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Songs I Know and Love

Mehvash Amin

This fortnight is my turn to curate the website and I am doing it with a musical note or two. My own musing is about 'Songs I Know and Love'. My choice of a segment from the The Aleph Review is from Volume 2 (2018), from Epicurean Essays: a delightful piece, 'Striking a Note' by Tehmina Ahmed

My school and college buddy Fawzia Afzal-Khan recently wrote a book on the female singers of Pakistan. Published by Oxford University Press Pakistan, 'Siren Song: Understanding Pakistan through its Women Singers' has been reviewed by Dr Naila Saher who is professor of English at Forman Christian College in Lahore. That will be the third and final segment of my fortnight, after which I hand over the website to Associate Editor Ilona Yusuf.

The Song of the Cicadas

In my mind, that high-pitched song of the cicadas, was it birthed first in experience, memory or fiction?

Of course, poets have been writing about their summer anthem since Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates and a disciple discuss philosophical questions and the cicadas listen. Plato was finishing his compilation of Aesop’s Tales into verse and might have been inspired by the grasshopper in the story of the ant and grasshopper—it was originally a cicada, singing away while the ant laboured.

In Japan, during the Heian period (794 -1185), the third chapter of the Tales of Genji, written by noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu is called ‘The Cicada Shell’. In the Japanese ethos, the hollow cicada shell is meant to express emptiness, and the weariness of Prince Genji comes through:

Where the cicada casts her shell,

In the shadows of the tree,

There is one whom I love well,

Though her heart is cold to me

Later in the same country, in the 17th century, Matsuo Basho, arguably the greatest master of the Haiku, summed it up:

A cicada shell;

It sang itself

Utterly away

There can be no better description of the manic single-mindedness of that mating call; of the song that consumes the insect, a call in which the individual plea is like a short-lived crescendo subsumed in a unified aria. Like a pointillist painting that you have to come up close to in order to see the dots, you have to listen intently to separate the individual from the collective cacophony. As graphic artist Alison Bechdel described it, in an onomatopoeic approximation:


Of course, that approximation would only hint at the actual sound of the cicadas if it were repeated over the next few pages.

Leonard Cohen’s Songs

You want it darker?” he sings in that deepest of baritones, the baritone that strokes the inside of your throat with feathers. No, he doesn’t sing this phrase, he just says it, but it already a song.

It drowns out the cicadas that have settled in my mind since I wrote the piece above. His songs are the opposite of their song. They illustrate a heroic arpeggio, rising from the very basic mating sounds of insects to the musings of a highly sensitive being from amongst the most evolved species on planet Earth.

Hineni, hineni…

Comes the primitive call, as if from some dark grotto where goat’s blood sieves its protein smell through the vegetal musk of wet leaves.

I wish I could pick out a favourite from his songs.

On the one hand is the ‘solipsism’ of a song like Dance Me to the End of Love, a love song:

Oh, let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone

Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon

Show me slowly what I only know the limits of

And on the other hand, there is the sense of ‘floating’ over the immediate moi to fathom the sense of injustice in the affairs of the world:

From the wars against disorder

From the sirens night and day

From the fires of the homeless

From the ashes of the gay

Democracy is coming to the USA

He was a self-deprecating songster. Towards the end of his life, shrunk by cancer to a mere 105 pounds, he talked to David Remnick: “he knew where he was heading… but his sense of humour and his vicious self-mockery” stayed:

Everybody knows that you love me baby

Everybody knows you really do

Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful

Ah, give or take a night or two

I think I can only respect artists with that sense of self-mockery. Only by tearing down one’s ego can one float over it and knit oneself into that fabulous golden tapestry of human achievement, not the darker one fed by rapacious egos.

A bit of a seer, he predicted that Donald Trump would become president, “which made everyone laugh,” according to his son Adam. He might even have predicted COVID-19. “Everybody knows the plague is coming,” he sang presciently. Not everyone, Mr Cohen. Just wise men and women.

Kishori Amonkar’s Ragas

I want to explain, I am not a classical music aficionado. But my parents were, and I owe Amonkar a debt of gratitude for facilitating my budding romance (now what was his name?) when I was about eighteen.

In those days, of course, there were no cell phones. There were parents far stricter than they are nowadays. Yet of course you fell in love and of course you had to find a way out of the parental citadel to talk on the phone (wow!).

My room was just down a short corridor from my parents, and in the stillness of a winter night in Islamabad, every sound carried for miles. No cicadas singing their shrill anthem to drown out guilty noises. Just Kishori Amonkar.

For as soon as they retired for the night, my mother would put on a cassette of Amonkar’s. She would be asleep when the cassette finished—but unlike my father, she was a light sleeper.

So, when Amonkar launched into Raag Hamsadhwani and as my parents’ eyelids presumably started drooping, I would be wide awake. Through the eight minutes or so of this first song, I would will myself to lie as still as if in a tomb.

But when she started Ghat Ghat Mein Panchi Bolta, I would rise like Lazarus, and as she went through all the permutations, raga-wise, of that one phrase, I would tip-toe to my door and over what seemed like aeons, twist open the knob to my door, inch along the corridor to the chest of drawers right outside their bedroom on which sat the phone, wait with bated breath to parse any sound, and then pounce on the phone with the agility of a cat. I would be unwind the long cord and bring the phone back to my room. I would shut the door. And wait.

At exactly the time agreed upon, He would call and my heartbeat would jump as I lifted the receiver with a fake cough to disguise its shrill but short-lived plaint. By the time Amonkar went into Raga Rageshree, we would be whispering sweet nothings to each other. I do not remember what she sang after that. Too soon, it would be time to disengage, and by the time Aaj Sajan Sang came around, I was putting the phone back.

When the silence rolled into the blackness of the night again, the subterfuge would be over.

Thank you, Kishori.


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