After many days of uncertainties, planning and re-planning, I finally left for Amritsar on 30th November 2013. I was to meet my friend after a gap of 30 years. Little did I know then, that this journey was going to be more memorable than any I had ever undertaken.
After the first-day customary visit to the iconic Golden Temple, devouring some finger-licking delicious 'Beere Da Chicken' and witnessing an electrifying flag-lowering ceremony at Attari-Wagah border, my friend suggested that we visit a village next morning. Being from Punjab, such an invitation is always a welcome excitement for me. Upon enquiring, he mentioned we’d be visiting Kotla Sultan Singh. This name sounded vaguely familiar.
Next morning, we drove off on Majitha Road - a road that forms a diagonal between the roads leading to Ajnala and to Batala. Once on that road, the penny dropped for me. I asked him if Kotla Sultan Singh is the village from where the famous singer, Late Mohammad Rafi, hailed. He responded in affirmative.
As an avid music lover, from then on, the next few hours were part-dream, part-nostalgia for me.I have visited Shakespeare's world-famous 'Globe Theatre' in London. While that visit was memorable, the feeling was nowhere close to what I was experiencing during my drive to Kotla Sultan Singh.
From my childhood to now, I do not remember a single day when Rafi Sahib's soulful singing didn't stir a feeling or two in me. Whilst the foot-tapping Shammi Kapoor numbers invariably surfaced during the happy-go-lucky moods, his romantic numbers floated by in the sub-conscious during the softer moments; when feeling low, an apt sad song by Rafi Ji would invariably come to mind, and similarly, during a festival or a special occasion, some other classic by him would fill the senses.
We drove past Majitha town, and my excitement started to mount. I instinctively knew we were very close to his village. My eyes were taking in every sight, sound and smell along the way. The poplar-lined narrow, well-tarred road (for most part) was cutting through the green vistas of a prosperous region that thrived in growing peas, potatoes, mustard and wheat, besides many other vegetables, food grains and cash crops. The traffic was sparse and mixed, with tractors rubbing shoulders with cars, buses and bicycles. The farm hands and farmers were busy in their farms. While the air was crisp and fresh, the entire scene was calm and tranquil.
A short dirt track through some houses finally led us out to a T-junction. To our right, we could see an entrance arch to a primary school which announced in Punjabi - Government Elementary School, Kotla Sultan Singh. We stopped there to make enquiries. We had heard that a schoolmate of Rafi Sahib still lived in the village. A gentleman, who was going about his business, very hospitably offered to help us find him and finally took us to Rafi Sahib's schoolmate's house.
Sardar Kundan Singh, 87, was sitting in the open courtyard of his village home when we entered. His family warmly welcomed us. Given his age, and slight disability (partial paralysis), his grandson offered to act as the interpreter.
Kundan Singh Ji referred to Rafi Sahib as Pheeko (I learnt later that was Rafi Sahib's nickname). He shared that Rafi Sahib's family belonged to Naai (barber) community, but in the same breath mentioned that during any weddings in the village, Rafi Sahib's family would be responsible for making the sweets. Seeing my confusion, he was quick to clarify that 'Naai' community traditionally was responsible for all these odd jobs like cutting hair, making sweets, etc.
He reminisced how Rafi sahib and a few other kids used to celebrate various festivals together. The normal mode of transportation those days was either horses or bicycles. They would often use these as kids for visiting fairs in nearby villages. They were together till 4th standard, in the same Elementary School I mentioned earlier. Their main medium of education was Urdu, and their teacher was Mr. Nazeer Ahmed. The village had a population of just about 900 people. Their pastime was to go to the fields and help make jaggery, shepherd, or play eye-spies. And, while these games were on, Rafi Sahib would always be humming or singing.
He talked about how they were together till 1937 (the year Rafi Sahib's family left for Lahore, as per his memory) and shared all that children of that age shared. Upon asking if he ever met Rafi Sahib again after he left for Lahore in 1937, he shared about his next and only meeting.
It was 1956, and Rafi Sahib had a stage show in Amritsar. From the stage, he asked for Kundan Singh Ji by name on the mike. That's when these childhood friends again met and hugged each other. Whilst sharing this, I could detect mixed feelings in Kundan Singh Ji's faraway look - a hint of nostalgia, a touch of pride and a surge of emotion that moistened his eyes. And I realised that even my eyes had moistened.
Kundan Singh's Ji's grandson then took us around - to a new house next door, where Rafi Sahib's house used to be; to the Elementary School where Rafi Sahib had carved his name on the trunk of a mango tree, which had now been felled; and, to the new Higher Secondary School where Rafi Sahib's statue has been erected. Silently, I went around, clicked some pictures, bade my goodbyes - my heart overcome with emotion.
During our drive back, all I could think of was the music lover's pilgrimage I had just undertaken. It was 1st of December, and I realized if Rafi Sahib were alive today, he would have been 89 in another 3 weeks or so. The one song by Rafi Sahib that refused to get out of my head at that moment was - "Tum mujhe yoon, bhula na paaoge…" Music Director Naushad had given a fitting tribute to this music great after his passing away. In complete agreement, I am privileged to share the same with you here -
- Kehta hai koi, dil gaya, dilbar chala gaya;
- Saahil pukarta hai, samandar chala gaya;
- Lekin jo baat sach hai, wo kehta nahi koi;
- Duniya se mosiaki ka, payambar chala gaya…