Thursday, 17 December 2009
When Masud Khan met Shiv Kumar Batalvi
The year was 1973. The Enlightened West was reeling from the effects of the Islamic East's oil price hike. The disaffection of the miners, working coal seams deep beneath its green and pleasant land, meant that a Stygian darkness, as part of the Government's proposed 'three day week', threatened to black out Britain more thoroughly than Goering's Blitz.
But Maqbul- who had just turned 14- was oblivious to all this. He was visiting his father- the veteran left wing poet and journalist, Mirza Mehboob Ali 'Aarzoo'- for the first time in many years. It was the boy's first trip abroad.
Maqbul did not show the precocious literary talent of his father, nor the acting and directorial flair of his mother, but had distinguished himself, nonetheless, as a caricaturist at a young age by winning the Shankar's Weekly competition and going on to publish regularly in some of the most progressive (now, alas, vanished!) magazines of the period.
His father, Aarzoo Sahib, took Maqbul to see leading Indo-Pak personalities, then resident in, or transiting through, London, and Maqbul sketched them while his father conducted interviews.
On one occasion, when his father had two interviews lined up- one in the West End, the other in the much further West, district of Hounslow- Maqbul Bhai's sketch pad was already almost full, so he folded the last sheet such that two very disparate characters ended up side by side on the same sheet of paper.
By a strange coincidence- if coincidence it really was and not Jungian 'synchronicity', not to speak of stuff spookier yet- the two notables fraternally turning their profiles to each other across a Lacus Curtius or hiatus valde deflendum of Social Geography, were- reading from Right to Left- the fabulously rich Lyallpur Prince, Masud Khan- then famous (now, alas, infamous!) as a celebrity psycho-analyst, much commended for his command of literary English- and, the wretched refugee trained only to the humble Patwari's profession, Shiv Kumar Batalvi- the still madly popular Punjabi poet whose brief English sojourn doomed him to an early death.
I may mention, Maqbul's stepfather- the late Iqbal Khan 'Sharminda'- was a colleague of my father at the Pioneer newspaper in the early '50's. He too was selected for the External Publicity wing of the Foreign Ministry, but- after marrying Maqbul's mother- he decided to remain in India so as to ensure his step-son should grow up in a stable environment and not experience any educational disruption.
Though this generation may not remember much about some of the people I am mentioning, my father- now entering his 80th year- keeps their memory green for me and points out the continued (or, should I say, increased?) relevance of their progressive ideas and example to our current task of supporting Civil Society by upholding democratic norms and strengthening Judicial oversight and monitoring Barkha Dutt's loss or gain of weight on N.D.T.V.
Maqbul Sahib- whom we youngsters, at the Fitzroy Sq. Hostel, used to call 'Big Mac', I can no longer recall why- entrusted me with a portfolio of his sketches in 1981. Actually, in his heart of hearts, he had already abandoned art for activism as early as '76. However, as a matter of Party discipline, he continued to publish occasional cartoons in affiliated Magazines- which being crude and uninspired, now command a good price from certain famous Mathematical Economists of Bengali extraction.
In 1994, I was either recovering from, or (in the hope of becoming a poet) pestering to death, a sort of aboulie or mental breakdown occasioned by a too tidy divorce. To make ends meet, I took a lodger- a working class U.P Brahmin, named Shiv Kumar, two or three years younger than myself. Shiv was working as a chef at the prestigious 'Chutney Mary' restaurant. He had grown up in Chandigarh, Punjab, and had somehow acquired a reading knowledge of Gurumukhi script as well Urdu. Yet his formal education had ended when he was just ten or eleven years old.
Initially, Shiv was reserved rather than Hail fellow, well met. I thought to muyself- "this Brahmin bastard does not approve that I take liquor. Fucked if I care for the opinion of a pockmarked little Maharaj!''
Actually, the truth is, Shiv was very kind to me and loved me as elder brother. On one occasion, I opened the fridge and saw all sorts of mouth watering food. I was unable to stop myself from just stuffing myself with the various items- not even troubling to warm them up in the oven- then and there.
That night, I waited up for Shiv- whose shift at the restaurant ended late- and told him curtly that he should deduct the cost of the food I'd consumed from his rent. He refused. He said he took his meals at the restaurant. That food had been cooked for me only. If I didn't eat, it would be thrown in the garbage.
Since he was exhausted from work, I did not argue with him or show my temper. Still, in subsequent days, I took more moderately from the food in the fridge. If I satisfied my full appetite, he would have to cook everyday.
One or two weeks later, I felt in my pocket and pulled out a £20 note. How had it got there? I was very hard up at the time. I puzzled and puzzled over it. Finally, I asked Shiv. His color changed. He looked guilty. He muttered- 'For safety, always best to keep some money in the pocket. What to do? This is London.'
It was as though he was a shikari giving survival tips to a Jungle safari tour group.
I wondered if he was an illegal immigrant.
Anyway, after that, I refused to take money from him for rent. We became close. One day, idly leafing through my books, he found Maqbul Sahib's album. He became excited when he saw the portrait of Shiv Kumar Batalvi.
Suddenly, he saw me in a new light. Perhaps, I was 'cultured'. In any case, being himself under a lot of psychological stress, he needed to believe that I was, indeed, a worthy 'elder brother' rather than one to be so termed only to make the giving of alms- food in this case- more palatable to Pity's growingly obese object.
But, rather than berate myself uselessly, let me tell you what happened in plain words. Shiv brought out a cassette and put it on the music system. I got out my poetry notebook. The song I wanted to translate was 'Maye ni Maye'- 'oh mother, my poems are eyes blinded by the dust of separation'- listen to Ustad Nusrat Fateh Khan singing it by clicking below- but, at that time, the only 'mazmun' theme I got out of it was the notion of the bee exiled so far from the flower garden that its raison d'etre is now only to convert into life-blood, the hateful poison of its sting. (Yes. I know. I'm a monstrous Anglophile pile of crap)
Anyway, Shiv- my Shiv, Shiv the pockmarked cook, not Shiv the beautiful poet- asked me about the other Sahib in the picture. To my surprise, I found I could place him. His autograph wasn't easy to decipher but it was appended to a quotation from Rilke. You know the one I mean- that favourite of the British School of Psychoanalysis- Beauty as the dawning of that just bearable terror which serenely disdains to destroy us- anyway, I happened to be reading a book by Christopher Bollas at the time and so I crowed out that this, here, was that author's Guru- the great Masud Khan!
Shiv became quiet and thoughtful when I revealed to him that Masud Khan was a great Mind Doctor from the Punjab- who had won golden opinions from the Whites.
Another point I might make is that my parents were close friends of Mr. and Mrs. Mahendra Kaul- I was particularly fond of Mrs. Kaul who worked at the B.B.C External Service at Bush House. Being an Anglophile, I did not fully understand my dad's conversations with Kaul Sahib- but, I pricked up ears when the conversation turned to poetry. I was firmly of the opinion that modernist poetry is best written by imbeciles- hence a field I might myself profitably enter. Thus, it may be, I already knew of Shiv Kumar Batalvi- whose interview by Kaul Sahib you can view at the bottom of this page- even before Shiv, that is Shiv the cook, took me Glassy Junction- the pub in Southall whose one time proprietor had played host to Batalvi on his fatal trip to London.
What I didn't know at the time was that Masud Khan and Shiv Kumar weren't really so different. Masud fell in love with a Hindu girl, Shiv with the daughter of a wealthy Sikh. Neither Masud's money, nor Shiv's poetry could avail against Society's iron laws. Shiv's beloved- that daughter of the hawk he fed upon his heart- flew off to America after an arranged marriage of which Shiv was not informed, while Masud's love faced even more formidable obstacles in the run up to Partition.
For both, England was a sort of imagined land of aetherialised intellectual perfection where it wouldn't matter that the lacerated heart now pumped but to poison the blood.
Masud, who had come here hoping to be healed, was suborned into himself becoming a healer- except this was not a healing but a habit of addiction that could only support itself by dealing in its own poisonous product- and, because his sickness really was of the heart, he ended up not a respected leader of the Cartel, but one ignominiously expelled- not for alcoholism but anti Semitism. (read more here)
Shiv, feted in London by Punjabis on the make, was nonetheless condemned to becoming a sort of human Jukebox- they poured him Whiskey and commanded him to sing. It killed him. He died in Chandigarh. of liver failure, a couple of months after his return from London.
But what does it matter? Masud Khan's books are an imperishable achievement. He enriched that heartless Science that could not understand his malady. Shiv Kumar Batalvi, too, we will have with us always. Perhaps not on the Juke box at 'Glassy Junction' but on the cassette deck wherever a broken hearted waiter calls out to his mother in the Punjab and weeps.
Shiv Kumar- the cook not the poet- had a mental illness. It was schizophrenia. For a time, poetry helped him. But that poetry was 'an eye blinded by the dust of the world'. Masud Khan and Shiv Kumar Batalvi never met- except on that page from Maqbul's sketch pad. They could not heal each other. Instead they were taken up and used by a materialist Civilization whose great advance is that it can restore the health of a man by giving him the heart of a pig.
And because Masud and Shiv never met, because I was too fucking Anglophile to understand how they might have helped each other if they had, Shiv Kumar died- that is the cook not the poet- a few years later in a ward for the criminally insane not far from Glassy Junction.
The story is over. But not for me. You see, nowadays, Maqbul Bhai doesn't bother even skimming through the scripts I send him. He enjoys increasing acclaim, running an N.G.O which sponsors neo-Brechtian theater troupes in various slum areas and Naxalite run rural redoubts.
I gave him back his album in 1998. Teased him about his infatuation with a girl working at the fast food joint next to Warren Street Station. He was silent- so I thought it was the same old 'Big Mac'. I was wrong. He put up that album for Ebay auction. It was in the news. The money went towards bringing Brecht to the backward classes. Speaking relatively, this broke my heart. Speaking relatively, continually raising my glass while writing this post, I too have drunk myself to death.
But that is only relatively speaking. After all, I'm not a Masud Khan or Shiv Kumar Batalvi.
Still, at least I aint Maqbul Ali either.
Maybe, Shiv the cook.