How it sounded over the years (1978-1982)

Something is happening, exciting, bewildering – it was on dad’s tape recorder, a 1968 song that he probably taped while it was being telecast in the US.  I used to love listening to it.  I recollect the chagrin and the pure frustration of my friends and classmates looking at me as though I had three heads if I ever mentioned this song or sang it.  They had never heard of it.  One of many ways in which I felt different and alien.

This memory goes together with the incident where I told a friend how funny Laurel & Hardy comics were and she said, “Ha ha ‘funny’, that’s not even a word, did you just invent that word?” Alien world!  These were very strange days for me.  I feel like I became two different people around this time with my personality at home a completely different one from the one at school.  It was perhaps the first indication that the world wasn’t a sympathetic place, rather, it was a place that more often than not took on dissonant and ugly shadings and my shell was firmly in place when I left for school every morning.

Home was where I was a mimic, where I was someone who couldn’t last a minute without bursting into song or cracking a joke or saying things no one expected me to say; where I could be a normal child who begged for things and sulked when the things she wanted didn’t happen or grew ecstatic when they did.  People at home cared about my actions and reactions.  At school I was increasingly invisible.  My classmates were a couple of years older and stranger, the first teacher in Delhi terrified the living daylights out of me.  I didn’t quite know how to be the same everywhere.

I used to see classmates exchanging LPs.  The Pussycats album was the one that was going around back then.  I held the record in my hands, in class, and gazed at it with fondness.  Perhaps a part of me was in extreme distress about not being like the people in my school.  After all we just had a spool tape recorder at home which played Downtown or Something is happening but never anything that was known to other people.  They hadn’t even heard of the Hindi songs I knew and loved like, zabaan-e-yaar man turki, o man turki nameeda nam, nameeda nam, nameeda num, nameeda num oye.. (chahe tu ik nazar mein kulkayanat le le – more wonderful sounding words that made no sense at the time)

And then it happened in the year 1978, suddenly TV and our own record player shortly thereafter. Happy days!  No more Sunday evenings on other people’s carpets watching their rotti-shotti rituals and listening to stories of the grand old days in Peshawar, Multan or Lahore before all the “syappa” (trouble) and personal losses on grand and unimaginable scales; stories of how these folks had experienced trauma, lost everything and built it all back from scratch, literally from the ground up.  I overheard awed conversations at home, between my parents and with other extended family, where they marveled at the extreme industriousness and resourcefulness of the Punjabis and how as Biharis we just weren’t in possession of these genetic traits.

We heard it all in those Punjabi living rooms and the mysteries of being referred to as Hindustanis started unraveling.  These people had all been on the train from Pakistan.  What I absorbed in those living rooms all those years ago didn’t register with a full and meaningful impact until so much later.  Back then it was just mataji talking.  In 1978 her memories from thirty-one years ago were still as fresh as her yesterdays.

The Sunday feature film and the Wednesday Chitrahaar were already unmissable for us but now we even saw the regional films that were telecast on Saturdays – either Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, Punjabi or Bengali, occasionally a Bhojpuri movie like an old one called Loha Singh.  These were enjoyably, and often hilariously, different, especially when they appeared with subtitles.  There were those endless talent shows where we saw a very young Alka Yagnik and so many others before they were so famous and so commercially viable and soulless.  We even sat through Krishi Darshan, watching someone wax eloquent about rabi and kharif crops, in stubborn avoidance of homework.

The trips to Rhythm Corner (RC) in Delhi’s South Extension were an exciting addition to our lives now.  I was finally exposed to more English songs than just the couple that played on the tape recorder.  The new rituals of holding the LP at the edges and laying it down ever so gently on the turntable and then resting the needle in the groove were so exciting and it was such an honor to be permitted to handle the records and the record player.  I still remember being awed when I was told that the tip of the needle was a small bit of diamond.

The beginning of what grew to be a rather impressive record collection was a “Best of” record recommended by a bespectacled attendant at the store.  He spent many years of his record selling career at Rhythm Corner (which is such a sad little nothing store in South Ext now – no idea what it even sells).  This record featured Rod Stewart’s Hot Legs.  I remember spending a lot of time trying to perfect “I Love Ya Honeeeeeeeeeey” like he did.  There was Foreigner’s Feels like the first time and Roberta Flack singing Killing me softly along with a bunch of other 70s standards on that album.  An enduring love for the back beat was probably born with this record, especially the first two songs.

Sadly, I was still an alien in school with these songs.  The gentleman at Rhythm Corner had advanced my listening pleasures to a point where they were still not quite in sync with those of other sixth or seventh graders.  The classmates were into  Harry Nilsson’s Pussycats album, especially the song Save the last dance for me or Staying Alive and we didn’t have those albums.

Then came ABBA, Boney M and Osibisa.  Voulez-vous – aha and suddenly we were all in sync.  ABBA were everywhere (I’d invert that 2nd B if I knew how), Boney M with Rasputin, the intrepid lover of the Russian queen, Brown girl in the ring and By the Rivers of Babylon, close on ABBA’s heels and then, for awhile, Osibisa with their Sunshine Day.  I still remember their Doordarshan commercials of Osibisa-unleashed-leashed-leashed…

The movie Qurbani came with a big bang next  and went on to dominate the soundtrack of those times.  What was not to love about Gabbar Singh turned comedian and the wonderful sounds of Aap jaisa koi (this song was probably on the radio 24/7 and we still couldn’t get enough and had to spin the record whenever the radio took a break) and Laila o laila  where Amjad Khan draws even more attention than Zeenat Aman!

At school, the kids who exhibited a singular (not dual), extroverted (not worse than introverted) personality, started performing songs that intrigued me and interested me but I could never find the albums at RC:

Though it hurts to go away, it’s impossible to stay
Down the way, where the lights are gay
Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River – lot of time was spent perfecting the high notes in “to the place, I BELONG”
500 miles away from home

I used to memorize these songs and either sing them at home or during the times I stole away from the Sports/PT period to go visit with the music teacher in the junior wing of our school – Mrs Hopcroft.  She used to play them for me on the piano while I sang to my heart’s content.

Doordarshan showcased many classical music and dance performances during this time.  At the age of ten or eleven these shows had the same impact on me as Aavishkar and Bleak Moments had had when I was seven.   I remember a dance performance where the bols sounded like, “Yadhubansh sudha se ladding cha” (Yadhubansh is fighting with Sudha).  An uncle, close to us in age, used to join in in the interpretation of the sounds.  He thought the words said, “Yadhubansh Sudha bhuti chhading cha”.  Only this much was clear – the dance was about Yadhubansh doing something incomprehensible to Sudha.  And when they showed Carnatic Sangeet it was yet another occasion of frustration, topped in anguish only by the ever present 7:00 PM Krishi Darshan.

Delhi – Mummy’s House files
It was remarkable how we kept finding landladies who wanted to be inter-generational moms.  The last one was mataji and this one wanted to be known as mummy.

Interesting times here.  The neighbor next door, Dimpu, and the one downstairs, Ritu, were also into singing at the top of their voices.  Some famous movies came out during this period – Ek Duje Ke Liye, Kudrat, Shaan, Bemisal, Umrao Jaan, Basera, a Shashi Kapoor and Moushumi movie which had the very pleasant song – Mujhe choo rahin hain teri garm sansein.  All had songs that begged to be sung at the top of one’s vocal register.  The neighbors would soon chime in and we would have our own little sing off from three different houses, no one acknowledging that that was indeed what we were really doing.   

Mummy’s house could well have been the inspiration for the present day chat window.  There was a certain time during the afternoon hours when my mom would go out to our balcony with a cup of chai, Dimpu’s mom would appear in her aangan (courtyard), Ritu’s mom (Mrs Nayyar) would appear in the aangan of the floor below us and a rather hirsute woman – Balaji – who lived in the barsati of mummy’s house would pop open her window upstairs to get an hour long chat conference going with all the chat windows popping open. I used to love eavesdropping on them as they gossiped about friends, family and other neighbors. 

By now I had also become fascinated with classical music maybe after watching the film Anuradha on a Doordarshan Sunday.  All three sing-off contestants were entranced with Kaise din beete re, kaise beeti ratiyan, Haye re woh din kyun na aaye (“Ritu” especially loved this one) and Jaane kaise sapnon mein, from that film, every song so clearly showing Ravi Shankar’s involvement.

We also saw the movies Amrapali and Chitralekha during this time with these beauties:

Neel gagan ki chhaon mein
Tadap yeh din raat ki
Tumhein yaad karte karte
Sansar se bhaage phirte ho (an early declaration of my motto for life)
Man re tu kahe na dheer dhare
Kahe tarsaye
Ae ri jaane na doongi

How could one stay away from an interest in classical music after hearing these songs? It was impossible.

I started my Hindustani classical vocal training that year.  My teacher was the Odissi dancer Uma Sharma’s dad and I am so sad that I don’t remember his name anymore…Pt Sharma.  I learnt Yaman, Khamaj and Malkauns with him.  He loved teaching me and was very upset when I stopped learning after about six months of training because I had to concentrate on my ISCE exams.

There was a musically memorable Pakistani invasion during this period with Ghulam Ali, Salma Agha (with Nikah) and Nazia Hassan making their presence felt.  Salma Agha’s voice was a lot of fun for me to imitate.  For awhile there all the “Minki gana sunao” (Minki, sing us a song) requests led to my imitation and duplication of Salma Agha singing Dil ke armaan aansuon mein beh gaye and Fiza bhi hai jawaan jawaan.  Ghulam Ali’s Chupke chupke raat din was also something I couldn’t stop myself from singing whenever I could.

That was the only Ghulam Ali song I knew for a long time and then one day one of my uncles paid us a visit.  He was very fond of Ghulam Ali and he left behind a tape which had all of his other songs; songs which hadn’t been sung in any Hindi films like – Mastana piye ja, Hungama hai kyun barpa, thodi si jo peeli hai and Dil mein ik lehar si uthi hai abhiHungama…is especially memorable because our neighbor Dimpu had an older sister Jo.  Jo had a rather jaundiced complexion and every time my brother and I heard or sang the song we used to stress the line thodi si Jo peeli hai (Jo is a little yellow).

Around this time we were influenced by a culture to the west of Pakistan.  The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was in the news a lot and we suddenly found ourselves living next to Afghan neighbors.  In the years 1981 and 1982 there was a large influx of Afghans in Delhi.  It was really exciting for us to have them as neighbors; a whole new culture to observe at close quarters.  The family living next to us consisted of Ahsan jaan, Rohilla, Nahid, Faujia and Fakhria.  Ahsan jaan was married to Rohilla (I think).  They were all so beautiful, so pink cheeked and wore such exquisite clothes.  They were some of the most attractive people we had ever seen.

My mom is especially skilled in communicating with people whose language she doesn’t know.  She has a gift.  These people didn’t speak any English, perhaps Nahid knew a few words.  They spoke Farsi and just using the few words that are common to Urdu and to Farsi mom was able to determine that they were en route to seeking refuge in the US and that Delhi was a temporary stop.  They were desperate to learn English and mom agreed to teach them.   Pretty soon they were able to express themselves in rather amusing ways.

One of the funniest things I remember is Ahsan jaan looking up during his lessons to observe the flurry of activity at our home during the morning hours.  Our door bell rang every few minutes as a lady came to collect the garbage, a guy (dhobi) came to pick up the clothes for ironing, someone else came to clean the house.  He couldn’t resist commenting on it one day and said, “Nalini jaan – one man come get clothes, one lady come cook, one lady sweep floor, one lady get garbage, what you do Nalini jaan, what you do??”  His puzzled inquiry was hilarious in tone and in delivery.

That’s about all that feels like the years 1978 – 1982.  We’ll move on to 1983 – 1988 next.  After 1988 India becomes a strange and exotic place for me.

1 Comment

  1. Once again, a fantastic post.


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