Review: In Search Of Heer by Manjul Bajaj
Percy Bharucha revisits a novel whose realism, wit and fresh prose animate the dry bones of the tale of Heer and Ranjha
The story of Heer and Ranjha is one of the many immortal love stories we know. But how well do we truly know them apart from the tragedy?
Manjul Bajaj, author of Come, Before Evening Falls and Another Man’s Wife, presents a detailed and insightful retelling of their love. In Search Of Heer suffuses the bones of this ancient tale with realism and wit and presents it in relatable prose. An early example of this is at the naming ceremony of Heer, attended by many chieftains for the daughter of a Syal chieftain is “top-grade future daughter-in-law material.” Then there are the first words devoted to Heer by Ranjha: “Damn, you’re beautiful.’
Bajaj uses a curious device for the narration. Certain events are narrated from a bird’s eye view, by a crow. The reader is drawn in as the events unfold in a cinematic sequence rather than as mere paragraphs on a page. Bajaj’s rich prose does not rely on lyrical ornamentation or skilful wordplay. Instead, it stems from detail. Such as the description of the various bovine breeds in the Syal herds and the paean to the many uses of pigeons throughout history, their mating habits, and the deplorable practice of breeding and eugenics. Ranjha’s road trip is told from the point of view of the goat that accompanies him. This is followed by a comparison of the various animal species that make for ideal road trip partners. Surprisingly, the goat wins. If fault is to be found, it is in Bajaj’s lovemaking verses. These seem to be less a description of sex between two passionate people than an eyewitness account of the last days of Pompeii. The “volcanic intensity”, “hissing heat” and “molten lava” feel a bit out of place.
Still, In Search Of Heer is a compelling read that takes the fairy out of the fairytale leaving stories of characters burdened by familial duties and the weight of being their own individuals. The author sets a known tale in a milieu that is as sparkling as the characters themselves. Seida, Meru and Imarti who appear in cameos deserve tales of their own. Most importantly, Bajaj presents the loss of love in all its facets - between siblings and between children and their parents. She reminds us of the immutable truth - we all lose love.
In Heer’s childhood, we see our own. Her ability to see through the flimsy excuses of adults as they unjustly favour her brother are the very same excuses still known and heard today. Rebellion then wears a familiar face and the fight too is a familiar one between tradition and individuality and the vain attempt to throw off the shackles of the “family name”. The fear of setting a precedent against tradition, of breaking old rules, and thoughts of the courage it will inspire in others to do the same are all familiar millennial obsessions.
Bajaj also insightfully explains her father’s love for Heer; she is the voice of his conscience. Heer was what Mir Chuchak could not be; she dwelt in the ideal world that he had to quit. Bajaj also skillfully articulates evil. Kaido’s abuse of a deaf-mute girl for Heer’s transgressions is an insightful take on those who lust for power. The scariest thing about this novel is that the same rules that thwarted Heer and Ranjha are still alive. South Asian society has scarcely changed between the original and the retelling. Few still get away with marrying for love.
One of my favourite quotes is from Hellboy: “What makes a man a man? A friend of mine once wondered. Is it his origins? The way he comes to life? I don’t think so. It’s the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.” I think the same advice can be applied to books. It is not so much as how they begin but how they end. In Search Of Heer has an inspired and ingenious ending. It is perhaps a testament to India that even our happily-ever-after requires a fair amount of jugaad.
Also remarkable is the author’s note where Bajaj diagnoses our obsession with love stories. In the cast of the young, immortal lovers, we find the people we could not become, and the social order we did not choose. Theirs is a vision of the world that is much kinder towards both one another and towards nature, a vision that would serve us well in the future.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha