Mirza Sahiban: A Punjabi FolktalePosted: October 5, 2013
I have a post up on the Non Stop Bhangra site, about the famous Punjabi folktale, Mirza Sahiban. It’s a love story about a woman, Sahiban, who elopes with her “milk cousin” Mirza and sets off a feud between his family and hers.
Photo courtesy of Non Stop Bhangra
Sahiban, they say, grew up to be so beautiful that when she went to market the grocer would get too confused and distracted to weigh her produce correctly. When she walked by the fields all the farmers would stop their plowing just to stare. Mirza grew up strong and handsome, and was the best shot with a bow and arrow in the region. It’s not too surprising that these two, growing up together so closely, eventually fell in love.
As you might guess, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. You can read my retelling of the tale here.
If you’re wondering about the term “milk cousin”: according to the story, Sahiban’s paternal grandmother died in childbirth, so Sahiban’s father was nursed by another woman, who already had a daughter (also nursing). Because the two children were nursed by the same woman, by tradition they would be considered siblings — “milk siblings”. The nursemaid’s daughter grew up to be — you guessed it — Mirza’s mother. So Sahiban and Mirza were first milk cousins.
At least, this is what all the English language renditions of the story that I found say. Knowing as I do how folktales can get sanitized as they propagate, I can’t help wondering if originally the two lovers were really first cousins by blood, just like in early versions of the tale, Snow White’s jealous, murderous “stepmother” was actually Snow’s biological mother.
Most English language versions of Mirza Sahiban are fairly vague about how Sahiban dies at the end. In my retelling, I had her pierced by arrows as she tried to shield her lover’s body. According to R. C. Temple, in his 1884 Tales of the Panjab, Vol 3, Sahiban’s brothers strangled her for dishonoring the family. This does not show up in modern versions of the story.
Temple goes on to say that the feud that resulted from Sahiban’s elopement was an actual historical thing, and that female children were considered such bad luck because of this story, that female infanticide in the region was done “in memory” of Sahiban. Ick. I take this with a grain of salt — when folklore is collected by the occupiers of a country (Temple was an British army officer who served in India), you have to be extra careful to filter out the colonial attitudes and paternalism that can sneak in, no matter how well meaning the folklorist is. This is as true of Indian folklore collected during the British colonial period as it is of Philippine folklore collected by the Spanish priests or by Americans during the commonwealth period.
But I’ll buy the strangulation version of the folktale. It’s ugly, but not implausible. At any rate, Temple provides an untranslated Punjabi version of the folktale in his book, so if you happen to read Romanized Punjabi, you can find out the ending direct from the source.