I don't know what it is about the rain that makes me sing. I guess I'm not alone — trees, flowers, rivers, frogs, rice shoots, umbrellas, paper boats and the earth do it too, all in their own languages.
I've always been greedy about languages. And music. And songs are my favourite way to learn new languages or at least, a smattering — French, Italian, German, Spanish, Bengali, konjam konjam Tamil. I was part of the choir at St Teresa's Convent School and later at St Xavier's College, so alongside Water Lilies, I learnt Latin hymns — I can say the Pater noster straight off.
(At St Teresa's, they taught us Christian hymns translated into Marathi, but resolutely set to Christian choir music, that came out hilariously, as if put through a Google music machine: "Mee tujha baap sa-dai-va mha-na-ha-ha-ha-ve.") Later at the Stop Gaps Choir, we sang Latin hymns and gospel, like Panis angelicus and Dry Bones, in different voices. More magpie pickings from friends yielded delightful, a cappella gems like Geographical Fugue and I'm a Train (King's Singers).
A lot of songs have dodged their way into my heart in the most unexpected ways. When I lived in Delhi some years ago, it was so humiliating waiting on the roads on dark evenings, with endless headlights flashing into your eyes, for rickshaws that wouldn't stop. To save myself the humiliation, I started to learn new songs to keep my spirits up — and my repertoire grew dramatically.
Edith Piaf, the legendary French singer
Another time, when I lived in Paris for a year, I travelled extensively in Europe as a journalist, picking up bouquets of songs along the way — including Edith Piaf (Non, je ne regrette rien, Milord), Habanera from the opera Carmen in French, Die Forelle in German, Te voglio bene assaje in Neapolitan. But the most memorable way I learnt a song was when I spent Christmas with a friend, Marc Loehrer, in Wurzburg.
After a big Christmas party, as I helped him with the dishes, he put on his LP of La donna e mobile from Verdi's Rigoletto. By the time the dishes were done, I was one aria richer. It was the most fun I've had at a kitchen sink. Yet another time, I was editing the daily festival bulletin for the International Children's Film Festival of India in Trivandrum.
A cub reporter took me daily on his scooty to the press to read proofs at twilight, then dropped me at my hotel by midnight, he taught me Ami Ek Jajabor on the long rides. There's something wondrous about learning an Assamese song — okay, a Bengali version of Bhupen Hazarika's Assamese anthem — from a Malayali in Trivandrum, while tootling on a two-wheeler in the crisp midnight air.
It's true, a lot of the songs I know have come from film — but Bollywood is only a small part of it. For instance, once, the great Bengali actress Madhabi Mukherjee (Charulata, Subarnarekha), director Sekhar Das, and a few friends were gracious enough to come over for dinner.
Fortunately, Bengalis are not shy about singing, and soon my one BHK was transformed into a wondrous jalsaghar, as Sekhar-da sang Je raate mor duarguli, the heart-breaking Rabindra sangeet from Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star). I had to learn it immediately.
Another time, after sniffling through Fassbinder's Lili Marleen, I had to learn the melancholic song Lili Marleen, and likewise, after Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love, I had to learn Quizas quizas quizas (Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, sung by Nat "King" Cole), so I could also savour lost love at leisure.
Now, I've always believed that in my next life, I will be Bengali. The language is so lyrical, that songs are a great way to speak the music. I know a dozen Bengali songs, including Kabir Suman's Tomake Chai and Mohiner Ghoraguli's Bhalobashi, both songs of love with Leftist undercurrents. With Tomake Chai (I want you), I realized, only a Bengali could make a love song so intimate and so political in the same breath.
On the other hand, heartbreak, however sublime, can be a slippery slope. Jacques Brel's Ne me quitte pas ends with "Let me become the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog. Don't leave me." Oh dear, that's not too far from Shammi Kapoor's "Ehsaan tera hoga mujh par…mujhe palkon ki chaaon mein rehne do ('You'd be doing me a big favour..let me remain in the shadow of your eyelashes')". Well, today's 'stalkee' might file an FIR. Or worse, post a LOL.
TNowadays, of course, Youtube is my Great Master when it comes to songs--and I have a big backlog. Once, in a popular Chennai bar, when the singer was told I was a visitor from Bombay and my name is Meenakshi, he dedicated a song to me — the full-on Kamal Haasan song Yennadi Meenakshi — heartbreak sublimated in white bellbottoms — that had everyone roaring. Now, if only someone would send me the English translation!
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.