The language of music


I was sent to an English medium school because my mother thought the language will give me a boost to move ahead in life. Both my parents were schooled in our vernacular – Bengali. They had enough English to get by but they were not, by any means, fluent. Since I was very little, I was exposed to Bengali music, Bengali stories, Hindi music, Bengali plays on the radio with a few English nursery rhymes thrown in. I have very fond memories of sitting around our transistor radio on a mat on our terrace under a star lit sky with both my parents, listening to a murder mystery in the mesmerizing voice of Gautam Chakraborty. It was summer, we had regular power cuts but in those days cool breeze from the Ganges cooled down the scorching city in the evenings. Those were pre television , pre sky scrapers, pre KFC, pre Barista days. Those were the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Bottom line, I had no exposure to English music, plays, literature. When I went to school, I learned English alphabets before I learned to read and write in Bengali. Being a lover of books, I picked up both languages quickly and devoured, I mean, read anything I could get my hands on. But when it came to music, I stuck to my loves – Bengali, Hindi. As I got older, peers introduced me to Western music. I tried to listen to a few and did not understand the lyrics – at all. Not at all. The instrumentals sounded like noise. I went back to what brought solace, music that I understood, music that soothed my soul.

The man I fell in love with happened to come from a English speaking country.  When we first started seeing each other as friends, we exchanged our music. He sang along with the tapes he played for me. I sang and translated Rabindra sangeet for him, sitting in front of the magic fountains in Victoria Memorial.

I learned to love certain artists and their songs in English although I still strained to understand the lyrics. My partner made it easier to follow by singing along. I tried to translate some of my favorite songs for him but a lot was lost in translation. Through the exchange of music we conveyed our culture, our feelings. Exchange of our music was also exchange of our hearts.

I listened and loved some songs that Sean sang for me – Peter, Paul and Mary, Kenny Rogers, Don Mclean, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, R.E.M, Simon and Garfunkel and several others. But I still did not listen to them on my own. After our marriage, I brought my music and he brought his to our lives. He jived to some Bollywood numbers and I slow danced to “You look wonderful tonight” with him.

Then we saw Sting in Varanasi one year in a small bed and breakfast. When my husband wondered that he looked like Sting, I said, Who’s Sting?” And thought, what an odd name. The rest is history.

If you have not read my blog on Who’s Sting, this may be a good time. 🙂

 

 

The Namesake


Recently we discussed Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake in our book club. For some of the participants, the characters were not quite real. They felt good that they read the book but the characters were not authentic enough. For those who are not familiar with the book, here is a brief synopsis. The story explores the lives of a young couple, recently married, who come to the United States in the 1960’s from Kolkata. The husband is a researcher in a university in New England and the young bride accompanies him to build a life together. The marriage was arranged by their parents so they get to know each other, and fall in love in a completely new country, far away from parents and relatives. They make this country their home, raise their two children here, develop friendships yet suffer from a sense of displacement. They cherish the opportunity that America gives them, yet they pine for the loved ones they left behind. The later part of the story follows the life of their oldest child – a boy, who they name Gogol after Nikolai Gogol. You have to read the book to find out the reason for this unusual name. As Gogol grows up, he has issues with his name so he changes it to Nikhil in college not realizing the sentimental reason behind this name. The book talks about Gogol’s self realization as first generation American and the dichotomy of balancing his roots and his birthplace.

Gogol’s life interested me somewhat since I have two biracial children and one of them is trying to figure out where she belongs. But I completely and utterly related to Ashima, the young bride who came to bitter cold New England right after her marriage. Her desperate attempt to understand a new country and her efforts to replicate the experiences of home, here. The book has a description of Ashima trying to make jhal muri (a very delectable roadside snack in Kolkata) with puffed rice and Planter’s nuts but something is missing. Something is always missing when I make the traditional Musur dal, bati chocchori, alu kopi – a very simple Bengali meal, in this country. Is it the oil? Is it the taste of the vegetable? I am still not sure. When I fry the spices in hot oil, the aroma reminds me of home but not quite, not quite. Something is missing.

The sense of displacement grows faint with each passing year as I deepen my roots in the soil of this country. I understand it more, I start to feel like, yes I belong. I nurture sustaining friendships that make me feel loved but what I find missing is the shared history. I long for those who will share the memory when “Abhi na jao chodke ke dil abhi bhara nahi” plays in Pandora. It is not simply a song. It encompasses a part of my life. It is the memory of my dad crooning it as he tied his shoe laces when he got ready for work. It is the memory of loudspeakers during Durga pujo. It is the memory of coming of age and stealing glances at the boy I liked. It is the memory of the lobby of our university. It is the memory of people I sang this song with, it is the emotions that evoked in all of us as we sang it together.

It is the immigrant experience, never belonging fully and belonging to more than one.

Ethnocentric tendencies


I see my 16 year old daughter go through life with head phones plugged in her ears. One in, one out to let half of the world reach her consciousness. The other half is immersed in music. The worst thing I can do to her is take away her head phones – life will lose it’s luster. Even if she is not connected to music, she has one earphone plugged in one ear. I have hung up my boxing gloves and given up the fight. With so many issues to lock heads about, I have to be conscious of what is most meaningful to me and her.

A few days ago as we were driving back from a successful swim meet, I heard her sing along to – Balam pichkari jo tune Mujhe maari…… A Hindi song from a popular Bollywood movie. I do not keep up with cinema at all, so of course I was oblivious to the movie or the song. However, hearing her sing a Hindi song at the top of her lungs made me smile and took me back thirty years. I distinctly remember bringing home the latest Bollywood songs to my mother and she disdainfully shake her head at my taste. The songs were not profound or meaningful or classy, they were simply foot tapping fun. My parents denigrated the music of our times, 80’s and 90’s and eulogized the music they grew up with. I personally loved the oldies as well as ‘our’ music. Despite the mock disdain, I would catch my mother humming a modern ditty or tapping her foot to it while a local pujo pandal played the music at an unacceptable decibel level, repeatedly.

When I asked my daughter about this particular song, she said, “You won’t like it mom! It is a Bollywood song.”

I did not show mock disdain for the modern song though, I wanted her to share her playlist of Hindi songs with me instead. Why would I not want some foot tapping fun, zesty music, and hip shaking rhythm? I have my golden melodies to fall back upon and I want these movers and shakers when I sweat on the tread-mill to keep me moving. We are that lucky generation where we have the joy of it all- the past, the present and the future too.

Lastly, I was happy to see the ethnocentric tendencies of my non Hindi speaking, biracial child. She sought out these songs on her own perhaps to cultivate part of her roots, her part-ethnicity, what she can call her own if she chooses to?

I need some madness.


I hear Midterm madness. At least, that is what the High school teachers are calling these exams. I am getting urgent emails from teachers about study guides being posted on the particular teachers’ pages, I receive invitations to attend meetings about mid term madness. I sign up students to use the study rooms at the library where I work, I help students look up books, resources for the subjects they are studying, I politely ask students not to block the isles with their laptops and books, where they have set camp since all the study rooms at the library are booked. There is a constant stream of students at the library, hard at work. I hear snatches of conversation, ‘dude that is not the component, look…’. ‘No, we have to balance the equation here…’! I look around and see preparation for battle. Battling mid terms.

But my house, where a participant of mid term madness resides, is a picture of tranquility. It is like that beer commercial which urges you to “find your beach” amidst the madness of life. My daughter has found her beach! There is no anxiety, no studying, no rush. There is, however, sleeping in, lounging leisurely in pajamas, waiting for breakfast, playing with Sage, bickering with brother, reading Sherlock Holmes and after half the day is done, retiring to her room with the iPad. The iPad, I am told, is necessary for reviewing. The music plays. As I turn it off, I am told, music is necessary for math. I leave the room in a huff!

I had read an amusing anecdote by one of my favorite authors, Nabonita Debsen, where Dr. Debsen, talks about her elder daughter preparing for her school final examinations. The story was written from a harried mother’s point of view who is appalled by the nonchalance of her teenage daughter before her important exam. I seem to be living that story.

I have lost count of the number of times I have reminded my high schooler, ‘Sahanaaaaaa!!! Mid terms!!!’

‘Yeah, I know!’

‘And?’ I leave an open-ended question.

She turns her beautiful face towards me and says, ‘I got this.’

I believe in that style of parenting where I vow not to nag and let her take the fall….if there is one. So I clamp down my lips and don’t let the lecture spill out that is so ready to not merely spill, but burst forth. I walk away, bursting at the seams with unspent anger and fury and gnash my teeth.

This ‘not to nag’ doesn’t come naturally to me, I have to work at it. Like most women my age, I am becoming my mother, for the better or worse. I still remember my mother’s shrill voice, ‘Porte bosho! Dudin baade porikkha’ (Go study, your exam is around the corner)! I remember the sleepless nights, the red eyes, the last minute cramming, the discussion with friends, the shared excitement of “oh I am so scared!”

The morning of the first exam, I wake up early to see her off to school. Her face looks pale.

‘I am nervous.’ She says.

I gulp down all my anxiety, bitter words, ‘told you so’s.

‘You will be fine. Just try your best. That is all you can do!’ I send her off.