The blazing sun did not allow me to look up as I walked. So a commander from the Myanmar Navy, my personal escort, guided me through the thick crowd with a strong hand on my shoulder.
I was in Yangon for a four-day visit, with the squadron of ships I commanded.
As we came under the shadow of a big structure, I looked up, my palms shielding my eyes. Being too close to the structure, I had to take many steps back to get a view.
It was stupendous.
Towering above was the centuries-old Shwedagon Pagoda, in all its enormity, shimmer and glory.
It was sheathed in pure gold and covered with thousands of diamonds and rubies. Its apex, more than 100 metres high, was lost somewhere in the spotless blue sky above.
Though I was standing under one of the finest structures in this world, my mind wasn’t there. In fact, my mind had been elsewhere since the time I had chanced upon something in a tourist brochure that came with a set of official documents the Myanmar Navy had handed over to me as I arrived with our ships at Yangon a day before. It was not something that I had not known. I had only forgotten.
The tour of the great pagoda over, I got into my car for the short journey to the place where an Indian lay buried. An Indian, whose life and fate in many ways mirrored the life and fate India. It was as if India herself lay buried there.
I walked into the mausoleum with a sense of awe. And some responsibility too.
The Indian Navy routinely visits ports abroad for a variety of reasons: formal visits, operational stops for logistic reasons, missions in support of disaster relief activities. Often, a senior Naval officer may also fly in from India to join the ships during formal visits, to act as the figurehead at official functions. But whatever the case, the senior officer of a group of visiting ships and the captain of every ship has to do a lot of heavy lifting to carry the fair name of India.
Great responsibility also rests on every officer and sailor from the crew. One misdemeanour, one wrong word, one misstep, can ruin the whole visit, and along with that, the image of India.
I had the feeling that entry of tourists had been temporarily restricted owing to my visit. Maybe it was my military escort and the obvious advance liaison work. It was a bit unnerving. The year was 2010 and the ancient country of Myanmar was going through the rigours of post-colonial power adjustments akin to what happened in many countries in Asia and Africa. The military was in power.
A blind maulavi received me beside the mazar located at what is believed to be the exact spot where Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Zafar was no ordinary man. As the last Mughal, it was his lot to carry the more than three-century-long story of the rise and fall of the Mughals to the grave. His empire was only in name. His authority was restricted only to Old Delhi. His title was an allotment by the British. He spent his life immersed in poetry.
The tide of history
However, life was to take a huge turn. Probably the last of many turns for the Mughals in history. The soldiers of the First War of Independence in 1857 forcibly installed him as their leader and the British promptly rewarded him with exile to Yangon, where he lived and died in less than ordinary circumstances. Tormented by the memories of his children murdered by the British, his helplessness against the tide of history revealed to him in all starkness by his own talent at poetry, the journey to the grave might have been a release he had yearned for.
What Zafar carried to his grave was what countless humans have carried to their graves from the beginning of time. Something, which countless humans will carry to their graves till eternity too. Gifts, from the lowest troughs of the eternal sine wave of destiny.
The maulvi said something in welcome. Though I didn’t understand, I recognised traces of Hindi and Urdu.
I learnt that he was from Mumbai and that he was the main caretaker.
I was guided through the standard process of paying respects to the departed soul. But my mind was swimming. I asked the maulavi if I could sing a song.
He was surprised. But he promptly indicated his assent with a nod of his head and a gesture of his right hand. There was probably some resignation too. After all, I had been brought in by the all-powerful military.
I had first heard that song in 1998. It had emanated from a humble tenement beside a railway track in Mumbai. My train had stopped awaiting signal somewhere close to the VT station and the song had emanated like perfume from the squalor and stink around. The words were not clear but the tune was captivating. I quickly learned the basic tune.
From VT station I went straight to Rhythm House, the music store at Kala Ghoda. A quick rendering of the tune to a salesperson and the rest was easy.
It took me only two days to imbibe the song. That timeless qawwali by Aziz Nazan, Chadhta Suraj Dheere Dheere, Dhalta Hai, Dhal Jayega (Beware! the sun that rises gloriously in the sky, does also ultimately set) virtually invaded my being. I sang it all the time. Day and night. Day after day. Singing it for an audience was the only way to exorcise myself of it. But somehow, I never got a stage to sing it in public.
I closed my eyes and started the alaap, which rises sharply to high pitch and then drops down as quickly as it had climbed up. A clever idea for the lines ‘Hue naamwar, benishaan kaise kaise, zameen khaa gayi, naujawan, kaise kaise’ (there were many famous people in this world, but there is no trace of them today, as the earth has swallowed them all).
My military escorts were probably too startled to even think of stopping me. I just sang with all the passion I could muster.
From the opening alaap to the last verse, that qawwali is a killer. A killer of vanity and self-importance.
Every verse assumed amazing meaning in the place I was. But as I progressed, I wondered whether Zafar deserved the lines I was singing. At “kal jo tan ke chalte thay, apni shaan aur shaukat par, shamma tak nahi jalti, aaj unki turbat par” (there isn’t even someone to light a lamp at the grave of those who were once strutting around, proud of their wealth or power), I was convinced.
Bahadur Shah Zafar didn’t deserve those lines. Probably his soul would have been singing along with me, finding the verses relevant to his tormentors.
As I left the place after signing the visitors’ book, I kept wondering. This week marks the 160th anniversary of his demise in faraway Yangon, I still wonder. Who did those verses apply to, especially in the place I was singing.
It was certainly not Zafar.
Commodore G Prakash (retired) was a naval aviator and anti submarine warfare specialist, who commanded three ships and three large units in his 36 years of service.