May Issue 2015

By | Books | Published 9 years ago

Song in his Soul is billed as “an autobiographical account” by S.M. Shahid, but it’s more of a story of how the author — well known as an adman, author and music lover — shared the song in his own soul with his grandson, Hasan.

The book begins with glimpses of Shahid’s own childhood in Patna, the early death of his father and portraits of individuals in a large extended family. With the partition of the subcontinent, the family moved to Chittagong. A few years later, there is another move, this time to Karachi. “Fast forward,” as Shahid says, and he meets and weds “a pretty girl named Razia,” against the wishes of his family and hers.

Shahid has, meantime, set up an advertising agency, Oscar Advertising, with his brother Mazhar and friend Irfan Halim. The two friends, Shahid says, had “mastered the art of senseless discourse.” The conversation kept them in good humour as they grappled with clueless clients in between snatches of song, movie-going and hunting expeditions.

The two were to remain inseparable until Irfan’s death of cancer, 30 years later. At that point, Shahid bade goodbye to the advertising life, handing over the agency to his daughter and son-in-law.

An account follows of various eccentricities observed in the immediate and extended family and assorted tragedies. ‘If something could happen to them, it could happen to me!’ exclaims the next chapter heading, opening up the most difficult and probably the most rewarding period of Shahid’s life.

Hasan, born to S.M. Shahid’s daughter Sadia and son-in-law Nayyar, was a premature child who needed a respirator at birth. According to the case history recorded by his parents, in his first year he seemed to be “a normal child who was just a little weak.” As he grew up, developmental milestones were delayed, but he did learn to walk and speak. A neuro-physician came to the conclusion that he had hydrocephalus, or water retention on one side of the brain.

Hasan “refuses to learn the basic lessons from the book of life,” and the advice of an assortment of specialists is not of much help, Shahid writes. He describes feelings of helplessness and sleepless nights when the child is declared “special.” He questions the label ‘special,’ wondering whether this “outwardly polite syllable” carries “some unsavoury meaning.”

When Hasan is six years old, his grandfather sees some “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hasan develops an intense interest in classical music. Shahid is himself a devotee of classical music, having spent decades in the company of the late Ustad Wilayat Ali Khan, learning about its intricacies.

Thus begins a wondrous journey into the realm of possibility for this ‘special’ child. He spends hours and days immersed in the various ragas under the tutelage of his grandfather, learning to sing and to recognise the structure of each raag, the particular notes it is characterised by and the sequence they must take in the arohi and amrohi, the upward journey from the base note and return to it.

Hasan becomes adept at recognising the summ, the note to which each flourish must return. Filmmaker Sharjil Baloch documented Hasan’s musical prowess in the film titled SUMM. The film was shown to a select audience in Karachi and was later screened on NDTV and at the 3rd Kabul International Film Festival.

‘But why this tamasha?’ is the chapter title that follows ‘Hasan becomes known.’ With brutal frankness Shahid questions whether the screening of this documentary is likely to have any bearing on Hasan’s life: Will it help Hasan or even make him happy? He mulls over the expectations of a ‘normal’ life that occupy most people’s minds. But then he takes solace in the fact that he has once again found a music soulmate in Hasan, after the death of his ustad.

The Paris-based journalist, Zafar Masud, was the first to mention the term autism in Hasan’s case. Reading about autism and its telltale signs, the family could recognise many of them in Hasan. After years of speculation and a lack of holistic diagnosis, the revelation came almost as a relief. “Freed from the perplexity of yes and no” the family then prepared to live with Hasan on his terms.

The book is a personal diary and it includes photographs of Hasan growing up, segments of conversation, snatches of Urdu poetry that Hasan quotes, even a list of the 25 raags that he has learnt to recognise. One feels privileged to share the journey as doubts and fears give way to joy and acceptance. The slim volume is truly a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to rise above adversity.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.