Chapter 1

Have you,’ he cried in a dreadful voice, ‘have you ever suffered?’

Gabriel Syme, The Man Who Was Thursday, G K Chesterton

The Pakistani qawwal trio, Lal Shahbazz Brothers, had reached a sort of climax when Shehzad stepped into the kitchen. He could tell from the expression on his father’s face, a rapturous grin of ecstasy that was spread from ear to ear. The imam’s hands were raised in anticipation – he was holding an invisible baton.

Even though his father was wearing headphones – an expensive, cordless Bose set that Shehzad brought back from London – the voices of the trio were still audible, a thin, discreet wail, as if coming from some far off place in the night. The lush resonance of the composition forcefully struck Shehzad, and, as if pulled by some invisible force, he strained his ear to catch it.

He could hear the joyous blend of the music, the driving, pounding beats of the tabla, dholak and pakhwa. The soaring tari, a form of ritualised handclapping, beat rhythmically to the music. In the background, the delicate twang of a sitar struggled to keep pace. It was a live recording and the ecstatic, fevered audience whooped and hollered in the background.

Shehzad felt a sharp pang in his chest, slightly to the left from the middle, where he imagined his heart to be.

The song, Midnight, was about the betrayal of a love. It was a wailing lament to loss, hurt, and anguish. A prince finds his wife in a midnight tryst with a stranger in the garden. It was their love garden that they’d planned and worked on together over the years. The stranger was even sitting on his spot on the kanapeh.

How could she do that, how? He howls in anguish at the moon, pleading for divine retribution, threatening death and destruction to her lover and all his family.

 

Shehzad knew the song.

It was the same song that was playing at the exact moment when Maqsood Ali Aurakzai, the Pakistani-born proprietor of the Royal Palace Hotel (34, 36, 38 Kingsmead Road, London, NW3) had eased his hard, slimy cock up Shehzad.

Unlike the imam’s CD, Aurakzai ’s recording was an old, scratchy record, an original that was reissued by Decca Pakistan in 1963.

Shehzad distinctly remembered seeing the album cover out of the corner of his eye before the qat took hold. It was strategically placed on the mantelpiece of Aurakzai’s rooftop penthouse suite at No.34, the finest of all his properties, that is to say, the least shabbiest of the three properties. It was a yellowing picture of the youthful, unsmiling brothers sitting self-consciously cross-legged on a ragged Baluchi carpet, surrounded – somewhat incongruously – by tatty Victorian furniture from the days of the British Empire.

Midnight was the last song on the brothers’ 1948 live album, Memories, recorded at the Kandy Bioscope in Hyderabad a year after Partition. It was a contentious song, its meaning and significance arousing fierce debate over the years. Not only a simple love song!, the loyal fans argued vociferously. Was not its all-too-obvious title a reference to Partition, when Pakistan was born at the stroke of midnight on August 14th 1947? Was it not about the loss, anguish and betrayal experienced by the millions so cruelly wrenched from their homes on both sides?

The Lal Shahbazz Brothers consistently denied it, but with knowing twinkles in their eyes, stoking the embers of a faux-controversy for almost forty years. Whether they played in the dusty halls of Islamabad, or the grand Royal Albert in London, their gnomic response was always the same at these prestigious mahfil-e-sama.

 

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