The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In his Life of Pi, Yann Martel has a lot to say about how to survive when ship-wrecked on the open seas. He was transporting a part of his zoo at Pondicherry to Canada when their ship ran into inclement weather and sank. Just in time, the crew were able to lower life-boats. Martel was able to get into one. His companions were a zebra with a broken leg, an orang-utan, a hyena and a Royal Bengal Tiger. The hyena killed the zebra and the orangutan, and ate them up. The tiger killed the hyena and filled its belly with what remained of the zebra, the orang-utan and hyena.

Only the tiger and the author were left alive occupying opposite ends of the boat. The author had to keep the tiger’s hunger and thirst satiated and prevent the beast from devouring him as well. he did all he could catching fish and turtles and collecting rain water to keep the predator at bay. He has some pertinent observations on the phenomenon called fear. He writes:

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always, one moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with it with little trouble. You become anxious. Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering your anxiety becomes dread.

“Fear next turns fully to your body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on. Already your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a snake. Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to gallop on the spot. Your ears go deaf. Your muscles begin to shiver as if they had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing. Your heart strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much. And so with the rest of your body. Every party of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. they always pay proper attention to fear.

“Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you’ve defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.

“The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

Fear is the basic instinct which stays with us all our lives. We know it by many names: bhae (Hindi), bhoy (bengali) darr (Hindustani), dahashat (Urdu) and their synonyms in other languages. It is the basis on which religions build their edifices and exhort us to pray to an unknown power. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” says the Bible. I expect the word wisdom means awareness; we are beset with fears of some kind of the other from birth to death. Fear can be of different degrees: apprehension, nervousness, scare, dread, terror. A child both loves his parents and fears their displeasure. In school and college we fear bullies, displeasing our teachers, doing badly in exams. At work we fear our bosses, our businesses collapsing, symptoms of ailments that our bodies are prone to. Most of all we fear death. Anyone who says he is not afraid of dying is a liar. We hear of men who go to battle fearlessly. It is not true. They are either crazed with hatred of the enemy and temporarily overcome fear or take drugs to numb their senses. I am told Sardar Bhagat Singh went to the gallows without any fear and without compromising with his disbelief in the existence of god. He must have been an exception to the general rule that fear is all-pervading.

A town called Eighty-four Evenings

That’s how some people translate the word, “Sham Chaurasi”. I did not know whether it was the name of an institution, place, or a sect. I vaguely connected it with Indian classical music. It is in fact the name of a qasba (township) in Hoshiarpur which amongst other things, gave birth to a family of singers thereafter known as Sham Chaurasi gharana, rival to the Patiala gharana. Its most famous singers of recent times were the dhrupad singers, Salamat Ali and his brother Nazakat Ali.

There are different versions of the origin of the name. One is that the village was once inhabited by Brahmins and named after Sham Pandit or after Krishna, also known as Shyama. Another is that it derives from a sufi peer, Shamoo Shah, who is buried there. His urs is celebrated every year with singing of Qawallis and folk songs. Chaurasi (84) apparently refers to the cluster of eighty-four surrounding villages which formed a land revenue collection zone set up by Sardar Baghel Singh misldar and confirmed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

The dhrupad tradition was started by two brothers, Suraj Khan, who excelled in day ragas, and Chand Khan, who excelled in night ragas. They were contemporaries of Mian Tansen, emperor Akbar’s court singer. Nazakat and Salamat are their descendants.

On partition of Punjab in 1947, most Muslims of Sham Chaurasi fled to Pakistan and were replaced by Hindus and Sikhs. The musical tradition died out for a while. It was revived by the locals in 1953. They invited Nazakat Ali to perform in his birthplace. A huge congregation numbering several lakhs gave him a warm welcome. The event was highlighted by Jalandhar All India Radio under its station director, Jodh Singh, who was committed to reviving Punjabi folk songs. The moving spirit behind Sham Chaurasi melas is Gurmeet Khanpuri, correspondent of the leading Punjabi daily, Ajit.

It is heartening to see that despite the animosity between India and Pakistan, people of both countries cherish links that once bound them. However, my main interest was in Sham Chaurasi’s resonant name. We have so many towns and villages and localities with names that sound very pleasant to the ears: Jhumri Tilaiya, Mani Majra, Varanasi, Gobindgarh, Chattisgarh, Shyam Nagar, Mahboob ki Mehndi, and others. When we rename places, we should keep the poetic and musical aspect in our minds.

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