The singing activist

Berjis Desai


Scene I. Friday night. A makeshift stage has been set up, in one of the back lanes of Bombay Central. Some tube lights are hastily tied together to dispel the darkness. Two men — one playing the harmonium (an instrument then banned on All India Radio) and the other playing the tabla — sit on the stage with a bored expression. The restive audience, mostly male, anxiously await the entry of the qawwali queen, Mahaafrid (one as pretty as the full moon), as advertised on shabby billboards. Upon a cue, the bored musicians play a tune and Mahaafrid’s rather tiny form enters, clad in a tight fitting purple satin dress, brass bell anklets on feet thumping the stage. Catcalls and whistles follow, as she bends from the waist, welcoming the audience, with both hands laden with red and green glass bangles. May not be as pretty as the full moon, but certainly attractive. She begins to belt solo numbers, before she is joined on stage by an all-male troupe. The male lead singer and she wage a mock battle, with exaggerated body movements. The audience is in raptures. Several pot-bellied men clamber on the stage, wave 50-rupee notes on her head and leave money in a container. The show ends at 3 a.m. when Mahaafrid, now wearing a cotton frock and rubber chappals, walks to her home in one of the run-down Parsi colonies of Tardeo.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Two years earlier, when she was answering her Hindi paper in the prelims before the SSC Board exam, a subject in which she excelled among all students in the Parsi charity school, the principal, grim faced, walked up to her and informed that her father had died. She never attended school again. Poverty soon began to gnaw. The mother and daughter contemplated relocating to Surat, their home town, and then dismissed the idea. Blessed with a melodious if slightly husky voice, she did odd jobs in the morning and learnt Urdu at night. Singing lessons followed. This was the era of qawwalis in Bombay, with Shakeela Bano Bhopali the undisputed queen of the genre. From taxi drivers to industrialists, Bhopali’s fans thronged the Birla Matoshree Sabhagar to enjoy her inimitable mannerisms; the kajal oozing almond eyes darting on her rotund face, her pouting lips, the thrusting torso, the dismissive gestures and that seductive voice flirting with every person in the packed hall. Bhopali was impressed with the girl’s talents and she was engaged to be part of the troupe. 
A Parsi girl singing qawwali! Sacrilege! A few years prior, the Minocherhomji sisters had to conceal their identity behind assumed names like Saraswati Devi to escape the ire of a rabidly orthodox community. The girl became Mahaafrid. Soon, the word spread anyway. Scathing stares and lewd comments followed. She ignored them. Then one evening, a colony lout exceeded his limit. She was not the type to quietly sob at night. She walked up to him, extended her full five feet frame, and slapped him so hard across the temple that he fainted. After the slapping, not a whimper was heard. A mobed in the agiary was about to lecture her on the unZoroastrian act of qawwali singing; she put the prayer book aside and whispered a choice abuse. The priest scampered for cover. 
She could not tolerate the intrigue and back biting in Bhopali’s troupe and decided to go solo. Of course, she did not have the maestro’s looks or talents. Guts and gusto, gumption and chutzpah she possessed in plenty. Mahaafrid became the poor man’s Bhopali and acquired a good fan following. Her performances were vigorous. Her personality capable of dealing with any challenges. If an inebriated fan tried to be personal, her bouncers would politely escort him to a corner, where a few blows in the abdomen would make the amour go cold. The audience found her spunkiness to be novel. She did not think much of men and marriage. Her ageing mother was the love of her life. As wrinkles multiplied and the body became less lithe to indulge in stage acrobatics like jumping off the stage into the frenzied audience, she retired to a quiet and intensely introvert life. And then, her mother died.
Scene II. After four months of the body being consigned to the Towers of Silence at Doongerwadi, she went to offer prayers on Fravardin mah and Fravardin roz near the dakhma, as many devout Parsis and Iranis (who also place cucumbers and melons there) do. She got a powerful stench. Casually, she asked a nassessalar whether there was any problem of disposal. The fellow laughed uproariously and flippantly said, "I can still identify your mother’s body.” Her anger and anguish knew no bounds. She was well connected with the staff who realized that she spoke the same language. They knew of her reputation as a firebrand. Assiduously, she went about collecting evidence, including a gut-wrenching visit inside the dakhma, when she saw her mother again. Local television channels received a video tape. Even medical personnel could not bear to see the rotting bodies with skin stuck to the inner walls of the central pit, in varying states of decay. A couple of channels displayed a few relatively less gruesome pictures. All hell broke loose. The establishment could neither deny nor comment. The fundamentalists were furious. They thought powerful reformists had used her to raise the issue in public. The truth was different. Abusive phone calls followed. "We will bury you alive,” they threatened. She kept silent until a caller said something about her mother. In a cold and chilling voice, she said, "I know your identity. I will personally emasculate you with a rusty knife, so that you are rendered incapable of having any further incestuous relations with your mother.”  The roughneck had never heard such original abuse in Hindi from an old Parsi woman. Somehow, he knew that she was not fibbing. The calls stopped. 
Scene III. In 2008, during the historical elections for the Bombay Parsi Punchayet trustees, she went hammer and tongs at the orthodox camp. She attended and heckled their election meetings, oblivious of the goons staring at her. "Touch me and I will get your candidate behind bars, I promise,” she said with a dirty smile. One evening, she created such a rumpus that they picked up her chair and carried her out of the hall, as she treated the bemused audience to some exotic vocabulary from the by lanes of Grant Road. Thanks to her relentless campaign, the administration was forced to increase the intensity of the solar panels (the rays of which dehydrate bodies in three days with wisps of smoke emitting, except during the monsoon, of course). The interiors of the dakhmas are frequently cleaned and the remains buried. She nearly wrenched out of them a separate prayer hall at Doongerwadi for those opting for cremation, until they reneged on their promise.
Scene IV. She founded and financed a charity trust, in her mother’s name, for secular help to disadvantaged girl students, so that they did not have to drop out from school like her; for children of commercial sex workers in Kamathipura, Bombay’s red light district; for AIDS awareness and medical help. She harangued municipal officers to provide her with premises to run computer classes for these children, spending hours every day, in sweltering heat, using public transport. She lives a frugal life on bare subsistence; her substantial investments were channelled into providing succor to the poor and disabled, so that young girls are not compelled to sing lewd qawwalis before lecherous audiences, but blossom with dignity. 

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.