(Published in Business Standard on June 1, 2013)
When I was a wee tot of seven, plucked out of Delhi and replanted in a French-speaking Swiss village, my mother decided to enrol me in the Conservatoire de Musique in Vevey. She thought I needed to develop one or two skills apart from glowering, and since my needlework wasn’t coming along as foreseen, why not the classical guitar? I assume she meant well.
I remember three things about my tryst with the guitar. The first is that the teacher gave off a kind of hopeless, medicated anxiety that I would also later find in driving instructors in Delhi. I couldn’t blame him—when you do something well, but spend your time with people who don’t, you end up either killing them, or pharmaceutically converting your pain into harmless twitches.
The second thing I remember is that once, on a cold snowy evening, my family failed to pick me up after class for a very long time. (It might have been twenty minutes but it felt like hours.) They claim they were delayed, but I think they clean forgot. It happens with us middle children. I waited outside, in the gale, so they couldn’t miss me. When they finally choked up they looked awfully guilty. Over the years I have come to believe that they not only forgot, but spent the evening in a fantastically warm restaurant, stuffing themselves with Nutella on bread.
The third thing I remember is that I positively loathed classical guitar. I hated the prissy little plinking and plonking and therefore, in a matter of a few months, quit practicing and went back to glowering. This attitude escalated tensions between my mother and myself, which, one night, boiled over into a scene the volume and pitch of which must have been in contravention of several dozen little-Swiss-village laws. When the carnage was over, we had agreed that my journey in the world of music had came to an abrupt end. Round one to me.
As anyone might have predicted, starting with my mother, I proceeded to spend most of my adult life yearning to play the guitar—not classical guitar, admittedly, but simple sing-along chords. Why hadn’t she insisted? What greater joy than to be able to make music, on a beautiful-sounding, portable device that can make a party out of a living room, a train platform, or a forest? I wanted nothing more. My little guitar followed me around the globe, through several moves, surviving a two-year stint in storage. I always had it, I longed to play it, but all I could do was look balefully at it. Round two to my mother.
Last weekend, though, I was in Shimla in the home of a guitar playing friend, and on a whim asked him to teach me a couple of chords. Suddenly the guitar and I were friends, and I want to stay friends. I returned to Delhi and looked for my old guitar. Naturally, after years of constantly being underfoot, now that I wanted it, it couldn’t be found. So I borrowed someone else’s guitar to start with, to see if my interest would last before spending any money, ran out and bought a new one the next day anyway, and immediately set to. I scoured the internet for songs to play and sing, and I played and I sang, enthusiastically and extremely poorly, for eight hours straight. (I can’t feel my fingertips anymore.) I’m going to do it again today.
On humanitarian grounds, people learning to play a loud twangy instrument should be locked away in a soundproof vault until they have mastered it, but unfortunately for my mother, we don’t have a soundproof vault.
Round three to me.