Imagine, it isn’t hard to do

Imagine, it isn’t hard to do

This election season, actor, writer and singer Aamir Aziz has stories to tell, of our times, people, and the nation we’ve become.

pehlu khan, Aamir Aziz, pehlu khan lynching, mob lynching, cow lynching, elections, lok sabha elections, cow vigilantism, gyan dev ahuja, manohar lal khattar
Actor, writer and singer Aamir Aziz

Pehlu Khan bechare ek insaan the
Umr pachpan, rehne wale Hindustan ke
Ek din ik bheed ke haatho noch noch khaaye gaye
Mele se khareed kar gai the laane gaye
Pehlu peshe se dairy kisan the
Bas khata itni si thi ki yahin paida huye
Aur, musalmaan the

(Pehlu Khan was just a man/ Age 55 and he lived in Hindustan/ One day a mob set upon him and tore him apart/ He had gone to a fair to buy a cow/ Pehlu was a dairy farmer/ His only fault was he was born here/ And that he was a Muslim)

In the piece titled Ballad of Pehlu Khan, a talking blues floating around on YouTube for the last fortnight, Mumbai-based Aamir Aziz, 29, takes us through the events of the Alwar mob lynching. A dairy farmer from Nuh in Haryana, Pehlu Khan, was killed by a group of cow vigilantes while transporting cattle. The video shows Aziz with his guitar in a recording studio, alone, crooning these lines in rhythmic speech. It’s a simple strum followed by a rhythmic metre as Aziz recites the incident. Interspersed along are fragments from the original video clip in which Pehlu Khan is being beaten up by the mob, his mother wailing at their house, his family shocked at the incident.

There is also a smattering of quotes by significant people on the subject. There is one by Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. ‘Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef’, appears on the screen followed by BJP lawmaker Gyan Dev Ahuja’s infamous lines: “We have no regret over Pehlu Khan’s death because those who are cow smugglers and cow killers; sinners like them have met this fate earlier and will continue to do so”.

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A still from Ballad of Pehlu Khan.

Aziz’s simple yet inventive, slightly out of tune piece, is a comment on the current times. It is also far away from the cacophony of most Indian newsrooms that relayed the story. But tells us the same story. Aziz sings directly, calmly, his turmoil so soothing that it’s disturbing. Pehlu marte marte chhe logon ka naam le gaye/ Mera insaaf karna aakhri paigam de gaye/ Police raat din tafteesh karne lag gayi, Thaane ka chakkar kaat jamuriyat thak gayi/ Mulk aage badha aur log apne kaam pe gaye, Pehlu qatl hote logon ki fehrist mein, Mehez ek aur naam the. The lyrics, the imagery, the lack of urgency in Aziz’s voice, is what makes the piece extremely moving and poignant. It isn’t often that a songwriter is skilled enough to bring focus and depth to an issue in the public consciousness through a set of verses. Aziz manages to hit the nail on its head. “How did we get here? I have no idea. My friends said that people will say that a Muslim is talking about Muslim issues and I will get caught in this whole identity politics. But I wanted to see how people react to truth, which is said directly, sharply and without any metaphor. I’m a big fan of talking blues and was looking to try it with Urdu lyrics,” says Aziz, whose last wry political protest singing came in the form of Achhe Din Blues, and was more poetry driven and not fact driven like Ballad of Pehlu Khan.

Achhe Din Blues was triggered by the hanging of two men in March 2016 in Jharkhand on the suspicion that they were transporting cattle. Do laashey latak rahi thi ek hi shakh-e-shajar se, Sab cheekh cheekh ke batla rahe the hai qaatil kitna mahan, sings Aziz along a single guitar. He meditated on the state of the nation with Ek qatar mein laakho log khade the pehchaan patr lekar, Unki aankhon mein tha bhay/ Aur door kahin se awaaz aa rahi thi, Bharat mata ki jai. The song has more than one and a half lakh views on YouTube.

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A still from Achhe Din Blues.

But for Ballad of Pehlu Khan, Aziz removed all of the poetry from the four drafts he wrote. “I tried to cut down the emotional metaphors. The time is gone when one could address an issue in a veiled fashion. No one cares. I wanted to retell the story as it is. There is a perspective to art. I wanted to tell you Pehlu Khan’s story the way it happened. I wanted to tell people the order, that what was the law situation etc. It was necessary to say it as it is,” says Aziz.

Metaphor can always land in cliches and that’s what scares Aziz. He is relatively unfazed by the regular death threats. “I don’t know how am I supposed to react to them. So I don’t,” says Aziz.

Aziz was born as Mohammad Aamir in Patna and is the youngest of four children who grew up in a tiny home in a “lower middle class family” where poetry was nowhere in the air. His father is a grade two government employee and all his siblings work in and around Patna. Most of Aziz’s immediate relatives are farmers. Aziz was sent to school and somehow managed to come to Delhi in 2006 to study civil engineering at Jamia Millia Islamia, where his introduction to art happened through relatively subaltern work. By then he’d only heard of Mirza Ghalib. He began doing theatre with the university’s theatre group soon after. And this is when he fell in love with poetry. So along with understanding the structure failures of concrete, Aziz became interested in the structural failure of a nation, a government, and of people among others. And poets such as Faiz and Paash fed that imagination. Like many poets do, Aziz chose his nom de plume and from Mohammad Amir, became Aamir Aziz.

“In my entire family, I don’t think anyone is aware of poetry. I have never seen a poetry book in my house. Art is as alien as pork in the family. There is no relationship with art or politics. My father’s aim was that we should study and get some kind of job somewhere,” says Aziz, who adds that his father is still not aware of what Aziz does. “When he first heard the songs, he wanted me to stop. The struggles with them over taking up a government job were on for a while,” says Aziz, who worked in a few private firms for a couple of years before moving to Mumbai to be an actor. “Now I am at a stage where they say that why don’t I sing songs like Sonu Nigam. Or why don’t I concentrate on acting. I’m mostly not sure what to say,” says Aziz, who began with a few advertising jobs here and there and small acting assignments before working on Achhe Din Blues with his friend Amit Mishra. Aziz was recently seen in the Manav Kaul-starrer Music Teacher. “The struggle to be an actor is still on,” says Aziz.

Ballad of Pehlu Khan came into the works when Achhe Din Blues was released. Social media bonded over a composition that bordered on journalism. Vaise toh katghare mein hum bhi aap bhi hain, Aur, Wazir-e-Azam bhi hain. A snapshot of PM Narendra Modi flashes. Aziz manages what many haven’t. He reports and narrates what he sees. No deflections. Just the mirror and us. He attempts to imagine.