IT’S love which is the leitmotif of Masha Kaur’s first novel, Sohni Mahiwaal, a legend that has been retold by the architect-turned author in both Punjabi and English, with pieces of poetry and illustrations featuring in the book, as well. Released this week in Chandigarh, Kaur says the poetry written on Sohni, which she grew up listening to, was the inspiration for writing the 330-page novel, with extensive geographical and historical research on society, norms, and status of women in undivided Punjab.
It took Kaur four years to pen the novel, which began as a short story. But the character of Sohni was so strong and the story so potent that Kaur could not stop writing. Sohni, reflects the writer, is forever present in the collective psyche of the Punjabis. She appears every now and then to speak of love, in literature, in poetry, in our minds, and in our conversations. “We have, for centuries, been awed as much by her unwavering commitment to her beloved, as for her courage in pursuing love. That she was so young when she stood up to the test of love, only adds to the charisma. I wanted to explore her psyche, what drove her to take such a step for love, which many young women can’t do to date. The greatest poets of the land have written of Sohni, and the greatest singers have celebrated her love. I grew up listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan saahib’s soulful renditions of poems written about Sohni and have felt compelled, time and again, to retell her story.”
While many versions of the legend written over the years, Kaur says she has respected the main plot. She read many stories of various authors from Punjab who have written on the love legend, among other sources. Kaur says that we have heard of Sohni and Heer, but only in bits and pieces and she wanted to go beyond that. As folklore is inherently fluid in nature, she too has taken the liberty of reimagining some details in retelling this story, even as she has maintained its integrity.
“We cannot look at Sohni as a single point. She was affected by many other relationships and society. We never hear of her mother, friends, or husband. A person does not exist in isolation, a chain of events lead to many things, and I have gone deep into these aspects to understand the working of Sohni’s mind. I also wondered why we don’t accept love, yet we idolise these characters. Punjabi was the first choice to tell the story in, since it’s my mother tongue, but I wanted the work to reach a wider readership, so I wrote it in English. I hope the translations bring the youth of Punjab closer to their rich literature,” says Kaur.
The re-telling of the story, says the writer, turned out to be an enlightening journey for her, a journey of self-discovery, and a homecoming. It is also a journey which she hopes to embark upon again in the future. “The next time around, I wish it is Heer who holds my hand and gives me a glimpse into her world, much like Sohni let me peep into hers. These are admirable figures that, to my mind, epitomise the essence, strength, and power of womanhood.”