Saturday’s Child

At the time, I put it down to fate. The jubilation of having scored decent marks after a bare minimum attendance, the ensuing wrath of the hallowed Mrs Dossal who ran the political science department of Elphinstone College, the flaring tempers, the thinly-veiled threats — it nearly brought my academic life to a stand-still. Her words still ring in my ears; and they bring with them the same blinding fury: "I can well imagine how you managed to get these marks. It’s no big secret what can be bought and sold. I know what kind of a family you come from. Miss a single lecture, and we’ll see." The comedy of it all was that it never was a big secret that Mrs Dossal’s ‘prepared notes’ were almost verbatim from the Sabine textbook. Besides, it has never needed a genius to pass bona fide our university exams without attending lectures.

At that time, I found it hard to believe that her rage may have been goaded by envy, pettiness or prejudice. Against what, and against whom? I certainly couldn’t picture her as a frustrated diva. It took me many more such instances to divine exactly what I was up against. From "what kind of family" do I come? A chosen family, a special family, a family gifted with music since three generations. 

For people who — after having ground away the stipulated years in university, higher studies, apprenticeships, etc — trudge up and down the steep ladder of seniority, it must be extremely galling to see the seemingly uneducated, tasteless, loose-living, filthy-rich upstarts of the Indian film industry leave them yards behind in the rat-race. Predictably, the female singer was consigned to the bottom rung of their esteem. Depending upon the sensibilities of the person, and regardless of actualities, she was labelled bai-ji, gaayika, gaanewali, kothewali, devdasi, etc. The list is quite endless; I had to learn to cope with it. 

The earliest memory I have of my mother, Mrs Asha Bhosle, is a fleeting montage of doorbells rung very late in the night, a sobbing woman hugging me back to sleep, the strains of strange, repetitive singing emanating from behind a closed door… I bang on the door wanting to go in, but am roughly pulled away by a man when the music threatens to cease. Later, I learned that that was a routine day in the life of my father: guarding Aai against all impediment which may have prevented her from singing for their supper. I have erased my father from my memory, and with him, some of my own childhood: a defence mechanism, people call it. From the sordid tales I hear from our old cook, I must have desperately needed to do it. Suffice to say that it is the stuff which has fed scriptwriters and novelists from time immemorial, of indignities heaped upon submissive womanhood. 

Aai came into her own quite suddenly. One day it struck her that her third and advanced state of pregnancy may not be able to sustain the daily dose of bashing that was her lot. The next day, she left behind every single paisa she had earned, her bungalow, her car, even her clothes, and sought refuge with Mai Mangeshkar, the grand old materfamilias. (It’s a sore point in my life that she found the courage to do so only when my younger brother Anand was to be born). Of course, there were instant theories in the industry about this ‘desertion’, and I’m sure that there were many who were disappointed when Anand grew up to be (fortunately, only in appearance) a replica of our father. 

From now, I am on safe ground: I do not have to rely on hearsay. My memory miraculously returns with our surreptitious flight to the home of my grandmother, my three aunts and uncle. However, my memories of Aai are still not all that bright. Initially, there’s just a smattering of her, for she has to work twice as hard, since she has to rebuild from scratch, and there is one more mouth to feed. Although she was always there to make our home, put us through school and spoil us with luxuries, I never had enough of her. How a single parent manages to merge the roles of provider and home-maker is still beyond my comprehension. Much later, I asked her, "Aai, you had the security of the roof of your own mother, your sisters — what was the big rush to set up your own house? Instead, couldn’t you have given us more time?" Without missing a beat, she replied, "Never again did I want to be at the mercy of anyone else. It would have been equally harmful for you three. You had to grow up in your own home, and with the freedom I alone could sanction". We did, we did. 

After setting up independently, Aai rebelled a textbook kind of rebellion. Much more than today, the film industry — like our society at large — was saturated with prejudice, hypocrisy and factionism — and Asha Bhosle had tacitly been branded a fallen woman. It certainly didn’t help when the closest comparable rival was her own sister, the ethereal Miss Lata Mangeshkar. Soon, choice assignments were withdrawn, and a conspiracy of silence manifested itself into Aai’s musical career… But, if anyone so much as suggested something to alleviate the situation, you could bank on Asha Bhosle to do the opposite. After more than a decade of suppression, and of keeping the shame of her squalid married life from her family and colleagues, she simply revelled in her absolute freedom. What still fascinates me is the total honesty and fearlessness with which she lived, as if to say, "My life is an open book, make of it what you will." 

It’s accepted that one needs to humanise a hero in order to understand and truly appreciate him; the corollary to which may be that an idol admitting to be made entirely of clay, as they all must be, is soon relegated to the tar-pits. Whatever others may say, I’m convinced that her being typecast by music directors as the perennial cabaret/ mujra/ qawwali singer is a fallout of her early life. I’m not quite qualified to comment on music, but one fact is undeniable — like any other extraordinary singer, she excelled in all genres, but Hindi film-makers were ticklish about giving their on-screen epitomes of Indian womanhood the voice of this rather camp personality. If the character was ‘westernised’, her voice was that of Asha. And this label stuck just at the time when the most memorable music was being composed for the Indian heroine. 

Curiously, the Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati music industries were totally unaffected by any of these tags: some of her best heroine-songs of that period are in these languages. Since being politically correct has never been my forte, I may as well say that it speaks volumes about regional cultures and sensitivities. Moreover, what a coincidence that just around the time of her marriage to R D Burman, the "cabaret singer" label was miraculously replaced by the respectable "versatile". I grit my teeth each time I hear it. Just another label signifying nothing. 

If I were to sum up my mother in one word, it would have to be zidd: ‘wilfulness’ or ‘obstinacy’ doesn’t connote the shades of determination and the readiness to toil that I associate with it and her. The more formidable the task, the harder she applies herself to it. Like her venture into the Western music world as a member of the pop-group The West India Company, formed with Steven Luscombe of Blancmange. One fine day, Anand casually informed her that he had finalised the deal and that, in a month, she would have to a) compose; b) sing; c) interact with British musicians and technicians; d) give live interviews on radio; e) appear on television… and all this in English, in England. 

For a middle-aged woman who had never been to school, let alone spoken a complete English sentence, this, I thought, was an impossibility. I was appalled. What happened was, I had the stomach runs for a month, while she diligently rose at 4 am, donned her Walkman, and heard ‘Spoken English’ cassettes for hours. Well, she did it all: entered the Top-20 charts with her song Ave Maria,, appeared on British and German television, spoke lucidly on radio interviews, addressed the British press — all with her usual unfazed panache. 

Her spirit reaches dizzying heights during concert tours. In 1989, during the US tour, she underwent the most rigorous schedule ever devised. We had to play 13 cities in 20 days, which entailed cross-country red-eyes taken barely a few hours after the completion of each show. Every musician was sapped by the time we boarded the plane immediately after the last concert in Houston, Texas. But were we going home? No. We were on our way for yet another gig — in Stockholm, Sweden. This journey was the proverbial last straw: Aai suffered a massive attack of colitis, together with fever, cough and weakness. The very first result of even one of these complaints is trembling of the voice, which then ‘splits’ into two, and Aai had ’em all. 

At the pre-concert crisis meeting in Stockholm, it was decided by Anand and the sponsors that short of cancelling the gig, the only way out was that the orchestra should play umpteen instrumental tracks, the accompanying singers (Suresh Wadkar and yours truly) shoulder the load, and the billed star make a cursory appearance. Which would, no doubt, have led to a riot. Hereupon, my multiple visits to my favourite place commenced. 

At the stage-wings that evening, our band conductor approached me with the news that Ashaji had rejected all such ‘insane’ proposals, that she would sing exactly what the audience had come to hear. I must add here that most of Asha’s hits, like Dum maro dum, O mere sona re, Jaiye aap kahan jayenge, Duniyan mein logon ko, etc, sound ‘frothy’ and ‘airy’. It’s only when a lesser singer attempts them that one can gauge the tremendous breath-control and pitch modulation required for these non-classical, hence ‘lightweight’, songs. It’s solely her mastery that makes them seem so easy to execute. Anyway, I had been clutching at the misguided belief that the turn-out in any city of continental Europe would be less than moderate. But, as it must happen at such times, that evening, the show was a sell-out… 

The hall was packed with Indian and Pakistani expats when Aai started with her first set of six songs. I could recognise the strain in the moments when she suddenly dropped the volume or signalled the violinist to join in. All I could do was deliver glasses of glucose to the stage. At best, it was an indifferent performance; and I couldn’t even blame the audience for its lack of response. Before the start of the second set of songs, a lone voice cried out from the audience, "Asha-taiiii, please sing a Marathi song. We’ve come a long way for it." Aai softly hummed, Naach-naachuni ati mi damale… the opening lines which roughly translate as "I’m so very tired of this endless dancing, oh Lord…" 

I have yet to accept what happened in that flash. Perhaps, it was a case of putting mind over matter. Or, perhaps she heard, understood and experienced the words like never before. Or, maybe the Great Conductor in the sky decided that she had been tried enough. Her eyes closed, and both hands clenching the microphone, she crooned or belted out the stanzas as the mood gripped her. The notes and words seemed to swirl in a lazy vortex around the stage, gently eroding even the mildest defence in their path, till all was one pristine, homocentric entity. I remember crying unashamedly, and a moist-eyed Suresh hugging me whilst murmuring things like, "There will never be another like her; how can she conjure up such magic against such odds? How does she do it?" 

There was absolute silence when the song finally ended. And then, very slowly, as if gradually awakening from a stupor, the claps and encores started, gradually building up to such a crescendo that the auditorium virtually erupted. I was in shock — after all, it wasn’t a predominantly Marathi audience. But, that’s the power of music. It’s the last remaining frontier where complete harmony exists amongst people of all religions, castes and languages. From that point of time, the concert gained a momentum all of its own: we could do nothing to curb it, and Asha Bhosle could do nothing wrong. 

What did happen to the colitis, fever, etc? Back home, Aai was in bed for a full month, recuperating from overexertion. But that was afterwards… After ALL the commitments had been honourably discharged… 

My mother is my entire family, Mrs Dossal. This is the family to which I proudly belong.

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