On a morning in late December 2019, after a night spent in a village home in Rajkot district, Gujarat, I sit with my fellow travellers in a school yard. When we arrived the previous evening, the local people had been assembling the poles that would scaffold a shamiana to shelter us for the time we would spend here. Up and ready, the tent almost blends in with the foliage of a thicket of small shade trees that have been planted in no particular order.
We are about a hundred in strength. Locals and visitors sit on the dhurries and plastic sheets. Our clothes are protected from the mud but the mats allow through the prod of pebbles and other bumpy earth material against our bodies. This evokes memories of school gatherings and I’m uncomfortable and comforted at once. I am a stranger to the Kabir Yatra. A first-timer, naturally shy of gatherings, I can still smell about me the fragrance of deodorants that us visitors must have worn on before coming here. We are sitting close together but not as pressed together as we will be by the end of this Yatra.
My daughters, a friend and I had arrived yesterday in Ahmedabad from Bangalore. The meeting point for Yatris was the café at Navajivan Press, founded by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the year of Indian Independence. We waited through the day for other Yatris to arrive. When Shabnam Virmani, one of the key performers at this festival of music, and her troupe of four arrived, my interest was piqued. The four seemed unusual for college students: urban and rather urbane, yet cradling tanpuras carefully in their laps.
In the 13-seater Tempo Traveler that we piled into, making space for everyone and their bags, 22-year-old Shreeparna recounted her encounter with the Bangalore city police the previous week. Along with other students, she was calling out slogans at an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest outside Town Hall when the police arrived, beat them up and took them away. She was detained for several hours in the police station with other protesters. Sitting in a jail cell, to raise the others’ spirits, Shreeparna taught them a song. Tu zinda hai toh zindagi ki jeet mei yakeen kar/ Agar kahin hai swarg toh utaar la zameen par/ Tu zinda hai! These lines translate to mean, if you are alive, then believe in the triumph of life/ If there is a heaven somewhere, bring it down to this earth. You are alive!
She sang Tu Zinda Hai for us in the Tempo Traveller that was now in near darkness, lurching along on the Ahmedabad-Rajkot highway, just a spotlight over the middle seats on her curly blue-black tresses. We joined in at the chorus, her voice lost some of its anxiety, and the Yatra truly began for us with the companionship that shared ideas bring.
The Baani (or wisdom of the saints), of which Sant Kabir’s couplets are a popular part, arose centuries ago from among the bards of the working class, people low on the caste hierarchy. The thousands that were not allowed access to upper caste Hindu temples and gods have looked for long to the poetry of Kabir and other saints to help them understand their place in the scheme of the earthly and the divine.
In the tradition of Kabir, we hear from Shabnam, there are four kinds of Ram. One is the character from the story – the son of King Dasharat, the second Ram is the spirit that dwells in every creature, from the third Ram spreads all creation and the fourth is beyond all knowing… beyond definition. “We mostly talk about the entry-level Ram,” she smiles. She sings:
“You have wandered far, Kabir
Take rest from craving, my mind,
Walking, seeking, an age has passed…
But lo! Turn the sesame seed and find, under it, Ram!”
Upon arriving at the village the previous evening we had explored cotton crop and fruit and vegetable farms. We had seen huge ploughing bulls and smiled and exchanged banter through gestures with hosts who spoke only in a dialect of Gujarati that is spoken in this part of Saurashtra.
Our hosts plant, and eat what they grow. Their lives are as simple and as difficult as this sounds. They had watched us with concern, worried that they might not meet our expectations of hospitality. We got the best spots to sleep, often the one bedroom that the most vulnerable in the family occupies. The women of the house would share the room with us. Their men slept on cots on the cold porch. Packets of Lays chips and Parle-G biscuits were opened and bowls of these were placed before us alongside hardy bajra roti, brinjal curry, pickled green chilli, buttermilk and jaggery… the chips and biscuits seeming like offerings to the urban gods who had descended on their homes.
We had slept side-by-side. We now sat shoulder-to-shoulder with our hosts to listen to the singers of Baani, on the dhurries and under the shamiana at the little school.
Mahesha Ramji and his troupe from Malwa, Shabnam and her students, formed the inner circle. The rest of us arranged ourselves like rose petals around them. Between the songs, Chaitanya bhai, an organiser, introduced to us a visitor from Kashmir. Riyaz bhai, he said, was a friend he made in 2005 when his non-profit went to help with rescue and relief work in the state that was reeling from a massive earthquake.
“Ask Riyaz bhai about the situation in Kashmir since Article 370 was removed,” Chaitanya bhai said, handing the mic to Riyaz bhai. The latter seemed as uneasy to speak as the group under the shamiana seemed to be to listen. Disquiet crept over us.
Unable to refuse the mic that his host urged on him, Riyazbhai finally asked: “What is Kashmir to you? What does it mean to you?”
“You are part of India, you are one of us,” someone answered, perhaps trying to speak in the spirit of comradeship. This was a somewhat unfortunate answer as many Kashmiris do not see themselves and their land as part of India.
Riyaz bhai asked how we would have felt about keeping “one of us” under siege for as long as the Indian government has kept Kashmir. “Is this what you would do to one that you saw as ‘your’s’? Do you understand how hard it has been?” he asked, his voice cracking with strain. The group shifted uncomfortably.
Chaitanya bhai, a steady-gazed, elderly man, calmly took his place to tell us about an earlier visit from Riyaz bhai. The latter had visited his home in Gujarat after they had worked together on rescue and relief in Kashmir. Chaitanya bhai’s young daughter, in the living room, while Riyaz bhai drank the tea that her mother had prepared, sang him a Kashmiri song. Listening to her high, pure tones, he was moved to tears. Hitherto having suspected Chaitanya bhai’s intentions, even while he had helped Kashmiris after the earthquake, and feeling very uneasy visiting Gujarat where the communal riots of 2002 were still a fresh wound… the girl’s song restored his faith. It touched in him a chord of humanity.
In a time when so many Indians want the CAA-NRC in place, and others oppose it, asking that Muslim brethren be accepted as citizens, demanding that the nation adhere to the spirit and not just to the letter of secularism enshrined in our Constitution, Chaitanya bhai’s telling of Riyaz’s tale, at the village school, is like a gentle stroke of the fingers on the strings of the tanpura.
Most poignant, then, are the voices of Shabnam, Shreeparna and the student troupe. They sing Tirhee Pawanda, one of the most haunting songs in the vast reservoir of Sindh’s ancient Sufi music. They dedicate the song to Riyaz bhai, to the suffering of the besieged and to those possibly on the verge of losing their nationhood, their all.
The song is sung softly, voices rising at Allah Hu, a prayer for the healing of faith breached again and again across human history.