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‘Lata Mangeshkar Saved Us’: Two Pakistani Poets’ Tribute to the Icon

Habib Jalib & Parveen Shakir’s loving verses for the singer show how music can heal and unite people.

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Hindi Female

On the occasion of the late legend Lata Mangeshkar's 93rd birth anniversary (28 September), let's look back at Habib Jalib & Parveen Shakir’s moving dedication to music amidst incredibly trying times.

Qafas mein mar chale the hum toa Jalib

Bachaya humko aavaz-e-Lata ne

(We were very much on our way to death in jail

It was Lata’s voice which saved us from the travail)

So observed Pakistani poet Habib Jalib while being on death row in Pakistan’s notorious Mianwali jail – a jail that had once housed the likes of Nehru, Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – during Pakistan’s blackest days under the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq.

At Hyderabad Jail

In an earlier period of incarceration at Hyderabad jail, Jalib wrote a fuller tribute to the music legend. As he recounts the circumstances of its revelation in his autobiography Jalib Beeti, Jalib’s jail comrades were also his friends. There were youth among them, too. They were his admirers. He would listen to them and they would listen to him. Sometimes, he would tell them, ‘Someone go find Lata [Mangeshkar].’

There was a youth, Wahab, who was senior to them, and he, too, had good taste. Thus, two groups were formed there – one loved Lata, the other loved the Pakistani singer Naheed Akhtar. Jalib would say to them, “Brothers there is a big difference between Lata and Naheed.” Wahab, while rotating the needle on the radio, would scream where a song of Lata would be playing, “Jalib sahib! Lata has come, Lata has come.”

Habib Jalib & Parveen Shakir’s loving verses for the singer show how music can heal and unite people.

Habib Jalib

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How the Days & Nights Pass

Jalib wrote his tribute to Lata there. It begins and ends with the refrain:

Tere madhur geeton ke sahare

Beete hain din ren hamare

Here is the translation of the whole poem:

‘With the help of your charming songs

Our days and nights pass

Had your voice not existed

The flame of life would have been extinguished

Such are your true notes

Like the sun, moon, stars

With the help of your charming songs

Our days and nights pass

The number of your songs is so many

The heart bows when the instrument and the voice are in harmony

Hearing you we become elated

Those like us who are afflicted

With the help of your charming songs

Our days and nights pass

Within you, Mira has come, residing permanently

The body and colour is the same verily

In the universe, you have many a servant

As many as the stars on the firmament

With the help of your charming songs

Our days and nights pass.”

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'Daughter of a Common Enemy'

Longer and more poetic than Jalib’s poem is Parveen Shakir’s free verse poem, Mushtarika Dushman ki Beti (Daughter of a Common Enemy), which was written under more sedate circumstances than Jalib’s verses. It forms part of Shakir’s bestselling debut poetic collection Khushboo (fragrance), published in 1976, when she was 24.

Connoisseurs will also remember that 1976 was the year when Lata was at the peak of her singing career, having already sung in Mausam, directed by Gulzar in 1975 and giving the audience a hit song like Dil Dhoondta Hai; followed by hits like Husn Hazir Hai and Is Reshmi Paazeb ki Jhankaar (a duet with Mohammed Rafi) in the film Laila Majnu released in 1976. These achievements had come at the back of one of Lata’s finest musical moments, the release of the cult film Pakeezah in 1972, starring Meena Kumar and Ashok Kumar, and directed by Kamal Amrohi.

Habib Jalib & Parveen Shakir’s loving verses for the singer show how music can heal and unite people.

Parveen Shakir

Shakir’s poem then opens in a Chinese restaurant ostensibly outside the Indian subcontinent where the narrator and her colleagues are seated with their Indian interlocutors. The mood turns from pleasant to bitter with memories of the two wars both the subcontinental neighbours fought with each other in 1965 and 1971.

It seemed to the poet that in such a tense situation, something will give way, but then:

Lekin us pal aurkestra khamosh hua

Aur Lata ki ras tapkaati, shahad-aageen aavaz, kuch aise ubhri

Jese habs-zada kamre mein

Darya ke rukh vaali khirki khulne lagi ho!

Main ne dekha

Jismon aur chehron ke tanaao par

An-dekhe haathon ki thandak

Pyaar ki shabnam chirak rahi thi

Masakh-shuda chehre jese phir sanvar rahe the

Meri nashanalist kaleegz

Haathon ke pyalon mein apni thodiyaan rakhe

Saakit-o-jaamid bethi theen

Geet ka jaadu bol raha tha!

Mez ke neeche

Restoraan ke maalik ki hans-mukh beevi ke

Narm gulabi paaon bhi

Geet ki humraahi mein thirak rahe the!

(But that moment, the orchestra became silent

And the syrupy, honeyed voice of Lata, emerged such

As if in a congested room

The window facing the river is about to open!

I saw

Upon the tension of bodies and faces

The coolness of unseen hands

Was sprinkling the dew of love

As if the deformed faces were adorned again

My nationalist colleagues

Keeping their chins within the cups of (their) hands

Were sitting quiet and stationary

The magic of the song was rising!

Under the table

The soft rosy feet too

Were dancing to the accompaniment of the song!)

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A Lata Song Intervenes

For the honeyed voice of Lata, the eponymous “daughter of a common enemy” had intervened. Could it have been a song from the hit film Pakeezah? Like Mausam Hai Aashiqana or Chalo Dildar Chalo, which still must have been the rage despite the passage of four years and the heartbreakingly early death of its heroine Meena Kumari? Or some other Lata song? The poet does not tell us, but then a Lata song is a Lata song and here it acts as a palliative, calming nerves all around, as the poem races to its denouement, addressing its eminent subject:

Mushtarika dushman ki beti

Mushtarika mehboob ki soorat

Ujle resham lehjon ki baanhen phailaaye

Hamen samete

Naach rahi thi!

(The daughter of the common enemy

In the shape of the common lover

Extending the arms of clean silk tones

Gathering us

Was dancing!’)

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When the Orchestra Fell Silent

Here is the whole poem:

‘Inside a tiny Chinese restaurant

Me and my nationalist colleagues

Sitting within a beautiful sunset like the poems of Keats

Were looking at the aroma rising from the soup bowl, pleasing to the touch

Turning into fulfillment of the body

The conversation sparkling with the

Mention of ‘The Wind Cannot Read’, Taj Mahal, Mysore silk

And Benares sari turned up to Pak-Indian politics

1965 – then 1971 – prisoners of war

The television of Amritsar

Pakistani culture – new battlefield – alarm bell…..

My zealous colleagues

Were very angry at this attack

I tried saying something, then

They had frowned such

As if they were given quinine syrup instead of soup

The jovial wife of the restaurateur too

Was looking at me with complaining glances

(Perhaps some arrow of 1962 was still pierced within her heart!)

In the nerves of the restaurant as if

Rage like the body of a high-blood pressure person had entered

Had this condition lasted for some time

Then the arteries of our brains would have burst

But that moment, the orchestra became silent

And the syrupy, honeyed voice of Lata, emerged such

As if in a congested room

The window facing the river is about to open!

I saw

Upon the tension of bodies and faces

The coolness of unseen hands

Was sprinkling the dew of love

As if the deformed faces were adorned again

My nationalist colleagues

Keeping their chins within the cups of (their) hands

Were sitting quiet and stationary

The magic of the song was rising!

Under the table

The soft rosy feet too

Were dancing to the accompaniment of the song!

The daughter of the common enemy

In the shape of the common lover

Extending the arms of clean silk tones

Gathering us

Was dancing!’

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A Place in a Notoriously Male-Centric Literary World

It is indeed a remarkable tribute to the healing and uniting power of music that the nightingale of India could compel a people’s poet par excellence to provide a modicum of hope to people struggling for their rights, and provide catharsis to him while ensconced in a dictator’s jail.

She also found mention in the maiden poetic collection of someone who would become a household name in Pakistan’s notoriously male-centric literary universe, becoming a peacemaker between warring neighbours even on foreign soil, albeit in a fictional setting.

The power of the daughter of a common enemy indeed!

(All the translations from the Urdu are by the writer.)

(Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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