All that they can leave behind

I like to remember old loves, ex-boyfriends, heartfelt crushes, by the music we shared. The tunes I was introduced to in their rooms, and on rooftops, on long all-night bus journeys to the mountains. Music that has sometimes stayed in my life (and my ipod) long after we’ve parted. And, sadly even rarer, music we continue to exchange because, even after all the drama, we somehow ended up as friends. Not all relationships are melodically inclined – I’d like to imagine other interests that kept us together, however long or fleeting – but these, below, I carry in my heart. A musical biography of loss and love.

U and I met a millennia ago. We were both part of our school teams, selected for the Bournvita Quiz Contest (remember??), and made the journey from Shillong to Bombay over *three* days. A drive down to Guwahati, a flight to Calcutta, then a train trip across the country that was delayed by 14 and a half hours. The world was just that much larger in the mid-1990s. Although it did give us plenty of time to conduct our shy, awkward conversations. We played endless games of cards, mostly ‘Bluff’ (at which I was disconcertingly unskilled), and had conversations late into the night from berth to berth. U and I didn’t start ‘seeing’ each other until a few years later, although by then we were in different cities, and we went the way most long-distance relationships go (before Skype, Whatsapp and cheap flights). I suppose this is why I remember the few instances when we did meet rather vividly. On our last date, we sat in his Maruti 800 in a car park in my neighbourhood in Shillong, and talked, and watched the sky fade as lights speckled the hills before us. Despite the chiding when he dropped me home later (these were the ‘trouble’ days in town and I was out with a ‘dkhar’; also, no cellphones then), the years of silence that followed, the failed attempts to keep in touch, one song survives.

 In college, I discovered rock ‘n’ roll. I’d grown up with the early Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Dylan, and Dire Straits, but nothing like three years at university to really shake things up. It was a musical adventure with R (although he weren’t fond of The Dave Matthews Band, who I loved at the time. Bah!). Our flat in Husdon Lines, to the dismay of the elderly Punjabi couple on the floor below us, resounded with The Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, Led Zepp, The Who, and the Beatles (in all their later psychedelic glory). I remember listening to Tommy for the first time on a sunny winter afternoon on the terrace over bottles of chilled beer. Some things you just don’t forget. R was part of the college band, Soundcheck – he played the violin and did a mean cover of ‘Like a Rollin’ Stone’, and I have (admittedly hazy) memories of many, many concerts in and around Delhi. And a crazy trip to Naukuchiatal to perform at a lakeside resort. Yup, for a glimmering moment it was the ’60s all over again. Despite the musical indulgence it wasn’t difficult to pick a song. The first track on a mixed CD (yes, we’d moved on from tapes by then) that R made in the early days.

  I’m uncertain whether this qualifies as a ‘relationship’. C was a wandering minstrel from Spain I met in Mcleodganj, who played jazz guitar, loved the mountains, Tai Chi, and spoke about ten words in English. Still better than my (non-existent) Spanish. While he was in India, we kept in touch over email, liberally relying on Google translate, and he travelled to Delhi to visit me and buy a sitar. (Not necessarily in that order.) When conversation grew tiresome, during the few days we were together, the space between was filled with silences or music. Drinking chai at Asi Ghat, sitting on the terrace of his hotel in Varanasi watching the fireworks on New Years Eve. I left him there, in that city, and inevitably we lost touch. But a Google search all these years later does bring his name up in a musical capacity. He learned to play the sitar after all 🙂

 Winter evenings in Delhi. Whisky. Books. Art. All the world in one flat. This song reminds me of S.

 W was nuts about music. And he had a burning, all-consuming desire to compose and perform. (Which he does now, and that’s great.) We met when I was in my post-uni hippie phase, so plenty more of 60’s rock ‘n’ roll here. Many weekends, it would be him, me, a guitar and a crate of beer. And we’d sing. Perhaps because this was a favourite way to spend an evening in Shillong – a raucous old sing-song at a friend’s place, recycling an eclectic repertoire of Wonderwall, Pinball Wizard, Dead Flowers, and anything else we could half remember the lyrics to. Does it happen elsewhere? This is how I’ve always known parties in Shillong. Even with family. My aunt on the piano, my dad strumming the guitar, glasses in hand, everyone belting out number after number. Conversation wasn’t important. All that mattered was the music. An off-key communal chorus. Things didn’t end on the pleasantest of notes between W and I, but we were together a while, and if I had to remember one song amidst the wreckage, its this. Late in the night, him plucking the guitar, and I hoping to capture every note in purity.

 Even though R2 was English, we met in Calcutta where he was a volunteer at a local school for half a year. Again, we spent most of our time apart, although aided by the convenience of Skype and Blackberry messaging. When he visited me in Shillong, we travelled to Cherrapunjee and Assam, on local buses and sumos, sharing ipod headphones and singing along to Florence & the Machine and Travis. I remember him marvelling at how similar our music library was even though we’d lived our lives on either ends of the globe. I first met him in December, but it wasn’t cold enough to stop us climbing out the kitchen window of his flat in Ballygunge, and sitting on the rooftop with the city sprawled before us. Kathi rolls from roadside shops, evenings at Trinca’s. With him, though, I couldn’t choose between these two.

 Years ago, F helped me discover London. It was my first time in the city, and we met at an audition for a pantomime production of Jack & the Beanstalk  (For those interested, I was cast as the French maid). We had more of a love for cinema in common than music – Kurosawa, Herzog, Wong Kar Wai, Miyazaki, and strange spaghetti westerns made in Thailand. Occasionally, though, we listened to each other’s music. I never ever grew to like Tool, but some songs by The Perfect Circle were strange and haunting.

 Sometimes, as with A, a song remains.

Such a wealth of song! While writing this, I asked myself why I don’t keep a similar biography of literary encounters via old loves, the books they recommended now firmly ensconced in my shelves. I suppose it’s because music is more of a shared experience than books could ever be. You can listen to a song, an entire album, together, but it isn’t really possible to read the same book at the same time. Reading is more an internal experience, while music can be both – seeping in yet also remaining available outside, to be discovered and enjoyed. I’ve often heard people say ‘This album was the soundtrack of my college years.’ Each person has a soundtrack too. I can think of nothing more fitting. All I hope is to have also left some music behind in their lives. Even if it’s just one song.

Mix tape image © Jo James

3 Replies to “All that they can leave behind”

  1. “Here I am…
    Lost in the light of the moon,
    That comes through my window

    Bathed in blue…
    The walls of my memory divide,
    The thorns from the roses
    …it’s U, and the roses

    Touch me, and I will follow…
    In your afterglow
    Heal me, from all this sorrow…
    As I let you go

    I will find my way,
    When I see your eyes
    Now I’m living…
    In your afterglow.”

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