo and Juliet story – two star crossed lovers from different tribes couldn’t come together and they die unhappily. But over the years, decades, centuries, this very simple storyline has become imbued with a sense of rebellion. Heer was the rebel who stood up against the unjust system, and said no. And even Ranjha himself didn’t help her as much as he should have. She said let’s run away, and he said no….Heer is more or less a feeling – this feeling of saying there is an ideal.” This feeling permeates the entire novel. We first encounter it in a father-son conversation in the first chapter of the book. Jeo, as a young boy growing up in Heer, is being told by his father Rohan that good always triumphs over evil. Perhaps with his exposure to enough stories and fairy tales and indeed the ‘real’ world around him, the child is aware of another subtle truth. “Before they lose, they harm the good people,” he says. Yet there is something elevating about idealism that is deeply attractive for Aslam and his protagonists in Heer. One of the most poignant moments in the book is a rare conversation between Tara, an old woman who makes a living by sewing clothes and Mikal, a man who is in love with her daughter Naheed. It takes place a little after Mikal returns to Heer, having escaped from American custody in Afghanistan. The brutality and indignity he experienced has not managed to crush his spirit yet. He is, in fact, brooding over having shot two Americans while defending his own life.
Tara says to him, “You might want to rethink some of the guilt you’ve been carrying around about shooting those Americans.” Mikal replies, “I’ll try. The men I killed had mothers, fathers, probably wives and children. I killed them and must pay for the crime.” She tries to calm him down, urging him to look at things from a different lens. “But there’s no need to be so hard on yourself, at least until perfect order reigns in the world. Life is difficult at times and they goaded you and you were confused. Part of the blame lies with them. Don’t hold yourself to too exacting a standard,” she says. This does not unsettle Mikal because he has thought things through. He tells Tara, “That can be an excuse to not hold yourself to any standard at all.” She agrees, “That too is true.”
Apart from Mikal, there are others who embody what is ideal. There is Sofia who refuses to accept her husband Rohan’s decision to throw out of their school a child who is discovered to be a prostitute’s son. There is the child himself who grows up to be a doctor – someone Rohan happens to visit when his eyesight begins to get poorer – who is unapologetic about his mother but is also willing to do all he can to help Rohan heal. There is Mikal’s communist father “vanishing as he tried to bring about a revolution after which there would be no God,” and his mother “wearing herself out searching for him [Mikal’s father], slapped by policemen and officials from whom she thought she could demand answers.” There is Jeo who feels moved by the suffering of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and risks his life by going there to be of service. There is Akbar who shelters Mikal from the Al-Qaeda in Waziristan. And there is Rohan himself, who is initially angry with Abdul the unusual bird pardoner for setting up snares, locking up birds in a cage and agreeing to free each one in exchange for some money given by an ardent believer looking to get rid of a sin or two by releasing a bird. This anger disappears when Rohan connects with the father in Abdul. The pain of losing a son is something he knows well. “I will go to Peshawar with you,” Rohan tells Abdul. “We will meet the warlord’s people together and see what can be done to bring back Jeo.” The feeling of there being an ideal, which Aslam talks about, is also represented through the intriguing figure of the bearded old fakir, who appears almost Christ-like, bound heavily in thick chains. These chains represent the wishes and desires of people who want the fakir to intercede with Allah on their behalf. His body is frail, wrists calloused, hair matted and dust-filled, his face sunburnt but bearing a peaceful expression. He is described as “a soul without a self.”
Love itself is an ideal in this story of Naheed-Mikal, as in Heer-Ranjha. Naheed and Mikal are in love with each other but she is compelled by her mother Tara to marry Mikal’s friend Jeo who is studying to be a doctor and is therefore trusted to provide a more stable future for Naheed. Jeo dies in Afghanistan and Naheed is shattered but life gives her another chance when Mikal returns. Everyone tells her that Mikal too would have died but her own faith is undying.
In the novel, Aslam writes, “There is no body, there is no grave. She will keep telling herself this. If the sun and the moon should doubt, they would be extinguished.” Naheed reads from Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. “Love does not make lovers invulnerable…But even if the world’s beauty and love are on the edge of destruction, theirs is still the only side to be on. Hate’s victory does not make it other than what it is. Defeated love is still love.” Tara is supportive of Naheed this time. Mikal is a better option than the ironically named Sharif Sharif, the lecherous old man who exploited Tara in her youth and now hopes to marry Naheed.
Lovers who are rebels do not have it so easy. Soon after Mikal and Naheed begin to create a world together, he is asked to go to Waziristan. He cannot refuse Akbar, the man who sheltered him while he was running away from the American military. Akbar wants him to carry a bag of clothes and money for his sister Salomi and her husband. Mikal sets off. From the bus station at Heer, he telephones Naheed“just to hear her voice and they talk about what they have planned and envisaged for themselves after his return.” In the novel, Aslam writes:
He whispers a few obscene things to her and she laughs quietly, and then he stands listening to her breath until the money runs out, the sun rising above Heer and the sky changing colour like someone switching from one language to another, and as in a fairy tale he knows that he’ll die if he takes off her chain from around his neck. When he hangs up it is with the bone-deep fear that beauty and loss might be inseparable, but then he thinks of a line from one of Wamaq Saleem’s poems. ‘Love is not consolation, it is light.’
This light could be seen a metaphor for the ideal that Aslam looks up to. Mikal dies while saving an American soldier who is under threat from scores of locals who want to kill him to avenge the deaths of their loved ones. Mikal takes him to a mosque, switches on the amplifier and gestures towards the microphone. He does not know English. He asks the American to call out to his people so that they can come and get him. The soldier points to a six-inch gap where the wire connected to the loudspeaker at the tip of the minaret has melted away due to a power surge. Mikal knows what has to be done. He undoes the clasp of the chain he took from Naheed and splices it into the gap in the amplifier’s wire to complete the circuit. His death is astonishingly near. In the March 2013 issue of First City magazine, Aslam says:
I think in this world we underestimate the grief of the young, that here we have these new human beings who, fingers crossed, for 16-17-18-19 years, are given love and a certain amount of compassion and dignity. They are given a certain amount of ideals – they are taught that this is right and this is wrong, then they are sent out into the world. And the world says to them corruption is possible, there is an easy way out. Dignity and nobility and idealism are the hard paths you don’t have to go down. If you go down this other path…there will even be rewards! When at my age those things were happening to me, when I was in my early 20s, I just didn’t think I was intellectually equipped to actually bring them on to the page with enough honesty, without condescending to the young saying, ‘Oh grow up, oh compromise, everybody does!’ I didn’t want to do that.
This almost sounds like Mikal speaking to Tara, or even Naheed speaking to her mother. Both lovers are rebels in their own right. Things are not easy for Naheed either. She lives in a society where people are not kind to young women who have lost their husbands and are brave enough to seek love and a life of dignity, where notions of honour are steeped in patriarchal belief systems and almost never privilege the well-being and happiness of women. Naheed does things she does not want to, but in the matter of love she stands her ground most firmly.
Chintan Girish Modi is an educationist and writer based in Mumbai.
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