Who is this Pilu from Dhun? The name itself gives no clue of religious identity of the bearer of the name. He might have been a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Jain. His territorial identity is mentioned. He was from Dhun, Chakwal and its surrounding area.

What we know about this man from the hills of the Punjab with certainty is that he was a poet and the first one to introduce us to the most thrilling tale of our literature, Qissa Sabiban and Mirza. Interestingly, in the 19th century it was great folklorist and orientalist R.C. Temple who collected fragments of the Qissa “Mirza Sahiban as sung by some Jats from the Jalandhar district”. Isn’t it intriguing that locale of the tale is “Jhang and Montgomery [present day Sahiwal]”, the poet who composed it is from Dhun and it is being collected from Jalandhar? Doesn’t it reveal something about the cultural and linguistic integration of the Punjab? It affirms what another poet from Dhun Maulvi Suleman [19th century] says; “from Peshawar to Jumna, and from Chamba to Dera [Ghazi Khan] Punjabi people understand and appreciate my verses”. Temple writes “the version given here is characteristically incomplete and full of references of local nature”. It’s incomplete because it was introduced to people in Jalandhar by bards in the manner of oral tradition and it’s full of local references implies that such references were later interpolations. The tale begins thus; “Sahiban was born on a Tuesday in the house of (the Chief of) Khiwa: And the singers sang songs of rejoicing at the gate of the Chief of Khiwa/the kindred congratulated him with auspicious prayers/and made presents; and as she became beautiful and buxom, her maidens emulated Sahiban [Trans-Temple]”.

The tale has inspired innumerable poets and a score have penned it. After Pilu it was Hafiz Barkhurdar [17th century] who in fact immortalised the tale with his highly imaginative reconstruction and unique characterisation.

Dr. Faqir Muhammad Faqir, a poet, editor and scholar, collected Barkhurdar’s composition and published its edited version in 1965. Dr. Faqir painstakingly compared different manuscripts and prepared his edited version of the tale which is complete and reliable because of its internal evidence. Let it be remembered that Barkhurdar’s version was neither unknown to the people nor unsung by the bards. What Dr. Faqir did was nevertheless a remarkable literary feat as it presented to the reading public a reliable version of the composition. But the version suffers from superfluous words and phrases interpolated later by scribes and irregularity of Chhand / meter or formal rhythmic pattern. The best thing was that a reliable version was preserved for the next generation of researchers, scholars and literary editors. A literary body called Sangat published an edited version of Bakhurdar’s tale based on Dr. Faqir’s version in 2013 with a lot of superfluity weeded out.

Then another version prepared by this scribe and Professor Saeed Bhutta was published by Pakistan Punjabi Adbi Board in 2015. It is based on the previously edited texts but it also takes into account various versions of Barkhurdar’s written text published by famous Kashmiri Bazaar’s publishing houses. The texts brought out by Kashmiri Bazaar are usually dismissed by snotty editors but they are important in the historical context. Besides, though full of interpolations these texts may also provide at times a great help to literary editors to decipher the original.

In Barkhurdar’s tale, we unexpectedly come across Pilu who finds an elaborate mention in the manner of myth. Barkhurdar, a highly civilised man, shows a great reverence for Pilu who he acknowledges as his precursor and guide. It was Pilu, he declares, who blazed the trail.

Barkhurdar, it may be stressed, was a great scholar well-versed in religious and secular matters. He was schooled at the finest institutions of his times in Lahore and Delhi. He was popular with the aristocracy of his times but then renounced all his connections with it, left city, stationed himself in his village mosque and took his refuge in his literary work. It was there that he composed the most thrilling tale of young lovers on Pilu’s instructions received through a wise crow that landed on the minaret of the mosque carrying latter’s message. Now what’s this rigmarole that involves Sahiban, Pilu, a crow and Barkhurdar?

In the Barkhurdar’s narrative lovers run away and are found resting in the jungle of Sandal Bar by the pursuing fighters of Sahiban’s clan. They kill Mirza. Now it’s Sahiban’s turn. Under the dark lengthening shadows the birds and animals gather together to watch a strange spectacle they have never seen before; a cold blooded murder. When Sahiban’s brothers are about to hang her from an old Jand tree “the parrots in desperation peck at trees and lamentations reverberate / in the blue landscape of utter desolation trees shake and shadows quiver/ a crow, a witness to seven ages, addresses the woman with a sob”. The crow wants to hear Sahiban’s last wish which it would carry back to the world. She says: “heroic bird, you have seen all that happened. My life, a pawn in my beloved’s hand, is now sacrificed. It was all written in the stars. What had to happen has happened. Spread the word so that my story isn’t lost in the wild”. The crow leaves the tree and flies straight to Dhun. It inquires after Pilu in the city and is guided to a graveyard where it pays him its salutation. It conveys Pilu Sahiban’s greetings with the request that “he should narrate her tale so that it reverberates across the world”. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2020

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