To Waris Shah

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Waris Shah! I implore you today

speak, speak from your grave…

and in your book of love

write a new page –

You wrote an epic when a

daughter of Punjab shed tears, [1]

today, a million daughters weep…

Waris Shah, they call out in fear –

Protector of the helpless!

Rise, look upon your land,

its fields are ripe with death

the ebullient Chenab runs red – [2]

Someone has stirred poison

into the five rivers,

and those same waters now

leach into the earth –

The cloyed earth belches venom…

look how wide

the pallor spreads…

look how far the havoc threads –

Now a poisoned wind

whispers through the forests,

stealthily changing bamboo

flutes into snakes –

…that strike men, one by one,

making limbs twist, bend,

pained black and blue…

… so suffers a radiant land –

Girls’ voices blotted their songs

Spinning wheels broke their yarn,

friends have lost friends

and mehfils are forlorn – [3]

Bridal couches are cast overboard

in Chenab waters, Luddan ferries his boat, [4]

and the swings we stitched in its arms

the peepal with its own hand, broke –

The flute smitten with love songs

is forever lost

and Ranjhas in the land of love

have forgotten the art of love – [5]

Blood oozes like silent tears                                   

beneath lids of fresh graves,

where shehzaadis in love 

weep tears of blood at lovers’ graves –

A Kaidu hides at every turn,

enemy of beauty and love… [6]

will I find another Waris Shah

so like the one?

O Waris Shah! I beg you

speak, speak from your grave,

and in your immortal book of love  [7]

write, again, a new page.


[1] Waris Shah lived in the Punjab in the eighteenth century, and as popularly believed, wrote his immortal work, Hir, in memory of his unrequited love for Bhag bhari. Hir is a true-to-life retelling of the 200-year-old tale of Heer-Ranjha, replete with the elements of daily life and living in eighteenth-century Punjab. Pritam, writing this elegy in the mid-twentieth century, reuses elements as she sees their continuing relevance in rural parts of Punjab.

[2] The Chenab, one of the five rivers of the Punjab, was the theatre of the blighted and soulful romance of Heer-Ranjha. Ranjha was born in the village of Takht Hazara on the banks of the Chenab (present-day location in Punjab, Pakistan). It was on the opposite bank of the river where Heer and Ranjha first laid eyes on each other, as Ranjha stepped off a ferry; later the river was their secret meeting spot. The other rivers, that together with Chenab, endow the Punjab (specifically, the Doab regions) with its golden wealth of the earth, are Ravi, Sutlej, Beas and Jhelum – all tributaries of the River Indus.

[3] A spinning-wheel (charkha) was an essential part of every woman’s accompaniments in the old Punjab. Young girls and brides had red spinning-wheels, of a smaller size. It was a focal point in their social life, with women regularly congregating to spin cotton yarn, along with singing songs and exchanging stories. These spinning parties were called tarinjan or bhora. Later, in a shrewdly calculated political maneuver, Mohandas Gandhi used the spinning-wheel as a powerful symbol of defiance and boycott of British-produced foreign cloth.

[4] This makes reference to the tale of the ferryman Luddan. In one version (though not in Hir Waris Shah), Luddan displeased the local chieftain one time, and was saved from the latter’s wrath by Heer. In return, Heer had the privilege of having a permanent seat on his ferryboat on the Chenab (a fancy couch, as befit a daughter of the Sial clan). Waris Shah describes Heer as ‘lovely as the moon, cheeks bright as roses, lips red like a ruby, her chin like an apple from the north, teeth like pearls and beautiful like the seeds of a pomegranate… To look at her was the vision of the Night of Nights…’ [Hir Waris Shah, translation into English by Charles Frederick Usborne].

[5] Waris Shah’s hero, Ranjha, played the bamboo flute with a divine touch, and had the power to mesmerize creatures big and small. Not just men and women, cattle too, answered the call of his flute. In the Punjab, the humble flute is, even today, a much-loved musical instrument.

[6] Kaidu was Heer’s evil uncle, the quintessential villain. Kaidu was bitterly opposed to Heer’s carefree ways, and her fiery love for Ranjha. Ultimately, in a twisted bid to save the family honor, he fed poison to Heer at the eve of her wedding with Ranjha.

[7] The Punjab is indeed the land of love, if one harks back to the tales of love that have played out on its mythological landscape. Foremost among them is that of Sohni-Mahiwal. Sohni, daughter of a potter lived on the banks of the Chenab, and was smitten by Izzat Baig, a traveler. To be able to stay with his love, Izzat Baig became a cowherd – Mahiwal. The romance ended in tragedy, and became an eternal symbol of true love. Sohni’s tomb in Sind remains a revered spot for lovers. Then there is Sassi-Punnu in Sind. Sassi, a washerman’s adopted girl in Bhambore,  fell in love with a Baluch chieftain, and gave up her life in trying to cross the desert bare-footed, in search of her lost love. There are other lesser known but equally poetically scripted tales that tell of star-crossed lovers and their tragic irrevocable destinies.