[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!”
“Sshhâ€¦” 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.”
I am a fish-eater bengali kayastha but happened to share a flat in US for almost 5 years with another tambrahm born orthodox tamil iyengar brahmin who learnt how to eat “aloo” and cauliflower from me. Ranga (Rangarajan) and me very often used to share funny incidents of our tamilian and bengali cultures. Indeed the humor of it is well presented by you here.
Shibshankar, thank you. Bengali and Tamil cultures are sister cultures, no?
I am spending my evening laughing at your fabulous writeups – plotting to make them do algebra and pushups had me in tears! Suchi your humour is of the best kind, it makes my cheeks glow and I feel young! Sigh! If only such miracle cures would last!
Samragi Madden, it makes your cheeks glow? I think that might be the best compliment Iâ€™ve ever received. 🙂
Gosh , this is so close to home ! I was brought up in Rajasthan in a TamBrahm house and endured extra large portions of both paattu class and Antakshari while growing up .. Really Funny post 🙂
My heart goes out to you. 🙂 And thanks!
Wow, as a typical tam-bram from Bangalore I was spared all of this.. Only reason., I’m not a girl.. My sister much to my amusement had to sing for food 🙂 .
Your writing brought a smile and refreshed a lot of memories. Thank you.
Welcome! And yes, singing is part of the whole accomplished-girl package.
Oh god Suchi !
You are so funny! Flatulence inducing sundal !
Thanks for the post. It had me in splits to say the least! As a guy who was brought up in a town like Trichy, it sprung up some childhood memories about the Tambrahm community in and around Srirangam. You managed to capture that element of bourgeois mentality with impeccable expressions, spinning your own flavor of sarcasm that was rib tickling and mildly teasing at the same time. Well done!!
Aww, thanks. “Element of bourgeois mentality”–whatever will the mamas and mamis say!
I still use Antakshiri as the best weapon in the Departmental bus trips!
Specially, when my professor starts to sing and we don’t know how to suppress his voice! Even I’m searching for a Bollywood song for those who can’t sing. I think I would ask him to sing that one in the next trip!
See, sometimes it is necessary and helpful as well 😀 !
Full crisis only! I have found that some of the Amitabh Bachchan songs work well. Short phrases and enough time to catch your breath “Imtehaan ho gayi (hic) (take breath) Intezaar ki (hic)”
May I know what is your purpose of such a useless, respect less writing?
And u call this humour?
If you do not like your voice or hate singing, do not do it. But, being a Tambrahm you dont have to mock at your own customs.
Coming to the excitement of navratri.. You feel excited for going to woodlands on navratri? wow! Tats truly a great thing to do.
I DO NOT feel sorry to write this.
Respected “not required” sir/madam,
You wrote: May I know what is your purpose of such a useless, respect less writing? And u call this humour?
-> I agree. No respect these days for humour. People are not understanding it only!
You wrote: If you do not like your voice or hate singing, do not do it. But, being a Tambrahm you dont have to mock at your own customs.
-> I agree. One should not mock at customs. For example, my custom is to sing loudly and badly. But what to do, people are mocking!
You wrote: Coming to the excitement of navratri.. You feel excited for going to woodlands on navratri? wow! Tats truly a great thing to do.
-> Mmmm, Woodlands.
You wrote: I DO NOT feel sorry to write this.
-> I also!
Thank You “Respected â€œnot requiredâ€ sir/madam” for posting your views. Enabled all of us to get more of Suchi’s “useless, respect less writing”
Pls continue to post your thoughts, so all of us tasteless wastrels get further useless nuggets from Suchi!!!!
Thanks for the hilarious comeback Suchi:)
Lucky – only a miniature comb, a mirror. Now a days it is plastic paraphernalia and designer pouches…