Saturday, April 16, 2016

Song sangh blue

(Published today in Business Standard)

Doesn’t it seem like we’re having an overdose of disaster? Drought in Maharashtra, temple fire in Kerala, flyover collapse in Kolkata, earthquake in Myanmar, tax evasion in Panama, the Congress nowhere, the BJP and the RSS everywhere—it’s all too depressing. It often feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

In times of trouble, they say, make art. Beauty makes things better.

So, a few weeks ago, I started taking singing lessons. Why not, right? It’s not like I’m a middle-aged, squeaky-voiced smoker or anything. It’s not like that ship has sailed, in the fleet of ships that would have made me a zoologist, or an astronaut, or taller. It’s not like I need to save money for when all my teeth have fallen out, along with my nieces and nephews after they figure out how many columns I got out of their childhoods. Why save to pay someone to change my nappies then, when I can spend it now trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

That is how we liberal arts majors think about financial priorities, and let that be a lesson to you.

But it can’t be helped. I’m a singing junkie. I sing all the time, as long as nobody can hear me—that is to say, in my head, in the shower, while driving, and out loud. Yes, out loud. If I think anyone can hear me, my voice curls up into a foetal position in the back of my throat and pulls the blankets up over its eyes. Only when inebriated do I really let it rip and sing at the top of my lungs for my friends, who start out with supportive anticipation, then discreetly begin to lean in, and end up with ears cocked and eyes narrowed, as if they’re trying to detect gamma rays using nothing but goodwill. At the end they say, “That was lovely! Couldn’t hear you, but woohoo.” So I decided that it’s really not on to be so shamefully inaudible when there are alternatives, like getting the old farts hearing aids.

That was Plan A at any rate, but it turned out to be much more expensive than getting lessons. (I’m not factoring in a one-time expense versus the years of lessons it’s going to take me, on account of being so financially canny). So now I have this dead cool, super-talented, and seriously inspiring singing teacher who makes me do voice exercises and practice songs. The idea is to open up your voice and increase your range, and breathe at the right place, and control your diaphragm, and learn to project. It’s like juggling five balls at once, which is frustrating but insanely fun for me; and the fact that she gets through an hour of my braying, barking, and squeaking without ripping my throat out, is a testament to her extraordinary forbearance. Or maybe she just turns her hearing aid off.

Singing seems like the simplest thing in the world, right? It is! But singing well, believe me, is not. So I siphon off a portion of my booze budget towards weekly lessons, which is a counterintuitive move if you think about it, since booze is a foolproof shortcut to sounding like Tina Turner. Some killjoy type people claim that alcohol impairs one’s judgement, but if nobody can hear you anyway, who cares?

Just kidding. It’s a public service to learn to sing better. One will never be Mark Knopfler (sob) but one hopes, in the future, to sing beautifully as one changes one’s own nappies.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The power of the raspberry

(Published in Business Standard on April 2, 2016)

My five-year-old niece is visiting from overseas, along with her Californian-English-via-Mandarin accent. The second she wakes up, shortly before sunrise, she demands to step outside to look at the parrots, which she calls ‘toh-daaz’. They’re fast asleep with their beaks tucked under their wings, like the rest of us, but anyone who has spent any time around a five-year-old knows that the gentlest whisper from such a creature is like being shot into wakefulness. The parrots bolt straight off the trees, eyes wide and hearts hammering, pooping with fear. She likes this a lot. It puts a smile on her face that would gladden your heart if it were actually daylight and you could actually see it.

Her relationship with insects, chronicled in a previous edition of this column, has been rather more fraught, but it is developing. From initial terrified disbelief when she first encountered flies, mosquitoes, ants and other creepy-crawlies (she thought they ate people), she has grown more cynical. The pests are still her enemies, but her distaste is tempered by the fact that she is more secure about her military advantage. She has evolved a sort of long-haul siege mentality, with the option of counterattack. She launches the occasional sortie, windmilling her arms and yelling ‘Makkhimakkhimakkhi!’ like a kamikaze pilot descending into Pearl Harbor, as if each iteration strikes a couple of bugs dead. It’s bigotry and bravery and last-ditch mission, all wrapped up in one conflicted package.

The other morning we had breakfast on the porch, successfully waking up several neighbourhoods in the National Capital Region in the process. Since the weather has changed in Delhi and we’ve gone from cool spring straight to mosquito- and fly-infested summer, she had a lot of competition for her egg and toast from a cloud of insects. There were so many that she realised that shouting makkhimakkhimakkhi was not going to accomplish anything. She retreated and reconsidered, and then came back with a new tactic: instead of trying to fight them, she just walked into the middle of them and blew a mighty, saliva-laced raspberry. It said all kinds of things at once—that she was unimpressed by their fearsome numbers, that their pomposity was just so much rubbish, and that while they had the floor for the moment, they could never have her respect.

And I realised that this simple device is what I’ve been searching for, without knowing that I was searching for it, to perfectly communicate the precise shade of my feelings these days. Sticking out your tongue and making a flatulent noise remains relevant whether you’re 5, or almost 45. It conveys a derision that neutralises your de facto impotence; you can’t do anything about the country, but the act of expression itself is deeply satisfying.

The BJP tries to impose President’s rule on Uttarakhand without waiting for a floor test. *Raspberry*

The Congress decides to compete for most nationalist idiot in Maharashtra. *Raspberry*

The contractor in Kolkata calls the horrendous collapse of its flyover “an act of God”. *Raspberry*

People on social media believe that India is going great guns and that the world respects us madly. *Raspberry*

Torrents of abuse, ranging from the assumption that you’re trying to get free tickets to international conferences, to the assumption that you’re actually being paid by “political masters” for your opinion. *Raspb--*--no, actually that’s just extremely funny and makes me giggle.

Anyway, I highly recommend the raspberry. It has a deeply cathartic effect, and while you inexorably age with every passing day, making a farty noise with your mouth just never gets old.