‘Bad are affairs of Sialis, bad the path leading to them
Bad are women of Sial, casting magic spells
[They] take out the lungs [of lovers] and eat, don’t put oil in my disheveled head’
Burre Sialaan de moamale, burri Sialaan dee raah
buriyaan Sialaan diyan aurtaan, laindiyan jadoo pa
kudh kaleja khandian, mere jhate tel na pa
— Peelu, ‘Mirza SahebaN’
Sial was a nondescript village in the vast and plain countryside of the Punjab till Mirza galloped through on his mare Bukki, snatching away his lover SahebaN on the eve of her wedding. This action changed the color of the moon that night, the soil of Sial by the next day, and the language and culture of the Punjab for centuries to come.
Punjabi folk tale ‘Mirza SahebaN’ is a story of teen love that turned into an epic of honor killing. The youths who lost their lives at the hands of the local law were the children of the rulers of the area; and that made it appear as if honor killing was an unusual event in the Punjab.
Another layer of this story questions the integrity of a young woman on the issue of split loyalties and, after claiming her life, takes her role as further evidence for the general condemnation of all womankind, and in particular, of the women of Sial.
Here, I have to tell you that there may be something going on in all of this because Siali women do feature in three of the six love legends of the Punjab. Heer of ‘Heer Ranjha’, Sehti of ‘Sehti Murad’ and SahebaN of ‘Mirza SahebaN’. As a matter of fact, they are all somehow related. Sehti was Heer’s sister in law meanig the sister of Heer’s husband, the ever-hateful son of KheyRas.
Punjabi poet Peelu told the story of Mirza SahebaN before 1676 but the text was documented in the 1900s by Richard Carnac Temple who collected and co-authored three volumes of The Legends of the Punjab; Peelu’s ‘Mirza SahebaN’ is in one of them.
Richard C. Temple (1850–1931) was the son of Sir Richard B. Temple (1826–1902); together, the two have left lasting impressions on both my homelands, Pakistan and Canada. Where C. Temple is remembered to this day for saving our valuable texts in the Punjab, there is an actual 11,625-foot high mountain bearing the name of Sir B. Temple in Alberta.
Under these circumstances, a specter of dual gratefulness confronts me. To me, our capacity to save our literature was never in question, I worry about texts that touch a nerve, making promoters and publishers of the time squint away from them. The legend of Mirza SahebaN and the poems of Kashmiri poetess Lal Ded, for example, stirred threatening themes. Lal Ded was an ascetic poet of transcendental spiritual love, and while that is, and was, acceptable in South Asia, she also did such things as not acknowledge gender and going around naked thus ruining her popularity with the local patrons of literature and art.
Likewise, Mirza SahebaN is a short tale in comparison to the five other Punjabi legends of love but it is here that the thread of tradition snaps at every stitch. Mirza, a son of the Kharl family of the Punjab, instead of choosing to silently suffer the loss of his love upon hearing of SahebaN’s arranged marriage, jumps on his horse to reach her village Sial with the intentions of claiming an already ‘engaged’ woman. On her part, SahebaN decides to run away with her lover where she was expected to have sacrificed herself for the honor of her family by getting married to the son of the Chadhars.
As if the above actions were insufficient to cut their popularity with the establishment, Mirza and SahebaN pitched in again whereby Mirza killed one of SahebaN’s brothers in front of her, and then decided to take a nap within the hostile Siali territory. Wide awake SahebaN heard her brothers approach leading the combined armed forces of Sialis and Chadharrs; and, responds by (breaking and) throwing Mirza’s arrows up and away from him. Needless to say Mirza was killed on the spot; and, SahebaN was later strangled by her brothers on account of her constant whimperings and moanings bringing Peelu’s ‘Mirza SahebaN’ to an abrupt end.
According to Temple, after the deaths of Mirza and SahebaN, the Kharls attacked the Sialis and the Chadhars retrieving the dead bodies of both Mirza and SahebaN. They were brought back to Mirza’s village Dhanabad where they still lie. Temple also mentions the grim impact this event had on the whole area where Sialis were now ready to fight at the mention of SahebaN’s name, and Kharls had begun killing their female babies.
The violent end to the lives of two bright and beautiful youths also gave rise to a haunting lament in Punjabi music: the Sudd call. Singers of every generation have sung their songs and writers have written about them, still nothing has yet made SahebaN a popular name for female babies in Peenutstan. In fact, to this day, it is hard to discern whether the story has generated more awe or more condemnation for its two young protagonists.
It is strange then that Jattee, the mother of our Relentless Warrior SahebaN, picked this name for her daughter. It appears that for Jattee the decisive factor was the lament of the Sudd that came to her heart as she realized that she had given birth to a daughter. Like most parents, she was seized at the time by the sad predicament of producing a female baby as opposed to the societal expectation of bringing another male to this world. Unlike most parents, Jattee did not recoil from the grief but embraced it by giving SahebaN’s name to her daughter. In the minds of superstitious people, Jattee had sealed the fate of Baby SahebaN by laying such a loaded name on her.
- Excerpts from the ‘Introduction: SahebaN’s Name’ from The Adventures of SahebaN: Biography of a Relentless Warrior, an unpublished novel by Fauzia Rafique