The Swan-song12 mins 193 12 mins 193
O readers, I know that some of you are avid travelers. If any of you ever visit the Holy City of Benaras, just spend another ₹50 in a bus and visit the backwater village of Sukhapur, which is around two hours from Varanasi railway station. There's nothing much to see in that sleepy hamlet. They still don't have electricity and use bullocks to plough their fields. The food is good and the people are better, not that you are going to eat either. At the outskirts of the village, there is a Sufi Dargah. That Dargah is of a saint called Khwaza Niyamat Shah Darvesh.
I wouldn't recommend you to spend a night there, O stranger, if you have a weak heart. But, if you are a music lover, you should spend one. If you do spend a night and live to tell a tale, please do write to me so that even I may venture.
80 years old Niyamat Ali was sitting with his head on his knees in the corner of his darkened hut. It had happened again today. The shrieks of those two ladies were still reverberating through his stunned mind. He picked up his tanpura to console his agitated heart and started to sing Raag Yaman with an active F# note. The wretched hut was filled with a heavenly voice. Niyamat had the soulful voice of an angel. Unfortunately, the creator lost interest in him after bestowing an ethereal voice and ended the job haphazardly. Niyamat was blessed with a golden voice and cursed with the looks of a gargoyle, which usually made people jump back a step when suddenly confronted by him. He was short in stature and had a hunchback. His face was pockmarked and he had a very dark complexion. Furthermore, he also had a horrible squint and limped. Niyamat was aware of his drawbacks. He had spent his life wandering from one village to another. He was abhorred by everyone. He had moved to this village last year and was unable to leave it, due to his failing health.
He lived at the outskirts of the village Sukhapur and considered darkness his friend. As he knew his effect on people, he always avoided venturing out of his hut during day time. But, today was unavoidable. He had to go out to the community tap, where two women were already present. Usually he always went there before dawn, but as he was down with fever, he couldn't get up early. He initially hid for some time, then ventured in the afternoon. The women were chattering amongst themselves like so many colorful birds, till one suddenly saw Niyamat lurking and both screamed in horror. It was a startled scream and not an intended abhorrence. Movies and novels highly dramatize human emotions. People don't really react as depicted. It's just our hyper-sensitive conscience, which thinks that people are over-critical. The Women were immediately apologetic when they saw a fellow human being so poorly blessed and tried to alleviate the insult by smiling. The smile came out as painful grimace and Niyamat was already in his cocoon. He rushed away from the community tap and shut his door firmly. He decided to stay without water that day. He had heard somewhere that a person can survive for ten days without water. He got another attack of fever and was delirious. The fever broke around midnight. He felt very thirsty. He checked the pots and couldn't find any water. He looked out at the Opal Moon. Now, there was an ugly looking fellow, whom the world worshipped for its beauty! How lucky to be appreciated, in spite of one's weaknesses! How lucky to be loved for what one is! He picked up the aluminum pot and went to the tap.
The distant village was deserted, bar an occasional dog, who was trying to mark its attendance by barking vociferously for reasons best known to it. He walked to the community tap and started to fill his pot, and was startled by a sniffling sound. He looked around and saw a beautiful girl of six sitting under a tree, her head on her folded arms and sniffling. Niyamat was surprised to see a lone child in the wilderness. He stepped into deep shadows and called out, "Who's there?"
The kid looked up and smiled like million moons. Her large eyes were staring at his ugly face. Her hair fell on her face in lovely curls and framed it as if the beautiful moon is protected by the dark clouds. She stood up and walked towards him, "I'm sorry, but can you spare a piece of bread to me? I haven't eaten anything since yesterday."
"Of course, girl. What's your name and where do you stay?"
"My name is Shree.", the kid came near him. "My parents are in heaven. I'm alone here. I used to live with my relatives, but they are too busy to care for me. So, I left their home. I'm hungry!", she said plaintively.
There's nothing in the world, which questions the humanity as a hungry and stray child or an aged person, which has to beg for food. All our affluence and richness are brought to the alter and judged in the presence of these damning exhibits. We don't only lose our credibility as a human being, we also lose our face as a person. We do forget that, that helplessness, which is their lot, and which isn't ours, is just because of an accident of birth! We are abashed, if we still have retained the grace.
Niyamat forgot about his own ugliness and rushed out to the kid. "Ah! Shree! You know, child? You are named after the wife of Mahadev! There's a very beautiful raag called Shree, which is known to resurrect the dead." Niyamat smiled at the kid, "Come, my child! I'll give you food."
Then suddenly he froze. waiting for her reaction. She stared at him for a long second and suddenly laughed happily. "Wow! You are so good! Do you have mutton curry? My mom loved it, when she was with me!"
Niyamat was bathed in white. The bright, beautiful and lustrous moon enhanced all his ugly features.
The girl caught him by his finger and said, "Come! Why are you waiting?"
He was astonished! No one in his hitherto life had ever touched him! He caught those leaf like fingers and asked her anxiously, "You aren't scared of me?"
The girl laughed jovially, "No. You are the best man I know!" She touched his flowing beards and said, "My father had such beautiful beards! He also used to sing and dance. Can you sing?"
There's nothing in the world as beautiful as a lovely little girl child commanding you to dance to her tunes. The desolate trees saw an ugly dwarf humming and dancing to the claps of a tiny girl and swayed with happiness. They clapped their leafy limbs and the wind tickled the beautiful girl, who giggled happily. Dripping from the sweat of his exertions, Niyamat bade the girl to come to his home, so that he can feed her. His heart was beating like huge drums of those dark clouds. No one had ever considered him a human. She didn't actually mind his ugliness. He picked up his pot and asked the girl to follow him and walked ahead.
The village of Sukhapur was like any other village in rural India. The people were superstitious and simple. They knew about Niyamat but rarely saw him. They considered him a cursed Sufi saint, who was counting his mortal days and awaiting his release from his mortal carcass to deification. Few of the villagers had seen him and were shocked by his ugliness. This confirmed their notion that he was a saint, who was cursed for some infamy. They always left something eatable as offering at his doorsteps. It was well known that the offerings brought good luck to the giver and Niyamat never slept hungry. During evenings, nights and early mornings an incredibly sweet sound of singing emanated from that hut. The villagers huddled in their huts and didn't venture out, because they knew that Niyamat Ali was summoning those Jinn and spirits, who always are slaves of a darvesh. Nowadays a new soprano voice joined that heavenly singing. The songs were always devotional and very melodious. The villagers shivered.
Niyamat was happy with his honorary daughter who had the voice of a nymph. She was a prodigy and understood the intricacies of the Indian Classical Ragas as if they were nursery rhymes. Within a few days, she started accompanying him in his riyaz. Shree had the power to enact the liquid grace of smiling Bholenath when she sung Raag Malkauns and the grave visage of frowning Mahakal with his inherent gravity, when she sang Bhairav. It seemed that she was a form of the female counterpart of the raag-maalika herself. Indian Classical Ragas are time and season bound and reflect our mood at certain times. For example, we are somber and grave in the wee hours of dawn, so raag Lalit and Asawari reflect that somber tone. The romance of midnight is reflected in Basant and Bageshwari. Shree was able to bring out the mood and at times even surpassed Niyamat, to his eternal pleasure.
Niyamat was bedridden since last four days. He was unable to move. He knew that he was going to die and was worried about this sweet little girl after his death. She was like a shadow to him.
It was four am. The tired night was changing guards and handing over the baton to the sleepy sun, who was trying to comb his hair, so that he may look presentable. The horizon was still dark with those confused stars blinking their tired tiny eyes. The yawning moon was grumbling like a playful child, who has been called to bed. His eyes were crying for sleep, but he wanted to romp around more with the stars and was upset to go under the blanket. The world was at peace. Dawn was imminent. Raag Bibhash ruled this sensitive mood. The birds were stretching their tiny legs and wings, like a beautiful lady stretching her shapely arms sinously. Like an army before a battle, the world was priming up to face another day. What's another day, if not a battle, where we fight, win, lose, concede, or... die.
Shree was sitting by his bed, her pretty curls dancing around her face. Her beautiful eyes were on his ugly face. Initially they used to unnerve him, but when he didn't see any loathing in them, they ceased to disturb. Niyamat sat up with difficulty and asked Shree to bring his tanpura.
The wretched hut was filled with a baritone alap, accompanied by an angelic soprano voice. Words are considered very powerful by us human beings, who rely on mere words for knowledge. We forgo our other natural senses and rely exclusively on our eyes and ears, and consider ourselves the most advanced race amongst the fauna. Words may be good, but they aren't enough. They may give you an idea about how a rosogulla tastes, but they can never compete the power of the sense of taste, which makes you actually realize how it tastes. Words will never make you understand the beauty of a beautifully renditioned raag. You need to hear them to understand. Lalit is the romantic form of Mahadev and his wife. The only romantic raag, which can be sung just before dawn. Rest of the romance is reserved for the midnight and the hours after that. Considering the time of raag, it's presiding deity and the notes, the raag begins in a very somber way, then like an angry husband cajoled and mollified by a pretty wife, it smiles and becomes romantic. The old man and the little child sang lustily. Lalit resonated in the miserable hut and the charming notes escaped through the crevices, which rats and other vermin always used.
They sang till the sun peered out in agitation. Niyamat coughed desperately, his breath giving out on him. Shree continued the taan in the upper octave. Like a fiery phoenix, her melodious voice soared in the semi darkness, emblazoning the morning sky with her burning notes. She began from the Kharaj or base C, flew across three octaves, touched the high C and by the time she returned to her base, Niyamat was dead. The girl smiled and kissed his ugly face. Then she flickered and vanished.
The villagers spent a restless night. They could hear an unearthly voice, which made their hearts scream. They wanted to walk out of their huts to rever the singers but the fear of jinn tethered them. The sun is considered to wash away all the nightly fears. As soon as the freshly washed sun showed its shiny and scrubbed face, the village leader started towards the hut of Niyamat. He took few strong men, armed with sticks and swords. They all were reciting Hanuman Chalisa as a precaution against those dreaded jinns.
The hut was silent. They stood outside and called out Niyamat Ali respectfully. Jinn or not, a saint is a saint! Nothing emanated from inside, not even a cough or a curse as usual. One of the brash young men ventured near the hut and pushed the rickety door, and gasped. Like fear and laughter, bravado is contagious too, with certain terms and conditions. Everyone rushed.
Niyamat was sitting on the bed with his tanpura. His ugly face split in a beatific smile. His unseeing eyes had peace in them. There was no one else in the hut.
The headman looked around and went to the corner, where a couple of pots and a stove were kept. He suddenly felt a small hand touch his wrist like an icy feather and then he heard a little girl laugh. A musical laughter, which was like a mountain stream gurgling its way down. It was the sound of distant silver bells. He froze with his mouth open and then shot out of the hut in terror, with his entire cortège following him in a pelmel.
The villagers burned down the hut and enacted a shrine. They called it the Dargah of the Sufi saint Khwaza Niyamat Shah Darvesh. They say that all the wishes are fulfilled there, if one sings a snatch of any song. The dargah has a festive atmosphere with people singing a variety of melody from kajri to rap.
No one is aware of a girl called Shree. They say, they can still hear an ethereal soprano voice singing in nights, but nothing that could match the Swan Song of the Saint!
Music is my passion and what better excuse to show it off than a story titled Swan Song? According to 'Sangeet Ratnakar', a famous Sanskrit treatise on music, there are six Adi or original Ragas, out of which five are forms of Nataraj and one is of Parvati. Bhairav, Megh, Hindol, Malkauns and Deepak are originated from Mahadev and Shree from his wife. The girl Shree in the story is the human form of Raag Shree and she never existed, yet she is omnipresent in everything beautiful in the world. Shree in the story was an intangible figment of imagination of a poor and distressed artist, yet she was tangible enough to be heard by others. She's the immortal and eternal woman! My pretty daughter is named after that lovely and soulful raga.