Book Title: In Search of Hee
Author: Manjul Bajaj
Published by: Tranquebar (an imprint of Westland Publications)
In the village of Takht Hazara, the musically gifted Deedho Ranjha struggles against family and society. He rejects the pursuit of wealth and power as the measure of a man’s worth. In distant Jhang, the spirited Heer Syal is an accomplished warrior who fearlessly challenges the norms of her community. Heer and Ranjha are destined to meet and fall in love—the former chastised for her ‘manly’ pursuits and the latter ridiculed for his lack thereof.
Told from multiple perspectives, set against the lush riverbanks and rugged countryside of West Punjab, this is a wise, passionate and lyrical retelling of one of the subcontinent’s most beloved epics. A rich cast of characters—Kaido Langra, Jhang’s seemingly pious conscience-keeper; Malki, the mother of a daughter she cannot understand; Seida Khera, Heer’s hapless ﬁancé; a silent, watchful crow; a ﬂock of excitable pigeons who bear witness and a philosophical goat—all play their part in bringing this stirring story to life.
Manjul Bajaj scratches away at the many meanings of love in the timeless tale of Heer–Ranjha, who dreamt not only of love for themselves but of a kinder, freer and fairer world for all of creation.
About the author:
Manjul Bajaj’s earlier novel ‘Before Evening Falls’ was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize in 2010. Her short story collection, Another Man’s Wife was also Shortlisted for the same prize in 2013. She has written two books for children as well.
In Search of Heer is a re-imagination of the popular legend of two star crossed lovers: Heer and Ranjha, that has over time, transcended the Punjab where the original story is set. Manjul Bajaj’s approach to this legend of a love story is lush in its lyrical beauty, deeply philosophical in it’s questioning of love and society’s restraints, almost spiritual in its quest of a harmonious social order and a strong call for female agency, friendships and solidarity. There are unexpected turns in the story, in the character arcs that leaves the reader surprised but pleasantly so for they come without fuss, without any drama.
Every single character – human, animal, bird plays an integral part in the overall story
that unfolds bit by bit taking the narrative to both a reader’s heart and mind. With birds and animals being central to the story of Heer and Ranjha that follows with them not only taking on the role of narrators and witnesses but also as integral catalysts, the author keeps readers firmly under her spell. The writing is evocative of the moods of idealistic youth and willfulness, the first forays of recognizing one’s self and then the unease at the discovery of a larger world that is unbending with its various conventions and rules.
Ranjha is almost a fakir in his approach to life, one who cannot be shackled with material acquisitions but Heer he wants as his bride because she is the most beautiful woman. Heer on her part is quick to question, to stand up for her beliefs and to call out for justice. The dreams that Heer and Ranjha have are made utopian by the moral codes of society and through the evil machinations of Kaido Langra whose depravity is revealed by the pigeons he rears. But Kaido is not the only villain for this is no story that uses the hero, heroine and villain as tropes. Rather, he epitomizes the double face of society and its people when it comes to women: the moral vanguard, the pretender underneath whom lurks the fear of what strong women can get away with.
The author places the agency of women, their lack of it and the discomfort that arises out of this friction at the center of the book but does not leave even a single female character wringing her hands in helplessness. Heer’s mother Malki is entrenched in patriarchal beliefs that is at odds with her husband’s liberal beliefs. Heer’s mother-in -law keeps herself far from her toxic abusive husband, having suffered her place in the house but it is her wisdom that gives Heer room to breathe. The subsequent friendship that Heer builds up with her sister in law is a bond that is tenuous at first but leads both to an affirmative destiny, one that gives hope to readers.
There is poetry, there is a sense of the time, the sights and smell of places and the moods and thoughts of people that comes alive through the different narrators: a spiritually inclined Ranjha who eschews ownership and possessions, a pigeon who sees depravity, a goat who becomes a travel companion for Ranjha in his darkest hours, Heer who laments and rages in part over her fate and her place in life and a crow who watches out for Heer and then for Ranjha as well. Heer Ranjha is a story we have all heard but to discover its many nuances at the deft hands of an author who adds such nuance and layers that the reader feels that this is the only version that should be!
*In Search of Heer by Manjul Sharma was Longlisted for The JCB Prize for Literature 2020