How Manjul Bajaj weaves a note of hope into the tragic epic of Heer Ranjha


Book Review by Namrata

(Book sourced by Kitaab Bangladesh Editor-at-Large, Farah Ghuznavi)

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Title: In Search of Heer 

Author: Manjul Bajaj

Publisher: Tranquebar Press, 2019

Manjul Bajaj’s In Search of Heer is a retelling of the historical tale of Heer Syal and Deedho Ranjha, the star-crossed lovers from Punjab. In her poignant narration, Bajaj manages to highlight some unknown aspects of the centuries old epic love story and leaves a reader content after reading what is otherwise, a sad story.

Before becoming a writer, Manjul Bajaj worked in the field of environment and rural development. Both her previous works, Come, Before Evening Falls and Another Man’s Wife were shortlisted for Hindu Literary Prize. She has also written two books for children.

We are in the year 2020 and yet the sheer number of cases of honour killing, especially in South Asian countries is horrifying. While the debate of who is to be blamed for this remains, the end result barely has altered since centuries. Taking the case of Heer Syal from the epic love story of Heer-Ranjha — she was supposedly killed by her own brothers for having fallen in love with Ranjha after both of them had decided to elope due to opposition from their families. Unbeknownst to them, death followed them to the end. Eventually they were united in death. Sadly, if you were to look at any of the honour killing cases since time immemorial, the story doesn’t differ at all. The fate of the lovers from different backgrounds remains the same to date. Centuries later today, when we are redefining love in various ways, one wonders how long will it take for such killings to stop.

A bright yellow cover with intricate designs and two birds embossed on it is the first thing you notice about Bajaj’s In search of Heer. It is vibrant, exciting and eccentric, just like the treatment of the story. When an author chooses to retell an epic tale, it is expected that they will bring out some hidden aspects of the story, highlight some newer angles and showcase it in an entirely different form. Bajaj scores highly on this , for her retelling is not only evocative but is also lyrical at the same time.

Written from multiple perspectives which includes a crow, a flock of pigeons and a goat apart from the usual cast of characters, the narrative is multi-dimensional. This is one story that has been retold many times across languages. The characters and overall plot remains same in most of them, however with each retelling there have been newer angles explored. The first written version is attributed to Damodar Gulati while the most popular version is Waris Shah’s poem. Bajaj’s story follows Waris Shah’s narration of the story largely except for a few minor details of the characterisations that have been taken from Damodar Gulati’s rendition.

The characters of Heer and Ranjha are historic and alluring. However, what makes this one special is the ending. The story of Heer and Ranjha traditionally doesn’t end on a happy note but Bajaj has endeavoured to leave the ending open, leaving room for hope. The eternal optimistic in me, wants to believe in the probable happy ending that Bajaj has given and feel joyous.

To witness a female protagonist who is strong and fierce is enlivening.  Heer is no damsel in distress who is waiting for her knight in shining armour to rescue her. Rather she believes in holding the reins once things go out of control and make them work in her favour. On the other hand, Ranjha’s desire to follow his passion and listen to his heart, is enthusing.

Another interesting aspect of Bajaj’s retelling are the strong secondary characters that seem to come alive, page after page. It would be wrong to call this book a story of only Heer and Ranjha. Secondary characters like Kaido Langra, Seida Khera, Hassi, Jhang, Sehti and Malki are etched into the reader’s consciousness forever with their unique traits and captivating standpoints.

The narrative from multiple perspectives adds to the fascination, especially the birds and animals who add an omnipresent points of view to the story and make it a compelling read. Interestingly, even inanimate things like food, clothes, culture and traditions, all have an important role to play in bringing this rousing tale to life.

Through her lyrical prose and exquisite imagery, she makes the lush riverbanks and rugged countryside of West Punjab come alive. Though the story seems predictable, Bajaj weaves in an element of surprise in the sequence of exploration of the different aspects of this story.

A brilliant retelling with a compelling narrative and strong characters, Heer and Ranjha’s stories continues to raise some valid questions about love and honour in today’s times. Sadly, their dream of a kinder, freer and fairer world for everyone, seems like a dream even today.

 

Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story. She can be reached at privytrifles@gmail.com.

 

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