It’s difficult to let go of those memories. Propped up in some obscure border cantonment, a house wafting with aromas of mom’s special cooking and a transistor belting out one stellar ghazal after the other. There were all kinds of houses-tents in Palanwala, thatch-roofed shacks, barracks somewhere, tin roofs, corrugated sheet roofs, flats, British style bungalows, jackals howling in the woods, crickets in the grass outside, but mom’s cooking and the ghazals set the ambience just right.
Dad was in the army. On excursions, when we climbed those tall picket posts on the border, those people seen on tall picket towers on the other side through our binoculars were Pakistanis, and they were the reason dad was on these border postings in the first place. But all my mom listened to all day on the radio were these Pakistani singers from radio stations across the border with Mehdi Hassan always occupying pride of place. Mehdi Hassan and wide-eyed wonder went well together.
Words of a delicate language my father and uncles could read and write fluently made early edgeways into my heart. But no school I went to gave an option to learn Urdu. Mehdi Hassan’s impeccable choice of Urdu poetry ranging from Faiz to Mir Taki Mir, Ghalib to Ahmed Faraz meant each one of his ghazals came to reside permanently in your heart.
I remember in class IV, stirred by ‘Ghuncha e Shauq’ I decided to learn Urdu. PTV had Urdu lessons on air. Some mystic force, some cultural pull made me start scribbling the Urdu alphabet on rough notebooks feverishly every afternoon at nobody’s behest but Mehdi Hassan’s music. I got to the point where I could at least write my name in the beautiful language of our forefathers. PTV also had these quaint music mehfils — drawing room style seating with a Persian carpet thrown on a box-like stage and a huge flower vase in the center. Nothing was choreographed but the music. The focus was music — stunning, elevating, life-saving music.
A family of immigrant Indian Punjabis from the Pakistan side, an iota of us still remained in this never-seen land. My grandmom narrated with piquant zest, a joke that I cannot recall completely, about a man who would answer everything with ‘Oh! We left that in Pakistan!’ One can say undoubtedly that we left considerable musical talent in Pakistan. Mehdi Hassan was the sublime connector. That he was born in Rajasthan and influenced greatly by Ustad Amir Khan from India gave a special sense of pride and belonging. His voice, a rich golden molten honey, his alabaster intonation bridged all gaps of Urdu ineptitude and made one imagine, even desire heartbreak when one did not know what heartbreak was. The well chosen lyrics of his ghazals dented innocent, first gashes of the want and need to write eloquently.
“What is rafta rafta, Ma?”
“Slowly, softly, as time goes by,” she’d reply. The mind imagined the beautiful, gradual transition from Jaan to Janejaanan. Not for us subcontinent-wallas, impulsive one night stands. We could spend a lifetime waiting for that one perfect love, at least in our poetry. There was the perky Indian ‘Rafta Rafta’ sung by Kishore doing the rounds too and what first came to mind with that one was Dharmendra hanging on a crane! Mehdi Hassan’s Rafta Rafta did not come with any visuals. Like reading a classic book, one had to put the pieces together, build the inner feast of imagination, moment by moment.
‘Yeh dil ki sada hai, meri yeh dua hai, teri zindagi mein kabhi gham na aaye’ was a tad more sophisticated than some Dabblu Babblu Indian birthday ditty. ‘Yeh dhuan kahan se uthta hai’ blew me away one day. Mom also managed to catch the ethereal expression on my face, adding her two bit of trivia ‘I believe he composed it to replicate perfect rounds of cigarette smoke whirls.’ ‘Shola tha jal Bujha, Hawaein Mujhe Na do.’ What could be more reckless than that? During the rebel rock years in college there were hidden volumes of Mehdi Hassan always tucked at the back of my music shelf. After a night out of mock-rocking and mad-discoing, what coerced the lost, hungover, wannabe hippie the morning after was ‘Gulon Mein Rang Bhare, Baad-e-Naubahaar Chale’. Music so pure and pristine, that it erased any notions of ‘rebel’ia to the indelible memorabilia of Hindustani music, bringing you running and panting back to your roots.
We still have regular imports from Pakistan and we’re fine with them. We like the Aatif Aslams, the Ali Zafars and Strings, we accept humbly that Coke Studio India will never be as good as Coke Studio Pakistan. But that pure mehfil style music format is obliterated. TV music shows today compete with decibel levels. But connecting at the cerebral level? Not sure. They have razzmatazz, complex formats and SMS voting and judges who act and talk like god. But hey! The god of ghazal is gone. There will be no other Mehdi Hassan. It’s the end of an epoch. – Khaleejtimes