She stormed onto the boat like a hailstorm in April, early and unexpected and in a furious rage, flattening everything in its wake. Luddan reeled and lurched like a large tree hit by sudden lightning, while his wives eddied around in circles like two small leaves caught in a giant whirlwind. Her words, swift and heedless, pelted down on my sleeping form.

“Get up! Who are you? How dare you?” she said. Her voice lashed my face like angry raindrops.

Heer had been bathing in the river with her friends when some tattletale had taken word to her that a stranger was sleeping in her precious bed. She had dressed hurriedly and reached the boat. Her anklets rang out a call to battle as she strode up the steps.

I opened my eyes reluctantly, sheltering them with the back of my hand. Heer stood there, dressed in a green majhla and a yellow kurta, resplendent in the colours of springtime in the fields. Her hair, still dripping wet, was hastily coiled against the nape of her neck and the soft muslin of her kurta clung to her moist skin. The first thing I noticed about her were her perfect breasts, round, firm and ample. I was aroused even before I was fully awake.

“Easy sweetheart, easy does it,” I said, my voice still heavy with sleep.

“Are you talking to me?” she blazed.

Truth be told, I wasn’t. I was addressing a small bit of muscle wedged between my legs which was rapidly leaping to attention at the sight of her, but that is not something you can say to a woman you’ve just met. Even if you suspect the woman to be the other half of your soul.

True love, quite simply, is as irrefutable as an erection. It defiantly sets its own direction, unmindful of the embarrassment it causes, and the disapproval and trouble it brings in its wake.

I scrambled to a sitting position, hastily drawing my blanket over my legs and stomach, right up to my chin. My eyes refused to leave her face, even as my hands frantically searched the bed for my flute. Without it, I felt unarmed and helpless.

“Damn, you’re beautiful,” I said.

She looked from my face to the flute in my hands and back to my face with a questioning, almost challenging gaze. It seemed to me that she was calling my spirit out to prove its mettle against hers.

This was my do-or-die moment. Drawing my flute to my lips, I began to play for all I was worth. Either my music would reach her or it wouldn’t. There were no words for what I wanted to convey.

I wanted to tell her who I was and who I believed she was to me. It is a rare man, I wanted to tell her, who leaves his father’s village, his ancestral property, the entitlements that come with his forefathers’ name and class, beggars himself completely, and then sets out in search of his bride with only the gift of his music. My flute played for her the song of the fakir and the free woman, of a man unchained from the burden of earning, owning, appropriating endlessly, and of a woman who declined to be a commodity, owned and possessed in exchange for security and status. Of a new, different, better world than ours, free of the rapacity of humans, their need to grab ever more and attach it to their names.

Even as I played, the nature of my connection to her became clear to me.

Images of other lifetimes, other meetings and other separations flashed through my consciousness. I knew her from the time we were one protoplasm. Imprinted on each cell of my body was the memory of the distant moment when we were sundered and sent forth into the world, reeling and spinning through the ages, yearning to be united with the lost bit of ourselves.

I saw Heer’s eyes darkening with an understanding of that which lay between us – a river of deep, vast, unexplored feelings asking to be plunged into without delay. I had already crossed the river, left behind the familiar childhood shore, and let my passion lead me to her door. It was her turn now to respond how she would.

When I had finished playing, she gestured to her girlfriends and to Luddan and his wives to vacate the room. Bolting the door behind her, she sat down at the edge of the bed and appraised me intently, her hands clasped tightly together on her lap.

“Who are you?” she whispered. Her eyes took in my frayed blanket and simple clothes, my long hair, the delicacy of my features, the fineness of my fingers and mouth as they held the flute. “You look high born, your speech is smooth, yet you wear the garb of a homeless wanderer.”

“I am Ranjha from Takht Hazara, across the river. The favourite son of Mauju Chaudhry. My father was a rich landlord.”

“Why are you here, so far from your home and family, and in this penniless state?”

“My father died. My brothers cheated me of my share of the good land and gave me infertile, barren tracts to cultivate. My sisters-in-law were wicked and unkind. So I left,” I said. My eyes wandered to her feet. Her ankles were delicately crossed, her feet perfectly arched, her toes twinkled with silver rings.

“Why did you not stay and fight?”

“Fight for what?” I asked her. Her question irritated me somewhat.

“For a life of mediocrity like theirs? To be chained forever to what I was born into? To call only a spoonful of the sky my own instead of the limitless firmament? I did not fight, quite simply, because I did not want any of it.”

“What was it that you wanted then?” Heer asked, her eyes searching mine.

“To cross the river. To travel. To know the world. To explore the wilderness. Most of all, to see you,” I replied.

In Search of Heer

Excerpted with permission from In Search of Heer, Manjul Bajaj, Westland, September 2019