An unequal music
ONE of my earliest memories of Hindi film songs results from an unlikely combination: a TV, a six-year-old in school uniform, and my mother. When: early ’90s; where: Dhanbad, a dusty coal town destined for obscurity, before Gangs of Wasseypur made it mythic and memorable.
Ours was an upper-middle-class family: father, a doctor; mother, a homemaker; two sons; the typical Hum-Do-Humaare-Do unit. But in this mundane pack of cards, my mother was both the king and the queen. She was tall – five-feet-six, dwarfing my father by half-an-inch. She participated in annual car races, winning them with incredible ease. She relished her gutkas. When she visited the school for the annual parents-teachers meeting, she was an event herself. The teachers were in awe of her; the principal adored her; my friends called her ‘Indira Gandhi’.
She was a typhoon rolled in saree. When she got angry, her pupils dilated and blazed, leaving me numb and scared. She was my life’s first project: the first woman I wanted to impress. I was her partner-in-pranks, her best friend, her fan. And her heart swelled for music. So, she made me ready for school to the background score of vintage Bollywood.
Cable TV had recently beamed into our lives. In the early hours of morning, an entertainment channel functioned as a radio, playing old Hindi songs. Time has dimmed my recollection, but there’s one that I still remember. An Asha Bhosle number whose lyrics never ceased to fascinate: Meri Beri Ke Ber Mat Todo/Koi Kaanta Chubh Jayega. The six-year-old me had no idea that the song wasn’t about flowers (but deflowering). ‘Why does she want to protect her ber?’ I’d ask my mother, befuddled, and she’d let out a hearty laugh.
Ididn’t know then that music is transportive: a mini time-machine. While listening to a cherished song, we’re playing and rewinding, transcending space, time, identity. Even decades later, whenever that Bhosle song plays, I’m not enjoying it as much as I’m waiting for my school bus. But sometimes a song can transcend memory and self. My earliest association with a Bollywood song belongs to a period when I didn’t even know my age, when I had no memory of memory. It’s a story my parents have told me numerous times. As a toddler, I loved the song Tirchi Topiwaale from Tridev. Once my parents rented the VCR to watch the film. It was late in the night, and I was deep asleep, when the film began. But the moment the song played – as if stirred by an inexplicable filmy subconscious – I woke up and watched the entire thing. When the song ended, I slept again.
My fascination with songs grew, as I grew up. I didn’t get them at all times, but I loved getting lost in their labyrinths, decoding meanings, ascribing motivations, battling confusions. In the mid-’90s, I was smitten with a song on TV: a sea of desert, a malfunctioning jeep, a gorgeous woman in white, and a captivating raspy voice drowning in waves of devotion. It was, of course, Afreen Afreen by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and I enjoyed it every time it played. I had a vague idea that it was about something ‘deep’, but its initial line made no sense, for it rolled, ‘Mujhko Tata ki chai peeni nahin.’ Wait, what? Why is this guy straining his throat for Tata Tea? It must be something else, I thought, but how do you placate a young, restless mind? Days, months, years passed: the confusion stayed. I never discussed it with anyone.
Around the same time, I found another favourite, Humma Humma. One of its lines went, ‘Aye pehli baar mile, tum vedam yeh nikle [the first time I saw you, you went Vedam].’ ‘Vedam’ – a strange word, what does that mean? I rummaged my mind: found nothing. I will get this, I resolved, wanting to liberate myself from the Tata Tea condition. And a few weeks later, I cracked it! I explained my theory to my mother: ‘Humma Humma is quite something. I mean, we all know that Bombay is originally a Tamil film,’ spake seven-year-old Tanul with the confidence of, well, a seven-year-old. ‘But have you heard the song closely? It says, "Aye pehli baar mile, tum Vedam yeh nikle." So, the guy is saying that when he first saw the girl, she was shopping. They directly used the Tamil word for it: "Vedam".’
My mother looked at me and chuckled. At least one mystery solved, I thought, but that wasn’t the end of it. The song continued to ping my sub-conscious, like an old ignored love letter. Tamil-Vedam-shopping, really? I couldn’t validate my interpretation by asking someone else because, like an intense private correspondence, the answer lay in the text.
A song’s true gift is the gift of eloquence. It allows you to shed inhibition: It is an antidote to writer’s block. It allows you to express the unexpressed: It is a linguistic cheat code. It allows you to set the stage: It is an inciting incident for the rest of the story. Each song is wet clay, and each listener a sculptor. All such theorising, however, comes later. What is in the moment is the moment itself, and Hindi film songs have made many plebeians poets and prose stylists. The ferocity of that feeling dawned on me, one evening in 1998, when my family was watching TV in the living room. The beats of a song kicked in, and I was arrested by a spontaneous sentiment: an intense want to jive with my buddy.
‘Aye! Kya bolti tu?’I sprang out of sofa lip-synching, pointing towards my mother.
‘Aye! Kya main bolun?’ She got up.
‘Aati kya Khandala?’
For the next few minutes, my mother and I, singing and dancing, were performers, and my brother and father an amused audience. The song began with me imitating Aamir Khan, but as it drew to a close, a matchbox appeared in her hand, a match was lit, and the burning stick ran on her tongue. Astounded and awestruck, I had stopped dancing. Irrespective of the song and the occasion, my mother couldn’t resist being the hero.
That is my last fond memory of Bollywood songs and her. A year later, she changed, and so did we. She became a sleepy mother; she became a sickly mother – an absentee mother, a meek mother. Our conversations waned, and the music left our lives. Four years later, I left the house – or, more accurately, ran away – to Bokaro to complete my 11th and 12th. I had given the excuse that I wanted to prepare for IIT, but I guarded the real reason with the resolve of someone getting addicted to secret, parallel worlds.
Small-town North India, in those years, owed a special debt to Bollywood songs. It was the age preceding the broadband Internet, the smart-phones, the iPods. There wasn’t much to do. All you had was a Walkman, some cassettes, and a lot of time. It also had to do with the exposure to popular culture. Growing up, I was oblivious to western cinema, music, or TV. I was, first and foremost, a child of Bollywood. When you don’t know anything else, you don’t live in a world, you live in the world – and the walls of Hindi film songs were comforting and formidable.
I found out about a different world, when I entered a different world: Manipal, 2006, first year of engineering. Suddenly, there were people from all parts of the country. People with a broader, richer experience. People familiar with malls, multiplexes, McDonald’s – the whole waltz of capitalism. People who couldn’t locate Dhanbad on the map.
In the first few weeks, I befriended a guy from Bangalore. He was different from me in almost every conceivable way: he spoke fluent English, didn’t know Hindi, and carried an air of smooth confidence. Every evening, he came to my room, and we hung out. Every evening, same routine: he’d play his favourite songs – English, all of them; singers and bands I didn’t know; lyrics and music I couldn’t process. He listened; I heard. Many times, I wanted to play something that I could listen, too: a Hindi song. But I refrained.
Initial college days are less about revealing, more about hiding, and I was a champ of secrets. They also teach you the vocabulary of ‘cool’, a nebulous language that no one yet everyone knows: snarky humour, emotional detachment, disdain for academics – and an affinity to western pop culture. In India, you don’t live the postcolonial condition; the postcolonial condition lives you. So, I didn’t have a lot to contribute; in time, he stopped coming to my room.
Next semester, I found a roommate who was a lot like me: confused and crass, jovial and absurd – in short: uncool. I liked him. One morning, as we were getting ready for college, I felt something was missing. The whole exercise was way too drab. Wouldn’t songs make a difference? He agreed. But what genre, which singer?
Atif Aslam? One of us suggested without fear of being judged.
You can leave your childhood, but your childhood doesn’t leave you.
Iwould see its shiny shards each time I came home. Spending month-long semester breaks with parents felt discomfiting, like acting in a film without a script. So much had happened in the last eight years, but we never spoke about, let’s call it, the Thing. The solidarity of friendships shares a key foundational myth with ‘happy families’: both are sustained by not what they discuss but what they don’t. Yet one night, in 2007, I had enough. My father had come home from work. I wanted to talk. My mother was, as usual, in her room, sleeping. Which was fine: I wanted to discuss her with him; I wanted to at least understand, if not resolve, the Thing. But how do you start, what do you say? I turned to my oldest ally: I played a Bollywood song.
My father was on the computer table, checking emails. I was on the bed. The room was silent and dark, except the light from the monitor. And then the song played, its lines filling the room with an unbearable heaviness.
Main Kabhi Batlata Nahin / Par Andhere Se Darta Hun Main, Ma.
Yun Toh Main Dikhlata Nahin / Teri Parwah Karta Hun Main, Ma.
Tujhe Sab Hai Pata / Hai Na, Ma.
Tujhe Sab Hai Pata / Meri Ma.
We continued to remain quiet, but with each stanza, our silence began to speak. I could hear it; I could feel it. Then my father, who is typically calm, got borderline angry. ‘Will you turn off the song?’ So, turn off I did. It’s been more than 13 years, and I haven’t been able to discuss the Thing with him. Maybe I’m looking for the right time; maybe I’m looking for the right words. Or maybe I’m waiting for the right song.
Two years later, I found myself in a different college, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, finishing my last two years of undergraduate. A new culture, a new tune: unending assignments, incessant solitude, cat naps in the library basement. On rare evenings, alcohol, bars, dance floors. Heavy eyes, light feet; Kid Cudi, Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga. But I missed my old friends. How would this feel, I thought, with the latest Hindi hits: Dhan Te Nan (Kaminey), Pardesi (Dev. D), Masakali (Delhi-6)? I had no idea that I’d pine for Bollywood music, that that hunger would follow and pierce me. A specific song – your song – is a food craving. Even with plentiful surrogates, you’re always famished, always unfinished. Always a degree removed: like the world has worn a thin, transparent film; you can touch all you want but you can never feel.
Two years later, I moved to Fort Collins, a picturesque Colorado town, for my first job. I soon found a flatmate, Sai. At a cursory glance we couldn’t have been more different: He hailed from Tamil Nadu, I from a state he had never visited; he didn’t understand Hindi, I didn’t understand Tamil; he didn’t care for literature, I was working on a novel. But on closer inspection, we couldn’t have been more alike: both small town boys who, in their early college years, weren’t fluent in English; both once awed by the big city boys; both, despite comfortable day jobs, craved more. We were compatible in other ways, too. He owned a car; I commuted by bus. He had no furniture; I had a couch. Everything seemed perfect till we exchanged notes on music: His jam was Tamil songs; he didn’t know much about Hindi music.
It was his car, his stereo, so suggesting anything else would have reeked of entitlement. But one day, he told me to get my music – and that’s how it got settled. On long drives, we alternated between Hindi and Tamil music. His songs, linguistically foreign, should have elicited the same alienating feeling as western music. But I opened up, picking my own favourites: Hosanna (Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa), Yenamo Yedho (Ko), Nenjukulle (Kadal).What is it about a certain kind of song that stirs the heart: is it the lyrics, is it the design, or is it the rendition of familiarity – the soothing assurance that you’re, by and large, home?
Sai and I continued to bond over music. Fort Collins, too small to have an airport, was an hour away from Denver. Whenever our friends travelled to meet us, they landed in the city, and we drove to receive them. This happened so often that it became a ritual. A Colorado sky carpeted with stars, a Honda Accord gliding on the road, the I-25 highway a silent bystander, and the stereo almost always playing the same album, Rockstar.
We loved it, and we had the same favourite song, Kun Faaya Kun. On many nights, when Rahman hit the sweet spot, it felt as if the world sidestepped for us. On one such occasion, taking a leap of faith, I told him my secret: ‘I don’t want to be an engineer. I want to go back and become a writer.’ He encouraged me and shared his secret. He wanted to be an entrepreneur. Did Rahman’s transcendental submission draw me out? Probably. Music had earlier allowed me to be joyous and boisterous, but for the first time, I took cues from it to be vulnerable. In the subsequent months, my self-doubt intensified, but Sai always found ways to console me. ‘Thakur boy, you’ll do it, I know it.’ And in the summer of 2013, I somehow found the courage to quit my job.
It was a legit cinematic moment, and I don’t feel sheepish dramatising it: a young man on a journey, leaving the comforts of the first world to follow his dream. The future could have unfolded in any number of ways, but I hadn’t envisioned the imminent plot twist: I got depressed out of my skull. It made no sense. Here I was, in Mumbai, working as a film journalist, wanting to become a film critic. The world was my oyster, but I was drowning. I was drinking a lot – drinking by myself, something I had not done before. I didn’t even know I was depressed. I just knew that I was unable to feel. Anything, nothing, at all. Perhaps I know now. Like every depressed person, I embraced a lie. That lie becomes everything, because it’s a shield. Feeling is knowing and knowing is devastating. The US had kept me safe: I was away. In India, I finally came home: there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. My parents expected me to call them often; I didn’t. The Thing had sneaked up on me, baring its fangs.
I moved to Delhi next year for my first job as a film critic. Nothing changed. Writing, drinking, editing; editing, drinking, writing; drinking, drinking, drinking. Dazed and lost. Clueless and confused. When my mother called, I used to let the phone ring. Sometimes I put it on speaker, continuing to work, occasionally saying, ‘Hmm’, ‘yeah’, ‘okay’. I had become a writerly cliché. When you live a lie, when you don’t want to feel anything, ignorance does feel bliss. You suppress, suppress, and suppress some more – it feels comforting, like eating water after a long run – even when you don’t quite know what you’re suppressing. But the heart knows, even if the mind doesn’t.
Running empty reduces you to a blank canvas: if the darkness leaves, so does the light. In my new phase, I had stopped listening to music. It also didn’t help that Bollywood’s soundscape had become bankrupt and debased. The Hindi film music became more depressed than me, and around the same time.
Even sporadic good news didn’t stir anything. Next year, in 2015, I won the National Film Award for Best Film Critic (#HumbleBrag). It didn’t bring joy; it induced guilt. On the day I found out about the award, I was getting wasted in a Noida bar. The beer was drinking me, and I didn’t mind. Then my phone vibrated, and I rushed out to talk – the only call I wanted to take. Standing near a beaten road, I heard his voice: ‘You did it, Thakur boy.’ I had goosebumps; I broke down.
Soon, I moved to Mumbai again. Changing cities had become an addiction. As if a new place meant a new beginning. As if a new beginning meant new concrete walls. I had changed eight cities over the last 12 years, but no one told me that changing zip codes is not the same as changing your mind. I continued to sink, and my constant indifference to music became a source of (secret) shame. I finally saw a therapist. Mustered the courage to discuss the Thing. She told me to abstain from drinking. I continued to drink.
Drinking alone is a paradoxical exercise. You drink to escape, to numb yourself, and yet you feel. You feel awful: about the palace of shit you’ve become, about the people you’ve hurt, about the hurt you can inflict on yourself. Self-pity is the crutch of the cowards – and yet, at least it’s a feeling. It’s a golden bargain. In the dazed hours of the night, I sometimes reached out to my laptop and played my favourite childhood songs. My relationship with music had devolved into a right-wing cry: trying to recall the past in one way or the other – an unblemished past, a happy past, smoothing out all inconsistencies and complexities.
But the best and the worst thing about life is that it’s a long run. Moments of solace came through writing. I was in a Jaipur hotel in January 2017, practicing the pitch for my nonfiction book. My proposal had been selected for a Jaipur Literature Festival competition, where writers presented their ideas to a panel of literary agents. I was nervous, pacing up and down, so I clicked on a random YouTube playlist to calm myself. ‘Ek ho gaye hum aur tum’, one of the songs turned out to be a Badshah rehash. I had not listened to it as an act of defiance. But I was getting ready and didn’t have the time to change the song. Then came the next line: ‘Yeh pehli baar mile, tum pe yeh dam nikle.’ I stopped. Vedam? Tum pe yeh dam.
Maybe it was the penny-dropping season, because six months later I listened to the Coke Studio version of Afreen Afreen. Nusrat’s nephew, Rahat, was at it. That booming crystal voice – which Bollywood tried to corrupt – was leaping and slaying. He was coaxing the words, riding the beats. ‘Sandali sandali, marmari marmari’, his voice continued to swell. And then I heard: ‘Usne jaana ki taarif mumkin nahin.’ If there were a medal in the graveyard of misheard songs, I wanted to claim it. But something still sounded off. A few weeks later, while listening to the same song, I had the subtitles on by mistake. I happened to look at the laptop screen, when that line played: ‘It is impossible to describe that beautiful beloved.’ Usne jaana? Husn-e-jaana. Husn-e-jaana? Husn-e-jaana.
In May 2018, I changed cities again. I returned to Delhi, and I’ve stayed here since. A few months later, I also began dating someone – something I had given up on. During one of our initial conversations, when she spoke about Hindi songs becoming unfashionable among people our age, I didn’t say anything, but a bulb glowed in my head. After long, it became possible to share my music with someone, to come out of my own head. We moved in last year, and on some evenings, we ask Alexa to play our favourite songs. (Her most frequent requests are from Guide; I turn to Kishore Kumar.)
Conversations with the mother also improved. Two-minute calls became four, then six, then eight, and that’s the maximum I’ve been able to manage. But I don’t put her on speaker any-more. Over the last several years, she’s apologised a few times, and so have I. The reasons keep changing, but the apologies sound increasingly sincere – or so I’d like to believe. I hardly call, but she always checks on me.
Last December, she called again. I was working on a piece, so I let the phone ring. A few days later, I decided to call. She was in an Ahmedabad hospital, having recently undergone a knee replacement surgery. I felt terrible at my callousness, remembering the numerous times I should have called. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I wanted to atone this time, squeeze out an apology buried somewhere deep. I also wanted to tell her about this essay. Did she remember the songs we used to hear in the mornings? What channel was it? What was her favourite? Her phone rang, and it kept ringing. But I didn’t mind the wait, for she had a caller tune, an old eternal favourite: ‘Meet na mila re mann ka.’