I took this photograph many years ago when I was studying Urdu in Pakistan. I was attracted immediately to a couple things but as I’ve learned repeatedly over the years the ‘real’ attraction of a scene lies buried deep in the soul and rests at an essentially emotional level.
The morning I made this picture I was walking through the Hathi Chowk area of Rawalpindi, my belly sated with chole puri and sweet chai. I happened upon this most common of urban scenes, a sidewalk bicycle repair shop, and immediately took the picture. I’ve always been a sucker for bikes, and indeed my childhood holidays revolved around my Robin Hood cycle which I rode every waking moment. As I explored the streets and mohallas of Allahabad I frequently stopped at repair shops like this to get my punctures fixed or tires pumped or have that nagging squeak in the pedals oiled away. These men were essential parts of my world. So I suppose I saw a glimpse of my youth in this guy.
But that wasn’t all. Poster art, especially movie posters, are another one of my passions. And this poster formed a perfect background to the cyclewala. Instantly, I saw a picture and grabbed it.
It was only several years later that I began to understand that what attracted me to this scene was not just those two elements (poster and cyclewala) who at first glance seem to be randomly placed together. But rather that these two elements worked together to reveal the true message of this scene.
The power of this picture comes from understanding that the poster is a visual representation of the cyclewala’s inner world. It is not simply a random poster that just happens to be there. The humble, poorly remunerated, socially marginalised cycle repairman understands his position and his caged world. His expression suggests someone who is not exactly pleased with his situation. But behind him is a glimpse of his longed for, of his ‘if only’ destiny and identify. A Super Hero. A Master of both beauty and beast. His humble pliers and monkey wrenches transmogrified into a sparkling sword.
This was exactly my state of mind when I took this picture. I was coming to the end of a year of study in Pakistan. What awaited me in America, a long academic career, seemed to be a cage that I no longer wanted to live within. My heart was full of other ideas, mostly to stay in Pakistan, and do, God knows what. The world was vaster and surely more full of excitement than being a marginalised, poor graduate student.
I see now that it was not the poster or the man that was really speaking to me that morning. Rather it was the feeling of being trapped and having only the flimsiest of hopes of escape.
Which brings us, at long last, to today’s post. Mehdi Hassan, perhaps the most accomplished and sophisticated of Pakistan’s ghazal singers, migrated in the madness of Partition from Rajasthan to Pakistan when he was a young boy. In his new homeland his family struggled on the edges of abject poverty and for some years Mehdi supported his family as a sidewalk cyclewala pumping tires, fixing punctures and reconnecting other people’s chains.
When I learned this about him, his music took on another dimension. I began to hear echoes of that same dread, hope, fear and longing that I and all of us who have ever been desperate to change their circumstances have known so well.
This collection is an Indian pressing of a Mehdi Hassan concert from the late 1970’s or early 80’s. He gives four beautiful performances of some of his most famous ghazals including my favourite Baat Karne Mujhe Mushkil (It is Difficult for Me to Speak).
01 Mohabbat Karne Wale Kam Na Honge
02 Baat Karni Mujhe Mushkil
03 Bhooli Bisri Chand Ummeeden
04 Abke Ham Bichhre
Excuse the short repeated phrase at the beginning of track four. It doesn’t last long.