On first encountering my beloved
A guest post by the Resident Musician
It was a bitterly cold December evening in Delhi in 1978. A Guru and his Chela sat huddled over a Bajaj convector heater warming their fingers and slowly sipping the single malt Scotch whisky the Chela had bought in the duty-free shop in Bangkok.
“So you just want to do a bit of reconnoitering preparing for the year’s field work for your thesis on Thumri?” asked the Guru.
“Yeah, that year hopefully will begin in September ’80 but I’ll need that much time to work on my Urdu so that I don’t have to use interpreters for interviewing tawaiifs”.
“Of course” said the Guru, “interpreters are a drag when you want to have a tete-a-tete with a tawaiif. When and where do you plan to reconnoitre?”
“I’ll start with Old Delhi from tomorrow and maybe in January go to Calcutta and look up the area where Wajed Ali Shah lived his last years. I believe Thumri started there and maybe there are a few old fossils who can tell me interesting stories. Then there is Bombay which I don’t know much about and you don’t either.”
Next evening the two were again huddling over the heater but in a far darker mood. The Chela’s forays in Old Delhi during the day had not yielded a single address where he could possibly find a tawaiif. And the Guru had just come back after a seminar with his mathematician colleagues who had scheduled the departmental New Years’ Eve party at his flat because there would not be a Missus around to take the punchbowl away just as the party started to get interesting.
The Chela was quizzical. “What is wrong with these chaps coming over with booze for a few hours just before midnight,” he asked.
“Look, I listen to mathematical jokes to make a living, but listening to such banter is not my idea of ringing in the New Year,” replied the Guru glumly.
“Oh, I will come over with some dancing houris to enliven things,” assured the Chela. The Guru gave a start and said, “Why don’t you just go and scoot off to Calcutta first thing tomorrow instead of trying to be helpful? These guys are Tamil Brahmins, vegetarians and would have apoplectic fits if they encountered a sarangi or tabla player in my flat whether or not the female was present.”
"That does it," said the Chela, "let me go and have a serious look around and if I find a suitable troupe I’ll book them. Today is the 29th, so we can’t waste much time." Reluctantly the Guru decided to accompany the younger man, knowing full well how dubious the tastes of his sitar student were. At least by accompanying him a veto on the final choice could be exercised.
Having coaxed his Padmini engine to start the Guru and his Chela rode off into the deserted streets. After a meal at one of the Pandara Road eateries, the quest began in earnest.
“Where do we go now?” asked the Guru. “Go past the New Delhi station and then we will turn left and I will guide you after that” said the Chela. Twenty minutes after leaving the New Delhi station behind and many twists and turns, the Chela said, “you may as well stop here. The place I once saw dancing girls five years ago must be somewhere around, we’ll look out for it as we walk around”.
“G. B. Road,” said the Chela in response to the Guru’s query, “what is this place?” They walked along a narrow pavement littered with an assortment of garbage and beggars’ bowls. The Chela stopped at a paan shop and asked where he could find ‘naatchne walee larkiyan’ and the paan shopwallah replied in an exasperated tone that around here there are only ‘pesha karney walee larkiyan.’
This kind of Hindi was Greek to the Chela who could recite a substantial amount of Ghalib and Momin but was wont to respond to a simple query like “Kya haal” with “tasallee baksh!” So the Guru translated, “There are no dancers here, only whores.”
Nothing deterred, the Chela dove into a narrow side street and almost at once the two could hear the sound of ‘ghunghroos’ and tablas. They followed the sound and came to a dark and dank doorway.
Stepping inside they were buffeted by a wall of stench of ammonia which can only be described by the Sanskrit ‘soochee bhedya’ (not pierceable by a needle.) As they climbed a rickety set of stairs, the ‘ghungroos’ got louder and finally on the third floor they came to a well-lit room where a thin fortyish man was pumping away at a beat-up harmonium. A tabla player fondling a duggi and a slightly built woman engaged in bargaining the price of the next number with a couple of dissolute customers.
Upon seeing the Chela’s Anglo-Saxon visage, all conversation ceased. The matron of the place came rushing over driving away the train of beggars who had followed the Guru-Chela duo up the staircase and asked the new visitors to sit on the not so immaculately white sheet, which covered the floor. As soon as they sat down, a young woman came in with two garlands of flowers one of which she put around a beaming Chela’s neck. She tried to do the same with the Guru, but he put up a deprecating hand and muttered “Mein driver hoon.”
The guru whispered to the Chela “Let's get the hell out of this place. I am not having this lot enter my flat!” The Chela addressed the matron "Mein ghazal sun naa chaahtaa hoon.” This request caused consternation, the dancing girl and the tabla player went away and a new girl came in with a new harmonium player.
She knelt in front of the exotic duo who had invaded the seedy brothel. She hummed gently and as the harmonium player trilled off a phrase or two of Jhinjhoti she put one hand over her head in a vaguely danseuse like posture and opened her mouth. And an ear-shattering screechy falsetto voice screamed into the night…
“Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki kasam…"
When the song ended the Chela wanted to know about the author of the ghazal. “Qalaam kaun?” The Guru translated “Yeh kiska ghazal?” The answer came with a flashing smile: “Mohammed Rafi!” Satisfied, the Chela stuffed a fifty-rupee note into the singer’s décolletage and the duo left.
The Chela remarked as they got into the car, “I must find out who the poet was. The lyrics were pretty decent but I don’t think there is a poet, past or present, called Mohammed Rafi”.