Mehdi Hassan is dead, but I am not sad. Don’t curse me when I say I am relieved, for death has brought an end to his decade-long suffering. Watching him lie helpless and speechless, afflicted by so many ailments, not to speak of bedsores, was a heart-wrenching experience. Strangely, while I am one of his biggest fans, I only met him – save a cursory exchange of ‘adaab’ at Mumbai Airport in the 1990s – when he fell ill. The first time I spoke to him was in 2001, after he suffered his first stroke (in Kerala, where he gave his last performance). He could answer questions, albeit with long pauses. This meeting took place at his house in Karachi.
I had accompanied Dr Saira Khan, who had made arrangements for the ambulance of the Medical Aid Foundation to take him from his house to the Aga Khan University Hospital daily for physiotherapy sessions. Also with us was a young Indian girl Nandita Bhavnani, who had arrived from Mumbai to see the city of her ancestors. She had been a great admirer of the vocalist. When I introduced her to Khan sahib (as he was often referred to) he said “Jo haq Pakistanion ko meri museeqi pe hai wohi Hindustanio ko bhi hai. Unho ne mujhe kum muhabbat nahi di” (Whatever claim the Pakistanis have over my music, the Indians have it in the same measure. They haven’t shown me less love). I highlighted this comment in my piece on him for Dawn. Atal Bihari Vajpaee was the Indian prime minister at the time and my friend Sudhendra Kulkarni, a journalist turned political activist, showed the article to his boss, who sent a very touching letter to the singer, admitting his great admiration for the maestro.
When I decided to write a book on the singer, I was handicapped by the fact that he was in no position to speak and a member of his family, who called the shots, was not cooperating. He wanted his pound of flesh, since he believed I was going to make loads of money at the expense of his near and dear one.
So, the next best alternative was to get music lovers, those who knew him and others in the profession to give their views, which I transcribed. Collecting music, unheard and less heard, was yet another problem but friends helped. It was my earnest desire to show the book Mehdi Hasan: the Man and His Music to him. I took the slim volume to him sometime in 2010. Speechless as he was, all he could utter was “Ahaa” and later said “Shukriya”. There were flickers of smile on his face, and the work I put in for the book was repaid.
Full marks to Dr Aziz Sonawala, an eminent neurologist, who treated the icon from day one and didn’t charge him any fee, as well as the hospital, where he was treated while his bills remained unpaid. A month or so before Mehdi Hassan’s death, the Sindh Government paid five million rupees to the Aga Khan University Hospital to settle a large chunk of the outstanding bills that had gone up to 5.2 million rupees.
Now the question, why did it happen or rather, if I may be allowed to be blunt, who killed Mehdi Hassan? To begin with, he didn’t manage his finances well. He had a large family, two wives (he outlived both of them) and 14 children and education was not a part of the family tradition. His case was a far cry from the one of Noor Jehan, who was treated by the same hospital and who paid all her bills.
Mehdi sahib was not an alcoholic, but he was not a disciplined drinker either. To make matters worse, he was a chain smoker, who also consumed tobacco in his paan.
Some people close to him used him for raising money. Where did the money go is anybody’s guess. Television channels exploited him too by paying his family and making the poor man sit on a wheelchair, suffering physically. Mehdi sahib was also made to listen to junior singers, who in an attempt to sing his famous ghazals and film songs, made a complete mess of immortal numbers – which was a torture of a different kind for the legend.
All said, the great singer, who had also been a generous soul is gone. His contribution to ghazal gayeki will forever remain second to none. May God rest his soul in peace.
Asif Noorani is a Karachi-based journalist and author of Mehdi Hasan: the Man and His Music.