A life like Jagjit’s ghazal


Ghazal singer Jagjit Singh died last week in Bombay. Tweets followed, obituaries appeared. If you get your music from TV channels, FM radio and Bollywood, you would know that ghazal as a popular art form died long before Singh.

Who has patience for slow, soulful and delicate multi-layered lyrics of a ghazal? We are living in the Instant Age. Where’s the time to dwell poetically on the state of the heart? Life is about fusion music and naughty lyrics. I’m also a part of this 2-minute-noodle crowd. My memory of Jagjit Singh’s calming voice is limited to that heartbreaking song in the film Arth.

Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho

Kya Gham Hai Jisko Chhupa Rahe Ho

Aankhon Mein Nami, Hansi Labon Par

Kya Haal Hai Kya Dikha Rahe Ho

The movie came in 1982. Actor Shabana Azami who played the betrayed wife in the film later married somebody else’s husband, lyricist Javed Akhtar. Actor Raj Kiran who lip-synced the ghazal is living at a mental asylum in the US. Mahesh Bhat who directed that sensitive film graduated to making violent movies like Murder and Murder-2. Now, Jagjit Singh is dead.

Having no authority on ghazals, I cannot talk much about him. But I can pay tribute to the man by celebrating the life of another great man whose love story is as soothing and tragic as… well, Jagjit Singh’s voice.

Dr Yunus Jaffery, a Persian scholar, was described as an “archetypal Delhi-wallah” in William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. I met him last week – two days after Singh’s death – at his home in Ganj Mir Khan, Shahjahanabad. An heir of Old Delhi nobility, Dr Jaffery speaks classical Persian as his first language. His study was sparse. A steel shelf held a multi-volume Persian dictionary by one M. Mosin.

Dr Jaffery was a professor in the department of Persian, Zakir Hussain College, earlier known as Delhi College. He retired in 1995. Besides being an authority on Mughal India, he has edited centuries-old Persian translations of Hindu epics like the Ramayan. He is currently translating from Persian to English an abridged version of Khurram Nama, an account of Shah Jahan’s life written during his time. Dr Jaffery’s ancestors were Persian teachers at the Red Fort. He never married. Why?

“This will have to be a very long answer,” Dr Jaffrey said. “We weren’t rich; my father was a typesetter at a printing press in Paharganj but we belonged to the elite class of Delhi.

“After the Partition, many educated young men from our kind of families went to Pakistan because they could not get jobs in India. Meanwhile Punjabi refugees came from Pakistan who started to live in the houses vacated by Muslims. Most of these people were educated. They sent their girls to schools, thinking that if they were unable to find husbands for them, at least the education would help them get jobs. The Muslims girls were mostly illiterate. The parents thought that an educated girl wouldn’t get a groom. But I was resolute that all my three sisters should study.

“After finishing the school, since I remained jobless, I continued with higher studies in Delhi College hoping to discontinue them the day I got employed. My Persian professor suggested that I take Persian for my Honours, since it was a free course. So, I became a Persian student. So, no girl paid heed to me. I was poorly dressed, neither smart, nor good looking. On 18 July 1958, I was unexpectedly invited to join as a lecturer of Persian at Delhi College. Now, girls started saluting me. But did they want to marry me or my position?

“There was no equal match in terms of genealogy… Then, in 1962, I got a chance to go to Iran for a degree course in Persian. In Tehran I met Manizheh. She was pursuing English Literature and I was helping her with it. I told her about my life in Delhi. She replied, “I’m ready to live with you even in hell.”

Just then someone in the street below shouted a cussword. The word floated up the air, entered Dr Jaffery’s study and lay ignored.

“I had gone to Tehran as a student on behalf of the Indian embassy and it did not give me permission to marry Manizheh. I came back to Delhi, disappointed. At home, the entire family had turned against my decision to get my sisters enrolled for higher studies. I remained adamant. Now, the entire burden for their college expenses was on my shoulders. So, with so much burden, how could I have taken another burden by marrying at that point?

“After returning from Iran, I devoted myself to Persian. I did my D.Lit on the Persian poet Saib who visited India during Shah Jahan’s reign. His poems described India’s culture to Persians, which was something new for them. To forget my sweetheart, I began to write articles for Iranian newspapers, focusing on Indian culture.

“By 1982, all my sisters had settled in life. I was 52.”

What about Manizheh, I asked.

Dr Jaffery took out a yellow file from under the table and showed me a woman’s black and white portrait. “Like me, she was the eldest child in her family. She had black eyes and round face.”

After replacing the photograph, Dr Jaffery said, “She waited five years for me and then she married. Her marriage was not successful. I met her again in 1987 when I went to Tehran for a conference on Persian. We talked about Othello.”

Opening a cupboard, he took out a photo album and showed me a colour picture of Manizeh. She was sitting on a chair beside Dr Jaffery. They looked like middle-aged delegates who spend their whole lives attending conferences and seminars.

“I’ve been to Tehran six or seven times. I go there as an invited guest of the University of Tehran or of the Iranian government. Every time I go, we meet. We sit together and do not talk.

Showing me the photos of his sisters, Dr Jaffery said, “Two years ago, Manizeh came with her son. It was her first trip to Delhi. They stayed at this house for a month.”

At this point my eyes suddenly got a little wet. True love still survives. Dr Jaffery, your inner life is as beautiful and sad as a Jagjit Singh ghazal.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.


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