• Patan dhoka, Lalitpur, Nepal
  • What Children Must ask Sohni

    04.01.2014

    Chintan Girish Modi

    Love legends have the potential of allowing children to engage with complex questions of love, honour, endogamy, adultery and patriarchy. However, cultural pride and questioning often do not go hand in hand, says Chintan Girish Modi

    What is a love legend doing in a history book, and that too, a book for children? This is what I wondered aloud, as I came across the eighth chapter of Hamida Khuhro’s A Children’s History of Punjab, which I picked up in Lahore, at the Children’s Literature Festival organized in October 2013 by Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi and Oxford University Press Pakistan. With a sense of surprise and excitement, I read further, and witnessed a conversation between a girl named Abida and her mother as they stroll along the banks of the Jhelum River one evening.

    “This river reminds me of an old tragic story,” says the mother. Abida responds, “Why are all the stories tragic?” Interestingly, the mother dodges the question with a “Not all, but this one is” and continues to tell the story. This one is of Sohni and Mahiwal, the woman from Gujrat and the man from Bukhara, the skilled artisan and the rich merchant. This is a patriarchal set-up, so the woman has no agency in choosing her partner. The book tells us, “He saw Sohni and instantly fell in love with her. Her father, however, would not let her get married to this foreigner and Sohni was engaged to someone from her own caste.”

    I try to imagine myself as one of the children this book has been written for, and these are the questions that spring up:

    Why does the mother avoid giving Abida a satisfactory answer?

    What is wrong about falling in love with a foreigner?

    What is caste?

    Why is it important to marry someone of one’s own caste?

    Why was Sohni not allowed to make her own decision?

    Did Sohni have a mother? What did she think about the father’s decision?

    As I spell out all the questions that arise in my imaginary child-mind, I also wonder if the child would find any peer or adult willing to listen to these questions, leave alone engage with or answer them. If this book became a required reading in schools or a supplementary text even, would the teachers create a safe, open, non-judgemental space for children to explore these questions? I ask this, with a large measure of concern, because the blurb on the back cover reads, “A Children’s History series not only provides interesting historical information but will also go a long way in developing a sense of pride among Pakistani children regarding their history and cultural heritage.”

    From what is observed in Southasia, cultural pride and questioning often do not go hand in hand. I hope this book lands in hands that have the maturity to honour the author’s expansive vision, as an historian, as an educationist, and as the grandmother of Basil and Ilyas Faris, the grandsons she wrote these books for.

    Coming back to the chapter in the history book, we read about the clandestine meetings between Sohni and Mahiwal, and how she swims across the Chenab every night to be with her beloved. However, there is no mention of Sohni’s husband Dam, and his sister who replaced Sohni’s ghara (the baked clay pot that kept her afloat) with an unbaked one. We are told that a jealous person replaced the ghara. Of course, we are also told that Sohni drowns when the ghara dissolves in the water, and Mahiwal, too, gives up his life in the river.

    Again, I try to enter the shoes of the child-reader this is written for, and think up a new set of questions:

    If Sohni loves Mahiwal, why does she come back every morning?

    Why does Sohni’s father not support her if she is so unhappy?

    Why does the jealous person want to kill Sohni?

    Why does Mahiwal take his own life?

    Each of these questions is worth engaging with, and so are others that can be raised around ideas of honour, endogamy, adultery, patriarchy, gender based violence, and murder – themes that lurk under the simple telling of the story in this book. Are parents and teachers in Southasia ready for these? Do they ask the same questions? If they are not ready, it is perhaps time to reflect deep within, and also look at what is happening around us.

    I laud the author’s courage in treating the telling of this legend as a legitimate way for people to connect with their past. At the same time, I am interested in how the past continues into the present, not just in Punjab, or Pakistan, but all of Southasia – how numerous Sohnis continue to be denied the freedom to choose their partners, how marrying outside the caste or community continues to be prohibited and even sparks violence, and how lovers continue to be killed for their decision to transgress.

    After listening to the story narrated by her mother, Abida remarks, “Mother, that is a very sad story.” This is what she hears in response: “Many romantic stories are sad. Didn’t you read about Romeo and Juliet in your English class? The Punjab is full of tragic romances. There is the story of Heer-Ranjha who lived on the banks of the River Chenab, and the Sufi poet Waris Shah and others have written their story in verse. As you know Heer is a very popular kaafi sung all over the Punjab.”

    It is fascinating to note the parallel with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and to imagine the kind of discussions that take place in a classroom where this story of star-crossed lovers and feuding families is taught. Would it be easier for teachers and students to talk about the same themes of love, romance, sexuality and violence in connection with a story that appears to be set faraway from their own context? Perhaps. Here is what happened when we shared Sohni-Mahiwal with eighth graders in Mumbai last year: http://www.hrisouthasian.org/initiatives/love-legends/163-speaking-of-love-in-mumbai.html 

    If you have any such experiences to share, we would love to hear.

    Chintan Girish Modi is a writer and researcher based in Mumbai. His work explores the connections between education, social awareness, arts and peacebuilding.

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