Sunday, 25 September 2016

Announcing the departure of...

(Continued from the previous post… Link)

There were still five hours to go before I would check in for my flight and I decided to grab a bite to eat at this 24x7 restaurant located near the airport entrance before heading in and getting “locked out” from the rest of the world till I arrived at my destination.

There weren’t too many people in the restaurant, which didn’t surprise me as this was the domestic terminal and flights would soon wind down for the day. I was happy to see this as I really wasn’t in the mood to be surrounded by too many people and voices after the conversation Mandeep and I’d just had. The music they had on was to my taste as well : Even Flow by Pearl Jam as I walked in if I remember correctly; so I settled in over a nice cool glass of watermelon juice, leaned back slightly in my chair and let my thoughts flow as I tapped my fingers lightly on my armrest. Pearl Jam gave way to Santana, then came on some Aerosmith, Dire Straits, Deep Purple… It seemed like there were more kindred spirits around me that evening because this was just the kind of music I had grown up on in my college days.

I used to play for this cover rock band in my college days called Troubled Waters (yes, I believe the name was inspired by a substantial daily dose of listening to Pink Floyd). Those were certainly interesting days with lots of rock n’ roll and then some more rock n’ roll. Trust me, the sex and drugs part is way overrated. All of us in the band were basically interested in just the rock n’ roll part of the dream, played some good music, enjoyed ourselves to the hilt with it and have gone on to do pretty well in our lives.

It suddenly struck me that the reason I found myself reminiscing those days was that three songs from Troubled Waters’ eventual “song list” had just played back to back, exactly in the same order, and these were the songs with which we used to open our gigs: Shine on you crazy diamond, Hey you and Comfortably numb, all Floyd songs that were perhaps right at the top of each of our “all time favourite” lists. This poked at me as possibly being a little more than a straight up coincidence and it was somewhere in the middle of David Gilmour’s guitar solo in Comfortably numb that I started to look around the restaurant. And there he was, after all these years, grinning at me from ear to ear with that good old humour and mischief in his eyes, Syd (Siddhartha Choudhary).

Syd is probably one of the finest people I met during my college days. We had met by chance: he studied at St. Xavier’s college in Mumbai and I was at IIT Bombay, and it so happened that one particular year we happened to be on our respective college contingents to a youth festival called Mardi Gras that was held annually at IIT Madras (they call their festival Saarang now and I am really quite happy with this change). And the friendship that started in those four days has lasted till today. He lives in Seattle now and we were meeting after some 9-10 years but that hadn’t damped the warmth of our friendship one bit. I still remember the joy I felt at that moment as I grinned right back and we both got up to give each other a bear hug.

It’s so good to see you man! What the heck are you doing here? Didn’t you move to Seattle a few years ago?

Yep! Still there. Just coming in to attend a wedding in the family and cleared immigration only about half an hour ago. Have a train to hop on to but its running a good three hours late, so thought I would chill here for a while before heading to the railway station. And then look who walked in J! These people seem to have quite a collection of classic rock, so I took my chance with requesting those songs and seeing if it would get you. Got some memories going eh?

You bet man :), you bet! That was pretty cool!


Your family’s based in Patna, right? That’s where you are headed?

Yep. Dad retired a few years ago and my parents now run a primary school up to 5th grade there.

Coolness! And how’re the Mrs and the kids?

Good good. They couldn’t come as the kids have their tests coming up, so I decided to make a solo trip this time around. And you? Still teaching at IIT Kanpur?

Yeah…still very much there.

(Then the inevitable question…)

And music? You still play?

Well, not as much as I used to, but yeah, the gear’s still there and I do plug in every once in a while. There’s also been a bit of expansion of taste…something you probably wouldn’t expect.

What do you mean?

Well, I’ve been taking some Sitar lessons. Got drawn towards Hindustani classical during my days as a post-doc in the US and the interest has persisted.

Whoa! That’s certainly a significant change of taste.

Well, its really more an expansion than a change. I still enjoy rock n’ roll and still play the guitar but I also want to pick up Hindustani, more specifically the Sitar. I’m definitely drawn towards it. So I’m giving it a shot. Let’s see how far I go.

Any particular artists who drew you in?

Yeah, Ustad Vilayat Khan was the first to hit me hard I think. You should hear the way he plays Rag Bhairavi sometime. Then there was my Sitar teacher in Michigan, Rajan Sachdev ji. The Sitar would literally come alive in his hands and he could just make each note carry so much depth. More recently I’ve really come to appreciate Pt. Nikhil Banerjee as well.

Wow! This is really something. I knew you were into light Indian music for some years after going to the US. But I really didn’t see you going the classical way.

Neither did I man :). I never could appreciate those long alaaps for the longest time. Now that’s my favourite part! So as you can see, the seduction has been complete :)!

And that light Indian music part, what was that all about? I mean it used to be rock n’ roll pretty all the time with you when we were in college.

Well I think that sourced from a desire to express the Indian identity to the american community. There are many Indian students at US universities now. The same was true at University of Cincinnati when I was there for my MS. And some of us who played music coalesced to form a group called Desh that played Hindi songs. We gave a couple of performances, the highlight being a two hour concert on 15th August 1997 at Convention Center, Downtown Cincinnati, when the local Indian community got together to celebrate India’s independence.

Any particular singers that you particularly like?

Well my favourite by a mile has always been Kishore Kumar.

Well, let’s see if our friend at the restaurant here will oblige us with a few Kishore Kumar requests.

Syd waved down the chap who had earlier played along with him to put on the Pink Floyd songs:

Ranbir ji, aapke paas Kishore Kumar ki kuch CDs hongi? Soch rahe hain ki kuch Hindi gaane sune jaayein.

(Would you by any chance happen to have some CDs of Kishore Kumar? We were thinking of listening to some Hindi songs.)

Sir CDs to hain lekin hamein bola gaya hai ki sirf English gaane hee bajaayein jaayein.

(Sir we do have CDs by him but we’ve been given instructions that we are to play only English songs)

I still remember the sense of disbelief with which Syd and myself looked at each other when we heard this. Both of us were globally travelled, he even lived in the US at this point, both of us had always enjoyed many things the west had to offer (including, of course, music!). But we had always done this without an iota of disrespect for our own cultural identities. I don’t think we would’ve ever imagined that there would come a day when we would have to hear in our country that music in an Indian language was not allowed somewhere. This just made no sense.

We would’ve understood if several other people in the restaurant preferred to continue with the music that was presently playing. That would certainly have been fine as everyone has a right to their tastes and a restaurant would understandably want to cater to what a larger section of customers might prefer at any given time. But this wasn’t about that. There were hardly any people in the restaurant at this time anyway (it was beyond midnight now and there are pretty much no domestic flights during the night – so the airport, and hence the restaurant, were pretty sparsely populated) and there was no indication that Ranbir was denying us our request for some Hindi music because he expected the others present to have an objection. And in any case what one would expect is that a request is taken and then one sees how it goes.

He was very clear. He had instructions that he was to play only English songs. Period.

But Ranbir was hardly to blame. He was simply following instructions. So we asked him if the duty manager was around by any chance. He was and Ranbir asked him to come and talk to us.

Haaanji Sir, service main koi problem?

(Yes Sir, any problem with the service?)

Nahi nahi, Ranbir ji apna kaam bahut acche se kar rahe hain. Service main bilkul koi problem nahi hai. Kuch aur baat thee.

(No no, Ranbir is doing his job quite well. There is absolutely no problem with the service. It’s something else.)

Haanji bataaiye Sir.

(Yes Sir, please tell me.)

Aapka naam kya hai?

(What’s your good name?)

Mahinder Sir.

Mahinder ji, aisa hai ki hamein thode Hindi gaane sunne ka man hai. Kishore Kumar ji ke. To hamne Ranbir ji see poocha ki agar unki CDs hon to shayad woh chala sakein. Ranbir ji keh rahe hain ki CDs to hain lekin woh chala nahi sakte kyonki unhe bola gaaya hai ki sirf English gaane hee chalne chaahiye yahan.

(Mahinder, the issue is this: We were in the mood for listening to some Hindi songs by Kishore Kumar. So we asked Ranbir if he might have some CDs of him to put on. But Ranbir tells us that while he does have a few, he has instructions that only English songs are to be played here.)

Jee Sir. Yeh hee instruction hai. Aur mujhse nahin, yeh aadesh restaurant ke owner se hai.

(Yes Sir, that is indeed the instruction. And its not from me but the owner of this restaurant.)

Lekin baat to galat hai na Mahinder ji. Apna desh hai, aur yeh to desh ki rajdhani hai. Bhala yahan kyon rok lagayee jai Hindi pe?

(But this isn’t really correct right? We are in our own country, that too in the capital. Why should there be any objection to Hindi here?)

Ji Sir. Main aapse sehmat hoon. Khud Hindi gaane hi pasand karta hoon aur yeh rashtriyata ka bhaav mere main bhi hai. Lekin ab yahan naukri kartaa hoon to aadesh bhi maanne padte hain.

(Yes Sir, I am in agreement with you. I personally prefer listening to Hindi songs myself and I also share your nationalistic pride. But since I work here I have to obey the instructions I get.)

Syd was always pretty good at thinking quickly on his feet. And he came up with an idea to try and resolve the situation.

Accha Mahnider ji, ek baat bataaiye, agar ham owner ke naam ek chitthi likh dein jisme ham yeh kahein ki aapne hamaari request pe thodi der ke liye Hindi gaane chalaaye the to kaam ban jaayega? Tab to zimmedaari hamaari hogi. Aap to sirf customers ko khush rakh rahe hain.

(Tell me Mahinder, will this work: How about we write a letter addressed to the owner that you played Hindi songs for a while based on a request from us? Then the responsibility would be ours and you would only be being courteous to your customers.)

This worked. Mahinder accepted this strategy and put on the music we wanted. We also included a note in our letter about the reservations we felt about such an instruction being in place to start with.

Thanks to Syd’s ploy, we had amicably resolved things and enjoyed a full set of Kishore Kumar songs over cups of overpriced masala chais that we felt we absolutely must have to make the experience complete :)! But the overall issue did linger on in our minds and we talked through issues related to respecting one’s cultural roots and expressing cultural identities with confidence. It seemed to us that, ironically, we needed to take a look at the west itself and perhaps take a leaf from their book.

I doubt Italians would object to the Italian language in Italy, French to French in their country and anyone from Spain to Spanish in their own. And the Americans and the British certainly do not object to English in theirs.

I was in the US for eleven years (1995 – 2006) and have met people from all over the world. If there is one thing I have seen repeatedly it is that people from several different nationalities and cultures are very well consolidated in their roots and identities. They respect themselves and the heritages they belong to and express it very naturally while still clearly enjoying whatever the whole wide world has to offer. And that to me is “globalization” taken in its correct perspective. Denying our culture and heritage, that too in our own country, is not globalization. It’s stupidity. Literature, music, dance, art, theatre … these are mediums through which a whole spectrum of cultural identities express themselves and persist. Why in the world would we want to deny what we have to offer? And we certainly have a tremendous amount to offer, both in breadth and variety as well as depth and refinement of expression.

And no, I’m not saying there have been no negatives or ills in our history. But that’s a reality that every culture I know of has to face up to. Its all present in pages of history for everyone to read and know. The way forward, for us just as for any other people, is to drop the negatives, persist with the positives, and offer our share of beauty on the global cultural canvas; not to erase all our colours with a whitener (usage of the word “whitener” absolutely intended). Continuously using references to whatever negatives we may have grappled with to deny ourselves and our heritage in totality is, to use the term once again, stupidity.

Time flew by real quick as Syd and me talked about this and that and soon it was two in the morning and time for Syd to leave for the railways station. So we paid our bill, shook hands with Ranbir amd Mahinder, thanked them for accommodating so many of our music requests and headed out to the taxi stand. And just as Syd was entering his cab he turned around and asked me the question that I had been kind of anticipating all evening.

Say Brij, hardly anything about you surprises me much, but still, what’s up with the Dhoti Kurta? You planning a foray into religion or something?

[I used to wear a Dhoti Kurta at the time: yes, to work as well :) as I taught my classes in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at IIT Kanpur, attended meetings, etc as well as when I travelled, attended social gatherings and the rest. The only reason I don’t today is that I may not get a job if I do. Which is a sad thing to feel in my own country and its my sincere hope that things change for the better soon.]

Ha ha ha…come off it man :)! I’m still the same old rocket scientist, although I do meditate, and I still know good rock n’ roll when I hear it. Its just about wearing a dress that has been traditionally ours and feeling comfortable about doing so. Nothing more to it than that.

And on that note we shook hands once more and waved a goodbye to each other as the cab pulled off.

I decided to get inside the airport now and get a couple of hours of shut eye before it would be time to check in and go through the security check. Sleep came quick as I was quite tired by now and it seemed like just a few moments had passed when my little cell phone alarm beeped to wake me up. I stretched myself up into wakefulness and took myself through the pre-flight formalities before settling in with a cup of coffee at the departure gate. It had been a surreal evening the night before and thoughts of my conversations with Mandeep and Syd were drifting in and out of my mind when the announcement eventually came:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, we announce the departure of…

(PS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't airports fantastic locations to showcase our heritage and culture to the world at large? I mean, people from just so many different parts of the world fly through them...)

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