“How good is man’s life, the mere living! How fit to employ;
All the heart and the soul and the senses forever in joy.”
— Robert Browning

How many blessings in life can one count? And how many can be shared?

For the moment I’ll confine myself to just one great blessing in my life — my 20-year-old grandson Hasan. He was born to my younger daughter Sadia in 1997. He was born flat, could not breathe and was put on a respirator in the neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital. Blissfully, he eventually got off the life-saving contraption and came home to start life with his family.

His initial years were full of anxiety for us. But as time passed, a series of blessings started to come forth: his body movements that were initially slow normalised with time. He couldn’t sit up till he was 10 months old, but started to sit and balance himself before he was one. He couldn’t walk initially but slowly stood up and took the first few steps to the dining table to cut his third birthday cake. He wouldn’t talk, but started to utter phonetic sounds when he was three-and-a -half years old. It might sound late for his age but, when he was six, he started to speak clearly and his pronunciation became faultless. He had a squint in his left eye which was surgically corrected by Dr Mukhtar. His hearing became very sharp, sharper than any other in the family. His olfactory sense too became above average. Prof Hasan Aziz, a respected friend, a kind doctor and lover of music, monitored his namesake’s progress. Hasan grew up to be a handsome boy.

I can go on counting all the blessings relating to Hasan; how he has remained a source of continuous joy for us and enriched our life. But let me come to what my own life with my grandson has been.

Music speaks louder than words for an autistic child, but there are no music teachers for children with special needs

After a 20-year (1972-1992) uninterrupted shagirdi (tutelage) of Ustad Wilayat Ali Khan to learn classical music, as per the established Guru-Shishya Parampara (one-ustad-one-student arrangement), it was all over for me when my ustad passed away in May 2001, following the murder of his young son in a sectarian incident in Orangi Town. After wandering in the cultural wasteland for years, I realised that there was someone next to me — my autistic grandson. He loved music more than me or my late ustad. Hasan had not been taught music, but it was ingrained in his body and soul. The way he responded to a melody or rhythm was amazing. God had made good my loss. At the age of 70, I had found another soulmate, my own six-year-old grandson. Fate smiled and a tuneful association brightened my life once again.

I became Hasan’s music teacher. Let’s begin from the beginning, I said. Counting the beat: clap — 1, 2, 3, 4 — clap — 1, 2, 3, 4. Lo and behold! Nature had already taught the boy the preliminary lesson. He was clapping at the right places, be it a 1-2-3 cycle or a 1-2-3-4. Then hearing the soul-stirring musical sound — a raag sung by Ustad Amir Khan — he started to clap at the right places in the 48-beat ektala and his body language, too, showed as if he was a matured connoisseur going through an ecstatic experience. It never looked as if he was listening to the great singer for the first time. He was told that it was raag Darbari. The sound of Darbari, he has not forgotten to this day. Today, when he is asked what raag the film songs Dil jalta hai to jalne de (If the heart burns let it burn), or Ae dil mujhe aisi jagah le chal jahan koi na ho (Oh heart, take me to a place where there is no one) are based upon, pat comes the reply — Darbari.

The last 14 years have seen him learning to recognise and even sing at least the asthais and antras of nearly 30 raags. Not only that. He recognises the rhythm cycles played with teen-taal, ektala, jhaptal, roopak or dadra.

So far, every day has been a musical day. Hasan and I wake up in the morning and after breakfast head for the study where he has learnt to put the CD in the computer. The sound of Veena Saharsbudhe or Kaushaki Chakarvorti, Rashid Khan or Rajan Sajan Mishra, or any other from our collection of vocal and instrumental recordings breaks the early morning quiet. While I busy myself on the computer, Hasan starts the day with playing one CD after another. The tuneful session continues uninterrupted till 3 pm. Then we break for lunch. It is time now to retire for the afternoon nap. Even here, in bed, during the initial minutes before dozing off, we listen to music on the cell phone. In the evening, we start sailing again on the placid river of the raag.

During all these years, Hasan has made me hear every great Indian and Pakistani singer and instrumentalist a thousand times without boring me. Thinking about this unnatural perseverance on my part I have come to the conclusion that it is, in fact, me who has become like Hasan rather than Hasan becoming like me. Music does not disturb me at all, as I have learnt to concentrate on my work while the sound of music pervades the environment. Have I become autistic?

A training session:  Hasan with his grandfather
A training session: Hasan with his grandfather

Having entered my eighth decade, I have now started to worry, since I have not — despite my best efforts — been able to find my replacement — someone to take over from me and become Hasan’s teacher and music companion.

In the neighbouring country, there are countless institutions where music education is available not only to ‘normal’ people but ‘special’ people as well. However, in our country, private schools impart light music education — teaching them to sing the national anthem or a few national songs or nursery rhymes — but that’s all. Then, there is the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa), in Karachi, that holds music classes for boys and girls. There are a number of musicians and ustads as well in Karachi who are engaged in giving tuition to music lovers. But all this is for ‘normal’ people. Sadly, no one is ready to take up the challenge of training an autistic boy. If they had, they would have found Hasan ahead of ‘normal’ people in musical talent.

But perhaps Hasan would be a misfit in a ‘normal’ school and an embarrassment for its music faculty, since he already knows so much. He now needs to be tutored exclusively — through the Guru-Shishya Parampara. But where is the guru? Classical music, despite the great contribution of Muslims for centuries, is already a taboo in this Land of the Pure.

So, Hasan lives on happily in his own world. He feels no remorse since he is unaware that he is deprived of the opportunity to receive higher music education that autistic people enjoy in other countries.

So, the million-dollar question — what after me? Will I be blessed with the last bliss — that of finding an ustad for my grandson, one who would be my replacement and his soulmate?

The writer is an amateur photographer and singer, trained in classical music by Ustad Wilayat Ali khan

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 30th, 2018

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