Tuesday, February 17, 2015

High And Low Notes

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Habeesa talks about life with the ghazal singer Umbayee

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

Four days after her marriage to ghazal singer Umbayee, on May 8, 1977, Habeesa got the shock of her life. At 2 a.m., there was a knock on the door, and three people dragged a dazed Umbayee into the house at Fort Kochi. His eyes were bloodshot and there was a strong smell of alcohol on his breath. Umbayee was placed on a bed and his friends left. After a while, he moaned and then vomited. Habeesa spent the rest of the night cleaning up and crying. “Nobody had told my father, when the marriage proposal came, that Umbayee was an alcoholic,” says Habeesa.

Within a few years of the marriage, three children were born: Shailaja, Sabitha and Sameer. Although Umbayee gave money to run the household, it was not enough. He was using most of his income, as a tabla player, for drinks. So Habeesa bought a sewing machine and became a tailor.

During the day I would stitch the clothes,” she says. “At night, I would sew the buttons. Umbayee would always come late, long after the children had gone to sleep. He would be so drunk, often he would lean on the door. So when I opened it, he would fall to the floor. Then I had to lift him up. Every time he became sober, he would promise that he will not drink again. But he was unable to stop.”

After eight years of this agony, Habeesa begged Umbayee that they should split up. “I told him I cannot take it anymore,” she says. “I will manage on my own, and look after the children.”

Around this time, one morning, Umbayee walked past the Fatima Girls High School at Fort Kochi. The next day, his daughter Shailaja said, “Bapa, did you go in front of the school yesterday?”

Umbayee shook his head. “My friends said that you were drunk and were swaying from side to side,” said Shailaja. That sentence pierced Umbayee's heart.

He decided to stop drinking,” says Habeesa. “Umbayee feared for the children's future if he died suddenly.” And he held on to his resolve and became clean. But he had to go through withdrawal symptoms, like cold turkey, and even a bout of jaundice. “But ever since that time, he has not touched a drop,” says Habeesa.

Umbayee began to concentrate on his ghazal singing. And he would sing regularly at a restaurant on MG Road in Kochi in the 1980s. One night he sang Ghulam Ali's ghazal, 'Chupke, chupke'. One North Indian patron was so amazed that a Malayali could sing this song so well that he came forward and showered Rs 5000 in Rs 50 bundles on Umbayee.

The singer was stunned. This was the first time somebody had done something like this. He immediately gave Rs 1000 to the tabla player. “When he came home, he told me that we were going for an outing the next day,” says Habeesa. “And that was how, for the first time in our lives, we went to the Athirapilly waterfalls in a tourist taxi and had a good time.”

This was a rare good moment. For many years, a struggling Umbayee went through many embarrassing moments. “I remember in the early years, when we would go shopping, Umbayee would only set aside Rs 400,” says Habeesa. “My second daughter would not know about this. She would ask for a dress which would cost Rs 500 and my elder daughter would shake her head sternly. Umbayee would feel bad when he saw this.”

But now to make up for all those years of deprivation, Umbayee sends the entire family to the best shops in Kochi and tells them to buy whatever they want. “And when we do that, he looks upwards and thanks God,” says Habeesa. “He has also taken us for numerous holidays, as soon as he began to earn well.”

And in December, 2014, Habeesa went for her first trip abroad, along with a relative, to attend the Umrah pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. “I could not imagine even in my dreams that one day I will be able to travel outside the country,” says Habeesa. “After I returned my husband told me that my behaviour had changed. I had become more tolerant and soft. So, he is very happy and promised me that he would send me every year.”

Interestingly, despite living with a noted ghazal singer, Habeesa has only seen one performance of Umbayee. This happened ten years ago, at Koyilandy. “When I see him on stage, I get very anxious,” she says. “I want the programme to go through nicely, with the audience appreciating him. So I cannot enjoy the music, because I am praying all the time. So my husband told me that it is better I stay away. I am also worried that as he grows older, the physical strain is growing. It is not easy to do a two-hour performance. So, Umbayee is doing a lot of yoga and daily walks to stay fit.”

As for tips for a successful marriage, Habeesa says, “Both spouses should show patience. Otherwise, you will end up fighting a lot. Don't have too many expectations. Whatever is the husband's income, you must learn to live within that. A woman should look after her husband and he should do the same to her. That is the way the marriage will move forward." 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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