[Note: This is the unedited version of my column published 14 Oct 2012 in the Asian Age & Deccan Chronicle]
A few months ago, the husband and I got to travel to Australia’s beautiful but remote Kimberley region. We were huddled around a campfire with Australia’s finest (which is to say, retirees with lots of time and money), exchanging some lively banter, when my husband leaned across to me and whispered, “This is a miracle. There’s a campfire and no one is singing or playing Antakshari!”
“Sshh…” I said, “Someone might hear you!”
Now, my husband and I are two very different animals, but we have a shared horror of the Indian habit of publicly bursting into song at the slightest provocation, and forcing others to do so as well.
For me, it brings back some awful childhood memories. You see, in the Madras of the ’80s, a Tambrahm girl could choose any hobby so long as it was Carnatic music. “Sarasu, until where your daughter has come in Paattu class di?” was a common question at gatherings. My mother would bravely venture something like, “Actually she is not going to Paattu class, she is more interested in poetry.” At this, the assorted maamis would arch an unthreaded eyebrow. My mother, sensing some dangerous lowering of our reputation, would try a last-minute save with “Her poem is in the school magazine!”, but they would just cluck and nod in sympathy. And then, without missing a beat, they would talk about their Akhilandeswari or Sundari who could identify fifteen raagas even before she had started on solids.
In due course, the pressure got to the family, so I was despatched to a local class, where I could drown my voice in the chorus and escape any scrutiny–except, of course at Navratri time. Navratri has always been my favourite festival, but my memories are a bit mixed. Firstly, it seemed very unfair that, after wearing my nice silk paavadai, I wasn’t actually going anywhere exciting like, maybe Woodlands Drive-In. Instead, I was to traipse around to various neighbours’ houses and be made a victim of the singing & sundal scam. For the uninitiated, this involves random maamis doing an aiyyo-chubby-cheeks routine on you and announcing that, unless you sing, you won’t get any sundal (that typical South Indian chickpea salad). Having no other choice, I would loudly belt out a number. As I reached the upper notes, the maami’s faces would drop and they would glance in despair at the heavens above. Even the maama of the house, who seemed to have no other duties than to lounge around drinking coffee, would peer out from behind his newspaper to see whose child it was that had been so overlooked by the Gods. At the end of the exercise, I would be rewarded for my pains with nothing more than a packet of flatulence-inducing sundal, a miniature comb, a mirror, and a growing realisation of the unfairness of the world.
I took these embarrassments to heart as a child and spent many days plotting my revenge on those who made me sing. I would call them to my house for Navratri and make them all do algebra, I thought, rubbing my hands in glee. Or push-ups. I was pretty sure that the maamas couldn’t do push-ups. That would teach them.
Sadly, the trauma did not stop with childhood. I discovered, to my chagrin, that, whenever there are more than three and a half adult Indians assembled in a confined space, one of them will suggest Antakshari, or, worse, solo singing. Now, I love listening to people sing, especially if they are good singers. But I don’t understand why I have to join in as well. It’s all a conspiracy, I tell you. The singers of the country have hatched this plan to embarrass the hell out of simple bathroom singers like myself. There we were, content with our innocent fantasies, our tunelessness drowned out by the sound of the spluttering tap water, our weak vocals amplified by the tiled walls until there emerged something like a song. But, alas, time after time, we are forced to exhibit our lack of talent, to demonstrate in public that we cannot carry a tune even if it were given to us in a bucket.
So when someone asked on Facebook: “What is a good film song for someone who has a horrible voice? I’m going on a holiday with my friends and will need to sing. “, I commented almost immediately: “Avoid these people like the pox. Those who force their friends to sing in public may have other bad habits.”