Manjul Bajaj on JCB Prize-longlisted book In Search of Heer: ‘Wished to explore society’s discomfort with romantic love’
Through the intense, all-consuming, spiritual love that Bajaj's Heer and Ranjha share, she is reminding us of the inherent nature of romantic love, and raising questions about contemporary attitudes toward it.
Author Manjul Bajaj believes there are two distinct routes a writer can take when addressing pressing issues of the world through fiction. The first is tackling the problem headlong and laying it bare, having immediate impact. “But to my mind, it also lacks in perspective as the writer and reader are too close to the problem, too opinionated still, too in the hold of current debates around it,” she tells Firstpost. The other route, which she prefers, is an indirect and introspective one.
“First, you create a distance from the subject you want to tackle and then you find your way into the heart of your concern.” Since hatred and polarisation are on the rise today, rather than speaking about them directly, this route means instead focusing on love, the challenges it faces, and its failures. “In Search of Heer takes the second route,” she says about her JCB Prize longlisted novel, a retelling of the Heer-Ranjha legend. “It doesn’t decry hatred. Instead, it goes out looking for love, kindness, equality, tolerance. If it is these we want in our world, we should be able to imagine them, recognise them in action,” she adds.
Through the intense, all-consuming, spiritual love that her Heer and Ranjha share, Bajaj is not just imagining love but reminding us of the inherent nature of romantic love, and raising questions about contemporary attitudes toward it. “I wished to explore society’s discomfort with romantic love – and the sexual attraction that is an integral part of it. Either we seek to repress, ostracise, or kill lovers or we tend to trivialise love, treat it as a youthful folly, a lapse into the illogical. We don’t give love the serious respect and engagement it deserves as a cornerstone of civilisation,” she says.
The patriarchal society we live in violently regulates romantic love, a moral policing that prescribes narrow caste, class, religious, and gender boundaries to it, and punishes transgressors brutally. But on the other hand, from Heer-Ranjha to Romeo and Juliet and Laila-Majnu, tragic love stories also have an enduring, widespread appeal, allowing, in Bajaj’s opinion, for a “collective catharsis.” Through such stories, society “weeps its heart out for the dead lovers. It mourns the sons and daughters that it has sacrificed at the altar of dictating social order, or protecting economic dominion and power hierarchies, maintaining ranks.”
Besides love, another important phenomenon Bajaj highlights is the environment, and humanity’s assumption of superiority over all other species. “Global warming, biodiversity and species loss, degradation of air and water quality are the critical issues of our times. I wished to examine these within the framework of my story.” There are several ways the novel brings attention to the natural world. It places the lovers in a rich, blossoming, idyllic forest, often using nature metaphors to express their love and longing. It also uses multiple narrative voices; besides humans, readers experience the perspective of a crow, pigeon, goat, and a camel. By giving them a voice, not only is Bajaj underscoring the uniqueness and perspective of different species with which we cohabit the planet, she’s also using their eyes to critique human behaviour. “The animal narrators in my story helped me point out the many contradictions and double standards of humans, in an engaging, lively manner.”
Another dominant theme of In Search of Heer is the inherently flawed structure of society. “I wanted to dwell on the parallels between gender and class inequalities in human society and our treatment of the environment. It all draws from the same unbridled instinct to possess and to dominate, to put material concerns over all other measures of values,” says Bajaj, something she comments on through the couple's love. And through Heer in particular, Bajaj drives home the gender inequities inherent in society.
“As women we are conditioned to make little of ourselves, our talents and our desires, to demand less, dream less, shine less brightly,” she says. By poising Heer as a brave, honest warrior princess, Bajaj highlights how even her independence and freedom are brutally snatched away when forced into an arranged marriage. Still, her spirit reigns. “She refuses to be conditioned by society’s notions of what a woman can and cannot, should or should not, do. At every juncture of her life Heer asks to grow, to occupy space, to live life fully and without fear.” While Bajaj’s Ranjha, more than once, sets out to look for Heer, it’s also her own search for these qualities that Bajaj is highlighting through the title In Search of Heer. “This Heer aspect of our female nature is what I went out in search of.”
Through addressing the pressing issues of society, challenging accepted codes of morality, and giving her characters’ speech modern inflections, Bajaj’s retelling is contemporising the story to suit modern sensibilities. She’s allowing readers to reclaim the Heer-Ranjha story and make it their own, and offering her audience a way to “engage with the timeless core of the tale.” Bajaj strongly believes that each new generation should have such relatable retellings of folklore since “they mostly work around basic and raw emotions,” like lover, hate, anger, vanity, cunning, and gullibility. The characters and conflicts of folk art are largely archetypal. “They represent aspects of our being which require revisiting, rethinking, and re-evaluating.” Our folk traditions, transmitted as they are orally through poetry, drama, and music, and aided with colour, and ritual, are enchanting, multisensory experiences embedded in our collective memories. “They are steeped in memories, meaning, and motifs which grow and gather resonance over time and across successive generations. Also, they offer the distilled wisdom of the women and men who’ve lived, loved, and grappled with being human before us, whose yesterdays are the bedrock of our today.”
When choosing from a plethora of possible stories to retell, the decision to focus on the Heer-Ranjha story stemmed from a personal yearning for and connection with the land. Both her parents had grown up in West Punjab and moved to India during Partition, later settling down in Lucknow, where Bajaj and her siblings grew up. “Yet there was a thread of nostalgia, of deep yearning for a lost homeland that ran through the stories of my grandmother, my older aunts, uncles, and my parents. At larger family gatherings like weddings, the music, laughter, and stories would flow into long, starlit nights in the verandas and courtyards of our Lucknow homes and we children too were infected with a germ of that longing within our being. And we got a tantalising glimpse of the culture and language we had lost, even as we gained another. So retelling the Heer-Ranjha story was, among other things, an exciting opportunity to travel to the land of my forefathers.”
Recreating this world through her writing meant undertaking an immersive research process. While the key sources she worked with were Damodar Gulati’s and Waris Shah’s versions, Bajaj also watched some film adaptations, and read broadly about the time period and location of the story. She consulted District Gazetteers and websites like apnaorg.com, which is hosted by the Academy of Punjab in North America. “It enabled me to listen to the songs of Baba Farid, Bulleh Shah, and Shah Hussain, recreate that time of history in my mind, and inhabit it for myself.”
Even as her retelling finds acknowledgement on the JCB Prize for Literature longlist, Bajaj has begun work on other books for readers to look forward to. “One is a collection of short stories based in the Kumaon hills and the other a novel inspired by the Therigatha.”
The JCB Prize for Literature shortlist will be announced on 25 September.
Read an excerpt from Manjul Bajaj’s In Search of Heer, reproduced here with permission from Westland Publications.
‘Father, I have committed myself to Ranjha. In the instant I heard his music, I felt my whole being melt and realign itself. I am not the Heer I used to be. Yesterday, I would have bowed to your wishes. Today it is no longer possible for me. My soul has taken a new vow of allegiance. In all but name, Ranjha is husband to me. If you turn him away, Heer will follow him.’
‘Heer!’ expostulated Mir Chuchak. ‘What madness is this, my daughter? You cannot marry for music.’
‘Father, the music he creates is a better measure of a man than the size of the mansion he inhabits. Hear my Ranjha play the flute once, I beg of you,’ said Heer.
Mir Chuchak looked from her to me and then back at her again. I saw a flicker of worry cross his face. Perhaps he was admitting to himself that there wasn’t a Khera born who could match his daughter’s beauty like this boy she had brought before him.
‘Huzoor,’ I said, seizing the moment, ‘I know I do not have land or wealth to give your daughter, but she does not lack for those. If for no other reason then, please listen to my music so that you may understand why Heer is ready to leave all your riches and follow me.’ I was convinced that if I could play for him once, there would be only one way his decision would go. In our favour. My music had never failed me in all my life. Yet.
‘Please, Father,’ begged Heer. ‘Give him an audience.’
‘Very well,’ he said. ‘You had better be good.’
Leaning my back against the trunk of the ancient neem tree, I took out my flute and caressed its grain gently.
In the temporal world, ours is known as the land of the five rivers, but it is equally the land of the five saints, the five realised souls who watch over its mountains, rivers, fields, meadows and animals. The Panj Pir, or the Five Masters, as they are called, hold the pulse of our people and our land between their fingertips. First, there is Baba Farid Shakarganj of Pakpattan, the patron saint of the Syals. Then there is my beloved Khwaja Khizr, the ruler of the waters, the evergreen presence. There is Sayyid Jalal Bukhari, the brave, who transformed Genghis Khan’s fire of wrath into a rosebush and later married his daughter. There is Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalander, the red-robed keeper of the Sindh. And then there is Bahuddin Zakariya of Multan, whose seven sons took the word of the Sufis to all corners of Hindustan.
I did not know if my music had in it the power to get the five saints to intercede on my behalf with Mir Chuchak. However, I was in love and determined to try. The energy of a hundred rutting bulls coursed through my limbs. A giddiness to match that of a thousand whirling dervishes on a full moon night was upon me. My love for Heer was making me determined to play on till her father relented and agreed to accept me as his son-in-law.
Mir Chuchak and Heer were now seated on the stone bench in the garden, facing the neem tree I was leaning against. Up on the tree, a crow focused a gaze full of loving kindness on me.
I picked up the flute and let my torrent of longing for Heer pour out of me. It emerged as a young, swift, heedless mountain brook, tripping, falling and gushing down towards the ocean of love. As I played on, the nature of love made itself known to me. Our individual love stories are but the waves rising from and falling back into the vast, infinite sea of love from which the universe was created. The outburst of clouds as rain, the tumult of springs and the restlessness of rivers finally all belong to the ocean. We are all one water — rain, river, cloud, tears, blood and sea. All love bears the Creator’s signature. Heer was the name I now knew God by. I could not put another name in its place.
In my mind’s eye I saw her walking towards me wearing the red, gold-trimmed veil of a bride, her hands and feet patterned with fresh, dark green henna, her wrists and ankles heavy with ivory bangles.
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