Opinions

Rail fares concessions withdrawn, Pollution is back; Remembering Begum Akhtar during Shockers in the times of Corona

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What’s been happening! Fake speeches. Fake political promises. Fake TRP ratings!

How can one survive in this polluted atmosphere? Never before this range of deceit around! And in the midst of this hellish scenario, the grim reality of rapes of human forms and psyches is on at such an accelerating cum alarming pace that one wonders what’s going to be the end result of these onslaughts and assaults and ruptures and tortures.

Correct me if I’m wrong but we haven’t been so wronged by the virus around than by poor governance. All these months we sat tight with the corona ghost hovering around us and now those who muster enough courage to move around and travel out, could face another shocker as the train fares stand hiked …To quote the well-known academic, Professor V. K. Tripathi, on his experience at the Railway Reservation booth on 13 October: “Yesterday I went to Railway Reservation Booth to make my reservation to visit my village. I was surprised to learn that all senior citizen concessions have been withdrawn. For short distance of 30 km, where you could travel for Rs. 20, now you have to pay sleeper class fare Rs. 145, calling the normal train a “special train”. Delhi to Dhaura (Lalitpur) that I used to pay Rs. 380 round trip express sleeper class now costs Rs. 910. People from villages are not riding such expensive trains. Their travel is severely handicapped. Further, the Railways have decided to phase out sleeper class in all express trains and replace these with AC class. This would raise the cost of travel 2.5 to 3 times. This is a severe blow to lower middle classes and poorer people.”

Each single day drags along shockers. To be nearer precision, fresh shockers. Yesterday late evening I was on the Delhi-Noida border and the dust and pollution was killing…suffocating. Pollution and the virus combination could kill many more amongst us. And there’s no vaccine to hold out against the rising pollution choking us. Deadlier it will get with the political pollution compounding the mess.

Come October…

October brings along memories of two celebrated personalities. Classical singer Begum Akhtar, also known as Akhtari Bai. And also that of the well-known author, diplomat and promoter of the classical arts – Pran Nevile.

Incidentally, both passed away in October…leaving back memories and a huge void. This entire noon I have been sitting back, thinking of the two, writing about them…

The most celebrated singer of ghazal and thumri-daadra in 20th century India has been Begum Akhtar, also known as Akhtari Bai. Though much has been written about her passion for Urdu poetry, those emotional lows in her life which, perhaps, manifested in those renderings, her voice which gave the very soul to several of those songs to Bollywood films, yet there is certain romantic aura which still hangs around. Just mention the very name Begum Akhtar and an array of images come up.

Years before I could get to hear her at one of her concerts, I had heard her name from one of the most unexpected quarters. From an absolutely unexpected person - in my parents home in Lucknow a strange looking, though good-looking ageing person, used to come selling lemons and green chillies and cucumbers. They’d be stuffed in a huge bag which would hung on his stooping shoulders. And before throwing them on the floor, he would exclaim rather too loud and clear, ‘Akhtaria ke bagh ke hain!’

It was part and parcel of those rumours doing the rounds that this man belonging to an erstwhile well-to-do family lost his balance after being dumped by Begum Akhtar. He couldn’t take the strain and lost not just his balance but also his home and family… stood reduced to selling this mundane stuff, along with chanting the one-liner: Akhtaria ke bagh ke hain!

In fact, several years later when I heard her sing at one of those concerts, its this one-liner of that man which seemed to hit. In fact, rumour was that several rich men of Avadh had fallen in love with her, with her voice, with her andaz

And one of them was the man she’d finally married --- the Lucknow-based barrister Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi. His first wife Ayesha had died and after a couple of years he married Begum Akhtar….he’d fallen in love with her after hearing her at one of the mehfils. Its said that his family had initially opposed this marriage; after all, she was from a courtesan background and he from Lucknow’s aristocracy.

Anyway, the marriage did take place and the couple started living in Lucknow but Abbasi sahib had put a condition of sorts - that is, she will not sing, nor hold concerts and mehilfs.

Though she’d initially agreed to this condition but the no-singing scenario affected her, so much so that she suffered a breakdown. With that her husband, Abbasi sahib relented. He came up with a relaxation in that earlier imposed condition - that is, she could sing and hold concerts in other cities and towns, but not in Lucknow. In fact, all those years of her marriage she did not sing in Lucknow except just once. This was in the 1960s when she held a concert in aid of war widows.

And if you were to ask her relatives more about her everyday life, her marriage, the adjustments she had to make, they offloaded several aspects. In an earlier given interview to me, the late Rafia Hussain, who was her husband’s niece and also a known expert on Avadhi cuisine, had told me, “Begum Akhtar was a person with strong likes and dislikes….and another aspect to her was that she lived much beyond her means. She’d lived in style and wore expensive saris and jewellery… She loved food, her favourite was ‘bhuna qeema’ and ‘roghni tikiya’… she was addicted to tea and was a heavy smoker…one cigarette after another…and this could be one of those reasons for her death. She could win over people rather too easily as she carried a certain charisma, had a strong personality…her marriage ran smooth but for this credit ought to be given to her husband Abbasi sahib. It’s he who had to sacrifice at a lot, including his career. A known fact that he could not be made a Judge, as he married a former courtesan. Then, he gave in to her at the various stages; for instance, when she used to travel outside Lucknow for concerts, she did not want him to accompany her... With that, he used to stay back in Lucknow. And though he was extremely lonely - no children born from his first marriage and nor from Begum Akhtar - but never complained….after her death he was completely shattered…so devastated that it’s hard to describe. He lived a very lonely life and died ten years after her death.”

Pran Nevile - This Author- Diplomat Was Fascinated With The Classical …

Pran Nevile was passionately obsessed with a bygone era. For some reason or another, this retired diplomat was fascinated by the past and with the characters which had then held sway. Amply evident from the volumes that he authored. The titles of these telling enough — Love Stories from the Raj; Nautch Girls of India; Beyond the Veil; Rare Glimpses of the Raj; Stories from the Raj: Sahibs, Memsahibs and Others; K.L. Saigal: Immortal Singer; Lahore — A Sentimental Journey.

If one were to move further, from the books he authored, to the musical programmes he hosted, then once again, what hits is the focus on stars, singers and performers of yesteryears — right from K.L. Saigal, Suraiyya and so many others who have left a mark.

And it’s through music and those musical geniuses of the past that he wanted to connect the people of this sub-continent. His knowledge of the cinema and films made in India and Pakistan was remarkable. He would detail the similarities in the cinema of the two countries - “We in India first made the film Anarkali and later they in Pakistan made that film with the same title. Then, they in Pakistan first made Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan… both these two films with these titles were first made there in Pakistan and then later we made them here. And one particular Pakistani Punjabi film – Naukar Woti Da - was copied here, totally copied, scene to scene…the only thing is that the title was changed - from the Punjabi to Hindustani. Here it was titled - Naukar Bibi Ka.”

And when I’d once asked him whether he plans to host musical concerts inside prisons and jails, for the jailed population, he said, “Don’t know whether I will be given permission…whether the authorities would allow such concerts in those prison compounds…After all, I have no political contacts and I’m hosting these concerts for the masses out of sheer passion .”