She knew she was expecting a lot, but Sunita couldn’t wait to feed the CD to her player and jump back mentally and emotionally 40 years to when she was five, when her dad was still alive and the most pain she remembered was physical, like falling off her ramshackle bike and skinning her knees on the sun-baked road that sliced through the Yuba City orchards surrounding her house.
When she was four, her first brother was born, and Sunita learned to hook up those six hard black discs with His Master’s Voice dog labels pasted on the middle to her parents’ console record player. Then she’d plunk herself into their massive oak Shaker rocking chair and sing with those familiar, high female voices.
Her first generation Indian parents didn’t speak Punjabi to her or her brother—just a few Indian words peppered their English to them. Her dad vowed his kids would never feel the sting of a ruler across their hands for speaking a native tongue like he did. So Sunita didn’t know what the songs’ words meant, but she could sing the lyrics and she did with all her heart as she as propelled that rocking chair to and fro in rhythm. And when the six discs stopped spinning, she jumped out of the chair and flipped the records over for a double hit.
The whole wall stone fireplace in the living room morphed into a movie screen in Sunita’s mind, dancing with the visions of the Indian movies she had seen with her Nani, alive with all those beautiful Indian women and their huge soorma-lined, almond eyes beckoning or just mischievously twinkling. She was spellbound by it all, the jewelry, the bindis, the women dancing in shimmering saris and spider web fine silks. The handsome men were secondary.
Her mom and dad, busy with their new baby, a firstborn son born to a firstborn son, didn’t care how often she listened to those records or how loud it was. It was a good thing, because Sunita was hooked.
During the 50s and early 60s, her Canadian Nani imported Indian movies and traveled the West Coast stopping in the little communities, to be eagerly welcomed by homesick immigrants-Indians of all castes and Pakistanis who craved a little piece of home.
When she stopped in Yuba City, Nani stayed at a hotel on the town’s main drag instead of staying with her daughter, Sunita’s mom. Her Brahmin Nani hated Sunita’s Jat dad for stealing her already betrothed mother and marrying her out of caste. Here in America, the home of the free, thousands of miles away from India and the supposedly outlawed caste system, Nani refused to set foot in her eldest daughter’s home, the one who had shamed her. So Sunita stayed with Nani in the modest little hotel.
Nani brought bright, plastic bangles in all colors of the rainbow, strung on a black coat hanger. Sunita loved it when Nani would grab her skinny little wrists in her strong, hard-working hands, scrutinize them and then slide the thin jewel toned little circles over her hands to fill her forearm halfway to her bony elbows with pink, red, blue and yellow bangles. Sunita wore them proudly until they disintegrated on her arms. But then Nani would make her rounds again with another movie and she would refill Sunita’s wrist and arms. That was when Nani still loved her, before Sunita started growing tall and looking more like her father.
Sunita snuggled with her Nani in the hotel bed and then her mom would pick them up the next day for the short trek over the bridge into Marysville to the Tower Theater, a grand movie palace that showed its age in the early 60s, with worn ornate carpets and faded paint. Because she was Nani’s granddaughter, Sunita held court upstairs in the projection room, where she sat in a throne of a chair—big, plush and velvet—next to the projector that spun the 16-inch film reels.
In her own private little theater, Sunita eagerly awaited to be enveloped in the world of Indian film, and she sucked it up easier then the chocolate milkshakes she loved so much. The high, campy drama and dancing, the sets, the costumes, all of it. She laughed and sobbed with the characters.
Sunita could still remember the movie about a prince in love with a slave girl, but the king, enraged that his son would want someone so below his caste and royal place in life, separated the lovers and tried to have his son’s head chopped off. The prince was much beloved throughout the kingdom, even the axeman couldn’t drop the fatal blow.
Realizing his folly, the king hugged his son, who wasted no time jumping on his white stallion to find his love. But the king’s men had taken her deep into the forest and were building a brick tomb around the servant, who sang, tears streaming down her lovely, sad face as she awaited death for loving someone out of her reach. Sunita recognized a few Hindi/Punjabi words to know the beautiful servant girl was singing about “going,” and the frames flashed faster and faster between the prince charging his stallion though the woods and the brick wall growing higher and higher.
Of course he was too late and after he ripped bricks away, he held his love’s lifeless body in his arms, crying and singing in grief. Those movies were all so much bigger then life and Sunita loved them.
Maybe her vision of life and romance was colored by those black and white flicks and the couples who sang of love and longing. The records became extensions of the movies’ emotional lure. Sunita didn’t care that she didn’t understand the words spilling out of the grooves on those half dozen movie song records. She felt the emotion, knew the melodies, how to sing them and that was all she needed to disappear into that world.
But then a second brother came, and when he could reach inside the stereo console a couple of times, the record player was broken. The years spun by and it wasn’t until she moved out at 17 and bought a used stereo that she remembered those discs. Her own record player could play 78s!
Whenever she could steal some time from trying to support herself, Sunita carefully unwrapped the purple velvet now robing those records since the protective paper sleeves had long disappeared, for a brief foray into her secret childhood world.
Later, when she graduated to a new stereo with mombo speakers and a sleek black receiver, the record player only turned 45 and 33 rpm records; it didn’t seem to matter. But the years zipped by—10, 15, and now 22. Her father died when Sunita was still a teen. Nani and a lot of other relatives, young and old, followed. Sunita felt the heartache of love and the other trials of life. Occasionally she dug out that purple velvet package and wistfully gazed at those flat black discs.
When she took a foreign film class in college and turned in a paper on the movies of Satajit Ray, Sunita offered those records for her professor to listen to as he read her discussion on the great Indian director’s movies, and the ones she saw with her Nani. Sunita aced her paper, but her teacher never gave it back and she had to pester him until he gave finally returned the records.
Fast forward to last summer, when her husband and their two children worked outside laying a tile patio, listening to a radio blues program that played great tunes from the 30s and 40s. The d.j. lauded Record Revive, a business that took old records and burned them on a CD, sans all the hisses, pops, crackles and skips. It took months and many phone calls but finally at the beginning of the year Sunita connected with the record wizard.
One night after she had left the children with her mother, expecting to have a romantic night with her husband, she came home to an empty house—and a red light on the telephone message machine flashing like a beacon in the darkness.
“Hi, I’m calling for Sunita. Your disc is ready,” the voice on the recorder announced.
Sunita screamed happily, quickly changed and called to see about a pick-up time. Tonight was fine, the wizard confirmed! She couldn’t remember being this excited about anything lately, and now she stood outside his door in the stormy winter night.
Finally, the door opened and there they were on his desk. The six records. She had been nervous about handing them over to a stranger. Plus with all the anti-Asian sentiment swirling around the country, she had paranoid visions of him smashing them to pieces for 9/11 revenge.
The record wizard jacked up the price from his initial quote, but she didn’t care. He had faced the CD with a color copy of a red water-stained His Master’s Voice label and Sunita was delighted. She didn’t even notice the stinging wind whipping through her thin coat as she ran back to the car. She was buoyed.
Inside, she pushed the little disc in the player and when she heard Geeta Roy singing “Nay Ketan” from the film Baazi, her heart soared. When it was over, there was another, and another—12 songs—just how she remembered, the music, the voices—and she still remembered the lyrics.
Some of the words she now understood, even though all the songs were in Hindi and her parents’ native tongue was Punjabi. Nani’s movie music filled the car, bouncing off the worn 20-year old leather Beamer seats.
Sunita flew home. Now she could hear the western influence in one of the songs, hear the sultry horn and riff that sounded like a wannabe tune from an American cowboy flick. When she got home, still no husband, so she brought the CD into the house and blasted those songs out of the house speakers, pushing the volume up and up.
Searching for her slippers in the bowels of her closet, Sunita heard the front door slam, and waited with an anticipatory smile because her husband Seamus knew how excited she was to get this music back in her life. His cowboy boots clicked on the tile and stopped at the closet doorway.
“If we have to listen to this,” he snarled, “I’m going to start playing bagpipe music.”
It took a few minutes to sink in. Stunned as if he had slapped her, Sunita replied hotly, “I like bagpipe music.”
“So do I,” he snorted. They had a bagpiper at their wedding, a cultural stamp on the ceremony representing Seamus’ ancestors hailing from a pure Scottish heritage, while Sunita donned a white and red sari with a red silk choli that she had designed. Suddenly, after 13-plus years of marriage combined with a five-year courtship, their bi-cultural pairing seemed a mistake.
Maybe 9/11 had made her more touchy, because her surprise quickly grew into defense. She angrily ripped the CD out of the player.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she hissed. Her hurt now drowned in rage. When Seamus saw the sparks flying out of her dark eyes, he backed down.
“I didn’t mean … I’m just not used to it. I need to listen to it some more,” he backpedaled weakly. “Do you even know what the words mean?”
“No,” she spat out coldly. She grabbed her coat and headed for the door, avoiding his eyes and in an icy voice that cut the ballooning silence between them, snapped, “I’m going to get gas.”
Sunita was so outraged, she could hardly see through the windshield, but as soon as the music started she calmed down. She was puzzled and hurt. Was her husband becoming prejudiced? Or had he always been, but hid it well?
“I didn’t marry you for your curry,” burned in her ears as she remembered a disagreement about the few Indian meals she cooked. She craved curry and more spice; he complained about the smell in the house. Was her whole marriage a mistake with this gentle, good man who fathered her two children? He was so different from a lot of other men and certainly not as sexist as most of the Indian men she knew, including her brothers.
When she went into the Quickie Mart to pay for the gas, the two Indian proprietors peered at her as she handed her cash to them. She filled her tank, but refused to go home, instead driving around listening to her CD. “At least I can listen to my music in my car. Screw him,” she thought in defiance and rage.
But stopping for a light, the hurt grew, enveloping the rage in her chest and the tears streamed down like the rain that now spotted the windshield.
Should she go back to her mother’s or face it at home? He was lucky to have her, stupid man.
When she got home she decided to sleep in her son’s room. It was after all, her old bed from before their marriage. She didn’t’ want to be around her husband, let alone sleep with him. She searched for her headphones so she could plug her CD into her son Shan’s player and lay in his bed to listen in peace, but she had given them to Seamus for his office computer.
Finally he came to her make peace and everything poured out of her. Her unhappiness with his lack of romance when they had a free night for just the two of them. She was pissed about how childbearing had ruined her health, looks, and figure and now she had to run the household and work outside the home, too.
Seamus apologized, but the anticipated romantic evening had disappeared, like the rain washing down the gutters into the black mouth of the storm drain.
The next morning Sunita worked out, then made the 40-minute drive to Yuba City to collect the children. Heading home, the CD started turning in the player.
Shan groaned, “Do we have to listen to this?” She stifled an urge to smack him.
“Yes, we do,” Sunita firmly told her 10-year old son. He tightly strapped his Game Boy headphones to his ears and turned up the volume as high as it would go. But Nani’s music still pierced his ears.
“Can you turn it down Mom?” he pleaded.
“Nope,” she replied. “Do you like this Eleni?” Sunita queried her daughter. She held her breath, waiting.
“Yeah, Mom, I do!” Eleni rewarded her.
Halfway home, Sunita turned around to see what her five-year old daughter was doing and laughed when she saw her head twisted to get her ear closer to the back speaker so she could hear the words better.
By the end of the next week Shan admitted he liked it. Sunita even caught him singing a few bars. And every time Eleni climbed into the backseat of the car, she asked for the “Hindi” CD to entertain them, instead of Nelly Furtado.
But the best part was when Sunita turned around and saw her daughter, the little redheaded songbird, singing her heart out to every Hindi verse that she had so quickly memorized, even though she had no idea what the words meant.
Saunthy Nicolson-Singh, whose four grandparents immigrated to this continent from India, has been a published writer since 1983.