Every once in a while, my wife will catch me blithely humming a song or listening to one on the stereo. It could be our anniversary or a birthday, a time for celebration. Yet, she will grimace and ask me if I must listen to this song. It’s then that I have to pay attention to the lyrics. I’ve probably been humming or listening to a song that is depressing in her opinion. The song “Seene mein sulagthe hain armaan” from the movie Tarana (1951) comes to mind. At its core, it is a song about the sorrow of parting. The lyrics that get her goat could roughly be translated to “Such a fire has lit my mind that it neither lets me live nor die. My heart burns if I stay silent and yet to speak would be to displease you.”
As I write this, I can understand her ire. When I listen to the song though, it is not the lyrics that I’m paying attention to but the memories it conjures. This song is one of my dad’s favorite songs and I have many happy memories of listening to it on the radio while growing up and my dad reminiscing about his youth in Hubli and later in Bombay. It transports me back to my childhood home, the lights from the valves of the Murphy radio flickering and casting a pattern on the wall behind. My mother would chime in with the name of the movie and my dad would take the name of the music director “Anil Biswas” with a tone of reverence. I’m not thinking of burning hearts, the memories of the past warm the cockles of my heart.
It is no wonder then that my earliest memory of any song is Geeta Dutt’s “Mera sundar sapna beet gaya” (Do Bhai, 1947). At first glance, the lamentation of the singer mourning the shattering of her dream after losing everything in love should not be the song that a five-year-old should be listening to or remembering with fond memories. But I remember the afternoon when this song was playing on the radio and my mother told me that the singer was Geeta Dutt. She had been married to the actor Guru Dutt. And here is what I remember my mother telling me, “Guru Dutt’s mother was my teacher in school!” This song is emblematic of the many songs I listened to on the radio while I was growing up. In the days before the internet, television programs, and biographies of actors and singers, any trivia I gleaned about songs, singers, and actors was from my mother.
Continuing on the theme of sad songs is Hemant Kumar’s “Kitna Dukh bhulaya, tumne pyaari” (How much pain have you forgotten, my dear). My first memory of this song is listening to it on my uncle Vijmaam’s gramophone player in 1975 at my grandfather’s house. This mellifluous song has a soothing quality and my cousin Vinayak who was just eighteen months old would stop crying whenever this song was played. That LP was a much-loved record and it played several times on that trip. I own a copy of that LP now and when I play it occasionally, I’m transported to the halcyon days of that summer. While many of those people that I remember from that vacation have passed on, they continue to live on in my mind, their memories rekindled by Hemant Kumar’s melodious songs.
“Jamaican Farewell” by Harry Belafonte is probably the first English song that I listened to. The earliest memories I have of listening to this song are of my brother and I sitting on the balcony of our house at night and listening to the tenant upstairs playing the song on his record player. It was the early seventies when Bangalore was a sleepy town and there would be a distinct chill in the air at night. I learned the song in school and then listened to it on Vijmaam’s record player when we visited Bombay. This song more than any other brings back warm memories of my childhood. I went on to own a cassette of this song and then a CD. But a treasured possession is the LP set of Belafonte’s 1958 concert at Carnegie Hall that I found at a store in San Antonio. I listen to the LP at night sometimes, I’m no longer in Bangalore, and my brother is not sitting next to me but as the song ends and the applause of the audience rings out, I have a smile on my face. I can never forget the thrill of listening to this song on those evenings so many years ago.
While sad songs hold happy memories, a relatively upbeat number holds some terrifying memories for me. I remember a visit to Mysore when I was in fifth grade. I had been looking forward to the trip and I remember humming Kishore Kumar’s “Jeevan ke safar me rahi, milte hai bichad jaane ko” (On the journey of life, travelers meet only to be parted) while we were on the train. The tune is peppy and no I wasn’t humming it for the lyrics but for the melody. The train came to an abrupt halt. We wondered what had happened and a couple of passengers descended to investigate. They returned to report that someone had committed suicide on the tracks, the driver had tried to stop the train but it was too late. As the train resumed its journey, I made the mistake of looking out of the window. I was greeted by a macabre sight of a decapitated body lying on the side of the tracks. It was late evening when we reached my mother’s uncle’s house in Mysore. It did not help that my mother’s cousin was a medical student and he had a skull mounted on the wall of his room. I was miserable throughout the trip and for years I could not listen to that song without that image of the corpse flashing before my eyes.
The songs that I’ve mentioned so far were songs that I would listen to fairly regularly. However, there was a set of songs that I could only listen to at a specific time of the year. These were the songs that would be played on my school’s PA system when we practiced club swinging for our sports day and then by our school band on the day itself. Dispel any notions of fights with clubs, this was a synchronized exercise routine using wooden clubs decorated in our school colors. On sports day, roughly at 3 pm, a motley crew of schoolboys from 7th grade to 10th grade streamed onto the playground jogging to the tune of “The Quartermaster’s Stores” being played by our school band. We then took position and as the band played “Daisy Bell”, “After the Ball is Over”, “Somewhere my Love” and “Over the Waves” we executed a series of complex exercises that had names such as “Swing”, “Half Swing” and “Gloria”, all the while praying that we would not lose control of the clubs. We secured the club to our thumb by looping a string around its base but accidents happened and woe betide the unfortunate soul whose club circumscribed a neat arc and landed elsewhere. I had forgotten the names of these songs and I had to consult my good friend and resident class historian KT Lazar for their names. I dug the songs up on the web to serve as the background score for a DVD of memories that I compiled for our high school class reunion. There were a few moist eyes as we watched the DVD roughly 35 years from our last sports day.
Any Saigal song reminds me of Radio Ceylon’s signature 8 am tune. For years, Radio Ceylon played a Saigal song timed to end at 8 am. On the first of the month, it was Kishore Kumar’s “Khush hai zamana aaj pehli tareek hai” (The world is happy as it is the first of the month). It didn’t mean much to me, but for the vast majority of adult listeners, it signified payday. Sometimes it is not specific songs but a genre of songs that transports be back to a different time. Kannada songs used to play on our radio at around 7 pm. That was the time, I would be working on my homework. These songs also remind me of the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in the 1970s when bands such as “Blue Boys” played these numbers at various Ganapathi pandals.
Songs from the movies “Anarkali”, “Chori Chori” and “Shree 420” take me back to the early eighties when we had just moved houses. My dad’s friend had lent us his tape recorder along with his collection of tapes. These songs evoke memories of our new house still unfinished in parts and the novelty of sharing a bedroom with my brother. Until then, we lived in a one-bedroom rental house and my brother and I slept in the living room. My dad’s face shone with pride as he showed off the house to visitors – “Doors are made of pure teak wood. Interior walls are 9 inches thick, exterior walls are 13 inches. We did not compromise on the ceiling height, it is 11 feet in height, it was designed by an architect!”
Pankaj Mullick’s songs remind me of exam study holidays. Not mine, but my brother’s. My brother played the cassette continuously while he was preparing for his postgraduate entrance exam. It probably had a calming effect on him and perhaps reflected his frame of mind as he prepared for his exams. There was the exuberant “Pran chahe naina na chahe” (The soul desires even if the eyes do not desire) to the seemingly bleak but ultimately inspirational “Kab tak nirash ki andhiyari” (Until when will prevail the darkness of despair). Exams in the Indian context are never fun times and they were least fun when I was studying for my undergrad. It was always a scramble to cram in as much subject matter as possible during the study holidays. The house I rented with my roommates in Mysore was fairly spartan and in retrospect depressing but the saving grace was my tape recorder. My roommate Guru had a cassette of Ajit Kadkade’s Abhangs (Marathi devotional songs) and we would listen to it late at night. Listening to any of Ajit Kadkade’s songs reminds me of those days, perhaps a reason that I don’t listen to them much anymore!
Sometimes an incongruous pairing of songs holds the key to the same memories. In my case, it is Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and C Ramachandra’s “Jab dil ko sataye gam.” (When sorrow torments the heart) Both were originally recorded in the 1950s and I listened to them on my Walkman as I trudged home late at night from the University at Clemson in my first semester. A couple of days before leaving for the US, I had stopped by a cassette store in Kings Circle in Bombay and bought a few cassettes. One of them was a compilation of C Ramachandra’s Hits and the other was one of those “Oldies but Goldies” type of mixed tapes. I took comfort in the company of familiar songs while finding my way around in a new country. Any C Ramachandra song still reminds me of my first semester here in the US, the sense of excitement and trepidation that marked the first few months. And of course, the warm lasting friendships that I forged there are still going strong today.
Kishore Kumar’s “Aise na mujhe tum dekho” (Don’t look at me this way) is a fantastic song and it holds wonderful memories for me. It always takes me back to a specific period of my life, in fact as I write this I can visualize the specific day. A bright sunny South Florida evening as I was driving on A1A flanked by condos typifying the art deco style that reminded me of portions of South Bombay. I was newly married then, it was Christmas and that evening is still vivid in my mind. It was my wife’s first week in the country and I was showing her the beautiful side of Florida. Fortunately for me, I had an excellent compilation of songs playing that day, songs that met with my wife’s approval. Songs of romance and not of heartbreak. Songs that we listened to in our van until our son decreed that the van be a music and radio-free zone.
“Madhubhan mein Kanhaiya” from Lagaan takes me back to that night when my daughter, not yet a year old, woke up restless and crying. My wife and I tried to soothe and comfort her but to no avail. I’m not sure what prompted me to pop in the Lagaan cassette but as the song played, she fell fast asleep in my arms! As she grew up, I was introduced to a new collection of songs and rhymes – the Wiggles and songs from Disney movies. Those hold some fantastic memories for me and my wife. There is something magical about being new parents with your firstborn. There are no manuals and each day is a discovery.
With our son, Nikhil, it was all nursery rhymes. I can’t hear Old Mac Donald without remembering the day in Costco when I pushed the cart reciting “Old Mac Donald” incessantly under my breath. I don’t know if anyone heard me but when I realized what I was doing I looked around to see if people were giving me strange looks. You see, Nikhil needed to hear these nursery rhymes all the time. So when we took him anywhere, we would continuously recite nursery rhymes under our breath. I was so conditioned to doing this that on that particular day, I was going through my repertoire of nursery rhymes even though I was there by myself. We eventually went around with a portable MP3 player. Needless to say, those were very difficult times when we were dealing with Nikhil’s diagnosis and sadly, these songs evoke very different emotions and memories in my mind. However, one song that never fails to bring a smile to my face is the rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” That song has to be played each night before Nikhil goes to sleep, and the excitement he feels each time he listens to it is a joy to behold.
One of the joys of music is that there is so much to discover. While I’m fairly comfortable in my zone listening to music that I’m familiar with, I was introduced to new genres as I taught my daughter how to drive. For the first time, I was listening to artists like Drake, Bebe Rexha, and “The Chainsmokers”. In all honesty, that phase lasted just until she learned how to drive but when I hear some of these songs now, they remind me of those sometimes terrifying and exhilarating days as my daughter learned to drive and I learned to relax while she was at the wheel.
So there you have it, vignettes of my life, strung together as a train of memories, festooned gaily with songs. Not all my memories are of songs of course. There is a treasure trove of memories that is seldom remembered today as the auditory triggers are no longer there. The cries of hawkers peddling their wares in the street. The jingle of the ice cream vendor’s bell as he pushed his hand cart announcing his presence to young children. The bus conductor’s curt whistle as he signaled the driver to start the journey. The joyous sounds on the school playground. The unforgettable chimes of the school bell as it announced the end of exams and the start of summer vacations. The chirping of birds as they roosted in the trees at dusk. Suprabhatam playing from temple speakers. The lilting sounds of the classical flute played by the Senior advocate who resided opposite our house. The characteristic sound of my dad’s scooter’s horn as he turned around the corner, was the signal for me to rush out and open the gate. The rumble of the grinding stone from the kitchen where my mother was hard at work conjuring up her magic. Ah yes, the fantastic aromas from the kitchen, what memories they evoke. That is a topic for another day!
The featured picture is that of Nikhil playing “Ten Little Indians” with his sister’s help. Years from now, this tune is bound to evoke fond memories in both of them.