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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Chamba #1

April, 2009 – I hate buses that leave early in the morning. Those that leave on horrendously winding mountain roads on days when my digestive system is queasing with diarrheac agony are a particular source of sleepless nightmares. I was assured by the staff of my hotel in Mussoorie that the 6.30 a.m. bus was the only way I was going to get to Chamba with public transport. It was a lie as I would discover later. They wanted me to get out as soon as possible because the entire hotel was booked up by 3 families from Delhi for the weekend and no one knew when they were going to arrive and the last thing they needed was some groggy-eyed hippie backpacker holding up one of the rooms.

So I shivered in the wintry chill of dawn and tried getting something to eat before the bus arrived because I did not want to travel on an upset AND empty stomach. The only edible eatables around the bus stop at that time of the morning were a samosa and a cup of watery chai served by an ancient man from his oil blackened shed. Half a morsel in and it became fairly obvious to me that the potatoes inside were rotten. The two eyes peeking out of the million wrinkles on the ancient man’s face were looking at me expectantly as I was eating. I wanted to be a nice guy, so I finished devouring the entire samosa in front of his eyes as quickly as I could, washed it down with the glass of bitter chai and beamed a thankful smile as I handed over a 5 rupee note.

The first 30 minutes of the journey were fine, spectacular even, with the clear early morning weather revealing mighty Himalayan peaks jutting behind the tall mountains of the Shivalik range. This was the first time I had seen snow-capped peaks in my life and the frequency with which the white mountains were being revealed to me made me orgasmic with joy. If my journey had ended calamitously with the bus falling into the mighty gorge below, I would have died a happy man.

But it didn’t, and my joyous musings were interrupted by the lady sitting in front of me as she poked her face outside the window and ejected a projectile of vomit, some of which, because of the forward motion of the bus and the resultant backward motion of the vomit, landed on my jacket and my face.

The odour of the bile that the woman had generously sprayed all around was, needless to say, unpleasant. It had the added advantage of provoking my hitherto peaceful stomach and liver into action to compete with their counterparts within the woman and very soon, I felt violently unwell. But I did not want to embarrass myself and puke away with carefree abandon like the woman did. I tried to keep my body in control till the bus stopped somewhere or reached Chamba. It was only 40 kms away now, which was 2 hours on these treacherous Himalayan roads with their serpentine curves and hairpin bends. I thought I would sleep it off. So I slept.

When I woke up, I felt even more ill than before. I hoped we were somewhere in the vicinity of Chamba, so I looked out of the window for some signs of hope. A milestone gently sauntered by announcing “Chamba – 37 kms”. When I read this, my brain and my nervous system, appeared to have switched sides and allied with the digestive organs in a mutiny against my will. I had no power to resist and the contents gurgling in my intestines gushed out of my mouth with a force 5x times more violent than the woman. It happened every few seconds until the body was assured that it had ejected the samosa, chai and previous night’s oily paneer tikka masala out of its system. This was a demoralizing disaster. Maybe it was time to end my trip and go back home.

I looked around, expecting to be stared at by everyone else in the vehicle. But nobody seemed to have noticed. Half the people were asleep, the other half were detachedly staring into space. The elegantly dressed old man sitting next to me was still awake and was wiping some of the dregs of my violent outburst from the sleeves of his overcoat. He must have seen a pensive expression on my face because he said with a calm, consolatory tone in his voice,“Don’t worry, beta. Ye toh roz hota hai.” (This happens every day.)

I’ve never felt guilty about puking out of a bus on Himalayan roads ever since.

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