Yiwen had a portable cassette player and she was always listening to music as she walked. It was very modern and deeply Western to listen to music that no one else could hear. Private music led to private thoughts. Private thoughts led to private desires, to private fulfillments or private hungers, to a whole private universe away from parents, family and society. – Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing
I went to see my one-month old nephew over the Christmas weekend. It was for the first time since I caught a glimpse of him at the hospital, an impossibly human, fragile thing that has elicited surprising individual emotions – love, I’m told it’s called – that separates him from every other human in the world to me. He’s still too small, but as I nervously held him in my arms and was demanded by his father – my brother – to sing for his pleasure and perhaps, cultural education, I found myself at a loss. Who will pick this soundtrack for me? This album, that will bind him and me forever? I know thousands of songs. I know how they go, the words and music that make them up. But, which words and music will make us up? Having no time to think any of this (despite lecturing my brother on a study that showed babies in incubators reacting positively to “Eight Days A Week” by The Beatles), my brain literally decided to associate baby in hand with baby in song. Out came “Oh No, Not My Baby” by Carole King, not a particular favourite of mine, but one I’ve enjoyed by several artists. He cried, and my brother mockingly said, “Not your Christina Aguilera, please!”
I wonder how life would have been had I been born in my family, but at a different era. Both my parents’ families are descended from Bengali landowners, and if we speak of a time before the Partition, but in the thick of British colonization, music would have been highly accessible and considerably varied. Would I have had a life liberal enough to get piano lessons? Or would I have been sequestered to the women’s section of the house as musicians played in rooms meant for entertainment? Would I have marvelled at that new-fangled invention – a gramophone that itself looks like a brass instrument – and played two or three records of Western classical music over and over? Or would that also be an object only to be touched by my male guardians and the most I would be allowed to do is not express an opinion – joy, distaste, anything else – but stay passively in the same room?
Would I have the chance to listen to a folk musician walk by, or to music played in various houses of worship – for many would have been open to me – and enjoy it privately still, whether I believe in what it preached publicly or not? Would I have hosted Rabindranath Tagore – polymath, first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and most revered for his music – and he would have sung one of his compositions for us, and I would have been out-of-place in demanding for more? All this would have happened if I was not yet married, of course. Marriage would have silenced much of these desires, many of these privileges completely.
And I haven’t even spoken of what music would have meant privately. Having more time to myself than I could imagine in this era, where would I find the music? Would I have to depend on memory, on conversation, on highly enthused but poor a cappella reproductions? You will find, the more I imagine a bygone era as a Bengali woman, the closer it seems to what we always, urgently call now. I still make highly enthused but poor a cappella reproductions in the shower and else where. I depend on memory in every moment where I don’t seem to have a music-playing device with me, which is a rare, nay impossible, moment indeed. And I have conversation, as if through conversation I can gain more from the music, though I mostly find I lose. I’ve let words decrease and detract so many times from what is easily the greatest purpose for existence at all. If you asked me to choose between love and music, I’d choose music. Does that confirm my misanthropy? Or the fact that music has done more for me than love ever did? Perhaps, ever can?
But, I must have something to claim, some authority over music before I declare my devotion to it. For, doesn’t love come with knowledge? We’ve always found ‘love at first sight’ romantic, but highly suspect, because love comes from knowing. If I love you, I have to love everything about you. For me to love everything about you, I have to know everything about you. That is where fanatics – musical or otherwise – get you. You argue, you opine, because you are constantly trying to prove that you know more simply because you love more. You say you love David Bowie, but do you know David Bowie? Have you listened to everything by him? Do you know it all by heart? Do you know every obscure fact about him, like I do? Most of all, do you feel anything close to what I do?
When I got my first portable cassette player at age thirteen, I was more excited with the record feature than the actual music. There were many players around the house, but none with record buttons that worked. Armed with a blank cassette, I tried to record everything I wanted. Not any sound I made, but mostly music off of TV, radio etc. The tape still survives, while the player died that very year. It was my first attempt at creating memory outside of myself. It hasn’t been played for years, for lack of any cassette players around me, and my embarrassment at what it might contain.
At a difficult time in my early twenties, I played “I Feel Fine” by The Beatles on loop for a month. It started out as a joke, to state the opposite of what I felt, but it worked. A year later when I felt worse, I bought a Philips mp3 player and played all of The Beatles from the moment I stepped out of the house to when I came back home. I did not want to have any music on my phone because people would inevitably copy it onto theirs. We’re talking about The Beatles, of course, there is nothing private about it, but I tried to make them mine, for as long and as much as possible.
While getting to know my nephew, I also met another member of our family – Alexa. She might have been staying with you too, though she might have a different accent. I was less nervous in meeting her, and so I asked her to play me Disintegration by The Cure. She played me the track “Disintegration”, rather than the album, and I didn’t know how to make her play the latter. I didn’t try, for we were around other people, and by the time the trip ended, I realised those few seconds of “Disintegration” was the only time I had played my music. There had been music in the car, at home, everywhere you could possibly catch airwaves from – there had been music. Even when my favourite Bollywood album – A. R. Rahman’s Dil Se – was played, it did not feel mine.
You see, it is not just music that you play for yourself and not anybody else. It is music that demands privation, that demands you to be alone with it. I look at my Apple Music library, a library I’ve had for most of this year and I see a few names – The Kinks, Phil Spector, Buddy Holly, The Cure, The Who etc. – and I wonder – do these define me? Is this the music by which I am identified, once I share it with somebody else? Why don’t I, then? Why do I keep them as private as possible? Will I gain something or will I lose much more if I do?
I don’t want to risk it. In the make-believe privation of this blog, I casually mention these names to you, and several other names here and there, with the faith that all they will be are words destined for oblivion. They’ll mean little to nothing to you, which is why they’ll keep meaning a great deal to me. But, if I commit them to those in real life, if I make them understand by the simple act of playing it in front of them, I am failing to protect my own feelings from potential harm. Not only my music, but my world.
Our lives are divided into the worlds we make, and the worlds that make us. The worlds that make us try to instruct, govern, and in some cases command the worlds we make. It’s our struggle to make our external worlds in the shape of our internal ones. I’ve found mine continually denounced, by various people for various reasons. But, just because the world I make is different to theirs’, doesn’t make it any less truer. It is more truthful than any other world I know.