Guddu, I and the Qawallis at Vijay Mandal

On March 8, 2011 by admin

Sambudha Sen

Several years ago, when I was only twenty eight, I spent an extended period as a tenant in a flat in Vijay Mandal Enclave. The Delhi Development Authorithad built this relatively new block of apartments in a terrain that was typical of Delhi. As part of the rapidly developing South Delhi , Vijay Mandal Enclave had been squeezed into a bit of spare land in vicinity of Mother’s International School and  the Indian Institute of Technology. And  because we lay directly under the air routes that connected Delhi to the world, I’d often hear the roar of low flying planes and dream about the day when one of them would carry me to Berkeley or Cambridge. But air routes and  institutions of modern learning were  only recent additions in a neighborhood wedged in by Kalu Sarai and Begumpur, two ancient settlements that had never really separated themselves from a Delhi ruined centuries before Shah Jahan began building, what is for us, the old city .

The ruins of Kalu Sarai were clearly visible from the narrow balcony of our cramped fourth floor flat. One  morning,  when I’d stepped into that balcony  to enjoy the cool, damp monsoon breeze with my coffee and cigarette, Kalu Sarai’s ruined 14th century mosque had looked particularly picturesque behind the fine rain screen. I believe that my long and intense relationship with that  place  began from that moment. I visited the ruins that very evening and was lucky enough to have  run straight into Guddu singing a qawalli. Khazan Singh told me, after Guddu had finished, that we were sitting around the mazaar of a saint whose name nobody remembered but who was universally acknowledged to be a kind and  benevolent spirit. Several people  from Begumpur and Kalu Sarai   visited the spot  to solicit the unnamed Baba’s help and ten or fifteen of them were sure to be there  on Thursdays when Guddu sang his qawwalis. A retired plumber from IIT, who called himself Maula, would come in early to sweep the area around the grave. Khazaan Singh also helped in the upkeep of the place with small financial contributions. He  was a Jat from Begumpur but  he put on a Mussalman’s skull cap whenever he visited the mazaar. And then there was Guddu whose qawallis, more than anything else, sustained the astonishing after life that the ruined mosque at Kalu Sarai had acquired.

Guddu always struck me as a very responsible man. He worked as an auto rickshaw driver and was married to a  hardworking woman who’d found employment as a full time domestic servant in a Vastant Vihar house. They had a five year old son and they seemed like a decent, stable, even upwardly mobile family when I’d visited them at the clean, well lit room that the employers of Guddu’s wife had provided for her. Guddu’s ordinary life, however, turned extraordinary in the evenings after he’d finished plying his auto rickshaw. He would then immerse himself in the activity he really loved – singing qawallis. He had a magnificent singing voice – melodious, supple but also rough and passionate. His repertoire of qawallis was large, and like many qawalls he did not hesitate to insert  verses of his own into the compositions of Habib Painter or even Amir Khusro. And although Guddu never went to school , he was an extremely gifted teacher. He spoke of  the complex analogies and metaphors of  qawallis, of  their  deep ambiguities,  and their effortless ability to move between different languages with such clarity that I rapidly abandoned my research in 19th  British culture to pursue anything that would help me to understand the amazing longevity of the qawalli.  I began purchasing translations of  Jallaluddin Rumi and Fariduddin Attar and the music of Jaffar Hussain Badauni, Ghulam Farid Sabri and even Nusrat Fateh Ali who was very far, then, from international star he was to become. A close friend led me to Regina Quereshi’s book on the qawalli and I made several trips to the Nizamuddin Basti to cultivate the friendship of Miraz, whose  knowledge of qawallis was, as Quereshi acknowledged , boundless . In an fit of enthusiasm, which I sustained for several weeks, I even made arragements to learn Urdu.

The Urdu primer and dictionary with which I hoped to educate myself , together with the other books and music acquired during that period remain lovingly preserved and I do what I can for Miraz who ,despite his great knowledge of qawallis,  languishes in a one room hovel in Nizamuddin. But a combination of ( I suppose predictable) factors caused me,  many years ago, to  abandon the work I began on the cultural afterlife of the Kalu Sarai masjid. Last month , though , while listening to Jafar sing Man Kunto Maula I was struck by a deep sense of longing for the work I’d set aside many years ago. Rummaging among my old papers I found a dusty notebook full of hazy and embarrassingly overwritten accounts of what went on at the mazaar : Guddu’s explanations of the songs he sang and of where they came from, the Maula’s descriptions of the unknown saint who regularly visited him during his sleep, my own immature thoughts on popular culture and on our syncretic traditions. One sequence , which I reproduce below,  is typical of the notebook . It falls repeatedly into rhetorical excess and is completely lacking in the  analytical sharpness that I aspire for in my academic writing.  Please think of it as you would of photograph taken long ago by an amateur with a primitive black and white camera-a photograph that is blurred, badly composed but which preserves the shadow of  a light that faded long ago.

 It had begun to rain quite hard now. I went across our narrow sitting room to shut the window that was letting the rain in. Beyond the broken walls of our compound, on a gently rising mound, overgrown  with  tangled shrubs,  the nameless saint lay restfully in his grave. The crumbling eastern wall ,that was all that was left of his ruined mausoleum,  stood out in the rain– dignified, decrepit and ransacked by the crazy green of creepers that ran amuck amidst its ancient stones. Two peacocks picked their way about in the rubble at the far end of the wall where  people from Kalu Sarai often emptied their bowels. And, as always, the hoary old Jaal tree, spared miraculously by the bulldozers of development ,  spread its tangled branches with their tiny green leaves over the Baba’s resting place.

On Thursday evenings,  when I  visited the Baba’s  mazaar to hear  Guddu sing his qawallis,  the Jaal tree would be full of sparrows. Sometimes a squirrel would drop from its battered trunk and scamper across the Baba’s grave and then across the cemented area where Khazan Singh and I sat . It never occurred to Khazan Singh to shoo away the goats when they arrived to devour the marigold garlands that some terrified woman praying for a male child had brought to the Baba’s court. “This mazaar has no walls ,”  Khazan Singh often said, ” Everybody comes here, eunuchs , men, women, animals. It’s a wonder no one sits down to shit here.” 

Yet , when I first picked my way to the Baba’s mazaar through a winding, shit spattered path, on that  rain swept Thursday evening, it had been impossible for me not to notice how under the arches of the ancient wall the air seemed instantly to lose its stink . The Baba’s grave and the tangle of tiny leaves that overhung it like a woman’s hair had seemed to float in ether. Khazan Singh had been preparing to light his petromax lamp, and Guddu’s harmonium was already humming. I’d sat down humbly on the mat of welcome that they’d spread out for me, and as the TV antennae of Sarvapriya Vihar disappeared bit by bit into the darkness, Guddu, equipped with nothing except his rough working man’s voice, dived deep into the oceans of our past.

On that magical Thursday  and then through every subsequent Thursday until he said goodbye one evening and disappeared for ever, Guddu’s songs swept aside the roadblocks that I’d built in my mind year by year through the all the  years of my English education. He led me through the mud-paths of our ruined past that were never very far from the predictable routes of my everyday life ,to Sheikh Nizamuddin’s khankah  in the wilderness deserted by the Jamuna where the blind mendicant first sang a qawalli  He showed me that there was no monastery, no religion , no language , no gender, nothing strong enough to contain the qawalli’s gargantuan unfolding. He said that it had transformed Amir Khusro from a sophisticated Turkish courtier to a woman mad with so much love that his austere aristocrat’s tongue was no longer adequate to express it; so Khusro grasped, Guddu said, the languages of the east with a thirsty man’s desperation for water; yellow mustard fields swayed by the Jamuna in his songs and Allah and  Parmatma became one. And Khusro, who exercised such mastery over language and music and even over the courts of emperors, had no control at all over his songs. Anybody who visited Sheikh Nizamuddin’s monastery could pick them up , Guddu said, take them back,  and sing them in new tongues, for new gods. That is why when Guddu sang Amir Khusro’s songs at the Baba’s mazaar,  amidst the ruins of a Dilli  Khusro knew very well, he reveled in unfaithfulness. He broke up the master’s verses and added verses of his own, he sang of the blackmarketeers whom Khusro never knew, of businessmen whose capital was religion and about an old woman who begged in the streets of Ajmer, because she did not have a shroud for her dead granddaughter even though she had spent her life on her haunches mopping the floors of a rich man’s house. Guddu sang with so much pain and so much passion that we didn’t even care when the approaching roar of the plane from New York or Paris threatened to drown his song because we knew he’d be singing long after that arrogant intrusion dwindled into a faint screech in the sky.

My visits to the ruins became irregular after Guddu disappeared. The Maula, Khazan Singh and I met at the mazaar after Guddu had failed to show up for three consecutive Thursday. We decided that one of us would have to visit Guddu’s home. I remember experiencing a sinking feeling even as I began climbing the uncharacteristically dusty staircase that led up to Guddu’s room, so I was depressed, but not surprised,  to see the big lock that hung on the door.  I left a note in Hindi for Guddu , but I realized very soon afterwards that  he would never read it because the  presswali , working outside the house,  told me that Guddu had been paralyzed by some illness and that the family had decided to return to his village.

During the next couple of years my life, too, went through some significant changes. We moved from Vijay Mandal Enclave because my wife had inherited a  relatively large house in Hauz Khas. My academic career, too, picked up. I completed my  PhD on the novels of Charles  Dickens and then, one afternoon,  I realized that  the fantasy, inseparable in my mind from the roar of aero planes flying low over Vijay Mandal, had become part of my real life. I remember that as I stared out of the aero plane window, enroute to Cambridge,  I was seized inexplicably by a bout of panic. For some reason I thought of the ruined mosque at Kalu Sarai and the shape of the jaal  tree and the chatter of  sparrows,  and I asked myself if I really knew what I was chasing across this vast and empty  sky.  Gradually ,though,  the whiskey I was sipping began to have its effect. My mood mellowed and I thought about  the material I’d find in Cambridge , the books and cds I’d buy and the live jazz at the Elm Tree, I’d read about.

I would be very far from telling the whole truth if I did not mention that I  ran into Guddu about a week before I left for Cambridge. Shubhadra, who works in our house,  needed to visit someone in Govindpuri. I was waiting for her outside slum cluster where her relative lived, when saw  I a man hobbling unsteadily towards me. His face was twisted , his mouth stained with paan, and the  bamboo pole that clutched with both hands to prop himself up seemed to be part of his body. But one look at his eyes and I knew who he was. “Guddu”,  I shouted overjoyed, “where had you disappeared , what happened to you ?”

Guddu told me his story over the next fifteen minutes . It wasn’t much of a story. He’d been waiting at Baba Khadak Singh marg  to pick up a passenger when suddenly he felt that his head was exploding.  He never found out the name of the good woman or man who took him to the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital , but when he came out his coma about two days later,  he realized that the right side of his body had become completely paralyzed. His wife lost her job about a week after they returned to their room in Vasant Vihar. She was told sarcastically that she should find a nursing assignment , since she spent the whole day nursing  her invalid husband anyway. The taunts continued, even multiplied,  when they moved back to the village to live with Guddu’s impoverished extended family. After four agonizing years , during which  his wife helped him every single day with the exercises that the physiotherapist at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital had taught them, Guddu was able to hobble around. Very soon after that they’d returned to Delhi. Guddu’s wife had found work as a part time domestic help in four or five households and they lived in a tiny tenement in the Govindpuri slum. Guddu was in the process of making an application for  a STD booth under a  governmental scheme that promised to give preference to physically disabled persons. I offered to help Guddu with his application,  and before we knew it, the two of us began speaking enthusiastically of reviving the qawallis.

 “You’ve lifted my spirits, masterji” Guddu said to me,  just before I left,  “I’ve not felt this hopeful in a very long time.”

I left for England soon after this utterly unexpected meeting with Guddu. Cambridge proved conducive for my research and when I got back after a year, I was too involved with the book on the popular print culture of 19th century England that I had begun writing, to allow myself any distractions. As a result I never met Guddu again. I don’t blame myself too much for not having kept in touch with Guddu. I have many responsibilities of my own and I cannot be expected to get involved with every deserving person who might need my help. What does trouble me sometimes, though, is the thought that by letting Guddu and his qawallis slip out of my life I may have squandered the one chance I had of breaking out of my essentially mediocre existence.   

Sambudha Sen is Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi.

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