Mirza Sahiban: A Punjabi Folktale

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.

ForLoveFor Love, by Marcus Murray, acrylic on canvas
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.

12 thoughts on “Mirza Sahiban: A Punjabi Folktale

  1. Great job having a post at Non Stop Bhangra (looks like a lot of fun, too).

    I am always curious about this idea of fairy tales being sanitized. The Grimm tales are all so gruesome when read in their original, as I’m sure many other cultures’ tales. Greek myths were filled with violence and incest and irrationality. I’m exhausted even writing about it! Do you happen to know of any non-fiction works that study this sort of approach of santiation over the years of fairy tales/myths?

    • Non Stop Bhangra is a ridiculous amount of fun. If you’re ever in San Francisco, it’s generally second Saturday of the month…

      You know, I don’t think I’ve ever read any studies explicitly of the sanitation phenomenon. I’ve read passing comments about how the Grimms, Perrault, Lang sanitized their tales for middle-class audiences, and I think Burton put the juicier tales in One Thousand and One Nights in Latin, or something.

      I’m fascinated by earlier editions of Kinder und Hausmarchen where the witch in Snow White is Snow’s biological mom, Rapunzel gets pregnant by the prince, etc. And along with the classic Greek myths you talk about, don’t forget the Old Testament! OT stories are also full of incest and murder…

      A quick google search suggests that Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar might be the authors to look for (though reviews of their books complain that they are overly academic). I think the general argument is that fairy tales were never for children to begin with, they were oral entertainment for adults (and not necessarily in “polite society”). Commercial and social pressure by the middle class drove the fairy tale collectors to start sanitizing.

      • Though I read it long ago, I think that Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales argues that the older, grislier versions of fairy tales are actually better for children. After all, they need symbols to grapple with a rough, often grisly world. It’s another academic book, but it might say some interesting things about that sanitized-for-your-protection issue.

        • Thanks Tim! I think I tried to read The Uses of Enchantment a while back and never finished it. And I couldn’t remember enough about it to say whether or not it was relevant to the question, so it’s good to hear from someone who actually read it πŸ™‚

      • You’re exactly right. I studied Classics as a college student and I remember in one class we translated part of the OT. Everyone in the story was getting their throats slit. I think some of the gruesomeness of fairy tales originated as warning stories to children, too.

        In Cinderella, I think the step-sisters have their feet mutilated and in Little Red Riding, she might eat (or about to eat) her grandmother who was first killed by the Wolf . It’s also odd to think that some stories don’t catch on in other cultures. Some of my German friends will cite certain Grimm stories as their favorites and I have really never heard of them (although, I must plead that I’m not the most well-versed in that area).

        • Has the complete Kinder und Hausmarchen ever been translated? I think (I may be making this up, so take it with a grain of salt) that the early translations were only selections from the complete collection. My guess is that subsequent retellings of the Grimm tales in English would be based on the first translations, so we who didn’t grow up reading German are only familiar with that subset.

          • Just today I saw a complete collection for sale. You’re probably right about the first stories available to us in the English-speaking world were limited. Also, I’m sure their popularity is based on whether a Disney movie was made or not.

  2. Pingback: Sohni Mahiwal: A Punjabi Folktale | Multo (Ghost)

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