I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Friday, May 25, 2012

...Of Slow Suffocation



You know how when you're beginning to have an asthma attack ( I'm assuming for argument's sake that the gentle reader is like me, an asthmatic) and you suddenly realize that this breathing lark isn't as easy as everyone makes it out to be. There's a specific moment when something tells you that the simple act of breathing in and out is going to turn into an ordeal very soon. The attack begins with a rather melodious bout of wheezing, much like a fanfare announcing the arrival of the royal entourage in a historical epic.Your initial reaction is to tell yourself, "Oh boy, here we go again. Well, let's start by remaining perfectly calm shall we. We've handled stuff like this before, all we've got to do is keep breathing like we've practiced and it'll all be over before we know it" (Notice how the gentle reader uses the royal "we", pretty conceited chap isn't he). The initial self-imposed calm is short lived though, as the wheezing gives way to a weird dragging sensation in the lower chest and breathing begins to require effort. You look around for the trusty inhaler as you try to keep your rapidly increasing heartbeat in check, but very soon you realize that the inhaler was emptied and thrown out weeks ago.

That's when the attack enters its next and more serious phase, the stage where you have to sit up in your chair, place your hands on your knees and actually exercise your respiratory muscles so that you can receive oxygen. You wordlessly star chanting "I'm going to be OK, I'm going to be OK" to yourself as your head starts to spin, your heart beats loud enough to wake the people in the next room and a sudden thought fills your mind with dread,"What if this is it, the big one?". Luckily, that's about as far I've gown down the asthmatic route, stopping just short of the final, more sinister stage of an attack. That's when the instinct for self-preservation that has been coaxing the sufferer to try and keep breathing in and out in the hope of a let-off in hostilities is gradually overpowered by the deadly trio of muscle fatigue, a lack of oxygen and the deliciously narcotic effects of the carbon-dioxide flooding the brain. This dastardly trio gently distracts the brain, telling it "Why do you keep punishing yourself by taking these painful, pitiful breaths? Hasn't anyone told you, breathing's overrated. Why don't you let us take over and have a nice little lie-down? Don't worry, you won't feel a thing". The patient, who has pretty much given up at this point, waves away the final appeals of the ol' self-preservation instinct, puts his trust in the soothing thoughts filling his mind, and floating on a neurochemical high, hands in his dinner-pail.

The fact that I'm writing this is proof enough that I haven't reached the final, deadly stage yet. But I'm afraid that's more or less where I'm headed. Except for the difficult breathing bit, the palpitations and panic bit, the Carbon-dioxide high bit and the general dying from asthma bit. Let me explain.



A year ago, when I got posted to the jungle, a menagerie of horrors awaited me there. Does the gentle reader (provided he's still alive) dare to hazard a guess as to what was the most horrific attraction of this house of horrors? It wasn't the rather diverse, multiethnic and peacefully coexisting population of jackals, wild boar, porcupines, mongoose and lizards; it wasn't the unbearable heat or the stranglingly suffocating humidity, it wasn't the snakes who seemed to act like they owned the place (which let's face it, they did); it wasn't the fact that luxuries like electricity and running water were considered something that hadn't been invented yet and muslim showers were things you heard about in the fantastical stories told by travelers from faraway lands; it wasn't the leaky roof that ensured that a trivial thing like being indoors didn't get in the way of one's enjoyment of the weather; it wasn't the three mile distance between my room and the nearest human habitation, which meant that a simple task like having dinner involved jeep-rides over ill-maintained dirt tracks in the pouring rain; it wasn't the divers wasps and scorpions and mosquitoes and the unknown little insects that managed to send me into the ER at four in the morning with a severe allergic reaction and an unrecordably low blood pressure; it wasn't the weird composition of the water that miraculously accelerated my journey towards possessing a shiny bald pate before my twenty-sixth birthday.

The absolute cherry on the icing on the triple-layer of frosting on the cake was the fact that I had stepped into a communications black-hole.

No cellphone signals. Of any kind. No internet (obviously). No mailing address in case anyone, desperate to get in touch with me (the probability is very low, I know) would want to resort to snail mail. A very shoddy land-line and a complete absence of carrier pigeons. These conditions would have driven any normal person to distraction. For something like this to happen to me; someone who had won the Inter-district speed-texting championship for three years running, who had been kicked out of funerals for snickering at a text message, who had worn off the keys of one cellphone and had bought a rather expensive new one just weeks before being shipped off to Godforsakenland, who had made a career out of texting to the extent that keen-eyed readers would read friends of mine's  texts and say,"Hmm, this text carries shades of Neo-Expressionism mixed with a hint of Musab-ism". Like I was saying, for something like this to happen to me was the greatest irony of fate since Beethoven lost his hearing.

And this is where the rather shabbily assembled asthma analogy begins to emerge from the shadows and clears its throat as if to say, " What with the comparisons between the death of a person from a a horribly debilitating medical condition and being sent to a place where you can't text, I must admit I'm a rather flimsy analogy, but at least hear me out for a second".

When I had landed in the jungle and had taken stock of my situation, quickly tabulating the various drawbacks and annoyances and coming to the conclusion that staying in a communications black hole would be injurious to health, I calmly began devising ways of dealing with the situation. The first step was the most basic, an innate reflex found so commonly in sufferers of my malady that it seems to have been hard-wired into human brains as an instinct necessary for survival - wandering around the jungle with the cellphone held above my head, looking for signals. I was quickly rewarded with what ultimately turned out to be a deceptive sign of improvement. there were microscopic spots in the jungle where the heavens aligned just enough and the matter-antimatter interactions were occurring at just the right velocity to allow some cellphone signals to penetrate the black hole. This initial success was quickly negated when I realized that the signal hotspot was the regular meeting-place of the local serpentine population. A couple of near-brushes with my legless, slithery neighbors were enough to drive me back indoors.

Then began a desperate, rather pointless and in retrospect, quite pitiful search for solutions to the communications problem. A landline connection ? the exchange was too far away. Satellite internet ? The cost would be higher than the GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa. Cellphone antennas ? Excellent at attracting lightning, not so much when it came to signals. Carrier pigeons ? A cursory census of the birds of prey flying above my room quickly put that idea to rest. I had to admit I was licked, for the moment at least.

Then came the brief but mild improvement that lulled me into thinking that maybe I was going to survive after all. I managed to procure a clunky old phone-like contraption from somewhere that somewhat restored my contact with the outside world. If the weather was just right and the earth's magnetic axis was perfectly aligned and the sprites and elves of the jungle were feeling particularly benevolent, I could catch a few signals and maybe call home once every few weeks. In addition, I was also able to access something faintly resembling the internet for a few minutes every day, but only I limited myself to opening the picture-less, flash video-less mobile versions of most websites. Still, something was better than nothing, or so I thought.

Pay attention gentle reader, for this is where the asthma analogy finally emerges from its cocoon, revealing itself to be a supersonic jet powered butterfly. With lasers. Just as I thought I was finally recovering from this communications funk, out popped a ferocious lightning storm and fried every electrical contraption in my room, including my phone. In a single flash, my endeavors were nullified. By this time, the beginning of the summer and all its accoutrements - snakes and insects and the lot - coupled with my increasing frustration with my attempts to establish communication, had begun to take their toll. Where once I had bothered the hell out of friends and relatives with barrages of texts and calls, I was now in contact with only my immediate family and one or two very close friends. The regular blogging and Facebook trawling was replaced with hour-long waits for the darned webpage to open, followed by hours more before it would display properly. The  rather tenuous bridges to what was an essential social support structure were getting harder and harder to maintain. And then lightning struck, literally.

Not ready to give up just yet, I gave it one final try, setting up a new phone to replace the fried one. The result is that I'm now in the third, premorbid stage of communications deficiency. I can call home, but I have to endure fleeting signals, long periods of radio silence and frequent disconnections; to the point where it's become something of a chore to even call home. The dozens of other people, friends and relatives, have slowly and gradually depleted in number to just the one or two, for the same reasons. I'm beginning to think if this staying in touch lark is actually all that it's made out to be. If the parties of the second part were eager to communicate, they'd call themselves. And besides, who needs friends anyway, I'd much rather just curl up and spend the entire day in a semi-catatonic state. All the blogs I used to read and Qawwali recordings I used to share and the videos I used to convert into MP3s, slowly they're beginning to feel less and less worth the effort. After all, why can't I listen to my own music and watch my movies and read my books without rushing off to the internet to blabber about them to the rest of the world. I'm sure someone else will do it much better than me. I'll just listen to this 45 minute recording of Qawwal Bahauddin Khan myself and forget about sharing it with anyone else.

One by one, these long ingrained habits are getting harder and harder and lesser and lesser worth my while to keep up. The numbing effects of being incommunicado are gradually beginning to take over and I'm afraid that unlike my old friend Asthma, I might not be able to resist for long the rather tempting overtures of what appears to be a rather unsplendid isolation.