by Manjul Bajaj

Released : October 03,2020
Reviewed : October 01, 2020
Reviewed by Susma Sharma Gurumayum

The timeless tale of Heer-Ranjha through a feminist lens in Manjul Bajaj’s ‘In Search of Heer’

‘In Search of Heer’ is a feminist re-telling of the cult romance of Punjab of the medieval times, Heer Syal and Deedho Ranjha. Akbar was ruling India and Punjab was undivided, India was yet to be partitioned on religious lines – such was the historical setting of this love lore which started out as an oral narration sung in songs and poetry. It had many versions written down with the passing of time. The author gives a list of bibliography at the end of the book like Saba Imtiaz’s ‘Above Class and Clerics: The Saga of Heer Ranjha’, Mushtaq Soofi’s ‘Damodar Gulati: Poet Who Immortalized Heer and Ranjha’ and others, which she consulted to write this version which is very relevant in the present times.

This book is told from multiple points-of-view. It starts out with Ranjha ranting over his name Deedho. He says, “You could say that my departure from Takht Hazara began with the giving of that ridiculous name.” He asks what can be expected from a person whose name sounded like a donkey braying. Youngest of the family, he was his father’s favourite and did as he pleased. Unlike his brothers, he had his hair long, was into music, was not attached to the land and was a free-soul. While his mother worried, his father supported him. His father’s death and consequent happenings made him leave Takht Hazara, his ancestral land, strengthening his Sufi tendencies more. He left, in search of the famed beauty – Heer Syal of Jhang.

Heer. What a carefully picked name. Diamond! Unlike Dheedho. The narration shifted from Ranjha to the crow, Heer’s guardian. Like Ranjha, Heer’s father was her major support. She grew up with Razia Sultan as her role model. She was a fighter who fought against social injustice with her band of girls. Female friendship played a major role in Bajaj’s fiction. The warrior Heer and the peace loving Sufi Ranjha fell in love, their love of the body and of the soul is not only what this novel is about. It is so much more.

It is about Heer’s realisation that her power came from her father’s support, the male-head-of-the-family’s presence. The day he left, the shambles of patriarchy surrounded herstripping her of all her strength. It is about internalisedpatriarchy and misogyny which is imposed on women by women, mothers to daughters, piling on generations after generations. It is about questioning if an escape is possible, at all?

Heer’s uncle Kaido’s secret life is shown to us through the words of his beloved pigeons. His paedophilic actions showthe vilest human side. He urges mothers to keep their daughters safe. He blames his inhuman actions on people who gave him the opportunity to do so. He is so evil that he only sees evil in people. He propagated that parents ought to keep their daughters safe and protected. On the one hand, the writer shows the unapologetic and feminist ways of Heer. On the other, it is shown how these assertions of gender equality are unabashedly done away with in the name of their protectionby elements like Kaido.

Heer’s marriage to her queer husband, Seida Khera, gives this re-telling an interesting angle. Gender roles and societal norms expected of people by virtue of their biological sex are questioned.

This revisionist tale shows evils of patriarchy like forced marriage, child abuse, rape, moral policing, suppression of queerness, and others – a mirror to present-day society. Lyrical and poignant, Manjul Bajaj’s story of Heer and Ranjais a feminist rant at the backdrop of a medieval Indian love story, and this inter-mingling is anything but brilliant. It was Longlisted for the JCB Prize, 2020.

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