By Anandi Mishra
(Cover image: Dust storms in Delhi, Raghu Rai, circa 1986)
Ki aankhon mein teri
Raat ki nadi
Yeh baazi toh haari hai
Lately, all of us mortal beings (at least the Hindi film buffs) have succumbed to the cascading waves of melancholia that Amit Trivedi’s latest, and so far his best, Hindi music album Qala has been putting us through.
The playfulness of Ghodey Pe Sawaar leaves us at the doorstep of Rubaaiyan. From there we move, carefully, as if tiptoeing on eggshells, and make our way to Phero Na Najariya. By now these three songs have cast a beatific, sullen spell on us. We don’t know what will hit us by the time we reach Shauq, and that’s where camouflaged behind the dulcet (thet) tones of Swanand Kirkire, Shahid Mallaya catches us unawares.
The placement of the song makes everything pause, halt, stop in its tracks — feeling almost intentional.
I first listened to the album on my way back home after a long day chasing bureaucratic paperwork that drained my will to exist. It was a dreary Delhi day, best defined as laminated in a grey sheen, and for the numerically inclined, when the AQI was 400+. The dread of the city lay heavy just atop. All of us breathing a non-air, whatever the opposite of oxygen can be, taking it in, resigned to our lives.
Listening to Shauq then brought a halt to this almost, already ceased standard of life. From the inside of my N99 mask, windows of the taxi rolled up, I wept inconsolably. About what I don’t know.
All of us in Delhi are on the verge of imminent collapse — emotional, physical, corporeal — refusing to acknowledge our respective realities. In that bleakness, the song dredged up emotions that lay otherwise buried beneath the veneer of being ‘changa si‘. It almost felt like time stopped for those four minutes and sixteen seconds when the song played on my earphones. A gentle subversion of thoughts. Shauq nourished, nurtured and manicured the losses we don’t so often think of. A susurration rose each time it began and a murmuration fell within when it ended. I continued to weep softly. Each time the song came on loop the minutes felt long and heavy, and yet.
Listen to Shauq HERE
Shauq then became embedded in a vernacular, colloquial culture of my place in life and geography — Delhi. It lay at this isolated, existential triangulation of air, a lost city and lack of connection, all of which is a very-21st century Delhi panoply of emotions. In that, it became a ballad for the three months of Delhi’s winter that has now for the fifth running year become a lamentable existential parenthesis. Perhaps this is also why the song rings with a universal resonance, as if trying to reconcile what once was with what now is.
It bears repeated mention that in those four minutes and sixteen seconds time doesn’t just halt, it comes to suspend itself. As if hanging by a shoestring, in the background of all else. In the middle of the song, for a second (or lesser) the music halts, the vocals absent.
It gets quiet, so quiet, you could sense some divinity in there.
In that ordinary quietness I could almost hear the kaner ka phool drop outside my balcony.
The song gives no hope, no solace, no softness, Shahid Mallya’s gentle, weepy voice only underlines the existing sense of despair. I listened to it keenly, hoping somewhere I’ll find a glimpse of the Delhi I once knew as a kid. The song quickly became a lament for the Delhi winters that once were and a sigh on the sooty, heavy, tactile thing that exists now in place of those balmy 13 weeks.
As the uber cuts across SDA, taking one flyover after the other, I peer outside into the late noon sky, to find the sun as a kind of a diffused hole. Peering at us in its silvery sleetyness. The song is on repeat now, everything else has been forgotten , as the composers wanted.
Sheer wanton expressionism, this Trivedi guy I tell you!
In those minutes, pregnant as they were with motes of dust flying all around me, I struggled to breath, cajoling myself but also despairing for all that we’re losing constantly in Delhi. The city dying, its green trees now a treacly shade of brown, its people angrier than ever. The song, just like the smog, works to shake you out of your own little bubble. Removing you but also placing you right into the lap of the moment.
Listening to it, I was more conscious than ever that what I was breathing was a noxious substance, hostile to my sense of sustenance. It does not immediately connect but that’s where it took me. That uber ride, with Shauq playing in my ears made it all — the song, the moment, the cab ride — deeply embedded in Delhi. The air as tactile as the song intangible, as heavy as the song light and as pervasive as the song precarious.
I think I should make a Delhi smog playlist, and Shauq will be the perfect place to start. Its dulcet 1940s tones completely blending in with the monochromatic greyness that constantly surrounds you when you live in this city, making you constantly think of another time, whether good or bad.
I am now in the closing moments of December 3, 2022, as I plunge deeper, ankling myself firmly into the deep, unyielding waters of Shauq, listening to it for the nth time.
A grayness washes over me all over again. And I now see it clearly. The song makes me miss a city I once loved, a person I love now and a mood I can now never be in. It makes me glassy-eyed, reminiscing about what once was but also simultaneously shows me what my present is. In its melancholic floridness, the song, much like my present, is whole, and yet.
I dream of my husband, strolling around the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, surrounded by a mound of unknown faces, humming this song in between his beers. As he walks from one end of the gate to the other, a cold can of beer in his grips, the first snow of the season falling ever so gently around him… he delicately hums this, almost unwittingly…
(This article first appeared on Anandi’s substack, Scurf.)
Anandi Mishra is an essayist and critic who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. One of her essays has been translated into Italian and published in the Internazionale magazine. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, Public Books, Electric Literature, LitHub, Virginia Quarterly Review, Popula, The Brooklyn Rail, and Al Jazeera, among others. She tweets at @anandi010
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