I am sure that many of my readers must have read the hilariously funny comic book featuring Asterix, Obelix and the indomitable Gaulish Village. One of my favorite characters in these stories is Cacofonix, the Bard, whose singing always lands him in trouble. It was just yesterday that while browsing through one of these wonderful tales, my mind wandered back in time to Lahore’s wandering minstrels - the subject for this week’s piece. Then, as a bonus, I tossed in some real life characters, who thought they could sing - while their audience didn’t.

One could hear their synchronized melodious voices as the pair walked up the drive of our home in Lahore. We never found out their names as they did not speak much, but what we did know was - that they had contracted severe small pox infection as children and had consequently lost their sight. Each of them carried a ‘sarangi’ (the Subcontinental cousin of the violin, but perhaps older in origin), which they played without even a single note getting out of synch. Their expertise on the ‘sarangi’ was equally matched by excellent vocal chords used to render ‘naats’ or folk songs creating a mesmerizing effect. Down the years, I watched them grow old and then lost track of them as I entered a career away from home.

Sunnoo was responsible for keeping our premises clean. This handsome young man lived with his wife and two male siblings in a ‘quarter’ adjacent to one end of our rather large compound. His proximity was made even more convenient as one of his iron barred windows opened into an overgrown enclave within our premises. It was through this window that we often heard the strains of a battered ‘harmonium’ and Sunnoo’s rich voice singing old Saigol melodies. We would often ask this talented young man to come to our rear patio to perform during summer evenings and my father even tried to get this gifted individual into films without any results. Sunnoo and his family moved away, when the property they were on changed hands, but this remarkable individual left us with pleasant memories of a deeply sonorous voice and unforgettable summer evenings.

Then there was Islamuddin aka Baray Mian. This character was employed as a young ‘syce’ or groom by my great grandfather, decades before Independence and stayed with the family thereafter. In 1947, he migrated to Pakistan as a man well past his prime and surprisingly made a beeline for our house on Queens Road. How he managed to do this in all the mayhem and confusion of the bloody trans-border migration is a mystery. On arrival, Islamuddin promptly assumed the role of ‘Storyteller’ and ‘the Keeper of the Swing’.

As the monsoons arrived and billowing grey clouds covered the sky, Baray Mian would roust out last year’s rope, a pair of cotton filled cushions and a wooden seat from the junk store. He would then supervise the setting up of a rope swing and its accessories on the old ‘Pipal’ tree next to the kitchen, watched by the entire family. It was during this process that he would break out into songs about ‘saawan, jhoolaas’ and love. These ditties delivered in a cracked and raucous voice, sans the faintest hint of melody made us scamper for relief. Not satisfied with this performance, Islamuddin would then embark on assisting family members in using the swing. This would have been tolerable, had not this unique and loyal individual insisted on singing again and again.

Baba Jalal was a middle aged man, who was palmed off to us by a family acquaintance. This individual had apparently lost his mind for some odd reason and would sit in remote parts of our garden singing in a loud voice. What he sang was partly incomprehensible and torturous to the ears. Repeated instructions to stop this activity resulted in sulking sessions, till we found a solution. We told him that he could sing all he wanted to, while running errands for my mother, to the bazaar and back. The end result was that one could hear his ‘so called song’ as he entered the gate and walked up the drive, but the moment he sighted the house, he would lapse into sudden silence as if a button had been punched.

I am sure that the pair of wandering minstrels or Sunnoo have passed on from this world taking their music with them. As for Baray Mian and Baba Jalal, they were lovable characters, but like Cacofonix, liable to get into trouble because they thought they could sing.