ISLAMABAD: Several years ago, I had an argument with several people I respect – the issue, I forget how it arose, was whether Junaid Jamshed knew that he was leaving a lucrative pop music career for another equally lucrative career as a televangelist and religious personage.
My position was he didn’t know, or couldn’t know. Back then we knew well about how the state had misguidedly weaponised religion, but the organic commercialisation of religion hadn’t occurred yet. When Junaid left the world of music for a more ascetic calling, he had turned his back on a sure bet for the unknown. That fortune still smiled upon him was accidental.
There is integrity in how he made the move, giving up all that he loved dearly for what he believed in clearly. There was a visual incongruity in seeing him with his flowing beard and pulled up shalwar, but not a very strong mental dissonance. That was because he was always the mega pop star who stood on a foundation of humility, he gave an air of introspection instead of the bluster of confidence that a showman unleashes on the stage and off.
While his life has been richly documented, it seems his life has been retold in how people have reacted to his death. One section remembers how he provided the soundtrack to their lives, every song marking a memory, a milestone in life. Another section remembers him for the religious figure that he had become. Junaid himself didn’t bridge the gap between modernity and religion – he shifted from one to another. But in his death, the two differing tribes of Pakistanis – the ‘moderns’ and the ‘deeni’s’ – shared the same pew, united not in what they said but in their use of the language of grief.
His death exposes the cleavages of Pakistan in the same way that Junaid inhabited them – the struggle to navigate the different identities that the country has not yet been able to comfortably amalgamate into a coherent narrative. It’s one or the other we are often told, just as Junaid became one, then another.
His beautiful, melodious voice was at home both in the hook of a pop song as it was in a naat. So singular was his voice, that I often found when another singer tried to harmonise with him in a duet it sounded discordant.
Singular is his place in Pakistan’s history as well. Junaid became the face of society being freed from the social engineering of Zia, an embodiment of a national nightmare coming to an end and giving way to optimism about a future once stolen. His artistry as a songwriter, and that of his phenomenally talented band mates is legend.
They say you have your whole life to make your debut album, and six months to make your second. In some ways the staying power of an artist can be judged by their sophomore effort, and in my opinion Vital Signs’ second album was their best effort, a moody, reflective piece of pop that still stands up to scrutiny today.
But, unlike his entire presence during the pop era where anything he did was welcome, the past few years were unlike the time of universal adulation. Junaid was regularly expressing a disconcerting strain of misogyny, one further compounded by his confusing mixing of religion to the corrosive strain of local custom on the place of women in society.
While that got him consternation from the liberals, it was ironically what got him potentially murderous condemnation from the far right on the charges of blasphemy.
Watching him go through that was difficult, for however ill-advised his comments, he was receiving the worst of the treatment on matters that he was oft silent on from members of a community that he had embraced. What effect this had on him we cannot be sure, for his life has been cut short through this tragedy.
Now that he is no more, he is destined for the same contention that occupies the memory of some of our greatest like MA Jinnah and others, who accrue his legacy? Is it those who see the Quaid’s “You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan” or the Quaid that created a religious state, not a Muslim majority state?
Whichever it will be, Junaid will be buried as a man who loved his country, his God, with all the good that he did, and with him will go the contradictions he embodied as we go on living with ours.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2016.