Bali Rai tells us about a Punjabi tale from his childhood, which later inspired his writing.
Many things inspired my novel, Rani & Sukh. The first major inspirations were stories of star-crossed lovers – tales repeated to me by my mother. This was back in the 1970s, when every Punjabi household I knew had the same painting on their walls. It depicted two lovers, struggling through a dark and desolate landscape, leaning on each other for support, and fleeing certain death at the hands of each other’s families. The woman was called Sohni, and the man, Mehiwal, and theirs was a forbidden love. The tale is a classic in Punjabi folklore, and there are others too – Heer Ranja being particularly popular. These tales were full of melodrama, passion and intrigue. They were tragic too, and they fascinated me. There were heroes and villains, rich and poor, fairytale-like incidents, tragedy, and drama galore.
At the same time I was equally fascinated by Bollywood movies. We didn’t have anything to watch them on, however, so my first taste of the films that would later help to inspire Rani & Sukh came at the homes of uncles and aunts who hardly ever watched anything else. Down the street a young couple that knew my parents would take my sister and me to the local cinema too. It was there that I first saw classics such as Suhaag and Sholay – films that encompassed the entire range of human emotions in three and a half hours. Oh, and about fifty songs too . . .
Like the folk tales, there was passion and intrigue. There were family feuds, love and hatred, long-lost siblings and absent parents – in fact any emotion or family situation that you can think of. I loved them and I even sang along to some of the songs too, much to the annoyance of my sister who would hit me with things whenever I opened my mouth. There was one line from a song in the film Sholay – a tale of outlaw buddies, evil men and beautiful women made to dance on glass – which I sang over and over again:
‘… yeh dorsetay hum nahe toren geh…’
At least that’s what it sounded like to me.
But eventually I grew up and neither Bollywood nor my mother’s Punjabi tales felt cool anymore. They weren’t The Clash or Bob Marley – they weren’t even Eastenders. I was far too trendy for them. But in my heart something remained . . . Then, one day in 1986, I walked into my English Lit classroom and was given a play called Romeo & Juliet, written by some dead old white bloke called Shakespeare. I had never experienced his work before that point, and immediately assumed that it would be boring. Yet, as my amazing teacher, Nigel Gossage, explained the story and it unfolded, I was taken back to the tales my mother told me, and to the films that I had watched as a child. The similarities between Sohni Mehiwal and Romeo & Juliet were striking. Within two scenes, I was hooked to the play, and to Shakespeare in general. And I realised just how wonderful and important those old Punjabi stories were. So important, that somewhere in my head a little nugget of an idea formed. One that would go on to become a novel.
And Rani & Sukh came from that. It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers and blood feuds, family honour and passion, played out in the present day and in the Punjab of the 1960’s – the land of my parents. It is a love story and at the same time full of action. It has killing and emotional blackmail, illicit affairs and murderous villains. A true mash-up of Shakespeare, Bollywood and Punjabi folk tales. I’m not sure my mum realises just how important those story-telling sessions were. I guess I should go thank her!
Bali Rai has written nine young adult novels for Random House Children’s Publishers, as well as the Soccer Squad series for younger readers. His first, (Un)arranged Marriage, created a huge amount of interest and won many awards including the Angus Book Award and the Leicester Book of the Year. It was also shortlisted for the prestigious Branford Boase first novel award. Rani & Sukh and The Whisper were both shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.