Hazrat Shah Hussain’s songs of love and longing for Madho Lal | Review of ‘The Sufi’s Nightingale’ by Sarbpreet Singh

This lyrical novel based in the 16th century serves as both a queer-affirmative and an engaging read

Published - March 01, 2024 08:50 am IST

The deft use of Persian and Urdu words adds charm to ‘The Sufi’s Nightingale’.

The deft use of Persian and Urdu words adds charm to ‘The Sufi’s Nightingale’. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Madho Lal Hussain. That this name signifies the oneness of the “dervish king” Hazrat Shah Hussain — the famous 16th-century Punjabi Muslim Sufi poet known for his exceptional, soul-baring Kafis — and the beautiful Hindu boy Shaikh Madho Lal from Shahdara (Pakistan) was unknown to me until recently.

In The Sufi’s Nightingale, writer, playwright and podcaster Sarbpreet Singh presents a fictionalised retelling of their love story. A heartwarming read, for peppered throughout this braided narrative told from the perspectives of Hussain and his “bulbul” (nightingale) and mureed (devotee), Maqbool, are Hussain’s verses, translated into English by the author.

The deft use of Persian and Urdu words in select places adds charm to this lyrical novel. Further, through this book, one can trace back the history of queerness in South Asia to an age and time about which nothing, besides the fact that trans people used to be decorated members of the harem, has been established.

The book begins with Maqbool expressing his jealousy towards Hussain’s love for Madho, who he sees in a pleasure house in the Bazaar-e-Husn mohalla. Not only does he feel “displaced”, he also finds that his melodious voice has stopped touching his master. Neither the ragas he used to sing nor the ballad of Heer and Ranjha manages to move his murshid (guru), who is intoxicated in the love of this young boy and roams around just to catch a glimpse of his divine beauty.

Highlighting society’s faultlines

Madho, however, doesn’t reciprocate the saint’s feelings initially. In fact, he rebukes him. Maqbool considers it shameful that despite this, his master relentlessly pursues Madho. Uninterestingly, back in the day as well, everyone stood united against love. It’s a tradition society continues to observe to date. As it gets a whiff of the affair, it outcasts the saint and shames him for his deviant desire. While Maqbool curses Madho for the sad state of his master in chapter after chapter, Hussain tells an alternate version of falling head over heels in love with the boy and connects this desire to god.

This fabulous tale not only reads as if a work of magical realism, it also highlights the fault lines of caste, gender, and sexuality that have only been leveraged to propagate differences, never to spread love. The Sufi’s Nightingale does the latter effortlessly, without being preachy, for an unpredictable narrative twist awaits its readers towards the end through which Singh deliberately or inadvertently manages to strike a conversation about transitioning (in the queer context).

A close reading may also signal how the initial refusal by Madho could be a result of the inevitable shame he would have attracted from his friends. And this eventually happens when they hurl homophobic slurs at him. However, all this is secondary to the book whose central theme perhaps happens to be managing one’s nafs (ego), as noted in one of the poems of Bulleh Shah (‘Aik Alif’), making The Sufi’s Nightingale both a queer-affirmative and an engaging read.

The Sufi’s Nightingale
Sarbpreet Singh
Speaking Tiger
₹499

The Delhi-based queer writer and freelance journalist was trained as an engineer.

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