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I can eat Indian food without feeling nostalgic. I can wear Indian clothes without missing India. But when I hear Indian music, I am invariably transported to my native country. An old melody from the Hindi film Taxi Driver or a classic Marathi bhajan triggers a deep response, as if the tune has turned a switch on in my brain and memories have come flooding in, so powerful they make me cry. This is perhaps why I rarely listen to Indian music.
But the other day, I tuned in to old Mukesh songs on YouTube. For the next few days, I was transported to the days of my youth; I could see my father and mother as they once were, young and alive. I could see my brother riding his tricycle around and around our house; I could recreate that long-lost world on the crest of a few familiar notes. I was no longer rooted in geography. All the years I had lived in America seemed to melt away and all that remained was our house in Shankar Nagar and me listening to Vividh Bharati (a service of All India Radio).
But before Vividh Bharati, there was the Binaca Geetmala, hosted by Ameen Sayani from Radio Ceylon. Needless to say, this was long before Ceylon became Sri Lanka. I am not sure if the CIBA company still makes Binaca toothpaste or not, but the entire program was sponsored by this foreign toothpaste which no one I knew ever used. Every Wednesday night, at 8 o’clock, all Nagpur was glued to the radio, waiting breathlessly to learn which song had made it to the top of the 16-song list that week. Then, in December, when the Top 16 list for the entire year was broadcast, rickshawalas closed down their stands, children stayed up late, and grandmothers put away their pots and pans and dimmed the lights in the kitchen to peek into the front room and discover the final verdict.
For my parents, the best movie would always be Baiju Bawara, which they had seen in Mumbai. But for me, the height of Binaca Geetmala came in the 1960s when the song “Ehsan Tera Hoga Mujh Par” made it to the top of the annual list. My parents, my brother and I, and a couple of school friends had gone to see the film Junglee together that year. And seeing Saira Banu frolicking down snow-covered mountains, I had been mesmerized. That song and that movie would stay with me forever. My mother would soon have a mental breakdown, the childhoods of my brother and I would come to an abrupt end, and we would never ever go to a movie together as a family.
When I listen to the songs from a nondescript movie like Hariyali aur Rasta, which I have never seen, what I remember is a certain ambience in our house during that specific period. My father had been on a long leave then, I remember, and had taken to listening to Vividh Bharati in the afternoons. When I hear the song “Lag Jaa Gale Ke Phir Ye Haseen Raat Ho Na Ho” from the movie Woh Kaun Thi I remember my college friend Vinaya and the funny way she used to sing that song in such a low-pitched voice that we girls used to go into hysterics, laughing. And almost all the songs remind me of my childhood friend Puppy and the melodious voice in which she used to sing along to the radio as she ironed her clothes, or folded laundry, or tweezed her eyebrows.
There are other musical memories layered upon the earlier ones. Me singing the song “Chaudhvin ka Chand” to my husband Derek under a nearly full moon on a deserted riverside in the Coromandel peninsula of New Zealand where we were camping, for example. But the early memories dominate. Us girls singing the song “Suhana Safar” as we rode a rickety bus that seemed to plunge down a crevice at every turn on the way to Kashmir on a college trip. Me singing the song “Ganga Aye Kahan Se Ganga Jaye Kahan Re” sitting on the terrace of the ladies’ hostel in IIT Kanpur watching the sun set over the Gangetic plane, and being so overcome with the beauty of the exotic landscape that it threw me into the throes of the most debilitating homesickness ever. My brother Prakash beating the drums on a steel table and playing the mouth organ on a piece of paper over a comb while I sang the song “Kashmir Ki Kali Hun Mai,” pretending I was Saira Banu.
The golden age of Indian film songs started with Lata Mangeshkar’s evergreen melody “Aayega Aanewala” in 1949, peaked with the movie Sangam in 1964, and petered out with Kabhi Kabhi in 1976, I think. The music, created by great stalwarts like Naushad, Bimal Roy, and Salil Chaudhary, derived from a deep place in the Indian psyche, combining classical and folk elements of the nation’s melodic traditions, and melding them with some of the greatest Hindi and Urdu shairi (poetry) ever written.
My earliest musical memories of course are not of Hindi songs but of Marathi bhajans and bhavgeets, emotional songs. I remember going to the Balak Mandir, which literally translated means Children’s Temple, but which was actually the word used interchangeably for nursery school in Nagpur, and dancing to the song “Nachre Mora Ambyachya Vanata” (dance, peacock, dance in the mango grove). I remember waking up nearly every morning to the lyrics of the Bhupali (morning song) “Ghanashyama Sundara Shreedhara” broadcast from the Nagpur station of the All India Radio. In later years, I remember hearing the voice of my own friend Puppy, who had become a radio announcer, waking me up with the best selections of spiritual songs ever made.
Each lyric, each melody, each chord and lilt and tune brings with it a thousand memories so moving I can barely breathe. I get stuck in the past then, and this moment, this year, even this decade or century seem to mean little. New-agers tell us to live in the present, but how can one do that when our memories are so rich and golden? The melodies make me want to retrieve the past. But it is gone forever. The thought throws me into such a deep melancholy that I think YouTube should post a warning on its site. It should say, “Listening to your favorite songs can be dangerous to your mental health.”
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com