Early in his professional career, Ustad Ramzi had realized that the entanglements of married life would not let him devote himself fully to his art and its exacting discipline. He vowed to remain celibate to achieve perfection in his art and shut his mind to thoughts of women. He finally attained the rank of an ustad or master, and acquired such celebrity that the mere privilege of being his sparring partner conferred eminence on a pahalwan. Throughout this time Ramzi observed his vow of celibacy.
The news of his visiting Gohar Jan’s kotha in the courtesans’ enclave was therefore received with great interest.
Gohar Jan was an accomplished singer whose raga recitals were renowned. Once a celebrated beauty, she was known for her haughty airs and capricious treatment of her lovers. Like other prominent tawaifs of her time, she maintained her own kotha where trainee girls or nayikas received instruction in the arts of musical entertainment. Gohar Jan’s kotha in the inner city was the largest and most famed.
The young men frequented the kothas to learn the bearings of polite society, the older men to socialize, or rekindle the memories of their lost youth. Whenever one “of them fell in love with a tawaif or a nayika, his affairs provided a spectacle and entertainment to the rest of them, until he was cured of his passion. Those who could not survive it did not return. A tawaif who fell in love had only two choices: she could either put an end to the association, or leave the kotha to pursue a life outside—if one was offered her. Implicit in the latter choice was the understanding that she would never be readmitted to the kotha if the promise of the new life failed her. There was a universe of failed unions, dreams, and abandoned hopes that started in the kothas and trailed off into the anonymity of the city’s dark alleys. It was said—with some justification—that only the fickle survived in the kothas, and only the pitiless prospered.
When people heard the news of Ustad Ramzi’s visits to Gohar Jan’s kotha, they thought that like scores of others, he, too, was lured by Gohar Jan’s physical charms. But there was another purpose to Ustad Ramzi’s kotha visits.
Ustad Ramzi had been taken by an old acquaintance one evening to listen to Gohar Jan’s “mehfil of a raga recital at the kotha. That day, for the first time, he saw Gohar Jan as she entered with her nayikas and took her seat at the head of the ensemble of musicians. He saw her command her troupe quietly and imperiously, often with just a glance. That day, also for the first time, Ustad Ramzi felt the powerful meditative effect of music when Gohar Jan started a raga.
He had always struggled with a component of his discipline which stressed the need for meditation to focus physical strength. That chance visit to Gohar Jan’s kotha made Ustad Ramzi understand how music could quieten the aggressive humors of his soul. He later returned to Gohar Jan’s kotha and soon became one of the habitués of her mehfils.
Those who watched Ustad Ramzi for any signs of becoming infatuated with the tawaif were disappointed. At the end of the mehfil, he always left her kotha with others. Even after it was borne out that it was Ustad Ramzi’s fondness for music that occasioned his visits to the kotha, that fact was not accepted. People made all kinds of insinuations: that Ustad Ramzi’s endeavors outside the akhara did not meet with any success; that it is one thing to floor men, and another to contest the favors of a tawaif like Gohar Jan.
These comments inevitably reached Ustad Ramzi’s ears, too, but he never learned that some people attributed these insinuations to Gohar Jan herself. Those who knew the tawaif could readily believe that it would have provided endless entertainment to Gohar Jan to make a spectacle of someone as self-absorbed and sacrosanct as Ustad Ramzi. But whether Gohar Jan found the sombre Ustad Ramzi too dull and uninteresting a quarry, or some other consideration hindered her, for some reason the insinuations ended there, and the gossip also died out.
For many years now Ustad Ramzi had regularly attended Gohar Jan’s mehfils. He never realized that his visits to her kotha had now become for him a need; he felt restive without attending her mehfils once every few days. Over the years, the ragas themselves had been suffused with Gohar Jan’s inflection and intonation; when Ustad Ramzi heard another’s rendition, it hardly stirred a thing in his breast. It was as if the ragas only existed embodied in Gohar Jan’s voice.
Gohar Jan’s stately and austere beauty had been mellowed somewhat by age. Her hazel green eyes were surrounded by wrinkles, and time had begun to cast her features in its soft, cruel mould. Her kotha still attracted patrons but the number of its visitors had dwindled.
That sudden and radical turnabout in life after Partition had created a deep feeling of uncertainty. A growing sense of frugality in all affairs had followed. It had adversely affected the fortunes of the tawaifs’ enclave—a world that thrived on extravagance, and where people traditionally flaunted their wealth and fine taste.
The mehfils ended in many kothas. The drapes in the kothas remained drawn. The wooden staircases smelled of dampness. The carpets had not been aired in a long time and were musty. In the music rooms, tanpuras gathered dust under their silken wraps and their necks became bent from the humidity. The silence of the sarangis continued unbroken and the heads of the tablas and pakhavajs became wrinkled and dry. The quiet of the music rooms was broken sometimes by the sound of a string snapping.
The neighborhood seemed more alive in daytime than at night. Most of the nayikas than at night. Most of the nayikas had moved out from the kothas to find a trade in which their musical training could advance a career. Many had joined the fledgling film industry. In the last year, two nayikas had left Gohar Jan’s kotha. One had migrated. Another tried to open her own kotha in another neighborhood, but failing to attract new patrons closed it down. Only one nayika, Malka, remained with Gohar Jan.
The only other occupant of the kotha was Gohar Jan’s old retainer, Banday Ali, who had been associated with it for nearly three decades. He was in charge of the mehfils and also looked after the kotha’s finances. Every evening he made sure that the paandans were stocked, the drinks ready, the white floor coverings spread in the Music Room, and bolsters placed for the guests. Two servants were also on hand to fill the hookahs for visitors, refresh them at regular intervals, and run errands if the guests wished to send for food from the bazaar or call a conveyance at the evening’s end.
Banday Ali usually finished his preparations an hour before the mehfil started. Then he had his customary cup of tea before opening the doors of the kotha. After the musicians arrived he sat on his sofa at the entrance where he greeted visitors. Malka received the guests at the door of the Music Room, offered them paan, and ushered them in where the musicians were already seated and awaiting Gohar Jan.
At the end of the mehfil the guests left their payment in a moneybox. While the servants cleared up the room, Banday Ali did his accounting. After the house staff left he closed the kotha doors and retired to his room on the top floor of the building to sip his cup of opium.
Banday Ali regularly gave an account of the kotha’s finances to Gohar Jan on the fifth of every month. But in recent days the exercise made him uncomfortable. Having been associated with the kotha and its finances for so long, he felt he was himself somehow to blame for its declining income.
Gohar Jan had been quietly selling her gold since the previous year to maintain the kotha on the same lavish scale as before. Banday Ali was the only person who knew about this. Gohar Jan had forbidden him from discussing it even with Malka. He had quietly suggested to Gohar Jan a few times that she could rent out the kotha’s western wing which had a separate entrance and was no longer occupied by the two nayikas. But each time Banday Ali made his suggestion Gohar Jan declined it with the same equanimity with which she received the account of her diminishing income.
Gohar Jan’s relationship with her nayika, Malka, was an unusual one, perhaps because of the special circumstances of her presence at the kotha. Unlike other nayikas who joined kothas in their youth or were sold to the mistresses of the establishments, Malka had arrived at Gohar Jan’s kotha as a foundling. One winter morning—twenty-three years earlier—Banday Ali had discovered the baby wrapped in a piece of felt cloth lying at the kotha entrance. Gohar Jan made every effort to find the mother, but had no success despite all her contacts and influence with the city administration. As Gohar Jan had feared, the orphanage refused to take in a child sent from the tawaifs’ enclave.
Gohar Jan decided to raise the girl at the kotha.
But she never showed her any fondness. Banday Ali, who saw no emotional bond between the two, mentioned to Gohar Jan a few times that the child needed more affection from those around her. He never received a response from Gohar Jan.
It was perhaps a result of Gohar Jan’s frosty demeanor towards her that Malka herself grew up cold and reserved. She was pretty and her sharp features finely balanced her natural, graceful air but her manner was quiet and aloof. Even Banday Ali who nursed a filial feeling towards Malka saw that she did not return his affection with any warmth.
In view of Gohar Jan’s impassive attitude towards Malka, Banday Ali could not understand why she gave her a room near her own living quarters instead of in the kotha’s west wing reserved for the nayikas. The other nayikas saw that as an unfair privilege for Malka and it laid the foundations of constant animosity between them.
These were not the only contradictions Banday Ali saw in Gohar Jan’s behavior towards Malka. Gohar Jan did not impose the same strict discipline on her that she imposed on the other nayikas. In this instance, perhaps, it was also unnecessary. Malka submitted herself to the hard training in music and dance without persuasion. Either from a sense of loneliness or competition with the other nayikas, she excelled at what she was taught. Gohar Jan offered encouragement to the other nayikas over their least achievements, but ignored Malka’s hard work.
One day in the Music Room, Banday Ali witnessed yet another moment in the continuing drama as Malka underwent a training session with Gohar Jan.
“Straighten the left foot. Put the right hand…” Gohar Jan was explaining.
It was probably Gohar Jan’s detached manner that made Malka restless. In the middle of her steps she did a pirouette.
Gohar Jan looked up.
“Why don’t we begin with the pirouette?” Malka asked her.
“Does make-up start with the eyes or the feet? Do you put on the ankle-band before the head adornment? That is why you start with the salutation and end with a pirouette. Like the sixteen adornments, the movements too follow a sequence…”
Even as she explained, Malka was moving her fingers in the imitation of a bird in flight.
Gohar Jan cast a reproving look at her and continued, “All right. Put the right hand above your head in the shape of the half-moon. Stretch forward the left hand in a half circle… More composure!”
Malka kept looking straight at the wall in obstinate silence. There was a brief pause as Gohar Jan looked at her again.
“Very well,” Gohar Jan said. “That is your lesson for today. Go and rest.
Instead of leaving, Malka sat down and began strumming on the tanpura.
“What is this now?” Gohar Jan chided her. “You won’t rest, nor will you let me have any peace!”
Malka did not answer.
“Play it then if it is your wish,” Gohar Jan said half-heartedly.
Malka got up and left the room.
Banday Ali sometimes tried to compensate for Gohar Jan’s disregard by praising Malka’s talents to her. Malka would listen politely with her head lowered, without expressing any joy. He could see that after being denied Gohar Jan’s love as a child she now sought her praise as an adult. The more Gohar Jan ignored her, the harder Malka tried to win her attention. Banday Ali realized that no matter how much he might praise Malka it would never equal even a glance of appreciation from the one whose approval she sought.
Whenever Malka expressed a desire to perform before an audience, Gohar Jan summarily rejected the request, saying that Malka still had to learn a great deal.
For a brief period after the two nayikas left Gohar Jan’s kotha, Banday Ali saw Malka happy. He felt, as did Malka, that she would finally have Gohar Jan’s complete attention and be given an opportunity to perform. But even the departure of the other nayikas did not bring about any change in Gohar Jan’s manner.
Banday Ali could not understand why Gohar Jan would not prepare Malka to take her place as the mistress of the kotha. Before the nayikas left Gohar Jan, she often told Banday Ali that she would soon appoint her successor. But since their leaving she had never brought up the subject again.
While Banday Ali could not always understand Gohar Jan’s motives in her treatment of Malka, he knew that she never acted without careful thought. Banday Ali felt that even if Gohar Jan did not think that Malka had the talent or the acumen to become renowned in the musical arts, she should have at least allowed her an opportunity to prove herself. Why she denied Malka this chance remained a mystery to him. And while Malka regarded Gohar Jan with a mix of awe and reverence, Banday Ali felt that sooner or later her feelings toward Gohar Jan would turn sour.
From BETWEEN CLAY AND DUST. Used with permission of Restless Books. Copyright © 2012 by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.