FICTION & POETRY
Four interconnected lives from the archives of the acclaimed polyglot writer.
Editor's Note: Earlier versions of these stories have appeared in Aamer Hussein's collections, albeit not as an interconnected set in conversation with one another as they are intended to be published here.
AS a young man, Mustafa Khan Bangash was given to revelry, wine and the love of dancers. His pen-name was Shefta. He composed verses for his lover Ramju, who many years later wrote her own book of poems. They say he had another lover too.
He took lessons in prosody; his verses were improved by illustrious contemporaries: Momin Khan Momin, then later Mirza Ghalib.
At the age of thirty-two, he set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy of Holies. On the way he and his fellow-passengers were shipwrecked on an island from where, for many days, they found no rescue, no route to freedom. They lived on a diet of sifted salt-water and herbs.
When he returned to Delhi after an absence of two years and six days, Shefta had lost his taste for wine and the love of dancing women. In this city of poets, musicians and courtesans there were also many scholars and saints. Where once he had written of rapture, he now wrote lyrics of renunciation. He still sat beside his master Ghalib and watched the older poet drink, but Shefta no longer raised a glass with anyone.
- In 1857, during the Uprising in Delhi, the conquering British accused him of sedition and of fraternising with rebels. He was imprisoned without proof for seven years. His family’s land and properties were confiscated. He was released to see his wrecked and haunted city rebuilt and transformed, the traces of his life erased. Delhi—his birthplace, his prison, his grave.
Though he does not know this yet, the task of vindication will fall to his descendants who will fight for freedom. Some will make their home in the new nation of Pakistan. But that’s in another century, in another story that has yet to be written.
I can’t remember when, exactly, I first heard my mother and aunts talk about Shaikh Rafiuddin Siddiqi, known as Rafi Ajmeri, their maternal uncle whose delightful volume of short stories, Kehkashan, was published only after his early death at the age of 33. I do recall that when I began to take an active interest in modern Urdu fiction, my aunt and then my mother told me of Mamu Mian, as they called him. He had, in his youth, been considered more than promising; already well-known in his 20s, he published fiction and essays in journals such as Sarosh and Saqi. He was handsome and highly literate; although he grew up in Ajmer, where his maternal grandfather Nawab Haji Mohammed Khan had settled, his mother’s family were from Kabul, so Persian was spoken around him. His Kashmiri father was highly educated and encouraged his children in literary pursuits; both Rafi and his sister, my grandmother, published at an early age. They were an articulate, gregarious family; the brothers and sisters quoted Saadi, Rumi and Khusrau from memory; they had heard Iqbal recite his poems in their own home. They also sang and narrated the story-songs of Rajasthan where they were born and raised. I heard these stories and songs in my Karachi childhood from my mother, and with even more enthusiasm from my grandmother during long summer holidays in her home in Indore, and that’s certainly where, at least in part, I inherited my love for old stories.
Grandmother married in 1914 and soon devoted herself to family pursuits, while Mamu Mian wrote story after story, spent most of his time in Delhi, and travelled from town to town in search of material. He often visited my grandparents in Indore. My mother, a schoolgirl then, remembers him on his last trip there, in 1937. He was afflicted by a mysterious ailment they referred to as melancholia, and strolled in the garden leaning heavily on his older sister’s arm. Today his condition would be called severe depression.
He’d fallen in love with a distant cousin who probably returned his feelings but, in those changing times, he just hadn’t had the courage to propose: she’d married someone her parents chose for her. When the young woman’s mother heard about Mamu Mian’s feelings, she said: He only had to tell me. But it was too late. A few months later, while visiting his niece in Bombay, Mamu Mian was found dead.
A literary acquaintance who will remain unnamed, was left in charge of his stories. My uncle complains that Kehkashan was randomly edited; some of Rafi Ajmeri’s stories were lost forever, and others plagiarised and published in other people’s names.
However, Kehkashan survived. But though Rafi’s life’s brief story was as fascinating as any tale he might have written, no one in my family had managed to preserve a single copy of his book. It wasn’t until ’97 or ’98 that my friend, Asif, a descendant of one of Uncle Rafi’s earliest editors, unearthed a copy of it in Karachi, which he xeroxed and sent me. (Thank God for Pakistani libraries.) For days I inhabited Rafi’s world. His fiction was set in the increasingly modern milieu of his own time; it barely touched on the princely India my grandparents, and their now-married older daughters, inhabited. He wrote about students, young women and men, seeking their fortune in a competitive late colonial world.
The prevailing tone of his stories is light and witty, wordly but never cynical, tinged with romance. (In one, a young woman manages to reach her lost love by an astute or accidental use of subtitles in a silent film.) Later stories show an awareness of the nuances of class and the economics of marriage. In ‘Muhabbat ka bulava’ (my own favourite), a young man falls in love with his friend’s sister, and when his loved one’s very rich father forbids the marriage, not only do the lovers elope, but the hero’s friend escapes with them to set up a life away from the rigid social norms of his family.
How would Rafi Ajmeri have fared in the Progressive era that was dawning just then? Would his liberal attitudes have hardened into dogma, or would he have swung to conservatism in the Pakistan to which his brothers migrated as he too probably would have? Or would his fictions have echoed the calm voice of conscience?
No way of telling, though one short, bitter text of his suggests another direction he might have taken. Here retells, from an old song, the legend of the bandit Daya Gujjar, who robbed the king’s wife of her jewels to please his demanding wife.
Amma ko mera Ram-ram kehna
Behna ko mera salam
Gujri ko bas itna kehna
Reh jaye joban ko re tham
Daya ab aana nahin
Daya julmi ke phande
Daya phaansi ke phande
(Give my greetings to my mother and sister, but to the Gujri just say to make good use of her youth: Daya isn’t coming back, he’s in the clutches of the oppressor, the noose is around his neck).
As I read it, I could hear my grandmother’s singing voice. My hair stood on end as it did when I first heard it at the age of nine or ten.
Lady of the Lotus
Her daughter gave her the red diary with a sketch or a poem printed on each page, as a gift for her fifteenth wedding anniversary in February. She had a meeting that morning, and a formal dinner to attend in the evening. Her husband had a difficult day. He didn’t want to go.
The next day she was at the airport at noon, to receive the ‘Mother of the Nation’ who was coming home from a trip abroad. Later, a meeting at her sister-in-law’s house, to discuss the situation and progress of Muslim women. Her husband told her he’d had disturbing news.
In the diary, she wrote: Just when I feel on the edge of a discovery—an illumination.
Between then and June, after her opening entries, she used it only to write down the words of the songs she was learning. Her handwriting intertwined with the printed words and pictures on the pages.
June was a musical month.
Her teacher, whom she called Khan Sahib, invited connoisseurs of classical music, including Shahid Ahmad, the editor of the literary journal Saqi, to hear her sing. She performed three raags—Khambavati, Anandi and Des—without making a single mistake. Her teacher was quite satisfied, her husband was pleased, the audience impressed. She was thinking of her deadline: a text to be handed over to She the next morning. A musician from Bengal, Begum Jabbar, played the sitar very well.
She sang Khambavati and Darbari. Her teacher was satisfied, she wasn’t. She missed a farewell party for her friend Jane who was going back to America. At the next session four days later, Begum Jabbar played well again, Khan Sahib sang well, and her songs were well-appreciated. Her husband was very pleased with her singing, her teacher exultant.
Two days later, she was singing again at a concert; she didn’t feel she sang too well; her teacher was most dissatisfied. There was a series of dinners to attend before the music conference at the new Arts Council began. Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali were performing on the opening night, she enjoyed their recital; on the second, Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali were good in parts, but she was bored by the vocal gymnastics of Roshanara, Queen of Song.
She started to learn the new Darbari tarana. It was a composition by Tan Ras Khan. She tried to sing a Thumri in Bhairavi, with her own improvisations and embellishments, but she didn’t make it. She practiced Darbari in the evenings for twenty minutes. She cancelled a party at her friend Suad’s, to practice a new Malhar, but he made her sing Anandi.
She waited for him at 5.30 and he appeared at 8.30. She wanted to sing the Malhar she’d learnt but instead he made her sing Aiman and Kedara.
June was ending, and she had another deadline, for the Morning News this time.
She wanted to sing Malhar. He made her sing Darbari. She wanted something new and he made her repeat old lessons. Then he started her on a new raag, Mian ki Todi. She practiced Des and Bhopali, shifted to Bahaar, wanted to sing the rest of them, but he moved her to Malhar. She’d hoped he’d teach her the new string, but he made her revise the oldest. She didn’t like them much.
A full Darbari with a new Tarana, and a new Khambavati at last. Satisfied (she writes).
She notes her deadlines in the diary, but she doesn’t write about driving her children to school in the mornings four miles from P.E.C.H.S to Clifton, or picking them up for lunch. She mentions the parties she attended, but not the night she came back laughing because the Portuguese Ambassador had called her the Maria Callas of Karachi.
She doesn’t record the passing of the seasons, the walks to the lake in the mild evening breeze, the flowers and fruit she grows, or the frangipani fallen on wet grass or picked off the branch in the morning for her hair.
July. Khan Sahib arrived unexpectedly. She revised Anandi, learnt a new Khambavati.
Some beautiful new improvisations: Satisfied (she writes).
A few days later, another unexpected visit. From Jahan Khan this time, her teacher’s maternal uncle. He started her on Khambavati.
Ai ri mi jagi piya bin sagri rain
Jab se gaye mori sudh hu na leni
kaise kahun man ki batiyan…
Ustad Jahan Khan comes by regularly now (she writes). Her pages were filling up with the lyrics of the songs she learned. She was practising ornamentation, Alankaar, in Khambavati.
In August, Ustad Jahan Khan brought her voice down to a lower pitch by half a note. She sang all her songs without the accompanying harmonium. The discovery amazed her and surprised everyone. She was not very satisfied with her voice at that pitch.
The next day her teacher tried out the old raags at the new pitch, with only the tanpura. Every note was in tune.
He will teach me morning raags in the morning (she writes) and come in the evening to teach me evening raags.
After trying out several raags in Khayal, Ustad Jahan Khan struck upon Dhrupad, which her husband liked very much.
She started to learn Raag Durga in the Dhrupad mode, with the Khamach rhythm; unusual and rarely recognised. She sang with the pakhwavaj, a single, two-faced drum, instead of the usual paired tablas.
Eri mai nand kunwar
eri mai nand kunwar
eri mai nand kunwar
maaa-aai nand kunwar
Her voice throbbed and soared.
When a blister appears on the first forefinger (she writes) it is a sign that you have achieved the perfect pitch. One hour a day should be set aside, sacredly, for the practice of taans and sur sadhan: the art of song.
Her children will remember the concerts in the garden on nights lit up by flares or by the moon, they remember the songs and remind her of them, when she sang what, and even the words and melodies.
They sat around her as she sang, or listened from the open window. They learnt her songs like the grey African parrots in their aunt’s big cage, half-understanding the words; they delighted her by singing raags in the bath, but when she persuaded them to take formal lessons all but her middle daughter would run away.
They will remember her favourite book: The Lady of the Lotus, illustrated with classical miniatures: a story from her native Malwa, of Baz Bahadur and the poet-singer Roopmati, whose melancholy verses their mother set to music and sang. Years later, her son will find her a copy of the book she lost in transit, and find some of those verses. But it’s a new edition.
Had I but known what pain with love would come, had I but known
Jo main aisa jaanti preet ki ye dukh hoe
I would have banished him by beat of drum, had I but known
Nagar dhandora peetti preet na kariyo koe
Did the rain fall that year of 1963? None of them remembers now: they think it never came. They remember, though, all the years she longed for rain and missed her native Malwa, and how she exulted when it finally fell.
After trying her voice out in several pitches, Ustad Jahan Khan brought it back to the original note. He said he’d been worrying over it for days.
So, what did it mean to you, the singing? Her son will ask her as he transcribes, and reads back to her the words of her diary. She remembers it all, the rooms, the faces, the applause, the ecstasy and the fall.
Expression, she will reply, and release. The poetry in the music is thought, and through singing I expressed those thoughts.
Sometimes late at night, the lady of the lotus will sing to herself, those songs, of rainfall, separation and exultation. Later, her son, who never wanted to, will also sing to find release. But one night, he will stop mid-song, terrified of the audience around him and the failure of his voice, and swear he’ll never sing on stage again. He will exchange the ecstasy of music for the dry solace of thoughts; he’ll write, but he inherits from her the pursuit: of austere phrase, soaring note, throbbing pulse, blistered forefinger.
She abandoned the diary with a final, terse entry.
23rd Nov 1963.
Dinner at Khan Sahib’s house. Music after dinner.
No exhilaration after singing.
After this, there are only poems, wedding songs and musical notations.
OFTEN on those long afternoons in the old house in Badayun when sunlight spread golden carpets on the stones and the older women had taken in the washing and the children were tired of playing hopscotch in the open courtyard or leaping from balcony to balcony, the girl would go to the terrace and shelter in a stone pavilion with a novel or write couplets in a notebook and then, as if she’d invited it over, the dove would begin to call her from a tree, and its call would lie like a shadow on her skin, but she never saw the bird that gave her invisible company.
For years after she left and crossed borders and moved houses in Karachi then Lahore and then Pindi and back to Karachi, and was known as the country’s queen of melancholy verse, she thought her invisible friend had abandoned her. Yes, but once in a top floor bedroom in a tall empty house in an Islamabad paralysed by strikes and demonstrations against a corrupt regime, as she stood looking out of a window at a flowering jacaranda, she heard the dove’s call from the tree’s upper branches, and she wondered how its plaintive song could ever have seemed to her to be the harbinger of joys to come. ▢
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
Artwork by Prithi Khalique for SAAG. 3D motion and interaction design.
Stories in Dialogue
AAMER HUSSEIN was born in Karachi in 1955. He began his literary career as a short story writer and reviewer in the mid-’80s, writing in both English and Urdu. He is the author of story collections Mirror to the Sun (1993), Turquoise (2002), Insomnia (2007), 37 Bridges (2015), Hermitage (2018), andd Zindagi s pehle (2020) . He is also the author of two novels, including the acclaimed Another Gulmohar Tree. His work has been widely translated in many languages including Spanish, Arabic, and Japanese. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004, and is currently based in London and Karachi.