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A memory

by Soumya Roy

My relationship with music, I confess, is a bit weird. I have grown up - right from the age of three or so as my mother says - identifying myself, my thoughts and emotions with music. I guess I’m one of those insane individuals who literally eat, drink, sleep and breathe music. Today, nearing 53, I know with a great deal of conviction the music-makers who have made me what I am. Let me share with you a slice of my life that had actually pressed on a magic button.

It was the winter of 1978. I was then in class XII busy with the ensuing ISC Board examinations.

A phone call rippled my morning studies. It was Mithu da (a neighbor I quite admired) calling from Hotel Airport Ashok in Kolkata where he then worked. “Hey, good morning! Busy?” He sounded kind of eager. “Not really. Why?” I queried. “Listen - can you come over to my hotel quickly? Say, in about an hour?”

“Hey, is it anything serious? Are you alright?” I asked aloud. I was worried, as well.

“No, no – nothing like that! Just listen to me and come. Take a taxi. And remember to bring the gang.” The phone disconnected abruptly.

I felt a strange thrill surging inside. With it, some curiosity and worry as well … This, certainly, was not a very ‘usual’ morning. I dialed the gang - that’s Partho, Alapan and Subho - with nervous fingers.

“But what IS it? Why’s Mithu da making such a mystery?” Obviously, no one knew.

In another 20 minutes, four bubbly teens on tattered denims, creased shirts and dirty stubbles were huddled in a black and yellow Amby racing towards the airport. We reached the hotel in 40 minutes. Those days, VIP Road was a driver’s delight. A bus would have been cheaper, but curiosity got the better of fiscal prudence!

“Come with me. Take the stairs and make little noise,” was Mithu da’s crisp command. The guy, immaculately attired in a black suit and yellow tie, led us through the stairway. Strangely, we were not taken on the elevators. Four floors up, we were quietly led to a small dark room.

“This is just behind Banquet 1.” Mithu da was speaking in a hushed tone. “The door in front is a service door to the banquet. In ten minutes, I will push the door a little and just keep it ajar. You guys stand right here and remember not to raise your voices. Through the little gap between the door and the adjoining hall, you’ll be able to peep in turns and see what’s inside. The main thing, of course, is not to see! And now, I’ll have to rush for my work. Whenever you want, you can take the same stairs down and meet me at the front desk.”

And before we could mutter a word, he pushed the heavy wooden door an inch or two open, turned back and quickly tiptoed out. All that we could see through the narrow gap was a lot of bright light.

Soon, we could hear muffled voices. Many voices. And then, a sound we were familiar with - violins being tuned, lot of violins. We were beginning to sweat out of anticipation.

There was a sudden silence inside. All the voices had stopped. We peeped inside, as instructed, in turns.

Lord, what WERE we seeing? Not something we had imagined in even our wildest dreams! Lata Mangeshkar, yes, Lata Mangeshkar and some fifty odd musicians! There were violins, guitars, a piano accordion, a sitar, a flute, a vibraphone, tablas and dholaks and some instruments whose names we didn’t know. Lata ji was talking to Hridaynath Mangeshkar who was leading the orchestra. A couple of uniformed sound engineers from the hotel were attending to handheld mikes, amplifiers and four large speakers. We pinched each other to see if it was all real!

Later, we got to learn that Lata ji was scheduled to perform in Guwahati the next day. She had halted at the hotel for a day before boarding a flight to Guwahati. What we were seeing was a full ‘stage’ rehearsal of the show.

Instruments were being tuned, voices being heard before it was silence again.

A few seconds and then something happened. We started to shiver. She had begun to sing. Yes, Lata Mangeshkar was singing. Right there, live, in our range of vision, just ten odd feet away. And we – the gang of four who were so addicted to music – were there, actually living a dream.

Those were days when our music was really motley. There was Hendrix, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Joan Baez. There was Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, Manna Dey and Sandhya Mukhopadhyay. There was Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan. There was Mohd Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle and Mukesh. And there was Lata Mangeshkar. But only a fragment of her universe was familiar. Some Shankar Jaikishan hits, some of S D Burman and a generous dose of one Mr. Rahul Dev Burman who had endeared himself to us surreptitiously because his music was still taboo to the quintessential educated Bengali middle-class.

The voice sang a stotra and moved on like a long-play record. There was no coughing, no clearing of the throat, no missed word and no missed note. We were familiar to artistes performing on stage but this was simply not human. It was angelic.

Beginning with “Aapki nazron ne samjha”, it was one song after the other. Some we had heard on Vividh Bharati, and many that we hadn’t. Some whose composers we knew, and many whose we didn’t. She sang “Hum the jinke sahaare” and we realized we were all sobbing in some unidentifiable but intense pain. She sang “Agar mujhse mohabbat hai” and we felt wobbly on the legs. She sang “Khilte hain gul yahan” and we felt a lump bobbing up and down our throats. And then she sang a song I hadn’t heard before. And she sang it ad lib bereft of all musical accompaniment. It left me and all of us, completely transfixed. Transported to a world we didn’t know. We had no voice left our throats, no words left on our tongues. It was just an overwhelming expression of an emotion that could not - and still cannot, believe me – be described in human language. It was a song that was to remain with me and my being for the next 36 years and one that will remain with me till I die.

I don’t remember how long she sang. I just recall walking down the stairs slowly holding on to the banister. And I recall leaving the hotel without remembering to thank Mithu da ...

Before I end with a link for that last song, let me tell you in utter humility that after that day, I have never ever tried to analyze her singing or attempt to explain to anyone why she is what she is to me. All I can say is that if you relate to her songs the way I did and do, you’ll realize that some things in life are beyond reason, rationale and human intellect. In simple words, they are blessings that pour from the heavens - free, abundant and infinite.

About the author
Soumya Roy