In my virus-induced solitude, I’ve been listening repeatedly to songs from the film Gaman (1978).
I first heard them in 2008 while writing Mumbai Fables (2010). Then, I was looking for expressions of the meanings of home for Bombay’s immigrants, those who were not customarily included in the imagination of the city’s vaunted cosmopolitanism. Muzaffar Ali’s film beautifully represented how the struggling, immigrant taxi drivers lived their daily life with a subaltern cosmopolitanism of humanity and solidarity while experiencing the unhomely city.
The images of thousands of stranded migrant workers walking to their homes hundreds of kilometers away from Delhi and other cities immediately brought to my mind two songs in particular from Gaman. Both were exquisitely written by the poet Shahryar and composed to achingly soulful melodies by Jaidev.
The first is Ajeeb Saneha Mujh Par Guzar Gaya Yaaron (A strange incident occurred to me, my friends). In the film, the song plays in the background as an immigrant from Uttar Pradesh (played by Farooq Shaikh) sits in the back seat of the taxi driven by his friend (played by Jalal Agha) as it traverses Bombay’s streets. The strange urban experiences recounted in the song speak to the alienation, anonymity, and dashed hopes in the city.
It ends with the devastating lines “Woh kaun tha, Woh kahaan ka tha, Kya hua usse, Sunaa hai aaj koi shakhs mar gaya yaaron” (Who was he, Where was he from, What happened to him, I hear a man died today, my friends.”
The second song is Seene Mein Jalan, Aankon Mein Toofaan Kyon hai, Iss Shahar Mein Har Shakhs Pareshaan sa Kyun Hai (Why this heartburn, Why these storm-filled eyes, Why is everyone so troubled in the city). Sung by Suresh Wadkar, the song captures the immigrant’s experience of the merciless, stone-hearted metropolis. As you listen to it now, you cannot dissociate its searing expressions of unhomeliness from the heart-breaking images of stranded, hungry and homeless migrants left to their fate by an uncaring government.
As I play these songs in my comfortable isolation in Princeton, they remind me of the unspeakable horror faced by poor immigrants and fill me with anger at callous governments and ideologies.
Gyan Prakash is Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Princeton University and the author most recently of Mumbai Fables and Emergency Chronicles.
Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.