This essay won the SJU Prize for the Personal Essay 2023. The theme was Songs I’ve Forgotten. The judge, noted writer and journalist, CK Meena had this to say: “Naveen Tejaswi’s essay comes at you like a tornado. You are caught up in his tumultuous exploration of music and memory, of belonging and unbelonging. Zapped by a few thousand volts of his energy you are tossed into places you may be familiar with or may have never seen. Before you know it you’ve whizzed through what appears to be an entire short story. And what’s not to love about that? ”
For every wedding I attended as a kid in our village, I had a special place. Either near the wedding band or the photographer. The 5 piece brass band from Mutaguppe would play famous Kannada film songs like Premachandrama and Muthanna Peepi Ooduva. I would get a paravashanadenu feeling in my fingertips. I wondered how the clarinet made that sound which made tears appear. How did the light-flashing box make those photos? We could store these memories and see them whenever you want! And after the wedding was over, we kids found our own ways to re-live the music and memories. We used to hit the katte (mud or cement bench in front of houses) with the midrib of plantain leaves. We would make a camera with coconut leaves and take photos.
In 3rd or 4th standard, Bhopa(grandfather) brought a Philips radio from his friend who was working in Hubli. In our mud house, there was an extension to the right, made of plastic manure bags collected in the village cooperative society. We used it as our kitchen. We kept the radio there on a wooden shelf along with the plastic Alpenliebe chocolate dabbis which stored salt, sugar and chilly. On those days, I used to wake up early in the morning for two songs.
These songs had a specific timing as well – 7:50 am to 8:00 am. Until then, even though the programs started from 7 am in the morning, everyone would be busy with some household chores. Nobody cared enough about the Sanskrit News, Pradheshika Samachara, and Krishiranga. But exactly after the Kannada news, they would play two kannada film songs. And immediately everyone would come to the kitchen. We all would sit below the radio and listen. Before each song, they would mention a long list of all the people who requested for the song. I wanted my name on the list one day. But I did not know what my song would be. I decided, the day I find my favourite song, I would write a letter to the radio station. And my name would be on the list.
And so, I started to search for songs. There were many obstacles in this search. The first two problems were with the radio stations itself. One, why couldn’t they just play songs all day rather than broadcasting news and other programs. Two, why did they waste time broadcasting Sanskrit news when they could use the same time to play songs? In any case, nobody understood that language. I asked this question about Sanskrit to Bhopa, he said “bhatrige artha aadru aagbodenapa” (maybe the priests understand). I was not convinced with that answer. All Brahmins in my village spoke Kannada. It was different from our dialect and whether their Kannada contained respect was another question. The dialect used in Radio news was also different but we all understood what each other spoke. It reminded me of Newton’s Cats story that I had read in school.
One day I went to a Brahmin house with Appa to buy coconuts. We had to dehusk the coconut there itself so that it’s easier to carry. While we were waiting in the angala(front yard), I saw someone in jaguli. I peeped to see what they were doing. Initially I thought someone was watching TV, then I realised it was one of the kids playing a race game on the computer. That computer looked like a white coloured TV but with a triangular dome in the back. They had put one thick screen guard which looked like modern day Covid face shields. That kid, maybe of my age, saw us and came out. He asked enta bekitta? (What do you want?) to my Appa. Appa said we wanted to buy coconuts. That kid went inside to call his father. The kid had spoken to my Appa in singular. It pissed me off. Most of my villagers were working for Brahmin houses. All of them talked to them in plural with a ‘ri’ in front of every sentence – even with a kid. Brahmin families talked to everyone in singular irrespective of age. I wanted my villagers to tell them, maryade kottu maryade tagoli. It took me a long time to understand why they couldn’t say this. While the kid’s father came out and started talking to my father, I was still peeping at the computer. His father saw me and told us that his elder son, who is a software engineer, had brought the computer from America. Then he said, nam Computer alli yaavag bekaru haad kelbodu picture nodbodu game aadbodu (In our computer, we can listen to songs, watch films and play games whenever we want). My pupils got bigger. He continued talking about the internet and other things. But my mind was still stuck at the ‘listening to songs whenever you want’ part. From then on, I used to ask one of my aunts who was working in their house if she listened to any nice new songs in their house. She would say, ee hudga entuda bare haadu haadu antatyala. Naanu avr mane kelsa bittu haad kelkita kuthkunakaaketana api? (What is this boy always talking about songs. Do you think I can leave their house work and sit and listen to songs?)
There was no TV in our whole village except for Brahmins households. Very few houses had tape recorder players and one house in our kéri had a black and white Onida TV. My family was against me going to other houses to watch TV. The days I did, I used to get nice beatings. A girl next to my house used to work at her classmate’s (a Brahmin’s) household.
She was five years older than me. She once told me,raayar manyage colour TV aiti. Hamaakand channel aidavu. Picturrige ond channellu, haadige ond channellu.(Raayar’s house has a colour TV. It has many channels. Channels exclusively for films and music). I imagined a TV with a blue, red and yellow body instead of normal black or gray. We, younger kids used to go with her to peep at the TV. We used to stand outside on the katte and try to have a look at the TV programs from a small window in the wall. I was happy to see colour images in the TV but was sad because the body was still black. They had a dish cable. My school teacher and a girl in my class would talk about the songs telecasted on TV. I would just listen. One day I heard Male Bille Male Bille and Hoove Hoove songs through the window. Next day I would not shut my mouth about it with the teacher and that girl in school!
But if we stood there for a long time peeping through the window, either the people of the house used to shoo us off or if Avva (grandmother) got to know that I sneaked out to watch TV, she used to come with a chulki kolu in hand. After beating nicely, she would say, avr manigala hogbada maga. Naavu TV tarana ond dina. (Don’t go to their houses, son. We will buy a TV one day). After a few years, she brought us a black and white TV with the money she earned from dehusking arecanut at Brahmin houses. Bhopa and I used to do circus standing on the house roof bending and holding the antenna to get a stable signal.
Sometimes this much effort to get a signal didn’t feel worth it as they used to broadcast Hindi programs all day. Kannada programs were broadcasted only between 6-8pm. I still think about this when I see Hindi speaking Bank Managers demanding my villagers to speak in Hindi or Central government exams which can be written only in Hindi/English.
When I was in high school, a BSNL tower was erected in my village and Bhopa bought a Nokia black and white phone. I saw an ad in the village library which said, Caller tunegaligaagi 56700 dial maadi (dial 56700 for caller tunes). I got excited. I was afraid to dial the number. If currency got cut, I would get nice scoldings. Losing 1 Rs mobile currency was treated as bad as losing a 100 Rs currency note. One day, my grandpa left his phone in the house. I took the phone to the backyard and dialed *123# to see the currency. Then I dialed the caller tune number. It was an IVRS number. When they said – welcome to BSNL caller tune services, I cut the call. I dialed *123# again. No currency was being cut. I was happy and dialed the number again. There were different categories – first by language and then by genre. We could listen to the first 30 seconds of these songs. I listened to kannada top 20 songs and I was super happy.
Hodimaga Hodimaga song became an instant favourite. I went and bought a ‘Kannada New Songs Lyrics’ booklet with 5 rupees that I had been saving for a month. I loved that book. Thirty seconds of new songs made my heart dance, but I wished I could listen to full songs. For several months, I bought the song booklet to keep me satisfied. Whenever I got the chance, I snuck out the phone.The list of my favourites slowly started getting bigger. Preetse Anta Praana Tinno, Nodayya Kwate Lingave, Kivi Mathonda, Mungarumaleye were running in my mind constantly. I also liked a few non-Kannada songs but I couldn’t remember the songs as I didn’t know the languages. During the 2010 football world cup, two songs became popular. I saw these songs on TV after school at KV’s place. They crept into my heart instantly. One of them was Give me freedom. The other one was the Shakira song. I went to school the next day, bursting to tell my friends about this song with the beautiful dancer. But I had forgotten the name of the song. I went back and asked KV the name of the song. He said the name, Tsamina Mina. Five minutes later, I forgot the name again. After asking him the second time, I thought it sounded like Shamiyana. I started to remember it as the Shamiyanana song from then onwards. I never forgot the song after that.
One day while I was travelling to the town, I saw the same kid I had seen when I went to buy coconuts with Appa. He was sitting on a window seat and listening to songs. At first I thought it was a walkman. (Every time I visited village fairs, I used to ask the shops there about the walkman and get disappointed when they told the price. Sometimes walkmans used to come in my dreams too. I used to walk in the fields of my village listening to songs in the walkman. The dream walkman played every song that I requested). I talked to the kid, and found out it was an iPod his brother brought from America. He said that it had about 500 songs. I asked him which song he was listening to. He said the name of an English song, but I didn’t understand. I just nodded. I was so fascinated by that cute device and its earphones. I wanted one to hold in my own hand. My mind had started planning to buy one. I asked him the price, and he said it in dollars. I did a mental conversion and it was about 10,000 Rs. I realised I’ll have to be satisfied with its appearance in my dreams.
My mother’s younger sister and her family moved to Bengaluru for a better life. One summer Avva decided to visit them. She said she would take me and my brother along with her. My aunt also loved music. (Her favourite song till today is – Hoovu Mullu from the film Yuddha Kanda). She told me in a call that they have FM in Bengaluru and you can listen to music 24 hours a day on the phone and it’s free! FREE MUSIC YOU CAN LISTEN ANY TIME OF THE DAY IN PHONE! Wow!!
I started dreaming about visiting Bengaluru. We had a Reliance 999 Rs phone at home. We would hang it ten feet high in the kitchen, on a nail and thread. That was the only place where there was one kaddi signal. I remembered my aunt telling me that one needs to plug in earphones for FM to work. I convinced my family to carry the phone to Bengaluru and I remembered to take the earphones. We boarded the bus from the nearby town. I was badly waiting to reach Bengaluru! By the time we reached Tumkur, I woke up and plugged in earphones to check the FM. I was happy and sad. Happy because FM was working. Sad because only one side of the earphone was working. My brother also woke up. I told him about FM. We took turns listening to songs on earphones. Whenever it was not my turn, I used to look at my brother’s face to see his reaction to the songs. Sanju Weds Geetha film songs were huge hits then. FM Radios played these songs all day. Earphones were glued to my ears all the time during my stay in Bengaluru.
On my 10th standard school trip, I decided to chase after another dream with a new phone. My uncle brought a qwerty china phone. Our villagers called these phones China set. These were famous for their extremely loud speakers. I requested my uncle and took the China set with me. The other dream was of sitting in a window seat and listening to a beautiful song while looking outside at night. Cyber cafes in the town used to fill songs in the memory card of the mobile. 50 Rs for 1GB. I went and asked for all new Kannada songs and some all time hits. I got 2GB of songs. My uncle didn’t have earphones, so I bought one earphone for 100 Rs. I came home and listened to the songs. I was so happy as both sides of the earphones were working. On the day of the trip, I made sure I had a window seat. I waited until everyone settled down. Once they switched off the lights, I took my phone and plugged the earphones in. I was just one step away from my dream. I played a song and my dream was shattered. One side of the earphones wasn’t working. Dabba nan magand! I tried re-plugging it. I cleaned the jack and carefully adjusted it hoping that it would work but it didn’t. I cursed the earphones and the mobile shop owner nicely. I had to wait for two more years for this dream to come true..
In the summer after the school trip my 10th board results came. I had gotten the second rank in the whole Taluk. My family was happy. Our villagers were happy and surprised. They couldn’t believe that a first generation high school kid from our kéri had done this. The newspapers carried this news. Avva and Bhopa were also very happy. Avva knew about my fascination for music. She said, “I’ll buy you a good keypad mobile phone. I’ll also make sure it plays songs.”
Meanwhile, I decided to go to Shivamogga for PUC. In retrospect, there were three reasons why I wanted to study in Shivamogga. My topper friends had gotten admission at private colleges in Shivamogga, I loved going to new places (I went to primary school in my village, highschool in town, PU in Shivamogga, and Bachelors degree in Bengaluru) and the third was that I had read in the newspapers that Shivamogga will be getting a new FM station. Who says no to a full day of music? It sounds funny now. Because, it’s been ten years since my PUC days. Shivamogga still has no FM Station.
Sea of Songs
Now that Avva had promised me a phone, I went and visited mobile phone shops whenever I got a chance to go to the town. I started to check all the new arrivals. I had read in the newspapers that Sony Ericsson phones were good for listening to music. When I asked them, the shopkeepers said that these phones were a bit pricey. But they said I could get it if an advance was paid. After evaluating the budget, I finally decided to buy a Samsung E2252 Dual Sim phone. Made for listening to music, it was written on the cover. The phone came with cute-cute black coloured earphones that fit like a curled kitten inside my ears. The shopkeeper also gave me a 2GB memory card with the phone. It was free. I went home and saw that there was only one song in the memory card. It was titled ‘Track 01’. It was an English song sung by a woman artist. The lyrics were about the night and sky. It sounded like the smell of that first rain. I can’t explain that in words. Like all those songs I loved in the past, this one also crept into my heart. But it also stayed on my fingertips and tear ducts. It was the third English song that I had heard and loved. I started listening to it at home, while walking in the fields, while sheep grazing, while at the shop, while playing, while travelling to Shivamogga for college admission. Even while shitting. Later, I would fill 2GB songs in my memory card. Many songs were also transferred from friends through Bluetooth. But Track 01 stuck to me like raindrops on a dusty face. Until Track 01, I had held onto the songs. They had crept in when I heard and hummed them. For the first time, a song held me. It wiped away my tears, it spread warmth to my fingertips. Maybe because it saw me through so many changes. Of me being among people who mostly neglected my existence. Of moving away from home and being homesick at the hostel. But also while exploring the big sounds of a new city, and its motions. Of making new friends and crashing weddings.
These songs became a background score to my monotonous life. Moving to Shivamogga was emotionally and financially hard. ‘Track 01’ made things tolerable. After a few months, somehow the memory card got corrupted. I lost that song. It wasn’t a very gunug-able song. With its loss, it took away its name, tune and identity. I only remember how it held me, how I felt a hug when I was alone in the pop sounds of the woman singing about the night sky.
If I come across it, I’ll notice the song. After a month or so, I went to the shop where I brought the phone and asked about the song. With gutka in his mouth, the shopkeeper said, api, nam computrage saavragatle haadaidavu. Nee hing english haadu hudgi haadiddu andre naan heng hudukli hela? (buddy, we have thousands of songs on our computer. How can I search for that song if you just tell me that it’s an English song sung by a woman?). Dabba nan maga! I wish I had shared that song with someone through Bluetooth.
Ocean of Songs
When I moved to Bengaluru for bachelors, things were hard again. I wished that I had ‘Track 01’ to hold me again. It would have made things easier. Like it did when I moved to Shivamogga. The harsh summer in this city needed a monsoon breeze of Track 01. One thing that made me happy was FM. I used to listen to FM all the time. One day I heard an English song on FM while travelling in the BMTC bus. I loved it. This time I searched for the song title using the lyrics. It was called As Long as You Love Me and was sung by the Backstreet Boys. Hindin-beedi Hudugaru. What a beautiful name.
I had downloaded it on mp3skull.com (Remember data cost 250 Rs per GB then). I was so pumped to find a new English song that made me feel breezy. I wanted to share it with all my friends in the city. I posted a Facebook update, Naveen Tejaswi is listening to Back Street Boys – Whatta amazing song Guru! *heart in the eyes emoji three times*. I got a few Likes. I wanted to share it with more people. I sent the song on the class WhatsApp group (I told you about the data price) with a small note, Guys, listen to this amazing song I found. I thought my classmates with English sensibilities would appreciate this new discovery of mine! Nobody replied for an hour. I sent another text, Don’t miss listening to this amazing song! Let me know what you think. After a few minutes, one person replied, Dude, this is BSB. you simply wasted my data. With three laughing emojis. Some more people sent laughing emojis and LOLs. I had expected some sikkapatte nice replies from them. But for the Bengaluru people and their English sensibilities this was nothing new. Like the kids in the Brahmin households in our village, they did not seem to realise the joys of hunting for music. And the overwhelming feeling to share it with the world.
When I brought a smartphone later, I found an ocean of possibilities on the Internet. But data was still costly. So I used to sit in the college Quadrangle till 7pm (till the security shooed me off) to download my favourite songs using the college WiFi. While travelling to college, songs became an SI unit for distance and time. Early mornings, It would be 6-8 songs long to reach college from Malleshwaram. In the evenings, it was more than 10 songs long.
Now Spotify, YouTube and Shazam have changed the way I listen to music. There is no need to hunt anymore. There is also no fear of losing any song. You don’t even need to worry about data to download. These days, I sometimes tune into World Radio and listen to songs from different countries and languages. It is like those days when I listened to FM or the 30 second song calls. I don’t control which song comes my way. Sometimes my fingertips itch to shazam them. But I stop myself. I don’t know why. In the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a photographer waits for many months to capture a snow leopard in the freezing Himalayas. When he finally sees it after months of waiting, he doesn’t take the photograph.. He says, If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it. Maybe I just want to stay in the songs that come my way. I don’t know if I’m trying to re-live the pain of losing a song. Do we like the pain of losing something we love? I don’t know. I might have missed the identity of many songs this way. But none of them make my fingertips ache like the loss of “Track 01”.
In the most unexpected moments, some parts of a song fly near your ears like the butterflies near ooru kere. Sometimes just a tune. Sometimes part of the lyrics. You take a few minutes, hours or a whole day to fully catch it with both palms. Or maybe it is like love. I have been waiting to catch the tune and lyrics of Track 01 eleven years now. I only remember this – an English song, Woman artist, sounded like a 2000s song and it’s about night and sky. It isn’t enough information. I put all the vocabulary I have into explaining to my friends how this song sounded. It has never worked. Maybe I have lost it forever. But the memory of this song that I’ve forgotten is always fresh. Bringing the monsoon wind from my village to wherever I am. Reminding me of the bittersweet hunger of hunting for songs that came easily, faster for others. Colouring my tears and my smiles.
I miss you so much, Track 01.
By Naveen Tejaswi