Tuning to a city's frequency

Dear reader,

Whenever I hear Shigeru Umebiyashi’s score for In the mood for love, I wish Yumeji’s theme to match mine — languid poetry in colours and the music to match that slightly lingering existence. Of course, that’s not the case. I am no Chow Mo-wan. I wouldn’t know how to dress that stylishly, and tobacco smoke makes me cough. So, sitting with my shirtsleeves rolled up, curlicues tracing the afterlives of cigarettes and thoughts — such artistic rumination isn’t possible for someone whose chief dilemma in life is how to perfect the naada; not too tight or too loose.

In case you haven’t heard Yumeji’s theme, do so now. I hope it is late evening or night and you have a window nearby from which the neighbourhood’s noises slightly intrude, but aren’t loud enough to slice through music. I hope your curtains are slightly apart, ready to obey the fan’s moody dictums. I hope no one disturbs you while you press play and let the notes wash away the day’s grit, and music tightens the cord around a balloon of all things unnameable, and let them float inside of you.

Given my life constrained by the ever gnawing attentions of the naada, the music that most seems suitable as BGM are those 70s Gulzar songs. I could be that woman, traveling in BEST buses, mostly unmade almost undone, and scurrying to a workplace. As I worry about the contents of my dabba spilling into the cloth bag holding it all, for awhile, the scents of fresh mogra is a distraction. Anonymous city living, where the span of your days can be measured in ticket stubs and quiet evenings at a public space — a beach, a maidan, or a street lit by neon lamps.

That’s why I play ‘Rimjhim gire saawan’ at least once during every monsoon. Amitabh and Moushmi run through the rain, their well ironed clothes drenched. There is no umbrella, folded along with the dabba in the bag, along with the well-worn bus pass and office ID. In fact, there is no bag - what was Moushumi thinking? How can you run around Mumbai without your trusted bag, which also becomes a chest-shield in crowded railway stations? My friend had a mnemonic - SICKU - scarf, ID, cellphone, keys, umbrella, so that she doesn’t forget anything. Moushmi doesn’t have time for such domesticated acronyms. Hers are not the thoughts about water clogged shoes or soggy socks, or leptospirosis (A., I am thinking of you). She is blithe and she is with Amitabh who stepped out of a suit ad, and that’s because it is all a dream - a whiff from a parallel Mumbai. A Marine Drive Holiday in the middle of a Mumbai working week.

But that’s not the song I wanted to talk about in the first place. The song I play and replay started as a pagetorn memory. Many years ago, I remembered just a snatch — I kept humming it. Then, the words shone through the haze. ‘Silly Hawa’, which always made me smile. I hummed, Silly Hawa, which seemed apt for the language of cities where the air that ruffles your head is a caress of carbon monoxide. Cities raise their brows at the sentimental. Or at least pretend to. Silly Hawa, I thought, and then one day when I searched for it, I found it.

A song that is unabashedly sentimental. A song about another city, whose ways are known to hearts, where without you there’s neither day nor night.

जाने कहाँ कैसे शहर, ले के चला ये दिल मुझे
तेरे बगैर दिन ना जला, तेरे बगैर शब न बुझे
सिली हवा छू गयी...

जितने भी तय करते गए, बढ़ते गए ये फासले
मीलों से दिन छोड़ आये, सालों से रात ले के चले
सिली हवा छू गयी...

The song is from a movie that wasn’t released, Libaas, written and directed by Gulzaar. The movie Libaas, Wikipedia told me, is “It is about married couples of urban India having extramarital relations and adultery.” (I was left marvelling at the difference between extramarital relations and adultery.) The movie saw only two screenings, but somehow, the song had managed to find its way to me and my subconscious. I have no idea where I heard it first, and how that happened. It is a mystery bordering on a miracle. And in true Bollywood tradition, I am glad we were reunited. Now, I don’t let go.

On afternoons when the chores are done, the plates are washed, and it is too heavy for sitting up, and too calm for sleep, it is the ideal time for Gulzar songs. A perfect accompaniment to the silence, a background music that lingers in languor.

In Chennai, the only time I listened to music was in the night. I think the Hawa or Kaatru in Chennai is a blessing — whenever it visits from the sea, we are all thankful. Seen another way, the kaatru is blessed; given that the land’s heat is so oppressive, the scene is set for even a piddly kaathu to make an appearance. I dance inside my head; the actual exertion is too taxing. And this song starts:

I could write on. Of songs that stitch together the a city’s moods and memories; so many patches, a lifetime of रफ़ू, that it wraps around just right.

ps: This letter is inspired by J., who spoke to me of sitar and being still.