The Song I Won’t Forget

When I Became the Lead Singer!

L to R: Basit Ali Shah, Qazi Raziq and the author

he three of us had won a scholarship to study in the US on an international exchange program, at Colorado State University (CSU), Fort Collins. Basit Ali Shah in Dairy Science, Qazi Raziq in Farm Mechanics, and myself in Soil Science. It was the early 1960s. Fort Collins’ population was 25,000 and CSU’s student population was a little over 2,000 including 60-70 international students.

Not too long after we settled in our dormitories, made a few friends, and familiarized ourselves with the campus and the town, we learned the university would soon be holding its annual International Students’ Day where students from different countries would display their culture — food, music, dance, handicrafts, etc.

We were unprepared to participate. Other than having won the scholarship, none of us possessed any other talent — hidden or obvious.

We could choose not to participate, but patriotism required that Pakistan must not go unrepresented, especially when an Indian contingent was listed to present its elaborate song-and-dance show. Pakistan, a new country, was still in its teens and we had barely stepped out of ours.

We put our heads together and came up with a plan. On day one, we would participate in the food festival with our Pakistani tikka-kebabs, and on day two, we would sing a Pakistani song.

L to R: Qazi, Basit, and the author

Tikkas and kebabs seemed easy. As students at Islamia College, Peshawar, we had often visited Ajab Khan’s kebab shop not too far from the college, across the cricket ground, watched him prepare kebabs, and had a vague idea of how it was done. But singing a song on stage to a large audience was different. Winning the scholarship was much easier.

I suggested to my other two friends a song I had first heard in a Pakistani movie, and still remembered it, both the lines and the tune. It had short lines, a quick beat, and was easy to sing. Above all, it dripped with patriotism. They agreed.

In the movie, a school teacher leading a group of young students on a tour of the country sings the song describing the different provinces, their people, and history — a bit exaggerated though. After every few lines, the students join the teacher in a chorus.

I became the teacher of the movie and Basit and Qazi the students.

I wrote down the lines of the song that I remembered, and the three of us practiced singing it, with me as the lead singer. We had a week or ten days to practice, and we practiced hard. We would sing in our room, tape it on a tape recorder — those old machines with revolving spools — and listen to it. We did it over and over again. Initially, we sounded horrible and out of tune, but gradually we became better.

Our next task was to find some kind of musical accompaniment. We approached an American student who was a good pianist (I forget his name). We had watched a couple of his performances on campus. He agreed to play the piano with our song and asked us to sing it for him so that he could get a feel for the tune. It took him a while, but after a few practice sessions he managed to get the hang of our exotic tune, and we all learned to be in harmony with each other.

On the given day — rather night — we appeared on stage, dressed in black sherwanis, Pakistan’s official “national dress”, which was also our college uniform at Islamia College Peshawar. (Someone later remarked we looked like priests on the pulpit.) The hall was full of students, teachers, and guests.

Our pianist, sitting off stage but not too far from us, struck the tune, and I followed with the first two lines:

آؤ بچو سیر کرائیں تم کو پاکستان کی

جس کی خاطر ہم نے دی قربانی لاکھوں جان کی

And the other two joined me in a chorus

پاکستان زندہ باد ‘ پاکستان زندہ باد

The lines roughly translated are:

Hey kids! Let’s take you on a tour of Pakistan

For which we sacrificed millions of lives

Long live Pakistan, long live Pakistan …

And so on it went till the end. We managed to sing the song without a discordant note, and the pianist did a great job.

When we finished, there was silence in the hall for a second or two, but felt very long. Probably, the audience couldn’t figure out if we had finished, but then the hall erupted into a loud and long ovation. We couldn’t tell whether the audience was tickled or entertained by our performance but the applause lasted long enough to assure us that we hadn’t done badly.

More assurance came a few days later when my major professor, Dr. W. R. Schmehl, invited me to a party at his house. Towards the end of the party, to entertain his guests, he asked me to sing the same song, which I did without any accompaniment. Everyone looked amused, Dr. Schmehl the most.

We didn’t quite become the Beatles, but we did make many friends because of our performance that night. In the weeks after the event, several of our newfound friends — both boys and girls — would call to request us to sing the same song over the phone so that they could make their friends listen to it. We readily complied, especially to the girls.

Among the audience on the night of the event, there was at least one person who understood the song’s meaning and was not amused by some of the jingoistic lines. He was a diplomat from an Indian consulate. He made it known to the organizers that the song was against the spirit of International Students’ Day, which was to promote understanding of different cultures. The message was duly conveyed to us by the organizers.

In the hindsight, I can understand the diplomat had a point but, fortunately for us, most of the audience did not understand the song’s language. They simply enjoyed the beat and the rhythm, and we happily wallowed in our fleeting popularity.

Note: Basit Ali Shah retired as vice-chancellor of Agriculture University, Peshawar, and Qazi Raziq settled in the US and worked for Colorado State.

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