The Sohni Within
Chintan Girish Modi
As a boy born and brought up in Mumbai, I have had little acquaintance with the tale of Sohni-Mahiwal other than stray references to this couple in Bollywood films and Hindi television serials replete with love stories, often involving transgression of norms about whom one is allowed to love or/and get married to. I remember hearing Sohni-Mahiwal in the same breath as Heer-Ranjha and Romeo-Juliet. While I had no introduction to the stories of these lovers, I recognized that they were legendary and spectacular. Indeed, it appeared as though passionate lovers who dared to defy social norms seemed to be inspired by these precedents.
I had a closer encounter with Soh(i)ni and Mahiwal (also called Mehar) a year ago, as a researcher with the Kabir Project. Filmmaker Shabnam Virmani narrates the story during a festival of Sindhi Sufi poetry, ‘Seeking the Beloved’. The festival celebrated the verse of 17th century Sufi Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai who weaves spiritual allegories around the tales of legendary lovers like Sohni-Mahiwal, Sassi-Punhoon, Umar-Marui, Leela-Chanesar and others.
Shabnam’s narration is inspired from Shah Adbul Latif: Seeking the Beloved, a book by Anju Makhija and Hari Dilgir, which features translations of Latif’s Sindhi verse into English for contemporary readers. The book was published by Katha in 2005. In this festival video we get to hear this narration, followed by a soul-stirring musical rendition of this story by Sumar Kadu Jat and Mitha Khan Jat from Kutch. This article by Namrata Kartik from the Kabir Project archives hosted on Open Space India’s Tana-Bana platform describes Shah Latif’s quest for the beloved.
As I watch the video again, the music and the narration inspire me to share the basic elements of the story before I proceed to share what meaning I make of it.
|Excerpt from Anju Makhija and Hari Dilgir’s Shah Abdul Latif: Seeking the Beloved, Katha, New Delhi: 2005, page 187During the reign of Shah Jahan, a village potter named Tulla lived on the banks of a river with his beautiful daughter Sohini. Tulla was so talented that even the king patronized his art.One day a wealthy trader from Iran, Izzat Beg, came to Gujarat, saw Sohini and instantly fell in love with her. Beg’s love was reciprocated and in order to see Sohini, he frequented her father’s shop and purchased pots in dozens which he disposed off at cheaper prices. He ended up bankrupt and was forced to approach Tulla, who hired him and entrusted him with the job of taking the buffaloes for grazing. Izzat Beg came to be known as Mehar.Sohini and Mehar would meet secretly, and when the potter came to know about it, he got his daughter married to Dam, a young man from his own community. Mehar, after losing his job, settled on the other bank of the river, Chenab. When Sohini came to know about this, she used to leave her husband at night to meet Mehar and return early morning.Unfortunately, Mehar fell ill, and become an invalid. Sohini, with the help of a baked matka, used to cross the currents to meet her lover. On return, she used to hide the matka in the bushes. However, this could not remain a secret for long and, one night, her in-laws secretly substituted the baked matka for an unbaked one. The next day, when Sohini reached mid-stream, the matka gave way and she began to call out to Mehar for help. Mehar heard her call and jumped into the river. However, he was too weak to help her and they both drowned.|
The theme that stands out most clearly for me is that of transgression. Mahiwal’s former name ‘Izzat Beg’ seems unusually striking in this regard. He is willing to let go of the ‘honour’ or ‘izzat’ associated with his wealth and position to pursue his loved one, a potter’s daughter. That was a major hurdle in his time, as it is now, considering that marital alliances are so often based on economic considerations. Parents want to get their child married to someone who not only practices the same religion, speaks the same language, and belongs to the same region, but who also displays a similar standard
Mahiwal dares to love someone outside these boundaries. He goes a step further. After becoming bankrupt, he seeks employment with his beloved’s father, who is a potter. The tables have turned. The potter who is traditionally supposed to be lower down on the social ladder as compared to a trader is now employing a trader. However, the news of this love affair is not received favourably by the potter. He gets his daughter married to someone within his own community. Mahiwal loses his love and his job, or so it seems at this point.
What I find amazingly progressive here is the fact that the agency in this love story is not with Mahiwal and Tulla alone. Sohni too is a strong, powerful figure. She knows what she wants. Her faith is unflinching. She cares little for the social mores that she is required to follow as bride, daughter and daughter-in-love. She is not bothered about “log-kya-kahenge”. She is drenched in her love for Mahiwal.
One of Anju Makhija and Hari Dilgir’s translations says (the numbers in brackets refer to Shah Latif’s Sindhi original Shah Jo Risalo):
those who got a glimpse
abandoned their homes
even without matkas
in the whirlpool they swirled
Another one states:
beseeching god’s help
sohini journeys on a matka
to tear limbs apart
Yet another stanza states:
she jumps in
to choose safe waters
is the route of impostors
those who love
take on the mighty river
And yet another:
so is the river
an unfathomable mystery
These stanzas, coupled with the intensity of the Waee performance in the video, give me gooseflesh. There is something utterly mad and moving about this intensity. The waves lash at you. They slap you in the face. They take you along in the current. They embrace, envelop and elevate you. They seem to tell you that you are a fool caught up in pleasing the world, that you should just follow your bloody heart because there is nothing wiser than that.
In the video, Shabnam says, “The river has flowed for centuries between desire and fulfillment. What lies on this side of the banks of the river is the status quo, the establishment, the structures of containment, and the plunge is transgression. And I think Sohini’s failure perhaps lay in her return at dawn to keep up the pretence. And in a sense, in Sohini’s failure, lie all our failures as we struggle to move between this bank and the other, between had and anhad.”
Perhaps there is some truth in this. I am not sure if I want to see Sohini as a failure though. It is easy to think of her as some kind of tragic heroine punished for the fatal flaw of having courted the forbidden, dreamt outside of what is permissible. Why the gooseflesh then? Why don’t I feel repelled by her? Why do I find her incredibly attractive? I may not make the kind of audacious choices that Sohni and Mahiwal made but their story inspires me to stand up for what I believe in, despite the hurdles that might come my way. And this is not just about matters of love. It extends to the kind of work I want to do, the people I want to be friends with, the places I am comfortable in, the questions I allow my students to ask in the school where I teach.