Tragic Tunes of Lost Idol

Sheikh Anas. KO Photos by Special Arrangement.

After losing his family members to a deadly disease, a young Kashmiri singer is now living the same fate. In absence of family backing, the yesteryear’s sensation is once again seeking public support, this time to save his life. 

SETTLING down into a nest of present miseries and fortified by the uncertainty of future, on this evening of May 2021, Sheikh Anas slowly makes his way towards a doctor’s clinic near Karan Nagar area in Srinagar.

With each tip and toe on the stairs, his sense of destitution transforms his heavy puffs into something far more vicious and distressing.

His heaving chest had callously transformed his steady walk into a staggering position that had already detached him from the hasty world around. But, without minding the encircling pace, he makes his way into the waiting room with a gasping chest and a grinning smile.

While he’s heaving himself up near the ledger, his sore-eyes are firm on the rusted walls fortified by a banister, few masked souls, constant pain and worry and a large Computed Tomography machine.

After a while, as he ensuingly sits on a bench, he helps himself to retard his audible puffs—quite visible by the thumping hand on his chest. While doing that, he seems struggling to stand-up as he’s called for the therapeutic experience but somehow the nearby banister caters to his needs.

Some moments later, he counteracts his lost state of mind and then continues the short journey filled with struggling steps and a desponding-heart. And soon, like a geriatric figure, he’s sitting inside a large-chamber opposite to a recognized face.

“Would I’ve the same fate as my beloved brother and mother?” he asks the doctor in that chamber before an eerie silence grasps the settings.

Anas aka ‘Chota Mehdi Hassan’ — the long obliterated fame of Indian Idol — is a quintessence witness of what a failed fate looks like.

His rise and fall has dominantly described the life of one who is trapped in fateful coincidences, unable to escape the consequences of destiny.

The tale of torment etched in Anas’s life forces a person to wonder what more tribulations are yet to be faced by this sufferer, who had witnessed the gash of destiny in the early years of life itself.

Often, his life’s enduring test coerces many jaws to drop-down as the failed fate’s radical strokes not only unnerves but also leaves one sobbing.

His life’s pacific beats have taken many unexpected lurch near the end, turning harmonious to claustrophobic to weightless. Indeed, Carl Jung’s “The right way to wholeness is made of fateful detours and wrong turnings”, doesn’t apply in Anas’s unwavering life.

When he was on song.

The festive fall of 2005 was one of the most lavish times that the Sheikh family had celebrated in the past few years. Their ancestral house in Downtown’s Khanyar locality was reverberating with “Mubarak” chorus.

The family’s apple of an eye, Anas, had brought laurels to the family by becoming the first Kashmiri to be selected among the final fifty category of the famed reality show, Indian Idol—a career that earned him fame.

“In that overwhelming moment my family had spent a few lakhs on just eatery, leaving aside the costs of thousands of dates, sweets and other items that were distributed among the needy,” recounts Anas with a languorous voice.

And soon this vigorous boy—who witnessed the reality of living in a strife-stricken valley traumatised under the noose of barrels and rubbles of downtown and on top of these dominating factors, who borne the brunt of some societal elements that tried to suffocate his talent and dreams—was auditioning in front of India’s top renowned troika: Anu Malik, Sonu Nigam and Farah Khan.

Discreet from his present tale of trauma, nobody could guess that he was once a lightning-rod in the City of Lights, that too at a time, when many of his tribesmen were still finding means to crossover to the other side of the Jawahar tunnel.

Kashmiris have to put extra efforts in their work than any non-Kashmiri because of our historical fateful coincidences including our highway,” Anas laughingly told his Indian Idol comrades in 2005.

But, whenever the situation demanded, this small-town boy never shied and remained at the forefront of giving nonchalant explanations of real Kashmir to his Mumbai compatriots.

And of what fathomable character he was, it didn’t take long for the new battery of final-fifty to eventually surrender their mediocrity and adore this valley boy.

By the time the opening segment of final-fifty concluded, Anas had become the new face of the show.

“Few critical decisions that changed the course of the show from ‘tedious to exciting’ were his handiwork,” one of Anas’s Mumbai friends says while eulogising his friend.

The Khanyar boy’s well-maintained distinction among show producers had somehow brought him closer to Bollywood, including the famed duo, Sajid-Wajid.

Later, when he voiced his concern against the shady policies of the show—that had deteriorated the workforce—he was brushed aside by the people closer to the power-centre.

“I stumbled and learned, even as the intensity of that fall increased my pain,” Anas says with a lost face.

But his vocal stand had flashed ire on many faces and soon the augmenting vested interests in the new singing camp started to evolve, with many obscure backbones of the show trying to denounce Anas for his antecedental mountain roots.

By then his new confidants had unmuted themselves and spoke in a flurry of fervent support, unaware that their protest was against an already fixed fate.

“In the long run, if it wasn’t for their support, my career would’ve ended even before its boom,” Anas told his father on the same day.

In the camp, it was obvious why the list of major decisions was triggered with ‘write him off’. Till the concluding segment of final-fifty, Anas never indicated a sign of guilt for his stance on the mediocre policies of the show and soon wrote a letter to Farah Khan for the same, who in her correspondence wrote, “Inshallah…you’re the next big thing in Bollywood”.

“If Anas’s remedies for incremental TRP were followed that year, Indian Idol would have still been the biggest and highest earning reality show in India,” said a close-friend of Anas who now works as an assistant music composer in Bollywood.

“The show-makers are now craving for Anas like character who would put some check on the deteriorating balance of the show.”

Sometime later, before his departure as one of the final-fifty, Anas had already paved his way to earn the title of “Chota Mehdi Hassan”—who was seen sharing the stage with Ayushmann Khurranna and Neha Kakkar.

Amid the sense of earnestness, as his career kept on booming in Indian show business, the fate back home proved too robust and shattered his family with vicious revelations.

Smiling over sorrows.

Much opposite to their younger son’s eminent and glorious life, the leftover Sheikh family in Kashmir was facing a cursed side of life.

In 2005, their stylish son, Owais, who wore big brands and maintained a distinction for his smart looks in his locality, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

The day he was diagnosed—when a cough that he had told his parents was “annoying” him and an aching stomach that he had been dragging, thinking he must have pulled a muscle—turned out to be symptoms of stage-4 cancer.

At that time, Anas was a new cult being discussed for his harmless ubiquity and disseminating talent among the movers and shakers of the tinsel town.

The Sheikh family did put a brave-face against their elder son’s malady but the disease was too deadly and had spread across Owais’s intestine.

“When my father took his (Owais’s) biopsy report to the doctor, he was directly told that he won’t survive and will die in a span of 2 months,” recalls Anas while remembering his screamer but righteous brother who would support his younger sibling whenever the time required him.

And with Anas’s fall in the final-fifty, Owais’s health fell to a point of no turning-back.

I came to this world with Allah’s will and with His will I’m going back,” Owais had smilingly told his family minutes before he passed away, peacefully, in his mother’s arms in their new home in Batpora locality of Srinagar.

The day he died, it was exactly one month and eight days after the diagnosis.

“He was too young to die,” Anas laments as he mulls over his own words.

“When I returned home after his funeral, I was so distraught that I hardly came out of my bedroom for days together. The biggest regret in my life is not seeing his face one last time.”

It’s said at one point of life when Owais had turned into a sketch of bones and had already known his fate against the monstrous disease, he had asked his father to stop spending on his treatment and save the amount for Anas’s future.

“At the brink of death, my brother still cared about my future,” says Anas. However, his departure lacerated more wounds among the already scattered family that had spent almost half of their life-saving on reviving their son.

The brother that was.

Anas’s mother, the indomitable but highly regarded lady, loved her elder son the most and spent an inordinate amount of time with her sons not only because she was their mother but because she loved being with kids. She was a bit of a child herself.

“She had married in her early youth and in some ways she never lost the youth inside her,” Anas smilingly talks about his mother.

Over the summer, she would study the names of birds in a book that was gifted by Owais and, with utter focus, write a list of the ones she’d seen. She had a vivid sense of what makes children feel safe, and she believed in a child’s experience of the world. Everyone trusted her, even when a grave situation would baffle their minds.

“She was a saintly figure,” says a lady who was the Sheikh family’s neighbour for many years, “who knew the remedy of broken-hearts and shattered souls.”

But, as this ‘pious mother’ spent her 2005 fall days wailing and pleading before the Almighty for her departed son, the longing for her dark-haired-boy had already taken a toll on her health.

Then, one hazy morning, she was seen lying unconscious in the kitchen with frothy saliva wrapping around her lips. “We immediately ferried her to SMHS, where after a brief medical examination and few tests, a revelation from the doctor devastated us,” Anas says.

After months of caring for her late son’s clothes, wailing for his return and issuing her resentment to her lord, the indomitable mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“We came to know about her condition almost three months after Owais’s death,” says Anas.

The months of grueling chemotherapy sessions had once again found its way into the Sheikh family. The cancer had spread to a major portion of her body. This wasn’t likely to be a story that ended well. But, in a last-ditch effort, she tried to remain smiling without expressing the agony she was going through.

Her family never noticed a progress from her chemo-treatments. It was a brisk business. Needles and bags were efficiently hustled into place.

“As the drugs slid up the IV into her arm, we watched the enemy invoking more and more pain to her,” says Anas while recalling those miserable memories. “I had to witness my beautiful mother being consumed by pain and death.”

One night, Anas woke in the dark and saw that his father had come downstairs and was looking at mother, fists punched into his pheran pocket, shoulders hunched.

“He stood for minutes, gazing down on her sleeping face,” recalls Anas.

“In those last few days, she began to look very young. Her face had lost so much weight that the bones showed through, like a child’s. Her eyebrows and eyelashes were very black. I held her hand. I smoothed her face. Her skin had begun to feel waxy, but was also covered with little grains, as if she were in the process of exfoliating.”

And then, when all her family members were by her side, she peacefully died.

“Her breath slowed and then she opened her eyes to look at us and we told her the things we had to say, and then she passed away,” Anas says before a storm of overwhelming emotions dusts him for a while.

The deaths of their beloveds were enough to exhaust the family from its settled financial condition and bestow Anas a life that was both nauseated and riveted.

“There were many last words I had wanted to say, and couldn’t. Perhaps that was because our creator knew already that any comfort in their reply could be false,” says Anas before the muezzin’s call to prayer silenced the room.

In the coming years after their deaths, Anas’s life withered like a plucked rose but destiny was trying to fulfill few responsibilities by caressing his traumatised life and, eventually, after a few years of struggle, he was seen recording in the confines of Navi Mumbai’s Lambodara Studio.

However, this sun-kissed city boy’s career didn’t cease under the guidance of Shankar Mahadevan in Mumbai, but it soon boomed to a point where his work-chart was booked with daily performances in concerts.

It was about the same time when he started working as an assistant for Vivek Gopalaman—Bollywood’s one of oldest music composers.

When he became a recognised face among the renowned of the industry, the lacerations of the past were slowly departing providing a sense of relief to Anas. But, it didn’t take long until another evil shadow casted him away.

Calling for support.

At the fag-end of 2014, when the ravaging floods swept the valley, a new devastation huddled Anas’s booming path. His father—a headman who witnessed the viciousness of life and devastation of family—died after suffering a massive cardiac arrest.

“I’d never thought that my birth was just an experience of witnessing my loved ones leaving my side,” says Anas. “Allah has bestowed me a wretched life considering my endurance for these tests.”

With senior Sheikh’s death, the Mumbai dreams for this valley boy came to an end.

And then years later, on a chilly afternoon of January 28, 2021, when Anas was recording his new song in a Srinagar studio, a hunch of dizziness seeped into his senses and made him unconscious for three coming days.

“I thought it was all because of my exhaustion,” he says while adjusting his left amputated arm—brunt of a childhood accident that he had willingly accepted.

But, destiny was unwilling to end this young man’s misery. He was diagnosed with a meningiomas—a skull base tumor.

The deadly disease that had devoured his brother and mother—besides making his father’s life miserable to the point where his heavy heart burst in pain—had now made him a new target.

As the early financial exhaustion disrupted his normal life, Anas is now fighting against this disease without any cash in hand.

“We had collectively spent around Rs 55 lakhs on my mother’s and brother’s treatment, but destiny had already planned a struggling life for me that was longing for treatment and family support,” says Anas.

Now, as the conditions are turning meager, Anas has started a crowdfunding campaign requesting people to donate for his treatment. “Except for the donation,” he says, “I can’t afford Rs 17 lakh for my treatment.”

As the conversation comes to an end, Anas pulls over to a framed family collage. There’s him and his late beloveds—all smiling—displaying the peaceful days of their life.

He rubs his hand on their faces as the grief of the past is again lacerating. For a while, he cups his hands into his face to mourn an unfortunate amalgam of family wistfulness, a foregone fame and an instance of radical shift that no longer carries the rustic shade by his side.

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Zaid Bin Shabir

Zaid Bin Shabir is a special correspondent at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @Zaidbinshabir

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