In Search of Heer is the latest book from Manjul Bajaj, my favorite contemporary author. She has a gift of words that she beautifully enriches with her in-depth research and blends it beautifully in a story. Her stories are rooted in the planes of North India, away from the urban noise you know them for. Sometimes I wonder if she is searching for herself in the women she writes about.
This time Manjul retells the story of Heer, the heroine of the Heer-Ranjha love story. The first thing that I noticed was the title of the book – it talks about Heer and not about Heer-Ranjha as most authors of the story would do. When I started reading, it begins by introducing Deedho Ranjha of the Ranjha family that lives in Takth Hazara on the banks of Chenab. I like the way she brings the geography of Punjab alive with its rivers, its landscapes, its rural life as it would have been a few centuries ago.
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In Search of Heer is about the search of Ranjha for his Heer, a woman who is known far and wide for her beauty as well as her courage but who is promised to someone else. They meet, fall in love, commit to each other, till the family discovers and separates them by marrying Heer to Saida of Rangpur. We all know this story. However, it is the treatment of the story that keeps you bound to the book. You feel the joys and sorrows of this unusual couple, where a man is happy playing his flute or being a cowherd for Heer’s father’s cattle. The woman is in charge of her life despite knowing the fact that she has been promised to someone at birth.
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The portrayal of Heer is something that many current-day women will connect with. You can see her spirit in you. I could definitely see the strength that comes from within, from being in love, from having no doubts about what you want in life. This is also the strength that makes you willing to pay any price to lead the life you want. There are no calculations whatsoever that she does. She wants something and she is willing to give up everything for it, without really expecting anything from anyone else. It is a life led with the purity of the soul when that is the only thing that can drive you.
At one place Heer says to her sister-in-law Sehti – ‘ A woman like me, with a mind of her own, has no one who she can call her own people. I am as much an embarrassment in my mother’s home as I am in your father’s house. As much a stone around my brother’s neck as I am around your brother’s.’ Any woman who has chosen to live her life her own way would have felt this some time or the other.
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There are crows, pigeons, goats, horses with a personality of their own, who do their bit of storytelling. After reading this, you would surely look at birds on your parapet differently. For they may not just be observing your lives but playing a part in it. Manjul has gone and researched each of them and introduces you to the breed, pedigree before taking you through their minds. I wish she had made Chenab also tell us a few bits. I know I am being greedy, that is what good writers do to me.
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The back cover of the book emphasizes the unconventional personalities of Heer and Ranjha. The former being too strong for a woman and latter too effeminate for a man. In the book, you also get the gay angle of the man Heer is married to, which I am not sure if I have heard before or has an earlier reference. This is the mystery of fiction. You never know, what is real, what is retold. And what is the author’s own imagination? The love story of Sehti and Murad is touched upon to the extent it plays a role in the protagonists’ story.
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The end is different than what I know of the story. This is definitely a wishful ending by Manjul. I can only hope that what she says was actually true.
Thank you Manjul for yet another brilliant book. Already looking forward to your next one, whatever it is. I hope you are getting this translated in Punjabi. I would love to re-read it in Punjabi.
Go, read it.