Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Many years ago, when studying in Thiruvananthapuram, I used to be active in a small society called Literary & Debating Forum. On days when the onus of organizing a debate fell on my shoulders, I would go to inform the college principal of the chosen subject, seek permission to use the auditorium and put up some posters for publicity. In the early part of my time at college, my father died. I suspect, the principal who saw some promise in me, kept a distant watchful eye on how I was faring. By my final year of graduation, I had both nose dived in academics and grown a beard. One day, I went to the principal’s office for the routine appraisal of upcoming debate. He heard me out without taking his eyes off my bearded face. Then he asked me, “ Shyam, what book are you reading now?’’

Those days, books were prime fertilizer for beards. Youngsters read books, beards grew and some years later, they were usually lost to navigating a confusion that the more pragmatic avoided and chose decent careers instead. The principal’s concern was spot on. In retrospect, I am glad somebody bothered to ask that question too. If my principal had any worries, they came true. For after college, I meandered for long in a maze of impractical ideas and idealism. I was never a fan of ideology. But ideas hook me easily and I am never above an impractical pursuit if there is a journey in it, even a short lived trip. I am therefore not the type anyone can use to build a nest or fiefdom. The moment I detect territory marked and stamped by ownership – which is the problem with ideology too – my trip ends. For I know well that the compulsion to defend turf will kill the original idea. It is not that this trait doesn’t bother me. It does. The world’s money lay in the family-fiefdom-kingdom-empire-country sort of social arrangement and to be useless for it is to embrace penury. Indeed any perspective that doesn’t make sense to people fetches no money for money is a human construct found only with people. Yet the thing is – the way of money is just one way to live and life was never all about one way. That old beard is no more there on my face. But as you can make out from my writings, its ghost lives!

The reason I brought up my principal’s question to me is because when I wrote on Madhavan Nair, who was a fine collector of music (please refer earlier post – Remembering Madhavan Uncle), I remembered that nobody asked me of the music I liked the same way they asked me of what I read. We think books are a window to people’s souls. We assess people by what they read. But why not by what music they listen to? And the thing is – for most people, the music they like is far more personal than the books they read, save of course the books you are told to read for salvation and such, like our religious books, where anyway it isn’t inquiry but blind faith. For me, someone who likes pop music is different from someone who likes classic rock as is that person from someone who likes film music. Or to dig into my own tastes and give a very Indian example – I like Hindustani classical for its seemingly unfettered exploration of universe and its reduction of life to a relation between self and universe. Carnatic music in comparison leaves me cold. I feel it emphasises laid down structure and appreciates in terms of loyalty to an established perfection. Maybe that’s because I don’t know enough. But that’s my aural perception and I usually don’t labour to understand music through explanation. Music is what it does to your atoms and molecules when you hear it. It is that simple. Take it or leave it, but PLEASE – respect what you leave too, for it is plain stupid to conclude that an arrangement of atoms and molecules as you are is the best arrangement nature could ever manage.

Perhaps somebody with an appetite for anthropology and social research can enlighten us on why we are conditioned to place appreciation / knowledge of words above appreciation / knowledge of music. For sure, the world has disseminated itself more on words. Sometimes I wonder if music’s comparative relegation is because our words are inadequate to articulate what unravels through music. For after all, the vibration of a drum or string appears closer to the wealth of vibrations that seems the universe itself. Are we paying the price for mastery over what is only a second or third language of the universe? Yet we never even give it the benefit of doubt. If you reach home lugging books everybody approves it as opposed to landing with headphones on your ears and spring in your step. No boss asks you in an interview, “ so, what music do you like?’’ leave alone celebrating a discovery of matching tastes, with a jig around the table. Maybe they should read Sherlock Holmes for one of the mysteries of his character is how that alchemy of astute observation, chemistry, the occasional drug and violin, converged to crack a case.

Commuting in Mumbai, a city of travel given its distances, my small backpack may or may not have a book to read. But it will rarely miss out on my old portable CD player (go ahead and say it: this man should be in a museum!). Right now some songs have to be at hand. They mean the world to me. None of them arrived at the same time and any such favoured playlist keeps changing. However some songs stay long. From the first time I heard the song `I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ I was hooked. It was the very essence of journeying. In my opinion, journeying is different from journey. Many people go on journeys, but few actually journey in the sense that they allow what they are experiencing to come within and move them, shift existing patterns. This song and the album `The Joshua Tree,’ more than any other song and album I had heard till then, embodied seeking and they did so, as a wholesome body of music, not through recourse to lyrics. Through thick and thin, through the ups and downs of life this song by U2 and the album, `The Joshua Tree,’ have stayed with me. Although acquired much later `Dear Mr Fantasy’ quickly grew to be a permanent fixture on my playlist. Herein I am not referring to the song’s original version as recorded by the band, `Traffic,’ but the version performed by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood at their 2008 reunion concert in Madison Square Garden. Hanging on in the periphery of these two songs and for now, rounding off my essential playlist are the songs, `Imagine’ by John Lennon, `Bridge over Troubled Waters’ by Simon and Garfunkel, ` Silent Lucidity’ by Queensryche, ` Closer to the Heart’ by Rush, `Maa Rewa’ by Indian Ocean, `Drive’ by REM, `So Much to Say’ by Dave Mathews Band, `Snow Flower’ by Anand Shankar, `Midnight Rider’ by Allman Brothers Band and `Farm on the Freeway’ by Jethro Tull. You don’t have to like them. They happen to be my choice for my current days in Mumbai. Days change; so does the playlist.

Music is one of the most under-estimated windows to what we are. It encroaches upon the terrain zealously guarded by the old fashioned, feudal question of who we are. That question is typically answered by disclosing names of parents, family roots and details from the circumstances of one’s birth. After holding forth on that, play the music you genuinely like, watch those swaying to it and you are left wondering – really? If the above mentioned songs are currently fundamental to my sanity then is an explanation of who I am by the circumstances of my birth adequate or inadequate? And if I am born in accordance with what answers who I am, to merely then cross over to the pleasurable confusion of what I am, then of what relevance is this question – who am I? And if I am happy with whatever musical tastes are compliant with my identity by birth, then does that bar me from whatever I can be by way of wider empathy for music? Chances are music will leave you belonging to bigger universe against which, the whole feudal rigmarole of who you are looks petty. Of course, you can cap the inquiry for convenient outcome or profit – that’s beside the point, not to mention being dishonest to the spirit of inquiry. 

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

My college principal, Fr Thomas Kottarathil, did the best he could. Except him no teacher ever asked me what books I read. Maybe someday in the future, a principal will ask students, in addition to what books they read, what music they listened to. In the more informal setting of outdoor experiential education courses, I have often seen this happen – we stand around in a circle and try to open a window to what we are by listing one or two songs and singers / bands we like. The effect is usually nice because music is not seen as part of our weaponry for mutual competition. Sadly however, that wonderful privilege is eroding. Attitudes encouraged by the industry of marketing, which sells by loading every product silo with attributes, is making music seem more physical than the fluid medium for journeying it actually is. Now that you read this article, why don’t you reflect on the songs and music you like and see what they tell you about yourself? A word of caution: they don’t tell you everything, they just tell you something.

When my principal asked me of the book I was reading, my answer was – James A. Michener. Thanks to good friend Rajagopal, who started the trend, we were both onto one Michener after another. To my mind, Michener and U2 or ` The Joshua Tree,’ aren’t exactly the same spirit by different names but they belong to the same region in imagination. Michener’s huge books, if you have the patience for it, engage for their vast canvas of people, history and times. It is a journey. But it also resembles a giant fresco that is all about reporting a million movements but needn’t really move you, for it is a frozen account. That’s where music scores over words. Starting with our heart beat and breathing, humans are naturally rhythmic. Music adds a dynamic dimension to words that words are simply bereft of. U2 captured the spirit of journeying with `I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and some other songs in `The Joshua Tree.’ That album moved. You felt wind in the hair, solitude and moments of utter standstill. The Madison Square Garden-version of `Dear Mr Fantasy’ too falls in the same league. It evokes imagery of journeying and multiple perspectives. Does that in turn provide a clue or two about me? I suspect it does.

There is however one danger, we should be aware of in this sort of profiling. The human being nowadays is way too intelligent for his / her own good. We reverse engineer like crazy. We ask ourselves what impression we need to strike and then arrange the required pointers in place. We quickly learn what music we should like to impress the boss; what books to read to impress a teacher, what degrees earned and from which university structure a great career, what picture of self indulges our own vanity for a blog. A few screeches on the violin, some time with the magnifying glass and a few puffs never made anyone Sherlock Holmes. Sadly that works in our world. Everything is bio-data for competition; not understanding a journey. It is success by formula, till the chemistry of pretention wears thin and reality emerges.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

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