This essay won the SJU Prize for the Personal Essay 2023 in the college category. The theme was Songs I’ve Forgotten. The judge, noted writer and journalist, CK Meena had this to say: “When Bhaswatee Das links songs to particular memories of childhood and family, of loves in the distant and recent past, when she uses an easy mix of English and her mother tongue to paint scenes, she does more than tell us about songs that can “take us to that one place we tried so hard to remember. Or forget.” She brings us the world she inhabits.”
“Bhoi lagise neki tumar, is this scaring you”?, he asks me at 2:13 am. I never stayed up at night talking to anyone. I don’t know how romantic love works. A big part of me wants to know, but I give in to my pretentious self and gag every time my friends talk about their boyfriends. Ashfaque is the first boy I have liked in 17 years. I didn’t tell him yet. He must know it though, right? I mean, I am literally up past my 10:30 bedtime talking to him.
“Nai laga. Gaan xuni bhaal puwa ne? It doesn’t. Do you like listening to songs?”
Didibhai grabs the remote from under my butt and changes the channel to MTV. Udit Narayan’s voice pokes the silence of the house and bursts the air with Pehla Nasha. I scream. It is a sibling ritual.
Didibhai and I rush back from home every Saturday after half day. Maa gives her the keys because she’s six years older and is supposed to be smarter. She takes Dark Fantasy cookies from her boyfriend who looks like a drug dealer and giggles as he hands over the cookies wrapped in Assam Tribune paper. “Bonu dekhe nibe, my sister will see. Jao.”, she says and giggles back. She hides the cookies in her tuition bag. She is really not that smart, maa needs to know. We rush back home every Saturday, she blocks the door with her backpack, leans on the left side of the door and elbows the right side, stopping me from entering. It’s a stupid game, but I would lose my sanity if she wins. Whoever rushes first and grabs the remote gets to watch their channels the whole day. By that I mean, 12:30 to 2:30, till maa and papa return from school. If one gets up to pee, they have to say “it’s my day” touching the remote or the other can snatch it away. MTV and Channel V for didibhai, Tarak Mehta Ka Oolta Chashma and CID for me. On weekdays, after we have finished our homework, maa cuts us slack while she cuts carrots and lets us watch TV at 8:30 pm.
Today, even though I sat on the remote and took guard, my beautiful sibling decided to poke my butt and snatch away my only transitory property. Of course, I will scream. As I pulled her hair and she scratched my cheek, maa came from the kitchen with a boti in her hand. “Take this. Take the boti. Slash each others’ throats. End it now. Fucking dogs in my house. Throw each others’ bodies in the Brahmaputra.” This is our cue for laughter and sharing guilty it-was-too-much-i-am-sorry side glances while still fighting to pull the remote out of my sister’s bra. Udit Narayan does the weird aaaaah thing all singers do and flaunts his musical skills. The girl on the screen is wearing a white shirt and swinging a weird tire and orange dupatta. People become crazy in love. Who does that?
I met Aniket at a funeral. The moms were crying, the dads were discussing Himanta Biswa Sarma. We were playing tug of war. Pallabi came near me and holding my shoulders whispered in my ear something that automatically widened my eyes. That girl is saying dumb things. Maa is four arm lengths away. Sister Cecelia just taught all fourth graders how to measure in arm lengths and I find it very cool. Nuns are amusing people. Wait, are they normal people?
Pallabi and I go into the only room that was away from the noise and toddlers sleeping on the beds and sit side by side.
“He says he loves you.”
“But we are only 10. Love doesn’t happen like that. It only happens between maa’s and baba’s who are 40. Don’t you know this much also?”
She says Aniket loves me. I met him at 8 in the morning. It’s 7 PM now. He fell in love in let’s see, 8 to 9, 9 to 10, 10 to 11, 11 to 12, 12 to 13, 13 to 14, no no, 12 to 1, 1 to 2, um, 11 hours? Who knows, maybe he loves me. My friends have boyfriends. But we are only ten…
Aniket walks into the room in a blue puffer jacket and brown pants. His mom must have brushed his hair. It’s slick and Tere Naam-ish. He got Dairy Milk for me. How did he? Maybe he truly loves me, like in those Channel V serials.
“I love you. Will you be my girlfriend?”
“Okay. I don’t know how to be one though.”
“It’s okay, I also don’t know. Boyfriend, I mean. Maa says we have to go to your house tomorrow to pick up the kaashar thala-baati. I will meet you.”
“Thik ache.” And out walked the love of my life, whom I truly did love for a week.
Aniket came the next day, we ate lunch together, we talked about our common tabla sir and we played Ludo.The moms had to go out, so they made Aniket and me sleep on the same bed and left. We shared a blanket and occasionally brushed each other’s thighs. I don’t really know him. I mean, I only met him yesterday. But he is my boyfriend now, so he will always be there for me to know him.
When his mom came to pick him up, the two of us went downstairs first. “I want to kiss you”, he said as if he’s big like papa and knows what he is doing. I didn’t want to be kissed by a boy, so I said no, someone will see.
“On your lips?”
“On your cheeks?”
“Fine, on your hand?”
I didn’t want to be touched at all, but I didn’t want him to think I was a bad girlfriend, so I let him. He gave a chumma on the back of my left hand and I ran upstairs right after he left and washed it off with Dettol. Being kissed by boys is weird.
In that moment, in anticipation of my first kiss and standing before an incredibly patient boyfriend, the swaying of the tire made sense. I didn’t listen to Pehla Nasha in three months and I almost forgot about it till the love of my life brushed my little pinky with his thumb and I was wearing an orange dupatta and running for my pehla pyaar.
Naya pyaar hai, naya intezaar…
I lay down after another day of online classes, near the window of my railway quarter and stare at my phone. My eyes and head hurt. I am only 20 but my bones are made of bottles with dented bottoms. I have exhausted all my data for the day. Under the cave, with nothing else to do, I open my playlist.
A…B…C…D…niche se jaati hu…Z…Y…
Yeh Raat Bhigi…
Ye Jawaani Teri…
Ye Dil Tum Bin Lagta Nahin (Ash)…
Ye Dil Tum Bin Lagta Nahin (Ash)…
“Yeh Dil Tum Bin xunisa ne? Did you hear Yeh Dil Tum Bin?”
“Nai, pothaba neki? I haven’t. Will you send?”
I once saw, during my cut-quotes-from-newspaper-and-stick-on-your-journal era, a quote that I remember every time I share music. “You can tell a lot about a person by what’s on their playlist.” I have watched Begin Again only to see where the quote fits. Sharing music is like telling someone why your father hit you the first time. It’s like telling people that you farted or ate your booger. Sharing music is a lot like standing naked and letting the person see your stretch marks, your saggy boobs, your uncut pubes. It’s like waking up at 4 and seeing them watch you sleep.
When Ashfaque and I started sharing music at night, with papa sleeping near the almirah and didibhai near the window, I could see my soul rising and sitting with only him. Even when the sun came out at 5 and I spent my first all-nighter with an Assamese Muslim boy my family would never accept, typing away hollow hearts and moon faces and names of people we love, I wasn’t tired. I was happy.
We listened to Yeh Dil Tum Bin and Jaane Woh Kaise Log Hai and Khachhar Pakhi and Bohe Nirontoro and shared why we love ourselves. We talked about psychology and school and Arpita ma’am and depression and the benefit of eating apples everyday and Hosseini. At 6:30 in the morning when we slept, Gulzar’s voice and Ashfaque’s “kaali kotha patim de, we will talk tomorrow” were the only things that stopped me from calling him right that second.
I am listening to the song he sent. That night was so beautiful, I still remember his WhatsApp Dp and the light that fell on the walls from thaakurer ashon. I stared at it anticipating his replies.
I don’t know how I forgot this song. Sometimes 9XM moves out of terrible Selfie Le Le Re and lands on something good. Mohammed Rafi’s voice is slow, like a cat dragging three fish bones. But I love it. He sings it like he lost his love just two hours back. I don’t know if I love it because I love the song or because it reminds me of him.
I am careful about sharing music now. I don’t want them to remind me of people who hurt. Songs are barnacles on the ship of deja vu . They remind me of places I have never been, of things I have never done, of loves I have never loved. Or did I? Is it deja vu or did it happen?
Tiklu lived on the second floor of Basanta Nilaya with his parents. He was tiny and bald and a recluse. He never talked to me even when I shared my moori and chira bhaja with him. He wore bright coloured t-shirts and always had food stains all over them. He slept through most of the day and never studied a word. I didn’t like his freedom.
Everyday at 5:30 in the morning, dadon climbed the stairs past the second floor and third floor to go to the terrace and turn on the water pump. Tiklu would hear his footsteps and rush outside to see dadon. He would stand there for five minutes, holding a ball and kicking the plants till dadon came to his floor.
On days when Tiklu missed this ritual by sleeping or not being home, tiny cracks under Basanta Nilaya would show up. The next day, dadon would sing Bondhu Tin Din Tor Baarite Gelaam looking at him and Tiklu would immediately burst into an obnoxious puddle of tears.
I found the entire thing ridiculous. This recluse who never spoke a word to anyone, not even his parents, cried every time this old man sang a song about not finding his friend for three days in his house. It didn’t make any sense to me. Maa later explained me that he was tiklu and bald because he was two years old and somehow felt pain through the music. I still found it ridiculous.
I check my phone again, it’s 2:30 already. Sim was supposed to leave at 12, this girl is always late. Restless, I check my list again. Blue jeans, scotch brite, brown lip liner, pink churni, tissue set, hairband. Shivaji is always crowded at this time of the day, I hope I find the things. With nothing else to do, I open YouTube.
Ami Tomari Naam Gai. Not now.
Renne Dominique Ukulele. Nope.
Billie Eilish sings you to sleep. Um.
Khachar Pakhi. Scroll.
Lag Jaa Gale. Let’s see.
Fly Me To The Moon. Pretty, but no.
Bondhu Tin Din.
Bondhu Tin Din. Dadon. Tiklu. Bee.
I can feel my ears turning hot. I am suddenly very conscious of the eyes on us. I need the earth to crack and swallow me but she seems unbothered. How far is Whitefield? Why is this bus so slow? It is nice, very filmy, but I can’t be filmy. Bee now closes her eyes and sings the last four lines of I’ll follow you into the dark.
“It’s our song now.”
“And the Olive’s our place?”
“Yes. The college too.”
We stand looking at the net and the quadrangle. My chin on the railing, hers on my head. Sometimes I am glad we can go down in history just as “besties who were close”. It makes holding hands in public less stressful.
This is not how I wanted to start my day. I wish I never opened my phone. I stare down at my Favorites list on Music. “I’ll follow you into the dark (B)”.
“Thank you for coming today.”
“I didn’t want you to sit alone.”
“You know I really appreciate you, right?
“Will you sing it?”
She quickly becomes ottontto khushi. She starts at the top, holding my hand, doing that little thumb rub thing at the back of my left hand and giggling every two seconds as if her performance will get her an ice-cream or a plane.
I hope I am hiding it enough. I don’t want to scare her. I don’t want this to end. I love her so much.
“You have to sing it too, you know.”
“But that will be loud. Ma’am will hear us.”
“We are on the last bench, she won’t, baba.”
It’s weird how it brings all things back. Like I never left that place, like she never left me. Odd how songs can make us travel across all these roads, trees, people to take us to that one place we tried so hard to remember. Or forget. For some seconds, we never grow. It traps us in a loop of bizarre moments chained together, making a whole new world we love and hate at the same time. It’s like a spirit that refuses to leave.
“Bhoi lagise neki tumar, is this scaring you?”
“Nai laga. Gaan xuni bhaal puwa ne? It doesn’t. Do you like listening to songs?”
“Bohut. Manuhok bhulibo nidiye. Monot korai diye. A lot. It doesn’t let you forget people. It reminds you.”
Featured Image Credits: Elena (@Nee_elen)