In one of the bye lanes of Delhi’s Chowk, a young man was seemingly lost. Wearing an embroidered kurta, spotlessly white Pyjamas, reeking of perfume and a note in hand, he was looking for the “Kothi” of a particular prostitute in Delhi’s Red Light area. Both sides of this barely ten feet wide lane were lined up with “Kothis” of prostitutes. In the fading evening light, the curtains were shining bright. To attract customers, the prostitutes had dressed scantily, exposing their beauty, betel leaves in mouth. It all created an impression of the Glory of Lucknow!
With the looks of a film star, and the immaculate dress, this young man soon caught the attention of the pimps, thronging the lane. Looked as if a scion of a very rich family had ventured here to satisfy his lust and it would be easy to squeeze some money from him by taking him to the “right place.” The pimps started walking alongside him. Whistles were already coming his side from some of the Kothis.
In the name of entertaining clients with music, flesh trade was thriving here. Often, a prostitute , reading the mind of the customer, would sing a piece or two, accompanied by Harmonium and Tabla , and then shut the door of her kothi only to open her own!
One of the pimps, walking alongside of this young man, said, winking his eyes:’ Sir, what would you like to listen to? Thumri, Tappa, Dadra or Gazal? Only recently a beauty from Lucknow has arrived……what a voice she has!……Delhi has never heard such a voice till now. The other pimp intervened,:” Sir, if you don’t mind, may I say something? A girl from Agra has come. Not only does she sing, but when she dances along with it, it seems as if a garden is in full bloom! ….she has danced in many films…..and what beauty!…..if you say I can arrange her for the night…..”
But that young man, showing the note in his hand, said,:” That Rehmatbai, who earlier used to sit in Naya Bazar, has recently come here. I want to go to her Kothi, would you know where it is?”
“Oh oh Sir, what are you talking? The days and times of Rehmatbai are over long since. Had you come some thirty or forty years ago, everybody would have talked about her……but to-day she is a spent force. Her sun has already set….”
“But I want to meet her only”.
“Sir, that old woman’s era is over. To-day she does not have anyone who could even accompany her on Harmonium or Tabla, nor does she have any beautiful girls with her. Yes there are two worthless girls with
her…..Sir trust me and come with me…..I will take you to the best in Delhi….”
But this young man did not listen to him. After some effort, he located the place where Rehmatbai lived.
Climbing up the worn staircase he entered directly in the drawing room. The worn out carpet and the curtains and the old black sofa set reminded one of the glory that was!
There was no one in the drawing room. A low powered bulb was providing some dim light. It appeared as if no one was around. He called out. From an inside room, a voice came. “Please take your seat, I will be right there.”
This young man, after some hesitation, took his seat in one corner of the sofa. After some time, a young lady, about 19 or 20years old, entered. Yes her complexion was only a light brown but her face reflected culture and she certainly looked more than just likeable. Upon seeing the young man on the sofa, she thought that a customer had come, she immediately offered a “Mujra” and a salute to him.
The shy man ,springing up from the sofa, said:” Is Rehmatbai not there?”
“She is there but she does not entertain anyone any more.”……then added in a low voice: “But I am here to be of service to you.”
“Oh, said the young man. I presume that you are Rehmatbai’s daughter. If you have inherited music
from your mother, then I would like to hear some old pieces . Especially the one in Raga Lalita
goury. I have heard that Ustad Zandekhan learnt it from Rehmatbai. The woman immediately understood that this young man had come to listen to some really old time music and is quite knowledgeable can appreciate good music, but as per the custom , she said ;’Sir, I too know many songs of Saigal, that Bhairavi….Bajubandha,Khulkhul Ja, sung by Ustad Faiyazkhan, which was originally sung by Lalankhan, is worth giving a ear to. I will sing a few pieces of Wajid Ali Shah too. Sir, I am the Wine and I am the Saki (Server), you will soon be drunk and the effect will remain till the early hours of morning”, saying that she let her scarf slide down her shoulders, revealing her curves.
But the young man without losing his composure, said:” Can I please meet your mother?”
The girl understood that this was no ordinary client, so went inside and called her mother.
Rehmatbai entered. A woman in her mid-forties, slightly plump, white skin but her body still reminding of the beauty she must have been in the past. Just as she entered, the young man got up and touched her feet! Rehmatbai was taken by surprise, gave the young man a piercing look and sat down on the carpet. The young man also sat opposite her.
” I have only recently been transferred here from Jaipur. I am in the music department of All India Radio.
I am trying to restore our long forgotten heritage of our old classical music, if only T could get the support and cooperation of people like you…….Nenawarbai of Jaipur gave me your name so I have come here looking for you.” thus saying, he took out two hundred rupee notes from his pocket, and placing them before her feet, said:” I am but an ordinary government servant and cannot efford more, but kindly accept this token of my appreciation” Rehmatbai just looked at those notes and without even touching them, asked the young man, testing his real intentions:” Young man, are you married?”
“Anyone in mind?”
“Look, this girl sitting here is my daughter. Have you seen her beauty? A second one is inside, working in the kitchen. Exactly a carbon copy of this one. Keep coming, they will make you happy. I do not believe in paying pimps to attract clients, do you understand? Spend the night here. It is my invitation to you, saying which she cast a piercing look at him. The young man was absolutely speechless. This was an open invitation to the flesh trade. A challenge to his youth.
He hesitated……but just for a moment.
Then he said in a low voice :”Where is the other girl?”
“In the kitchen. Shall I call her?”
The other girl came. Exactly like her sister.
“Amma, how many daughters do you have?”
“Two. Make your choice.”
“Both” said the young man and pulled out two five rupee notes from his pocket, and giving them to the girls, said:
“This is from your brother!”
Now it was Amma, who was taken by surprise.
” Young man, are you really interested in music?”
“I am a slave of music.”
“This is a market which sells flesh. Many people come here under the pretext of listening to music, name a few pieces, listen to one or two, nodding their heads as if they understand and appreciate the niceties of what is being presented, then spend the entire night in bed with the young girls. This is my personal experience. I have also seen the world. Now tell me, are you really interested in music or the two girls?”
“In both. If the girls have really trained under you, I will accept them as my GURUS, you of course will always remain one.”
Rehmatbai now came and sat next to the young man. Taking him in a tight embrace and kissing his forehead, she told the two girls,:” A Hindu brother has come .Put a vermillion mark on his forehead and accord him a traditional Hindu welcome.”
That night, Rehmatbai’s drawing room was witness to a unique session of music.
After many years, Rehmatbai dusted her Tanpura, tuned it and then gave her vocal chords a free reign. She sang many old ragas, Dadra, Thumri, Hori, Tappa……an entire range of Indian Classical Music. With the rendition of Raag Bhairavi the session ended in the early hours of morning. The young man was very happy, so also were Rehmatbai and her two daughters. After how many years had Rehmatbai got an opportunity to open up?
After the morning tea, when the young man touched the feet of all of them to take their leave , an overwhelmed Rehmatbai took him in a tight embrace and said:” Keep coming, my son. I will sing for you. At this age, my voice is not responding but I can still teach you some intricacies of our classical music.” Then returning his money, she said:” Here, take these back, they are not required.”
“But…but…you have toiled for six hours…you have earned it”
“Son, there are some rules/principles to earning too. Give it to your mother from me.”
“You are my mother, so I give it to you.”
“Well, think as if I have received them.”
“Then let me give it to my sisters.”
“They too have received them. I have been observing you in the last six hours. You have never cast a dirty look at either of them. Had I even seen a hint of lust in your eyes, I would have kept the money. I can judge people. After all, I am a cheap woman from the trade.”
After that, this young man has never felt any shame in entering this lane.
A STORY BY GIRISH GANATRA
nd without even tou