The beat goes on

Every year during the Pujas, in my neck of the woods, far from the madding crowd, I would log on to YouTube for snatches of old melodies. Music by the Ventures and the Shadows, Booker T and the MGs, Al Caiola and the Champs, Billy Vaughan and Sandy Nelson, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The jangling guitars and pounding drums, trilling horns and wailing electric organs belting out foot-stomping music rolled back the years, taking me back to the Pujas of my teens when the Grand Hotel was the best hotel in town, English movies played at the Metro, Globe, Elite, New Empire and the Lighthouse, only Fiats and Ambassadors plied the roads … and there was no television at all. The radio was king – a temperamental beast given to wheezing and coughing static.

FM did not exist then – not in India when India was Indira and Indira was India. That’s what some of the billboards claimed though the graffiti struck a rebellious note. “China’s chairman is our chairman,” said the writing on the walls. Oh Calcutta of the Swinging Sixties and the Seventies! Gone with the wind aeons ago, gone but not forgotten. Religiously, during the Pujas, I would take a trip down memory lane to the sound of music from my youth. How could I not as a Bengali abroad where the Pujas brought no red-letter days and no one celebrated Mahalaya?

So, alone in an apartment overlooking a tree-lined avenue in Singapore, I would log on to YouTube and listen to Walk Don’t Run, Pipeline and Apache, Diamond Head, Riders In The Sky and Slaughter On Tenth Avenue. Those fabulous instrumentals were part of the Puja music of my teens when the Ventures and the Shadows sometimes belted out of the loudspeakers, alternating with Bengali and Hindi songs.

Many Puja organisers in Kolkata now, I am told, zealously try to keep the ambience as Bengali as possible. But what is Bengali after all the cultural assimilation over the centuries? Even the language is similar to English in one respect. The verb does not change with the gender, as it does in Hindi or Sanskrit. Even the most widely used musical instrument – the harmonium – was first brought from the West by 19th century missionaries.

“Music is the universal language of mankind,” said Longfellow. Yes indeed. The irresistible beat of the Ventures and the Shadows was certainly in tune with the Puja spirit. Pop music, of course, has always had its critics, who dismiss it as mindless pap. But the top 20 or hot 40 in my time had its India love notes. “Jai guru deva om,” chanted the Beatles in Across The Universe – and stiffs even older than me will recall the wondrous tribute to the ladies of Calcutta:

I’ve kissed the girls in Naples, they’re pretty as can be,
I’ve also kissed some French girls, who came from Paree.
The Spanish girls are lovely, oh yes, indeed they are,
But the ladies of Calcutta are sweeter by far.
The ladies of Calcutta will steal your heart away…

In the light of the India fever back then, when the Beatles hung out with Mahesh Yogi and Ravi Shankar and the Nehru jacket was in vogue, it seemed churlish of Indira Gandhi to rail against the “foreign hand” and communists to rant against Western decadence. But what do I know of politics? Give me the music any day.

Even talking about the music is rejuvenating. The years are rolling back. In my mind’s eye, I can see a younger me, all dressed up and raring for fun on a Puja day. After the obligatory round of the neighbourhood Puja pandals in the morning, my friends and I would head off to Chowringhee in the evening. To Metro or Globe, Lighthouse or New Empire. We escaped to the movies to avoid the crowds. And when the lights came on at the end of the show, we would walk home through deserted roads — Camac Street, Minto Park, Lansdowne Road – to avoid the hordes of Puja revellers.

Who knew then even I one day would miss the crowds during the Pujas? They are too much like any other day in Singapore. Not that the Pujas aren’t celebrated there. They are — with all the fun and fervour you could ask for. Bengalis rock. The insight hit me with the force of a revelation during the Pujas last year at the Bengali Association in Singapore. Ma Durga and her children could be seen from afar, gracing a corner of a big white marquee on an open field, but the action seemed to be at the far end, on a makeshift stage, where singers were crooning into microphones.

They had about a hundred people up on their feet , dancing in joyous abandon. Men and women, adults and kids, gyrated and jived, swayed and shimmied in Bollywood style. Hands waved, hips swivelled, bellies jiggled, eyes smiled and heads tossed in rhythm with the music. Lips moved in sync with the lyrics. People leapt up from their chairs and danced in front of the stage and between the tables piled high with food.Two young women at the table next to ours suddenly got up and started dancing to cheers from their friends. Another young woman stood up and, putting fingers to her lips, let out a piercing wolf-whistle. I was amazed. Bollywood dancing is not something only Indians do in Singapore. I have seen a Chinese couple cavort in a park a la Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai for a television shoot. But a young woman emitting a wolf-whistle? That was something new.

Working in the evenings usually prevented me from watching the fun and festivities the party animals got up to after hours during the Pujas in Singapore. But, of course, I had to say my prayers; and, thank goodness, there was – there is – the Ramakrishna Mission. What a pleasure it was to visit the mission buildings on a slight rise at the end of a long driveway on Bartley Road, next to the MRT station. Regular as clockwork, anjalis were offered there shortly after noon every day of the Pujas. The anjalis were followed by bhog. The worshippers gathered in the spacious dining hall for the sumptuous, free khichuri and sweets. Mahasthami attracted the biggest crowds, but I couldn’t wait till then, preferring to say my prayers on the very first day. Not only Bengalis – bearded Punjabis and South Indians, too, could be seen among the worshippers. The swamijis also came from different communities. A Bengali swamiji there was sent over to Australia a few years ago. You have to keep the faith Down Under, too.

Living on an island like Singapore, where a walk along sea beaches shows ships at sea and airliners winging across the horizon, one is constantly reminded of the flux of life. People come and go. I ran into an old acquaintance at the Pujas last year. An engineer, she had worked in Singapore and then returned to Kolkata. But there she was, having moved back again from Kolkata to Singapore. And here I am in Kolkata. “Like a rubber ball I come bouncing back to you,” I might tell my friends and relatives. Now that’s a line from a song I have never heard played at any Puja pandal.

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