If the Mermaids Stop Singing

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Only the previous day I was listening to the 105-year-old Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan’s repertoire of rare classical compositions.

Was it to savour the rare experience a bit longer that I dodged the next day’s concert? Perhaps. But I think it was also the lure of seeing and hearing Prof Romila Thapar that I chose the Gujarat event.

There were a few good speakers on the list but it was her short, crisp statement delivered with stoic composure that defined the essence of the sombre moment. Gujarat was living in breach of India’s secular constitution and therefore qualified to be regarded as a fascist state. 

Abdul Rashid Khan came alive in my mind. True, the old man has lost bits of all his fingers with age. Yes, he has to be brought on the stage in a

wheelchair. But his recall of what must be a matchless repertoire of old and rare compositions remains phenomenal.

The nippy air inevitably ushers the festival of Diwali in Delhi. And so when the centurion sang a tribute to Lord Ram, whose return from selfexile is marked by Diwali, the audience went into raptures.

The chief guest got up to laud the Muslim singer’s praise for Ram and how it underscored the greatness of India. The audience applauded again but perhaps missed a finer point.

Were they aware that mobs in Gujarat’s Baroda town had torn down the grave of Fayyaz Khan in the madness of 2002, an older Muslim singer who celebrated Shiva among other Hindu motifs? Remember his Manmohan Brij ko rasiya in Raag Paraj, his lyrical tribute to Krishna? It was in Gujarat that Rasoolan Bai’s house was burnt down in the 1970s. Her thumris also were rarely complete without reference to Lord Ram.

The 14th-century Muslim poet Wali Dakhani’s grave was erased to build a road over it. ‘Kucha-i-yaar ain Kaasi hai, Jogiya dil wahin kabaasi hai’. That’s how he had revelled in his love of Kaashi, now popular as Benares or Varanasi.

T.S. Eliot’s lines were haunting when he said: “I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.” Eliot might have had someone like Rasoolan Bai in mind who completely stopped singing after her exile from Gujarat.

So yes, maybe it was its links with music that brought me to the Gujarat event. The theme pivoted round the anti-Muslim violence of 2002 and its place in the collective memory of Indians.

I was happy that several speakers shone the light on a larger canvas of genocide and injustices.

The unending violence against Dalits, corporate plunder of natural resources

and the tribal people’s resistance against the loot, the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, the displacement of Pandits from Kashmir and the daily abuse of its Muslims, outrages perpetrated in Manipur by the army and elsewhere. The speakers cited these as examples of how the germs of fascism had gained strength in India.

The organisers put up panels depicting the Gujarat trauma. They declared the ruins of the Gulberg Society complex as a memorial to the large-scale killing of not only Muslims but everyone thus targeted. This was where the horrendous lynching of a former Congress MP had occurred followed by the murder of his relatives and neighbours who thought they were secure in his privileged home.

I really admire Teesta Setalvad among an array of courageous and selfless volunteers whose campaign for justice in Gujarat has resulted in a handful of convictions, including that of a former woman minister in the state government. 

But I am already planning to switch my focus to Arvind Kejriwal. 

He wants to spill more beans on Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law who he accuses of unduly benefiting financially from

a private construction company.

Why would a story about Robert Vadra that was first published by a business newspaper in January be given sudden importance now? There are two possible reasons. First was the need to shift the focus of attack from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the Congress president. It has moved the debate away from the newly announced policy to effectively pawn away old people’s pension funds to foreign speculators.

Second, India’s Election Commission has announced state polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in November. Both are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and if the Congress cannot make a dent in either it may as well prepare for snap polls in the country.

If the BJP retains its tally or does not lose too many seats, it could go for the Congress’ jugular. Kejriwal will help in the endeavour by cutting into the Congress’ votes for that is what his anti-corruption plank is good for.

However, the Congress appears ready to lose. When Dr Singh said he would prefer to go down fighting it wasn’t a fight on behalf of the mourners of Gujarat. It was to fight for the entry of Wal-Mart in retail trade. Perhaps Abdul Rashid Khan’s secular songs will find a place on its shelves.

And the applause can continue well after he leaves the stage for good.

JAWED NAQVI – THE WRITER is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi.

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