After introducing his heroine Heer, Damodar prepares us to receive his other protagonist appearing on the stage. “Having done with this episode (introduction of Heer) let us bring Ranjha into the world.” Ranjha is the youngest son of Moazzam, a landlord and a chief of his clan in Takhat Hazara along the river Chanab. Ranjha, stunningly handsome and of artistic nature, is the darling of his father and pride of the clan to the dismay of his elder brothers causing them heartburns. But the real cause of worry is quite materialistic: “Brothers resolved; we must kill this lad/ all the people look up to him, how can we dissuade them/ it will be difficult for us to inherit the chiefdom if we let him live”. What makes the brothers nurse venom toward Ranjha is fear of losing a large share of property and headship of the clan.
After the death of their father, the elder sons knowing the artistic inclination of Ranjha lay a trap: “Young man, get the father out of your mind, now let us toil like real peasants and earn our living/Let us take axe and hoe and clear your land full of bush and bramble”. The hint is that arid land is Ranjha’s lot. Ranjha having no wish to be a landlord or peasant replies: “Yours are the lands, yours are the streams, divide all the things among yourselves/I have my hands and feet painted red with henna, how can I take up the hoe? /no more love for me after the death of my father, no place for me at the river Chanab any longer!” So Ranjha in his youth stands declassed and dispossessed by choice, ready to leave his ancestral home on the way to an unknown world.
Luddan the sailor, overwhelmed by the looks of Ranjha who is tired and exhausted after his long travel, let him sleep on Heer’s couch on her river resort. Heer finding the privacy of her bed violated is furious and admonishes the sailor thus: “You want to die? You dragged your feet towards your grave! / is he (the one sleeping on the couch) a lord of higher status than me?” The stranger she is about to confront is neither a lord nor a peasant. He is a man made of a different stuff, unmoved either by riches or poverty. The contrast between the two is stark. The man has already told the sailor: “I have nothing but two companions; my staff and my flute”.
Woman on the other hand is a dominating daughter of a powerful lord, proud of her status. Heer hurls a question at Ranjha: “What virtue do you possess (implying that what it that qualifies you to rest in my bed?) Open your mouth and tell me”. Silence is the answer. “Ranjha takes out a flute and a whistle and shows her these two things he has”. Stunned, she asks him to play his flute and this is what happens next -- “Ranjha put his fingers on the flute and what a music he played! The grass, the brambles and the bushes stirred and rustled. The reeds and the trees resonated/ tigers, cheetahs and other predators came as if to make a pilgrimage”. What dispossessed Ranjha possesses is a piece of hollow wood that can produce sound. The sound, rather the sound of music creates a world of dream with its magic that resonates with implications. It brings about the latent unity of nature, social life and that of world beyond mixing the known with the unknown.
Ranjha shows Heer with the sound of his flute a presently absent world of possibilities beyond the pulls and pushes of property and status which she has hitherto been so proud of. The moment ‘sublime poverty’ quietly confronts the riches, a human relationship is born out of womb of potential which normally remains unrealized due to the narrow constraints of historically created conditions. On the cusp of transformation Heer and Ranjha assume a significance of a metaphor that stands for human re-birth.
One cannot attempt telling the story the way Damodar does. What one can tell with certainty is that Damodar’s story left an indelible imprint on the psyche and imagination of our people changing the cultural landscape of the Punjab forever. And Damodar was ideally placed in terms of time and space to catapult the story to the level of a potent symbol pregnant with socio-historical meanings. He belonged to the area where this saga took place not in the distant past that helped him to create the physiognomy of his characters with a great touch of realism and rich cultural nuances.
Damodar is not just the foremost story teller of modern Punjab but also one of the most distinguished poets of the Punjabi language. His composition stood the test of time not just merely because of the intrinsic strength of the story but also because of its literary and aesthetic merits which remain unsurpassed. He is poet with a keen sense of a novelist fully aware that it is details that make the whole wholesome, illuminating the nooks and crannies of individual and collective life which usually remain in the dark under the assumption that they have a peripheral significance.
For Damodar small things suggest meanings, enhancing the impact of the whole if placed in a perspective. And this is what he does. He misses out on nothing. Whenever he creates a scene, like a sensitive film-maker he takes care of everything; the background, the foreground, the getup, movement of the actors, the body language and the gestures making the overall expression expressing the unexpressed. With the socio-cultural and psychological details woven into fabric of the story, he reminds us of the Great Russian classical novelists.
In his narrative one can see a distinct use of narration, description and dialogue that make his story richly layered but not cumbersome. His narration flows effortlessly like an enchanting mantra of a wise man that has secrets to reveal. The narrator is not merely an all-knowing abstract voice. He frequently uses the poet i.e., himself who witnesses the events as they unfold making the incredible credible. His culturally nuanced description is an envy of an anthropologist or a sociologist. His dialogues, evocative and suggestive, stand out for their intense brevity like those of Becket. He obviously has a dislike for bombast.
It was Damodar who gave multiple meanings to the tale creating mundane and spiritual dimensions. All the later poets built on the latent meanings of the tale suggested or hinted at by him. “I rue the days I spent without Ranjah – who I should call Ranjha? I myself have become one” is how Heer expresses her love at mundane level. After her elopement, Heer along with Ranjha is captured and presented in the court where in response to her claim that they both are man and wife, Cadi (Muslim cleric with judicial power) asks her to produce witness in support of her statement. And this is how she replies: “Consider my submission judge. This is a tale untellable/ there was no heaven, no tablet, no empyrean throne, no water, no time, no space, no moon nor sun/ and that was when light merged in light/ and that was, listen you Cadi, when he owned me/ if there is someone from then, a witness I would bring in”. The above statement surely creates the spiritual and metaphysical dimension.
Damodar is undoubtedly the first among the great story tellers of the Punjab, who with his holistic vision created characters that transcending the parochial came to embody the universal human predicament; individual versus repressive social structure. The unmistakable sign of his profound critical social consciousness is that he makes his protagonist, a woman, an eternal metaphor for defiance and resistance without which human love born of freedom would remain a hollow ideal. (Concluded)