Humanising the other

August 15, 2021

Harkirat Kaur Chaahal raises questions rooted in the social reality of a lived experience in South Asia

Humanising the other

Any effort in modern Punjabi fiction that broadens and deepens its scope is most welcome. It is primarily done in two ways: by experimenting with the text itself, stretching and bending the limits of language; or by tackling a subject matter that has so far lain dormant outside the margins due to censorship - self-imposed or otherwise. Teeji Makhluq by Harkirat Kaur Chaahal clearly pushes the envelope of modern Punjabi fiction. It does so by placing at the centre of her novel the main character Meeran alias Meera, an inter-sex person by birth. It is to the novelist’s credit that the story avoids sensationalism and dichotomous strokes to paint an unusual canvas. It also prompts the author to make unusual choices.

Growing up, Meeran suffers psychological abuse from her siblings, especially the brothers, and children of the village; yet she also has parents who are unflinching in their love towards her. When Meeran exercises her first attempt at seizing agency, it must come at the cost of breaking her parents’ heart. It is through self-realisation that Meeran feels that, given the societal and sexual mores, she would not be allowed to fit in, that she has been rendered outcast by virtue of her birth, that she can enter the world only as an outsider. So when a young Meeran, barely a teenager, hears of a troupe of khusras arriving in the village to bless a home on an auspicious moment, she asks one of her brothers to inform them to come and claim their thing. Once she leaves (or is so claimed), the second phase of Meeran’s journey begins while her guru/mahant anoints her as Meera, her new name. From that point on, her journey includes learning the arts of singing and dancing, adapting crucial gestures and body language associated with being a khusra, falling in love, rising to the top of her profession, owning property, adopting an inter-sex child given up by parents at birth, providing the best possible education to the child, personal tragedies and so on. The author does a decent enough job lending agency to someone who’s often viewed as – or assumed to be – powerless in a patriarchal setting, shaped by the Victorian morality of modern India. By the time the reader turns the last page, she does so after having met and known another fully humanised person. That’s no small feat. The mere fact that the narrative centres around a khusra holds the reader’s attention throughout.

Humanising the other

Reading fiction is supposed to evoke empathy. It is only through empathy that we discover that there’s a teeji makhluq sitting inside all of us.

There are hiccups that cannot be dismissed. These are moments where the novel sags under the weight of dialogue. For the most part, the dialogues are an essential element of fleshing out a unique lifestyle; however, overdoing it makes a literary text unnecessarily chatty. There’s a delicate balance between evoking realism and pedestrianism. Final rounds of editing should make sure that serious fiction does not slide towards the latter. While the novel does a good job of humanising an inter-sex Meera, the author barely misses turning Meera into an angel. That slip suggests that the author, perhaps, is more interested in the plight of the hijra or khusra community than in understanding the emotional or intellectual interiority of her characters. Harkirat Kaur Chaahal seems to be influenced by Buddha’s words sarvam dukham dukham! That is not a good way to pin the narrative which is fundamentally about an outsider community. It runs the risk of reproducing an ordained-by-fate narrative that is anathema to the modern novel. The novel barely manages to dodge that bullet as the author allows Meera the agency early on to make her own decisions starting with self-actualisation and leaving her parental home.

The second important decision the protagonist makes is when as an adult she accepts the love of a man, a merchant in the neighborhood, but turns down his offer of becoming his lover. Such arrangements are not uncommon in India or Pakistan, however closeted. Meera makes a conscious decision based on her own evaluation regarding the personal cost the two might have to pay. Meera prefers her independence. Does the urge for independence lead to suffering? Can independence be achieved without pain? The author could have done a slightly better job at fleshing this out.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is the linking of the khusra community with the other in the context of modern Indian political and communal landscape: the Muslims. Meeran is born to Punjabi Muslim parents in a region where Muslims were spared the calamity of partition which befell most Muslims in East Punjab. Her shift from a Muslim household to one where religion is not allowed to define a person’s identity, though the marginalisation remains intact, serves as an interesting point of conversation readers could engage with. Reading fiction is supposed to evoke empathy. It is only through empathy that we discover that there’s a teeji makhluq sitting inside all of us.

All in all, Teeji Makhluq is a worthy addition to the modern Punjabi fiction. It raises questions and awareness rooted in the collective social reality of a lived experience in South Asia. Along with recommending Teeji Makhluq, I’d highly recommend young readers to seek out Nadir Ali’s short stories because they explore social reality based on personal experience. I would choose such fiction, however imperfect, any day over glassy narcissism blessing social artifice. I look forward to reading in the near future more fiction by Chaahal rendered into Shahmukhi.

The reviewer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories.   He blogs at

Humanising the other