Mein Mar Jaaoon Toh Meri Ek Alag Pehchaan Likh Dena
Lahoo Se Meri Peshaani Pe Hindustaan Likh Dena
(When I die, write of my identity as a unique one; Use blood to smear my forehead with ‘Hindustan’)
These are the words of Rahat Qureshi, also known as Rahat ‘Indori’ after he took on a surname to identify with his city of birth, Indore, in Madhya Pradesh, India (https://twitter.com/rahatindori/status/1046958595760447488?lang=en). Don’t fret if you haven’t heard of him. You would have to be an Indian of a very specific taste – a love for Urdu poetry – to know who he is. Within a small circle of those who understand, know, or love, Urdu poetry though, Indori is a sensation. Probably one of the most influential poets of his generation.
My Urdu is just above the please-just-speak-in-Hindi level but I have been trying to work on it for the past few years. I think my mild interest comes from my Punjabi inheritance. My paternal grand-mom is from pre-partition Lahore, now in Pakistan, where she did her B.A. in Urdu. I guess she has been whispering Urdu sweet-nothings in my ears since I was born. I would have appreciated it if she had sought my consent before whispering anything in my ears but we all know that Indian parents don’t give a shit about things like ‘consent’ when it comes to their kids. They would have evil spirits knocked out of you with a mystic’s broom if they ever heard you utter the words ‘child rights’ or some such. And so it happens that as a grown 30-something, I have a natural affinity towards a language I barely understand.
In the past couple of years, I have attended a tidy number of mushairas (literary conclaves) where Indori has recited his poems. Most of these mushairas have been a stately affair with some very powder-nosed people, somewhere between 200 and 500 in number, sitting in organized rows of chairs with their pashmina (Kashmiri sheep-wool) shawls wrapped around their shoulders. At every good recitation there would be a polite waah waah (cheer) here, a slow clap there. I came into this elite community with aplomb, congratulating myself for my refined taste. I would make sure that my waah waah was appropriately timed to match theirs, these finely-manicured, finely-dressed, higher beings. Particularly with Indori, the waah waahs would peak on his anti-establishment jibes. He is known as the master of political satire. To fit into his audience, you have to catch the political undertone of his seemingly innocent couplets. I have been able to do that in the last two or three mushairas with a sense of pride for my intellectual and cultural ascension.
… these mushairas have been a stately affair with some very powder-nosed people, somewhere between 200 and 500 in number, sitting in organized rows of chairs with their pashmina (Kashmiri sheep-wool) shawls wrapped around their shoulders.
Yesterday, I made my way to another such mushaira, patting myself on the back for being constructive on a weekend. I was a little perplexed when I saw a large queue of people waiting to get in and a separate counter for registration. It was a public place. Maybe more than one event was going on at the same time? There were lots of college-kids in the crowd. Maybe they had come to see some celebrity. I made my way past the entry point after a long-drawn half-hour in the queue. As I followed the signage directing me to the mushaira, I realised that everyone was headed in the same direction as me. I was very curious to see this celebrity now, was he at the mushaira? The narrow passageway opened up to a panoramic view of the site of the performance. There stood twenty-maybe-thirty thousand people, packed into the space of five tennis courts. My head started spinning at the sheer number of bodies – old, middle-aged with families, youngsters, kids – in front of me. Seated on the floor, standing in the aisles and all around the seated audience, pushed up against walls, elevated on staircases in neighbouring buildings, dangling from trees. In the unforgiving chill of a Delhi December evening with a dense cloud of mist hovering just above their heads, these people stood waiting. For what? For who?
My head started spinning at the sheer number of bodies – old, middle-aged with families, youngsters, kids – in front of me. Seated on the floor, standing in the aisles and all around the seated audience, pushed up against walls, elevated on staircases in neighbouring buildings, dangling from trees.
The mushaira had eight poets, each took 20 minutes on the mike. For a near three hours they held their spots, only disengaging to get cups of tea or food from the stalls nearby to keep themselves warm. They heard every poet with enthusiasm, clapped above their heads at every clever innuendo, cheered into the skies at the end of every couplet. It was as if they were one with each poet, as if they understood every syllable of every word. Indori was the last poet to take the stage. As he walked to the mike it became clear to me that this was the celebrity they were all here to see. They roared their approval with every pause of his breath, every intonation in his voice, every play of his words.
I stood watching them in silence, spellbound by their madness. Who were these people? Were these the Djinns that Dalrymple (https://twitter.com/search?q=city%20of%20djinns&src=typed_query; https://www.instagram.com/williamdalrymple/?hl=en) had written about when he described Delhi over a decade ago? They had appeared out of nowhere and they were claiming this lost art-form, this fading language, this dormant culture like it had been theirs all along. Suddenly, and not without a dent in my ego, it dawned on me that Urdu was no longer for the pleasure of a select few. It was becoming what it had always been: the language of the masses.
Were these the Djinns that Dalrymple had written about when he described Delhi over a decade ago? They had appeared out of nowhere and they were claiming this lost art-form, this fading language, this dormant culture like it had been theirs all along.
But how? What had brought about this sudden jolt in the popularity of mushairas? What had changed in recent times to evoke this forceful show of solidarity towards Urdu? Why were all these people here, in the thousands, in the cold, on a weekend, to support Indori? There was no Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian in the crowd. They were all one and the same, bound by a common heritage. I felt like I was witnessing a rebellion, of the silent masses against an unspoken enemy. No speeches from pulpits, no banners, no slogans. Everybody knew why they were here and nobody felt the need to discuss it. When Indori climaxed into couplets on Hindustan and the sisterhood between Hindi and Urdu, live screens all around the arena showed images of people in tears, people hugging each other, people joining their hands in prayer.
There was no Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian in the crowd. They were all one and the same, bound by a common heritage.
Whoever this enemy is, I think we owe him / her / it a debt for reminding us who we really are as a people. In a short span of time, this enemy has revived in our consciousness all the things we hold dear – our history, our constitution, our freedom, Nehru, Gandhi, Ashfaqulla Khan. All the things that make us one of the greatest, most dynamic and inclusive, civilizations on earth.
So, thank you, Mr Enemy, for making India great again.
(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)