Sindhi musicians at a folk festival in Islamabad
As I’ve grown older I’ve come to accept (and expect) that everything in our lives is far more connected then we realize. But equally, the beginning and endings of those connections are often separated by years. Usually the more profound connections are revealed only after the fact. And all you can do is say, ‘Wow!’
I arrived in Lahore with a clear picture of where I was headed. This was a pitstop along the way, nothing more. When I left 11 months later I no longer had any real desire to pursue a PhD but had no clue what the alternative was. All I knew was that I had fallen in love with Pakistan and I didn’t want to leave.
The sadness I felt as the plane lifted off from Karachi International and the ennui that settled on me when I landed back in Minneapolis was as profound as what I had felt when I left India a decade earlier. What was it that so affected me?
Looking back now I can see seeds that led me to take up a career in humanitarian work as well as other seeds that caused me 28 and half years on to give it up. Both were planted during that fateful year in Lahore.
Pakistan in 1986 was host to the largest refugee population in the world. Over 3 million Afghans had been granted asylum in dozens of large nearly town-size camps all along the western border. Aid agencies, especially the large UN agencies like UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP ran massive operations involving thousands of staff, helicopter fleets, lorries and Toyota Land Cruisers by the hundreds.
At the same time Pakistani society was being transformed by refugees. Small arms and drugs were flowing between Afghanistan and Karachi (and all places in between). Politically driven urban terrorists (more locally sponsored than foreign) were exploding bombs in bazaars in Karachi and Peshawar. Political dissent and discontent was bubbling on the surface. Nearly every middle class Pakistani I met in those months had nothing but contempt for the government of General Zia and its American and Saudi props.
The vague notion about aid work that I had back in the States was now far more real. On a visit to Peshawar I gave blood at the ICRC blood bank. As I waited in the hall dozens of armed combatants–the now infamous mujahideen some of whom transformed themselves into the Taliban years later–were carried in and out for surgery or other urgent attention by comrades fresh from the field. They were heavily armed and their sandals caked with dry mountain mud. The streets were lined with expats and signboards for all sorts of organizations crowded the shady streets. A fellow student in our group explained he was doing research on some phenomenon called NGOs, a term I had never heard before.
But to be honest trips to Peshawar were not that many. Aid and the refugee crisis was still not front and center in my consciousness. But a seed had been planted.
Music was far more front and center to me. The mid-80s were the era of the cassette tape. All sorts of music was available dirt cheap in any bazaar. Ghazals, South Asia’s own special genre of poetry, were some of the most popular tapes and all of them, whether by local or Indian singers, were sung in Urdu. I discovered that by listening to ghazals of singers such as Ghulam Ali, Jagjit and Chitra Singh and Anup Jalota, I had uncovered a new way of absorbing the nuances, vocabulary, syntax and feel for Urdu. Music became a way to deepen my language skills as well as appreciate the culture from which it arose.
Prior to taking up Urdu my understanding and appreciation of South Asian music had been almost nil. I grew up hearing but not really liking Indian classical music or Hindi film (Bollywood) music. But as I rode around Lahore on my bike or on long torturous bus journeys around the country the ghazal tapes cracked open a new section of my soul. Was it the music that opened my heart or had Lahore and the freedom of being back in South Asia made me receptive to the music?
Both probably. But another seed had been planted and began to grow immediately. Near the end of my stay I booked a room in the Al Azam Hotel in Rawalpindi’s Hathi Chowk (Elephant Crossing) area and for a couple days smoked hash and listened to one particular tape by Pankaj Udhas, an Indian ghazal singer until I knew every poem by heart. When I returned to the States a few weeks later, ghazals were the thing that kept my connection and heart alive, just as photography had done in earlier years.
Big deal, I hear you say. Everyone loves music. So what.
Well, the so what is this. The seed that was planted in 1986 in my barren heart (as far as South Asian music goes) kept growing and growing. From popular Indian ghazals it led to me to Pakistani folk music and then sufi music and qawwali. After a few more years I began to appreciate Hindi film music and bought lots of CDs by Pakistani and Indian pop stars. In 2010 when I could no longer keep all this wonderful music to myself I set up a blog (The Washerman’s Dog) and the very first post and set of music I shared was a collection of Pakistani music.
The blog gained fans and I became connected with other music fanatics and suddenly I was discovering Carnatic (South Indian classical) music, Indian jazz and Indian garage rock. Folk music and thumri, dadra and Ustads Salamat and Nazakhat Ali Khan. Dhrupad, the oldest form of music in India completely rattled my bones and sense of being and I set up a small business which connected me with folk musicians from Rajasthan.
A couple of years ago I found myself in Kuala Lumpur working for the Red Cross. A fellow blogger and the world’s expert on jazz in India contacted me and inquired if I’d be interested in writing a weekly music column for a new online newspaper called Scroll. I jumped at the chance and over the past few years have had Salman Rushdie and A.R. Rahman both comment appreciatively about my column. Most weeks 10-15 thousand people read my column.
And there’s more!
6 months ago a man contacted me claiming to be India’s top literary agent. He was a fan of my column and wanted to help me get a book published. Did I have any ideas up my sleeve? Of course I did and he shopped them around the publishing world in Mumbai and Delhi. A couple of months later a publisher, who was also a fan of my column, offered me a two book deal!
About 6 weeks ago I left my job in Kuala Lumpur with the intention of closing the international aid chapter of my life.
My point in sharing this rather elongated tale is to illustrate how we can be surprised by our own experiences and how those experiences can impact our lives many years, even decades down the line. Had I not gone to Lahore and discovered music in a new way it is quite possible I would not have a book contract today. How long is a piece of string? In this case almost 30 years.
The other lesson I take from this is ‘live from your heart’. And when it comes to making decisions about the aid business or anything else I have found that in following my heart I come closest to my idea of fulfilment.
Of course, Lahore was not just about music. And I don’t think you’d be right to conclude that I left my career because I have a book deal. Always, life is more complicated and more interesting.