In God's Voice

Seeking solace in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's music.

“Arre bhai, baitho apni jagah pe.”

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is asking someone to sit down. It’s 1993 and he’s playing a concert in Birmingham. Or at least that’s what the VCR-era video playing on YouTube tells me. He’s siting onstage against an electric blue background, with his qawwali group, which includes a barely-recognisable Rahat Fateh Ali Khan; his Hindi film career years away. In that moment, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan looks like any other, a human being like you and me, not impervious to tiny annoyances. The source of disturbance settles down.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan waves to the group to continue. A few seconds later, he launches into alaap.

Any delusion of mortality is swiftly brushed aside. With every rising note and his trademark frenzied hands, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice is a calming reminder of our insignificance in the bigness of the Universe and the long stretch of time.

And it’s a reminder I’ve sought often in the last few weeks.

In case you’ve been living under a rock or are like my friend who asked me a day after abrogation of Article 370, “haan, kuch ho raha hai na Kashmir mein?” here’s a recap of the dystopian novel India has become: Kashmir has been in a communication clampdown for 45 days. In Assam, lakhs of people have been declared “illegal,” their entire lives now consigned to a piece of paper which says they aren’t Indian. I’ve seen too many mob lynching videos over the weeks to even come up with a name. All of them following a template. A man begging for his life, a murderous mob denying him that. An under-construction detention center in a city built on the sweat of its migrants, blinded eyes and pellet guns now just a “necessary measure for discipline.”

It’s all too easy to shut down the news (or move to another country) because these are just headlines, not events which are directly affecting us. Yet. A quest for normalcy — “humaari life toh acchi chal rahi hai” — is just the bedrock for fascism. So, what do we do?

It’s also too easy to get consumed into a black hole of anger and helplessness. A great lesson I’ve imbibed from running is that marathons aren’t won through sprints. You conserve energy for the next step. Despite the temptation to go all in, you force yourself to jog because you know it’s going to be a long race.

Similarly, I believe that to fight what’s coming, in whichever way we can, it’s essential to dive into everyday beauty — crack lame jokes with family, long walks with friends, an occasional good book, a dream holiday and for me, listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on loop.

———

My first introduction to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was as a kid in the 90s growing up in a pre-Internet Delhi. Through a cassette cover. I remember wondering who this portly man was, and what does the word “qawwali” really mean. But I didn’t pay too much attention to it and moved on to other more exciting pursuits. (I’m sure it was a new Amar Chitra Katha, but you know how romanticised childhood memories become when you’re looking back; it may just have been homework.)

And then, came “Afreen Afreen.” I caught the now-iconic music video on MTV one day and was mesmerized. Mostly by the image of Lisa Ray in red walking through a desert, but also by the voice singing beguilingly of “mehkashe ke do jaam” (Trans. eyes like two glasses of alcohol) and “ajanta ki moorat jaisa jism.” (Trans. comparing a woman’s body to the sculptures of Ajanta and Ellora) (Apologies to those reading this who don’t speak Hindi, I have tried my best to translate the lyrics, but.)

Years later, in middle school, the song would resurface — in the awkward ritual of adolescent courtship. Unlike the popular kids, my friends and I had very little “game.” After all, love is not the same as building space settlements or debating. (Both of which I was pretty good at.) So, we would quote the lyrics of “Afreen Afreem” slyly to each other. Where this came from, nobody knew. But the “aankhein” couplet in particular, with its abstract poetry, was a huge hit. The fact that none of us understood Urdu properly or looked like Lisa Ray didn’t matter.

When the new Coke Studio version of “Afreen Afreen” was released in 2016, I was rightfully outraged as one is when a childhood classic is repackaged and remixed for a new generation. But now, I’m not sure whether it was the song I missed or a moment in time when the song, and especially the music video, was such a huge cultural moment.

Watching the music video in 2019, two things are immediately clear: One, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s earthiness complementing the techno beats in this song are a classic untouched by time. Two, despite doing good work since, Lisa Ray will always be the “Afreen Afreen” woman for me. And I suspect many other 90s kids.

———

“Wait, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a proper Pakistani?” I was in a library in a small town in Germany. It was 2016 and it had been some years since I had started making Nusrat playlists a part of my everyday routine. (And annoying my roommate in Mumbai with this habit, who wanted to blast “Saturday Saturday” every morning before class, which, fair.) I was studying social anthropology in Germany, as a part of an exchange semester from TISS in Mumbai where I was studying Media and Cultural studies. And studying in Germany during the winters, to make things worse. A new language, a new country, a new academic discipline.

I was homesick. Listening to “Ankhiyan Udeek Diyan” on my walks to the library and while working on my thesis, made the inhospitable and freezing cold feel a little bit more like home. Home, as in Delhi. Though as my idle Googling was now telling me, Nusrat’s home was Pakistan. Through all my time listening to him, I had always thought of him as a Partition Pakistani — born in India, moved to Pakistan when arbitrary borders gave birth to countries. After all, his Punjabi was the Punjabi of my mother’s family. He was as revered in India as in Pakistan, as much of a cultural icon in Delhi as in Lahore.

But Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was born in 1948.

Even though his family migrated from Jalandhar in Punjab, India, he was born after the fact of Partition. Making him a “proper” Pakistani. And yet.

Every time I missed Delhi — and I missed it quite a bit — I would listen to him singing “maar da hai taane mainu mausam bahaar da” (Trans. The spring teases me with your absence) and feel the dull winter landscape fade away. I could touch the colours of Delhi, feel the familiarity of a language I loved, and smell the warmth of home.

Turns out spring, doesn’t differentiate between borders.

———

You should watch Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in concert. His records — and there are so many — are a delight, yes, but nothing compared to seeing him in concert. Since he passed away a few years after I was born, my only access to seeing him in concert are through recorded videos. Much has been written about how in concert, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a man possessed, a conduit for a divine voice, which we are privileged to witness.

This is undoubtedly true. For me, however, the magic of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice — whether through a grainy YouTube video or otherwise — is his ability to make the words sing in a way that speak to the very depths of your soul. His qawwalis are ones which many before and after him have sung, but those are merely renditions. Good ones, yes, but. No one teases out an unexpressed history from mere words like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

In that 1993 concert I talked about in the beginning of this post, after he asks the errant concert-goer to sit down, he resumes singing. After the alaap, he comes to the climax of the qawwali.

“Ajje latha nahio ankhiyan da chaa, tu thori der hor theher ja.”
(The eyes haven’t had their fill yet, stay awhile a little more)

As the last note of the line fades awaty, time simply pauses. In 1993 or 2019 or whatever year in the future. After all, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan commands it to be so.

———————————————————————————-

I know, I know, it’s been a while since the last newsletter was sent. Thank you for all the emails about its whereabouts in the past few weeks, it was most encouraging.

The good news is, I am back properly now, so this will be a more regular email. (Please mark it as not-spam, thank you.) The better news is, there’s so much to link and recommend. (Don’t worry, I’d still keep it short.)

LINKS WHICH I ENJOYED:

  1. I discovered Caroline Calloway earlier this year, when she charged $165 for a creativity workshop, which was a planning nightmare. I put it down as another instance of the hollowness of the influencer industry. Now, she’s back in the news with an essay written by her erstwhile friend, a prime example of what happens when privilege and toxic female friendships combine. Many hot-takes have been written on the issue, but the one essay I wish to email both the women is a different one. Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect” written in 1961.

    "Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent. If they choose to forego their work—say it is screenwriting—in favor of sitting around the Algonquin bar, they do not then wonder bitterly why the Hacketts, and not they, did Anne Frank.”

  2. This is an article which made my jaw drop, simply because the premise of it is so astonishing: chess is a sport which causes extreme weight loss. So, grandmasters are training like elite athletes. :o

    “In 2004, winner Rustam Kasimdzhanov walked away from the six-game world championship having lost 17 pounds. In October 2018, Polar, a U.S.-based company that tracks heart rates, monitored chess players during a tournament and found that 21-year-old Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess -- or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis.”

  3. Life-changing journalism I’d like to be a part of, and a reminder that the justice system is skewed against women in any part of the country. This The Marshall Project story of an 18-year-old girl’s rape allegation being disbelieved, and how two police detectives sought to track down a serial rapist is now a Netflix show, but the article on which the show is based, is better.

    “She had reported being raped in her apartment by a man who had bound and gagged her. Then, confronted by police with inconsistencies in her story, she had conceded it might have been a dream. Then she admitted making the story up. One TV newscast announced, “A Western Washington woman has confessed that she cried wolf when it came to her rape she reported earlier this week.” She had been charged with filing a false report, which is why she was here today, to accept or turn down a plea deal.”

    THINGS I WROTE/DID WHICH MIGHT INTEREST YOU:

    1. I spoke to Tik Tok stars over two weeks to find out what they think about those Tik Tok jokes. The class-bias when it comes to Tik Tok is well-known, simply because unlike other apps, it isn’t an app only for “people like us.” Do the stars on this platform though — savvy 22-year-olds who understand “viral content” like no one else — care? Not really.

      “TikTok puts fame within reach for everyone. College studs and construction workers. Delhi boys and Akola girls. Fashion model and domestic help. On TikTok, India’s got talent is a motto to live by, and everyone seems to be having fun. “The best thing about TikTok is that you can use it while sitting at home, you can do everything while sitting at home. You don’t need anything, you just need you phone and apna talent,” says Manav Chhabra, a Tik Tok star.

      2. I interviewed former CAG Vinod Rai on the 2G allocation and his role as Chaiperson of the CoA. Linking the 2G allocation one below.


      3. In 1991, India was in a terrible economic crisis. Forex for just three weeks of imports, pledging gold for loans, political instability — the events leading upto the 1991 reforms were quite the thriller. I put it all in a graphic novel-esque story with Erum Gour, a fantastic illustrator and a friend.

    That’s all from me, for this week!

    Please write back if anything in this (long) newsletter struck you, I’m always happy to read your emails. If you think someone will like this once-a-week in their inboxes, ask them to subscribe! I am still figuring out Substack, so thanks for your patience with the formatting, and well, with the delays.

    I will write again soon. (No, really.)

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