Happy endings seldom make for a realistic narrative. And when describing love, the significance of melancholy on the story, is even more compelling. Perhaps, that’s why our folklore and theology are in abundance with tales of vipralama, where paladins are profused with the mellow of love in separation, ending in heart-rending meeting or estrangement. Romeo Juliet, Antony Cleopatra, Sahiba Mirza, Laila Majnu, Heer Ranjha, Salim Anarkali are some of these classic examples.
A thought worth noticing is the absence of ‘&’ in between these names. The legend has it that the two counterparts are separate in flesh but one in spirit. And it is in this mood that Khalil Gibran once wrote, “Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation”.
With eyes decorated with tears of conjugal love, flowing constantly while he recited her name; his voice choked up, the hair of his body standing on the end as he beautifully composed his poetry of repugnance:
I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla
And I kiss this wall and that wall
It’s not love of the walls that has enraptured my heart
But of the one who dwells within them
The tale of Qais Ibn Al-Mulawah and Layla, which took place in 7th Century Arabia, was immortalized in the writing of Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s Panj Ganj. And since then has been adapted and reproduced for cinema and in literature more than a thousand times in the Middle East and South Asia.
Qais Ibn Al-Mulawah was a young boy when he fell in love with Laila Al-Aamiriya. Qais first saw Laila at a maktab (traditional school) and enchanted with each other, they both decided to spend the rest of their lives together. He started writing poems for her and read them aloud at the street corners to anyone who cared to listen. This obsessive display of love and devotion lead many to call him a madman and thus the epithet of Majnun (possessed) was conferred upon him.
One day, Qais summoned courage and visited Laila’s father to ask for her hand in marriage. Disillusioned with such an audacity, he rejected Qais’ pleas and arranged Laila’s marriage to a rich merchant in a neighbouring village. Laila belonged to the Aamir tribe, famous for its rich heritage and wealth, and although Qais was from the same tribe, there was no comparison in the social class. Also, how could a father marry her beloved daughter to a lunatic? The match between the two would have been deemed scandalous according to Arabic traditions.
Overcome with deep grief and sorrow, Qais decided to abandon his home and family, and sought refuge in the wilderness. While, on the other hand Laila was married off to Ward Althaqafi of Ta’if, against her wishes. Laila did not approve of Ward but she was a loyal daughter and thus she remained a chaste wife throughout her life, never mentioning Qais, but never forgetting him in her heart.
Majnun lead a miserable life in solitude with the wild animals. The travellers who visited the city informed that Majnun spent all his time reciting poetry to himself and writing with a wooden stick on the sand. His parents missed him terribly and kept a platter in the garden every evening, hoping that their son would return to them some day. But it didn’t. Majnun’s old parents passed away awaiting.
When Layla learned of their sad demise, she decided to send this message to Qais. But how could she strand his husband? And the promise she made to her father? So, she found an old man traveling towards the desert to carry her message. The old man after several attempts crossed paths with Qais and informed him of his parents’ sad departure. The old man witnessed a terrible sight. Qais was burdened with regret and vowed to spend all his life in destitute, never returning back to the city.
Some years later, Ward Althaqafi died of fever. Laila was grief-stricken but the thought of finally reuniting with her true love was a solace. This, however, was not to be. The traditions called for Laila to spend the next two years inside her house, without meeting any other soul. This was a severe blow to Laila. She had awaited a lifetime for Qais and now two more years felt like an eternity to her. Heart broken, she died alone inside her house, without seeing Qais ever-again.
The countrymen searched for Qais in the desert to inform him of the mournful news but they could not find him anywhere. Hopeless, they decided to return to perform Laila’s funeral rites. Upon arriving at the burial place, they saw Qais who wept inconsolably and died in the arms of her dead lover. His last words inscribed on a rock lying next to their bodies read:
Maker of all things created!
I implore thee in the name of everything which thou hast chosen, relieve me of this burden
Let me go where my love dwells
Free me from this cruel existence: and, in the other world, cure me of my torment there.