They say a prophet is never understood in his time; perhaps because prophets point out the spiritual goals we miss while chasing our earthly desires. Similarly, lovers are not understood in their time because their total devotion to the object of their desire strikes us as foolish. How can someone keep aside all other considerations for the sake of love?
It is only with the safe distance of history that we look back at love stories with reverence. Young, impassioned, idealistic love, like Heer-Ranjha or Soni-Mahiwal, only shows us that the world would rather do away with lovers than let them be. It is only with the passing of time that such love is understood and accepted by society as a whole.
So much for the “pure” love stories: stories that revolve around the emotion of love and not the sexual expression of it. What happens when lovers go beyond passionate declarations of love to the act of having sex? Society views it as a cheapening of the emotion, or as an emotion born out of lust. Rarely has the act been seen as an expression of love, especially in morally restrictive India.
It is for this reason that the tale of Mirza-Sahiban is a lesser-known one. And for another reason, as you shall read on. Considered one of the four great love stories of Punjab, the story of Mirza-Sahiban was first penned by 17-Century poet Peelu, who recorded an oral legend that had been passed down for generations.
A school romance
An ancient mosque that lies abandoned outside Kheiwa village, in the Jhang District of Punjab was once a madarssa where children from nearby villages came to study. It was here that a young Mirza, son of Wanjhal Khan, a land baron from the Kharal Jat clan of Danabad, and Sahiban, daughter of Mahni Khan, a Kheiwa chief from the Sial tribe of Jhang, became classmates. As they grew older, their fondness for each other turned into love.
The young lovers were perhaps unaware of how their love would be received by others, so they made no attempts to hide it. While they were busy falling in love, talk of their romance spread like wildfire through the village. Most people were strongly opposed to the couple, especially Sahiban’s brothers, but they knew that the matter had to be handled carefully as Mirza was an ace archer and considered unbeatable.
One of the reasons the villagers were opposed to Mirza and Sahiban’s budding romance was that though Mirza and Sahiban were not related by blood, the orthodox patriarchal society of the time considered them to be related as Sahiban’s mother and Mirza’s father had been nursed by the same woman during childhood.
The runaway bride
Luckily for Sahiban’s brothers, Sahiban had been engaged to a man from the Chander clan, Taha Khan, as a child. They waited for Mirza to leave the village to attend his sister’s wedding. Meanwhile, they arranged for Sahiban’s marriage to take place.
While Mirza was busy with his sister’s wedding preparations, he did not know that Sahiban’s brothers had chosen the same day to get Sahiban married off. She sent a message to Mirza, informing him of her impending marriage. Despite his sister’s numerous requests to stay for her wedding and his family’s reminders about the Sial community’s penchant for violence, Mirza took off to rescue his beloved Sahiban.
He rode the distance between their two villages on his beloved horse Bakki , reached the mehndi venue and carried Sahiban away. By the time her brothers found out and gave pursuit, the lovers had a great head start.
Sex and betrayal?
When they reached the outskirts of his village, Mirza wanted to rest under a jand (banyan) tree. However, Sahiban was torn between her brothers and Mirza; she knew that if Mirza fought her brothers, he would most likely win. She urged him to keep going but Mirza was unrelenting and soon fell asleep under the tree.
It is here that the tale of Mirza-Sahiban takes an unexpectedly tragic turn. Fearful for her brothers’ lives, Sahiban got rid of Mirza’s bow and arrows (some say she broke them, some that she tossed them high up the tree under which Mirza slept).
When Sahiban’s brothers caught up with the couple, it was easy for them to finish off Mirza despite his attempts to fight them off unarmed. In a rage, they also killed his horse. The fate of Sahiban is less certain. Peelu doesn’t mention what happens to her; some sources say she killed herself after realizing she was the cause of Mirza’s death, while others say her brothers strangled her for dishonoring them.
When news of Mirza’s death reached his brothers, they were so incensed at the loss of their brother’s life that they rode to Kheiwa village and burned it down. Outside the village today is a large mound that is considered to be the remains of the old Kheiwa village. The only structure that survived the fire was the old mosque where Mirza-Sahiban once studied, and it continues to stand today; perhaps it stays abandoned because of its connection with the tainted love story.
According to the legend that spread, when Mirza and Sahiban were alone outside his village, they indulged in the act of sex – an act that other famous lovers of the region seem to have totally dismissed. It is believed that this is one of the reasons that Mirza-Sahiban is the last of the great love stories of Punjab. Sex between the two lovers was an uncomfortable reminder of where love eventually leads people. Their physicality took away the idealism and spirituality of Heer-Ranjha, which led to love being looked down upon since that day.
Love is to blame?
According to a folk story of the Sial’s, it was Sahiban’s dishonor that led to the practice of female infanticide. After Sahiban’s death, the community did not want another Sahiban to be born among them. Rather than face the “uncomfortable truth” that is female sexuality, they found it easier to simply get rid of their daughters.
So hated were the couple for exposing the carnal side of love that a Punjabi folk song has these lines: Sahiban kaach zamane di, te Mirza suar da lun (Sahiban belongs to the age of moral decline, while Mirza has the penis of a swine).
Outside the village of Danabad, protected by some roofless walls, are three graves; they are believed to be the graves of Mirza, Sahiban and Bakki. This graveyard is considered an inauspicious place. Unlike the shrine of Heer-Ranjha at Jhang, no lovers come here to pray, no girls wish for a perfect lover; only sometimes folklorists visit the place and rest under a jand tree that stands bent, as if guilty about the part it played in Mirza’s death.