May 29, 2006

A Sugarcane Morning in North Karnataka

On our drive past Sindgi enroute to Havalgi through Almel, before passing Afzalpur in the Bijapur district of North Karnataka, the road had not changed character from years ago. Until then, after the night halt at my relative’s place in Bijapur, the drive had been dream-like, with scarcely a bump in the road. Actually, it had been a revelation.

It was beyond Sindagi that I truly woke up that April morning as the jeep bumped and swerved on the road. I looked out the window to watch vast fields inch past in a sepia downpour of the familiar. That familiar mud, dark brown, freshly ploughed, brought memories of another day from another age flooding in.

This road used to be my cycling route in my vacations from school. Though I never managed to cycle the twenty kilometers that separates Almel from Sindgi for, cycling forty kilometers to and fro in the heat of summer meant a certain heatstroke, I regularly cycled ten kilometers of the stretch, enjoying the breeze before cycling back the way I had come. Dodging cattle on their way back from their grazing grounds, dismounting to make way for buses plying the route (Almel is eighty kilometers from Bijapur) between Bijapur and Gulbarga, racing bullock carts and waving out to farmers out in the fields served to make twenty kilometers of cycling rest easy on my knees. It helped me sleep easy on the terrace under the stars while the massive Peepal opposite brooded over me. I loved riding with the clouds, and in those landscapes of North Karnataka one can ride long distances with the clouds without losing sight of your nameless companions in the sky.

Every once in a while in the summer after a particularly furious bout of pedaling, I pulled up to the side of the road and walked across the field where farmers were extracting sugarcane juice to make jaggery. They offered me juice in brass jugs, filling it up until I had enough. Then it was time to pedal back to the calls of the Brahminy Starling and Mynahs. So when we passed trails of smoke emerging from the fields a few kilometers before Almel, smelling sweetly of sugarcane extracts, we pulled up to the side of the road and walked across Poddar’s sugarcane field to find Basanna tending to a large kadai (a large, wide metal utensil used for boiling extracts) filled with sugarcane juice. Behind him two farmers were crushing sugarcane in a cane crusher while the juice ran down a conduit to an open, circular pit in the ground. They had filled the kadai with sugarcane extract and placed it on an opening in the kiln while a low fire fueled by leftovers of crushed sugarcane fueled the kiln, manned by a farmer who stood by, watching the fire through an opening in the mud and brick construction.

Basanna was clad in a dhoti and a Gandhi topi, the attire common to older generation of farmers in that belt. He’s been working on the farm for over twenty years and told us that sugarcane extraction begins post-Diwali. The kiln was set up at ground level over a largish area, now turned white with leftovers of crushed sugarcane. Underground piping carried the exhaust to a bottle shaped chimney about seven feet tall, constructed a short distance away from the heat source over which the kadai, filled with sugarcane juice was placed. The kadai held over 950 litres of sugarcane juice, a white simmering mass.

It is boiled for over two hours before it is transferred to a rectangular holding area in a shed adjacent to the kiln where it is left to cool before it is poured into metal buckets to shape the resulting jaggery into cone shaped blocks, each weighing 15 kilos. We saw a few lined up along the length of the makeshift shed. It takes 950 litres of sugarcane juice to produce 11-12 such cone shaped blocks (called penti in the local language Kannada) of jaggery. Later they are shipped to the market. "950 litres of sugarcane extract will yield about 200 kilos of jaggery," Basanna said.

The farmers work through the day, starting at the break of day at 6 am, and continuing till six in the evening. Basanna happened to know my uncle from Almel well, and we exchanged smiles that only familiarity can induce. We carried back sugarcane juice in empty softdrink bottles for the road. Havalgi was still fifty-odd kilometres away. While on our way out I peeked inside a fairly deep well hewn out of the earth nearby before dodging a sleeping form wrapped in colourful quilt (called dhubti in the local language), lost to the world in a mass of crushed sugarcane leftovers that early morning.

The sun was breaking out in the distance as we hit the road again.

May 23, 2006

Through Goa by Konkan Railway

The Mandovi Express pulled out of Margao station at ten minutes past ten earlier in the day. The Sun is up in the sky now; shortly afterward we pass a small, white-washed chapel; our Lady of Pilar. Up ahead, scattered bundles of hay lie in the middle of a shorn paddy field; a temporary Hayhenge of sorts. Then we pass a series of small ponds brimming with lotuses and crowded by ankle-length grass along their edges. In the warm morning light the lotuses look whiter than they would in bright sunshine.

A short run later we pass a large mound of hay fenced waist high with fishing net and held down by slender sticks driven into the ground at intervals of 3-4 feet each. A cow tethered to a coconut tree nearby grazes in the grass. There is scarcely a soul outside. The balcaos flanking the entrance to verandas fronting individual homes are empty; their red oxide coats lend familiar brush strokes of memories of Goan villages.

are porches with seats built into the sides. Alternately, a balcao is a wide veranda running along the front of the house and occasionally along its sides and at the back; seats are built into the sides where the front entrance opens out on the street outside, typically the undulating parapets shepherd the steps down the stairway to the bottom where they meet the road or open into a garden. Where included, the undulating parapets show the influence of the Baroque.

Balcaos are commonly found in Goan houses and generally understood to be dating from the time Goa came under Portuguese rule, and in the years after. The newer constructions are no longer partial to balcaos, and I find them less attractive as a result. In Goa ‘less inviting’ can easily translate to unattractive for, such is the association of susegado with its culture that a balcao might as well have come into being to still time rather than help it pass. Only someone who knows Goa well enough can distinguish between the two and yet be none the wiser for it!

At twenty past ten Majorda junction draws up. The railway track cuts through the village, at places it passes within few metres of houses, shops, buildings and courtyards. Villages and town centers in Goa did not 'grow' around railway tracks and stations on the Konkan Railway run through the state, instead land had to be ‘taken out’ in the manner of separating a trunk from the tree, continuously reminded of the tree each time the trunk is used. The train roars ahead. I listen to the furious clack-clack as the Mandovi Express ploughs through the countryside. Listening to the steady rhythm soothes me no end; music of movement, strengthened as much by the economy of movement as by its periodicity.

In an open patch in front of a house, over 200 plastic chairs, white and red, are piled up in unsteady columns, and over fifty more lie about, waiting to be stacked up. The party of the night before is over and the place awaits a cleaning up. From the looks of it it was no small party, a wedding perhaps, or maybe a wedding anniversary or a birthday.

A clothesline is strung between two coconut trees. Two trousers held by plastic clips hang from it, swaying in the breeze. I wonder if their master has their gentle rhythm.

Off Majorda, paddy fields line the stretch on either side of the tracks. Birds flock to the fields and so do cattle. I catch sight of Cattle Egrets dodging grazing cows, sometimes it is the other way round. The upright Egrets float like tentative white peace flags. In the distance they all look the same, comparable in size to the white church nestled in the folds of hills to the West, some distance away. For the umpteenth time I wonder if the hills are indeed as near as they appear to be from a passing train.

I like Majorda for its paddy fields. My earliest recollection of the village was during a regional conference hosted by Majorda Jaycees. I was marking my days in college at the time. The conference was scheduled for the entire day, bringing together Junior Chamber chapters from the region. At lunch time I had gone off exploring the place with a friend from our group. We had walked a narrow, raised tar road that ran between two fields. There was hardly a soul about and we had walked its length, feeling the breeze caressing our cheeks before playfully pushing back heads of paddy shoots in the fields to our left. And when they bent, exposing their bare midriffs to the stare of the mid-day Sun, it was like a shimmering gold carpet rolled out, inviting us to walk on it. I looked at my friend. And as if on que, quite unknown to her, her hands acquired the extra swing that moments like these induce. She asked me if we could stretch the lunch hour some more. I nodded, only too glad to prolong the sunshine feel. We traipsed to the beat of an invisible rhythm. All along the way bare midriffs shimmered and traveled with us like a Mexican wave. There was just us and the wind, and the wave. Some moments refuse to set with the Sun. Now looking out the window I strain hard to catch sight of that road in the bright sunshine. There is none that I can recognize, not even if I were to see it. The train surges ahead.

The Sun has traced its path higher, and the sky is slowly changing colour from the deep blue of the morning to a pale white. To shield waiting passengers from the mid-day Sun, Konkan Railway has constructed tent-shaped thatched waiting areas on platforms using coconut fronds readily available all along the West Coast. It is nearing half past ten when we pass the deep blue coaches of the Deccan Odyssey parked on an adjacent track. Ahead, a hill with its entrails gouged out stands silently, its red wound looks out like a bloodied eye contemplating a dilemma. At half past ten we hit the first tunnel at Verna on our way out of Goa, and blinded by the short run of 800 metres in pitch darkness we burst out into blazing sunshine; my eyes hurt for a moment before becoming a part of it. Then we pass a bright white church before coming upon the first major bridge over the river Zuari at Cortalim.

The church straddles the left road skirting just before the road passes under the small overhead railway bridge. To the back of the church, open fields lie as if in perpetual welcome. School children in groups of twos and threes walk past the church at a miserly pace, with none of the skip you might expect to see on their way back from school. The girls’ plaits are held with white ribbons, the loops jut out like Chital’s ears alerted to a sudden noise in the jungle. Even from a distance their neatly braided hair shine from vigorous application of oil. A cyclist pedals past them before drawing up to the side of the road to let a motorcyclist pass. Behind them a lone buffalo stands in the middle of a narrow, open path, regarding the road passing by the church in what I imagine must be mild amusement at finding things still the same from yesterday and the day before, and the day before.

The rail bridge over the Zuari runs parallel to the road bridge to its left. From the window I watch vehicles speed over the bridge in the direction of Panjim, but soon we leave them behind as the Mandovi (named after a Goan river) puffs her lungs out and lunges forward on her run north along the West Coast. Ahead of the bridge, to the left, a road veers off and goes past Sancoale on its way to Vasco. Sancoale, where only a fa├žade of the Our Lady of Health church now stands in an eerie testimony to a time long gone.

I trail my eyes over the spans opposite, held up by six visible pillars, and then linger for a moment where both ends of the bridge disappear in a mass of green trees. For a moment I imagine I’m watching a tree bridge held up at both ends by dark green, leafy pillars. I count fourteen pigeons keep pace with us. Time goes still as the behemoth rattles over the bridge against the placid backdrop of the Zuari, only the metal girders flashing past in quick succession confirm our progress across the waist of the Zuari before she flares out into buxom curves, distancing Marmagoa taluka from Tiswadi along the contours of an open mouth; the Marmagoa bay. To the south of the bay lies Marmagoa taluka. The city of Vasco sits on its lower lip. From Velsao where I visited Philip’s construction site two weeks ago one can see planes take off and land at Dabolim airport. In the late evening as we stood on the beach facing the Sun go down, Philip pointed out the darkening silhouette of a landmass to our right, jutting out into the sea and obscuring the Marmagoa harbour on the other side. It reminded me of a giant table rising from the sea where the Gods sit down to early dinner while watching the Sun go down. Unlike buses, or for that matter, trains, there is nothing to tell where planes are headed. A road or a railway track point in a definite direction, a peg in the Earth, a fixture, a steady, identifiable landscape. Up in the sky there is none.

As we near Tivim, vegetable patches adjacent to paddy fields come into view. A rainwater-harvesting construction is underway in a narrow strip of land up the embankment along the tracks. Several squares have been dug up in a row, and narrow channels connect them, leading to a larger square about 25 sq.ft. area. A short run down the slope, it drains off into a similar construction that is lined by laterite blocks at the bottom. As the train speeds past, iron-ore mining dumps draw up by the tracks before we touch Tivim at twelve minutes past eleven. It’s a little over an hour since we left Margao.

Tourists arriving in Goa get off at Tivim to visit the beaches of Anjuna, Calungute, Candolim, Arpora, and Baga, the cities Panjim, and Mapusa, and the Mayem lake among other destinations. The station has a highway feel to it. Only the entrance is shaded by a roof. Much of the platform is under open sky. I quite like railway stations that way.

Outside, the Sun is shining bright. The train crosses the bridge over the river Chapora on its way to Pernem, the last stop before it leaves Goa and crosses over into Maharashtra.

At twenty-five minutes past eleven we touch Pernem in the north of Goa, known among local government circles as a ‘punishment-posting’ for government employees reluctant to toe a line among other things. It is fairly ‘remote’ and considered under-developed relative to other Goan towns. Shortly afterward the Mandovi plunges into the first major tunnel after leaving Margao, two kilometers out of the Pernem railway station. The tunnel is over a kilometer and half long and is credited with being a tough nut to crack when the engineers were laying tracks for the Konkan Railway. Then we burst out into clear sunshine and cross the bridge over the river Terekhol, a river so green that I wonder if there isn’t a paddy field or maybe a golf course on the river bed. Wire netting covers sides of hills as the tracks cut through them on their journey up the West Coast. The netting employed is a measure to prevent landslides during monsoons, already responsible for some of the worst railway accidents seen in India in recent times. The monsoons can be particularly dangerous times to travel on the Konkan Railway though stoppages on account of accidents and landslides have reduced over time. At several locations on the journey up north, bogies and engines lie splayed along the tracks in a gory reminder of the violence lurking on the tracks at unguarded moments.

I shut my eyes to the strong wind breezing through the window. As the Mandovi leaves Goa behind I wonder again at how quickly the terrain seems to change its contours in the blink of the eye. Moreover the Mandovi has picked up speed as she hurtles ahead, past hills, rivers, and past time!

May 11, 2006

A Medicine Man in Mumbai

Almost all hawkers I see in Mumbai have a way with people when they call their attention to their wares. The voice rises several notches, ringing out loud, navigating through gaps in the crowds that mill about the place scouring wares on display for things they're looking to buy, before running up sweating bodies and into ears numbed from years in the metropolis. It takes the uninitiated a while to adjust to the decibel level and carry on normally. And Mumbai is a tough place to begin learning to adjust.

Some hawkers who hawk in groups on a footpath or by the side of a road may not be as vociferous as say a hawker who decides to make an empty stretch his business area. Unlike those hawkers who’re a part of groups, hawking his/her goods, the lone hawker can only rely on his vocal chords to draw attention, there’s no one to do it for him. And it is these lone operators who normally interest me. And Mumbai has more than its share of them.

I’m not sure if it is a coincidence but I’ve noticed that hawkers who peddle medicines, herbs, and other similar items, often labeling them as Ayurvedic cures, usually choose to operate alone though my guess is as good as yours as to whether their ‘cures,’ sold under the Ayurveda label, possibly to increase their USP and carry credibility with prospective customers, posses any merits or healing properties. Nevertheless they rarely fail to draw curious onlookers, and some enterprising Mumbai souls volunteer to try those cures like the one in the picture who complained of pain in the knee and held out his leg to the ‘medicine man’ and let him apply the cream from a small glass bottle with black plastic cap which he claimed cures pains suffered from lathis (a heavy stick normally used by policemen to disperse rioters or rowdy elements), falls, and the like. I was intrigued when the ‘medicine man’, after he had spread his wares on sheets of paper he had pulled out of his bag and spread them on the Cawasji Patel street in Fort, called out to people thus: “If you’ve been hit by lathis, and suffered pain by them . . . ” I wondered if his invocation was not due to the fact that he had suffered the business end of the lathi, probably wielded by the police, on more occasions than he would care to remember, thinking others must have been similarly privileged to experience the lathi. Then he listed other injuries his medicine could cure. Within a short time a goodly crowd gathered around him, materializing out of nowhere and everywhere. It helped that the white coloured cream he applied on himself, leaving no exposed part alone, ‘smoldered’, emitting thick plumes of smoke. It sure made for a startling effect. I touched a bottle to check if it was hot. It wasn’t. As his voice raised another pitch, almost as if to rise above the crowd that now gathered around him and carry beyond it to others in the vicinity, the more vigorously he applied the cream on his hands, and legs, letting white plumes spiral up in agitation impressively.

After grimacing a bit, the volunteer turned to face the crowd, smiled, and said, “It (the knee) pains even more now,” drawing giggles from all around. However, the ‘medicine man’ remained unperturbed, instead focussing on giving the proffered knee a vigorous rub-over. “Dus rupaye ko ek, dus rupaye ko ek,” (for ten rupees, one bottle) he announced, before offering three for twenty rupees. I bought one bottle. He handed me a yellow page that listed the source of the product (from Uttar Pradesh) and a list of injuries it purportedly treated. I opened the bottle cautiously, drawing back in alarm as a white plume of ‘smoke’ rushed out, emitting a foul smell I couldn’t quite place for, I had never smelt anything like it before, let alone opened a medicine bottle that emitted a cloud I thought would be in place in a magic show, not on a sultry afternoon in Mumbai.

May 02, 2006

The Mandolin Player

It was as much of a surprise as it was a chance meeting with Jairam Mohite this February that set a sultry afternoon in Yeoor to the tunes of an old Mandolin, and even older memories. M Satish and I had ridden to Yeoor hills for a bite of lunch, and a bit of stillness. We got them both, and a slice of melody too.

Earlier in the day, as we took the turn opposite Upwan lake up the hill toward Yeoor in Thane (west), adjoining Mumbai, we passed under an arch welcoming travelers to the hills, favoured for trekking by trekkers looking for short treks. It was February, the time when heat begins to inch across the city, prompting people to seek out cooler climes in the hills. Actually we hadn’t planned on going to Yeoor, but poor lunch service at Little Chef, an empty restaurant opposite Eden Woods, a housing society near Ghodbunder Road, left us with no option but to try out another eating place, this time in the Yeoor hills. I find crowded family restaurants overbearing, and relish any opportunity to eat in peace. Satish said he knew of one such eatery in the hills. “I’ve been there. It’s a good one, particularly the ambience,” he said. I agreed, at least the ride would be pleasant I thought.

Yeoor hills is the Thane-end of the National Park that stretches across the region to include parts of Borivali, along the terrain on either side of the Ghodbunder road connecting Thane to Borivali through Mira Road and Bhayandar.

The hills lie on the periphery of the wildlife sanctuary, and are populated by bungalows of sundry politicians and Muncipal Corporators along the route passing through the village. Much of this construction has taken place in contravention of law governing Adivasi land. The large-scale encroachment in the Yeoor hills, the exclusion of Yeoor from the wildlife sanctuary despite it being contiguous to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, is seen as an attempt by politicians to protect their encroachments from coming under the purview of Acts governing forest land, and are a direct manifestation of the politics of power. All this was far from our minds as we rode up the hills, reveling in the temporary relief from the heat as we passed vegetation on either side of the narrow tar road curving up.

We took a right turn, onto a narrow road that branched off the main road and parked the bike beside a car, and walked across the open space fronting the restaurant, and crossed a small, wooden, arched bridge over a narrow moat and sat by its side so we could look at the few lotuses that grew in it. The water was still. Mid way through our meal I saw the old man with white hair and a pair of glasses across from where we sat finish with his meal, and smile at the waiter before leaning across the table to pick up a black case holding a musical instrument. He got up and put on his coat. I had first noticed him when we took our seats at the table. Something about him did not quite jell with the setting. He didn’t seem to fit in in the ambience of a lazy afternoon. I wondered if it was because of the way he dressed. Nobody wears grey suits anymore where I live and work let alone on a Sunday noon in the hills. Or maybe it had to do with the way he ate, concentrating on his food, rarely looking up, certainly not the sign of a man who’s dropped in for a bit of quiet. Seeing him eat marked him out as someone who was here for a definite purpose, and the purpose was not lunching out. On enquiring with a waiter I learnt that he played his Mandolin for visitors. On the other side of the narrow moat, the restaurant has set aside a platform under an arch a little distance off the eating-place, and provided a sound system for performers to entertain clients. Jairam Mohite, 76, has been playing his mandolin at the restaurant for over two years now.

After Satish and I were done with our lunch, he came over to where we sat, and we talked the afternoon away, listened to tunes on his old mandolin of old hindi film songs from years ago when he worked with Laxmikant-Pyarelal, starting off with Parasmani in 1963 for which Laxmikant-Pyarelal composed the music. “I played for most of the Hindi films they set to music,” Jairam said. "Parasmani was my first assignment with Laxmikant-Pyarelal."

His forehead set off a narrow, angular face, the kind of ruggedness a cigarette manufacturer might want to use for a cigarette commercial for people who've been smoking for over fifteen years. The glasses he had on reinforced it. It was the face of a man who’d seen hard times and lived to tell the story. It was not the face of a man who drank, and certainly not of one who’d shrink from whatever life threw at him, but it was not a happy face either. I got the impression he’d do what’s necessary to be civil to people who visited the place, and no further. The voice was sharp, even if not very fluent, and I might’ve expected a larger frame for someone with his voice.

“I was well built before,” he told me, “until my illness recently. My stomach used to swell. A doctor who used to visit this restaurant and listen to me play my mandolin noticed my absence on subsequent visits and asked the Captain here about my absence, and took my telephone number and called my home. My daughter took the call and told him that I was in the hospital and was serious, and there was no guarantee that I’ll survive.” Jairam smiled, fiddled with his Mandolin, and continued, “The doctor came to visit me at the hospital, met the doctor in charge, pointed to me and told the doctor ‘isko khada karo’ (Get him on his feet) and offered to get me any medicines I might need. He is a very nice man, this doctor Indoriya. He treats the elderly, and gets them out of coma.”

Mohites are one of the 96 clans constituting the Marathas, marathi-speaking warrior-peasants native to Maharashtra. Under Shivaji’s leadership, the Marathas ruled over a substantial empire to the west of India in the 17th and 18th centuries before declining as a major power with the advent of the British in India. “I learned to play the mandolin and the guitar from Ramprasadji, Pyarelal Sharma’s father,” Jairam Mohite told us. “Ramprasadji used to teach us the saxophone using musical notations we’d learned to read. Pyarelal used to play the violin.” Then he smiled at the memory of the Laxmikant-Pyarelal score for Solah baras ki bali umar from Ek Duje ke Liye, intoning it while we looked on. The emotion he tried to bring to the song was evident in the effort he made to recapture its nuances in a voice clearly unsuited for any kind of singing, let alone old Hindi film songs but it sufficed to set the mood as Satish and I leaned forward to listen to him. Then, recollecting his early days as a musician in the film industry when songs were recorded at Famous Studio in Bombay Central, he said “Woh din bahut acche thay (Those days were very good).” He lamented the quality of music compositions produced of late. “Artist kalakar bahut acche milte thay. Aaj ka condition bahut kharab hai industry ka.” (Good artists were available then, the condition of the film industry has deteriorated now). He said the Industry (as Bollywood film industry is referred by some) was good before, and that payment was good too. “Our payment depended on the grade of the instrument we played. Mandolin ka grade alagh hai, guitar ka grade alagh hai. This (pointing to his mandolin) was graded B,” he said, “Music directors used to prepare a list and assign grades to musical instruments. Then they gave the list to the Music Arrangers and we were paid accordingly.” He said that at any given song recording in the studio, musicians numbered anywhere between 200-400, of which violinists formed the majority. I tried to imagine a setting big enough to hold that many, and the control the musicians would have to exercise to remain in sync with the rest, wondering to myself, 'That many in one place?'

I ask him if most Music Arrangers were Goans. He nodded and said, “Haan. Goa ke violin mein bahut thay pehle, bajanewaley. Even now they’re there but not so many.” (Yes. We had many violin players from Goa in the industry then. Even now they’re there but not so many.) Talking of old melodies, his face softened when he mentioned that he was one of the musicians recording for the song Aye mere zohara zabeen from Waqt. The Balraj Sahni-Raaj Kumar-Sunil Dutt-Shashi Kapoor 1965 multi-starrer was Yash Chopra's third film with music scored by Ravi. "The music of those old Hindi films were classy, unke baathee kuch alag thee." Then, he talked of his role in the song recordings. “Music jo hum log bajanewale hai na, woh hamare gaane se matlab kuch nahi. Humlog sirf notation letey, bajatey aur nikal jatey,” he said. (We, musicians, didn’t have anything to do with the songs, we merely followed the music notations we were given, played accordingly, and left.)

“Music Director dhun bitathey, notation nikalthey, arranger ko detey. Arranger aur Music Director jahan woh recording baantha hai aander wahan par un log rehtey hai. Wahan se pata chalta hai kaun teda jaata hai, kaun wrong jaata hai. Wahan se naam leke un log baumb martey.” Then he mimics their call, “arrey baab Jairam wrong jaata hai tumara, jaara sambhal ke bajao bhai.” (Music Director sets the tune for the song, prepares notations and hands them over to the Music Arranger. Together they monitor the musicians from the recording room. They can easily spot musicians who go out of sync with the rest, and call out to them by their names. Then he mimics their call, Jairam, you’re going wrong, play the music carefully.) Then, he adds, “Everything is in the hands of the Music Arranger, but the Music Director is the main guy.”

Jairam Mohite joined the film industry at twenty after his father, Sonu Mohite, taught him to play the mandolin when he was eighteen. “I learned to play it, and have been playing this very mandolin since then,” he said looking at it fondly. “It has lasted nearly sixty years,” he said. I sensed pride in his voice whenever he talked of his mandolin. “Usko durust bhi nahi kiya hai. It is the same as before. The only thing I’ve changed are the strings. Baja bajake rough ho jaata hai.” (I did not have to carry out any maintenance except for the strings because they wear out after continuous use). “My father was an accomplished musician. He handed over this mandolin to me and said, ‘Yeh cheez bahut meethi hai. Dikhne mein kamzor hai par takat hai ismey’,” (This thing – mandolin - is very sweet. It looks very fragile but has strength in it.) Jairam’s father was gifted the mandolin by a Sardarji (a Sikh) as a gift and was asked to give it to Jairam. “It (mandolin) is not so much in use in Hindi films these days,” he said, adding, “In our days the mandolin was an important component of the music. Rehearsals took place at Laxmikantji’s house in Vile Parle. Agar wahan (at the rehearsals) mood lagti tho recording karte. (If the rehearsals set up the mood well, we’d immediately record the song at the studios). The guitar and the mandolin were the main instruments at the rehearsals.”

He also worked with Shankar-Jaikishen and Madan Mohan, legendary Bollywood Music Directors. “Madan Mohan ghazal ke raja tha,” he said. (Madan Mohan was the king of ghazals). “His music was the ghazal type. Woh aisa udtha phudtha kuch nahi. Madan Mohanji Peti (Harmonium, used in the Indian music genres: Bhajan, Ghazal, Qawwali, Folk music, and Hindustani music.) lagakey baaitthey they, dhun nikalneko. I worked with him on three occasions.” (Madan Mohan’s music was not light and playful. His was the ghazal type. He would sit at the Peti to set the lyrics to tunes). It was evident that he held Madan Mohan in high regard. He said that Madan Mohan’s music was difficult to execute and that one had to be a master to do it. “Uski jo chord rhythm hoti, chord bola tho mithasi lagna chahiye, Sa udhar hai, Pa neechey aata, Da udhar hai tho Ga neechey jaata. Upar-neechey, upar-neechey aur control mein,” he explained as he nearly broke into a hand-dance tracing the rapid shifts in rhythms from low to high, and sideways that executing Madan Mohan’s music demanded. (Madan Mohan’s chord rhythm lent a certain melody to the composition, and was difficult to render. The Sa would be over there, and Pa below, then Da over there, and Pa would be down there. Up, then Down, Up again, and then Down.) Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, and Ne are the first syllables of the seven swaras or notes in Indian classical music: Shadjamam, Rishabham, Gandharam, Madhyamam, Panchamam, Dhivatham and Nishadham .

Watching him animated, I thought that if I were to imagine it were dark and strings with bulbs attached at one end were tied to his hands, I might just about see a visual representation of Madan Mohan’s music as Jairam made rapid movements with his hands to illustrate his narrative. In his own rustic way that somehow jelled with the hills beyond the restaurant, he had drawn us into his life, carrying us back in time even if momentarily.

I can still hear Jairam’s voice as I write this. It had a certain rasp to it. Age had turned it to staccato, and I believe it made it stick in my memory as a result. I suspect that he had to make an effort to converse in Hindi though I cannot be sure if he paused as much when he spoke in Marathi, maybe he did because it seemed to me that that was the way he spoke, haltingly, and suddenly fluent as a train of thought or memory took hold of him and lifted his enthusiasm another notch.