Kali ghata chhaye

Kali ghata chhaye

Yeh kaun aaya

Yeh kaun aaya

Ae ishq ye sab duniya wale

Ae ishq ye sab duniya wale

"Keep a diary. It might keep you."

So we learn here that we should keep a diary.  It will keep us.  Cryptic advice.  It will keep us sane, whole, wits intact, what?  But forgetting about the latter, it is indeed good advice. Over the years I’ve accumulated so many fancy journals, leather bound, artsy covers, cloth bound, you name it, we’ve owned it.  Inaugurating them and filling up the first page was always a very satisfying experience.  It was an experience matched in satisfaction only with finding an old diary whose pages were filled by someone else.  Oh yes, few things come close to the pleasure of snooping and wondering, while snooping, if the author intended secrecy or was hoping that their journals would be discovered and that through their journals they would in turn be discovered, remembered, understood and immortalized.

I’ve stopped buying those journals now.  These are different times and our lives are ostensibly public (ostensibly because we only share cherry-picked moments and I doubt any of our virtual friends have the desire or the inclination to wonder about that which is not being said online).  We share the highlights of our days with others hoping to either stress the ways in which we are different or to find consonance.

So if we must keep a diary, so that it “keeps” us, we can keep it in a blog and drop the coy bit about storing our innermost thoughts in the pages of some journal that would then be stashed away in some drawer somewhere, begging to be found by friends, relatives, future generations, etc.  A song comes to mind:

Tu aa ke mujhe pehchaan zara (Come find me)

We digress.  But then again, we are so very prone to musical digressions.  Every thought snags on a song.

The first advice I ever got about diaries was that at its most basic level it needed to be an accounting of the day.  There are large chunks of my day that are repetitive.  It’s surprising when I fire up MS Excel each morning and type in “=NOW( )” and it spits out a new date and time! I guess the date does change, if nothing else.  Sometimes Interstate 80 isn’t a parking lot, this wasn’t such a day.  I wake up, I drive some thirty miles, I immerse myself in various analyses and I drive back the same distance.  Those are the large repetitive chunks.

The things that do change however, and are really worth writing about, are the notes that bounce off the ostinato, so to speak.  These thoughts are often unrelated and they stay unresolved like scattered fragments that could be collected and molded into something of consequence if they weren’t so fleeting, and as tantalizingly out of reach as those earth-like exoplanets we discover each day.

Today this song filled the sound theater of my car on my way to work:

And I wondered about the lyrics that suggest that our voices would stand the test of time while our names are obliterated or lost in its annals and our faces change beyond recognition.  I wondered if this was true.  I tried to think of all the loved ones I had lost, of all the friends who were friends once but are strangers now.  If it wasn’t for the aid of a recording device, a constant replaying, would I remember the specific timbres of their voices, the cadences of their speech, their intonation, the sound of their laughter? I have my doubts.  I think I would do better with faces and would never forget a name.

Then I heard this song:

In this lyrically and melodiously supreme song there’s a thought that the moon would reflect our pasts (yeh chand beete zamanon ka aina hoga) and the floating clouds would form the likeness of a face (bhatakti abra mein chehra koi bana hoga) and this thought transported me to places I have never been and moments I’ve never felt.

So I moved on to my own lame recollections of the things that stay on after we’ve lived our short lives, the things the moon or the giant sequoias have lived through.  I recollected something a friend wrote about the art of stretching and I thought of the static sequoias in their little corner of California countering my thoughts about their isolated and oblivious, though intact, state through most of recent history as they tell me they weren’t “oblivious”, that they heard it all through the whispering wind and the percussive branches.

Then my thoughts veered off to the idea of artistry and brushstrokes and the place where grace notes and tiny brushstrokes converge, where a little goes a long way and differences can be felt in infinitesimal degrees.

All this was yet another scattered reverie that helped me discern 12/19/11 from 12/20/11 and is now stored in this very public diary.

I get closer to ending the clattering of these keys with a final thought about the fungibility of our media.  Will the history of this era be the most accurate it has ever been, untainted by biased rewriting, because of videographic or endlessly documented virtual evidence or will the lack of backward compatibility in technology leave future generations guessing about the purpose of the iPhone carcasses they find littered at future archeological digs?

How it sounded over the years (1981-1988 continued…)

These years saw the return of Indira Gandhi.  As a child I was proud of the fact that India had such a personable and powerful woman prime minister.  She was always impressive to me despite what I heard about her tyranny and her abuse of power.  She always appeared energetic and purposeful unlike the Morarji and Charan Singh crowd of the years that saw Coca Cola disappear.  Who needed them running the country?  A woman who radiated power was so much more desirable.  It felt as though we were well-governed again.

1981 was the year of Silsila.  The Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha rumors were at their peak.  Every magazine that the magazine wallahs delivered at home were grabbed for the latest on this particular rumor.  I refused to believe them.  I was never willing to entertain any negative thoughts about the people I liked and AB was on that list, despite Shaan.  But is was shocking to see a movie based on these rumors, it seemed to lend them some credence.  Everyone acting in it, with the exception of Shashi Kapoor and Sanjeev Kumar, was an affected party.  It appeared nothing short of audacious.  But the songs were memorable, the yellow tulips in Amsterdam amidst which the rumored lovebirds pranced, making them even more so.  Each song had to me memorized.  Each one became a part of our three-home sing-off.  There was Neela aasman so gaya, Dekha ek khwab to yeh silsile hue, Rang barse.

There was a sense of the nation fracturing a bit during these years.  Zail Singh was the President of India and I still remember his speech calling for national integration, “Hamein rash-ter ko ek suttar mein bandhna hai“.  Doordarshan liked to hammer this message home whenever they could, stressing unity in diversity by playing this 1974 Films Division of India film over and over again:

Some names were often on the news, like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.  Some tensions were brewing, building, something was absorbing latent heat.

1981 was the year dad visited Philippines and he brought back a gorgeous embroidered, wraparound skirt and top for me.  I was in love with this dress and wore it at ever special occasion.  The photograph below was one of those special occasions.  Mrs Gandhi was going to inaugurate the annual Science Exhibition at Teen Murti Bhavan and I was going to hold the plate with the scissors she would use to cut the ribbon.  There was excitement in the air.  I couldn’t believe I was actually going to see her! And then I saw her, this powerhouse of a woman, so petite, so pink-cheeked and so much in awe of my Filipino dress!  Good times 🙂

 That was one unforgettable celebrity contact.

Life went on for the moment with more stellar performances from AB in Namak Halal and Shakti and catchy numbers like:

Aaj rapat jayein to hamein na uthaiyo 
Jaane kaise kab kahan ikraar ho gaya

There was also the Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval starrer Saath-Saath with stellar musical performances by the late Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh:

Yeh tera ghar yeh mera ghar
Pyar mujhse jo kiya tumne to kya paogi
Yeh bata de mujhe zindagi

Tumko dekha to yeh khayal aaya
Kyun zindagi ke raah mein

I think Umrao Jaan was made around the same time – an amazing movie with an immortal songs and singing:

Dil cheez kya hai
In aankhon ki masti ke
Justaju jiski thi
Yeh kya jagah hai doston

Then came the movie Coolie.  I never saw it and am not sure if it had any songs worth remembering but it was the one where AB got gravely injured on the sets of this movie and a new actor, playing the part of villain – Puneet Issar – caught a lot of heat for it.

Meanwhile things kept heating up on the political front.  There were growing concerns about Sikh militancy and a separatist movement.  Indira Gandhi kept toughening up her stance.  Until we got to Operation Blue Star and the raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in early 1984.  The news on television, the newspaper headlines, were full of shocking images of the arms and weapons that had been stockpiled at this holy shrine.  Through it all there were the national integration messages still coming at us through every mass communication channel around us.

1984 was the college year and on October 31st, 1984 we were in an Economic History class with Mrs Mathur when our class was interrupted and she was called out.  She came to make the tearful announcement that Indira Gandhi had been shot.  Our class, stunned in disbelief, was dismissed and we were asked to go home.

The television was on all the time as we heard of the multiple rounds that her bodyguards Beant Singh and Satwant Singh had fired into her petite frame.  I had seen that petite frame.

The next several days were beyond being the darkest period in the history of Delhi.  Sikh homes were burnt, there were riots, killings, carnage everywhere.  We just stayed huddled inside, worrying about and praying for the safety of all our Sikh friends and acquaintances.

I wonder, as I recollect these times, if we are a scaled down representation of the Yugas from Hindu lore.   We start our lives in Satya Yug, the Dharma Bull on all four legs, all is well in our worlds (some fortunate worlds), we are not the actors or the initiators in our lives at this early, perhaps five year long stretch.

Then we get to the Treta Yuga of our lives – the world takes on a bilious green hue from certain angles, we become sensitive to slights, we fear certain things, certain people, but things are still more or less rosy.

Dwapar Yuga, we are in the 12-20 period of our lives and the world has disappointed us quite a bit more.  We’ve probably experienced every negative emotion by now, we’ve seen the evil in some people, we’ve acquired some shells to keep our innermost child safe and secure but we get a good sense of the darkness all around.  This is when we learn to take things in stride, if we’re strong, because not doing so could destroy us.  We develop defense or offense mechanisms.  The bull is on two legs by now.

In this Dwapar phase of my life I saw the violence with which Mrs Gandhi was assassinated, I saw the ensuing genocide and in December of the same year, we saw the tragedy of Bhopal, thanks to the negligence and greed of the battery maker Union Carbide.

Two years later, after years of hearing about the Cold War, the “balance of terror”, the escalation in nuclear arms we heard of the worst nuclear disaster in the history of human kind at Chernobyl.  This was the world we were about to inherit in all its rotting glory.

And then we arrive into the Kal Yug of our lives.  This phase doesn’t end in five years.  We stay here for the rest of our lives, in the thick of it, riding a roller coaster of despair or euphoria on a one-legged bull.  It has its moments, its bright sparks but the periods of darkness are powerful and potent when they arrive.

Speaking of Kal Yug, there was a movie of the same name, perhaps 1981, directed by Shyam Benegal.   It was very well made, or so I thought at the time. Trying to track the modern story as though it was the Mahabharata was an interesting exercise.

All this time, I thought Kal Yug had one song filmed on Rekha but I was so very wrong; memory conflation at play.  The song I was thinking of was actually from the film Vijeta and I remember it well now.  The song was Man anand anand chayo.

How it sounded over the years (1981-1988 and beyond)

I realized I didn’t quite finish reliving 1981 and 1982 in the last post.  These years were the ones when various sons were ascendant.  The first one was Kumar Gaurav.  His father launched him opposite Vijayeta Pandit with Love Story.   I thought Amit Kumar did his dad proud as the playback singer of choice here.  Dekho maine dekha hai yeh ik sapna was a big favorite as was the one where Aruna Irani was trying to seduce a nervous Gaurav in Kya ghazab karte ho ji.  It felt as though every ten years or so a towering superstar of yore launched a son into orbit and asked Aruna Irani to attempt a seduction (I am thinking Bobby and Main shayar to nahin).  Must say she didn’t age much in those intervening years between Rishi Kapoor and Kumar Gaurav.  Another song that hooked us with its melody at that time was Yaad aa rahi hai.

The next son to emerge was the droopy eyed, half asleep, half stiff son of Sunil Dutt and Nargis in a movie called Rocky.  This movie had some memorable songs as well.  I remember Kya yehi pyar haiIt sounded good at that time, that age.  His narcoleptic demeanor, the addiction, the rehab were the things that Devyani Chaubal et al liked to discuss in Stardust or Star & Style etc.

The march of the sons continued with Kunal Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor’s older one, in Ahista Ahista.  The conversation then was all about how he walked like Shashi Kapoor but looked more like Jennifer.  This movie had one of my all time favorite songs Kabhi kisi ko muqammal jahan nahin milta.  Sulakshana Pandit did a good job with another song from this movie Mana teri nazar mein tera pyar hum nahin.

But we aren’t quite finished with the sons yet.  Sunny Deol was yet to arrive with Betaab.  Once again, a bunch of songs that sounded quite melodious at the time but they wear thin now, like Jab hum jawaan honge and Parbaton se aaj main takda gaya.  I never saw the movie so not sure if Aruna Irani tried seducing him here or not.

Some sons succeeded for a time, some for a longer time and some didn’t make it at all.  We moved on, becoming a palimpsest like representation of songs from our teen years, songs from when our parents were our age and some even from the time when our grandparents were our age.  Songs, especially old songs from Hindi films, define and distill the essence of immortality.

The next record to grace our collection illustrated this concept.  It was The Best of Talat Mehmood.  By the time I was a teenager, Talat Mehmood, or Tapan, had been silent for many decades and yet I was in love with an album which had songs like:

O teer chalane waale zara aa saamne aa kar teer chala
Seene mein sulagte hain arman
Bechain nazar betaab jigar
Dekh li teri khudayi
Andhe jahan ke andhe raaste

These Talat songs were new to me, I had never heard any of them since they weren’t in my dad’s repertoire.  I was familiar with, and loved, the ones he used to sing or the ones I had heard on the Sunday Doordarshan feature film, like:

Jaane woh kaise log the jinke pyar ko pyar mila
Jalte hain jiske liye
Jayen to jayen kahan
Hum se aaya na gaya
Rahi matwale sun ek baar
Raat ne kya kya khwab dikhaye
Main dil hoon ik armaan bhara  
Shukriya ai pyar tera
Tasveer teri dil mera behla na sakegi

They just don’t make them like this anymore, nor do they sing them like this.  The Talat Mahmood LP in our collection was one of my favorite possessions.  There weren’t any new songs being made then that came close in melody or lyrics.

1983 and 1984 are a bit of a blur, perhaps I was studying hard for my ISCE exams.  The years in the life of an Indian teenager, when they are in the grades 11th and 12th are perhaps the worst ones.   One has to consider the engineering option, the medicine option, the Delhi University North Campus option (if one is a Delhi-ite), the BITS Pilani option or a doomed option if one is anything short of either being a genius or a tenacious, no-nonsense-ever type of bookworm.  I was neither.   There was much nonsense that kept me preoccupied.  But I would have lost any last shred of self-confidence I possessed if the only option available to me became the one where I was studying English, History or Political Science.  Yes, I was just that shallow then.

If the fine people who have pursued a genuine interest in the liberal arts and humanities are reading this and want to send some choice expletives my way, they should note that I was very young and very shallow back then.  I wasn’t studying Physics, Chemistry, Math and Biology because I was so exceptionally good at those subjects, I wasn’t bad but I wasn’t going to be a star.  It felt prestigious to be a student of the sciences.  Of course the trade-offs for this false sense of prestige were the levels of difficulty one encountered. 

Calculus stopped being just about dy/dx and morphed into d square y/ d x squared.  Things just weren’t changing anymore, they had to change at a certain rate.  Integrals, where we needed to figure out what the shape of a line or curve would be if it was rotated a certain way, differential calculus! Conceptually all very clear but the hours of problem solving, the ensuing tedium was nightmarish in its intensity.

Biology gave me no grief, no anxiety at all, except when it came to dissecting cockroaches or frogs or rats.  It wasn’t about being nauseated with dissection, it was more about breaking things like cockroaches into unmanageable little pieces instead of making clear ventral cuts and removing the exoskeleton in order to see things like the caeca and the Malphigian tubules.  Every dissection of P. Americana was botched beyond recognition at my hands.

Physics and Mechanics – the lesser said the better.  All I remember from Physics is Mr Kennedy saying “capacitor” and “adiabatic”.

I couldn’t balance a single equation in Chemistry, the art of chemical equation balancing felt like a mysterious, shamanic ritual or legerdemain when I saw the smart ones do it on the blackboard in a jiffy. Yes, Avogadro’s number is 6.022 x 10 to the power of 23 but I wasn’t sure how I could use this priceless information to solve millions of problems.  Titration in the Chemistry lab was a whole other story with me sucking to deep on the KCl and then coughing it up.

If my Nelson & Abbott Physics textbook wasn’t always surreptitiously sheltering something like Atlas Shrugged or Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel or Prodigal Daughter I might have had more than a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming a doctor or something but the lazy devil on one of my shoulders always convinced me to go south.

And yet, there was this need for music, to be involved in it somehow.  When the school decided they would enact the Gilbert & Sullivan musical – Trial by Jury – I was thrilled.  I wanted to be in it and I signed up.  We practiced for days, so much so that the song, Hark the hour of ten is sounding/Hearts with anxious fears are bounding/For today in this arena/Summoned by a stern subpoena/Edwin sued by Angelina/Shortly will appear is still a part of my soundtrack.  Alas, the upcoming exams were breathing hope and fear down my neck and I had to withdraw from the play.

The nightmare was over, although not quite over right away, not until we lived the “cut-off point” hell for awhile.  The year was 1984.  I have bitter recollections of the gruelling trudge through various colleges, various campuses, disappointments at not making the “cut-off” points, shame, regrets etc. and then a compromise: if it had to be the dreaded “humanities” then it needed to be a quasi-scientific subject and thus the first tentative steps into the world of economics and finance.

No wonder those years are blurry, I’d rather forget them.

At some point I even thought it would be cool to study at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications.  I made it through the written entrance exam and was asked to appear for an interview.  A very stern interviewer asked me a question that made me use the word “consumerism” in my response.  I used it casually, as people often use this word, but he pinned me down for a definition.  He wanted to know precisely what I meant by the word “consumerism”.  I probably told him it referred to a culture of mass production and mass consumption.  But I don’t think he liked that.

That word has troubled me ever since.  We didn’t have the benefit of Wikipedia back then but it tells me now that consumerism is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods and services in ever greater amounts.  In retrospect, I think I was close enough and I was only 17, he should have given me a break.  Well, no such luck.

College was a lot of fun.  For once in my life I had many friends.  There were usually seven of us in a gang that did everything together but I was especially close to D.  I saw D at the DTC bus stop in Malviya Nagar on the first day of college.  I had no idea she was headed for the same college until we saw each other again in class.  We hit it off from the very beginning and for the next three years she was the catalyst for every transformation in the soundtrack of my life.

D liked to live on the edge a bit although one couldn’t tell from looking at her.  I had seen her smoke.  She said she had been smoking since school days but then she used to like dropping conversational bombshells like a propensity to experiment with things like Mandrax.

I was rather unsettled by these admissions.  That unsettled feeling wasn’t some manifestation of correctness or of sitting in judgment while depicting a straight-laced – ness, as it was a familiarity with that word Mandrax.

I had an uncle, a much loved, favorite uncle, who was a talented musician, sculptor and artist and throughout my childhood I had witnessed him wasting away, bit by little bit, because of his addiction to this thing.  That word had always been around our family for as long as I could remember.

I was in thrall of his exceptional talent.  I remember his rendition of these songs:

Nathali se toota moti re
Saranga teri yaad mein (this is my rendition, not Mukesh’s – just to make the point that I remember him when I sing it)

My mama (uncle) passed away in 1986.  But in 1984 he was still alive and in trouble with an addiction to Mandrax, to bhang (cannabis) and even to alcohol.   The family was distraught.  So when I met D and she mentioned the M word, I was very nervous, very anxious.  I worried about my strength to resist even as I always knew I would be immune to inebriation.  There was always the “what-if”.  Could one resist things like this in moments of weakness or peer pressure?  I continued to be her friend through all this because I really liked her.  I often wondered if the other stuff was just pretense at rebellion since she never appeared off-kilter.

Until I met D the only version of Ticket to Ride I had ever heard was the Karen Carpenter one.  I had no idea it was a Beatles original. Top of the World (KC looks pre-anorexic in this video) was another Carpenters favorite that was probably not an original Carpenters song, but I didn’t know any better then.

When D told me about the Beatles it was like a big bang of sorts in my musical education.  I just couldn’t get enough of them.  Abbey Road was the very first followed by Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album.

D used to go to Calcutta (Cal) every summer and she used to return with stories of a Cal friend of hers who she called Heroc.  Our chat sessions were always full of Heroc stories.  He was probably the one who got her to experiment with certain things.  One summer she came home full of the merits of Simon & Garfunkel – I had never heard of them.  D’s Cal summer had yielded a fascination with I Am a Rock.  Apparently “He-Roc” used to think of himself as “a rock”.  I was absorbing these bands and these songs via a weird osmosis – Heroc – D- Me.  The Simon & Garfunkel LP was naturally the next addition to the ever growing record collection, every track a gem:

Mrs Robinson
El Condor Pasa
Bridge over troubled water
Sounds of silence
Scarborough Fair
Homeward bound
Kodachrome

The Heroc phase of D’s life diminished after a while only to be replaced by BITS-Pilani and the music preferred by the department of Instrumentation Engineering and a student therein.  D was dating someone who couldn’t stop raving about Pink Floyd.  The sound was sublime, the music superior to anything anyone had ever heard, according to the Pilani boy who I had only indirectly met.  Pink Floyd now entered my consciousness with Comfortably Numb.

Jethro Tull came next, also courtesy the Pilani boy who knew “sound”, and we got Aqualung and Bungle in the Jungle with Ian Anderson, the god of flute.

That took me through college along with some exceptional soundtracks in the Hindi films: Saagar, Aitbaar, Utsav and Ijazat.

We’re drawing close to the end of the India phase of my life.

College led to The Delhi School of Economics.  Making it through the entrance exam brought with it a sense of validation, a sense of accomplishment and the fatal flaw of hubris.  Everyone around me was a brain and a half and those who didn’t spend every waking hour and every glorious dream in visions of qualifying for the Indian Civil Services exams had stars and stripes in their eyes and worried about taking their GRE exams,

Once again, I was woefully short on goals and ambition and long on distractions and fun.  Somehow the folks here had figured out my interest in singing and I was often asked to sing.  The song that I favored those days was Dil ki awaaz bhi sun.

That was until D introduced me to American Pie (stupid video but best sound quality I could find), by way of Pilani.  Don McLean’s Starry Starry Night became a big favorite soon after.

And now we are at the very end of this phase.  The bits about poring over Jung’s words on dreams and wondering about the meaning of the lyrics of American Pie at D’School’s Ratan Tata Library, with someone who went on to a rather illustrious career in the Indian Police Services, would have to wait for another day and another post, or perhaps the lesser said, the better.

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.

How it sounded over the years (1975-1977)

The Kapoor Singh Guliani Files

The days leading up to our arrival at Delhi were full of language trepidations.  We were told everyone spoke Shuddh Hindi in Delhi.  There were practice sessions where we tried so hard to replace the sound of our pronouns “ee” (this) or “oo” (that) with “yeh” and “woh”, respectively.

We had to train ourselves to stop saying hum (me) and tum (you) and to start saying main and tu.  Thank god kids learn fast.  But some things still tripped us up, especially since they weren’t quite as expected.  Where one expected aap aaiyega one heard aap aaoge or aap jaoge.  It didn’t compute sometimes.  Just as the presence of newspapers written in Urdu being perused by the older gentlemen around us didn’t compute.  We were sometimes called Hindustanis by our neighbors and that was especially disconcerting as we wondered what they were.

Malviya Nagar, in those days, was also a place where one saw women, often heftier than one was accustomed to seeing, walking around trussed in salwar-kameez and chunnis.  In my childish recollection of the Bihar phase, women were only seen in sarees worn either seedha palla or ulta palla.  I always associated one of those (I forget if it is seedha or ulta) with a more rustic aspect and was glad my mom never opted for the version I considered rustic.

The first house we found in Delhi was what’s known as a barsati, on the third floor of Sardarji Kapoor Singh Guliani’s house: 90/76 was its address.  It had two rooms, a kitchen, a large expanse of roof and a balcony overlooking most of Malviya Nagar.

I remember Sardarji and Sardarni-ji as kind souls, Sardarji gentler than his wife.  That was the first time my ears heard, “Aaoji rotti-shotti khao ji“.  I wondered why we were always being invited to chomp down dry rotis.  Biharis are rice enthusiasts and rotis were never too tempting.

Sardarni-ji was very fond of my brother.  We used to tease him and say he was going to marry her.  He answered with much anxiety, “Nahin, unse shaadi karne se buddhe bacche honge” (if I marry her I’ll have old kids).

They also had something called a television! 

In the bucolic settings of Sabour there was no television.  I was told I had seen television and that Mr Dressup was my favorite television character when I was a two year old slurping baby food in Canada.  But I had no recollection of television until we arrived at Malviya Nagar, New Delhi 110017, in 1974.

Every Sunday, at 6:00 pm sharp, my brother and I descended from our barsati and made a beeline for the Guliani’s living room.  We sat through each Doordarshan feature film, cross-legged on their carpet, glued to the black and white television set.  We declined offers of roti eating and watched them consume their own rotis with lip-smacking gusto and then dust off their hands and sit back.  No post-eating handwashing was ever witnessed.  We thought perhaps that’s why they liked eating rotis, they weren’t messy like bhaat, daal and sabzi.

The movies I remember watching here were – Nausherwan-e-adil.  Raj Kumar, who might have been in his fifties by the time I saw him playing a young prince in this movie, was probably my first screen crush.  He exhibited such a princely demeanor in that movie.  Whenever I heard my grandma tell us stories about princes and kings I pictured them looking like Raj Kumar in Nausherwan-e-adil.  The songs were beautiful – Taaron ki zubaan par hai mohabbat ki kahani, ae chand mubarak ho tujhe raat suhani and Yeh hasrat thi ki is duniya mein bas do kaam kar jaateThese songs are wonderful enough to have traveled thirty seven years with me.

The other Doordarshan movies we saw then were Lal Patthar and one in which Abhi Bhattacharya dies and comes back as a ghost haunting a scared looking actress known as Vijaya Mishra.  I can’t remember the name of the Abhi Bhattacharya movie and Google hasn’t helped much either.  Perhaps I am conflating a couple of memories here but I am certain there was a movie in which Abhi Bhattacharya was doing a lot of haunting.  I remember this because the movie terrified me! As did Lal Patthar.  I forever imagined invisible fingers reaching for me in the dark and felt certain there was a ghostly presence seated on a couch in our living room.  I am not sure what was creepy about Lal Patthar except that it was filmed around Fatehpur Sikri, I was told.  Some bits of it reminded me of the light and sound show at Lal Qila in Delhi…it was somewhat creepy to imagine life in these old places.  But the cheerful song that was filmed on Vinod Mehra in that film – Geet gaata hoon main, gungunata hoon main, maine hasne ka vaada kiya tha kabhi, is liye to sada muskurata hoon main – stayed with me for days to come – and of course Raj Kumar, once again.  I remember being so disappointed when I was told he wore a wig.

A couple of other Doordarshan Sunday screenings from this time were memorable.  One was called Akhri Khat, memorable because of the two year old kid who simply walks away from home.  I thought it was an amazing film.  The song, filmed on Indrani Mukherjee – Baharon mera jeevan bhi sanwaro – wasn’t too shabby either, it was hummed for days on end.  The other one was a weird movie, boring to me then except for the bit about a young couple living in a drainpipe.

The house numbered 90/76 also distinguished itself because of the movies we saw at either Uphaar in Green Park ( I hear it was gutted several years ago), Odeon or Regal (at Connaught Place – accessible via DTC Bus #520) and Archana (GK I) cinema halls.

The movie that I haven’t seen as an adult, even though I have a feeling I might like it now, I remember as the most boring movie in the history of movies: Aavishkar.  Was there any reason for the camera to stay on the “Ghar Amar aur Mansi Ka” sign for so long! I sulked throughout the movie.  Nothing happened in it!  It was just Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore being very gloomy and serious.  They didn’t even pretend to sing.  All the songs were in the background!  I heard my parents say they liked it and I couldn’t understand why.  I do remember the song Babul mora naihar chhooto hi jai, Vividhbharti Radio played it often.  I am very fond of it now.  But if I traveled back in time to meet my seven year old self and expressed this opinion about the movie and this song she would probably look at me in disbelief and disgust.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse with the movies that resembled stills, my parents chose to see the movie Bleak Moments! First Aavishkar, then Bleak Moments! Who made these movies?  I couldn’t decide which one was worse.  They reside in the same corner of my memory banks.

Then came the movies Pratigya, Roti Kapada Aur Makan, Mili, Zanjeer, Ek Nazar, Zameer, Do Jasoos, Mili, Dharam Karam, Aandhi, Kabhi Kabhi and Sholay.  I remember the songs:

Main jatt yamla pagla deewana
Hai hai yeh majboori
Mehngai mar gayi
Aaye tum yaad mujhe
Patta patta boota boota
Do jasoos karein mehsoos ki duniya badi kharab hai
Ik din bik jayega maati ke mol
Is mod se jaate hain

Many of these songs talked about mehngai (inflation) and milawat (isn’t milawat really hard to explain in English? Is it a uniquely Indian phenomenon? Let’s say – things like the dilution of milk with water, the mixing of sand with cement or mixing small pebbles or stones with grains and lentils).  This was the time when Rajesh Khanna slowly faded away after overlapping for a bit with the angry young man – Amitabh Bachchan – going after all these people who did things like milawat, the original protagonist for the perpetual ninety-nine percenters.  As I look back I see eternal recurrence in action. 

The other noise around me at the time were protests and writings on the wall that said, tanashahi nahin chalegi, garibi hatao, hum do hamare do and the word nasbandi always associated with Sanjay Gandhi.

Of course, when one traveled from Delhi to Patna and beyond, along the Ganges route, during summer vacations and such, one never failed to notice the ubiquitous sign: rishte hi rishte.

Kabhi Kabhi and Sholay deserve special mention here because the song Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai and Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon became a permanent part of the weave of my quilt.  They were probably the first songs I memorized from start to finish and the first ones that emerged from my voice box when someone said, “Minki gana sunao.

Sholay always warrants special recollection, simply because of its Sholay-ness.  Not only did Gabbar Singh terrify gaon ka baccha baccha in the film he was pretty monstrous for little kids outside of the screen!  The song that stood out for me then was Mehbooba Mehbooba – loved trying to do the ooh ooh ooh part.

That was the end of the Kapoor Singh Guliani Files.

Mataji Files

In 1976 we left the barsati when we noticed that a house we could see from our rooftop was about to be vacated by Drs Bhola – the Khokha market physicians who offered up a greenish concoction for every ailment.  Mom told me and my brother to walk up to the landlady of house #90/81 and ask her if the duplex house was vacant.  We walked over to her and asked her, “Auntyji, yeh ghar khali hai?” (Is the house vacant?) and after giving us a bit of a hard time said that it was.  She also asked that we call her mataji and her husband pitaji.

We moved into their house soon after.  One half of the house, split down the middle, was rented to us and the other half belonged to mataji’s nuclear family of five.  There were her daughter Baby, son Parvesh, adopted son Amar (Baby auntie, Parvesh uncle and Amar uncle to us), mataji and pitaji.  Her extended family included another adopted son Darshan Gulati.  Darshan Gulati owned and operated a shamiana (tent) rental place.  He had two kids – Dimpy and Kaka – who were our age.  They became our playmates.

Dimpy, Kaka, Samir (my brother) and I watched a lot of the Doordarshan stuff together.  The movies and the Wednesday night Chitrahaar were big favorites.  We were still watching their TV, however. 

We got up to no good with some of the songs, like nagari nagari dware dware, we managed to sing it with every letter of the Hindi alphabet, taking special pleasure in the “th” substitution.  It became “thathari thathari thware thware” for quite sometime. 

The most unforgettable song during this period will always be the one from the movie Do Aankhen Barah Haath starring V Shantaram as a prison reformer and Sandhya – playing a one stringed instrument and balancing things on her head while doing so, for the most part.  We were watching the movie with mataji, pitaji and the rest of her family when the song Ae malik tere bande hum came along.  Pitaji had been kidding around and conversing with us until he suddenly wasn’t anymore.  It happened around the same time as the line in the song that says, “taki hanste hue nikle dum” (as I draw my last smiling breath).

This was probably the first time I witnessed death.  It was hard to grasp.  He was laughing, joking, conversing and then suddenly he wasn’t.  The mourning rituals the breaking of the bangles, several days of grieving and of not knowing how and where to be as kids make up some sharp recollections.

That wasn’t the first time we saw death in that house.  My uncle (my dad’s older brother) passed away while we were in that house.  Another stream of mourners and this pervasive feeling of incomprehension and the creeping up of an errant smile in the midst of it all is what I remember.  I didn’t understand why my face kept wanting to smile despite my feeling so anxious and so sad.

I used to call my late uncle babuji.  I remember how fond he was of me.  He called me Bulbul.  Sometimes he wrote to me and addressed the letter to “Chi. Bulbul” (in Hindi).  I wondered why he preceded Bulbul with “chi” and if it was supposed to represent the sound the Bulbul bird made.  Mom later told me that “chi” was short for “chiranjeevi” (live long).

He had always wanted me to sing for him and in 1977 the songs from the movie Doosra Aadmi were all the rage.  I had memorized the words to Aao manayen jashn-e-mohabbat.  I used to sing that for him.

I also remember Doosra Aadmi well because it was 1977.  The “tanashah” (rumored to have been the subject of the movie Aandhi) had been ousted from power, for the time being, and Morarji Desai with his unique beverage preferences and Charan Singh, Atal Bihari Bajpayee et al had come to power.  I think Charan Singh had something to do with bottles of Coca Cola disappearing overnight.

No more Coke.

And yet there was a scene in Doosra Aadmi where Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh were sitting at an outside restaurant, under an umbrella, sipping Coke.  I had asked mom why they got to have Coke while we had to get used to things like Campa Cola and Thumbs Up (Happy days are here again, everybody is feeling good with Thumbs Up, refreshing cola, Thumbs Up refreshing cola, Thumbs Up refreshing colaaaa – that has to be a part of the soundtrack as well!)

Then came the phase where all I ever sang was Chain se humko kabhi.  It was during a trip to Allahabad,

at Mr Dhaulakhandi’s house when one afternoon, on a hot summer day, when we had nothing better to do, dad decided to take on the role of music director as he meticulously coached me through the intricacies of the melodic twists in this beautiful Asha rendered song, especially the sudden key change in kaash na aati apni judaai.  This signaled the launch of my career as a performer of film songs for friends and family.  I have lost count of the number of times I’ve performed this song for people.

We are coming close to the next phase of owing a television and a record player.  Those events signaled a significant change of sound.  But before that phase we must talk about Hum Kisise Kum Nahin and what I ended up doing to the song Kya hua tera vaada.  When the constant singing of that song became too boring for me I inverted the whole thing.  And even now I can’t help singing it in this form: “yak ahu rate daava, woh masak woh darai, galebhu ladi, saji nadi hemtu, woh nadi gidnazi ka rikhiya nadi ga ho“.

How it sounded over the years (1970 – 1974)

The music in my head is very carefully organized in various files.  I was reading something about music therapy and the Proustian effect of melodies; how they can transport you to places where you’ve been.  Even Gabrielle Giffords is responding to music therapy as it helps her recover her speech.  If I ever need the restorative effects of such therapy I believe my mental files will come in very handy in resurrecting, reconstructing and restoring things for me.  The earliest discernible and autonomous recollections are from Patna.
Patna files (very early seventies):
The name Mujib-ur-Rehman was often heard.  There was a war going on.  
I remember a trip to Nainital and Mussoorie.  Dad was a botany professor at Patna’s Science College back then.  He had organized a “collection” trip to Nanital and Musoorie for all his students.  They used to collect and preserve various types of plants and leaves from the hills and dad used their finds as teaching opportunities.  Mom, my 2 year old brother and I had tagged along for a holiday.  
Somewhere along the trip we met several soldiers.  I remember mom saying – they were “jawaans“, a new addition to my growing Hindi vocabulary.  She encouraged me to talk to them.  I liked chatting them up.  That was my first sense of the heroism of “jawaans“.  My brother picked up the song “Aamar shonar Bangladesh“.  Why we sang about Bangladesh in India became clear much later.
Then came the construction of the Punaichak, Patna home.  I loved those days.  There was a big pool in the front of the house, I suppose it was used as a reservoir for construction purposes.  The majdoors (construction laborers) used to get water from there and use it to mix up the cement used for plastering the walls.  It was fascinating watching the bricks being placed, the plaster spread over them with a spatula and another brick placed on top as dad’s first home slowly took shape.  
The miniature reservoir was my favorite.  I know we saw the movie “Aadmi Aur Insaan” around that time.  Saira Banu was in a song where she was rowing a boat and singing, “Zindagi ke rang kai re, saathi re“.  I remember saying I imagined myself in a boat in that tiny reservoir singing,”Zindagi ke rang karenge“.   For the longest time I thought that’s what the lyrics said – zindagi ke rang karenge.
The day the construction was complete I remember the shiny and sparkly mosaic floors, freshly waxed.  We slid around it, the happiest we’d ever been.  The house was designed with so much love and so much attention to detail.  There were closet alcoves, a large kitchen, box windows my brother and I used to clamber into and make it like a tiny home within a home.  
I know dad often sang this lullaby for me, “Nanhi kali sone chali, hawa dheere aana” but my memories of hearing him sing this lullaby to me are associated with the Punaichak home.
Anand was the movie that came out around this time.  Its songs – ageless and timeless.  
Rajesh Khanna was everywhere with his Haathi Mere Saathi, Kati Patang, Saccha Jhootha.  I think my little brother had a “Rajesh Khanna shirt” too.  The songs on our lips were, “Chal chal chal mere haathi, oh mere saathi“, “Maine…tere liye hi saat rang ke sapne chune” and “Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye“.  
Mumtaz and Asha Parekh were equally ubiquitous.  I forget which movie but there was one where Mumtaz popularized something called a “lungi dress”.  At five, for some inexplicable reason, I was in love with the “lungi dress”.  My grandpa was the one who caved and finally bought me one.  I tried it on as soon as I got it and then came out to model it.  Grandpa took one look at me and said, “You look like Dalai Lama”.  That was it for the “lungi dress”. Much later, when I finally saw pictures of the Dalai Lama, I understood what he meant. 
I had a real early start with weird fascinations.  I remember the raisin incident from around the same time.  I decided I loved raisins one day and consumed one or two bags of it within the span of a couple of hours.  Unstoppable puking continued for the next few hours and that was it for raisins and me.  I haven’t touched them since.

It’s sad for me, in retrospect, to think that we didn’t live in the house dad built in Patna for more than a year or two.  It was truly a labor of love.  It was around for many years until it got sold around the time that my brother went to BITS Pilani but we never lived there again.  Many of our relatives did.

We moved to a place that not many people have heard of, a place called Sabour.  It is near the Bihari city of Bhagalpur and its claim to fame is an agricultural college.  This is where my dad’s next job took him.

Sabour files (early to mid-seventies)
I suppose it would be hard for a young US returned couple with two young kids to love a place like Sabour.  I don’t believe my parents were happy there.  I got the sense that there were many frustrations, financial woes and worries about ensuring a quality education for the two of us in the back of the beyond that Sabour was.  I accompanied my dad to his office one day and saw him tracing a cauliflower leaf on graph paper.  He didn’t seem too thrilled about it.  It must have been a far cry from his Caulerpa research days and electron microscopy in Hawaii.
Sabour’s only saving grace was the fact that my grandparents and all my mamas and mausis lived in Bhagalpur.  My mom’s two sisters (mausis) and five of her six brothers (mamas) lived there with my grandpa and nani (grandma).  They were always around, either visiting Sabour in grandpa’s official jeep or having us visit them in Bhagalpur, a few miles away.  I have fond memories of the time, I was happy in Sabour.  
We had an officially assigned living quarter.  There were many kids my age in the neighborhood and our quarters were surrounded with mango trees.  The Sony spool tape recorder was very active during this time.  Songs were recorded from the radio and on weekends it was open mike session where we’d record our own songs on to it. 
I remember the song “Haal chaal theek thak hai, sab kuch theek thaak hai“, especially the line, “gol mol roti ka pahiya chala, peeche-peeche chandi ka rupaiya chala“.  I found those lyrics fascinating as a six year old with no sense of its being a reflection of those times, of the educated and unemployed living in corrupt times of dearth (has anything changed one wonders?).
Then came Pakeezah.  The radio never stopped playing Pakeezah songs.  We had “Thaare rahiyo“, “Inhi logon ne” and “Mausam hai aashikana” which to me was the train whistle song.  We could hear the train whistling by where we lived in Sabour and we could hear it from the roof top of my grandparents’ place in Bhagalpur and every time I heard the train whistle I thought of the song.  Got some interesting words added to my vocabulary – like “shamiana“.  The dots connected later when we became the tenants of a family who were in the business of renting “shamianas” in Delhi.
Then there was “Inhi logon ne le lina dupatta mera” with its own strange vocabulary of “bajajwa” and “rangrejwa“.  I had no idea what these words meant for the longest time.  But they were fun to say.  There was also something in there about “asharfi gaz (we said gaj in Bihar) deena“.  I used to hear my dad talk about someone called Asharfi Ram in a not-so-complimentary fashion and always thought of “asharfigajdeena” and Asharfi Ram in the same spot in my brain.
My early memories of Hindi songs are littered with lyrical mondegreens.  Another one that came about was “Anamika tu bhi tarse“.  In conversations, when I heard my uncles, aunts, parents talk they would say things like, “Oo BHITAR se badmaash hai” (meaning someone was rotten to the core, not just superficially mischievous).  So when I saw the movie Anamika and Sanjeev Kumar appeared angry at Jaya Bhaduri while singing this song, for the longest time I thought he was accusing her of being rotten to the core by singing “Anamika tu BHITAR se“.  I guess I wasn’t too far off, he was accusing her of something.
The blockbuster Bobby came around next.  And just like the “lungi dress” from before all the little girls wanted Bobby dresses.  I think I had my fair share of Bobby dresses.  The songs that were heard everywhere then were “Hum tum ik kamare mein band hon” and “Jhooth bole kauwa kate“.  The first one was funny because we liked to sing “sher se main kahungi mujhe chhod de, tumhein kha jaye“.

We took a trip to Kathmandu when we were in Sabour.  I was six then and that trip was so fabulous that I can recollect it with tremendous clarity.  We were with my uncles and aunts and cousins close to me and my brother in age.  We sang these songs on the trains, on the scarily winding roads on the buses, in hotel rooms.  That trip was certainly one big sensory overload for me.

We either passed through this one place en route to Kathmandu or I heard the adults talk about it, a place called Bhainsalotan.  I still conjure up images of buffaloes lolling around in swamps when I hear that name – Bhainsalotan – wonder if it got that name because that’s what happens there – buffaloes loll around!

There was another funny sounding song that was immensely popular during this time – “muthukudi kabadi hada“.  I still don’t know what that really means.  But since the first two syllables mean something totally different in the part of the country where I was – the words were a source of much hilarity for us kids.

The mango eating, potato farming, cauliflower leaf tracing days of Sabour came to end when my parents heaved a big sigh of relief and proceeded to spend a large chunk of our lives in Delhi.
In Delhi we’ll talk about what I’ve mentioned to some of my readers: The Kapoor Singh Guliani Files.

Santa Lucia – A Neapolitan Boat Song

So I am learning how to play second violin on Santa Lucia – A Neapolitan Boat Song.  I am at the point where I am playing each note well and where practicing with an annoying metronome is finally yielding some rhythmically sound results.  The next task at hand is to make it sound not just technically sound but beautiful.  To add a lilt to it, to sway with it.  The teacher’s suggestion was that I should put myself in a boat in Naples, this song playing in the background.  How would I feel? How would it make me sway? She asked me to channel those imagined feelings for the right effect.

I see what she is saying.  I know how doing so would help.  I remember reading Arnold Steinhardt’s book – Violin Dreams – where he makes the point that a well played Ciaccona should make one dance.  Imagining a room full of people dancing the Ciaconna should help the violinist lend just the right degree of lyricism to his playing.

Playing Bach’s Partita for solo violin is too distant a dream for me and might even be several lifetimes away.  Though the point of feeling swept along in a Neapolitan boat is well taken.  What’s needed for this mental fugue however is a mind where the gritty and all too real images of being swept down Route 80 in fits and starts, flowing in a very different way than a boat in Naples, with the windshield wipers beating a quarter note at 110, don’t rudely intrude.

[I could have played with so much grace and so much fluidity if I was of a place where a musical gondolier ferried me hither and thither, if I wasn’t in a state called New Jersey, working my way east to a city called New York every morning.]

Even as I typed the parenthetical thought above I cringed at the notes of discontent with the grace notes of whining misery.  I do not approve of these sad and sorry notes creeping into my life.  I want to drive them away with as much determination as I want to eliminate the squeaks, the creaks the harshness and choppiness that creeps into my violin playing when I’ve had a rough day, when I’ve felt stressed and harried, when the hand holding the bow trembles and shakes and presses down too hard on the string.

Even if Naples or Venice or Hawaii and it’s swaying Hula hasn’t been in one’s past and isn’t in one’s future, one shouldn’t feel handicapped when it comes to letting the mind roam free, imagining the pleasures, the beauty that could take one’s breath away.  True misery comes from the jaded inability to conjure up even a mental image of a place where one can sway and float with eyes closed, carefree.

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