Thursday, 29 May 2008

Heer Ranjha

You would assume that literature reflects what is going on in a society in any given time. The ballads, epics and legends that emerge mirror the norms and behaviour of society and perhaps also its hopes.

I am starting to realize thought that the way we view a story also changes so that the story isn’t a plain reflection anymore. Instead our reaction to the story varies with the zeitgeist of the times.

What made me think this is the folk tale of Heer Ranjha, the most famous of the romantic tragedies of Punjab. Immortalised in Waris Shah’s famous poem, the tragedy of Heer Ranjha has been told time and again as a celebration of love. One of my great uncles memorized Waris Shah’s version and it is regularly recited or sung at festivals and competitions. There is a great deal of affection for this poem amongst lovers of Punjabi language and culture as it celebrates both in a country where Punjabi is often looked down in favour of the more genteel Urdu. The tragic Heer herself is celebrated as the archetypal heroine: loyal, brave and beautiful with her big eyes, straight nose, full lips and dark skin. Her uncle Kaido, who poisons her at the end, is the classic villain seen again and again in later stories and films.


The strange thing is, not long ago I heard a cousin of mine in Rawalpindi talking about how he thought Kaido was in the right. That Heer and Ranjha’s behaviour was lewd and amoral and that Kaido’s concern had been with the honour of his family (a moot point, because at the end Heer’s family agree to the marriage – and does’t this thinking condone honour killing?) This was similar to something I had heard on Urdu television on a discussion about the love-story.

Usually it’s our old people who are strict and the youngsters who fight against their restrictions. But this change in thinking reflected to me a change in religious conservatism. Our older generation had more involvement with the sufiana side of Islam. Faith and its practice was generally a private thing. They often accuse the youngsters of becoming "Wahhabi’s" for disagreeing with many of their rituals and customs.


I agree with many of the things that the youth are objecting to: the unquestioning and often uneducated reliance on shrines and pirs (saints) and the superstitions and customs borrowed from other faiths.

There is a lesson in the change in our reaction to the story of Heer Ranjha. We scrutinize our faith and reject what we deem to be um-Islamic. In doing so we have to be careful that we don’t reject our culture wholesale too. Islam does not tell us we cannot enjoy our language, our stories and poems, our dress, food and celebrations as long as they don’t contravene the guidance of Islam. When we are old and set in our ways sometimes we are not willing to see something wrong and change it. However when we are young sometimes we don’t see the depth of a matter. Waris Shah’s Heer is a love story, but on a deeper level it talks about the love of God. The message of Allah’s love for us is conveyed much more beautifully to a people who were once illiterate in the main and would have had no time for a lecturing mullah, but had all the time in the world for a well-told tale. I can relate entirely to that.



P.s. maybe thats whats called serendiptiy, but I visited the library half way through writing this and found a translation of "Laila Majnun" the great Persian love tragedy. I'm not really a fan of romances, but this looks interesting. Will have ago at reviewing when I am done.

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