Music Through Generations

Posted Tuesday, 03 September 2019

I travelled to India after my university graduation for a final visit with my grandfather as he wasted away from liver disease. Babuji was informed I was coming and when I walked into his bedroom, he was sitting up in a crisp, white kurta pajama. 

My aunts had warned me that he was in bad shape, but still, it was hard to reconcile the gaunt, weak being with the fat-cheeked, playful man he had been. I hugged him gently, afraid of hurting him. His flesh had disappeared and I felt the bones under his paper-thin skin.

“Here is Mona,” my grandmother told him. “She has come from America.”

“How was your journey?” he asked me, formally.

“It was fine,” I said. “I slept on the plane.” 

“You have finished your studies?” he said.

“Yes, I got my degree in English literature and am planning to apply to law school.”

Babuji nodded. “You will be an excellent lawyer. You will do great things in life.”

My mother had trailed me into the room and I caught her eye and smiled. My grandfather knew me! My aunts had said it was possible Babuji would not recognise me, that he was drifting in and out of consciousness. But he knew I was his granddaughter and he was sending me off into adult life with his blessing.

“You have done wonderful work in the Indian railways and I know you will continue to do so.” Babuji lifted up a trembling hand for me to shake, and I did, bewildered.

“What railways?” I whispered to my mom, as we left the room. “What is he talking about?”

My mother shrugged. “He has no idea who you are.”

It was a sad few weeks as the moorings affixing Babuji to life gave way one by one. It became impossible for him to stand, then to eat, then to speak. The doctors said he could no longer digest salt so my aunts plucked mint from the garden to season his food. When he refused these bland meals from his wife and daughters, my uncle came home from the office, rolled up his shirt sleeves and fed his father-in-law by hand. Babuji lay in bed and we sat with him to wait.

One day, at the end, my cousin found some cassette tapes and played the music my grandfather had loved as a boy. To my ear, the songs sounded impossibly antiquated, spare arrangements with tinny, folk instruments, sung in Hindi.

My grandfather’s lips started to tremble and tears spilled from his eyes.  It was the first time he had moved in hours. “He’s saying something,” I said. “He wants something.”

My aunt bent close and stared in astonishment. “He’s singing,” she said. “He’s trying to sing.”
Even then, as my grandad slipped from life, music had the power to call him back for a spell. Music is magic, you see. That’s why when fakirs charm cobras, they play a little flute. Science tells us it’s not the music the snake responds to but the movement of the snake charmer. But we, the audience, respond to music. It has the power to make us believe the impossible.

When I was growing up, my dad played ghazals as he drove us around our suburban New England town. He loved the soulful Urdu lyrics, a language in which he is fluent. The poetry of these words contained the truths of love, loss and longing from the ancient Persian poets and my father was entranced. 

To my brother and me, the songs sounded like the howling of tortured cats. We begged our father to eject the tape, toss it out the window and tune into the radio. We wanted to hear American Top 40 songs of the 1980s. My brother’s tastes skewed to hard rock and mine gravitated more to soul.

When I hear this music of my youth now, I come alive. My middle-aged stupor falls away and I am myself again. “This song is my jam,” I shout at my kids, as they plug their ears and groan. I blast Jeffrey Osborne, Lionel Richie, Journey, really anything and everything that reminds me of my childhood, before I knew about loss, suffering or the inevitable decline of all things that comes with time.

Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.


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