Allah’s Rock Stars

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Strains of rock music have begun to waft across the gullies of Nizamuddin that usually reverberate with qawwaalis
They will sing their way out of this, the slum life, they say. In fact, they repeat it so many times that they almost believe it.

But before they sing, they touch their ears, fold hands, and ask for forgiveness. In Islam, the religion they follow, music—‘ useless entertainment’—is forbidden for it leads away from the path of spirituality, they say.

In Nizamuddin, they have grown up listening to qawwali at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple Amir Khusro, the poet. They have also been witness to a growing number of Tablighis who throng its streets and cafes.

The Tablighi Jamaat is a proselytising movement that started in Mewat in 1926. The diktat is simple: become believers and revert to the Five Pillars of Islam. Revive the faith, they say. The world headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat is only a few metres from the shrine in Nizamuddin—religion and its defiance in the same space.

They are believers, too. But they also believe in the virtue of forgiveness. God and religion are mostly misunderstood.

Music, they have been told, creates arousal, and passion. Hearts should not be moved with desire. Stretching, raising, and softening the voice could lead to sins of passion. But Khusro’s beloved was God. Reveal your face, sing the qawwals.

“Come, I am forlorn without you,” sings Zuhaib Ali of the Painfull Rockstars, a two-member band from the slums of Nizamuddin.

While men rush into the austere space of the Markaz to reaffirm their religion by not listening to music, strains of qawwali can be heard coming from the shrine on Thursday nights. Growing up here, the young rock singers of Nizamuddin know they can do this and that. The rebellion started centuries ago. Sufis were blessed, too.

Theirs is the kind of sadness where there is hope. In fact, they like to be sad. It is deeper than other emotions, they say. Growing up in the Nizamuddin basti was tough. They could have gone the other way—become addicts, indulge in petty thefts and end up in prison like some of their friends—or they could be good.

Nadeem Arshi, Sahil Siddiqui, Zoheb Sheikh and the rest are always singing. Love songs that become sad. Again and again. As if by the act of singing, plugging the cord into the amplifier, switching on the bird lights in the barren room of the Nizamuddin Community Centre, they will be transported elsewhere.

These young men sing together. They sing each others’ songs. They have their groups—Painfull Rockstars, Dynamic Star, ZR, LUV, and so on. They record songs, upload them on YouTube and ReverbNation, and help each other out with lyrics.

But they also betray each other. Living in a slum teaches you that. Look out for yourself. There’s only so much space. You fight to be. Desperation and ambition co-exist.

Nothing is absolute here. There’s a church in these parts, and shrines dedicated to Hindu deities. Smells of kebabs mix with the heady fragrance of rose petals, and women walk in hijabs. There are bakeries, and old walls that lead into the houses of generational shrine keepers who claim to be descendents of the saint. The saint never married. The saint stressed love. The singers know of love. The saint was against class barriers. He said sama was the means to unity with God. In fact, Khusro created the qawwali.

Conflict is a flavour here. Vendors blast sermons—do this, don’t do that, lower your gaze when you see a woman—fatwas against un-Islamic things, and dark tales about hell in case of deviance. But in the same space, in the narrow alleys that lead to the dargah, others sell CDs of qawwalis by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri Brothers and Abida Parveen.

Nadeem used to sing qawwalis. That’s how he learn to raise and lower his voice. At the shrine, only those from the families of traditional qawwals can sing. But everyone can hear them.

They were all there when a part of the film Rockstar starring Ranbir Kapoor was shot at the shrine. That was 2011. In many ways, they located their stories in the film’s narrative. Ranbir Kapoor’s character lost his love and came to the shrine, and that’s where he started to sing. This is where they are. They want to be rock stars.

They are waiting for someone to notice them. They invest what they have in recording. Only one of them—Zuhaib Ali alias Zuby—has been able to make a video so far. That cost him Rs 65,000. He later fell in love with the girl he cast in the video—a beautician from Okhla named Nagma.

The rest of them wait. They know what they will do when they make it. Nadeem wants to send his parents on Hajj. Sahil wants to support his divorced elder sister, and Zuby wants to help the poor.

They are believers—in the benevolence of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, whose shrine defines this locality.

There is the other context. Of wealth. In Nizamuddin West and across the street in the East, the real estate is worth crores. The nouveau riche have come in. There are Audis and BMWs, boutiques and coffee shops.

And then, there is them. They come from poor families, except 22-year-old Zoheb, whose father, the former drug lord of the basti, is in jail.

They are known in these parts. Women stop and ask them if they are still singing. They are not seen as deviants. They are the basti’s heroes.

Nigar Parween, perched high up on a makeshift roof of tin and asbestos, looks down on Nadeem and Mir Ali singing and nods.

“In this neighbourhood, it is a great thing. It keeps them off drugs. We play their songs. I pray that they go places with this. They were born here. They will make us proud,” she says.

Under the small patch of evening sky in between the corrugated iron roofs and tarpaulin sheets, the two continue to sing.

Woh jo maanga thha Khuda se...

Around them, with their backs against sooty walls, other children from the basti have congregated. They sing along.

Songs of love, and betrayal. Songs of hope, and fear. Songs of faith, and of defiance.

A song was lost, stolen, or whatever. But the fact of the matter is that over tea and bheja fry one night at Zaki restaurant in Nizamuddin basti, Nadeem Arshi, 27, said his opening lines had been taken by this other friend, a flamboyant bandana and stud-wearing young man who has inspired many to look like him. Like a star. That’s what he is. With a loyal fan following. The rest of them fade out when he walks in. He is always in focus. He knows this.

Nadeem stopped sporting a similar hairstyle. That night, he would say more.

“That’s what a song is mostly,” he said. “The opening sets the tone for the song. You return to those lines, and they hold the song in place. He took that and never gave the track back.”

Sahil Siddiqui was nodding. He didn’t condone it. The two belong to two different groups from Nizamuddin basti— Dynamic and Painfull, suffixed with ‘Rockstars’ for effect. Like those faux- leather jackets, and those boots with buckles and metal straps. Enablers, image building, whatever. Those are ‘rockstar’ things. The world might have moved on to other things. But here, that word must matter somehow. It is another story that they mostly sing love songs composed on free tunes.

However, Nadeem, who wears skinny pants, and silver chains around his neck, and silver studs in his ears, said it hurt him. He won’t confront his friend anymore. There would be more songs. Either way, among men, there exists no true friendship. A game of chess is not just a game. There’s more to it. Always.

Zoheb, 22, the eager son of a former druglord, says they once wrote a song about friendship. A friend’s friend had died. They all knew him.

“Listen, there are feelings,” he says. “There will always be feelings.”

He is naïve.

Nadeem speaks with a slight lisp. But sings without inhibition.

The night I first heard him sing, it was at Zaki Hotel. It was past midnight when he walked in and ordered tea and bread pakoras. In the dark corner of the upstairs part of this old eatery, a few men were smoking ganja. The smell wafted into the room. They were unperturbed. Drugs are everywhere in this area. In the eyes of men and in its newfound wealth. Straight, thin buildings are coming up. They are all lined with tiles. Ugly to the more sophisticated, but to them, a mark of their upward mobility.

Nadeem was with another young man, and a girl. He began to sing. I asked him if it was a Bollywood song.

“It is my song,” he said. “I have a band. It is called Dynamic Star.”


“Because we are unusual,” he said.

I asked for his number.

We forget. Songs, and other encounters.

Only for so long.

At the back of the community centre in Nizamuddin basti, there is a room with two beds and an amplifier. On pink chart paper, Nadeem has scribbled his name, drawn a mic, an amplifier and earphones. They have hung bird lights. Blue, red and yellow. The tube lights, ones that remind you of sanitised spaces like hospitals or asylums, were too harsh for songs of love and heartbreak. There are no curtains on the windows. Outside, there are stark walls. They block most of the view. This could be a room anywhere. Only, this one is in a slum. A turn, a few steps, and you are out there—face to face with deprivation and heaps of garbage.

In the distance, men in rags are sniffing whitener or smoking ganja. On the left, beyond locked gates, the infamous park lies. After the Commonwealth Games, it was cleared and lights installed. But it has a reputation. Of crime, and rapes, and other such netherworld things. The night shelter, with its own horror tales, is next to it. Straight up, there is another gate, and it opens into an open space where drunk men are playing cards, and women are picking out lice from children’s hair. Urchins run around.

Then, there is a narrow alley. This isn’t a place for miracles. There are more narrow alleys that are like rivulets, and you enter a dark space. Eyes must get used to this. Then a turn, and yet another, and at the end, there is a small room no bigger than the size of two double beds. It is a windowless space. Without the bulb, it would be impossible to see anything here. A mother is preparing dinner.

This is where Nadeem lives with his family. Four siblings and a crippled father. When he was much younger, he would feel guilty seeing his father sell chai outside the Nizamuddin Baoli gate. So he dropped out of school, and apprenticed at a workshop for Rs 5 per day. Now, he works as a fabricator in Nehru Nagar, and makes Rs 7,500 per month.

He spends his evenings and nights in the room at the community centre, which has been given to his father who now works as a chowkidar. But Nadeem feels it may not be safe for his father to spend nights there. This is where he writes his lyrics and sings. In fact, at his workplace, they refer to him as a singer. He wants to release an album. Perhaps, be like Sonu Nigam.

“Maybe a little less,” he says.

He is in love. Unrequited love. The girl still calls him. But she asks him to sing songs by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. He says she listens to his compositions on her mobile, and cries.

She is his muse. Pain is what they are most familiar with. Look around, and there it is. In the daily drudgery of their lives. Nadeem says they would sometimes drink water with flour to keep hunger at bay.

They have an old guitar. Someone else’s. They strum it. But none of them are trained. Not vocals, not anything else.

“If you sing forever, you will have the voice,” Nadeem says. “It is the saint’s blessings.”

What is pain, then?

It is when you can’t help the situation, when you know you can do it, but there’s nobody to give you that push; it is when you must cut aluminium, and see your time go by, he says.

He has been doing khidmat at the shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya every Thursday for the last seven years, waking up at 6 am, then pushing water carts, feeding the poor and collecting refuse. Last year, he tried calling numbers advertised over text messages, mostly spam, and was told he would have to pay Rs 2.5 lakh to get into Indian Idol. He even tried to go to an audition. But nothing worked out.

There’s an unmarried sister. She used to attend school but had to drop out. Neighbours would spread stories, and the father would beat up the girl, and then they decided she should stay in, and they would try to get her married. The younger brother likes dancing. Moin, Nadeem’s uncle’s son, spends most of his time in their company. He is their errands boy. Unlike others, his hair is cut short, and oiled. But he says it is because his school won’t allow such flights of fancy in terms of hairstyle. But once he is done with school, he says, he will not look so ambiguous or commonplace.

Nadeem says they all have sad stories. It is important to suffer so you can create. Their lyrics, on scraps of paper, are testimony to their love and loss.

Almost all of them are in love. They deny it at first. Then Zoheb says he is too deep in it to turn back. Zoheb’s mother, Sharafat Ali’s second wife, has been in Tihar for the past seven years as an undertrial. The young man lives with his aunt, and wants to be a singer. He has formed his own band called ZR. Raheel, his partner, is a lanky young man who mans a grocery store in the alley, and claims he can rap faster than any rapper alive.

When he goes to see his mother in prison, he sings to her. She made him sing when he was a child. He hopes she can get out soon.

Zoheb says he didn’t even know what his father did. That he was some kind of a Robin Hood figure, he knows. He helped the poor. When he would visit Bombay, he would meet film stars. Important men would visit their mansion in the basti, he says. He points to a palatial mansion that stands out in the basti environs. The Delhi government has sealed it like other properties that belonged to the druglord.

He was kidnapped in Okhla a couple of years ago. But he doesn’t complain about his 10 months in captivity in a village in UP. His girlfriend wants him to study, so he has enrolled in a distance education programme. For her birthday last year in May, he took Zuby Ali to a hookah bar in Lajpat Nagar so he could sing for her.

When he was with a band called LUV, they didn’t give him any credit. He would pay for recordings, and, over time, realised he was being taken for a ride.

Zoheb, with his light eyes and eager personality, wants to impress everyone. Most of all, Zuby Ali. Because Zuby Ali sets the mood here. He has made singing a respectable thing here, Zoheb says.

Zuby is in the room, and they are all in awe of him. Later, they will speak about his failings, but not now. Because Zuby Ali has arrived with an entourage, and most of his men sport the same hairstyle as he does. Straight hair, cut in layers. The 27-year-old talks about his fans in the Nizamuddin basti and says it is only because he can sing universal songs.

The narratives of their lives run parallel to each other. Difficult childhoods, and heartbreaks. Poverty, and the struggle to defy the prescribed life of a slum kid. Try to study, then drop out. Take up a job anywhere, and survive. Mostly, it is all about making it from one day to the next.

Zuby doesn’t reveal everything at once. He is a charming man who seems to know the plot. Nagma doesn’t say much, only giggles. That night, she came to the basti dressed in skinny denims, knee- high boots and a cream coat, holding a bunch of red roses for Zuby. Friday was Rose Day. He looked at her, stretched out his hands, and sang. He is good with theatrics. A group on young and old men, and a few young girls gather around.

“Allah isse kaamyaabi de (Allah grant him success),” a young man says. They have known each other for a long time.

Later, Zuby says he married Nagma five months after they met. He had cast her in his first video, and they had an affair. She says she fell in love with him when she saw him. He had lost his mother, and was in mourning. They don’t live together yet. When he is successful, he will bring her home. Until then, they must live apart. In love, and in agony, he says. “She is part of Painfull Rockstars,” he adds.

But he won’t cast her anymore. Because he doesn’t want others to desire her after they see her. She bats her eyelashes, pumped with mascara, and smiles again, and her lips almost dyed pink. She looks misplaced here. Her hair is almost blonde. It falls over her face in a 90s way.

Zuby is articulate. He knows the narrative well. There might be some truth in it, but it is narrated to maximise the broken heart complex. He says his life is a story of losses. He lost his father to another woman when he was young, and then his brothers. But the loss that did him in was his mother’s. On the Hyundai Sonata always parked outside the chai stalls and new hotels near the Baoli gate, a sticker reads ‘Maa Ki Dua’. And on the left top corner: ‘Painfull Rockstars’.

Expletives and abuses are thrown at whoever comes in the way while he is driving. He says they write their songs in the car on a busy street. In that chaos, he feels, music comes best to him. The car is his zone. It is a gift from Nagma.

Zuby is not emaciated like the rest of them. There is a way the poor look different from the rich. You can tell from their sunken cheeks and their frames. Nadeem and Sahil and the rest are poor boys from the slums. Zuby is different. He doesn’t need to work.

Nineteen-year-old Sahil Siddiqui was the one who started it all last year when he first recorded his song Kyun Iss Tarah. Sahil gave them all this dream, Nadeem says.

Sahil gets up to sing.

He recorded that first song at Sai Milan Studio in Lajpat Nagar in March last year. Then, he formed the band. That was a fashionable thing to do. And suddenly, everyone was trying to compose, write and record. Zuby met him one evening and asked to be included. Zuby had already been singing at Comesum, a chain fast food joint near Delhi’s Nizamuddin Station, and he was Sahil’s brother’s friend.

Sahil finishes singing. There’s silence.

“I have a love story to sing about,” Zoheb says.

“Mine is a sad story,” Nadeem interrupts.

“Actually, I start with love, and then it gets sad,” Zoheb replies.

Zoheb sings the cover of an old Bollywood song: Humein Tumse Pyar Kitna. He has added his own lyrics. There’s also some rap, and he wants to record it soon so he can send it to his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day.

Ladki toh nahi mili, lekin ek career toh mil gaya (I didn’t get the girl, but I got a career),” Sahil says, and he begins to talk about his tryst with love.

He plays the voice of a girl crying on his mobile. It is too much. Given my own fascination with love, I was curious. But the grieving, amplified, is too much. They shut it, and Sahil says he will never love again. The girl betrayed him, and now she wants to come back, but he has decided he will never give her that power again.

“I used my pain,” he says. “I will use it always.”

His father Mohammad Zafir Nizami came to Delhi from Bhagalpur district in Bihar in 1976 before Sahil was born. He owns a flower shop at the shrine in Nizamuddin. He used to tell Sahil to focus on other things. Singing would need more than just a good voice. His elder son had tried—he gave up and started working at the Aga Khan Trust. But Sahil is obstinate. Such things aren’t for the poor, his father would say.

“My father said, ‘Once you have started on the path, don’t turn back’. I won’t. I am still pursuing education, and help out at the shop, but this is what my life is going to be about,” he says.

They didn’t own a sound system. When he recorded his first song, he played it on his mobile phone to his parents. It was a surprise, and they were happy. He had figured out everything on his own through the internet. He met others, from other neighbourhoods, who had come to the recording studio. They were all trying to make it. You’d pray for all of them, he says.

“When the heart breaks, the sound is from there. You can’t fake it,” he says.

Zuby and Sahil have recorded a few songs together. He says that they get along fine.

“We will be together. If Sahil gets an offer, he will take me along. If I get one, he is there by my side. I said to him long ago, ‘We are in it together.’ If one falls behind, the other needs to turn back. All I want is one label,” Zuby says.

Zuby says he smokes too much. That he is a drifter, and has never known anchors in life. Those he loved left him. Like his elder brother who took poison one day many years ago because he couldn’t deal with heartbreak. Another sibling died in a freak accident four years ago, and his ailing mother, who he remembers as always holding prayer beads and muttering blessings, passed away two years later.

He roams around with men who he refers to as his friends, but you know they are there to protect him. They don’t interfere with his narrative, and don’t correct him or add their bits. They hang around, and watch over him.

In his case, sadness and melancholy are irrevocable conditions. Young love destroys you, he says. Love could happen later. But who knows, he says.

In between, you write and compose in a car on a busy road. You smoke incessantly, and you drink numerous cups of chai.

Young boys tell him how they have found his songs so relevant.

“Bhai, aapke gaane sun ke humko lagta hai hamari zindagi ke upar likha hai (Brother, listening to your songs, we feel they were written about our lives),” they say to him. He pats them on the shoulder, and smiles.

Zuby remembers in all its detail his mother’s life. He dropped out of school when his brother died and took care of his mother. He remembers how they returned to their maternal grandmother’s house in Nizamuddin basti when he was very young, and lived in a room that was too small for the six of them. It used to leak during the rains.

They started building their house then. Now, it is a five-storey building. He got lucky with his mobile repair business, and his brothers earned well enough. But the house wasn’t this tall when his mother was alive. Some people just go away without a moment of respite in their lives, he says.

He sold his first car, a Maruti Suzuki Zen, for his mother’s eye operation. She had cried.

In 2003, he fell in love with a girl he met at a wedding in the neighbourhood. It lasted a year. But it left him damaged, he says. That’s when he wrote his song.

Aaja tujhe vaasta... the lyrics go.

The video features him and Nagma. The plot revolves around love. In the end, the guy in love hangs himself, and the girl falls on her knees and wails.

There is no way out of love, he says.

Money is an issue, an impediment. But the hope is that people will find them on the internet; that someone will notice them, and launch them.

They are all eating together at Zaki restaurant. The usual fare—bheja fry, and rotis, and chai. They list the things they will do if they become successful.

Nadeem says he wants to buy his father pigeons. His father used to fly pigeons as a hobby. “I don’t know how much money is good enough. I also want to get them a house,” he says. “I was blessed to have such parents.”

Zuby says he always wanted to sing on a stage in front of his mother. If he ever makes it, he will cry. Loudly and freely.

Sahil looks away. Nadeem goes on sipping his tea.

Zoheb interjects.

“I will go on singing. Whether it gets me anything or not. And Zuby bhai, I am good. I represented my school in a gurbaani competition. I am proud of myself,” he says. “Nadeem bhai sings better than I do. His sur (pitch) is better. I only respect him.”

Zoheb has finally said it.

And then, the call of the muezzin. And talk of Urs, the celebrations at the shrine, that begin on 17 February. There will be roses, and genda (marigold) flowers, and dancing fakirs, and sama. Music will assert itself. They will be here. Doing khidmat, and praying their songs be heard.