By Kabita Parajuli
(In August 2012, Kabita from Kathmandu co-facilitated two sessions at Shishuvan as part of her work with the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange. The school welcomed her presence and was happy to support Hri’s efforts in developing a framework for facilitated conversations around the topics of transgression and taboo in our personal lives, particularly around friendships and other relationships.)
How do we talk about love? About longing? About taboo and transgression? As part of our work on documenting and analysing the love legends of Punjab, we began to explore these fascinating questions. The starting point for these conversations were the prominent love legends of Punjab – Sohni Mahiwal and Mirza-Sahiban. We experimented with some of these ideas during workshops with students in Mumbai. Two of these were at Shishuvan School, Matunga.
Our workshops at Shishuvan were held as part of the Personal Development (PD) classes scheduled for eighth graders. PD sessions typically involve games, activities and conversations around themes that are of interest to the students. Chintan is their regular PD teacher, and from him, I learnt that ‘love’ and ‘relationships’ were topics that his teenage students would be interested in talking about.
We did two sessions in total, of about 36 students each (Std. VIII Shraddha and Std. VIII Karma), and I felt that they went very well. I was basically smitten by this group of rambunctious, somewhat incorrigible, and incredibly friendly group of eighth graders. I think the main reason for the outcome was the rapport Chintan already had with the students, and their willingness to trust an outsider that he had brought in.
We started by asking if they knew what the ‘class’ that day was about. “Love!” came the quick response, the rumour mill at this school being fast, furious and welcoming of class content for fodder. Most of the students seemed eager to find out what we were going to bring up, in the name of love. One or two expressed some apprehension – would this be a session of clichés? Was it really necessary to be there?
Here, Kailash Kher and ‘Teri Deewani’ appeared to be a favourite of many; nearly the whole class was singing along, some with their eyes closed, fully in the moment. They talked about his representation of love as something that was common in films (and perhaps stories) – but not necessarily one that many of them connected with in terms of physical danger. The idea of madness, risk, and falling into an abyss of emotion, however, was one that seemed to resonate.
When it came time to share the story of Sohni Mahiwal, the students were ready with both questions and explanations around the behavior of the main characters, especially Sohni. The second group was more rambunctious. To my immense shock, when I started telling the story, a quiet came over the class – they had settled! The circle became smaller in size as they moved closer to me. I started feeling like the Pied Piper, but I kept talking.
Both classes were eager to talk about the story, to try to connect it to others they had heard, and to explore the questions we raised.
How did you feel while hearing this story?
What do you think about what happened? Is it relevant?
Why did Sohni cross the river?
Why weren’t the two allowed to be together? Have you heard such stories in real life, or other places, of people who weren’t allowed to be together?
Who are you encouraged to be friends with, by your parents or friends?
Have you ever done something that you only found out, afterwards, you weren’t supposed to? What happened?
Why didn’t Sohni say no to the marriage?
Why is love thought of as dangerous?
I was impressed by the connections they drew between social pressures and the actions that Sohni chose to undertake. Some recalled the stories of Heer-Ranjha, Salim-Anarkali and even Veer-Zaara (from a Yash Chopra film). Others talked about an episode on honour killings from Aamir Khan’s talk show Satyamev Jayate. In retrospect, it would also be worthwhile to try and focus more attention on Mahiwal – it seems to me that while Sohni justifiably receives a great deal of attention for her actions and decisions in the legend, Mahiwal often fades into the background. We talked in this session about why Sohni didn’t refuse to marry her husband, for example, and why perhaps she went ahead and crossed the river. But we do not ask about Mahiwal’s decision to stay back from his crew of traders, why he encouraged Sohni to commit adultery, or what he represents. A couple of the students did raise the question of pressures he might have faced – and suggested that as an outsider, perhaps he was not subject to the same constraints as Sohni.
After both sessions, there were a number of students who wanted to keep talking. “How do you define love?” one set of young women asked me. Others were eager to take me into some sort of confidence, sharing a time when they “did something they later regretted”, and connecting it to the story of the star-crossed lovers. One student suggested that she’d gotten carried away – against the better advice of her friends, she’d made a decision that she (unlike Sohni) had time to regret. Another student asked if there were other legends like this one (he was certain there were), and wanted me to tell Mirza-Sahiban’s story. There was a general consensus that the themes in these stories were pervasive in Bollywood; the idea of a ‘forbidden’ something or someone created the basis for a good many plotlines.
To Chintan, later on, a student brought up something he had read about sexuality and bullying. Two other young men came up to me and explained why they thought it was important to talk about love, as more than just romantic – but also more than just familial. To hear this group so willing to engage, so eager to share, and so open to expressing their ideas, was invigorating. These sessions were full of the stuff of eighth grade experience, philosophising, and concerns.
In the teacher’s lounge after our sessions, Chintan’s colleagues were curious to hear how our classes had gone. They were, I think, impressed – but also perhaps used to? – the commitment shown by the students in exploring ideas of love, and in bringing in their personal experiences. Often, I think, those of us past middle school (even those who regularly interact with middle school and high school students) forget about the different layers of emotion and thought swirling in a young person’s mind. It’s heady stuff (no pun intended) – but these same individuals can also be very eloquent and clear about what it is they believe, and how it is that they’ve come to a particular understanding.
The biggest take-away from these workshops was the reminder that young teens are not too young to talk about these love legends and what is socially sanctioned and prohibited. The issue is more one of how the material is presented, and how young people are invited to respond to it.
Note: A version of this article was first published on http://www.hrisouthasian.org/ on Nov. 11, 2012. To know more about the Love Legends project, do visit the Hri website.