The ‘Home Coming’ song
Puja Roy

(A translated piece from the original article written in Bengali by Journalist and author Prasenjit Dasgupta)

Picture this scene from the 2014 Hindi movie ‘Haider’.

The darkness of the night has shrouded over the streams of Jhelum. Overcrossing the dreary Chinar stands few lonely homes, bereft and abandoned. It’s the ‘Mamaland’ – Indian army’s prisoner detention center. 

Tearing away the silence of the night emerges a song, 

‘Qafas udaas hai yaaron, 
Safa se kuch to kaho’.

The song is being sung by Dr. Hilaal Mir (played by Narendra Jha in the movie), who has been held captive by the Indian army for doing his duty – treating an injured who happened to be a militant, a terrorist.  

By treating a terrorist, Dr. Hilaal too became one himself and is hence languishing in the detention centre pining to return home. His body bruised and battered as a result of physical torture in the camp, his mind weak, its resolve bent with the force of the unbearable. However, his heart seeks refuge in this song, written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, immortalized by Mehdi Hasan. 

‘Guloñ meñ rañg bhare bād-e-nau-bahār chale 
Chale bhī aao ki gulshan kā kārobār chale’ 

With a feeble body, this infirm man sings his ‘homecoming’ song. 

That night, amidst the screeching silence of the obscure night in the detention camp, another jihadi – Roohdar (played by Irrfan Khan) quietly heard Dr. Hilaal sing..

Hilaal could never return home. Later, his body was traced from the many graves covered under the thick layer of snow by his son Haider (played by Shahid Kapoor). 

A celluloid adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, this particular scene in Haider, directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, where the son after hearing of his father’s disappearance is frantically looking for his last remains, not just perturbs us with its goriness, it also makes us cringe in fear of the ghastly. 

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‘I’m going there to see my Mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
So, I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home…’

The year was 1862, the Civil War of America was at its peak. It was the Libby Prison at Richmond, Virginia, infamous for the overcrowded and harsh conditions under which officer prisoners were kept and was also known to be the place form where prisoners never returned alive. 
Two officers sit facing each other inside the dark dungeon. Both awaiting their hour of death. Unspeakable torture has been carried out on these two captured soldiers. They know that they wouldn’t be able to return home anymore, will never see their families again, they would die in this cell without getting to see the faces of their fathers, mothers, sisters, wife and children one last time. 
Despite the bruises, they hope against hope to live and sought refuge in the solace of a song,” I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger…”
They sing in turns, one sings, the other writes down the lines over the walls of the prison.  

Let’s try and picture this.

A little while later, both of these soldiers would be placed right in front of the firing squad. They know they would die, leaving behind this beautiful world and its people forever. Minutes before being dragged from their cell, the soldiers sing this homecoming song one final time, cherishing the moments spent together, re-living their unfulfilled desire to return home. They sing along while others in the Libby prison listen to them. Over a period of time, the song came to be known as the ‘Libby hymns’ and also gave birth to a new genre – ‘war folk’ songs. 

Later David Warren Steel and Richard H. Hulan wrote a book called ‘The makers of the Sacred harp’ (an authoritative reference work that investigates the roots of the Sacred Harp, an American musical tradition that emerged in the 19th century), where they mention this song and their authors. 

Such was the power of its words and the emotions it evoked, that the song became a universal ‘homecoming’ song. 

‘I am just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world below
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go…’ 

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Though these two songs from two different parts of the world, couldn’t have been more different from each other, however, it is in its ability to give emotional solace to the languishing prisoners who pined for their homes, that its universal appeal lies. 

The universal emotion of love, affection, brotherhood and harmony bridges all geographical barriers making one seamless world where Srinagar and Richmond betray similar ethos, Mamaland and Libby prison cannot be differentiated anymore and the songs of homecoming across the world do not have any strings that are discordant with each other. 

In 2020, Sam Mendes’s ‘War Epic 1917’ received 3 Oscars for cinematography, sound mixing and visual effects. The song ‘I am just a poor wayfaring stranger’ is almost the soul of the movie which tells the story of two young British soldiers during the First World War. Maybe Thomas D. Newman’s music could have fetched another Oscar in their kitty, though it didn’t happen. 

The song of homecoming, the universal appeal it carries within and the melancholy that binds it with the rest of the ‘wayfaring strangers’ will be the stuff of the legends. It will continue to encourage and infuse all those who have left home and all those who wish to come back with its inimitable spirit of hope and courage. 

(The above is a translated piece from the original article written in Bengali by Journalist and author Prasenjit Dasgupta.)

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