When I mention a real character, the Calcutta singer/courtesan Gohar Jaan (who died in 1930) from her novel Gardish-i-Rang-i-Chaman she is most excited. I tell her that a musicologist friend has discovered some thumrees in her original voice. (These I deliver to her during my second visit, and when we listen to them she is in a state of disbelief.) She asks me to search for the music of Janki Bai, another luminary of the early 20th century. (When I later call my musicologist friend to request that he dig out Janki’s music, he is stunned when I tell him why). Ainee is fluent in the language of music; she co-authored a book on Ustaad Barray Ghulam Ali Khan and in her heyday, played the piano and the sitar with equal ease.
She corrects me when I use the term a-historical (she calls it anti-historical) noting the systematic destruction of heritage across the subcontinent. We talk about her discovery of the first subcontinental novel written by Hasan Shah in 1790 – The Nautch Girl – which she translated in 1992. She is angry that no one bothered until she unearthed the manuscript from the Patna Library. We drift back into lost eras and she remarks that Dara Shikoh was a 21st century man. Small wonder that he was beheaded in the 17th century, I respond.
On my second visit, our conversation ends when Ainee, preempting my melodrama, warns me, “now don’t you do the conventional: it was great that I finally met you as I have been dying to meet you for so many years.” She also mocks a shudh Hindi version at me. We laugh endlessly, and I tell her that all the clichés are true and need to be expressed shamelessly.
As I leave, I promise that I will return very soon to present her with Janki Bai’s music. My undelivered letter to Ainee is getting longer. . . I shall need a lifetime to complete it.