He’s there every week at the same spot in the airport; dark glasses; some quarters and the odd dollar on a blanket in front, strumming a guitar and singing and sipping a coffee. Starbucks. Starbucks? Except today, he was white and singing louder than usual. Happens.
I ignored him with studied indifference and walked on toward the trains to the city, head buzzing from the bad coffee and last night’s bagel and the non-dairy creamer and the sitting in a metal tube convincing myself that the seatmate had allergies, not swine flu. That the odds of dropping down were low, Air France notwithstanding. Moving walkway is ending, and white guy was singing.
Except he was singing that song. My song.
Nothing a nap can’t fix, but right now I am inclined to conclude that my past is singing to me. Eww.
For family with two earners – government jobs, for fuck’s sake – ours lived like it had no money. The house was rented and the kitchen leaked whenever it rained. This was the same kitchen that had those ugly smoke-stains that formed when Gracy and her parents lived here and cooked fish. I could still smell the fish on some days, just as I could see Gracy and her long legs. Sigh. Pity she had married that loser and left town. The red-oxide floors had large missing chunks that Ayyamma had patched with a homemade cement concoction, and when I was bored I would test my strength against that of the cement. I always won. Later my parents would tell me they spent all that money educating me, and you can see where that led to. A notable feature of our penurious existence below the poverty line was a lack of access to any electronic gadget that could even remotely be called cool.
A few houses from us lived Mr. Mohanlal (clearly, my quiver of fake Mallu names runs very deep), father of Gopi, bowler of lethal tennis ball bouncers and Suresh, whiny bastard who could never be leg before. Their house had mosaic floors and they rented a part of it to the Cherians. Shared bathroom with priority for the landlord; cooking fish allowed. Suresh always wanted to pee when Jommy wanted to pee, letting everyone know just who the lord of the flies was. Ugh.
He never wore a shirt, this guy Cherian and he was a Malayalee like his landlord. Money-minded people, these Malayalees. Jommy was his kid, and his wife, man. Some people have all the luck in the world, don’t they? All I wanted to do when I grow up was be shirtless and do hot girls like her. Why was my chest hair not growing like Ganesh’s was? And what exactly is doing? Points to Ponder, like our copy of the Reader’s Digest said. Yeah, we subscribed to it, just like all the other poor people in India do.
The lucky dog Cherian had a brother in Dubai — that expanse of territory that included every country in the Middle East — a brother who brought him the fanciest electronic gadgets every two years so he could sell them to the neighbors. Kumar amma said it was a distant cousin, but who the fuck cared if it wasn’t a blood brother, right? Except me, of course, because I badly wanted that bootlegged tape recorder on sale that February.
I was tired, man. Tired of listening to snippets of music on All India Radio, Coimbatore Vanoli Nelayam. Ads for Sri Rajeshwari Hall and Shobha, Shobha Corner, Coimbatore and Woodwards Gripe water and Mangaldeep, bated breath, then the song.
Kalangalil Aval Vasantham
Fucking MSV. Even worse, AM Raja, singing like a girl. Girl like the spring, also like a painting, also like winter. Who made this shit up? And make up your mind, dude. Spring is not December. Coming to think of it, there is no Spring in the great state of Tamil Nadu because Mr. Jayaraman said through his spittle that we were too close to the equator for any meaningful change in seasons.
Oh, she made a poet out of me!
Go away already! I wanted Ilamai Idho Idho and I get fed this? Worse still, Ilamai Idho Idho starts up and my dad starts up the Lamby and it is time to go to school. Radio was just not going to cut it for me.
Rajesh and Murthy, Government school students, had a car stereo in their house, hooked up to Clarion speakers. It would bawl the Kanda Shasti Kavasam in the morning and I was, like, so devoted that I told the Lord God that I would play it every morning along with Palli kattu Sabarimalaikku and other such drivel if he got me a tape recorder.
One such night, as I was turning my Geography textbook (“Mirror of the World”) upside down to see if how it would feel to magically turn the 14 pages I had read so far into only 14 more pages left to read, I heard the song for the first time.
Idhaya Mazhayil, Nanaindha Kiligal
Udhayam Varayil Kulithu Kulithu
Such haunting music. And deep lyrics, about parrots that got wet in the heart’s rain and wishing them many such happy showers till dawn. Some unknown guy with the most divine voice in the world singing the best song that could ever be composed. By the time it ended, I had tears in my eyes.
I got up, angrily looked at the Mirror of the World, walked to my dad and demanded that he buy the red Sharp tape recorder with APSS and two tape decks right away from Cherian, or else… Cowed by the implicit menace in my baritone, my dad agreed right away. (Okay, the truth was that he had already put a down payment on it, but the truth never gets bloggers anywhere, does it?). Naturally, Cherian retained the two empty “Dubai” cassettes that came with the gadget when we took possession of it a month later. After that, we went out to Big Bazaar Street and bought some cassettes: Kanda Sashti Kavasam, Suprabhatham, some hideous song that always made me want to run for cover that began Bavayami Raghuram.
My promises to the Lord notwithstanding, I was bored after three days of listening to old siblings from various parts of India (Bombay Sisters, Trichy Sisters) loudly working out a quid pro quo arrangement with various deities. Clearly, they believed that volume trumped quality.
“Dad, we need some good audiotapes.”
“See, that’s why I said no tape recorder.”
Why that was a relevant answer, I don’t know to this day.
“Please, let’s buy at least a few.”
“Cinema songs spoil kids.”
Even more irrelevant response. Not like I asked him for a list of things that spoil kids. I should try this trick at school one day. “Q: Where is the equator? A: Planes fly on aviation fuel.” Focus, man, focus.
“Why not just a few?”
Aha, some relevance.
“Let’s stop Reader’s Digest and use that money for this. I don’t understand the jokes anyway.”
Uh oh. He wasn’t amused at all. He invited my mom into the conversation.
“He wants us to give up the educational value of Reader’s Digest for cinema songs.”
“Did you see my handbag?”
Runs through the family, as you can see.
“Why can’t he be like his brother? He never asked me for such things”
“Why don’t you borrow something from Drawing Master’s house for now?”
It is a miracle I grew up sane.
The borrowing suggestion would have made sense except that the lender was totally messed up. This family next door to us, an art teacher, his wife and daughters – they were the nicest people you could find. The wife was a source of great food and he was a great source to turn to for help with anatomically correct renderings of the human heart for my biology classes. But audiotapes?
His collection consisted almost entirely of Sivaji Kadhai Vasanam tapes, audiotapes that consisted of all the dialogs from popular Tamil films starring “Sivaji” Ganesan, who could win any shouting match with any pair of siblings from anywhere. So this guy would turn the tape recorder on and actually spend his evenings listening to Sivaji secretly wooing Padmini at volumes rapidly approaching airplane engine levels. The only time these things are useful is when you feel like watching Mirudanga Chakravarthy: they can reduce the trauma of watching them famous Sivaji jowls shake the spit out of themselves as he thwacks the poor mirudangam with murderous rage.
So yeah, this is the stuff I was to borrow. I wish I at least had some blank tapes, but I had burnt my bridges totally with that Reader’s Digest suggestion, so I was doomed.
Or was I?
I was beginning to entertain a dangerous proposition in my mind…
Later that week, I walked to the neighbor’s house and asked to borrow some tapes. I picked out a few especially abominable ones and was told to “keep them safe for a reasonable period of time.” Out of this, I picked out the most abominable one for rescue. My plan was simple: I would tape over random portions of this audiotape with songs I liked from the radio every night. I would then proceed to listen to the songs until I was content, and then return the whole batch to them. 50% of 1 tape out of 10: my odds were great.
After some strategically applied adhesive tape to circumvent write protection, the audio cassette was ready for its redemption. Buh Bye Thooku Thooki.(What the fuck does that mean anyway?) Hello Ilayaraja.
The next few weeks were sheer bliss. The best songs from the whole wide world, right here on my fingertips. Thalaiyai kuniyum Thamaraiye and Putham Puthu Kaalai and Vaanile Thenila Aaduthe at my beck and call, waiting to entertain me. Could anyone be luckier?
Then it was the turn of choice portions of the hideous Thanga Malai Ragasiyam (Secrets of the Gold Mountains, which are not at all what you think they are) to give way to the vastly superior Madai Thirandhu and Nila Kayuthu Neram Nalla Neram. And finally, I caught Idhaya Mazhayil again, making my life almost totally complete. The experiment ended at two rounds when my dad relented and allowed me to buy 3 cassettes a month.
A year or so later, we are invited to spend the evening lounging around with the drawing master’s family and their relatives who are visiting from a hamlet called Nanjundapuram. He plays out a few minutes from several of his tapes as a preview for the relatives, who finally choose to listen to the secrets of the Gold Mountains, perhaps because they were fooled by the title like I was the first time. A few minutes into the movie, during an obviously important moment judging by the number and extent of mouths held open, my song started again:
Idhaya Mazhayil, Nanaindha Kiligal
Udhayam Varayil Kulithu Kulithu
Everyone seemed quite disappointed and a little puzzled. “How could this be?” the drawing master wondered aloud. “I must have accidentally taped over it,” he concluded, before adding that “it was such a great flim.”
He started looking for another tape when the song ended. Then it started again, except in my voice. In retrospect, I suppose practicing my singing on tape was not such a smart move, but man, did I rock that song or what.
PS: If this post reads a little dated, it is because it is. I started it off almost a year ago, and never did gather the energy to finish it till today, perhaps fittingly on an airplane to Chicago. Also, my apologies for the rather long hiatus from the blog. I suppose I could blame being busy for not writing, but the truth is I don’t know why I didn’t write. I am pleased to say that the time off was rather productive – my wife and I had ourselves a baby girl in 2008, and she’s brought us more joy than most Illayaraja songs.