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The Dead and the Dead

Ayesha loved her husband as a wife normally does – with a mixture of deep concern,
genuine affection, understated respect and mild irritation. His celebrity status was
just one more aspect of their relationship and although it took him away from her on
more occasions and for longer durations than what was acceptable to her, it never
came in between the natural flow of their lives till the day when his heart caved in
while trying to negotiate a complex raga and he passed away leaving her with three
small children.

Faiz was an icon and icons or their families are not permitted to rest in peace. Out of
profound grief, sincere worry and heartfelt sense of sympathy, thousands flocked to
the singer’s home upon hearing the tragic news and continued to do so for months
thereafter. In this day and age where time is allowed to sweep away even the
crumbs of remembrance, they missed Faiz and acknowledged his status as the
prime voice of the era which meant that Faiz continued to be everywhere. From
mobile phones in the hands of chic teenagers to giant TV screens in malls to the
transistors tucked away somewhere in countless paan shops – he virtually
monopolized the sound waves. His baritone continued to spur the marriage
processions on streets, rock dance floors at clubs, accompany rituals at temples, lull
babies to sleep, serenade young desires and console aged hearts.

Despite the love and concern showered upon her, Ayesha slipped into depression
and one day the newspapers reported that she had been admitted to a hospital after
an overdose of sleeping pills. Dr Jayashree, M.D., knew as soon as the patient was
rushed to the hospital that her privacy was now a thing of the past and that along
with her well known patient she, too, would have to face the media glare. As was her
habit, once she was convinced that the situation could not be wished away, she
embraced it and in the ensuing rounds of discussion with her patient, helped her see
why it was not only unavoidable but also necessary for her to spell out her anguish if
she were to hope to live normally ever again. Ayesha prevaricated for a few days but
then, suddenly, decided that she would hold a press conference. Dr Jayashree was
taken aback but there was no gainsaying Ayesha. She was determined to go ahead
with it and Shahid, Faiz’s friend and agent for more than two decades, could do
nothing except utter a few sentences in protest, when she entrusted him with the
task.

It was not too difficult to have hordes of television channels lined up on the day,
ready to do what they do best – record, relay and preserve but also to amplify,
exaggerate and, therefore, distort. Flanked by the Doctor, Ayesha walked up to the
podium and braved her way through a thousand flashes, each of which burned the
memory of her dead husband still more firmly on her soul as she recollected the day
when Faiz had walked up to one such podium to receive the State Award for Music
with the shutterbugs bestowing all their attention on her husband. How had she
loved the flashes then and how different they had appeared – congratulatory, warm
and soothing. Today they simply lacerated her.

“Ladies and Gentleman, Ayesha Faiz will now make her statement. There shall be no
questions, I hope, because we are all mindful of her condition but if there are any,
they would be entertained later. Ayesha...,” and, saying so, Dr Jayashree reclined
back on her chair as Ayesha drew near the microphones.

The silence was long. Then she heard herself speak, her voice trying to overcome
the catch in her throat, stuttering occasionally and soon getting drenched with tears
and jostling with hiccups.

“I was advised to prepare a written statement to read out before you all here. I have
done so. But just before leaving home today, I saw my son crying for no earthly
reason and I understood that my statement did not capture what my family is going
through right now. What we are facing is an absurd situation in which we are
required to come to terms with, and be normal about, an abnormal phenomenon –
death of a husband and a father before he had lived out his full life. I refuse to
believe that God gave him only so very few years and I cannot accept death as
natural…simply because many more have died and will continue to die like this…for
no reason…without even a proper goodbye. Just…just leave. My religion, my values,
my heart and my thoughts…none comfort me as I sit here today surrounded by all of
you with my late husband reduced to a photo on the wall and a voice in our ears. Oh,
I thank you for the love you showered upon him while he was here and for the
homage you pay him everyday when you listen to his songs…I thank you but, but…
to his family he was more than just a photo and a voice while he was alive…more
than just a respected face and an adored voice…you understand…he lived our lives
for us and now we are left behind without him…we are not dead and he is but we
are the dead…we – his two daughters, his son, his parents and I…and yet we have
to live…”

She broke down. Dr Jayashree continued comforting her in silence till she was
composed enough to begin again:

“I thank you for staying true to his memory but you have no idea how it wrenches our
heart to hear him everywhere, to see him on television but not to find him where he
should be – right next to us in his house, with his children, shaping the dreams he
had for us. We, the ones he left behind to your loving care, make one request– on
his birthday-August 12- we want to remember the man and not the singer. For one
day we ask you not to play his songs on TV or radio. That is all…”

The stupefied look on people’s faces stopped her. It was going to be difficult. She
instinctively turned towards Dr Jayashree and those understanding eyes calmed her.
Now that she had said it, she felt relaxed a bit. She could now face it.
------xxxxx------

“Ayesha, that is, I am sorry to say, preposterous,” exclaimed Shahid on their way
back. “Yes, preposterous! Leave aside the media czars and the gala shows they
have lined up for the day. Leave aside his adoring fans the world over who plan to
spend the whole day tuned in to his voice. Have you any idea that this would be the
first time since Faiz burst on the music scene that I won’t be hearing him for an entire
day…I cannot comprehend your pain but the same holds for you as well. And, just as
it won’t help any to suggest that you stuff cotton in your ears so that you do not hear
him on radio and blindfold yourself so that you don’t see him on TV on that day, don’t
say that I can pick up a cassette of his and play it in the privacy of my home. That’s
not the Faiz I want to hear. That’s not the Faiz I identify with. Faiz dominating the
radio-waves, Faiz occupying TV screens, Faiz permeating the atmosphere around
us all – that’s what I have worked my heart out for, setting aside everything else…but
why am I saying all this…you know it all…you were there…Ayesha, say something.”

“Shahid, I was there the way I was needed when both of you built him up. But neither
you nor he is here the way it is needed as I try to rebuild my family. All I am asking
for is one day to claim him for myself. Is that too much to ask? May be it is. Still,
don’t grudge me that.”

The silence that fell lasted for a week before Shahid called her up one morning and
they chatted about this and that before Ayesha decided that it was time they again
picked up the threads of that aborted conversation and requested him to go ahead
with whatever that was on his mind.

“Ayesha, if I am being cruel, so be it. But, I have to ask you this: Do you think he’d
like it this way?”

Her silence threatened to add more tension to the moment but she could not reply -
not for want of an answer but out of sheer irritation at the situation. It was only in the
evening when she was talking to Dr Jayashree that the words she had bottled inside
tumbled out:

“I do not know whether Faiz will like it or not but there are times when I do not care
what he thinks about it. Is it normal, Doctor, or am I losing it? Is it that…,” she was
cut short and relieved of her misery by the Doctor.

“Just focus on caring for that which is alive – his memory – and for those that are
alive –you and your children. Nothing else matters.”
------xxxxx------

Shahid listened with growing discomfiture to the Doctor when she visited his house
immediately thereafter. His wife passed around the coffee trying to appear normal
but it was clear that she, too, was ill at ease.

“Doctor, everybody is with Ayesha and with whatever she decides. That includes me.
There should be no doubt on that score.”

“Absolutely, Shahid. That is why what you think matters – and matters more to her
with every passing minute. Besides, she knows that if you do not want it, her wish
cannot be translated into reality. You must make an attempt to see it her way.”

“It is just for one day, Shahid,” mumbled Neelima.

“Ok, Neelima, you tell me what I should do about it. I do not accept this but I will
keep quiet and say nothing further if you say so. I shall apologize to my friend who
keeps prodding me almost every night that I should not let it go this way. He says I
should not retire behind the pragmatic –‘how does this concern me?’ nonsense. I
am…”

“Shahid- is it what he wants or is it your idea of what he wants? I am a Doctor. I am


clinically objective about all this - at least I am better placed to be so because I did
not know Faiz personally and because I have been professionally trained to face
such situations. It might sound rude but I think that the dead should take care of the
dead. The living must take care of the living. After Faiz, Ayesha looks upon you two
to be with her. I dare say so does Faiz, even if that means you not fulfilling what he
wants.”

“As it is we do not know whether, even after your efforts, people would honour
Ayesha’s wish. I mean, TV and radio channels may agree but which baraat would
like to forgo dancing on his “Mast samaa” number? But, you can try, Shahid,”
Neelima added.

Shahid looked away reluctant to speak but he could not stop himself for long.

“Both of you are not fully aware of Faiz’s stature and the respect he commands. No
band company in the country would play his songs for anything in the world that day
if that’s what is decided. My point is: should they decide that way? Should anybody
decide this? Faiz was greater than any of us and that includes his wife. Faiz was
greater than death and that includes his own death. I give you an example, a very
crude one at that and not at all comparable to the matter before us now but, still,
please bear with me. Tomorrow a bomb blast may kill thousands. Would you like the
families of the dead to come forward and say that they wish Faiz’s fun songs are
silenced on the day the pyres of the dead are lit, never mind that on the same day
some orphan somewhere might listen to the same happy verses and feel lighter in
the heart? And, if they do say that, how else would you counter them except by
saying – oh, that was his wife’s wish and, hence, more worthy of being accepted
than yours? Doctor, for an artist everyone who loves his work is equal. There can be
no distinction. I know I am stretching things here but I must because on the other
side is something as strong as a wife’s plea which is more of an emotional diktat. I
am with Ayesha but I am with Faiz more. An artist’s work should never be ‘dammed’
behind any walls whatsoever; it should simply be allowed to flow. On many a concert
night his throat was sore with pain but he always strode forth on to the stage to do
his bit–the show must go on, as they say. ”

He paused and then went on.

“Ayesha belonged to Faiz but Faiz belonged to everyone. That’s what he achieved
with his talent, his toil and his behaviour. Do you want all that to be rolled back-even
if for one day? He sang not for Ayesha and not for me – he sang for them out there –
those faceless, nameless people with mute yearnings and silenced hopes. Had they
in one voice demanded that his songs not be played on August 12, I would have
bowed before it. But this way…and when I know that even Ayesha won’t be happy if
this were allowed to happen…really, Doctor, this is a lose-lose situation for everyone.
I want you to be clear about that.”

“If you were to see all this in a slightly different manner, you’d realize that Ayesha’s
wish is not to silence Faiz and rob his fans of their right to hear him –it is just a
means to make it simpler for everyone to celebrate his life and internalize his death
in a more personal manner. This day would be therapeutic not only for Ayesha but
for us all. Can’t you see that? Can Faiz be silenced –ever? And who wants that?
Surely, not Ayesha! Shahid, you are right if you say that Ayesha was just one part of
Faiz’s life but his voice, too, was just one part of him – please see it this way. Let his
talent not be the sum total of him.”

“Ok, Doctor. I won’t continue this discussion further because I can see it is painful for
you as well.” Shahid fell into a moody silence. Presently, Neelima spoke:

“I was wondering, Doctor, why did Ayesha choose a ‘Live’ press conference to say
what she had to? Have you thought about it? We all know how reluctant she was to
even discuss her innermost thoughts with family members. You also had a tough
time reaching out to her. Suddenly, a turn around and we were requested – no,
rushed – to arrange a press conference. Can you explain that? What was driving
her?”

“Yes, I have thought about that. I even asked her about it but she did not say
anything. The only reasonable answer I can come up with is that once she had
gotten over her dislike for the idea-my idea- of sharing her grief with the world, she
wanted the distasteful moment to visit her in all its strength. May be she thought that
once this was over, the matter would be closed and nothing worse would follow. A
written statement in the newspapers would only have whetted people’s appetite for
more. Can’t say she was wrong. There has been remarkably less ‘paparazzi’ type
coverage because she has already ‘exposed’ it all in public. Don’t you agree?”
“Madam, oh, sorry, Doctor,” Shahid joined in, “The hush is one of disbelief. It has not
yet sunk in. Just as you understand your patient’s psyche better than us, I
understand the masses better. Soon they’d start feeling as if they have been
classified as outsiders –they, who now think of Faiz as their brother, son or friend.
And when that happens, that shall be the end of Faiz’s legacy.”

“Shahid, if I may ask: what do you think? Will people listen to Ayesha or will they
not? In either case, what is your reading of the situation? ”

“If they listen to her, Faiz dies because his physical death as a man would
overshadow his immortality as a singer. And, if he dies, she dies, too.”

“Oh, come on, Shahid,” Neelima said, her voice indefinably tired.

“I shall leave now, Shahid. It is getting very late. Bye, Neelima.” Dr Jayashree got up.
As she reached the door, she turned around and, looking him straight in the face,
asked gently, “Is it that you can’t accept his death because you think that if you
accept that, you’d die? If yes, look out. Ayesha was thinking much along the same
lines when she took those sleeping pills.”

She went out into the night closing the door softly behind her.

April 12, 2009 (2859 words)