DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
WHO DOESN’T have memories which play only to the soundtrack of Lata Mangeshkar’s ageless voice? Who doesn’t have emotions that reach up from their deep dwellings at her tilt and lull? How not to be carried back to those times and places, with your entire heart spilling over?
Taken back, I am at my father’s third wedding in an ill-fitting pink bridesmaid’s dress. The night is near end. He’s leaning back in his white suit, legs crossed at the knee, fingers interlaced and eyes closed, swaying his head.
Maybe the songs were melancholy, religious or tender. Lata Mangeshkar’s voice rose and fell; soothing, aching, wistful and nearly sacred. It could have been my dad’s childhood in the 1940s, any family occasion, a Radio Trinidad segment or Sunday afternoon on Channels 2 & 13.
Maybe someone had poured a taste for me, I don’t remember, but over the evening I had finished whatever champagne I found in glasses. My 12-year-old impressions had become a blur.
It had been a hard night. I was the last to know or at least I was surprised the day we were to go shopping for wedding outfits. His soon to be in-laws were as startled when I asked who was getting married.
I would have left to return to my mother with my astonishment and hurt, but I didn’t want to miss out on being part of his memories. So I waited, desperate for some significance greater than the teenage nieces who filled out their matching bridesmaid’s dresses better than I did.
As so often, we don’t understand children’s anger or reactions. He was harsh and dismissive. That night, I may have been self-medicating, rebellious or disconnected despite dancing and laughter. I looked at him while silk webs of Suhani Raat spun silver around us. His eyes, closed by Lata Di’s notes, didn’t see me.
As any descendent of indenture should, I played some of her songs for Ziya at news of the nightingale of India’s own slipping away, like a beautiful night now gone, another loss to covid19.
How to explain that the history of Trinidad could be told in the stories of generations for whom her songs evoke vivid pictures of great-grandparents’ living rooms with cards hung on a string across the wooden wall, or the burial they never attended in a now quiet cemetery, or the television set of Indian Variety with its performers, cameras and studio lights?
How to convey that her voice called home those scattered by empire, whose return could only ever be through the everyday life of nostalgia, myth and ritual? Such a desire for solace and belonging could be fulfilled through music, lifted into the night air to travel through cane, flamboyant trees, cocoa estates, tall grasses, patio doors and even ground into masalas packed in suitcases with tears and joy.
Ziya, the same age as I was then, but without any reference to an experience of her own, was only vaguely drawn in when I said this is music of your grandparents and of being from the Caribbean just as much as Fiji, Mauritius or South Africa.
Meanwhile, my own childhood recollections came like sudden rain, with the immediacy that smells and sounds evoke. I wrapped them back in my jahajin bundle of inheritances; things painful and proud, sad and loving, silenced and spoken.
As an undergraduate in Toronto, I formed friendships with other Guyanese students for the first time. They spoke more Hindi and negotiated a more visceral longing in their connection to India, but also to their childhoods at home, such as in Berbice. They recollected old Bollywood songs with greater sentimentality.
In smoky dorm rooms, they played Lata Mangeshkar CDs, unpacking and exploring legacies of being Indian and Caribbean, Hindu and Muslim, and even the heartbreak of race politics in the region. The stars shone and new memories accompanied her chords, which remained so recognisable while throughout the world seasons changed.
How and when music from India resonates in the lives of those in the Caribbean is as much an individual as an entangled journey. I didn’t anticipate that this is what her melody would excavate while Zi listened grudgingly.
Were he alive, my dad would be 79 today. In his later decades, my sisters would settle in his car with the impatience of teenagers while he hummed to 103FM. I chose my words more carefully or had chosen silence by then. Filling the space between us, Lata Di still sang and sang.
Diary of a mothering worker