The kids are fidgeting and it’s a hot summer afternoon. I draw the double shades, switch on the AC and let the dark room cool. All the while singing and patting them to sleep. I am running out of songs and I suddenly fall back on an old song that Ma used to sing at parties. Yeh Raat Yeh Fizayein. Like all the songs I grew up hearing my parents sing, I never considered the origin. They were Mama’s or Dada’s song and that’s it. Ma owned this particular song because she has this deep, velvet, smokey voice that makes it richer and more sultry than the original. She slows it down so that you feel each word, each line and have time to let it sink in, unlike the chirpier original. I have a clearer, higher pitched voice that naturally takes away from the warm feeling it evokes when she sings it. Over the years, Dad who doesn’t understand a word just does his bit – plays the guitar and hums along, adding a deep bass to it and the song is now theirs – nothing to do with Rafi or Asha.
Growing up between Rafi on one hand and Black Sabbath on the other, I picked up bits and pieces and one day sang this song in class during a free period. Once in a while a teacher would be absent and the substitute would be from the science section and a complete waste in our commerce section. The easiest way to keep a class shut (we were 94 kids in a section!) was to get one from among us to stand up and entertain. It was almost always me and one day I skipped the contemporary numbers and hesitantly sang this, testing waters and wondering whether this smokey almost seductive number would be acceptable to 80 male and 13 female 17 year olds. It worked. Everyone loved it.
And then we went for the school picnic, playing antakshari all the way in the bus. On the way back I was sitting with the girlfriend of the class umm…. bad boy? And I don’t mean the bad boy in a brooding way. He was rough, brash, big built, barely interested in studies, carried a country pistol to ease his way through things and was at the helm of most of the school violence. She was pretty, slim, had the most beautiful curls, shapely long legs and her laughter was almost musical. I don’t know what she saw in him but I am guessing no one figured what I saw in the anti-social geek who only worked out, avoided events such as the school picnic like the plague and read esoteric literature while the rest of the class struggled with the lone piece of literature that was part of the syllabus for the year.
Anyhow. It was naturally too much to ask of this bad boy to be seated like the rest of the class and he prowled the bus aisle restlessly, a caged lion. It was still a long way home and he growled at me – “You, why don’t you sing the song you sang in class the other day?”
Which one, I say, determined not to let my voice quake in fear. He tells me, I nod, and then I sing.
The OA would probably say the poor singing brought tears to their eyes, but the noisy bus quietened around me and they all listened. And as I sat there, understanding dawned. I was singing this for her – from him. I saw her eyes well up and by the end she was openly sobbing. He turned away and looked out of the bus window, his eyes wet with tears. I didn’t really see what there was to cry about. We were young. A lifetime and so much promise lay ahead of us. We had so much time with the ones we loved. So much we wanted to do.
A couple of days later we had our first board exam and his body was found floating down the Ganga in the early hours of the morning. Gang war, family fight over property, the rumours flew thick and fast. It was the first time in our young lives we’d encountered a violent death and we were all in shock. She walked into class and a deathly silence fell. We all moved away from her. Death is a scary thing and no one wants to be associated with it. Not when your biggest concern that morning was the English Language paper or your un-waxed legs. She broke down and before long all the girls were crying. He may not have been our favourite classmate but the experience was a shocker. And all I could remember was singing for the young lovers barely a week ago and wondering what made them so morose when all I felt around the chosen one was elation. Maybe they had a premonition that it wouldn’t last.
I was talking to some people a few days ago who were talking about frogs in wells and travel. At some level they were right. If you don’t get out of your little well, you don’t see much of the world. But life, it comes to you no matter where you are. There in that small town, living an unremarkable life, those two met intense love, great loss and murder without taking a ticket to anywhere.
Here’s the song, by the way.