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.

  • Follow Curlicues's Weblog on WordPress.com