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A rare mehfil in troubled times

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 13:46 IST

It’s almost two months since it happened. The shock and anger have subsided; the pain remains. Just as a person with a toothache rolls his tongue over the tooth that hurts, I go over what happened in Mumbai on November 26 last year and the pain returns. Despite the flood of accusations based on facts known to us and the naïve pleas of innocence made by Pakistani leaders, I am still at a loss to find answers to my questions: Who exactly were the perpetrators ? Why did they do it ? Who put them up to committing these horrendous crimes? Did they know that it would bring India and Pakistan on the brink of yet another war — a war that could not be won but only lost? Meanwhile, corpses of nine murderers rot in Indian morgues because Indian Muslims would not allow them to be buried on Indian soil since almost 40 of the victims were Indian Muslims. And Pakistan will not take them because it keeps denying they were Pakistanis. And the one assassin, Kasab, caught alive is in our custody, spilling the beans. There can be no doubt that what he revealed about his father and his village was of his own free will. About approaching the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi to provide him legal aid was probably prompted by his custodians to pin down his Pakistani connection — to be replied by red-faced silence.

We should not expect honest response from Pakistan’s leaders. The writ of their government barely runs over half the country. The northwestern half is firmly in the grip of backward looking mullah-mentors of jehadi gangsters. Pakistan’s army, prodded by the Americans, wages a half-hearted war on them because they are fellow-Pakistanis and fellow-Muslims. They would rather engage in battles against Americans and Indians, neither of whom are Muslims. Nobody is quite sure of the role being played by its Intelligence Services which is often accused of patronising jehadis. We are even less sure of who is in control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and who has the power to press the fatal button. The scene is so utterly confusing that it is impossible to think clearly besides concluding that if there is another incident like the Mumbai blasts, both our countries have had it.

Zila comes calling

Zila Khan is the daughter of Ustad Vilayat Khan. In his time he was the most famous Sitar player in the country. Today, she is as her father, grand-father Ustad Inayat Khan and great grand-father Ustad Imdad Khan were in the times they lived. 42-year old Zila Khan is currently amongst the best of our country’s singers of classical and light classical Hindustani music specialising in Sufiana and rendering ghazals of great poets of Urdu and Hindi. She was put through a rigorous mill of singing eight hours a day while still a child in school in Calcutta. She was not allowed to study beyond the 10th standard in order to devote all her time to music . She was the first girl in seven generations to become a professional singer. She did me the honour of singing at one of my mehfils. It was a memorable evening.

There were a few surprises in store for me. I was expecting her to come alone. She came bustling in, followed by her harmonium and tabla players, a photographer and a lackey. I expected her to be a demure and reserved young lady; she kissed my beard or both sides as I sat wrapped up in my shawl by the fire-side. I offered them sharaab (Scotch): they declined and asked for tea. The first thing she did was to keep her mobile with her while sipping tea. I am allergic towards mobiles in mehfils.

The session started with the harmonium and tabla players warming up. Zila sang a few notes to get the harmonium to the right notes and slapped her thighs to indicate the beat for the table. In between she answered my questions in fluent English and Urdu: Her mobile rang. Call from New York. She confirmed her date with the caller. Then back to singing a note or two for the harmonium, thigh slaps for the tabla, answering my questions and pressing buttons on her mobile. She was on line to Kochi telling the fellow at the other end to change the date of her performances in Kerala till after she had fulfilled her engagements in the States. She was like a six-armed goddess doing six things at a time. I lost patience and pleaded with her “Switch off that damned mobile before you start. “She did not take offence. ‘I’ve finished with it,” she replied as she put it in her hand bag. She turned to me with a bow, for permission to begin “Ijaazat?” I nodded my head: “What would like to hear first?” she asked. I was not prepared for the fermaish, so came out with the first ghazal that came to my mind : Muddat hoee hai yaar to mehmaan kiye hooey (it has been a long time since I entertained my beloved in my house).Then she broke into full throated song — arms and hands emphasising meanings. At the end of every couplet she turned to me rather than her note book for the next — whether to test me or flatter me. Fortunately, I did not let myself down. I was able to show off my memory and was mighty pleased with myself.

So it went on from Ghalib to Hafeez Jalandhari, and others she interwove lines of poets to give her songs a theme, which ghazals rarely have. I was transported into another world — as was everyone else in the mehfil. Long after I had retired for a night her voice kept ringing in my ears and her animated gestures dancing in my eyes.

Talibani translation

The phrase ‘criminal courts’, apart from its ordinary meaning of ‘courts in which criminals are tried’, has, in view of the recent reported initiatives of the Taliban in north-western Pakistan, acquired the secondary, sinister in north-western Pakistan, acquired the secondary, sinister meaning of ‘courts set up by criminals’ !

Contributed by Preetam Giani, Abbotabad (Pakistan)