Written by Huma Jalil Abbas for The News International. Published on August 22nd, 2003

Sometimes a piece of music gets woven by the wonderful fusion of voice, lyrics and melody; it plays on the human heart and revives memories long forgotten and becomes and unforgettable song.

I sometimes listen to the new trend music in a detached academic sort of a way and after a few minutes relegate the tuneful experience to my two daughters. Then I stumbled upon a song called ‘Manwa Re.’ A young strident voice with a magical timbre, husky and low and then full throated and high, singing the eternal and beautiful words of love and the pain of loss and the fire within; a fusion of the sublime and sensuous, the earthy and the mystical, drifted through my mind, reverberating on my consciousness reviving a nostalgia suppressed and painful for a childhood home far away in a valley surrounded by a great snow capped mountain range where snow rivers flowed from their remote peaks as fierce torrents and streams.

A valley dotted with hill shrines where en a dark night the- cough of the snow leopard’ was heard but never crossing the peripheral stream to desecrate the sanctity and the small earthen lamps of the devotees would flicker undisturbed in the darkness, their glow reflecting in the still waters of the great lakes under the silver autumn moon. The song became a maze taking me into a vortex of past memories back to a people who venerated saints and sang songs and told stories by winter fires. Faces, events and memories like a clutch of old photographs tugged at my soul and once again I was back in the yesteryears of my childhood.

With a sense of shock, I realised that the song was his song not mine; he was singing of his world and not of mine and yet the past is not another country; it inheres in the present and constantly shapes us even as it assumes the haunting intangibility of dreams.
Who was this boy with the magical voice? I learnt his name Ali Noor and I realised he is the son of friends, a brilliant intellectual father who left the civil service to pursue a career in law and a talented mother in her own right and inheritor of a formidable legacy of art and culture.

Friends who had drifted away over the years but always remembered with warmth and affection. The last link was two decades ago when they came with their small son Ali Noor and toddler Hamza Noor to visit us in Attock, where my husband was posted as the district commissioner. It was a memory lane trip and I remember the day spent at the Attock Rest House, one of the loveliest spots in the world with the sinister grandeur of the Attock Fort visible in the distance and the mesmerising confluence of two rivers, the Kabul with its brown waters mingling with the clear azure of the mighty Indus. Ali Noor, a solemn child sat and watched the two rivers mingling and blending and yet distinct in their hues. Hamza Noor and my infant daughter played nearby.

That was a long time ago and now here he was still singing his song, evoking images of his world — a wide river winding through the expanse of green plains deep in the heartlands of the Punjab, sacred shrines where songs of belief and faith and love are sung in the warm twilight, songs of yearning for the truth of all truths to give meaning to life; of the futility of holding golden-moments like golden sunshine evanescent and elusive.

He was pouring out his soul for the beautiful Sohni who braved the wild expanse of the Chenab on a dark stormy night to follow the call of the flute for a love which was more compelling and sweeter than life.

The young voice rose high and mystical in the idiom beloved of the rural terrain and sang of the wondrous submission of love when passion becomes prayers, when the heart beats for another — and then slowly receded in a throbbing whisper, the silence lingering on the rhythm and the melody even after the song had ended.

A timeless piece of music had been created with a strange disturbing power to haunt the emotions and send the mind racing back and forth on the river of time. Did the singer realise it or did he just sing with the lovely thoughtless instinct of the gifted, not caring if the magic of his voice made one weep with a strange aching of the heart.

Is his song ‘Manwa Re,’ a perpetual quest of the self to find the meaning of life, the need for familiar bonds to actualise the intangibles; the love of a land that stays true forever because of the need to belong – the only beloved that never betrays and is always yours. The mystery eludes, ‘Manwa Re,’ the song remains. — Huma Jalil Abbas ([email protected] com)