JP Dutta’s movie Border (1997) is an epic war story that portrays soldiers leaving behind their families when the call to action at the front shortens their holiday. It showcases the love stories of soldiers with their childhood lover-turned-fiancé and their newlywed wife left behind. For a ’90s kid, this movie was about these women waiting for their partners to return from the war. It also depicted the soldiers’ longing for their home. For those not familiar with the cultural milieu of Punjab, Border was a representation of love, waiting, and loss suffered by the families of soldiers.

It is the movie that comes to mind while reading Simrita Dhir’s second novel The Song of Distant Bulbuls. In the novel, Sammi, a 17-year-old daughter of a farmer and landowner, is married to Hari Singh, a lieutenant in the 9th Indian Infantry Division. Hari Singh was called to fight in the Second World War 21 days after his marriage to Sammi in 1939. The story begins in 1946. Hari Singh has not returned. There has been no word from him in 4 years. A 23-year-old Sammi revisits the seven letters from her husband that have helped her bear the seven years of separation between them.

Love, passion, and a wait for return

Dhir’s novel revives a reader’s faith in love – it is a reminder of what love looks like during a years-long absence of communication. It is gratifying to read a story where love, and not the beloved, is the subject of worship. Sammi has had no communication from Hari Singh in four years. There is no news of his return upon the end of the Second World War. She also has no proof that Hari Singh is alive. Yet, she keeps waiting for him simply on the strength of the three weeks days they spent together after their wedding. Those 21 days brought her so much love and belonging that she’s willing to spend the rest of her life waiting.

This devotion is juxtaposed with the family’s concern for her well-being. A marriage after all secures a woman’s future and fortune. In some episodes of the story, different characters try to explain to Sammi why a second marriage is the right course of action for her. Be it her brother Jasjit narrating Bibi’s childhood experiences of losing her whole family in the span of two days or Jeeti Bhua plainly stating how betrayal destroys a person’s trust in love. Marriage is a responsibility, and having a husband to take care of is a woman’s priority. However, Sammi is not convinced to let go of the love that’s found her, a love that Hari Singh once told her is like the song of bulbuls. The birds mate for life, and this is precisely what their relationship means to Sammi.

The metaphors and their limitations

Sammi’s life becomes the major conflict for all characters in the novel. Her two brothers, Jasjit and Kirpal, feel responsible for her. Jasjit ponders the past wherein he convinced his father to accept Hari Singh’s offer for Sammi. He was swooned by the urban life of wives of army officers in Patiala. He had hoped for a dignified life for Sammi, away from the rural life of Aliwala, the village where they grew up. However, the absence of Hari Singh has Jasjit questioning his decision, wondering if he has brought despair upon his beloved sister. Kirpal is concerned with Sammi’s future. In the absence of her husband, he decides to protect her future by remarrying her to his friend and benefactor Bacchan Singh.

At one point in the novel, Dhir compares Sammi’s life to that of India’s impending independence and rumours of partition. Sammi is a strong-willed woman in love and dedicated to her husband for her whole life. The thought of remarriage draws her close to madness for she cannot imagine herself with anyone but Hari Singh. In the conversation about her marriage, the men in the family have a say, with her father, Bapuji, delivering the final decision.

Jasjit seems to have adopted Nehru’s socialism wherein he advocates for Sammi’s right to her life and decisions. Meanwhile, Kirpal seems to have adopted Jinnah’s stubbornness as he is adamant about marrying Sammi to Bachan Singh irrespective of her desires. Bapuji, like the popular idea of Gandhiji, is caught in a dilemma, not wanting to remarry Sammi but seeing no way around it.

Meanwhile, Sammi’s voice is pushed into silence and when she does speak up for herself, she clearly states where she stands and what she wants. Yet, the final decision lies with her Bapuji. Here, the metaphor of India ceases to be. Unlike the country that remained helpless in the hands of the politicians, Sammi takes her future and well-being into her own hands. By allowing Sammi agency, Dhar shatters the notion that women are helpless in standing up against their male relatives.

The Song of Distant Bulbuls, Simrita Dhir, Speaking Tiger Books.