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.

Maaran Aran­manai,

Maadam Irandilum.

Deepam Erivad­henna.

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

Ezha Veeen­dum…

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?”

Too expen­sive.”

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

Ezha Veeen­dum…

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.