Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Audience Friendly Song

It was D-day and I was jumpy. I had decided to take part in the singing competition at school and today were the finals.

I peeped out of the wings and saw rows and rows of unruly boys in the school auditorium whose rowdy buzz would have shamed the bees. These kind of competitions, I knew, tend to draw out the boos and the fangs of schoolboys in a school auditorium like nothing else. Ask me...I had been in the audience on other occasions.

One look at the gleeful, anticipating faces and I broke out in sweat. The chatter of a few hundred kids rose to an excited crescendo till the principal signalled Miss Rosemary to launch the proceedings. One withering look from the veteran and everybody hastily lowered their volumes to mute.

As Miss Rosemary got set to introduce the first singer, I sighed deeply. There was no going back now. Any retreat would mean loss of face in the classroom. In fact, it would be akin to social suicide: the blackguards in the class would be ragging and sneering for months to come.

The first contestant got on stage. He stood bewildered in front of the mike, paralysed for a few moments, like a deer who has just turned the corner to find himself staring at a smirking tiger. Then, gathering courage, he began.

The song he had chosen was from the Rajesh Khanna blockbuster Aradhana.

Poor guy, he really put his heart into the song. "Kora kagaz tha yeh man mera", he sang soulfully, "likh liya naam usme tera..." And before he could blink, the ruthless audience had promptly picked up the refrain... "...tera, chouda, pandarah," they chorused.

It was slaughter. The aspiring Kishore Kumar was reduced to tears.

And I can't tell you what the episode did to me. I was scheduled to go on next and guess which unfortunate song I had chosen? OOOh Khilona jaan kar humko.... C-a-n y-o-u b-e-l-i-e-v-e i-t?!!

You see, this touching song from Khilona began with a plaintive 'OOh' which tremulously hung in the air for nearly two seconds.

I had a sinking feeling about my fate but shuffled onto the stage regardless. Standing before the microphone, I looked around at random faces in the audience, willing them not to do what I knew they inevitably would.

Then, taking a really deep breath, I began, "OOOh...". And sure enough the cooperative audience immediately picked up the plaintive cue and chorused a full two-minute "OOOOOOOh" before I could even move to "Khilona..."

Imagine. You are a eleven year old kid, alone on stage, with wobbly knees and a cold steel microphone glaring at you...and the audience gleefully and viciously steers your song away from you.

Disaster. Sheer, unadulterated disaster.

I never took part in a singing competition ever again.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Blue Hawaii Slippers

Soon after our school final exams in May, my mother would set off with my two brothers and me to spend the one-month summer holidays in Delhi with my nana, my maternal grandfather. I hated Delhi summers (still do) because I found the dry heat unbearable but the trip was an unavoidable ritual: that was the only time my grandparents got to spend with us kids.

The preparation for the train journey included a heavy wicker basket with the food (puris, two varieties of dry subzi, mango chutney, pickles and fruit), napkins, disposable leaf-plates and stainless steel glasses and spoons. Then there were two hold-alls with the beddings and towels (and later my novels), and a small, almost inconspicuous, rectangular wicker basket wrapped in a silk cloth carrying the family gods. My mother couldn't leave her pooja (altar deities) behind while she travelled...after all, the gods needed caring too. The silk cloth was to insulate the holy basket from "unclean" influences during the journey.

During the journey from Bombay to Delhi, my mother's rules for us boys were strict: don't eat anything from strangers (decline politely), don't reveal personal details to co-passengers (where you lived, what your dad did), don't litter (only gawars, the illiterate louts, did that), don't get down at stations (unless you want to get left behind on some forsaken station) and wear slippers the minute you step down from your berth.

There was yet another rule which was selectively bent by her consent: don't eat cooked food from the railway platform vendors. But, as I told you, this rule was a trifle elastic. We kids, and my mom too, loved the chivda at Baroda, the spicy sev at Ratlam, the tea in kullads at Biyana, and the pedas at Mathura station. Since I was the youngest, I had to stay back with mom, while my older brothers were dispatched to get the pardoned foodstuff from the platforms of the respective stations. And till they returned, my mother would be peering from between the window bars to keep an eye on them and to admonish them if they strayed too far from the bogie.

Once, I made a huge fuss and got off at Biyana station with my brothers to fetch the trademark tea in earthernware mugs. I remember it was early morning when the train steamed into the station and I was wearing green shorts and blue 'Bata' slippers. My mother was anxious that the train would start any minute and was calling out to us to forget the tea and climb aboard. And we overconfident boys kept calling back, "Just a minute more, bhabhi!" (As I told you elsewhere earlier, that's what we kids called our mother).

Then the train let out a long whistle and there was minor panic. Gathering the tea kullads and thrusting money into the vendor's hands we rushed back towards the train. My anxious mother was now at the door, peering onto the platform. I can still conjure her leaning out of the bogie door, in her black georgette sari with cheerful large paisley prints.

My brothers were faster and made it to the train first, and with a smart swing were on the footboard and then up into the bogie. I was a wee bit slower and though I managed to climb aboard even as the train was just beginning to gather speed, I felt the slipper slip off from my left foot and fall between the train and the platform. I was dismayed. I had just bought the pair the day before. There was absolutely no way to retrieve the slipper and the train was now impatiently hastening out of the platform.

My mother saw the slipper fall, heard the train rattle faster and she took a lightening fast decision. "Quick, fling out the other slipper too!" she called out to me over the growing racket of the train. After the briefest twinge of reluctance, I hastily took off the other slipper and dropped it on the last lap of the receding platform.

My mother must have felt as sad as I did at losing a new pair of slippers but she didn't glare at me or scold me. She just gently patted my head and said, "At least whoever finds the slippers will be able to wear them. You couldn't have worn a single slipper, could you?"