This essay won the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2022. The theme was Finding a Self. The judge, writer Barathi Nakkeeran had this to say: “Miss Parvathy J’s submission is a lovely and engaging essay about a young woman discovering her relationship with music and her Amma. Parvathy’s essay has the rare quality of being both complete and porous at once. This essay never mentions the subject of this essay competition—”self”—, and yet the author’s journey is never obscure. An evocative, clear voice. I deeply enjoyed the writer’s confidence in the reader”
“Can I sing to you?” – By Parvathy J
It is late into midnight, and everyone except for the two of us are asleep. The house is taking belly breaths to the rhythm of my father’s hoarse snores. I wash the dishes while she makes tea. A little more milk than usual, a spoonful of sugar unlike otherwise, a dash of warmth. We take our tea to the dining table, and sit down to talk. She talks, mostly, and I listen. She tells me about everything happening to everyone, neatly packed into small stories peppered in with animated dialogues mimicked to perfection. I nod, chuckle, sigh, giggle, roll my eyes, laugh. Quietly. A film of milk skin settles over her tea. I find a nook in her neck to nest my head, and put my arms around her in time to feel the cold tea she gulps flow down through her. Looking up at her, I ask, “Amma, njan oru paattu paadi thannotte?”.
I wake up sobbing. I sob sob sob, unsure whether I am mourning in life or living in a nightmare. In a salty blur of tears and snot, I fish out my phone from the blanket and find the playlist I called familiarity.
….sneham kondoru thoniyundakku, kaalathinnattathu pokaan….
Music was written into my life years before I was born. I find warmth in the belief that along with their quirks and loneliness and hurt and aches and humor and soft flesh and curly hair and migraine, mothers passed on an ear for music to daughters in my family.
In 1990, at the age of 60, ammumma bought a Panasonic transistor radio with her savings from a lifetime of labour. They woke up together, went about the day together – from prayers to preaching to news to film songs to informative programs to radio theatre to music lessons. As I grew up buzzing around her, my childhood came to be set to the radio clock.
School mornings started with me sitting on her bed, dreading the gruel of brushing and bathing and changing and packing lunch and dragging myself to school. Surrounded by ammumma’s thousand pillows, I would dip my toes into what I now think can only be called a tiny abyss of existential crisis, as The All India Radio theme music played in the background. Even then I knew that it won’t last forever, that the newsreader’s crisply ironed namaskaaram would snap me out of the zone. As the hosts wrap up the news, and the songs from popular Malayalam movies begin, I tamed my unruly curls into some version of plaits, dabbed my sleepy face with cuticura, and ran away from breakfast. Singing along all the while.
As my grandmother’s world shrunk in size over the years to the room’s perimeter and then to her bed, she became the default witness of my morning rituals. She smiled at me when I stood in front of her mirror, trying to look adipoli, pretending to not care about wanting to look adipoli. Most mornings her smile segued into a story about her mother, my great grandmother. The woman whose voice and hair and rage I’m told to have inherited. She talked about her mother and me as if we were the same people, as if I was only an excuse for her to hold the sweetness of her mother’s lullabies close to her. She gushed about the lullabies her mother sang to the countless children- both her own and others’- who grew up in their household.
…..pandu paadiya paattilorennam chundiloorumbol….
Once a week, a popular musician taught ‘light music’ -the supposedly lesser and easier version of Carnatic music- on the radio. Ammumma wrote down the lyrics, notations, and every bit of what was taught, and sang along with the students on the show. Month after month, she learned new songs. Even though she insisted that all this was for me, it was hard not to see that it was for her as much as it was for me.
And then there was Amma. The legend goes that at the brittle age of 13, amma gathered the courage to tell my grandmother that she wanted to learn music. My grandmother was delighted, and there was no reluctance in her assent. The real obstacle was my grandfather. As expected, he erupted at the suggestion, “music is not meant for good girls. You focus on your studies”.
A little hopeful, a little bold, the mother-daughter hatched a plan. They coaxed a music teacher to take on my mother as a student and got her to come over to begin lessons on the auspicious day of Vidyarambham. They were sure that the man will wait until the teacher left to respond. After all, angry outbursts are secrets that stay within the walls. They hoped that by the end of the first lesson, my mother’s keenness to learn would melt the old patriarch’s heart, make him burn the rulebook of Nair pride. He shook in anger, threw out the teacher, threw around whatever he could lay his hands on, and glared at his wife and daughter for next three days, talking only in grunts and hisses. The rulebook won, amma learnt the importance of being a good girl–wife and chose to hold on to the learnings.
Being a child drawn to dramatic ellipses in stories, lying on Ammumma’s lap as she narrated this story to me, I imagined Amma taking a pledge to avenge herself. That she would not let her father’s fury dampen her love for singing, that she would show him what it means to be a good parent by making her future children learn music. The theatrics of childhood angst apart, it is true that my mother was the force that drove me to music. She, and my brother.
….aattunottundaayorunni amma kathukathundaayorunni…..
My elder brother who has Down’s syndrome, came into the family four years before I did, and set the stage. He took to music much to Amma’s pleasure and responded to music more than words. Amma sang to him and around him, and I took baby steps mimicking her. Soon enough I took over the responsibility of singing for and with my brother. Trouble began, as often it does, with the want of attention, craving for love, and weight of obligations.
We were sent to music lessons, my brother and I. I resented the repetition, the unfamiliar words, the repetition. Moreover, I resented the obligation. Amma lingered around, picking up swaras and songs. She sang along under her breath, more eager than either of us siblings. Music improved my brother’s speaking abilities, and without me, he would not attend the lessons. So, the music lessons continued for years.
….ambottiye ni kandondurangumbom kalkkanda kunnonnu kaanayi varum….
The resentment morphed into anger every time our parents demanded that we sing. For the guests, for extended family, at events, and while commuting. My brother loved singing. People loved to marvel at a disabled child singing. I hated the way they looked at my brother while he sang. I disliked the way they looked at me while we sang together. I was furious at all that I saw in all of their eyes. And yet I swallowed my anger. A ‘good’ girl, every time I was asked, I dutifully broke into a song approved by my parents- songs about gods or mothers.
I sang out of fear and wanting to be loved. I was scared of the repercussions of letting down my father which hurt my body and stung my heart. I truly believed I saw a flicker of affection for me in the proud smile that bloomed on my mother’s face as she leaned back and enjoyed the faces of the audience for whom we performed. With equal part reluctance and eagerness, I grabbed at the chance to sing, though nothing I sang ever was mine.
Soon, every time I became aware of an audience, a crab began to tighten its crab claws around my vocal cord. I flushed red with shame, and croaked through songs. Sang in falsettos to hide the embarrassment. Even before I begin the song, I heard the world laughing, passing snide remarks, all in my head, more real than anything else. I shied away from mics. The anticipation of shame during performances inflamed my tonsils around the time of school events, although even the most terrible bout of infection did not save me. Being a doctor specialized in ENT, my throat perils never deterred Amma from pushing me to practice. With antibiotics as my excuse, I sang poorly on all stages.
And then I turned to God.
Evening prayer, I discovered, was the perfect litmus test to prove my worth. Even though I never believed singing to God helps, I showed up every evening in the tiny pooja room. Amma sat in the opposite room, consulting. Her patients and their bystanders crowded the narrow space between amma and me. Sitting next to my grandmother, my back facing the crowd, I sang. They were the perfect audience. Bored out of their minds, worried about their various ailments and the well-being of their loved ones, and thirsty for distractions in a pre-smartphone age. An audience to whom I owed nothing. Commanding whose rapt attention was no biggie.
… un aanandha mogana venu gaanamadhil alai paayuthe….
I sang songs in praise of different gods. I imagined my audience being touched, quivering in spiritual orgasms. I imagined them telling my mother about me. I weaned myself off the evening prayers as I entered my teens. The show didn’t last for long for two reasons. As always, Amma asked my brother to join me. He was louder, and stole my limelight. Jealous, I raised the pitch to make him uncomfortable. Chose songs he did not know. He continued to sing happily with his sister, even after I snapped at him to stop. Finally, in 2009, PK Srimathi, the then health minister of Kerala banned the private practice by doctors working at government hospitals. I found no point in continuing the stunt without an audience.
My anger sprouted wings and refused to be contained as adolescence marked its arrival. I hated the ones I loved, I hated myself. I hurt everyone and myself, hoping to be loved. I refused to sing. Especially when my mother asked me to sing. I pushed her through the pink of embarrassment to glowing red rage. When you love someone enough and want them to love you, you learn how to hit them where it hurts the most.
….. minni thilangumen ponnin kinakkalkku ninneyaanomaleyere ishtam ; kingiri muthalle ente chithira kunjalle….
I refused to sing for her but continued to sing when asked by my father, dreading his anger. Every time my father’s rage erupted in the house and I choked on a cocktail of fear and shame and helplessness and pain, I repeated to myself – “I will not become my mother. I will not let anyone hurt me (the way I thought she was letting my father hurt her). I will protect people I love from hurt (the way I thought she could not protect me).” It was safer to not disappoint him. I thought obeying him would ensure peace, protect me, and show Amma how to prevent violence.
As if I was the first and only teenager in the world who felt unloved, hated her mother, was too scared to find a vocabulary for what was rotten about the way things happened at home and hated the brutal knee of her father’s anger at the neck of their lives; I repeated to myself, I don’t want to be my mother. I don’t want to be my mother. I don’t want to be my mother.
….. vannu ni vannu ninnnu nee ente janmasaaphalyame…..
Amma loved it when I sang songs about mothers. She loved me a little more when I sang one of those. She’d smile, brimming with affection and pride, as if I was singing about her. The more I sang them, the more I hated them. I did not recognize the love that poets waxed about. I was angry at the violence that we tiptoed around in the house and never spoke of in public. I was angry at the pretense of being a happy family. I was angry my mother refused to see my anger and asked me to sing. I was angry that she never asked why I refused to sing.
Fueled by rage, self-hatred and hurt, I banished Amma from the shared world of music she manifested for us. Lucky for me, earphones marked their grand entry into middle class lives in the right time. It played out like a revenge drama in my head. Daughter, unloved, hurt, making her mother see her failure to be a mother by putting her through same hurt, pushing her away. The climax was always difficult to imagine. Would the daughter emerge as the bigger person, forgiving the mother in a teary embrace or would she choose to drift away from the mother and embrace the role of the messy, complex, protagonist whose sadness is romanticized in new age movies?
… ennil ninnum parannakannoru painkili malar thenkili….
No surprise, the petty, pointless cruelty hurt and hurt and hurt. She was heartbroken by the everyday betrayals of her daughter, whom she considered an extension of herself. Both of us hurt, seeking love but never telling each other how to.
Then we found the gift of uninterrupted time.
I move out of home, find myself people to sing with, discover the magic of not having to walk on eggshells. In every house I live in, I move through chores and rooms singing, singing. Not to feel safe, but because it gives me joy. I no longer sing songs about mothers or gods. I sway and dance.
….oru gaanam maathramen hrudayathil sukshikkaam oduvil neeyethumbol cheviyil moolaan…
I seek out songs I have heard Amma sing. She makes every song hers — off key, wrong notes, repeating lyrics. On my own in my kitchen, my back to the world as tea brews, I sing her songs as she does. My body unlearns submission one song at a time, and music returns my body to myself.
A couple years after I moved out, Amma found her stage. a colleague invited her to the music club that met in one of the many identical rooms in the hospital building. Seeing her hesitate, worrying how to seek permission from her husband, the colleague warmly added, “you can bring your son too”. There was no turning back. Every second Saturday, she performs.
….pandu thotte ennodishtamaanennaavam paattil priyamennuvaam…
I find her lyrics, and karaoke tracks, and share songs I know she would love. My brother becomes her comrade that I refused to be, and I clap for her through Whatsapp. She wrings out time for herself and holds on to music.
All through my childhood, I was caught in a tug of war, the rope wound around me, crushing my bones. At one end was Amma, and the other, my father, I thought. At 26, I see how I had gotten it all wrong. At one end was I, and the other, my father. And Amma had pinned her hopes on me winning. It took years for me to realize that I was consumed by my guilt of not being able to protect either of us. It took me even more years to be able to see the ways in which we were alike.
I see her in the way I lean on to music. One song at a time, we catch snippets of ourselves in each other.
In each of our worlds, our urge to break into a song or softly hum all the time, especially in most unusual settings. Amma sings during surgeries. I have been told by countless strangers that my mother’s singing comforted them as they lay vulnerable, alone and cold, amidst bright lights, beeping machines, masks and green gowns. I sing in exam halls, under x-ray machines, office cubicles, trains, buses, lifts, and roads.
We are both birds following crumbs, seeking out music. She sought out music as she darted through tasks and roles – wife, mother, doctor, teacher, daughter, daughter in law, friend – seeking out music. A part of her is always listening to the song being played somewhere by someone. I need music to see me through chores, days, life. I travel through music to come home to myself.
We seal emotions under thick layers of music. I build a wall around myself with songs when the world seems too threatening, scary, male, loud, and suffocating. As long as I can sing through the moment, I am safe, I tell myself, as I have seen my mother do. Amma deescalates tensions, and puts out fires, by singing devotional songs. The ripe moment before anger erupts, before ember becomes flames that can burn down the house, she sings one of the many songs praising one of her many gods. We sing when happy, when hurt, to hide anger. Lips pursed, voices soft, we both hum our way through eggshells. It took me even more years to see her as a person.
…ennodenthinee pinakkam innumenthinaanennodu paribhavam…
Growing up, Amma was a sum of two songs. One is the first song I ever heard her sing on a stage for her college reunion. In the song, a wife waits for her husband. She asks him why he hasn’t come home to her yet, and why is he upset with her. On the way back home that day, my father hurled words at Amma that kept her away from mics for years to come. The other song is a lullaby that my mother sang to my brother often. The song starts by saying the child is a precious gift from God, drowning me in envy.
One song at a time, we find our way to each other, and learn to meet each other as we are.
… betuk hi bematlab hans le hum, kyun na iss lamke mein haan jee le hum….
On evenings that my father is away, Amma and my brother sit next to each other at the dining table and call me. From across phone screens, we steal time for ourselves. We sing together. We argue, fight, and continue to disappoint each other. We sing to each other. I sing her favorite songs, and she sings the one she has picked for the month. There is so much joy and warmth that I write about it again and again and again into my heart, into pages, into screengrabs to make sure I remember. In those brief pockets of time, the house is ours, the world is ours, and anger has no place in it.
 Njan oru paattu paadi thannotte – can I sing to you?
Parvathy is a writer and researcher. She spends most of her time singing, taking short-ish naps, bookmarking recipes, making to-do lists, and dreaming of libraries.