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. 🙂

 

 

My love for Kolkata…inexplicable.


I can never sell Kolkata to people who show interest in touring India.

“Errr.. there is the Victoria Memorial, and the St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Maidan is a nice green expanse in the middle of the concrete jungle. And then there is the Ganga and Outram ghaat!” I stammer.

But we can’t boast of the Taj Mahal or the Khaju Raho temples, we don’t have the Lal Quilla or the Lake Palace, we don’t have the pristine Himalayas (unless you go to North Bengal) to lure tourists. Instead, we have bandhs (strikes) at the drop of a hat, we have traffic jams, we have terrible pollution and we have tall concrete buildings which, I feel, are suffocating the whole city. And we have terribly long summer. The pleasant winds bringing respite in the summer evenings, are halted by tall buildings that are choking the city slowly.

In my young and foolish days, I took up arms against those who dared to say a word against Kolkata. I was ready to break up with my boy friend who dared criticize my city. I got this passion from my fire-brand mother, who brain washed me from an early age “east or west, Kolkata is the best”. Yeah, she is very parochial. I inherited that mentality from her and kept the fire of nationalistic pride ignited in my heart. My friends too, were die-hard Kolkata fans and believed that only us, the Kolkata lovers, had the right to criticize our city but heaven have mercy on those outsiders, who dared utter a word against it.

Those days are gone. I am a wise, mature woman now who left Kolkata in the mid nineties and never went back to stay. I learned, in due course, that criticizing something/ someone doesn’t mean loving it less. It means we acknowledge a problem and that is a first step towards looking for a solution. That also means something/someone does not have to be blemish free for us to love, we can love something/someone warts and all.

I wonder sometimes why I love the city like the way I do. Does distance make it easier to love Kolkata? Why does the city invoke such a passionate need in me to protect it from outsider’s disdain? Objectively speaking, what exactly is going for the city of Kolkata? Am I really protecting the city or am I safe guarding the memories that the city and I have built together? I still get teary eyed when I listen to Kabir Suman’s

“Ei shohor jaane amar prothom shob kichu
Palate chai joto she aashe amar pichu pichu”

This city knows my every ‘first’
It comes after me, no matter how far I go from it.

It is not the brick, mortar cement of the city that I love, but the faces, the love, the blessings, the friendships, the heartbreak, the experiences that slowly and lovingly molded me, created ‘me’ and shaped me to the person I turned out to be. It is a very personal kind of love that I have for Kolkata.

Those of you who read my blogs know by now, I am a big believer of living in the moments. I have grown up and moved away but whenever I think back to my home city, the moments and memories of my past crowd around me. The sound of Indian classical music coming from the different houses in the neighborhood as the little girls sat down with their harmonium to practice music every evening, the smell of meat cooking only on Sundays in our middle class neighborhood, the communal ‘antakshari’ game on our respective balconies during daily power cuts, the collective sound of ‘Aaahhhh’ when the lights came back on. There are unpleasant memories too but those don’t surface in my mind much. I have lived through them, and left them behind. I came away with the beautiful ones.

I am going home in a few weeks (still over a month left but the time remaining seems shorter if I talk in weeks, hence….)! Friends ask me what are you going to do when you go back? Do? I will do absolutely nothing. I will lay in our king size family bed, next to my mother and talk. Or not. We will probably read or listen to our favorite songs. I am looking forward to those moments of easy silence next to the person who I still want when I am sad or don’t feel well. I will accompany my father to Gariahat market and hear him proudly say to the fishseller ‘Shob cheye bhalo mach ta dao dekhi. Meye esheche.’ (Give us the best fish, my daughter has come) ! I will cherish his ways of showing love – by buying the tastiest fish, the choicest mangoes, the tenderest meat and the satisfaction in his face when I exclaim how good everything is.

I am not sure if this is true for every immigrant. The thing that I miss most about home is the familiarity. I miss the shared history. I love my adopted land but I am not familiar with the tv shows of the seventies, or the baseball players of yester years. When my contemporaries exclaim about how much they loved a certain show growing up and turn to me and say, ‘Remember?’ I say, ‘No, I don’t!’ I remember Humlog and Fauji and Sunil Gavaskar and East Bengal Mohanbagan rivalry.

I will immerse myself in all that familiarity, all the love for two weeks and come back with enough memories to sustain me in the coming year. The greetings of the neighborhood boys, the smiling faces of my aunts and uncles, the welcome from my friends are my personal treasures. They are the city’s love for me which I can’t show an outsiders. They belong to me and to those who can still feel the love.

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Way back when…


I firmly believe it is always a good idea to start at the beginning. For instance, the day I caught a glimpse of the back of a tall, well-built man at the book corner of an upscale store in a five star hotel in Kolkata, where I worked at the time. The man must have felt the brush of the pallu of my saree on his arm, or the soft gentle swish of air as I passed by him to the cash register, he turned back and smiled at me. Months of customer service training made me immediately flex my facial muscles into a responding grin. But then I smiled a real smile. Maybe I smiled because his smile was so genuine and warm, maybe because he had kind eyes or just maybe because I was twenty-four and a very handsome man just smiled at me.

I finished my job at the register and went back to my department in the mezzanine floor and promptly forgot about the man downstairs. In about ten minutes, he came up. He needed a gift for a wedding he had to attend, it was a Sunday and all the stores in the city were closed. I gave him some suggestions, of course, but surprisingly, the conversation gradually shifted from gift ideas to us – my Master’s program, university, job, likes, preferences, his work, education et all. I do not remember what all we talked about, but I do remember we talked for about two and a half hours. My poor manager sent a coworker up to my floor to make sure I was coping fine with a foreigner. I also remember, after talking for close to an hour, he asked me if I was married. When I said no, he extended his arm, gripped my hand in a firm handshake and gave me his name. I tease him to this day that if I WAS married, would he have not told me his name? He says he wanted to make sure the coast was clear for him to pursue farther. Fair enough!

Before he left, he handed me his card and asked me to call him sometime. The cards that I got at that job generally ended up in the trash can. His, I kept. After a couple of weeks, while searching for change in my purse, I came up with his card. I remembered the feeling of happiness and excitement in me when he was talking, the ready smile and the twinkling green eyes. I made a decision, very unnatural for me. I decided to give him a call. I am naturally shy, not prone to taking chances or making the first move. But I wanted to see him again.

I could almost hear the pounding of my heart as I dialed the number and heard the phone ring on the other end. And then his deep voice boomed into my ears. I managed a squeaky hello and a stuttering ‘I am Piyali!’

The response to that was, “Which Piyali?”

Oh, the embarrassment!!! I felt a flush of warmth creeping upon my face as shame swept over me. He didn’t remember me! I wanted to hang up immediately, instead I calmly mentioned I was Piyali from the ______! My voice didn’t waver but I was close to tears at the humiliation of being so forgettable. He recovered quickly. He even managed enthusiasm in his voice, which he now claims, was genuine. And then dropped the second bomb.

“Do you want me to take you out for dinner sometime?”

Do I want him to???? No I did not. Girls in parochial Kolkata in mid nineties did not go out to dinner with unknown men. All I wanted was to see him again, maybe at the store, in a safe environment, among a lot of people!!! My degradation, at that point, was complete. I politely said, “No thank you. I just called to say hello. You have a good day!”

I was bitterly disappointed but also strangely relieved that I could close that chapter and move on. His interest in me that night meant nothing. The next day, he was back at the store. And the next, and the day after that. He kept coming back. I was thrilled to bits, reveling in all the attention and the cherishing the novelty of knowing a man from a different country.

Then one day he asked me, “So, when are you going to the Book fair with me?” Not “Will you go to the book fair with me” but “When….” I was caught off guard. I couldn’t go out with him. My virtue as a middle class, rule following Bengali woman was at stake if I was seen with a man, a white man at that! Yet, in my heart, I desperately wanted to. I broke the unwritten rules yet again, I gave in. Our first date was the Kolkata Book fair, standing in line to get ticket, walking leisurely to the book stalls, stopping to see the local artists paint pictures, pointing out the ones we liked the best, laughing at our dust laden shoes, talking of our idea of a perfect life partner, telling him I never wish to get married, wishing his wife good luck when he said he wanted six children.

Our courtship was beautiful. Our rendezvous were covert, romantic and thrilling. For the demure, rule follower me, dating was a wild adventure in itself, dating a foreigner was beyond belief. He waited for me in front of the RamKrishna Mission in Golpark, outside my Mass Communication classes, he came by the hotel at night to pick me up and drop me home in his car. We walked along the Lake and the Maidan, we sat by the musical fountains and I talked to him about Rabindra Nath Tagore, sung him a few of my favorite songs. We ate ice cream at Scoops by the river Ganga and watched the sun go down by the Howrah bridge. We soaked in the sight of the pinkish hue of the Victoria memorial as the last rays of Kolkata sun illuminated the splendid marble architecture. Kolkata is a city where I was born, I have many pleasant memories of it. But the streets of Kolkata, that I roamed with the special man by my side will always have a special place in my heart. It was on those streets that we explored each other fully and discovered each other’s thoughts, views, core values. We found commonality and we found differences. We learnt, we grew and we fell in love.

Almost seventeen years and two children later, we are here today. Silver highlights in my black hair, and there is stylish grey around his temples. The love notes that we used to write to each other every day have been replaced by grocery lists, sticky notes saying ‘there is food in the oven’, quick texts saying when the kids need to be picked up and from where. I mourn the loss of the wild rush of the romance of the first few years. What happened to those days of listening to love songs, day dreaming, walking the streets of Kolkata and later Baltimore, endlessly, completely lost in each other, sighing over poetry of Pablo Neruda, candle lit dinners and serenades? G.B Shaw is spot on when he says:

When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part. ~G.B. Shaw, Getting Married, 1908.

We did not remain in that excited, abnormal and exhausting condition continuously. Who does, after seventeen years? The most violent, most insane, most delusive and most transient of passions have given way to steady rhythm of gentle companionship and a deeper bond of trust, love and understanding. We have both learnt to recognize and appreciate the different manifestations of love that is not limited to love notes, love songs, moon sightings and passionate sighs, but goes way beyond that to make one feel truly cherished.

Some nights I come back home from work to find him fast asleep or semi asleep. I open the refrigerator – my dinner is waiting to be heated up, the dishes are done and the kitchen is sparkly clean. I feel completely loved then – more than love letters, diamond rings or flowers could ever make me feel. I wake up in the morning after a night of snow to find the driveway already shoveled and my car cleaned so I can get out without worries. Most mornings, I feel him covering me up with my kicked away blanket and tucking me in so I can get a few more minutes of sleep as he gets up to do his exercise. In my semi awake state I hear him softly shutting my door and whispering to the children, “Don’t bother mommy. Let her sleep in!” Children, schedules, home works, activities, jobs take up most of our time these days. Mortgage, bills, college funds have replaced thoughts of Neruda, Dali, Simon and Garfunkel. Most days we don’t feel it, yet some days, while taking a hike among nature, when we have a moment to pause and take stock, we look at each other and find fulfillment. We are in it together, we built our life together, creating a family, nurturing our young ones and taking care of each other in sickness and health.

Despite all our responsibilities, I still find time to put my arm in the crook of his elbow when we go for a walk, he still makes me feel like a giggly girl when he flashes a smile and teases, we still banter like we used to which seem very amusing to the children, he still calls me out to show a splendor of nature – like the sunlight creating a rainbow in a spiderweb on the side of our house. I still don’t enjoy any experience to the fullest unless I have shared it with him. It was simply wonderful to be young and recklessly in love. I am so glad we have those memories. But I am indeed glad to grow and mature in this relationship with my spouse where a few stolen moments in the morning before the craziness starts see us through the entire day.

I love being married for all the right reasons. I love the man in my life for the man that he is. I love the feeling of being the only one for him. I also love being married for the reason Rita Rudner says here.

It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life. ~Rita Rudner

Indeed!