Revisiting the memoirs of a courtesan – The Caravan

Revisiting the memoirs of a courtesan
MALKHA PUKHRAJ’S MEMOIRS, Song Sung True, begin with the story of her birth, in 1912, in a small village called Hamirpur Sidhar, along the banks of the Chenab, at a time when Jammu and Kashmir was still a princely state and British colonisation of the subcontinent was on its last legs.
A celebrated ghazal and folk singer, Malka was employed at the court of Hari Singh, the king of Jammu and Kashmir, when she was only nine years old. After she left his court, she moved to Pakistan, prior to Partition, and settled in Lahore, gave private concerts and began singing for the radio. Like her contemporary Begum Akhtar, Malka made a name for herself as a singer of ghazal, thumri and dadra, as well as folk songs in her native Dogri. She is especially remembered for her rendition of Hafeez Jallandhari’s “Abhi toh main jawan hoon,” but her repertoire was vast, and she had a long and prolific career. She passed away in Lahore, in 2004, but before that, she completed her memoirs, which were edited and translated into English by the historian Saleem Kidwai.
The first person in her cast of characters in the version that was ultimately published in India—and never in Pakistan—is not her family, or even herself, but an old man in her village, a mystic known only as Baba Roti Ram. He is a man of unknown provenance, who nonetheless embodies the syncretism of religion, language and culture that comes to characterise Malka’s own life. Of him, she says, “no one knew who he was, where he had come from, whose son he was, whether he was a Hindu, a Musalman, a Sikh or a Christian.” He is said to possess immense power and prescience. People come to ask him for things and before they can utter a word, he already knows what they want. Malka describes him being as irreverent as they are full of reverence. To a man whose wife has run away, he says, “Am I a pimp or a whore-trader, that I should know about these matters? … Her appetite satisfied, she will be back in a few days. She will return.”
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Shreya Ila Anasuya is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, an independent journalist and the managing editor of Skin Stories, a publication on disability, sexuality and gender at Point of View.
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