REMEMBERING MADHAVAN UNCLE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The first time I heard of him was when my maternal grandmother decided that she must hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Having read about the great German composer, she wanted to hear his famous composition.

We lived in Thiruvananthapuram, the southernmost city of Kerala, a state in South India. It was a small place, and as state capital, its predominant feel was one of politics. Where in such a town would you locate Beethoven and hear his music in a manner that did justice to its orchestral splendour? My mother’s elder brother then took my grandmother to Madhavan Nair, a relative who hailed from the same native place near Kochi as we did. He owned a fine music system and had diligently assembled over time a good collection of music spanning Indian classical to western classical and much else in between.  My grandmother returned from the visit, a thrilled person. I wasn’t let in on this story. But I figured out that music was involved.

Curious, I asked my father, “ who is Madhavan Nair?’’

His reply was evasive and it was for a valid reason. Around that time, an obsession to hear music and hear it loud and clear, had taken root in me. The financial strain it potentially indicated was clear. We were a very middle class family with a youngster praying for Technics, Pioneer, Denon and now beginning to dangerously say, Nakamichi and NAD. I drooled over product advertisements. Those were the heydays of people from Kerala working in the Middle East. Most people returning on vacation brought a two-in-one, a boom-box. At the airport with boom-box in hand was both hallmark of Gulf-returnee and new found prosperity. For many, it was the sign of prosperity that mattered. I wanted the boom-box for what it actually was. On visits to receive relatives at the city airport I became notorious for missing people and seeing only the two-in-ones being carried home from Gulf countries. Not surprisingly, my father was wary of having me in any place with amplifiers at hand. It was therefore some months before I coaxed him to take me to Madhavan uncle’s house.

Those were the days of the LP record and the audio cassette. I gazed respectfully at his music system, which included a turntable with stroboscope, tape decks with restless needles in brightly lit dials, pre-amp and power-amp, graphic equalizer and deceptive book shelf speakers that could rock a room. The whole thing sat like a living, breathing entity, pensive brain in one place and powerful impact in another, all controlled by impressive knobs adjusted to precision. For me, newly arrived to the world of music with a National Panasonic mono two-in-one  and a couple of tapes of disco music (plus some more periodically borrowed from a supportive neighbour) this was stunning, heavy duty machinery.   

Madhavan Nair (Photo: courtesy his family)

Madhavan Nair (Photo: courtesy his family)

Madhavan uncle was a small, soft spoken person who worked at the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram. Away from work, he was a dedicated collector of music. He was also a good artist. In his free time he drew illustrations for other people’s short stories, published in a regional magazine. Like any music collector, he counted on friends, relatives, contacts and sometimes travellers passing through, to access new albums. On the occasions when he had to make a copy for his private collection, he would create his own cover design for the cassette and note down album details in a crisp, thin handwriting. It was all stored carefully and catalogued. An interaction with the man was a focused experience characterized by insight into music systems and genuine respect for all kinds of music. Slowly my father allowed repeated visits. I began to explore music as a collection of different genres. Back at home the old two-in-one was replaced by a car stereo, which we modified to play indoors. Then, we bought a proper Sonodyne music system, a princely investment those days. On my shelf, cassettes sporting Madhavan uncle’s crisp handwriting gradually grew in number.

As I moved from school to college, my pursuit of music became more serious. I discovered my tastes – classic rock, blues, jazz, country, folk, western classical and Hindustani classical. The occasional conversation with Madhavan uncle went beyond musician and band, to the quality of sound. He would mention about a newly acquired album, play it enthusiastically and we would concur on its elegance with a shake of the head or a short laugh. And then, just as you heard the most wonderful quality of sound, he would softly reprimand a rubber belt or connecting chord for the slightest variation audible to his ears, his ears only. A great relief you felt was the ability to approach music – any music – as such, without fear of being judged. With Madhavan uncle, you could sample Jethro Tull, Keith Jarret, Bach and Ustad Bismillah Khan in one visit without ever weighing one genre against the other. I guess that’s because he was also an audiophile. He may have had his personal preferences. What didn’t qualify for that, he probably approached it as sound that still merited being heard as perfectly as possible. Once in a while, I also met others who wished for good music and had come to know Madhavan uncle as a result. All our paths crossed at his house, which was a regular pilgrimage. The people who gathered around him became many things in life; from joining the regular army of Keralites working abroad to finding a career in custom built audio systems to – this I heard of one person – being an acoustic engineer on tour with a major American rock band. It was a small group of people and if I may say, to merely state an impression I had of them and not to indulge vanity one bit – they were seekers. My grandmother, who in her old age, sought to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, was also probably one. We just failed to think of her so.

At present with the world getting whatever it wants effortlessly, seeking has increasingly become a lost art and its after-effect on person, a lost human quality. Seeking happened in a context of deprivation. Maybe it still can, as alternative to instant gratification; seeking for the heck of knowing life. Back then, you were plain not getting what you wanted – that was the state of affairs in the 1980s and early 1990s (not to mention – certainly the years before that), when many of the creative and technological offerings of the world reached Thiruvananthapuram through the bureaucracy of India’s protected economy. If you wanted more, you had to innovate and stretch. You requested people going abroad to get some music. News of any such album recently landed spread fast through the grapevine. For obvious reasons, a friend with a twin deck tape recorder was a very valued friend. My generation was born in the late 1960s. Its ear for music came alive in the 1970s. Many journeyed back to visit Elvis and Woodstock. Some ran ahead for a taste of synthesizer music. Seekers were thus an involved lot. And critically, because they had to actively seek, they valued what they found. Seeking made you stretch, the stretch provided journey, the journey was an education. People like Madhavan uncle, represented that trait. He was among early customers of the now familiar configuration of speakers – two satellite units and a separate base unit; he was also among early birds in town to upgrade that to Bose speakers. I remember the excitement this transition generated.      

The cassettes, the handwriting (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The cassettes, the handwriting (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Several non-music factors also supported the seeking mentality. Around the late 1980s, if I remember right, both the local engineering and medical colleges made it to the last stages of Siddharth Basu’s iconic quiz competition on national television. While the music-crazy were anyway searching deep to know and access bands, this new found legitimacy by TV to being bizarrely informed provided value to maintaining a wider world view. It broad based the curiosity to know.  A reasonably interested college student bothered to be aware of musicians and actors not just from the state but also elsewhere. At the very least he / she tried. Looking back I sometimes feel amazed at what all my music loving friends in Thiruvananthapuram dug up – Buffalo Springfield, Travelling Wilburys, The Yardbirds, Grateful Dead, Traffic, Spencer Davis Group, Cream, Wishbone Ash, Emerson Lake & Palmer; these were besides usual suspects Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Def Leppard, Jethro Tull, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Queen, Rolling Stones, Beatles and so many others. You lived in a small town. But you knew that something much bigger lived outside. Later, some of these efforts would seem the first dots joined of small miraculous journeys to come.

Once, at PAICO, one of only two or three shops in Thiruvananthapuram that sold rock music in my college days, I was sufficiently intrigued by the art work on a cassette cover to buy the album of an artiste I knew nothing of. I think the album was,`The Extremist.’ It was fantastic to hear. The album travelled around in my small circle of friends. At the local YMCA, I recall discussing Joe Satriani’s style with Ramesh, a wonderful creative person who was then a student of psychology. Over two decades later, I would hear Satriani play in Mumbai and meet him to collect his autograph. Other friends, seriously into music and more knowledgeable than me on the subject, would similarly wait in queue to hear a host of artistes from Ian Anderson to Roger Waters and Mark Knopfler, perform in India. Many of these pilgrims knew Madhavan uncle for the collection he built up, the effort he put into cataloguing it, the equipment he invested in to hear it well and his down to earth attitude despite it all. I may still have albums that he copied and gave me. But the gift went beyond album to empathy for music. Anybody can secure albums. Very few pass on an interest in music by personal example. He did.       

Sometime in the 1990s, Thiruvananthapuram stopped looking beyond its shores. The satellite television age was kicking in and with it, a strident patronage of vernacular tastes to gain eyeballs. Regional channels aggressively promoted local programming. This was expected. But it changed the texture of life for seekers. Where there was no television till the 1980s, you now had a basket of channels. It meant world at your doorstep discounting that much the need to seek. It also prompted the rise of a popular self wrapped local culture. As these changes occurred, foreign music’s cassettes were giving way to imported CDs that were expensive. It gradually eroded shelf space for foreign music. Soon I was running into film songs, parody songs and loads of religious music on shop racks in the city. I wondered if greying society and the remittance economy becoming Kerala’s overwhelming reality with its accompanying baggage of incomplete households had anything to do with the trends. Or was it the effect of big media engineering a navel gazing market of the people at hand? Kerala felt strange – gold, weddings, ethnicity, fervent prayers to God, rituals and a peculiar conservatism. An era of curiosity was drawing to a close.

Madhavan Nair (Image: courtesy his family)

Madhavan Nair (Image: courtesy his family)

My last meeting with Madhavan uncle was special. I introduced him to a couple of blues musicians that he hadn’t come across before. It was the first time I could give something back for all the music he had brought to my life. Blues particularly, was something he introduced me to. Thanks to heavy duty marketing, the Madonnas and Michael Jacksons of the world get everywhere. But something off the mainstream, like blues? And that too, not just Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton but others like Robert Cray, Tinsley Ellis, Son Seals, Elvin Bishop, Luther Allison, Otis Rush and so on. Had it not been for music collectors like Madhavan uncle all this would have been difficult to access in Thiruvananthapuram. But it didn’t take long for him to turn trifle philosophical and question the relevance in having a wide taste in music when all around insularity had become virtuous. Room was shrinking for those who appreciated the wider world. I remember him saying that despondently, the last time I met him. Sometime in 2007, I toyed with the idea of calling him up on the phone. It inexplicably persisted in my head till I finally told myself that I will meet him when I went home from Mumbai, where I worked and lived. I didn’t do that early enough.

One day, I got a call from home – he was no more. In all those years that I knew him, I never asked Madhavan uncle how he began collecting music. I only know how knowing him, changed world by music for those like me. And, I also remember those times.

In my life, I have met several people cast as seekers in several subjects. In music, some intimidated me by their ability to reel off statistics about bands and their history, some intimidated by their vast collection of music measured by external hard disk-space, some intimidated by the concerts they attended overseas, for some it was what device you heard music on – was it latest iPod or some other gadget? Much of this seemed music as armour; another one of the weapons stockpiled for self importance and distinction in life. Very few people lived the simple delight in hearing wonderful music of any type reproduced well by a decent music system – which was what Madhavan Nair seemed all about. Meeting him in his living room said all that has to be told. The music system would be playing something softly, yet so clearly that it felt like gentle rain. Madhavan uncle would be dressed in simple clothes – usually the white dhoti of the Keralite householder worn with a shirt or T-shirt. I would inquire of new additions to his music library. The brief conversation about music – including on genres originating overseas – was always in Malayalam, the local language. He had all the stuff that people stocked in their armoury of music with none of the airs.   

I miss that age of seeking gone by.     

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

CAN’T SEE THE ELEPHANT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Call it market or future workforce there is no escaping the fundamental truth that large population challenges a country.

India’s current population is probably on par or close to what the world’s population was at the start of the 20th century.  Dwell on it. Such imagination is what we refuse to do amid our chalta hai (its’ okay) ways. Our numbers seriously impact. The country’s economic problems, described as math, may seem lifeless digits. But they dovetail to human want. With high population in place, even self reliance as solution for import-dependence, resembles a fig leaf for modesty because there are still fixed costs like steep real estate prices to face. Add to it, high salaries as solution to address rising living costs with its resultant inflationary impact down the line. It is a vicious circle. And, this is without mentioning the known decay caused by excess numbers – poverty, malnutrition, unequal access to health care, unhygienic living conditions etc. Perhaps the argument is – once the economy revs up, India will be superpower thanks to its workforce and market.

Truth is – population is the elephant we don’t wish to see.

Population as market and workforce, matters for trillion dollar GDP. That in turn, contributes to everyone’s income. It is all correct. But try imagining from the perspective of quality of life. We have delayed the good life by a long margin by producing so many people. It will take years for India’s per capita income to rise significantly.  Most likely, we will have terrible wealth-inequality. It is already visible. Other pitfalls abound. Not long ago, a visiting German delegation expressed concern about the quality of available manpower. Indian industry too has voiced worry on the quality of skills training. Wilder stories exist on the periphery of our future workforce.

India’s current population is probably on par or close to what the world’s population was at the start of the 20th century.  Our numbers seriously impact.

High population affects quality of human upbringing. Few days after the rupee hit 68 triggering a sense of outrage for the way it left us monetarily weak, many felt shocked by the punishment awarded to the juvenile involved in the infamous Delhi gang rape case. This article is not about that case. But a juvenile involved in such degree of brutality should worry us. Those arrested in the recent Mumbai gang rape are youth. Similarly, who are those people ready to drop everything and fight for religion, culture and language? They appear off and on in photos of mobs wielding sticks and swords. Ever thought if belligerence rises with cheap availability of directionless youth? There are solid sociological concerns in our giant population. As rape cases increased in number, several writers commented on the outmoded mindset of the Indian male.

Population’s impact is the sum of human numbers and human behaviour influenced by the ecosystem of high numbers. Indian life is a rat race because of this. Its external manifestation is disorder and administrative systems crippled by overload. Corruption oils the wheels, extracts movement. Anna Hazare’s campaign brought corruption to focus. But the elephant went unseen. We allege external hand when capital runs away. Arithmetically, even a portion of 1.2 billion people living and working like the developed world, would suffice to enthuse investment and stock market. Market indices and economic indices capture delivered value; they don’t show ground reality. Fact is – when it comes to the act of investing, Indians themselves seek avenues that aren’t as suffocating as Indian existence. What else is states` rolling out the red carpet for industry’? Our own companies demand special treatment. We know the political and operational gridlock by human numbers. Knowing it well, we prize life overseas more than life at home. What can economic reform mean when no government will enshrine the need to contain population as part of overall strategy? At least mention the subject periodically, so that the citizenry is aware of how much they are party to a mess that denies India quality?

Population’s impact is the sum of human numbers and human behaviour influenced by the ecosystem of high numbers. As human numbers rise quality of life crumbles.

Population is not simply more people born. Despite the 20th century being the bloodiest century in recorded history, global population rose seven times in the last one hundred years because new life was born and thanks to advancements in medicine, the new survived and the old survived longer. Thus the old are also around in India. In various fields, particularly politics, they have voice. Imagining to their convenience, they nudge country to life by old idiom. Ample availability of young people willing to latch on to anything for direction provides followers. But is the perspective of 2013BC valid for 2013AD? Impractical and irrelevant aspects of the old way of life must fade. But they don’t. Old school actors like religion and feudalism periodically elicit toll through riots. Caste thrives. Rituals proliferate. Wealth and happiness are measured by property, vehicles, money and children.  There are other examples too. Sample patriotism – it is a highly misunderstood subject in India. Its most popular interpretation imitates old fashioned fort with cannons mounted on walls and soldiers ready to die. Anything less, you are not patriot enough. You plant trees for a country losing trees – that isn’t enough. You take public transport to save oil for the nation – that isn’t enough. You do your job sincerely to contribute to nation’s reputation in quality – that isn’t enough. You teach those who can’t afford school – that isn’t enough. You are not corrupt and thus adding to nation’s efficiency – that isn’t enough. For patriotism to be felt blood must be spilled; wars must be fought. Only that image satisfies. Adding to it, there is no problem if the same self proclaimed patriots bring administration to a halt or destroy public property through violent strikes, fights around religion, language and such. From where and how does such behaviour find social approval?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Deep within heavily populated country, insecurity flourishes. Don’t think so? Then, what’s gold consumption by Indians all about? Put differently – we are forever insuring against insecurity. Why? What is our fear? What keeps compounding it? I have always suspected it relates to the nature and structure of our families. A family is never without worry about potential insecurity although being in family gives you sense of security. As rat race by population intensifies, so does the family’s perception of insecurity in the environment and its urge to move ahead at any cost. In the analogy of country as fort with cannons, family is the primary fort. The rich and well-connected get away with anything. The middle class, lacking such resources, battles differently. In big Indian cities, organized urban violence has approval traceable to families. That’s how violence became acceptable as a brand of urban politics. Violence in the name of religion and caste are all kept alive by families. It should highlight how insecure families have become thanks to exactly what they contribute to – high population. We consistently avoid this point. I say it not to load the dice in favour of lone rangers although I firmly believe that unless one realizes one’s vulnerability by standing alone, you won’t fathom the meaning of human respect, the need for it and the genuine merit in social values. Some Indian values are definitely good. Problem is – we are inheriting it without knowing why they exist because the family-trap is all about inheriting without the effort of knowing why. I merely wish to point out in this habitually marrying land, that neither family nor its larger groupings like community are implicitly states of grace. They edit out many crucial aspects of existence, particularly the individual as basic unit. They also do wrong. Remember honour killings, hit-and-run cases etc where family-imagination was either cause for crime or family ended up shielding the offender? In India’s instance, both family and community is also network of similar interests. Despite veneer of corporate governance on the surface, obfuscation of professionalism by family and community has often been a problem at Indian businesses. Long given to family, politics has become rule by dynasty. So what’s unquestionably great about family? In India, our family spaces badly need revision by new thinking.

As rat race by population intensifies, so does the urge with families to move ahead at any cost.

Thanks to giant population, we are the world’s biggest democracy. Our chosen method of administration requires plenty of efficient dialogue. India is chaotic in dialogue all the way up to state assemblies and Parliament, the very institutions expected to be examples of debate and governance for the rest. Why does dialogue fail? One reason has to be India’s caste system of several centuries that made the idea of inclusiveness alien despite our scriptures talking of world as family. The caste system was proactively attacked only after independence and adoption of modern constitution. The India from 1947 till now, is yet a dot on Indian history. Another reason could be that against the expanse of India’s history, its experience of inclusive, democratic administration is limited. We have a tradition of great minds and great debaters. But did they flourish in an inclusive environment? The larger question therefore is – how often in the past were we genuinely inclusive of us, all by ourselves, the way we have been forced to sit together and govern since 1947? I am not an expert on history. But it appears to me that our past trained us little for it; we are treading new ground. This traditional lack of inclusiveness is a huge handicap when administering 1.2 billion souls hailing from diverse backdrops. As yet, our instincts track old ways. The natural tendency of any exploded population averse to imagining differently and used only to old school feudalism will be to evolve smaller fiefdoms of the familiar old. It delivers power and money, which contemporary society by its conduct, showcases as essential. It also deepens known problems through reductionist models of the old – for example, splitting into more states. Better administration probably requires more states in India. Yet such models mean nothing if they are not accompanied by changed mindset for administrator. Will an administrator with changed mindset be winner or loser to the imagination of rat race by 1.2 billion? Is leadership perennial indulgence of community or does it include selling harder truths – like noticing that elephant to begin with?

Within two decades, India will be the world’s most populous country.

In early 2013, my cousin and I were trekking in the Himalaya, when at a village en route we met a young American woman, part of a group of foreign college students on a month long-hike in India’s wilderness. She said she was enjoying the experience but then added rather puzzled, “ you know, this is supposed to be wilderness. We are forty kilometres away from the nearest road. Yet there isn’t a day that went by when I didn’t meet people!’’  Population and its ways envelop us. Our challenges are not with this land, which provided for us for years and still yields what it does. Our problems are with what has replaced geography – ourselves; the equations between us, what all we do. Increasingly how well we manage this social space is what decides success. We are in the age of society as soil; the age of the social farmer, for the real soil is part of a fading planet overrun by people. It is also what leaves us exhausted and frustrated. On the one hand, people adept at self promotion and social networking rise to the fore. On the other hand, plenty of genuine human talent is wasted for want of networking skills. And all the time in the background, every family fueled by its protective parents and grandparents insist that their wards are the next Einstein, Bill Gates or greatest medical doctor alive.  There’s nothing we can do except suffer this noisy gridlock. It would be a tremendous loss if dysfunctional by population, we are forced to trade democracy for something more directive. To avoid it, we must comprehend what happened to us by noticing the most fundamental flaw in which everyone is invested – high population. We must notice our social organization also and inquire if it suits environment drastically altered by high population. This need is gathering urgency.

We must comprehend what happened to us by noticing the most fundamental flaw in which everyone is invested – high population. We must notice our social organization also and inquire if it suits environment drastically altered by high population. This need is gathering urgency.

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