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Monday, 29 April 2013

Shamshad Begum: Obit

There was a time in the history of Hindi cinema when the singer was the song, when the persona of the singer did not exist;the listener heard and was entranced by the song and its words. We have moved a long way from that age of self-effacing artistes. Reality TV and live shows have brought the singer centre stage and made the singer a 'performer' in a manner that playback singers of yore could never have dreamt of.
Nothing illustrates this better than the recent death of Shamshad Begum at the age of 94 on 23 April at a suburban hospital in Mumbai. Shamshad Begum who made her debut as a radio artiste and went on to steal millions of hearts with a voice that was as remarkable as it was powerful, died unsung and largely unknown.
Perhaps it is one of the ironies of fate that at a time when Hindi cinema is celebrating its centenary with a series of high-octane, eyeball-grabbing extravaganzas many of its stalwarts continue to live on the fringes of popular consciousness and die - when not in abject poverty and hardship - certainly without any of the benefits that today's stars take very much for granted. Coming from a conservative family, Shamshad chose to shy away from the camera yet could not hide her light under a bushel when it came to her stunningly formidable voice. Over the decades, while her numerous songs continue to be aired, she herself remained unrecognised.
In her heyday, as a playback singer, such was the range and depth of her voice that every note she sang was distinct from that of her near-contemporaries such as the Mangeshkar sisters and Geeta Dutt. Perhaps that is why she has sung songs for the heroine as well as the vamp, the village belle as well as the courtesan. The duet she sang with Mohammad Rafi for the film CID (1956) - Leke pehla pehla pyar - is redolent with the fervour of young love. Then there is the qawwali from Mughal-e-Azam : Teri mehfil mein qismat aazma kar hum bhi dekhenge (sung with Lata Mangeshkar) that is remembered even today for its archness and coquetry. Another of her songs still enjoyed in its remixed version is Kajra mohabbatwala akhiyon mein aisa dala sung with Asha Bhonsle for Kismat (1968); like several of Shamshad Begum's songs this too was composed by O P Nayyar, who possibly knew better than most how to use this powerful voice in the matrix of popular Hindi cinema.
Some of her other songs that were a rage in their time and are still remembered include: Milte hi aankhen dil hua deewana kisi ka with Talat Mahmood for Babul; Chali chali kaisi yeh hawa chali with Usha Mangeshkar for Bluff Master; Kabhi aar kabhi paar laga teer-e-nazar for Aar Paar; O gadiwale gadi dhirey haank re and Holi aaye re Kanhai for Mother India. As anyone who remembers this 'golden era' of Hindi film songs will vouch, if there was the alhadpana (playfulness) of a gurgling brook in Boojh mera kya naam re there was also the sombreness of Naina bhar aye neer, the entreaty of Nazar phero na humse and the poignancy of Chod babul ka ghar in Shamshad Begum's oeuvre. Then there were also the romantic duets such as the one with Kishore Kumar, Meri neendon main tum, mere khwabon mein tum, that effortlessly conjured a far-off world
Years later, it is hard to imagine Saiyan dil mein aana re from the film Bahar or the evergreen hit Mere piya gaye Rangoon, wahan se kiya hai telephoon from Patanga sung by anyone else but Shamshad Begum. Or, Reshmi salwar kurta jaali ka...

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam: A Review

Every now and then you read a book that surprises you by its combination of contraries. No matter how rich a lode of raw material a writer may have struck, nor how vast or variegated a canvas he may have appropriated, regardless even of how talented or dedicated he might be, he evokes exasperation rather absorption in his reader. Not consistently, not always but every now and then, sometimes every few pages but enough to make you put down the book, and pick it up again through sheer dint of will power. For, I must confess, were it not for the purpose of writing this review I would have abandoned Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden after the first 50-odd pages. I must also confess that the loss would have been mine. For all its ponderousness and portentousness, The Blind Man’s Garden, hides within it a story that was waiting to be told.

Shortly after the American bombing of Afghanistan, we had heard of the countless Pakistanis who volunteered to help the victims of the west’s ‘war on terror’; some crossed the porous border into Afghanistan, others flocked to shelters and refugee camps to help the waves of Afghan refugees who sought safe haven on Pakistan soil. But save for stray newspaper reports, largely one-sided depending on where or by whom they were being published,  no substantial account emerged of the compulsions of those who offered help, of what they saw and experienced, let alone the reception they met at the hands of the ‘victims’. In this, his fourth novel, Nadeem Aslam takes off from his previous book, The Wasted Vigil, which had dealt with the depravity and horrors of Taliban territory. In fact, all of Aslam’s literary offering have been marked by the confrontation of the East and the West, the Islamophobia that has gripped the West and the murder and mayhem unleashed by the events of 9/11.

‘History’ is the third parent,’ so begins The Blind Man’s Garden as it sets off to explore the flawed marriage between politics and religion. It is October, a month after the attacks on the Twin Towers. American forces have launched a military offensive; the buildings, orchards and hills of Afghanistan are being bombed, for an aggrieved America has decided that there can be ‘no innocent people in a guilty nation’. Rohan and his son, Jeo, travel from Heer, an imaginary town somewhere in Pakistan, to Peshawar where the wounded and injured are being brought in. Mikal, Rohan’s foster son and the son of Communist arrested and never seen again, is also planning to offer help; while Jeo is a third-year medical student, Mikal works at a gun repair shop where a day after the West invaded Afghanistan a ‘piety discount’ is being offered to those who wish to buy an AK 47 to go to jihad. Jeo and Mikal cross the border and are promptly sold to the Taliban; they find themselves amidst a ragtag army of jihadis from the wider Muslim world: Egyptians, Algerians, Saudis, Yemenis, Uzbeks and Chechens. Jeo is killed shortly thereafter in an American attack on a Taliban fortification and a grievously wounded Mikal taken prisoner by a warlord ‘who cut off the trigger finger on each of his hands and nailed the two pieces to a doorframe along with those taken from dozens of other captives.’

What follows is an unimaginable litany of horrors: A game called ‘Nail’ where a captive is asked his age; if the boy says twelve, he is raped by twelve men, if he says fourteen, then fourteen men are sent to him all of whom keep shouting ‘Nail! Nail! Nail” as they go about brutalising him. Desperate parents of captive boys who sell off a kidney to pay the ransom seekers who may be defeated or banished Taliban, al-Qaeda gangs or rogue warlords.  A room filled with the rubble of the broken Buddha and his companions. A graveyard of vandalised Russian helicopters, MiGs and Hinds covered with lichens. Blood-thirsty bandits bartering their prisoners for ransom, or failing that putting them to hard labour like galley slaves from an ancient age. With all the solemn ponderousness of a church bell, Aslam’s voice pierces through the veils of dispassionate reporting as, for instance, when he observes:

‘The opposite of war is not peace but civilisation, and civilisation is purchased with violence, and cold-blooded murder. With war. The man [a warlord] must earn millions of dollars for guarding the NATO supply convoys as they pass through his area, and for the militia he must have raised to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda soldiers alongside American Special Forces.’

Interspersed with the brutalities of a war-ravaged land and horrifying vignettes of a people desensitised by a relentless, never-ending chaos and carnage, is a tender love-story – between Mikal and Naheed, Jeo’s widow. Mikal, who reminded me constantly of Ayn Rand’s iconic protagonist, Howard Roark, because of his self-destructive idealism, who has come to Afghanistan to fight a holy war, instead finds himself wounded and enslaved, brutalised and humiliated, trapped and sold for $5000 to the Americans. Through a series of incongruous twists and turns – no less incongruous than the war that has devastated countless lives – Mikal rescues an American stranger. In the end, while the American is rescued and spirited away in a Chinook helicopter Mikal’s own fate is left ambiguous. ‘Damaged and scarred, he is still perfect’; he appears as a ghost to convince Naheed, the love of his life, to continue with her life without him. Aslam’s last words are moving and prophetic: ‘The insects weave a gauze of sound in the air. She moves towards him and her eyes are full of a still intensity – as though aware of the unnamed, unseen forces in the world, and attempting in her mind to name and see them.’ Perhaps, it is these unnamed unseen forces that govern history and the complex weave of time and circumstance.