The weathered hay stacks tremble ever so slightly. Night stirs and the day’s first light breaks through like the fingers of a lover, running his hands through the dark locks of his beloved. The plains of Jhang pause for a while. It is as though the whole universe – just like her – is holding its breath: attentive, quiet, and eager to listen to the sad melody of the flute player.
He arrives on a small boat in the final hours of the night, under the light of a harvest moon and to a land unknown to him. His ego is bruised yet his heart softens and finds strength in the remembrance of his Creator: had his Rabb lifted his rizq from every corner of the earth, he would still not despair.
Between the huts of hay, he finds a sej. It is unusual to find a bed in the middle of open land, yet the thought does not concern him for long. The silken covers welcome him to a deep sleep, removing his worries like death’s embrace on the soul. But now, when he wakes this dawn, the pain of the past is a fresh betrayal and he turns to pour it into the only worldly possession he has, the wind instrument: his wanjli.
A short distance away, following the downhill current of the Chenab, a horde of beauties discuss the recent misdemeanour. Their leader, a veiled and lithe young woman, listens quietly.
“But who would dare?” asks one, the black dots tattooed on the arch of her eyebrows disappear into her scowl only to reappear again.
“Tis true, no one in their right mind would tangle with a jatti, let alone the daughter of Chuchak.”
A rotund girl adds, “Just give the signal Heeray, we will thrash him until he loses all consciousness of self.”
To their collective laughter, Heer lifts the veil from her face. All she wants to know is who this figure on her spoiled sej is. Her face is ablaze, in one moment she is fire but the next she is flowing like water. She gazes at his thick, downcast lashes. Silver mundriyan hang in both ears, the softest hands – hands of a man who has never laboured a day in his life – gently caress the flute. He is completely unaware of what or who is standing in front of him. She wants to slap him, to scream at him, to drag him into the mud for his impertinence yet she finds herself as silent as the universe, watching his poised lips finally exhale to share his tragic tale.
It is in this moment she decides, she will not let him leave. She will appeal to her father to grant him some work. She will appeal to him – the foreign stranger with the sad heart – to agree to the terms of his punishment, to complete the tasks she will set him.
In this pursuit of finding things for him to do, she already knows she will be undone.
Those of you who know me well will know Waris Shah’s poetic masterpiece ‘Heer’ is very, very close to my heart. It has been a source of inspiration for writers, musicians, poets, painters and more, across the South Asian subcontinent for hundreds of years. This is my humble contribution to its legacy.
English translations of the original text are rare, and the Punjabi in the original written version can be difficult to comprehend – even for natives of the region. But you can read The Adventures of Heer Ranjha, a brief narrative-style summary written in English, here.