Manzoor now set down his bounty before Khan-sahab, squatted on his haunches behind the bags, and stated his case.

“Huzoor, you have known me for years, and I have been lucky to have accompanied you on so many occasions. You remember that concert in Gwalior, when you sang Darbari? Mash-a-Allah! What a Darbari that was! You sang for four hours non-stop and even then the audience refused to let you go. There have been so many memorable concerts that generations will remember, and this naacheez, this nobody, has had the great good fortune of accompanying you and witnessing your magic. So you know my work, Khan-sahab, and my loyalty to you. If you were to recommend my name for a Padma award, Huzoor, my life’s mission would be accomplished. My beloved Shahabad could tell the world that even a Shahabadi has received a Padma award, and all because of the magnanimity of a divine musician. One nod from you, Khan-sahab, and this dream would become a reality for me.”

At this point Manzoor solicitously pressed the Ustad’s feet, then continued, “Look, Huzoor, I have collected all the material required to recommend my name.”

He hastily unzipped the bags, and laid out the albums and CDs and cassettes before Khan-sahab. Browsing through the albums and sifting indifferently through the albums, Khan-sahab occasionally stifled a yawn, grunted approvingly now and again, and chuckled sarcastically at times.

Finally, he waved a hand dismissively and said to Manzoor. “Achha, yaar, let me see what I can do. Don’t worry about it, Manzoor mian. If Allah wants you to get the Padma Shri, you will get it. In the meantime, let’s talk music. Do you remember, your waalid marhoom Zahoor Ahmad had a collection of rare compositions in some very unusual raags? What was that Shreetank bandish? Or did he call it Tankashree? I have never heard it from anyone else. Do you remember it?”

It did not take Manzoor even a second to gather what Khan-sahab was getting at. He did some quick thinking and made his move. If giving the bandish to Khan-sahab meant a Padma coming his way, it would be an investment worth the barter. In his mind, he quickly asked his dear departed father’s forgiveness, flashed a toothy smile at Khan-sahab, and said: “Tankashree? Of course, Huzoor. What would I do with that bandish? It will find a worthy place in your collection, Ustad ji. Here is how my waalid sahab would sing it...”

Just as he was about to burst into song, Riwayat Ali Khan raised an imperious hand and said, “No, no, not like this. Mian, these are rare pieces, not to be given and taken in jest. Come back next week and we will do a recording session right here, in this room. And then you record the Tankashree cheez for me, as well as any other rare compositions you feel I should have. And don’t be a kanjoos, mian! You play the harmonium, you don’t sing, so don’t be a dog in the manger and take them to the grave with you. Give them to a good gavaiyya, and when I or my sahabzada sing any of these, we will tell the world that we got these from the family of Zahoor Ahmad Shahabadi, no less. Understood?”

Manzoor would have liked to wrap up the deal then and there.

He did not want to waste any more time, but he had no option but to shake his head obediently, even enthusiastically. “You are right as always, Khan-sahab. These compositions are lost treasures in my care. Once you sing them, the world will know their true worth and will also respect my father, may Allah bless his soul, for his wisdom and knowledge.”

In a few minutes, he had been dismissed for the day and found himself lugging his three bags back to his modest home in Old Delhi. For the next three months or so, Manzoor was summoned repeatedly by Khan-sahab for almost eight to ten recording sessions. He ended up recording for Khan-sahab forty-five compositions in the rarest of raags from his late father’s hitherto secret collection. Khan-sahab would often receive phone calls during the recording sessions, stroll out of the room to answer his calls and then return only after an hour or so to terminate the session abruptly, saying he had some urgent work to attend to.

Manzoor wondered sometimes whether he was entertaining other guests and supplicants for Padma awards in his magnificent living room while he made Manzoor give up his family’s musical treasures. As the days dragged on, he became more and more restless and frustrated because not once during the recording sessions did Khan-sahab give even the slightest hint of his intentions regarding a Padma award for Manzoor.

In desperation, Manzoor turned to his other obsession, liquor.

He would drink every night, and become aggressive and violent if his sons, both budding musicians, tried to keep him away from the bottle. Soon, he was drinking during the day as well, and could barely conceal the strong whiff of stale liquor on his breath when he went to Khan-sahab’s home for the recording sessions.

One afternoon Khan-sahab dismissed him within ten minutes of the recording having begun, and told him to come back a week later. When Manzoor turned up that day, a little unsteady on his feet, the unfriendly guard at the gate glared at him with more disgust than hostility, went inside the house, probably reported Manzoor’s inebriated state to the sahab and memsahab, and returned to inform Manzoor that there would be no session today as Khan- sahab had to go out on urgent work.

Cursing under his breath, Manzoor lurched away from the gate, and felt his head spinning as he turned. It was a hot day. He felt incredibly thirsty and reached inside his bag for the quarter bottle he had stashed away. As soon as he was able to flag down an auto rickshaw and stumble into it, he put the bottle to his mouth and took a swig. As the driver lurched and braked repeatedly on his way to Old Delhi, Manzoor experienced repeated bouts of breathlessness.

By the time he reached the road which led to the gali where he lived, he was feeling nauseous. As he staggered towards his home, retching and gasping intermittently, some neighbours recognizsed him and tried to help. But with a sudden, last gasp, he collapsed on the road, a few metres from his home. A crowd gathered around him, while some boys ran to his home calling out to his sons. Naved and Zubaid, his two sons, rushed out towards him, and carried him home, yelling for an ambulance and crying for help.

Looking for Miss Sargam

Excerpted with permission from the story ‘Manzoor Rehmati’, from Looking For Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure, Shubha Mudgal, Speaking Tiger.