Qawwali, the enchanting song of the Sufis, still possesses the devotees of the Nizamuddin Auliya shrine in Delhi.
Image from Flickr by Varun Shiv Kapur
By Aditi Sriram
One can never know the meaning of exile by studying it. The word has an essence you must taste, implications you must digest, consequences you must shit out. With exile, this is impossible: the word itself is exiled. The way we follow Rama and the Pandavas into their exiles, we seek out this word via its neighbors. A word such as exile is elusive; you have to lose yourself to find it.
Let me tell you a story of a girl I met during qawwali, that will hopefully do a better job. We shall wend our way through a dictionary of definitions that, like an asymptote, climbs towards exile without ever reaching it. We shall get as close as we can through words that sit near exile, and see what happens. What is storytime but a game of wordplay, after all?
The Nizamuddin Durgah is located in the west of Delhi, a shrine to a revered Sufi saint who lived in the fourteenth century. It is 451 years old, and qawwals have been gathering there for probably as long to sing the praises of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, entombed within. Their exalted voices converge to create qawwali, the devotional songs sung in honor of the saints, a holy music through which enchanted listeners can commune with them.
Did this girl exist inside this body?
As I shuffled my shoes off my feet I noticed the mound of discarded slippers, still hot and bent from fresh wear—people had run to get here, putting stress on their soles and scrunching their toes to press on. Exigence. You know the word? Yes, an urgency. There was a sense of immediacy in the air as I approached the durgah that evening. It started when I got out of the rickshaw and was consumed by the street. Grey upon grey upon stone upon shit upon dust upon greying men upon greyed shop signs advertising the freshest chicken; they had been dead for a long time. The air was heavy on my shoulders with food and cooking and commerce as it anticipated the yawns of the sun.
And then, the next point on our graph, the exigible obligation. The word means a tax, a duty levied upon the curious in order to spot the exile before the sun exits. And so the beggars waited for me in the labyrinth of the durgah, keepers guarding its every corner. As I walked deeper into the durgah I had to part with many a coin. A fine array they made, the squatters, the crouchers, the watchers, the stalkers, the walkers, the trident holders, the fan blowers, the loudly praying, the deeply prostrating, the self-flagellating, the paan-stained teeth showing, the hand-holding children, the quietly crying, the loudly chewing. Each type exacted payment. In the land of qawwali, the beggar is king.
When you hear a scream, in all its purity, exiled from context and caution, you know you have heard truth.
There was an exiguous change in the air. A minute alteration, an insignificant change of significant proportions. From the volcano of leather outside to the noosed meat hanging at eye level to the drone of pleas in the entryway tunnels, something fresh caught my nose, my lungs. Another reservoir of air for me to draw from. Not the air of the street. Not the air of the passageways. Not the air that slipped through trellised windows and latticed walls. This came from the sky trapped within the durgah’s walls and bounced off its dome with golden vibrations. The crowd had not changed, it was still the same hectic men and shrouded women on either side of me, but the ground had shifted beneath us. I don’t mean literally, beta; such is an exiguous change. (Of course, a million exiguous changes to a tectonic plate’s positioning—since we’re talking about the ground beneath us—and this world will redraw itself.)
In this throng of bodies circling a shrine, there was already a humming in the air, even though qawwali was a full hour away. The clock in front of the main shrine ticked patiently. About it was the bustle of men, moving around and through the shrine like clockwork. Breathing in this energized air, I felt like everything was tick-tocking towards the moment that song began. You could feel it in the ground, the steady stepping of people. Something tremendous was about to happen.
In Botany the coat of a pollen grain is called the exine. It is a protective layer, often identifiable by a characteristic surface pattern. In our faith, the exine is the body. Which means that inside the body is that pollen grain, the seed of all life, accessible only to the specially chosen: bees in the botany example, and God in the durgah. I witnessed it with my own eyes. See, hidden behind another wall, a small enclosure, stony and also open to the sky. Was this another prayer room? Who was inside. A girl stood near the doorway. Stood is incorrect. She hopped and swayed as she beat her head against the wall. Her eyeballs bulged and her hair was matted with sweat. On the surface, a small body. Within, an audacious heart that issued an unforgettable mix of cries, screams and shrieks.
Perhaps the others already knew what I later understood: that being in your own body is punishment.
Did this girl exist inside this body? Was she transporting herself heavenwards with those desperate pleas, riding on the sound? Could I see what she saw? (Can you see through these bars what I see behind them?) Call it exorcism or ecstasy or anything else: something was happening. Somewhere behind me the clock kept ticking but this girl, she was exempt from time. It had collapsed into an instant, an impulse to throw her body against a wall, as if she was drowning in the air around her.
Listen to me, trying to guide you up a ladder of words knowing that rungs are missing. But the futility of language is never greater than when you hear someone scream, for that is the most honest. That woman wasn’t screaming at me, to me, or because of me. Something exploded inside her and came out in this scream that stopped time and logic and was the music of belief. It’s those things that come in a regular stream—language, the tick tock of a clock—that lie. You can tell from how steadily they beat. Because when you hear a scream, in all its purity, exiled from context and caution, you know you have heard truth.
I confess, I took a few steps inside—what I would have done, I do not know—but I could not do too much damage. There were too many people kneeling, swaying, apologizing, sobbing, muttering, recanting, recounting, and with such intensity, that I instantly knew I did not belong. I took a step back and almost tripped over the body fallen on the floor. The screaming woman was splayed on the ground, unmoving. Eerily peaceful. Perhaps the others already knew what I later understood: that being in your own body is punishment, and such divine possession reminds you of a truth beyond your reach, and makes you cry out for it. Not a single person jammed in that room paid her, or me, any heed. And somewhere nearby the clock kept ticking.
The rest of the evening flowed as it always did. The singers grinned and showed paan-stained teeth. They nodded at fans, closed their eyes, and began to sing. The audience took up their wails and rocked to the music, careful not to clap along with the musicians, for that was exclusively their domain. From time to time I peeked at the woman who had come out of the prayer room and sat on a step to listen to the qawwals. Her hair was combed, her makeup restored, her dupatta perfectly draped over her shoulders. She mouthed the words to the song and laughed at whatever her friend showed her on her cellphone. She checked her watch. She had re-entered time.
Aditi Sriram studied Creative Writing at The New School in New York City. She is working on a novel set in India, the birthplace of stories that never end. She lives in Manhattan.