In the last few weeks of my father’s life, after the nightly dinner tussle, the quarter cup of soup consumed interminably slowly, he would look around from his position, prone, the eyes in his ravaged face eagerly alive. “Where’s my toy? What shall we listen to?” In the months after my mother’s death, the iPad was his rescuer from ‘shaam e gharibaan,’ his term for the post dinner evening, spent alone when I wasn’t there on my short, if frequent visits.
The initiation had begun almost eight months ago with a lesson on browsing independently through the apps fed into the device. Seated beside him, we looked for music, the thread that ran through our family's lives.
Aside from the Ode to Joy, I have no memory of listening to Beethoven’s Ninth in its entirety before this. My favourites were the sonatas and the Symphony No. 6, the pastoral. In the past I had felt guilty about expressing this, as someone who occupies the intellectual low ground insists on preferring an inferior work. But tonight it was his choice, and we listened, I listened intently through Riccardo Muti conducting the full Symphony No. 9 with its exuberant culmination, the Ode to Joy.
Joy! A spark of fire from heaven,
Daughter from Elysium,
Drunk with fire we dare to enter
Holy One, inside your shrine.
Your magic power binds together,
What we by custom wrench apart,
All men will emerge as brothers,
Where you rest your gentle wings.
Then it was my turn, and I found the Symphony No. 6, a 1978 recording conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
From then on, this version would be his inevitable choice. He wasn’t interested in exploring alternate interpretations, even if offered to him. He would watch the video, waiting for Bernstein’s mobile face, commenting on it from time to time, turning the screen to share it with me, marveling at his absorption in the music, the constant change of expression as he wielded his wand through the five movements. With his free hand he would move the long, age thickened fingers to mark time, much as my mother demanded of me as a child. My replies were gruff if he said something while I waited for the bird calls woven into the last bars of the first movement; and the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo, those brief, high sweet solos in the cadenza in the second. Or I would signal to him to wait until they were over, he would acquiesce, and we would listen for the build-up to the high drama of rolling thunder of the storm in the fourth, and quiet relief, the returning sound of calm flowing water in the final section.
Now, in these last days, I became impatient. The rancours of the past were replaced by a pure stream of love. But they were shadowed by an overwhelmingly physical pull, from the gut sideways and down, as if something alive was being drawn away and out of me. It unnerved me, and I looked for escape.
“Let’s listen to something else. I’m going to play qawwali.” In his mid-eighties, at his grandson’s wedding, he and my mother sat into the wee hours of the morning listening rapt to Farid Ayaz’s seamless transitions from Punjabi to Urdu, Persian and Arabic.
“Are you going to put the cook through this western music? He can’t be enjoying it. But “Come here, Yar Mohammad,” he said.
“It’s ok, Sir” rejoined the latter, perched tersely on the edge of an armchair, “you listen at ease.”
“No” insisted my father. “Come here, I want to show you how many people play this music. See? Look at them. There are more than thirty seven, and they play so many different instruments together, in perfect timing.”
And so Yar Mohammad, who slept in my father’s room in those last nights, received his own initiation into the niceties of a western symphony orchestra and its moving parts.
I said, “I’m going to put on something you’ll like.” And I played Amir Khusrau’s Rung, Amjad Sabri’s jubilant, ecstatic qawwali rendition, recorded just before his assassination. Something that, belting down the motorway on my way to see him, I had played at full volume, thinking how he would enjoy it.
O walls of clay hear my behest
Tonight my beloved
is coming to me So keep your vigil
glow through the night’
‘...I have found my guide Nizamuddin Auliya I have found my guide Alauddin ‘Sabir’
O God’s beloved,
Such colour as this I have not seen ...Look how the clouds of blessed mercy surge today
…rain down sweetness
But he laid the iPad away from him, and motioned to me to turn it off.
“It’s too heavy,” he said. “Not for tonight. Maybe some other night.”
That night did not come. And although the singing was exultant, I understood, albeit dimly then, its reminder of the return to the maker.