Remember Aziza, Mardana’s granddaughter from the end of The Singing Guru? She is a major character in Into the Great Heart. We see her grow up from a child to a woman and witness the tragedy of a female musician born into a restrictive Muslim household in an already restricted society and world-culture. Women have had it rough throughout history, and its current expressions in the last few centuries have only confirmed this fact. Even as we speak, women are being preyed upon and demonized by an essentially male ethic.
Bhai Buddha, too, is a major character and narrator in Into the Great Heart. In this excerpt, Bhai Buddha brings a puppy and a rabab given to him by Bebe Nanaki. In contrast to Aziza’s is Amro, Bhai Lehna’s daughter, who, in my account, learns to play the rabab, sings, and in some objective accounts, goes on to become a preacher.
“Is this ours?” Aziza asks hopefully, picking it up. The puppy licks
her face all over. Aziza sees the rabab that Buddha has left standing by the bed, and drops the puppy on the ground so suddenly, she whelps.
“Where did you get this? Whose is this?” She stammers.
“Bebe Nanaki gave it to me. She said Bhai Phiranda made a few small ones for children. They are very good quality,” Buddha explains.
“They couldn’t be otherwise. He’s the best rabab maker in the
world,” Mardana says.
“Bebe Nanaki gave one to Amro, too. She said girls are pure
enough to play them. They are pure because they give birth to the whole world! Bebe has one for you, too, Aziza, just like this one. Why don’t you take this and I’ll take the other one. Here.”
Buddha holds it out to her and Aziza, stunned with a feeling
greater than delight or joy, reaches for it gently, lovingly, and cradles it in her arms. She looks up at her grandfather, her eyes wide and brimming with tears, and says quietly, “See? This is the message, Daadu Jaan.”
Buddha looks at her questioningly, and she explains,
“Daadu said if Allah sends me a strong message, I can play the
rabab. It couldn’t be stronger than this!”
“Tell Bebe Nanaki to keep her rabab. Aziza can’t have one,” Nasreen, Aziza’s mother, shouts from the corner of the courtyard where she squats on the thadaa, vigorously scrubbing pots and pans with ash.
Aziza’s face screws up in sudden, spontaneous anger. She stomps her foot and says, “I want it.”
“You will go into purdah soon so how are you going to play the rabab? And who is going to feed the dog?”
Nasreen washes her hands quickly, grabs the rabab out of her daughter’s hands and thrusts it back into Buddha’s arms. “And we can’t keep the dog either. Take it back.”
Aziza bursts into tears and runs screaming into her grandmother, Fatima’s, arms.
“I will feed the dog,” Fatima says, looking at her husband holding the puppy near his heart.
“And say something about the rabab, too, Daadi Jaan!” Aziza shouts.
“She has a few years left before she goes into purdah,” Fatima adds.
“Better be careful,” Mardana whispers to Fatima. “Ask her father first.”
“Haven’t I already told you?” Nasreen says, beginning to scrub the utensils even more vigorously.
“As the elder in the house I insist on it,” Fatima says, taking the rabab from Buddha and giving it to Aziza.
“You don’t know what you are starting,” Mardana warns his wife, his features contorted with worry.
“When will things start to change?” Fatima says, her voice verging on a scream.
Aziza takes the rabab from her grandmother with extreme reverence and goes into the loom room to be alone with it, as with a long, long lost friend. She has keenly observed and heard her father and relatives playing it all her life and doesn’t need to be told how to hold it. Even her first, tentative tuning of it has a measure of mastery, so when she starts to play it a bit, everyone in the courtyard stops in brief wonder.