Nights Of Passion: Magical Tales From An Ancient Land

Nights Of Passion: Magical Tales From An Ancient Land
The smooth ochre sands of the Thar reflect in Marvi’s lambent golden eyes; she knows not yet of the distant ramparts of Umarkot and its separate sun. Someone’s passion is yet to rage. Her pining for the open skies yet to come. The flower yet to wilt. And reopen.

Sohni pauses to gaze across the gloom of the rain-filled night. She is yet to lower herself into the raging Chenab, its waves writhing and churning, clinging onto the painted clay pitcher that would keep her afloat. Far away is the bela – the green island in the middle of the river where he awaits her. The treachery is yet to unravel. Immortality awaits but only some instances away.

Mirza smiles ruefully as he clutches thin air. The quiver is empty. Sahiban stands frozen. Muted. Inconsolable. The moment extends and quivers like a primeval pain. Soon, “a spume of red” shall “burst from Mirza’s lips like the wild spurt of a rose.”

Sassi leans over the lofty brown parapets of Bhambore fort in the blazing sun and gazes at Punhun riding down from the Baloch hills. What promises to follow shall far outlast and transcend their mortal lives and will be heard to echo in the gentle breeze that blows over that vast land. But first they need to meet and discover the disquieting allure of each other’s faces. Fate beckons.

From Deedho to Ranjha stretches a lifetime of self-abnegation in the path of devotion; from Heer to Ranjha is the instantaneous and absolute submission to love. Where Majazi ends and Haqeeqi commences can only be the preoccupation of those who have neither been lovers nor poets.

To me it is the delectable poignancy of these moments that is etched in one’s mind, throbbing, and making one irrevocably wistful. These timeless stories are, of course, outstanding, and they define what is noblest about us, our civilisational experience and our collective heritage. But it is these tremendous moments that commemorate some of the most telling instances of who we are at our sublime best, the choices we make, and the cost that they entail. Like majestic statuary in a vast and elegant garden that has frozen in stone the best of what human anatomy and attitude can offer and the human hand can capture. Testimonials to courage, passion, selflessness, and devotion, as also a denunciation of baseness and bigotry. They are edicts but of love and not authority. Our songs. Our lifeblood. Existence is unimaginable without them. Fairly pointless at the very least. For they are what makes us human.
'The Night in Her Hair' augments our sacred tradition of romance, heroism, and storytelling by retelling many of our most famous folktales in a manner that can only be described as exquisite

The tales of our region are triumphant and uplifting because they celebrate love in all its glorious manifestations. Tragic because it never ends well for the lovers does it. Jealousy and resentment find new avatars in the villainous Kaidus of every age. Patriarchy, tribalism, political hegemony, social dogma, and ethnic bigotry divides and persecutes and has no patience for those who love across their divides. Yet in the verdurous foothills of the Himalayas, by the banks of Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus, across the sands of Thar and up in the craggy hills of the northwest, there have lived and loved women and men of remarkable spirit and forbearance. Those who have taken on the toughest odds in the pursuit and for the sake of the beloved. In doing so they were also pursuing the ideals of beauty, truth, and justice for what they confronted and fought during these pursuits was invariably foul, false, and unjust. No wonder they live on in fireside tales, festive songs, and poems of overpowering lament.

The Night in Her Hair furthers and augments this sacred tradition of romance, heroism, and storytelling by retelling many of our most famous folktales in a manner that can only be described as exquisite.

In addition to the five tales of which I provide brief glimpses, the collection offers four more: the lyrical tale of Kash Kash Jinn from Kashmir that has an airy and magical feel like The Tempest; the remarkable romance of Himal Nagrai that spans the trackless snake infested forests and the endless winding depths of waterways and transcends the staunchest confines of identity; the incandescent love of Adam Khan and Dur Khanai where so charged is the atmosphere that one fears the pages will catch fire; and a celebration of the stoic life, deep mysticism and lingering songs of Habba Khatoon - resplendent and lasting like her name Zooni or the moon, as it shines down on saffron fields. Like nine gems faintly glowing in the blue night, these stories offer us a luminous compendium.

But let me hasten to the prose – the lucent and lustrous prose. For it is a beautifully imagined and written book. The imagery is a palette of colours borrowed from dawns and sunsets, the varying shades of water at different depths and the sky as it is painted daily by the sun, the moon, and the stars. Equally important to the writers is the euphony of words. No wonder, for these romances are in essence devotional songs and deep explorations of poetry. I discovered very early that this book can’t be rushed or breezed through and hence pencil in hand I savoured the passages for their inventive usage and freshness of metaphor.

Consider how the landscape here has been painted with light:
“[…]the first streak of light bled into the sky. A belt of red on the sapphire horizon.

Umar watched the light pour like a great tide down the land, pushing against the dark, a rim of shadows rippling down, rushing towards him. He watched Sindh rise out of the night. The ochre scrub that hazed into the sky, and away in the distance beyond the horizon, the smooth tips of the Thar, waiting. And further yet, the distant lap of warm waters, beating against the coast of the Arabian Sea.”

Or how the haven that love weaves together replenishes even those who come to observe it after the lovers are long gone:
“They rode deep into the recesses of forests and fields. The sat on the bank of streams, under skies wet with sunrise. The domes of trees bent over them when they slept through the glistening dark. Nature seemed to still at their presence, drawing them into a realm that was all their own. That was their world. It replenished them.”

Or how love is a world unto itself with its own rules and notions of the passage of time:
“They lived in a world tilted between night and day, a place that grew dark and fanned out in flowering colors, a place where the hours slanted in like waves, away from the rest of the world. An island of time.”

The book is adorned by multiple paintings – reminiscent of Chughtai and creating a deep impression – always of a comely, mysterious girl. She appears to be the same person except her context changes, as depicted in the colours she wears and her shifting backgrounds. To me they depict the “brave and beautiful women who go to meet the men they love in the night, braving all dangers,” as Huma Agha Abbas, their painter and co-writer, evocatively describes them and whom the writers poetically capture in the symbolism of the title “The Night in Her Hair.”

What makes these retellings all the more compelling is that while introducing new facets, nuances, and insights, they shall always remain open to new interpretations. As Taiba Abbas, the other co-writer, poignantly observes: “There is always a newer truth, a different rendition, something, waiting to be told. A newer, intimate way of making collective memory one’s own experience. Because retellings are just that – a conversation, an exchange of dreams across place and time.”

This wonderful mother-and-daughter collaboration is an outstanding tribute to our ancient, enigmatic and beautiful land and its people – and one that will now make available its vast and priceless riches to a much wider readership.

The book has been designed and produced as aesthetically just as it has been imagined and written. This makes it desirable also as an artifact and a collectable. It is published by Taiba’s own publishing house Ala Books & Authors from which it can be directly ordered. Be prepared for quite a memorable voyage. And a deeply moving conversation.

Dr. Osama Siddique writes constitutional history as well as historical fiction. He also advises on legal and institutional reforms. He tweets at @DrOsamaSiddique