Saturday, February 24, 2018

An unoriginal soundtrack for my life

I’m in the car with my niece, and we’re listening to one of my playlists. It’s a song from the late 1970s, Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, and she sings along to the words, which edge from slow to fast, from somewhat reflective to belted out, all the way to the plaintive last line. She stops, suddenly, and says, “This is kind of pathetic, that I know all the words to songs from my parents’ generation!”

Our musical memory is inextricably associated with the context(s) of our lives, the people who come and go at different points, the places we are in when we listen to something or the mood that specific songs and tunes link us to. Even after the incidents that gave rise to those moods are long forgotten, the sense of feeling lingers, and comes alive each time we encounter the tune. If my young companion’s parents listened to Led Zeppelin when they were dropping her off to school every morning, the song gets imprinted in her mind in a way that is difficult to erase. It probably gets intertwined with other childhood tunes that she may have clamored for, even as she protested the confusing rhythms of “Stairway”, a song that lacks the repetitive sing-along quality to which very young children respond. It becomes a difficult-to-forget strand in the soundtrack of her kindergarten years.

So… if I were to pick a tune for every decade of my life…or maybe every half-decade of my life, would I be able to build a playlist that symbolizes my journey in some way, that captures the dominant mood of different periods? It could be a story, however partial and incomplete, or then it need not be one. We know that there is an impulse to narrativize our lives, to make sense of the randomness of birth, existence and death in some manner that imposes order, that draws a line, however wavy and discontinuous, from one event to the next. Music helps add a layer of spice, a tone, a sensation, a colour, that makes the ordinary somehow more bearable, putting it into a frame that lends memory a shade of specialness. And of course, we are coached into this mode of thinking as we move from movie theatre to television screen, our anticipation stoked by drum rolls and weeping violins, sadness, fear and happiness called into being by the background score.

Here goes. Not necessarily a reflection of my musical tastes, then or now, though I must confess to periodically drawing upon these songs when I wish to disappear from the present into the self-perpetuated fiction of an idyllic—or at the very least, meaningful--past.

Pre-memory: when images are born in the act of re-telling. Athai adi, methai adi
My father’s youngest sister was a college student, unmarried, still living at home when I was born; she often talks about how she played a major role in caring for me as an infant. This was a song that she says she sang to put me to sleep. I now suspect it played more to her fascination with Gemini Ganesan than anything else!

The Disney years, when you wish upon a star and the bare necessities! For no reason other than the fact that movie memories give us a timeline of our lives just as well as anything else. Even though Pinocchio was released more than two decades before I came of film-going age, it is very much a part of the ongoing Disney magic of the late 1960s, when television made the “Wonderful World of Disney” a part of the after-school milk and cookies routine of a large swathe of children growing up in North America. Maybe it irreparably damaged our aesthetic sensibility and our ideas about the world, something that took many years of a critical liberal arts education to undo, but there’s no doubt that those princesses (and the occasional lost-in-the-jungle waif) made winter afternoons in cold, cold Calgary a little bit warmer.

It wasn’t long before long-haired teen idols replaced Mowgli and the Monkees’ Daydream Believer introduced me (with those seriously inane lyrics) to the delicious unhappiness of adolescence. This, mixed in with the dreaminess of Shashi Kapoor in Likhe jo khat tujhe made one want to grow up quickly and join that romantic adult world.

The 1970s were dominated—and animated—by a growing unease with the world, the conviction that we could change things with our words and ideas, our moods reflected in (at different stages) the work of The Beatles (Across the Universe), Bob Dylan (Tambourine Man)  and Joan Baez (Love is just a 4 letter word) , with a little bit of rising feminism thrown in with Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman”.

In the 1980s, subversiveness came in a variety of forms, from Michael Jackson who exploded on to the scene with Billie Jean, to Annie Lennox and Eurythmix, but I stuck with the old sounds of Al Stewart, and his Year of the Cat, and John Lennon’s new partnership with Yoko Ono (Watching the Wheels). But then how could I forget, a live concert with one of my all-time favourites, Simon & Garfunkel, whose Boxer never fails to move me.

By the 1990s I had entered my 30s, and was beginning to be consumed by a sense that I still hadn’t found what I was looking for… and listening to U2 did put me in the zone. This was also when Disney re-entered my life through my children’s listening preferences and thus began another cycle--of being introduced to sounds through other tastes.

This is what led to my discovery of Cold Play (Kingdom Come remains my favourite) in the early 2000s. And later in this second decade of the millennium, the discovery of a completely new sound, Sufi music and Farida Khanum, Coke Studio and fusion of all kinds, young people making music that crosses borders and mixes moods. 

There are of course some songs that run through all decades, that calm me, centre me, and give me a sense of self. Here’s just a few of those:

Kurai Onrum Illai by M S Subbalakshmi
Amazing Grace by Il Divo
What a wonderful world by Louis Armstrong

 I haven't included Abba here, even though they were a big part of our college sensibility in the late 1970s...but I have to say, Thank you for the music.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Buttered toast and Betelgeuse

The slices pop up from the toaster with a ding! My tentative fingers pick them up, one at a time, and drop them on the plate before the heat signal can travel from my skin to my brain. They need to cool, just a bit, just enough to acquire a hardness that won't give when the butter is spread over the surface. Golden, salty butter. Kept out of the fridge just long enough for the knife to cut through the smooth yet firm rectangle.

I move the knife horizontally across the fat brick of butter, gathering a thin layer that curls over the finely serrated blade to form a small ribbed cylinder, like the ones in the silver dishes in fancy hotels. Impressed by my unexpected artistry, I place it carefully on a slice and watch as it yields to the warmth, its butteriness oozing slowly over the golden brown surface, sinking into the pores. I quickly spread the rest, realizing that I haven't waited long enough and that the butter will soon disappear into the bread, visible only as a dull shine.

"I want to see the butter," he'd say, as he waited for the toast to cool before spreading a thick layer. Sometimes he'd add a dollop of ketchup.

Buttered toast and tea was a 4 o' clock routine that my father rarely missed, when at home. He took pleasure in making the tea himself, milky and thick, topped with an extra spoon of malai. I'd watch him, faintly disgusted by the malai (I was obsessive about straining every bit of it out of my tea and coffee) and remonstrating with him about the amount of butter on the toast. He paid no attention, focusing instead on enjoying the moment and all it contained.

January brings with it the bittersweetness of remembrance. One smiles at memories, grateful for their abundant presence, but sadness at the absence of those that played a role in generating them.

Orion and his belt. Image: Wikipedia
Like walking on the terrace at night. A keen star gazer, my father mapped the skies for me, pointing to Rohini--"that's Betelgeuse, the reddish one," he'd explain--at the far end of the long constellation of Orion, and then showing me the Belt, three stars strung across Orion's middle. Later my daughters were made familiar with the same stars and shared his excitement over expected meteor showers, lugging mats to sleep on the terrace and keep their eyes open for falling stardust. Never mind that most nights the clouds and the diffuse city lights masked whatever showers there may have been. The sense of anticipation was infectious.

Like going to the station to pick up arriving relatives. I do it out of habit fed by expectation but for him, it was an extension of his own fascination for travel. He would walk the length of the platform waiting for the arrival of a usually-late train, stopping to buy the latest South Central Railway timetable and a newspaper, as if the book tucked under his arm wasn't enough reading material.

It's coming on ten years now. The loss has lost its sharp edge, its contours now diffuse and soft, evoking gratitude rather than regret.

Thursday, December 28, 2017


Last year when I met a dear school mate after close to three decades, she remarked that just before she reached the cafĂ© of our assignment, she encountered two instances that seemed to strongly resonate—in a prescient way—with our long association. “I was browsing the CD rack at the book store next door, and I spotted a collection of Tamil songs!” This was surprising why? Because this was a tiny store in the preppy part of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I am one of the few Tamil-speaking friends. “And then a little while later my eye fell on this mathematics book, in the popular non-fiction section.” The reason for remarking on this? My father was a mathematics professor, and this was a subject she had always connected with me (although I have little to do with it and even less affinity for it!).

“Everything seemed to be telling me I was going to meet you!”

We all get these earworm infestations from time to time, right? A song worms its way into our head and refuses to find a way out, taking up residence with endless replays. So it was with this song by Passenger that I first heard covered by a group of pre-teens at a music festival, which stayed with me for weeks, and then, just as suddenly as it had entered, it quit. Like, totally and completely, vacated my conscious mind. Several months later, I was trying hard to think about this song, remembering only that I had liked it, but with no more than a vague sense of the sound. Try as I might, the notes wouldn’t come back to me. In the evening of that same day, as I walked down the stairs of a subway station, I heard the strains of a platform band—playing my song!

My father was born in the month of January and died in the month of April. My father in law was born in the month of April and died in the month of January. They were very good friends, sharing a deep, almost spiritual connection. There’s even a strange symmetry of sorts in the dates: my father’s birthday is January 1, while my father in law’s death anniversary is January 11. My father in law’s birthday is April 26 and my father passed away on April 21. The months therefore bring bittersweet memories for me, but in a way they also serve to remind one that birth, death, and everything in between…it’s all part of the game of life.

You have a dream about someone and happen to meet them the following day. You have a dream about someone and they call you with some important news soon after. You have a dream about someone and it turns out to be surprisingly premonitory. You think a thought and you find it echoed in the newspaper the next day.

Life is full of such apparently surprising coincidences. Or perhaps we see them as coincidences because we are constantly on the lookout for patterns, for ways to read meaning into our otherwise untidy lives.

The idea of synchronicity—the apparent connection between acausal psychic and physical phenomena--is most famously associated with Carl Jung, who is best known for his work on psychoanalytic theory. The writer Paul Levy describes it as “meaningful coincidence” when “our internal, subjective state appears, as if materialized in, as and through the outside world”.

While many rationalists might dismiss the idea as fanciful mumbo-jumbo, something that springs from our innate desire to make sense and bring order to the randomness of life, our wish to believe that there is some grand design to existence. Putting meaning into synchronous events allows us to see our lives as a narrative. And whether one reads meaning into such events, or whether the occurrence of such events is inherently meaningful, depends on which side of the mysticism-rationalism divide one stands.

I myself am a skeptical rationalist—if there is such a thing. I believe there are scientific (or rule-based) explanations for most things, but I also allow that there may be phenomena that are beyond our current understanding, and therefore am hesitant to discount the beliefs of those who argue for a mystical explanation for acausal coincidences.

After all, the most innovative theories in science have come from the willingness to make a conceptual leap to connect disparate bits of evidence in an explanatory framework. And the greatest literature has come from drawing a design into the apparent randomness of human existence.

For now, I’m going to take refuge in another song that had been relegated to the shadows of memory…here’s Synchronicity of a different kind!