Monday, November 28, 2011

Music of the Heart

Evenings at the NCPA are turning into a most delightfully regular weekend fixture for me. Tonight was very special indeed. On a whim, I'd picked up tickets for a performance by the Bombay Chamber Orchestra at the plush, truly beautiful Tata Theatre a couple of weeks ago, hoping that when I finally heard it, I'd actually like chamber music. And voila! It turns out I needn't have worried after all. It turned out to be so spectacular that time flew by and my mind is swimming with happy thoughts.

It was also kind of a payback treat for KKD (mgeek, if you will) who invited me to watch a fabulous collection of short plays with him at the NCPA some months ago. I asked him if he was alright with chamber music and he said he actually preferred it over symphonies because it was more concentrated and more vivid.

That settles it, I thought. I wondered if I should look this stuff up on youtube to put in, you know, a sort of preparation. A practiced ear is better for appreciating classical music, so my music teacher told me way back in school. But then, I thought, what the hell? There's something to be said for spontaneity. Besides, nobody ever acquired a practiced ear over a fortnight, anyway.

Now, I'm not really trained in music unless one counts eight months of harmonium and three years of tabla lessons in my early teens. Much to the dismay of my music-loving parents, I am nowhere near disciplined enough and I think I tend to get easily distracted from the task at hand. So that was the end of that.

My brother is really the musical one. He plays the tabla and the guitar and aajoba's old harmonica with equal felicity. He is comfortable with classical and popular music and not stuck up about either.

I am mostly a sort of occasional listener. I like listening to music and it doesn't matter if it's a smattering of jazz, or the sharp, exotic wailing of the zither or even, the foot-tapping, hand-clapping of East-European gypsy songs.

I actually prefer it eclectic, which is further testimony to my easily-distracted mind and short attention-span. I cant listen to one thing for too long. And then, certain songs go with certain moods. It's Schumann's piano concertos on sleepless nights alternated with Shubha Mudgal's soulful songs with the tiniest amounts of old Hindi film songs thrown in. For early morning train rides, it's Red Hot Chilli Peppers or U2. And for endless evening bus-stop waits, it's Coldplay or in desperate times, Enya even. Music seems rather deliberately tailored to fit moods.

Which is why I was surprised to find that today, listening to relatively short concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, and finally and most magnificently Dvorak I realised that sometimes, good music creates its own mood.

You cant but smile when a flute pipes up in a mischievous little love song or listen in wonder when the cello purrs the lower notes in the silences before a soaring symphony.

I have often heard people say music is a kind of universal language. This was illustrated rather literally when the conductor was a young Japanese woman and the musicians were a mixed group aged between 15 and 75, not to mention from atleast three different countries. The listeners in the audience were equally disparate. I love people-watching at the NCPA. It's a more polished, more genteel, more eccentric crowd than you'd find at a multiplex. It's also older and more worldly somehow.

There was something palpably electric in the air I thought towards the end, when the applause just wouldn't die down. People seemed proud of the home-grown musicians, especially cheering on an old violinist who looked like she'd been one of the founder members when the Bombay Chamber Orchestra was formed way back in 1962.

The two soloists, the flautist and the cellist had to come out and bow atleast three times before everyone stopped clapping.

It was almost magical to experience how good music evokes in people such strong emotions, and such unique thoughts. But I wondered if I could go one better on my experience. What if I could borrow the ears off of a trained musician and hear, really hear the nuances and the technique that I clearly miss?

But then perhaps, it doesn't matter. It is enough to derive pleasure from it without knowing all the nitty-gritties. After all, it seems tied in with our basic biological design. KKD mentioned a rather interesting fact about the scales of music. That no matter, how we divided sound frequencies, the octave relationship remained constant, a perfect interval, a "basic miracle of music" as wikipedia calls it. So in that sense music really is universal. Well, turns out we wont be needing that famous Babel fish after all!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

One Day

"That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it and think how different its course would have been. Pause, you who read this, and think for a long moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or of flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on that one memorable day."

- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hello, I Love You

Oh, what joy it is to hear a beloved voice over the telephone after an unbearably long time! It's incredible that those familiar cadences can bring such a tidal wave of warmth sweeping over one's heart. It's like listening to a particularly intense piece of music. Without realising it, I had closed my eyes and was concentrating on every pause and every syllable as if something of significance would be lost if I did not imprint that voice on my mind. And if I did not manage to hold on to it in my memory, it would be lost to me forever. I feel so silly when I realize I am attaching this much significance to a couple of sentences that go, "Hello! How are you? Can you believe it's snowing here?"

And I happily lose myself to a voice that sounds like auditory perfection, mesmerised really. But then I relax. I smile. I can almost hear the smile in his voice and I marvel at the magic of telecommunications. I remember when I was a little kid and Dad used to attend conferences in Delhi or Calcutta and we would have to place what we called a 'trunk call' to get through to him and then it wasn't much of a real conversation but consisted mostly of yelling out niceties and assurances of safe arrival as if to someone at the other end of a small-sized football field. That scene from a Harry Potter book where Ron shouts into the phone to make sure his voice carries to Harry through the phonelines has me in splits every time I read it.

But now, I cant help exulting over how lucky I am to exist in this 'golden age' to put it in particularly purple prose. I wondered if my happiness was out-of-proportion with a mere phone call. But then, I realised I didnt care how daft my thoughts sounded, even to me. It was the most wonderful happy floaty feeling to hear G.'s crisp and clear intonations in his dear deep voice over the phone after what must have been months since we last talked. I was so overwhelmed that for the first several seconds I couldn't say anything of any real import. I think I just laughed a great deal because I felt positively giddy with joy.

It is amazing how vividly our minds can connect a unique phrase or a known peculiarity of wording with the exact expression a friend's face will bear at the time of uttering it.

M.'s text messages are much the same. I know the exact way she would scrunch her nose and screw up her eyes with that characteristic expression of puzzlement when her text contains the words "I simply dont remember where I kept my microbio journal."

And I know the exact look of cheerful delight that G.'s face wears when I hear him say, "It is wonderful to hear your laugh again." I wonder if it works both ways, this lovely little conjurer's trick our minds pull.

I once watched a rather fascinating anime film called Voices of a Distant Star that chronicled a literally very long-distance relationship between two close friends who communicate across interstellar space through their phones writing each other emails and as they move further apart from each other, the time-lag it takes for their messages to reach the other increases relentlessly, and towards the end they have 'conversations' poignantly spanning years.

And thus, there is great comfort to be derived from knowing that while those you love are distant in space, they are wonderfully immediate in time and that atleast while their touch cannot be felt, their warmth can.

I remember the same feeling flooding me years ago, when Dada made his first international phone call home and we were all so stupidly excited to learn a basic geographical fact, that while it was early evening here, it was dawn there and we spent the precious first few minutes enthusiastically acknowledging it, even forgetting to ask him about his first international airplane flight.

Thus, the vastness of our planet becomes suddenly obvious to one and the idea of a loved one sent out somewhere in that incomprehensible vastness is unnerving, even frightening. I must say, I am rather glad they invented satellites and email while I'm still alive. Carrier pigeons and smoke signals would probably just not cut it. :)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Mystery of the Cupboard

For some weeks past, on an unofficial study leave from internship, preparing for the upcoming unholy trinity of post-graduate entrance exams, life's been trudging along at a rather deliberate pace and things have been as uneventful as they come. Which is a relief after what must have been the most frenetic eight months of my life so far.

So, the only thing of note apart from the relief of being able to tick one exam off that list yesterday was Mum realizing I was finally at home for a whole day and not hiding behind a pile of ponderous tomes.

"So will you clean out your cupboard today if you're not doing anything else?" Mum asked rather drily while I furiously tried to think of something, anything that required doing elsewhere. Somehow I never can rustle up enough enthusiasm to clean my room, particularly my old cupboard that has some stuff that is positively ancient, although Mum regularly reminds me how it's overstuffed and creaking under the weight of unnecessary things that were either too old or consisted of something I could have always done without but had simply stored up on a whim.

Now while mindless hoarding came way more naturally to me than performing a triage, deciding what to throw away or pass on or use up seemed an extremely unappealing task to get down to on a lovely Bombay quasi-winter morning when there was no studying to be done right off.

However, as was not-so-subtly reinforced over breakfast was that it had to be done some time and if I didn't get around to it myself, she would. Well, that last bit worked like a charm every time! Mum is a little too well-versed with my discomfort at letting other people arrange my things. And what looks like randomly thrown-together junk to most looks to me like a just-right pattern amidst the chaos.

Well, there was no avoiding it. I threw open the cupboard doors and quickly caught in my arms the small mound of old T-shirts that fell out. I held onto them and their comfy reassuring old-tee softness as I stood there staring at the six shelves for what must have been more than a couple of minutes.

The small mound was then transferred to the bed while I started with the top-shelf and decided to progress downward in reverse-chronological order of accumulated stuff.

It was amazing that I found not mere knick-knacks and odd objects but memories and remarkably, a couple of forgotten hobbies.

There was the cowboy hat from Munnar that immediately brought to mind the sunny day near the dam and the steaming Maggie, extra-extra spicy washed down with sweet milk and a home-made chocolate bar. A cowboy hat that was bought for a laugh because it was cheap and kitschy but now was too dear to abandon.

Then there was a seashell studded purse acquired on the college group-trip to Goa, much-admired because it was so pretty but never used because it was too fragile to withstand the crush of Bombay buses.

And a green woolly jacket from Manali obviously impossible to wear in the middle of these laughably non-wintry winters.

A bunch of photographs clicked on a shikara on Dal lake, of Mishti and I dressed up in Kashmiri-garb for tourists that stayed on with velcro straps. Those kept me entertained for a few minutes.

An old bathing suit from junior college days that was a particularly horrid shade of purple so was never worn to the beach or the swimming pool.

Aajoba's harmonica from the seventies, rusty but tuneful, he'd play "Zindagi ek safar hai suhana" on it. Wonder how it ended up with my stuff.

Dada's old Archies comics, stowed away in my cupboard when he began to think they were too corny/girly for his.

A strangely furry pink doggy-shaped duffel bag filled with lego blocks and superhero magnets from a bygone era.

And a green candle from Piyu's candle-making experiment days gifted to me with the boast that it was scented with green apple fragrance but it rather inexplicably smelt of vanilla. It doesn't smell of anything but old-newspaper smell now after being wrapped up for seven years.

There were greeting-cards sent on Diwali and Christmas from dad's old students in Belgium and UK. I still can't figure how they managed to source Diwali cards in Belgium!

Stolen blue tokens from the Metro stuck to the inside of the drawer. A rosary from Mount Mary's purchased for the pretty blue beads and the dramatic silver crucifix.

A brown wooden ring bought for five bucks in the second class of a Borivali local because it made me feel medieval and ethnic at the same time.

Cheap red rimmed goggles bought from Bandstand or Colaba Causeway and broken because Pushky sat on them one afternoon.

Things got more interesting the further back in time they went. Obviously, they were more important because they were kept the longest.

An old embroidered handkerchief with Dad's initials stitched on, remarkably, by me, inspired by a class in school. That I had once attempted to learn to embroider felt rather incredible now.

Then there were a couple of battered old books. An old diary with Hindi film song lyrics like "Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam. Tum rahe na tum, hum rahe na hum." That made me smile because it was a diary from 2000, the year I saw Kaagaz Ke Phool at our school film club screening and had to hold Kallu's hand because she was upset over her Geography marks.

A book titled "Learn German in 30 days: For Beginners" that had helpful devanagari renditions of words like 'ahbent' and 'allgemeine'. Similarly, a pocket book titled "Oscar Wilde's Aphorisms". Those went into the keep-for-posterity pile.

A tin-can half-filled with old ten paise and twenty paise coins that Dada had slyly passed on to me before I realized they were obsolete currency.

A scrapbook dedicated to childhood heroes, mine and Dada's with a delicate old newspaper cutting of Zinedine Zidane after a world cup win in 1998. Back when he had a head of rather lustrous hair.

A box of glass beads that Aaji would make string necklaces out of, for my work experience class.

A broken kaleidoscope from a fair at Mahabaleshwar. And a colorful mechanical pencil from primary school days.

All this lay inside a box beside the bed after lunch and Mum said it was junk that would have to go. And I realized letting it all go would be tougher than earlier suspected. I reasoned with myself that I was attached to silly ephemeral things but then you know, these things, these inanimate objects that lie around your house and build up in your room, in your loft, in your cupboard because they are seldom used or because they are old sentimental things that hoarders like me cannot bring themselves to discard.

But there's more to them, I think. Unknown to us, they become receptacles of the past. They're not necessarily family heirlooms or showy keepsakes or even minor mementos but they store up inside them tiny little pieces of our selves. Our selves, the way we were when we first kept them, stored them away with a little thought or thoughtlessly.

They keep pieces of who we used to be, who we hoped we would become, who we were almost sure we had become. And of course, who we really are.

There's a wonderful coda at the end of Never Let Me Go where Kathy imagines a place where all lost things from her childhood washed up. I gave up the box filled with the stuff from the cupboard and I had a mental image of being at a Viking funeral. It felt like I was sending it all away to the same place that my old storybooks and toys and favourite audio cassettes wound up. So that they never really went away from the world. And nothing could ever really be lost. Even if it is only old stuff from a cupboard that needed cleaning out.