Friday, May 18, 2007

One of the worst things about my job is the tears. Grown men and women breaking down.

You can handle kids' crying. They scream their lungs out, they whimper until something distracts them. They sniffle, their faces contort, and all of a sudden, they stop. But how do you handle an old man's tears? How do you handle the crack in an adult voice, sentences disappearing into illogical whimpers of protest?

Weeks after the Varanasi trip, two things have stayed stuck in my head. One, is the weeping of old men and women. At least four of them broke down, without warning, leaving me tongue-tied.

Manni, the grandmother who still climbs trees, braves broken ankles and survives by making pattals. Her legs tremble now, she said. And she wept. Her daughter lost a child to malnutition, but was dry-eyed. In the Musahar hamlet, the women don't have the time enough, tears enough, for buried children; almost all have lost one in its infancy, or two or four. They cannot afford to keep accounts of regret.

Mullain, father of Kanhaiya who is now dead. Former weaver. Father-in-law of Bhagini. Dependent on Bhagini, who makes about Rs 25 a day, washing dishes and sweeping other people's homes. I asked them how they live, and he said, "We live... eat two days, don't eat two days." I made the mistake of asked his opinion on the weavers' situation. His voice trembled. "Think? What should I think? What should I say?"

Nirhu. Sixty-five years old. Former weaver. Lost two young sons... to illness... to weakness... to malnutrition... who knows? The elder one was about thirty-five and a father of three himself. The younger one was about twenty-five, and father of one. Now, Nirhu must support all these children. How? "I dig in the groumd. Work on construction sites. In brick kilns" And his voice trmebled. "My eyes are gone.... Within 8 months, I lost both back has been broken by their going." And after a pause, I asked, "Are you okay?" He said, "Okay? Well, I'm not ill at the moment. I suppose I am okay."

Chamila, Nirhu's wife. Who has lost two young sons. She also goes to work on construction sites and brick kilns. I squat next to her, near the earthen stove. A small fire is lit. A pot is simmering. What is cooking? Potatoes. And what do you eat that with - rice? daal? "There is no daal, no oil, no chillies, no haldi. What daal?" And she started to weep.

I left that village feeling sick at the heart. And then I walked into the other thing that is stuck in my head. A swimming river of stars.


I hadn't seen fire-flies before, not in such glory. Not at such proximity. Here, in this village where there was no electricity, where my own step on wet mud sounded loud, here, I step almost into the centre of a shimmering, invisible web of pin-pointed light. Like restless, warm diamonds. Like crystals of live poetry. Like having the stars laid out in my path, at my feet.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si

Was stuck to her cell phone outside a small 'mart' while it poured in sheets more solid than water can be.
Was cursing her decision to carry cloth bags, cursing the monopoly of white shalwaars in her wardrobe.
Was buying shampoo to the tune of a hundred drops melded into one mechanical drone melded into the drrrr of a sewing machine.
Was leaning into the whip of the wind.

ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si
Was trying to flag down auto, mini-bus, anything. No cycle-rickshaws in this part of town.
Was cursing the government and its urban transport policies.
Was looking in the bus that had stopped beside her. The conductor saying, get on, we'll take you as far as the bend.
Was debating whether or not to - less than six people on the bus and she cannot tell whether they are passengers or friends of the driver.
Was thinking of what she'd read about buses and being the only girl on board.

ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si
Was warned, 'bheeg rahe ho, madam, log kuch kuch keh ke jayenge'.
Was struggling between wanting to accept the polite offer of bus-drivers in the rain, and the fears that lurk within that bus.
Was finally standing in the bus, near the door, ready to get off in an instant.
Was told to sit inside. Was ignoring the request.
Was sitting on the conductor's seat, right near the door, because it had been vacated for her.

ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si
Was waiting, pointlessly. The rain would not let up and the bus would not move. Traffic snarling half a kilometre ahead.
Was hopping off, without an umbrella, cloth jhola bleeding its handloom truth onto her white shalwaar.
Was rolling up her shalwaar, which would slip down and unravel. Rolled up again, unravelled again.

ek ladki bhegi bhaagi si
Was listening to 'aaye-hai' and 'oye madam' and 'madam ji ko bhi bhithaa le'.
Was turning about to glare at the comment-passer. It was a khaki uniform. A cop, on a bike, riding pillion behind another cop.
Was turning to a wolf-whistle, at her elbow. A face in the car window. The car ramming into the jeep ahead. Headlights crunching and smashing and glass silently falling into the gushing gutter water, rising, rising.
Was wading through rising gutter water.

ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si
Was rushing up a dark stairway, to a dark house and for once, wasn't missing the electricity.
Was listening to 'your room is practically air-conditioned!'. Wind-conditioned. Rain-conditioned.
Was no longer bheegi bhaagi si.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A voice, like a call.

Can't remember where I've heard it, but I always carry it around - this idea that the body is the soul. The body is all you have. It is the body that creates, the body that feels, the body that runs away, the body that gives up. You cannot lose more than a body. The body is ultimate.

This idea is reinforced every time I listen to good music. Being musically illiterate, (well, almost), I respond physically to most singing. In fact, my tastes can be summed up in one line: either the music should move me, or it should make me move. If it does neither, it's not my sort of thing. But if it does, if it moves me, I feel it like food, like fabric, like flowers. Like, my gut responds to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Like, my mouth responds to the peppy fifties filmy songs. Like, my chest responds to Begum Akhtar and Farida Khanum.

Sain Zahoor... I think the back of my head and eyes have decided that he bears a little of that magic. This man, whom the world is comparing to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, this man who sings Sufiana kalam, they say, like the sufis did; this man was singing on the last day of the (awfully named) Hungry Hearts theatre festival. And I was listening. At first, with my eyes wide open. For he walked onto the stage carrying an ektara festooned with bright strings of multicoloured.... what is the word? They are like bunches of colourful parandas that village girls wear in their braids. Like the strings that auto-rickshaws in small towns will hang from their rear-view mirrors. Rarely have these strings acquired such brazen dignity as they did on that ektara.

We'd waited long enough for his performance, but the wait itself had been worthwhile. The first part of the evening, in fact, was absolutely enthralling. Sabir Sain and Abdur Ghafur Sain were on the dhol, in a jugalbandi with Warsi Ballu on the tabla. All I can say about it was that the drumming pulsed in my blood and despite the freezing air-conditioning, I felt warm. If I'd been in an open space instead of being confined to a seat in a packed auditorium, I'd have gotten up to whirl.

[The singer that followed this piece, Mohammad Hanif Multani was, well, alright. I suppose. He was followed by Inayat Ali Beli, who was fun. The energy was tremendous, and the audience was happily clapping along.]

And then, finally, Sain Zahoor walked onto the stage. With strings of ghungroos wrapped round both ankles, carrying his ektara in both arms, like you carry a sleeping child. Dressed in a shimmering, tinselled, red shalwaar-kameez, and a black turban, and quiet confidence. And he began to sing. And my eyes closed, my neck threw itself against the back of the seat; in minutes, I was filled with questions. About purity, about purpose. What is the purpose of this man here, his voice? What is the purpose of colour? Of sound? Of beauty? Of language itself? What are these words he is singing?

Bulle Shah... singing of dancing to please the beloved, and losing his caste, because a dancing girl has no caste. Bulle Shah... singing of black - his black beloved, the black letters of the Quran, and who wants the fair ones?

My heart is sold to words, and I only understand Punjabi in bits and snatches. Bulle Shah makes me work very hard. But Zahoor is making is easier - the words reach me, and even if they didn't, they wouldn't need to. His voice is translating them for me into a language that doesn't beg understanding.

The accompanists weren't helping. The harmonium was almost drowning out the ektara, the tabla and flute were irritants. I wanted them to stop, and when a stranger's voice yelled out, between songs - 'Sirf ektara!' - it became obvious that that many others did, too.

This is a voice that does not need, and perhaps, does not even brook, any company. It is a voice you want to be alone with. Perhaps, it is not even a voice meant for auditorium and stage. It is a voice that calls to you as if from over a distance, and stops you, inside your head. It is the voice of a wandering singer. The voice of a sain.

Between verses, with a 'ha!', or is it a 'haq!', the voice snaps its fingers at you. That single syllable, that half-word is like a tap on the knee, and then he stamps his feet and begins to dance in circles, ghungroos filling the room.

And then, Zahoor is singing... Allah Hu.... Hu.... Hu....

And I'm wondering - what is the significance of this? All the sufi singers sing it so - 'Allah Hu...' In your prayers, you are supposed to say 'allah hu akbar'. God is great. But they stop at 'allah hu.'. God is. And sometimes, only 'Hu...' Just the verb. Is. What is this 'is'? Is it an assertion of being, of existing, and thereby, of everything else?

Each time my mind wandered, with each drawn out, gently warbling 'hu...', Zahoor's voice would drag me back. Like, being tugged at with muslin threads. Like, being woven in and out of a pattern. Of the here, and now. And forever.

Is he like Nusrat sahab? I don't know. Not really. The great qawwal's voice had something dry and crackling in it. I never heard him in concert, but even over the stifling distance of a CD or tape, even then, his voice would touch me like a fist. Zahoor is different. Like, something firm and baked.

And finally, when the accompanists are persuaded to stop, finally, after Zahoor has touched his fingers to his eyes and extended his hands to his listeners, and bowed, he is persuaded to sing one last song. There is his voice and his fingers on the ektara, and you can only draw in your breath once, deeply, and exhale. It is a voice that calls out to you. Like a hand beckoning in a dream.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I love Patna.

Because I am delighted by the poster-plastered walls that inform me of a range of entertainment options, which include:

1] Narhau Rickshawala (angry young man carrying small child occupies the centre of the poster, with faces of villanous-looking men all around)
2] Sasurara Zindabad (two cheerful young women, one in western dress, one in ghagra-choli; many other faces.)
3] Kaam-wali (an emphatic 'kaam' being printed at a distance from 'wali'; picture of young woman having erotic fit on her knees)
4] Chinese Nagin (simple white poster with text)

Right next to it, an ad for Chetan Coaching Classes - X, XII etc. Simple white poster with text.

And because of the backs of the cycle-rickshaws - shimmering fabrics, edged with silver gotaa, covered with motifs of horses, fish, hanuman, a new moon... and very often, a Taj Mahal type monument, in shocking pink satin.

And because of one sober rickshaw that has neither satin nor silver lace nor motif. His vehicle is done up in soft, brown faux-leather. Written on the back, quite simply - 'I love You'.

What's not to love, haan?
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