All posts tagged Jung Bahadur

  • ہلکا ہلکا سرور

    نہ نماز آتی ہے مجھ کو نہ وضو آتا ہے
    سجدہ کر لیتا ہوں جب سامنے تو آتا ہے

    میں ازل سے بنداعشق  ہوں
    مجھ زہد  کفر  کا غم  نہیں
    میرے  سر  کو  ر تیرا مل گیا
    مجھے اب تلاش حرم نہیں
    میری بندگی ہے وہ  بندگی
    جوبہ قید دیر و حرم  نہیں
    مری ایک نظر تمہیں دیکھنا
    بہ خدا نماز سے کم نہیں

    ∫∫∫

    ना नमाज़ आती है मुझ को ना वज़ू आता है
    सज्दा कर लेता हूँ जब सामने तू आता है

    मै अजल से बन्दा-ए-इश्क हूँ
    मुझे ज़ोहद-ओ-कुफ़्र का गम नहीं
    मेरे सर को दर तेरा मिल गया
    मुझे अब तलाश-ए-हरम नहीं
    मेरी बन्दगी है वो बन्दगी
    जो वकाएद-ए-दैर-ओ-हरम नहीं
    मेरी इक नज़र तुम्हें देखना
    ब-ख़ुदा नमाज़ से कम नहीं

    ∫∫∫

    I do not care for prayers or rituals
    But I shall fall to the floor,  forehead to dust
    when you appear before me

    I have been a lover since time immemorial
    I do not worry about faith or sacrilege
    My weary head has found your doorstep
    I do not even care for heaven
    My devotion is not bound to the mosque or temple
    Just one sight of you, I swear,  is equal to prayer

    ∫∫∫

     

    Nepal Valley

    August 13, 1860

    Begum Hazrat Mahal bowed a little towards Jung Bahadur, offered a formal Mughal aadaab.

    Welcome Maharaj, to the humble milieu of Barf Bagh. Your royal visitation blesses our abode and incurs much debt upon us.

    Jung Bahadur was impressed once again with the grandeur of Hazrat Mahal’s language. He bowed lower, and responded as coached by his Farsi munshi: aadaab-o-taslimat to Nawab Iftikhar un-Nisa Begum Hazrat Mahal Sahiba. It is an honor to be in the presence of one who has shown not only the British occupiers, but all the men of Hindustan what it means to be brave. I hope everything is to your liking here at Barf Bagh. If not, please send me word and I will remedy the situation immediately.

    Hazrat Mahal noticed that Nana Sahab’s emeralds had already found a new home all around Jung Bahadur’s gaudy crown. They glistened in the soft light of her assembly room. She did not mind. In fact, she had long forgiven Jung Bahadur the small offense of having taken her own Awadh treasures. In its place, she was grateful for his larger kindness of opening up Nepal to her and the other rebels. It was, after all, because of Jung Bahadur that she had avoided the shame of having to bow down to the British dogs. She chose to ignore altogether his greatest offense of assisting the British during the Hindustani uprising. In the politics of survival, one has to be pragmatic and always take the long view.

    Because of your lavish patronage, we are not in want of anything here, she said politely to Jung Bahadur.

    lavish patronage… was she being sarcastic? Jung Bahadur flashed a suspicious look at her, straining to retain his composure. Hazrat Mahal’s large liquid eyes… accented by the confident sweeps of her arched, delicately re-shaped Mughal eyebrows and the strokes of gaajal that enhanced the curves and went a little too far towards the temples in an obvious attempt at maximizing what was already a natural advantage, before the sensual mounds of flesh that made up her eyelids took over… no, those eyes betrayed nothing.

    The vixen!

    Jung Bahadur continued, managing not to skip a beat: I hope Rani Kashi Bai and others of the royal Maratha entourage are also satisfied and in good health?

    And here I was, hoping that you could update me on the latest news about Rani Kashi Bai, the thought flashed through Hazrat Mahal’s mind. But once again, she decided there was no point in getting the supreme ruler of Nepal riled up… especially over that sordid affair.

    Yes, they are all well.

    The opening niceties were beginning to drag.

    This way Maharaj…

    Hazrat Mahal turned, showed Jung Bahadur the way to the mehfil in the manner prescribe for polite society: lowered arm, palm flat and tilted, five fingers pointing discreetly at the floor, body bent forward slightly, but not too obsequious. Thus she led Jung Bahadur to some seating cushions at the far end of the room.

    Jung Bahadur cast a sweeping glance through the room. She had transformed his dusty old palace into a grand Mughal gharaana… and in so little time… portraits in bright yellow and gold on the walls, paintings of peacocks, parrots, stylized trees. And big bold letters in the jumbled up Farsi script that had no structure or discernible order.

    He settled in. Dhir Shamsher was also present, of course, but nobody had really noticed him until now. Even Hazrat Mahal had given him but a half-nod upon his entrance. Khadga Singh sat discreetly behind Dhir, the Purdey pistol lodged safely within the folds of his uniform, as relaxed as he could force himself to be while looking out for the double threat of home-grown conspirators and Hindustani rebel malcontents among the assembled crowd that might desire to harm his Maharaja.

    Jung Bahadur noted the plates of fruits and nuts, the pitchers of juice laid out in front of him. The singing party was seated directly across, the central position occupied by a fat man with an exploding bushy beard and moustache. Jung Bahadur thought he did not look much like an ustad… perhaps a Mughal गाइने ? But he wore a solemn look and was quite richly dressed. To his left was a sarangi player, to his right a tabalchi, and to the far left, another man, thin and with the darkest skin of them all, without any musical instruments.

    The Begum was now seated, also facing the singing party. Around her gathered the female members of her household. The male attendants, along with some representative leaders of the Nepali Muslim community, were seated a respectful distance away in a cluster. But Hazrat Mahal herself was quite scandalously close to Jung Bahadur. She offered him an elaborate hookah in black and gold, its long pipe adorned with embroidered cloth near the mouthpiece. Jung Bahadur politely demurred. The Begum took another hookah for herself, and said to Jung Bahadur in a solemn, ringing voice so all could hear:

    I beg to introduce to the esteemed assemblage the Prince of Mysore, Sitara-e-Subh-e-Mashrik, artist of artists, the mashhoor Qawwal Ustad Maula Bakhsh Sahab, of the Baroda gharaana, who has graced us with his presence, despite the many hardships of traveling to our exotic mountainous locale.

    Maula Bakhsh offered aadaab politely to the assembly. Obviously, the fat man had some social standing, Jung Bahadur thought, and re-calibrating his attitude returned the aadaab handsomely.

    Maula Bakhsh looked to his right. Looked to his left. Nodded. The sarangi began. Hazrat Mahal did not recognize the tune but it drew her in. Lilting long motifs shimmered slowly into existence out of nothingness, but were still tentative, half-formed. Hazrat Mahal knew that they would find their full form within the unfolding words of shaayari, but for now just the music, and the sweet melancholic wait. The mood established, the sarangi wound down slowly, circling on a melody and growing increasingly quieter. Maula Bakhsh looked over, nodded. The sarangi stopped.

    Maula Bakhsh closed his eyes, and a deep, resonant alaap erupted from the core of his body. He started in the low scales

    आ…

    and looped higher with each new breath. The Begum had been swaying since the sarangi first started, and now the golden purity of the Ustad’s voice carried her forth to an ethereal level. She flew high as the Ustad surged up the scales. She swirled playfully as he came back down, always circling, always touching the right notes, before landing perfectly back on the home note.

     आ…                                      आ…
    हा…   आ…   आ…
    .. .आ…   हा…  

    Jung Bahadur found it all rather interesting, but the thought did cross his mind: I hope there is more than just आ… and हा… in the program today. After some time the Ustad raised his hands signalling stop, which was curious because nobody else was playing or singing. Some sort of ustadi andaaz, Jung Bahadur surmised. The actual song would probably start now.

    साक़ी की हर निगाह पे बल खा के पी गया…

    Waah! Waah!

    Jung Bahadur was surprised to hear this outburst from the usually tranquil Begum. He looked over. She was still swaying, eyes closed, a delicate frown on her face. He must have sung a good line… but Jung Bahadur had distinctly heard something about alcohol as well, which confused him. He knew the Begum was quite strict in her Musalman faith…

    …लहरों से खेलता हुआ लहरा के पी गया…

    Waah! Waah!

    Hazrat Mahal said again as she admired the subtle play on words that was possible only in her adopted language. She took another long drag on the hookah. What shaayari. She let Maula Bakhsh’s words float through her, repeated them with fervor. With every glance from the wine-giver, I stumbled and drank. Playing with the waves I weaved. And drank. What qalaam-e-fun! What playfulness! Subhaan Allah. Subhaan Allah.

    Now the backup singers were picking up the line.

    लहरों ∫∫∫∫ से खेलता ∫∫∫ हुआ ∫∫∫

    They played it back and forth. The first backup singer was in fact the sarangi player. He sang in short, high-pitched forays, notes darting like hummingbirds but landing, always landing back on the home note for the other singer to pick up. Through all this, his sarangi kept pace with the singing. Never faltered. Never skipped a note. The other backup singer, the one without instruments, glided like an eagle, but in low majestic notes, unhurried, in supreme command of his graceful voice, searching for widely undulating pathways that would no doubt in time lead to a glimpse of The One…

    लहरों ∫∫∫∫∫
    लह∫∫∫∫∫ रों∫∫∫∫

    The mystical communication between Maula Bakhsh and the backup singers tugged at the crowd. Invited them to join in. All succumbed willingly.

    Hazrat Mahal wondered how her guest was doing. She knew Jung Bahadur had a rudimentary knowledge of formal Farsi from his darbar munshis, and Parbatiya words were often rather similar to Hindustani… She looked over discreetly. Jung Bahadur was still paying some attention to the qawwali, but the fogs of stupor were starting to gather around him.

    She leaned over, and spoke close to his ear: Maharaj, you might have noticed the mention of the wine-giver and drinking in the qawwali. I beg you to note that the song is about spiritual ecstasy, and not the drinking of alcohol, which as you know is forbidden in Islam. The wine-giver is a veiled allusion to the Almighty, The One. And to become drunk is to fall in love with The One. We use the allegory of drinking thus in Sufiyana qawwali.

    Jung Bahadur smiled. Thank you for your generous explanation, Begum Sahiba. I understand.

    Jung Bahadur understood, but only vaguely. Meanwhile, the qawwali had progressed:

      पास रहता है दूर रहता है
    कोहि दिल मे जरूर रहता है
    जब से देखा है उन कि आंखो को
    हल्का हल्का सुरूर रहता है
    अब अदम का वो हाल है हर कदम
    मस्त रहता है चूर रहता है
    ये जो हल्का हल्का…

    A quick virtuosic turn of the sarangi, and the tabla came to life, also with a quick introductory flourish, and bolstered the familiar rhythm that tugged at Hazrat Mahal’s heart. The clapping now began, in perfect step with the tabla. The entire party save the Ustad clapped in unison. A crisp, dignified rhythm.

    Clap…Clap…

    ये जो हल्का हल्का

    Clap…Clap…

    Now the two backup singers added their voices … different moods different adaas all came together in one harmonious meld… syncopated by the clapping…

    ये जो हल्का हल्का

    Clap…Clap…

    Even Jung Bahadur felt the primitive tug of the rhythm, the precision and grace of the clapping, enforced by the tabla. Almost without knowing it, he started to keep a discreet beat: two fingers of his right hand tapping on his thigh.

    ये जो हल्का हल्का

    Clap…Clap…

    The hypnotic, repetitive waves of music were working their effect on Hazrat Mahal. She could feel the trance coming on. The clapping, a rejoicing with flesh, bone and sinew, kept the same rhythm as the beating of the human heart. A reaching out of the physical trying to emulate and to reunite with the mystical.

    She started moving to the music gently, in anticipation of the rapture she knew Maula Bakhsh would deliver later on.

    ये जो हल्का हल्का सुरूर है
    तेरी नज़र का क़ुसूर है
    के शराब पीना सिखा दिया

    The story had suddenly advanced. He had been accused of teaching us how to drink. The magical spell was cast. And it would only grow as the qawwali progressed.

    Jung Bahadur recognized some of the words, but most were frustrating and dense to him. Like suroor. He sensed there was a fancy meaning, but he could not… he would not be able to find out. This annoyance took him back to the foreign lands of Lanka, Egypt, Malta,encountered at the beginning of his now-legendary trip across the Black Waters ten years ago. Took him back finally to London. The Opera. Laura Bell. Alien worlds with people speaking confounding languages. Despite the translators in his service then, he had encountered words that would entice and tease but were categorically denied him. It was an annoyance, but did he really care? No. Jung Bahadur had already decided that if he spent his days enjoying shaayari, a Basnyat or Shahi would have lopped his head off long ago. So he was generally happy with the way things were. But it still bothered him, like a mild toothache that would not go away. Out of habit, he looked back to check on Khadga Singh, and relaxed a bit more when he saw that his faithful bodyguard was scanning the room constantly but discreetly for signs of trouble, just as he had instructed him to.

    The sarangi joined Maula Bakhsh for occasional quirky accompaniments: short, not theatrical, but full of quick, subtle musical genius. The voice flexed, the sarangi kept pace, climbed up and down the scale, seemed to anticipate the next turn of singing, pushed the boundaries of what the raag allowed, but elegantly arrived back to the center note again, just in time for Maula Bakhsh to begin the next line.

    सारा जहाँ मस्त
    मस्त…मस्त मस्त …

    The backup singers echoed:

    मस्त…मस्त मस्त …

    Must. Jung Bahadur surmised that the word referred to spiritual intoxication, based on Hazrat Mahal’s earlier explanation. The constant repetition of the word by the singers made him mind wander again. Took him to the Tarai jungle. He thought of the massive drives to corner and capture male elephants in heat … must… in the other sense of the word. It would be three more months before he could return to the pleasures of the jungle again. He was in his element there, chasing wild elephants while riding his faithful Jung Prasad. Or else face to face with a tiger, trying to shoot it point blank. The flood of memories from the Tarai suddenly made Jung Bahadur wonder: What am I doing here? A weariness dragged him down. He wanted to run away from this pretentious Mughal event. Away from the constant grating burden of his artificial royalty. Away from the oppression of this godforsaken valley. He missed the simple humility of the Tharu villagers, the smells of the jungle, the naked joys of hunting. The incessant conflict in Jung Bahadur between his comfortable opulence and his raw jangey character riled up in his memory the fated words of his father…

    …gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat…

    He clenched his teeth to drive the words out of his head.

    सारा जहाँ मस्त जहाँ का निज़ाम मस्त
    दिन मस्त रात मस्त सहर मस्त शाम मस्त
    खुम मस्त शीशा मस्त सबु मस्त जाम मस्त
    है तेरी चश्म-ए-मस्त से है ख़ास-ओ-आम मस्त

    यूँ तो साक़ी हर तरह की तेरे मयख़ाने मे है
    वो भी थोड़ी सी जो इन आँखो के पैमाने मे है
    सब समझता हुं तेरी इश्वागरी ऐ साक़ी
    काम करती है नज़र नाम है पैमाने का
    तेरी बहकी बहकी निगाह ने मुझे इक शराबी बना दिया

    Hazrat Mahal marvelled at the subtle ways Maula Bakhsh pushed the boundaries, using the very profane to describe the sacred. Marvelled at the grace of the words and the notes, so that he would always be immediately forgiven. Marvelled also at the implicit summons in the profane words to rise up and think of a higher meaning. Indeed, You have many wines in your tavern: Yeshu. Krishna. Muhammad. Guru Nanak. But Maula Bakhsh wanted to drink directly from the eyes of The One. What impudence! What devotion! Subhaan Allah.

    Meanwhile, in celebration of the verbal fireworks that had just erupted, the tabla picked up speed, kept a driving hypnotic beat, and echoed the clapping, so that the rhythm playfully bounced around between the tabla and the clappers. It was the two-beat dhuk dhuk of a racing heart: the first beat came from the tabla, the second from the clapping.

    है यूँ तो साक़ी

    Maula Bakhsh began again. Hazrat Mahal saw that the entire party was ready to go along for another repetition of the majestic couplet just introduced.

    यूँ तो साक़ी…

    The Ustad repeated. Hark! He was lingering. Something was being cooked up here. The sarangi player looked over, read the Ustad’s face, and slowed the sarangi considerably. The clappers kept up the rhythm, but much subdued. They were all waiting for direction…

    मेरे साक़ी…

    The sarangi meandered, the soft claps anticipated… Maula Bakhsh had not made up his mind. Hazrat Mahal frowned, the pleasant torture was becoming unbearable…she even set her hookah pipe down…

    …and then the release: voices, claps, tabla sarangi all unleashed in their full fury:

    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी

    Jung Bahadur noticed that some men seated behind Hazrat Mahal had gotten up and were weaving and spinning to the now insistent, frantic music. They looked like servants and lower-class guests of the Begum. But they appeared unburdened in their dance, keeping step with the clapping and the chorus of saaqi saaqi from the backup singers without any regard for the fact that their Begum, along with the supreme master of the host country, were sitting three steps away. Two women now got up and joined them. Jung Bahadur shifted his gaze to the Begum, trying to determine whether all these breaches of decorum were acceptable. But the Begum was lilting to the incessant repetitions of saaqi saaqi herself. Jung Bahadur looked around the room: no signs of alcohol, of course. This was the same kind of behaviour he had seen among the ascetics who flocked to Pashupati during Shivaratri. And also in the shamans he met back in Jumla and Dhankuta while growing up. Various modes of spiritual possession he never really understood, but respected from a distance.

    तुम्हारा हुस्न अगर बेनकाब हो जाए…

    If your beauty were to be unwrapped from its veil…Hazrat Mahal wondered how the Ustad was going to turn this new, obviously profane line around…

    तुम्हारा हुस्न अगर बेनकाब हो जाए
    हर एक चेहरा ख़ुदा कि किताब हो जाए
    शराबियों को अक़ीदत है इस क़दर तुम से
    जो तुम पिला दो तो पानी शराब हो जाए

    Hazrat Mahal no longer parsed the words, did not tease apart the meaning. She just opened up and let the words, the rhythm flow through her. Like water. Like wine.

    The harmony that enveloped the cosmos reverberated through her soul, carried forth in the voices of the entire bazm-e-qawwali.

    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी

    Amidst the swaying and dancing, Jung Bahadur noticed one of the men in the Begum’s party stand and approach the Ustad. It was in fact one of the pesky Kashmiri merchants from Indra Chok whom he had to deal with occasionally. The qawwal party played on, but in a suspended manner, to accommodate the merchant interruption. They did not seem to be bothered about it. The merchant lingered in front of the Ustad, brought out a leather pouch, grabbed a fistful of silver coins – probably athannis – and laid them one at a time on the carpet in front of the Ustad:

    One in the name of Begum Sahiba, One in the name of us Kashmiri Merchants, One for Nepal, and One for Hindustan!

    Waah! Waah! Waah! Erupted from all corners of the room. The Ustad was pleased, and offered a respectful aadaab to the merchant. The Begum smiled approvingly.

    Well played, Jung Bahadur thought, eyeing the Kashmiri merchant suspiciously.

    The qawwali picked up again.

    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    लहरा के झूम…

    Bakhsh Sahab said suddenly. He paused, grabbed a towel to wipe off the sweat that had started to collect rather profusely on his face and neck. The worldly side-effects of focused devotion. The two backup singers sensed a small opening in the silence. They filled it immediately with a detour.

    झूम झूम… झूम झूम…

    Bakhsh Sahab had not anticipated this new direction, but he liked it. He indicated Continue with a motion of his hands. As he watched intensely in silence, yet in supreme command of the ever-evolving structure of the qawwali, the detour slowly blossomed into a new ecstatic motif, its end catching its gossamer beginning subtly, but catching it, and looping back, circling again and again, until there was no beginning and no end. A dizzying concoction that entranced all. Certainly a fitting tribute to the word jhoom itself. But in the end, as always with qawwali, a spinning whirling dervish in praise of The One.

    Hazrat Mahal closed her eyes again… Lehera ke jhoom… The new words made her recall her youth amidst the squalor of Lakhnau, before she became Wajid Ali’s courtesan, and long before she became his wife. I used to sing a song that started with the same words. But that old song was a hollow scaffold of dead conventions steeped in the morbidity of the tawaif-khaana, my sole purpose to sing five… six sessions a day to impotent Lakhnau nawabs with lost souls among stifling alleys and rundown shacks spittled everywhere with paan and the crushed spirits of little girls from the hills and plains of Nepal and Hindustan…

    … And here was Bakhsh Sahab, taking us closer to The One, in hypnotic circles and repetitions that wilfully drew you in. Hazrat Mahal returned from her painful past to the ecstatic present, and smiled at the aesthetic genius of Maula Bakhsh, who had stolen the initial words of her sordid song and fused it elegantly into his spiritual lament.

    So Hazrat Mahal jhoomed, surrendered and was subsumed into the divine blend of voice, clapping, sarangi and tabla.

    झूम झूम… झूम झूम…

    Jung Bahadur munched on the dates and cashews in front of him, and absentmindedly looked around the room. As he had cursorily noted upon arrival, the Begum had decorated the walls with elegant portraits in green and gold of men holding roses or spears… very similar to his own portrait by Bhajuman… over here some handsome swords with embossed Farsi letters… elaborate plates, blue and red and drenched in yellow… He liked the artwork, although sometimes it was too gaudy and cluttered. But it was again the complicated script of the text mixed in everywhere… vague scribbles that seemed not to follow any rules… that were completely, eternally hidden to him.

    Jung Bahadur noticed that the Begum was looking straight at him. He quickly collected himself, and directed his attention to the qawwali again. Good God, they are still stuck on the jhoom jhoom! So the old drunk with devotion routine had not ended. Forcing a smile, he bowed towards the Begum and mouthed silently: Waah! Waah!

    Hazrat Mahal returned the bow. She was not fooled.

    In the meantime, Maula Bakhsh had rattled off the next line, taking even his singing party by surprise:

    लहरा के झूम झूम के ला मुस्कुरा के ला…

    He is singing my song! Hazrat Mahal realized in a flash as she heard the first full line of the couplet. This style of injecting a separate song into the middle of a qawwali performance was new to Hazrat Mahal, but she settled in to discover where Maula Bakhsh would take the song, her old dead song, now a divine mystery again, an unopened book. She closed her eyes, and readied herself for an extended, nourishing detour.

    लहरा के झूम झूम के ला मुस्कुरा के ला
    फूलों के रस मे चाँद की किरणे मिला के ला
    क्यूँ जा रही है रूठ के रंगीन ये बहार
    जा इक मर्तबा इसे फिर वर्ग़ला के ला
    कहते है उम्र्-ए-रफ़्तार कभी लौटती नहीं
    जा मैकदे से मेरी जवानी उठा के ला

    Then back to the original refrain, the original harbinger of rapture:

    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी

    Meanwhile, Jung Bahadur was trying very hard to suppress a yawn. He grit his teeth, pursed his lips, but unfortunately the tedium of the afternoon was too much for him. He inadvertently yawned with his mouth wide open. Tears of lethargy welled up in his eyes.

    As spontaneously as it had started, Maula Bakhsh decided to end the detour by raising his hands emphatically: STOP!

    The qawwal party was in suspended animation. The sarangi lingered softly again, waiting for the next musical hook. The clapping was subdued in anticipation, as before. Maula Bakhsh closed his eyes, frowned in concentration as he mapped out the next trajectory of the qawwali. Having resolved on a course, he launched another verbal assault:

    तेरा नाम लूँ…

    The backup singers recognized the path ahead and quickly picked it up. The sarangi player enacted his mercurial vocal magic in the high notes again:

    तेरा∫∫∫∫ ना∫∫म लूँ ∫∫∫∫

    The other singer cut in, descended deep in resonance, majestic, slow-moving. But the transition did not jar. The first singer trailed off, yielded the stage gracefully, no ego, now only extending the melody on his sarangi. In fact, as the eagle sailed low in the eternal landscape of raag and alaap, the sarangi player occasionally joined in to bolster the verbal transitions, and supplemented the melody. The gliding eagle moved through vast landscapes in the lower notes. The hummingbird made quirky forays into the sky. A quick somersault here, a rapid saragama ascent there, before diving down to meet the other voice, and together continuing the saga, a flowing river of many currents now very near its destination. What coordination. What divine mirth.

    This collective offering to The One caused the physical world to recede for Hazrat Mahal and many others in the audience. Only pure musical notes remained. They left Jung Bahadur and his party behind and wafted gently into the cocoon of the qawwali, into the present, conscious of the here and now, savouring the music note by note. Time stopped flowing.

    तेरा ∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫
    तेरा ∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫

    Hazrat Mahal floats through the gossamer web of qawwali thus spun, and allows it to lift her up tumbling swaying spinning in abandon. In her around her she sees the same patterns as in the loops of qawwali… the swirls of pine cones fondly picked up on the लेख high above her childhood village of Kavre… the intricate mandals she had encountered within the mysterious smells of Patan alleys… the dazzling muraqqas of Lakhnau depicting the sun resplendent in its manifold brilliance… the sensuous unfurled petals of a lotus. All idealized circles that twirl, that seem to record the passage of this मिथ्या called time and yet, in their symmetries, remain the same at each instance: timeless, motionless, perfect. Circles that gently proclaim through their unmoving centers: in many there is One. Circles that whisper of the Eternal Uncreate, where there is also no space no time only love.

    Was that a glimpse of The One?

    Maula Bakhsh is silent while all this transpires. Now he joins in, on the off-beat, with the hypnotic repetition:

    तेरा नाम, नाम, नाम, नाम, तेरा नाम

    …But something is wrong. The rhythm seems to be off by a half-beat… Hazrat Mahal feels this in her soul. It is out of phase like a carriage pulled by two horses in misstep. The strain builds, almost pulls Hazrat Mahal out of the conscious present that she has just entered. She opens her eyes. Is the qawwali lapsing into chaos? But the tabla and sarangi players and clappers are undaunted and carry on with their original beat, themselves deeply mesmerized. But after a few moments, Maula Bakhsh, still singing teraa naam in a loop, begins to register his off-rhythm with the clapping of his own hands. His beat clashes starkly with the rhythm of the tabla and the clappers, and confirms Hazrat Mahal’s suspicion: he is off. But suddenly, in one virtuosic turn, Maula Bakhsh executes a double-clap, stops singing for a half beat, and effortlessly brings the singing and the clapping back into synchrony again. So this was all intentional: that wobbling rhythm, the introduced strain: a masterful revolt, a pretension of breaking away from order before the eventual succumbing to the rhythm of nature, a reunion with the humming of the universe, registered and kept time to by the beating of each human heart, fragile, ephemeral, but also eternal because it is the same dhuk-dhuk pulse of the entire universe.

    The subtle shades of meaning, the magical powers hidden in a mere couplet of delicately arranged لفظو … all this only possible in Urdu, her dear, adopted language. The words flowing out like graceful sculptures in marble – supple yet strong – from the Ustad’s mouth, but really originating in the depths of his soul, the very core of his consciousness, which, of course, was the same core within herself now accepting the rapture. Hazrat Mahal is fully intoxicated. Water has indeed become wine.

    तेरा नाम लूँ ज़बाँ से तेरे आगे सर झुका लूँ
    मेरा इश्क कह रहा है मै तुझे ख़ुदा बना लूँ

    Meanwhile, Jung Bahadur, very much ensnared in the tentacles of space and time, was finished with the mehfil. Only the knowledge that it was extremely impolite to leave in the middle of a qawwali had kept him seated. But… what was this… He noticed the Ustad motion with his hands: wind it down. The clapping and the music became subdued. All eyes were again on the Ustad, probably anticipating some sort of finale. Jung Bahadur was relieved: his agony would be over soon. He forced himself to pay attention. The Farsi in the next few lines was easy, which helped. The words seemed to be those of a spurned lover. Jung Bahadur wondered whether the lover was in fact a stand-in for a spiritual devotee. He was picking up on this thing.

    मेरे बाद किस को सताओगे
    मुझे किस तरह से मिटाओगे
    कहाँ जा के तीर चलाओगे
    मेरी दोस्ती की बलाँए दो
    मुझे हाथ उठा कर दुआए दो
    तुम्हे इक क़ातिल बना दिया

    क्याबात!
    Despite himself, Jung Bahadur yelled out in enthusiasm. He also seemed to have leaped up a little from his cushion. The song had made a culprit out of god, for having seduced us mortals! Jung Bahadur was impressed with the stark boldness of the words. He had never heard anything quite like this before.

    Hazrat Mahal turned gracefully toward Jung Bahadur, bowed low. She was genuinely pleased that at least some of the magic of sufiyana qawwali was rubbing off on Jung Bahadur. She took another satisfying draw from the hookah, and ruminated on the final devastating lines from Maula Bakhsh. What audacity! She was grateful and proud of the fact that this sort of playful language was allowed in the Sufi tradition. She was grateful too of Maula Bakhsh sahab for having executed this sustained offering of devotion so superbly.

    Jung Bahadur regained his composure. The sudden rush of understanding had still not left him. His heart opened up. He offered a dignified Waah! Waah! Waah! to the Ustad.

    The Ustad offered an aadaab, and in his supremely confident style, landed the large qawwali ship deftly into the docks with a slow, majestic finale.

    ये जो हल्का हल्का सुरूर है
    तेरी नज़र का क़ुसूर है
    के शराब पीना सिखा दिया

    Jung Bahadur briskly collected himself together and stood up. Hazrat Mahal could see that Jung Bahadur was strained and fatigued, despite his recent outburst of enthusiasm. He did sit through three ghadi of singing, she thought not unkindly. As a final peace offering, she addressed him in high Urdu:

    हम तो सूफ़ियाना अंदाज़ कि पैरवी करते हैं
    सूफ़ियाना चिश्ती ख़यालात मे इस्लाम जैन इसायत और हिन्दू धर्म
    हर एक मज़हब कि इज़्ज़त रहति है
    पैरव-ए-मस्लक-ए-तस्लीम-ओ-चिश्ती मे एक हि खुदा कि इबादत होति है

    As before, Jung Bahadur did not understand all of this. But he understood enough. And his newly acquired British sensibilities dictated that he smile politely and offer gratitude for the entertainment and hospitality.

    You have expressed yourself elegantly, as always, Begum Sahiba. On behalf of myself, my brother, my entourage and my entire country, I thank you for inviting me to this magical mehfil.

    ∫∫∫

    Jung Bahadur decided to take the shorter south gate route back to his palace, along the banks of the Bagmati. The sun was setting behind Chandragiri. The sky was turning pink. Jung Bahadur walked briskly as usual. Dhir Shamsher followed his older brother with light steps: the qawwali had also suited him quite well. Khadga Singh scrambled up to Jung Bahadur, and asked politely: They say the Begum is actually a Parbatya, Maharaj. Do you think that is true?

    Shut up! Jung Bahadur said quickly but quietly. The nawabi opulence of Barf Bagh lingered on around him. Truth be told, he was feeling positively Mughal inside.

    The emerald grapes hanging in a row from his crown danced merrily as he walked. His mind wandered back to the day he had seized these treasures from Nana Sahab. The Shiromani emerald was quite a catch! The thought should have brought him pleasure, but it brought him mild annoyance instead. Now his always restless mind jumped to his secret trysts with Kashi Bai… inside one of the very houses he had just passed by. Now he thought of his uncle, murdered in cold blood under orders of the Darbar by… himself. And finally, inevitably… the Night at the Kot. Suddenly all the deeds that had paved the way to his becoming Sri 3 Maharaj came flooding back. With them came the words of his father that had haunted him all his life:

    …gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat…

    He looked up in exasperation. The sky was now blood red, the ominous colour that enveloped this confounding valley on most autumn days before the onset of complete, total darkness. From his vantage point on the good side of the Bagmati, he could see naked children from Patan playing along the other bank, shamelessly exposing their bare, sunken ribs. He also saw Jyapus trudging back from the fields, their bone-eroding weariness palpable even from afar. Jung Bahadur walked faster. His perpetual scowl returned. The baubles of emerald on his crown jangled more awkwardly, hit him on his forehead with an annoying pitter patter.

    Jung Bahadur was now completely free of his transient Mughal pretensions. He scurried towards the darbar and blurted out to Khadga Singh:

    हैन, त्यो पर्वत्या नै हो, बुझिस् खड्गे ?

    ∫∫∫

    Dedicated to Anup Pahari for introducing the author to the magic of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan amidst the autumn leaves of Lancaster, PA twenty three years ago.

    Select lines from Ye Jo Halka Halka Suroor, Qawwali performance by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party. Amalgamated lyrics by various artists: Jigar Moradabadi, Abdul Hamid Adam, and others.
    Photo I: Detail from the Shah Jahan Album, Rosetta Bearing the Names and Titles of Shah Jahan, India, ca. 1645, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, cat. 250A.
    Photo II: Details from Padshahnama plate 10 : Shah-Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies (8 March 1628), by the artist Bichitr, Royal Collection Trust, UK.
    Photo III: Upper right: Shamseh, Unknown artist, First half of 17th century, Golestan Palace, Iran. Lower Right: Mandal of Manjushri Dharmadhatu Vagishvara, The Rubin Museum of Art. F1996.15.2 (HAR 455). Other Photos: © Author.

  • A Drink of Water

    August 1, 1837
    Jumla

    What shall we do, Baba? Where shall we go? Nepal? Muglan?

    Don’t know yet, son. Let me mull it over. If we go to Nepal, we will be cut. The Pandeys are screaming for Thapa blood right now.

    Jung Bahadur had grown up in the presence of his father’s quiet dignity, something that seemed to come naturally to the hereditary Kaji. But after the family lost everything in the wake of Bhimsen Thapa’s fall, Jung Bahadur had seen his father rapidly dissolve into a broken man: shoulders slumped, eyes staring at the ground, wide and lost. Jung Bahadur’s mercury suddenly shot up.

    Baba, what happened to all of your selfless service to the Palace? You cut Sher Bahadur Shahi and avenged Rana Bahadur’s death. That was not loyalty to the Thapas. That was loyalty to the Palace. Shouldn’t that count? Why are we being dragged down with the Thapas? Where is the King when we need him? Where is God? What good was all of your “merit earning”? The bridge you built at Pashupati…the four hours of worship every day…the feeding of beggars along Bagmati…All that and now look at us! Look at you!

    Calm down, son. This Palace has a short memory. Right now, they just see us as extended Thapa clan. We rose with the Thapas, and now we must fall with them. In the end, the only winner in Nepal is the Palace. No matter how strong or weak it is. Look at your great-uncle Bhimsen. He was the most powerful man in all of Nepal for a while. Even the King dared not speak against him…yet he died like a dog in the end. We, on the other hand, are servants of servants. After your great-uncle’s fall, I have come to realize that no matter how piously I try to live my life, no matter how confidently we call ourselves Bhaardaars and show our historic ties to the Palace, we are gnats. It is written in our karma: we are gnats and we will always remain gnats. Never forget that. We are gnats.

    ∫∫∫

    March 28, 1876
    Deurali (a small village between Bhimphedi and Kulekhani on the southern route to Nepal)

    Jung Bahadur jerked the reins of his horse, turned back and said to Khadga Singh Gurung:

    My water-skin is empty. Get me some water.

    Khadga Singh looked back, fidgeted.

    Maharaaj, the minders seem to have fallen behind. I will immediately send someone to fetch them. In the meantime…Maharaaj…we appear to be out of…

    Jung Bahadur shot him an incinerating look. But the ensuing words were soft.

    Let it be. I will find some on my own.

    Leaving the devastated Khadga Singh behind, Jung Bahadur whipped his horse leftward and off the main path into a small, almost invisible trail. Just as he disappeared into the thicket, Dhir Shamsher and the rest of the elite hunting party galloped up behind Khadga Singh.

    What happened? Where is Maharaja? Dhir asked briskly.

    He went alone….Maharaja wanted some water…the minders were not here…his water skin was empty…

    OK, OK, Dhir stopped the semi-coherent blabber from Khadga Singh.

    Go after him, fast. Take the rest of the Aath Pahariya bodyguards with you. The rest of the party, stay here with me.

    Dhir Shamsher was not going to go running after his brother. Not any more.

    Jung Bahadur swooshed out his Wikishan sword and deftly sliced off the shrubs and branches that came in his way. He was looking for  a stream, but soon he saw through the thicket a thatched rooftop, smells of human habitation, and cow-dung. He set his horse on amble. As Jung Bahadur approached the homestead, the smell of cow-dung grew strong. The wood smoke in the air make it almost tolerable. The miserably small hut now fully in view was slightly tilted to one side. Mud plaster on the walls had peeled off in many places exposing sickly smallpox scars. On top of that, straw bundles from within the walls had broken through the smallpox holes into radiant fragments exploding out at various lengths and awkward angles. The entire facade thus had a wounded and defeated appearance.  Looking down, Jung Bahadur noticed  a thin trench that ran out from a hole on the side of the hut towards the courtyard, made a turn, passed through where he stood, and drained off into the hillside. It was obviously meant to be a sewer around the courtyard, but done so halfheartedly that it resembled a child’s running of a stick through dirt in play. A fly buzzed past and settled on Jung Bahadur’s neck. It did not bother him.

    …gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat

    Jung Bahadur noticed that Khadga Singh had scurried हस्याँङ् फस्याँङ् to the scene, and now lay motionless immediately behind him, trying to subdue his outofbreath panting.

    There were two wretched children playing in the courtyard. They had short, dirty tunics on their bodies, and tattered trousers.They were completely covered in filth and looked more animal than human. Jung Bahadur was disgusted. One appeared to be a boy of around six, the other perhaps his younger sister, perhaps three. The older boy played, and the little girl followed him around. Sometimes the boy did stop to play with the girl: she looked happiest at these times. Suddenly the boy, who was facing away from Jung Bahadur, bent over to grab a pebble. His butt-cheeks, dusty and scarred, now peeked through two large holes in his trousers directly towards Jung Bahadur. Jung Bahadur violently looked away, twitched his torso, and jerked his shoulders to adjust his epaulettes. The epaulettes suddenly felt heavy on his shoulders.

    A man came out of the smallpox hut with a bored look of curiosity, meaning to check on the new arrival in his courtyard.  Khadga Singh ran over and whispered something into the man’s ear. The man’s face broke into a wide smile of joy. Head cocked slightly forward and to the left, he raised his right hand and absently started scratching the back of his head in the manner so familiar to us Nepalis. But he did it through a dirty, tattered and ridiculously small cap that was sort of in the way. The end effect was that the cap clumsily moved around as he scratched back and forth. The cap finally ended up in such an awkward angle that it make him look more pitiable than comical.

    Just then, Jung Bahadur’s bodyguards broke in loudly through the thicket, swords swishing metal on metal armor scraping and lined up neatly behind Jung Bahadur, all looking severe. By this time, the import of what was transpiring had partially and vaguely sunk  into the man’s head. His face froze into a tortured contortion of pain, fear and the grin from earlier that didn’t quite go away.

    Khadga Singh whispered something else into the man’s ear. Still in coma, the man looked to the left, to the right, then to the left again with dazed eyes, and managed to point weakly to a homemade chair of sorts in the nearby shed. Khadga Singh grabbed it, and squeezing out every bit of dignity he had trained for in the Palace, rushed to Jung Bahadur and seated him upon it.

    Khadga Singh hurried back to the man. More whispering ensued. An ankhora was procured from within the hut. Khadga Singh filled Jung Bahadur’s water-skin to the best of his abilities with the contents of the ankhora. Jung Bahadur took a deep draught of water. The cool, freshmineral taste was good. But it did not make him feel any better. As he drank, Jung Bahadur heard some bustling from inside the smallpox hut. A clang of pots and pans mixed in with other kitchen sounds. Soon a trail of water trickled through the hole in the wall, and inched along like a scared earthworm through the ridiculous sewer circling the courtyard. Jung Bahadur tried to pay no attention and looked straight ahead towards the man. As the trickle of water advanced and passed through Jung Bahadur’s chair, it riled up the half-rotten grains that had accumulated in the sewer from previous days. The distinctive sick-sweet smell of rotting grains rose up directly into Jung Bahadur’s nose. Instinctively Jung Bahadur looked down. He expected to see rotting rice grains. Instead he saw rotting millet. They eat dhindo here! 

    The recent death of Siddhiman Singh… the eight balls of opium last night… and now the goddamn dhindo… all this addled Jung Bahadur’s head…

    … gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat

    Jung Bahadur shot up from the chair and with one move, mounted his horse. Everyone around him snapped to attention. Khadga Singh knew that there was going to be one of those episodes now.

    You! Come here! Jung Bahadur thundered at the man.

    Jung Bahadur was shaking with rage. To stabilize himself, he tightened the reins of his horse with one hand, and grabbed the hilt of his Wikishan sword with the other.

    The man slithered towards Jung Bahadur, his hand still scratching his head, face still grotesquely fixed with the grin, more dead than alive. He had heard mythical tales of Jung Bahadur cutting the heads of many, many people in Nepal, all of them very much more important than himself.

    When the man was a few hands away from the horse, he looked up.

    Fill up those holes with mud and cow-dung!

    Thus screamed Jung Bahadur, face red with rage, a shaking finger pointing unsteadily at the smallpox marks on the hut.

    With that, Jung Bahadur whipped his horse around and galloped off. Only a cloud of dust remained.

    The man realized that he really did not understand any of what had transpired on his courtyard that day.

  • A Gift of Gaajal

    April 19, 1843
    Thapathali, Nepal

    Ganesh Kumari came into the room slowly, balancing the large nanglo so that it would not topple over and spill all of what goes into making gaajal. She positioned herself directly in the path of the slanted rectangle of sun flooding the room, crouched down, gingerly placed the nanglo on the floor, and crouching further, eased herself onto the sukul, palm of left hand pivoting her movements. A soft thasssa escaped from her throat as she settled into a paleti. The sun was directly on her back. It was unclear whether the small victories up to that point annoyed her or satisfied her. With the same spirit, she arranged around her the spices and assortment from the nanglo, picked from different nooks of the kitchen. Directly in front of her she placed the large copper diyo.

    Searching within the folds of her infinitely spacious patukaa she fished out a tear of white muslin and spreading it across her palm, deposited upon it one spoon fenugreek one spoon carom seeds one spoon Bhimsen camphor. Next a dribble of mustard oil to the point where it smothered the mixed concoction, but did not drip down through the muslin onto her hand. A gentle massage of the oilyglob with her fingers to ensure consistency. A gathering of the four ends of the muslin to form an imperfect turgid tube, a twirlywhirl of the cloth ends on the muslin-heavy side so it resembled a lamp wick, a placing of the entire lump onto the copper diyo so the tiwrlywick faced out, like the suffering end of a regular oil lamp. She is fully engrossed in her work. She transitions to the present.

    Tongs fetch a glowing ember from the makal in the center of the room. The wick carefully touches the ember and encouraged with soft blows of air, catches fire. Excess oil already dripping from the wick now falls straight down in tiny blobs of flame and oil that end their lives as black splotches in the already dirty sukul.

    Then comes another diyo, which when turned upside down and tilted almost completely covers the first one, but for a small opening away from the flame,  for obvious purposes.

    The flame burns long, stilldrippingoil, but then grows quiet, and soon starts beating a subtle rhythm to the slow seeping supply of oil from the masala mixture forming the body of the turgid tube. The flame with each gentle waving deposits a waft of soot onto the overturned diyo, fed by flame, lifted by heat, a magical transformation from ethereal flame to dark smoke to black soot, floating gently into existence. The softest whiffs of something created out of nothing. The strands of soot grow. At least one ghadi passes.

    Ganesh Kumari realizes that the salty warmth of the sun has slipped away from her back and is now gracing the sukul several hands away. She leans forward slightly, finds a pivot and twists her buttocks once, twice, thrice. Her back is in the sun again. What’s happening this year? Early Baisakh and the mornings have still not warmed up.

    If she lets the soot collect unattended for long, it will come crashing down under its own weight and smother the flame. Every once in awhile, then, Ganesh Kumari gently lifts the top diyo, looks at its underbelly. When there is enough of the tangled mesh to collect, she scoops it out gently with her fingers and transferred it to a brass plate, careful not to let whiffs fly away in waste. 

    When a sizeable pile of soot has collected in front of her, she quashes the flame, fishes out some butter and adds a dollop to the pile. She picks up a conch shell and with the smooth side rubs the mixture patiently into a fine black gaajal that occasionally shines like silver powder.

    Someone is here. Her concentration broken, she slips out of the present.

    She looked up as Jung Bahadur entered.

    You’re here already, Babu.

    I’m coming straight from the Resident’s. Mama took me and Kulman sasura along. We wanted to feel out the Resident.

    So?

    It’s hard to read the Resident. He gave his standard answer of staying out of darbar affairs. But I know he is pleased to see Mama return.

    What does Mathabar say? How is he?

    Mama has already grown out his moustache to Prime-Minister-size. He gives out expensive gifts to just about anyone who comes by to visit. But he’s still living out of the hut in Kalanki…insists that he won’t move into Nepal proper until the Thapa name is cleared.

    Mathabar said the right thing. Otherwise how is Bhimsen Bua’s troubled soul going to find peace? But when will all this end? When will Nepal go back to normal? Have they cleaned up Baag Darbar for him?

    No. Mama can only occupy Baag Darbar after his property has been officially restored. He will live here with us in the meantime…that is, when he is ready to leave the hut. I am trying to work through Surendra to commit the Raja into making assurances for Mama.

    The Pandes are shit scared. They will likely be all cut. Debi Bahadur is going to be cut with them. I will try to save him but it is too early to broach the topic with Mama.

    That Debi Bahadur…Who had asked that idiot to open his mouth against Kanchi Rani? The backing of Jethi Rani made him careless then, and he will surely pay. Abhaagi mora…Do you best to save him.

    Ganesh Kumari was layering fingerfuls of the gaajal into a small surmadani that Jung Bahadur’s father had bought in Kashi.

    Here, give this to Mathabar tomorrow. Tell him it is for his newborn. Will cure eye sores and reduce chipra.

    Why hurry? I will give it when all is settled. It’s not like Mama’s household is starving for gaajal.

    Ganesh Kumari wiped away the gaajal in her hands. Her son’s rude responses to ordinary questions. The instinctive twitching of his torso when annoyed. Signatures of her first-born, so dear to her since his childhood for its innocent impatience and bristling bravado. She noted with sadness that they were now increasingly tinged with arrogance and a little bit of cynicism.

    Look Babu. You are already a Kaji. You are manager of Kumari Adda! …

    Ganesh Kumari realized that a tone of admiration was suddenly creeping into her voice despite herself. She dialed it back.

    …You know how to play power a lot better than this old woman. But listen. Money your Mama has lots of from his timber contracts. Followers he has lots of as you saw already. What he needs is afno maanche. In good times and bad. Never forget his goon to you. Let him call you Jangey if it pleases him. It is only a name…he says it with love. Always make sure he sees that you are his blood. If you do that, he will never betray you. And you can rise with him. This gaajal is not chakari. It is a gift for family. Blood, after all, is blood.

    ∫∫∫

    Epilogue: Exactly two years and one month later, Mathabar Singh Thapa was shot dead by his nephew Jung Bahadur, under orders from King Rajendra.

  • Dibya Upadesh of Sorts

     

    ∫∫∫

     

    Late 1849
    London, England

    “If you want to earn a good name, you must let go of greed and adopt compassion. If you see idle men in need of help, don’t make them pay court to you, rather get some work out of them. If it will please the masses, don’t hesitate to kill even your own son. Forget about jealousy and anger, forget about wealth, and make moves that please the largest section of the population. Don’t hesitate to add good men to your inner council: given them status, but don’t chase after status yourself. Make your countrymen, as well as foreigners, believe that you mete out justice fairly, and that you see everyone as family. If you have to lie in the course of politics, do it by deluding the masses so they remain happy. It will then be easy to remain Prime Minister. Otherwise, there will be trouble. If you do anything that makes the people unhappy, you will face real danger real fast.

    You might say that I have written too much. But I am just writing what I have seen. Look at the situation and do what seems best.

    You write that you have done the pajani for the troops. If you have dismissed men merely to save money, they will give you the same bad name that they gave Badri Narsingh. If you have dismissed men for actual faults, then you have strengthened your sword. If you dismiss kamis, sarkis, damais or karmis, your position will be compromized and the magazine will be damaged. Do not dismiss even a single one of the kotes, pipas, jamadaars, khalaasi jamadaars or pipa khalaasis. Dismissing them is unwise. They do a lot of work and eat little. Let it be auspicious.”

    [Excerpts from a letter by Jung Bahadur to Bam Bahadur, his brother and acting Prime Minister of Nepal while Jung Bahadur was on an official visit to Europe.]

    ∫∫∫

    Image of original letter reproduced from Janga Gita by Kamal Dixit, Jagamba Publication, 2040 VS. 

  • Rain

    रजितसुगतमुकुटमणिचरणं निर्जितनिखिलविबुधनशरणं।
    . . .
    इति श्रीमहाराजाधिराजराजेन्द्र श्री २ कवीन्द्र-जयप्रताप मल्ल देव विरचितं वृष्टिचिन्तामणिर्नाम स्तोत्रं सम्पूर्ण।।

    ∫∫∫

     

    June 16, 1841

    Nepal Valley

    It started yonder, over the slopes of Chandragiri. Our Chandragiri, whose central bulk resembles a majestic elephant head when seen from parts of our valley. Pluffywite clouds, scattered about but only yesterday, colluded over the elephant head of Chandragiri, doing कानेखुसि in a language we did not understand. Soon they gathered into large imposing masses. The wind picked up. The clouds swirled northward. They gathered moisture, gathered purpose, darkened in color, became a single impenetrable slab by the time they arrived over Thapathali. In time, the mass stretched outward, reaching for the surrounding hills and beyond. Soon it loomed densemysterious over all of Nepal, in shades of blueblack,fringed in deep gray. A pregnant promise. A hint of malice. It was only midday, but the dense cover made us think it was two ghadis after sunset. If we had aspired, we could have easily touched the thick molasses swirling over the valley with our bare hands.  But we never did. 

    The soul-scorching bare heat of the direct sun was gone, but a sweltering stickiness still lay heavy in the air. Our perennial crows and sparrows were unusually quiet. The galli dogs roamed restless, also in silence. Indeed the entire valley was quiet. A tense quiet, as if the animals the trees the hills the gods were waiting.

    Then

    मिलिक्…मिलिक्…

    झिलिक्क

    Angry slivers of lightning flared over Mangal Bazaar, Tudikhel, then Kirtipur. The light rushed off to the hills, made the peripheries of Nepal glow incandescent for fleeting moments: now Phulchoki, now Nagarjun and now Kakani lit up in turn with an unnatural light, penetrating the otherwise all-encompassing darkness. 

    The briefest of silences ensued. Followed by

    ढड्याङ्…ढड्याङ्…

    ढड्याङ्ङ्ङ्ङ्ङ्ङ

    Suddenly, no human or animal was in sight. All of us yielded the valley to Nature, for this was a time for Nature to assert herself – her Peacock Dance – and us mortals stepped aside in stupefied awe. We huddled inside our brickhouses. The dogs and cows found shelter in the nooks of our temples and paatis. The birds snuck deep inside the temples and trees. The majestic fury of lightning and thunder continue for many pals. A celestial game of tag: the lightning flash darts, the thunder catches up, the lightning flash swerves, the thunder responds, having echoed back from the hills. 

    Then another silence. This time a more relieved silence, like the silence at the end of a fierce war. But still pregnant if that is possible. The theatrics of Nature had not satiated us. Having shaken us, it had somehow increased our anticipation.

    In utter silence, then, the dark gray clouds scurried hither. The deep blue clouds slithered yon. The silence made the performance more intimidating…almost demonic.

    The third and final act started slowly. The first few tentative drollops landed randomly on the vegetation behind our houses, causing a loud haphazard clatter that had no rhythm to it. The pitter patter bent the long corn leaves in unnatural angles. The fragile soybean leaves shook occasionally on contact. It was a reunion dance, but the plants seemed to be offended that the initial steps were so awkward.  The twirlyswirls of the lahare cucumber clinging to the garden walls mostly stayed out of it and just swayed in the breeze. In front of our houses, the large splats broke up into a hundred small droplets on hitting the parched tiles and bricks of our chowks and temple squares. The droplets created temporary scars where they fell, but warmed by the stored heat of the brickwork, evaporated quickly into nothingness. This first contact of water and earth did leave behind a more lasting gift: a subtle organic smell of soil roused by the moisture, the smell of dust not yet turned to mud, permeated the air. A smell dearly familiar to all of us.

    In time the pitter-patter grew louder, more frequent, and picikingupspeed quickly reached a crescendo as Indra appeared, soared swiftly across the sky, and slit the clouds open with his vajra. And lo, the heavens poured down upon us. Nourishing rain fell in massive diagonal sheets of gray onto Nepal. The Purna Kalashas had been overturned, spilling the contained Soma freely. Now even mortals could partake of it. Soma, replenisher of the dry, parched earth. Soma, agency of sustenance, nourisher of grain, ensurer of harvest. Soma, elixir of the heavens, shared without reserve with mortals for but a precious few months of the year. 

    The unrelenting downpour washed away the sweltering moist heat smothering all of Nepal. In its place came a gentle breeze. It was not exactly cold, but the steady wind and permeating wetness somehow got to our bones. It even caused the more fastidious of our bent elders to pull out siraks and blankets from storage, and cocoon themselves within.

    The rain fell on the vegetation. The initial hesitancy on first contact exhibited earlier by the leaves was gone. Now the leaves the branches the flowers all swayed in abandon in unison to the swooshing chorus of pitter-patter:

    झुम झुम झुम झुम 

    झम झम झम झम

    The rain fell on our galli dogs, who meandered around the streets, before curling up into balls anywhere it took their fancy, heads tucked snug under flanks, soon sound asleep, as unmoved by the drenching rain as they were earlier moved into hiding by the thunder.

    The rain fell on our pigeons. They stirred, flew about desultory among the temples and squares, got drenched. Changing their minds, they returned to the temple struts, rafters and eaves, shook their bodies violently, succeeded partially in warding off the water, then stared vacant from their perches with frazzled feathers and spiky necks. The crows and sparrows remained in hiding.

    The rain fell on Singu hill, where the eternal eyes of Swayambhu gazed serene. Swayambhu, the self-existent, of flame, of crystal, who had seen so much and had forgiven us all, with utter, utter compassion.

    The rain fell, too, on our rain gods,whom we had beseeched to send us rain. It fell on Pashupati, whom we had lustrated with holy water last month so he would cause rain. It fell on Matsyendranath’s chariot, which we had pulled into Jawalakhel just last week. It fell on all the subterranean serpents and their king, Karkotak, to whom we had already paid the proper homage. It fell too on the statues of Indra, original ancient god of rain. We might have ignored him somewhat in the last few centuries, but we would for sure worship him in a few months time – with a festive entirely to his name, we would like to point out.

    The rain fell on the courtyards of our bahas and bahis, our tols and gallis, our sattals and patis. The rain washed away the accumulated dust the feces the cow droppings the rotting rice from our rachhans. We were grateful for this. 

    But along with these the rain also washed away, little by little, the silay that joined the bricks of our temples and houses. It washed away the rich nurturing soil from our terraced fields. Little by little, it clawed on our statues and temples, sculpted miracles in wood metal stone. And little by little, it washed away a bit of ourselves, in rivulets and streams trickling through our gallis first, then collecting in our chowks, pouring off into Manohara and Tukucha and Nakkhu, before gathering momentum in the unified torrents of Bagmati and Bishnumati at Teku. The willing swirling waters then carried it all, all away to Balkhu, to Chobar, and finally out of the valley through the swirling waters past Karyabinayak and through the hills towards Ganga, towards Kashi, and for better or for worse, as it always has and as it perhaps always will,  always, always, towards India.

     

    ∫∫∫

     

    Jung Bahadur looked up at the rain. When was this useless downpour going to let up? He was itching to get some exercise out in the open but the rain had kept him indoors for days. He looked sideways at Putali Nani, who lay languid upon his chest, exhausted. Damn, her face was bewitchingly pretty… it got him every time.  But now she lay sound asleep, mouth slightly open, her foulish warm breath hitting him repeatedly on the neck and assaulting his nose… hints of garlic and onions. Jung Bahadur twitched his shoulders instinctively. This caused Putali Nanu to slide off his chest and slump clumsily onto the carpet. He let her be. Instead, he thought about the Darbar gossip she had shared earlier. He did not give a damn about feminine gossip, but it often contained nuggets of information, some of them useful. The Senior Rani’s recent tantrums, running off to Pashupati one day and to Hetauda the next… perpetual threats and constant ultimatums, perhaps she has truly gone mad. And Surendra, such barbarism, such lunacy at eleven years of age. He makes my life living hell when I am in service, but I can handle it and I will make sure I get something out of it. But now he is turning on his newlywed wife. How could he throw her, a child of eight years, into the pond?… and that too for the second time? And that spineless Rajendra allows all this to happen under his nose… maybe even encourages it. How can a country run like this? To hell with the whole lot of them! The next Bhimsen Thapa is coming soon, to wrest control from this weak Darbar and rule with an iron fist. I just need to find him, align myself to him, and rise as he rises…

    Surendra looked up at the rain. From his balcony above Mohan Chowk, the evil dark clouds appeared very low in the sky. The rain fell down in fearful dark torrents. Surendra slowly shifted his eyes towards the top of Basantapur tower. Vulture be gone… vulture be gone… Sonofawhore! The vulture was still there, perched menacingly above the gajur. Now, sensing Surendra’s presence, the vulture slowly turned its neck and stared with sunken evil eyes directly at him. It would soon stretch its naked pink neck, spread its ugly wings, and scoop down through the courtyard to pick out his eyes. Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod. Up above, the entire celestial weight of the sky was coming down on him, lower and lower, unrelenting, pressing down upon his head, shoulders, chest… The pressure was becoming unbearable. He tried to move, but was gripped by fear. Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod. Beside him, someone was standing with folded arms, pleading with him about something. Vaguely he caught a few words: nightfall… Her Royal Highness… pneumonia… forgive and forget… Was that a real person speaking? Was it an apparition? But he had no time to decide. He was going to be crushed under the weight of the entire sky soon,  crushed like a bug, blood splattered everywhere. Or the vulture would pick at his eyes and his brains through the holes in his skull. Or Bhimsen Thapa’s ghost would come and try to “talk some sense” into him again. Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod.

    Brian Hodgson looked up at the rain. The reading room at the Residency was a perfect roost to take in the sweet melancholy of these Monsoon rains. He was worried about the Nepal Durbar. News of our recent losses in China seemed to have rekindled the dormant Goorkha Spirit. The Rajah talks openly about alliancing with Punjab and the Persians against us.  For all his feebleness, the Rajah does have a handsome grasp of Asian affairs and of the most fitting chess move that places his Durbar at the next position of optimal advantage… If only he would put his domestic affairs in order and control the Senior Rani and Heir Apparent. The Rajah believes he is playing a sound game of chess in the domestic front too, but he fools himself. Ere long, some knight will leap out unexpected and checkmate him at his own game. Has be forgotten already the hard-earned lessons of the Bhimsen Thapa tragedy?

    Laccho looked up at the rain. The raindrops hit her directly on the eyes and it hurt, so she looked down again. The water in the pond lapped dangerously around her shoulders. She had to stand fully straight so that it did not get to her chin or into her ears. At the same time, she was trying very hard not to lose her foothold on the slippery bricks underneath: the bricks were smooth, and the soles of her feel could feel a layer of moss along the surface, which made the bricks even more slippery. One false step and I will slip, and drown. The water had wrinkled the tips of her fingers a long time ago. It was not exactly cold, but she was beginning to shiver. हे दइब! I don’t understand why this is happening. They told me everything would be better after the wedding. They said I was going to be a queen of this awful country someday. So why is he treating me like this? And why does Ajima not come to rescue me? Why does the Senior Queen not come? Isn’t she from Gorakhpur too? How could she stand by and let that beast do this to me? Someone, please come in through that courtyard and save me before night comes. The darkness is sure to confuse my balance and kill me… she looked up cowering towards the dreaded Basuki Naag on top of the massive pole in the middle of the pond…Or maybe that serpent will… They say it sometimes leaps out of the pole and swallows small children under cover of night…

    Dhan Sundar looked up at the rain. Very good. He smiled. If it continues like this for a few days, the fields will be ready for transplantation exactly on Ashar 15. He thought of the merry march to the fields, his brothers sisters uncles cousins neighbors in-laws shouting laughing all the way, the terraced fields lying serene, brimming with water, the sky reflected clearly on the undisturbed surface of each terrace, the soothing feeling of wet mud squeezing in between his toes, the croaking frogs and chirping crickets, the drinking,  the open flirting among young and old. He thought of the song his father-in-law was sure to sing during sinaajya.  In anticipation, he started humming it himself:

    भा पिल झाय ला जि बोना याने ला
    मन जा चिव लिसे ओल ह्नम
    आयाले भाजु हाय सिःनाज्या नि ओने
    ज्यामियात बजि नके मा नि ह्नम…

    ∫∫∫

    Opening Sanskrit text: The first and last lines of  Vrishti-Chintamani, a charm of rain in 34 stanzas by King Pratap Malla, from a copy in the Cambridge University Library collection.

    Closing Newari text: Excerpt from a sihnajya (rice transplantation) song, published in Songs of Nepal: An Anthology of Nevar Folksongs and Hymns by Siegfried Lienhard.