Music critique in Mussoorie

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March was a good month to be in Mussoorie. The air was nippy and clear, cool enough to feel the wintry chill but not so cold that you were stuck indoors under a mound of blankets. The town wasn’t free of tourists even in this lowest of off-seasons as Mall Road witnessed a steady parade of honeymooners and families from Delhi escaping the onset of summer in the plains below. But they weren’t overbearing and there was enough space for one to wander and take in the view of the Doon valley from its many viewpoints peacefully.

It was in Mussoorie that I developed the compulsive habit of visiting every affordable restaurant that anyone recommended to me. I took in suggestions offered from just about anywhere, the Lonely Planet, the tourist office, idle gossipers on park benches, backpackers, people I was traveling with. Like everything else that depended on other people pointing the way for you, it was a hit and miss affair but some of the hits were so good that the exercise appeared to be worthwhile.

It was on one of these “recce’s” that I hit the café somewhere in the middle of the Mall Road. The red and orange walls were decorated with posters of Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, some obscure Meghalayan guitarist I had never heard of, covers ripped off Rolling Stone Magazine and song lyrics and “inspirational” quotes by the aforesaid musicians scribbled all over. I felt like I was entering a shrine to classic rock than a restaurant. Nevertheless, since it was listed in the Lonely Planet, a fact confirmed by the huge “recommended by Lonely Planet” scribble pointing to a blowup of the review from the guidebook and a quote from Jimi Hendrix saying “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”, I felt compelled to eat there.

Apart from a young man who was crouched over a table in a corner, there was nobody around. With his eyes closed, he appeared to be attentively listening to music on a walkman, bobbing his head up and down. He perked up when I tapped his shoulder to draw attention to the fact that there was a hungry customer waiting in his cafe.

“Oh, I’m sorry”, he said, “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not really”, I said, and then went on to compliment the décor of his restaurant.

“So what do you want to eat? Noodles okay? I can make noodles”, he said, cheerfully.

I was in no mood for noodles but since he had such a joyful countenance, I chose to go with what he had to offer.

P was a fan of “rock music” for as long as he could remember. His favourite band was Pink Floyd but his knowledge of their oeuvre extended only to “Another Brick in the Wall”, “Wish you Were Here” and other tracks from their live album “Pulse”. He played the guitar for a Dehradun-based rock band and cribbed about the lack of a music scene in the region. One of his friends was a DJ for a local radio channel, he said, and his aim was to filter in more rock music awareness through that avenue. His dream was to make songs that became more popular with the youth and he felt he could achieve it by blending guitar riffs with Indian sounds to make the music sound new and attractive.

“You mean, like what Junoon and Euphoria are doing,” I said, trying to mask my skepticism.

“No, no, they are too commercial,” he said. “I want us to sound like Deep Purple but, like, more Indian, you know? With violins and all.”

“You mean, like Parikrama?”

“Yes, yes, exactly, something like that. But hopefully bigger.”

After a quick trip to the kitchen to check on the noodles, he asked me if I would like to hear a song his band had been recording. Of course, I said, I couldn’t wait to hear it.

He fetched his walkman and put on the tape.  The song began with the vocalist doing a tacky raga-like imitation of the opening riffs of “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses. P must have seen a frown on my face, so he paused the song and added a disclaimer saying, “Please remember that this is just a scratch recording. We’ll be refining the song when we record the final version. The solo in the middle is all me by the way.” And then flashing a smile, he said, “Now I’ll let you listen in peace.”

When he was away in the kitchen paying more attention to my noodles, I resumed the song. It may have been a scratch recording but the song was horrific in every imaginable way. After the wordless opening raga, the song plunged into a sub-Blink 182 mode with a punky rhythm robbed of all energy by the fact that the rhythm guy just didn’t have any, well, rhythm. The lyrics were some mumbo jumbo about dreams and angels and falling in love in a dream with an angel or some terrible crap like that. It’s a good thing that I’m writing this over 8 years after the event because much of the residue left of the words in my memory has been wiped out with time.

Then the guitar solo began. Oh, the ordeal. It started with decent uptempo riffs but then, for some reason, he abruptly went up the scale and began a bending spree that sounded like a series of streaky burps and ended with an out of control atonal arpeggio assault. It sounded as if he had worked out 3 different techniques to do one solo and hadn’t figured out how to transition smoothly between the sections.

Soon, P arrived with my noodles. I looked at him, smiled, nodded, thanked him for the song and began to eat. After my meal, he asked me expectantly, “So how did you like it?”

I thought the noodles were too oily but I told him I enjoyed the food.

“Not the food, man. I’m talking about my song. How did you like the song?”

“Oh, the song…”, I said, thinking of the best strategy to adopt here.

“The song was really fantastic, especially the solo in the middle,” I said, not wanting to get into trouble in a town I didn’t know. “I’m sure you’ll work out the little technical glitches in between and smoothen out your solo in the final cut.”

“What glitches?”, he said, looking bewildered.

“Oh, you know, when you bent the high notes all of a sudden and the somewhat abrupt arpeggios at the end…”

“Oh, the solo is fully done. It’s going to stay as it is”, he said, defiantly. “My band has agreed that it’s the best element of the song at the moment. In the final edit, we’ll just do a proper mix and we would be ready to go.”

“Ah, okay. So you’re all set then. Best of luck.”

“You don’t seem to be very happy. What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing”, I said, resignedly, “What do I know about music anyway?”

“That’s okay. Let me explain. The song is about angels and afterlife, yeah? So I had to work out something really freaky for the solo section. When I bend the notes, you should feel as if the man’s soul is departing for the netherworld. After that, you might have noticed that it returns to normal but picks up the motif again at a faster pace. That’s because he’s reunited with the angel he loved. It’s a happy moment, so I play fast at the end. My solo summarises the story of the song in 40 seconds.”

It’s never easy to tell musicians/artists that you didn’t like what they had created when you were in front of them, however terrible it may have seemed to you, and especially when one had put in as much thought and effort into their music as P appeared to have.

So I said, “That’s really impressive. It’s a great concept. Maybe you could put that information on the liner notes of your album because some of us aren’t as smart as you are.”

He took my e-mail address and promised to send me some of the other tracks when they were ready to get more feedback. A part of me is glad that never happened.

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A web of lies in Mussoorie

10398976_115847806962_7607259_n“Are you afraid of scorpions?”  

“Yes, very much so. Why?” 

“Our area in Mussoorie used to have a lot of scorpions. When I was a child, my friends and I used to play a game. We caught these creatures by the tail and let them go just before they stung. The loser was the one who got stung first. You should be careful in Mussoorie because even today, there are a lot of scorpions and this is scorpion season.” 

The lanky fellow sitting next to me on the bus to Mussoorie who was entertaining me with tales from his childhood was the owner of a restaurant at the hill station. He appeared to be suspicious about my motives for going to Mussoorie after receiving non-committal responses regarding my relationship status.

“Most young men who come alone to Mussoorie end up committing suicide because they can’t handle the loneliness,” he said, staring into the distance but looking at me every once in a while with the corner of his eye to signify that his words were meant for me. “They don’t realize that girls come and go but you live only once.”

The only way to get him to stop making these snap judgment calls and annoy me was to lie, I thought. So I assured him that I wasn’t going to Mussoorie alone and that my girlfriend was already there waiting for me.

“But why is she in Mussoorie all alone?”, he asked with suspicion oozing out of his every pore.

“She was there with her friends and we didn’t want them to know that we were seeing each together,” I said, trying to embellish a terrible lie. “So she told them that she wanted to spend two days on her own because of the two extra holidays she had. Her friends left this morning and I’m on my way to see her. But, yes, I’m worried about the fact that she is all alone right now.”

“Ah, don’t worry. Mussoorie is the safest place in the world. So you’re seeing each other secretly?”, he said, with a mischievous wink.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s difficult. But we plan to tell our parents very soon. They’re very progressive and I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“All the best, my friend,” he said, patting my back. I hoped his suspicions about me being an irresponsible vagrant had been laid to rest. “Love marriages are the best, especially when you have open-minded parents.”

We got off at the Picture Palace bus stand where I made promises I didn’t intend to keep, like coming to eat at his restaurant with my girlfriend or taking her to Kempty Falls which he said was a “compulsory honeymoon place”. He wanted to know where we were staying, so I opened up my Lonely Planet and pointed at a respectable-looking hotel in its Mussoorie pages which was apparently a very good one in his opinion. It was the most elaborate lie I had ever told and being a terrible liar, all that lying had exhausted me mentally.

Before Mussoorie, the highest altitude I had ever reached was 920 meters at Bangalore. So lugging my backpack up the steep lanes crisscrossing the hilly town looking for a place to stay was a Himalayan ordeal. I looked up all the cheap places on the Lonely Planet in an area which spanned the entire length of the Mall Road and sections of the Camel Back Road. That was roughly around 4 kms of walking with a heavy backpack on the sort of uneven terrain I had never walked before. My suffering was made worse by the fact that none of the hotels were willing to take me in. Some of them were full for the night and the ones that had rooms wouldn’t take in single male Indian travellers. The hotels I saw that weren’t on the LP looked either too dreary or too expensive for me to consider.

So, utterly disheartened and exhausted, I sat down in a restaurant near the Picture Palace end of the Mall Road to plan my next move and opened up the Mussoorie page on the Uttarakhand edition of the IMS map-book that I was carrying. While I was poring over the page trying to get a sense of the geography of the town, the lanky man I met on the bus appeared out of nowhere and said, “What are you doing here? And why do you look so depressed? Where’s your girlfriend?”

 “What girlf… Oh, the girlfriend”, I said.

“Yes, you had come to see her in Mussoorie, na?”

I had to think of something quickly lest my elaborate web of lies get unravelled.

 “Yes, I did”, I said sombrely. “But she left with her friends in the morning.”

“Why?”

“She doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”

“You told me that you were going to marry her. How could she change her mind so suddenly?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s her choice. You know how girls are. I have a feeling she might be seeing someone else. But I’m not worried. I’m still young and can easily find other girls.”

“That’s the spirit”, he said. “These women, I tell you, they can be very fickle. Be more careful when you meet the next one.” He then pointed at my rucksack and said, “So where are you going now? Back home?”

“I still have my holidays. I thought I would spend a few days in Mussoorie.”

“Hmmm,” he said, dubiously. “Mussoorie is not a place to be alone. You’ll get bored without any friends around you. Also, if you’ve just broken up with a girl, you might…”

He didn’t finish his sentence but had said enough to hint at where he was going.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that”, I said pompously. “These things don’t affect me. I have broken up with many girls before and I’m pretty sure I’ll find one soon. I didn’t love her that much anyway. In fact, I was more interested in seeing Mussoorie than being with my girlfriend. What I need right now is a hotel. Do you know any affordable ones in this town?”

He studied my face for a few seconds and then asked me to get up and come with him. After walking up a ridiculously steep lane, we came to a hotel which I had dismissed as too expensive for my budget. But the man got me a decent room with a toilet for 200 Rs. and told me that I was welcome to visit his restaurant and talk to him any time I felt like I needed company.

Over the next couple of days, I got the feeling that he was keeping a close eye on me to check if I hadn’t tumbled over a cliff out of depression or boredom. He would show up in the hotel and ask me out for a cup of chai. Sometimes, he would invite me to his restaurant and entertain me with Mussoorie gossip over a free meal. We would go for long walks along the Camel Back Road where he would stop at the tea stall on the way and show me all the peaks visible from that point through the telescopes installed there. In the evenings, he would accompany me to the corner chaat stall and introduce me to some of his Mussoorie friends. He couldn’t allow me to be sad and alone in his town, he said, and since I knew nobody there, it was his duty to show me a good time.

All this generosity and benevolence made me feel terribly guilty about deceiving the man and I wished I could walk back my lies and tell him the truth. When we had first met on the bus, I had lied thinking we would never meet again. But once you’ve lied and backed up the lie with more lies, there’s nothing to do but to keep lying. So, every time the topic about my ex-girlfriends came up, I made up scandalous tales to keep him entertained. He was among the friendliest people I’d met and the least I could possibly do to redeem myself was return the favour with some wild stories.

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A few denizens of Dehradun

10398976_115838981962_2105038_n“When I was younger, a little older than you are now, I was working as a cartographer for the Indian Government, charting maps for The Survey of India. This was just before the war with China when Pandit Nehru sent all the scientists he could find to map the terrain and gain more knowledge of the more remote areas of Indian territory. I was on an expedition to a very distant corner of Ladakh. It was the purest wilderness you could think of, just rock and ice everywhere, no living things, not even plants or shrubs. There were strong blizzards blowing and we had to live on one meal and a few sips of water every day to conserve our limited resources. It was terribly tough and I felt like the ordeal would never end. One morning, we ventured to a high pass and after we went over it, we could see some flags flying in the distance. Our binoculars weren’t as powerful as the ones you get today. So we walked deep down into the valley. When we got closer, we could hear a cacophony of gongs and drums beating in the distance.  After we had walked about 2 kilometers, we saw a group of about a 100 people running towards us. We got really scared as we had no weapons to protect ourselves and we thought who knew what savages lived in these parts. But all of us were taken aback when they began kneeling down before us. Some of them touched our hands and faces like we were alien beings. Then they started draping us in colourful robes and headdresses decked with the choicest turquoise stones. It was all tremendously strange and we asked a linguist who was well-versed in Tibetan dialects to talk to them and find out what was going on. After a prolonged discussion, the linguist told us that those people had never seen anyone from outside their world before and they believed that we were the Gods their ancestors spoke of.”

The old man took a deep breath after finishing his story and waited patiently for my reaction. There was no way to confirm the veracity of a story like that, I thought, and who gave a hoot anyway when it held my attention so splendidly. I told him that it was an incredible story and that I envied the adventurous life he had led. Pride engulfed his face as it wrinkled into a delighted smile. He said, “You wouldn’t believe what we were capable of in those times. I always tell my grandchildren that they may be 50 years younger than me but I am a lot fitter than they are. You youngsters get no exercise, always watching TV and bending to your computers.”

We were sitting in the uber-cheap canteen of the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Dehradun. I had come here to see the Greco-Roman architecture of the building here and get a bit of a peaceful break from the city. But, by far, the most interesting experience while wandering around its colonial corridors was the company of the old man.

We had met purely by chance, sharing tables during lunch-time when the people working at the Institute had occupied all the other tables. He had come to FRI to meet an ex-colleague of his and was grabbing lunch before heading back home. Now, because he had someone who listened to his crackpot theories and improbable tales with interest, he delayed his departure. The old man had the habit of asking a lot of profound questions and answering them himself without waiting for a response from me. The superiority of the people of his time over the ones running the show currently was a recurring theme in his diatribes. “There was a cricketer named Gary Sobers during my time. You may not know him because you’re too young. He could win matches with both the bat and ball. How many cricketers can do that today?” I wanted to say “many” and that a lot of people my age knew who Gary Sobers was but I let him revel in his fantastic theories. “Nobody”, he continued, “because none of you are fit! It takes years and years of discipline and dedication to accomplish great feats.”

His most animated rhetoric was reserved for the political class. “Look at Advani and Manmohan Singh. Both will be 80 years old soon but see how hard they’re able to work. Does any politician in their 40s work even half as hard as they do? No, because they can’t. They get exhausted just sitting in their air-conditioned rooms, staring at mobile phones and getting fat on public money. Your generation’s favorite politicos like Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati are useless. Look at the way you people talk. You don’t even know how to talk these days.”

I got a ride back into the city in his car and to repay the favour, I had to listen silently to a volley of advice in matters as diverse as nutrition, exercise, mental discipline, physiology, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, China, the military etc. When we reached Paltan Bazaar at the center of Dehdradun, he asked me if I wanted to come to his house so we could continue these monologues over a few drinks. I politely refused and got off at the Clock Tower nearby. As I was leaving, he held my hand tightly and said, “Life seems very long, my son. But it isn’t. I hope you remember some of the things I told you.” I assured him that I would never forget the time I hung out with him and went on my way.

I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of good quality bookshops in a city as small as Dehradun. Two of them, The Green Book Shop and The English Book Depot, were my favourites. The Green Book Shop was run by Natraj Publishers and the owner, Mr. Upendra Arora, when he saw me cluelessly browsing the mounds of books lying everywhere, gauged my taste and recommended books I would otherwise have not even looked at. I wasn’t a big fan of Ruskin Bond but he knew the man and encouraged me to read his Himalayan diary “Rain in the Mountains”. He wanted me to read the book, if not for the kind of literary finesse I was looking for, to get a sense of the Uttarakhand landscape I would be traveling through. And if I liked it and I was still in the region, I could get it signed over a cup of tea with the author himself, he said with a wink and a smile, because Mr. Bond had a habit of coming down to Doon for a few days in April. He cautioned me against knocking at the door of the author’s Mussoorie house because the old man could do without people treating him as a tourist attraction.

Even though I traveled on a tight budget, the one luxury I did afford myself was books. They were my primary source of entertainment in the first 2 years of my travels when I went without a smartphone, a laptop or a kindle. At The Green Book Shop, I picked up everything that Mr. Arora put me onto, like Glorious Garhwal, a collection of short stories by Ganesh Saili,  Red and Trotter-Nama, novels by Allan Sealy, Seven Sacred Rivers by Bill Aitken and Once Upon a Time in the Doon, a collection edited by Ruskin Bond which contained essays and short stories about Dehradun by authors as diverse as Ram Guha, Allan Sealy, Ganesh Saili, Bikram Grewal and – he couldn’t suppress the pride in his voice when he pointed this out – Mr. Upendra Arora himself.

I could get a sense of how close-knit the city was while browsing through the shelves at The English Book Depot. The lady at the counter appeared to function as a listening post to people streaming into the shop. A young girl wanted advice on how to handle the approaches of a boy who was stalking her, an aged South Indian man gave her an excruciatingly detailed account of the back pain that was troubling him, a schoolboy wished to know how he could go about getting the grace marks he needed to pass an exam, two well-to-do ladies whispered about an extra-marital affair one of the women they knew were having and she listening to all of them patiently, providing a helpful tip here, a witty repartee there.

Despite these frequent non-literary distractions, she was alert to the demands of the people who were in the shop to buy books. She told me that all the books in her shop were hand-picked by herself and the people who worked there. The collection had a strong bent towards non-fiction and had a healthy collection of Penguin Classics. She was very helpful in suggesting a few non-esoteric books on Indian history like Diana Eck’s Banaras – City of Light, Michael Wood’s Chidambaram, Sudhir Kakar’s Ascetic of Desire and Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, all of which I enjoyed poring over in the days ahead.

When I had taken the train from Ujjain to Dehradun, I thought I would stick around for a night and hop onto a bus to Mussoorie the next day. Dehradun, I was told, was like any other ordinary town, hectic, busy and with not a lot to do. But I enjoyed Dehradun considerably more than I thought I would and that’s thanks largely to JD, Aunty, some of its denizens, the bookshops, the Tibetans. In the end, I was there for a week. It was the first place that taught me that a town is only as interesting as you allow it to be.

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