Monday, November 23, 2015

Disjointed thoughts on music and literature and childhood

I have been thinking often lately of how important childhood homes and families are, and how much they can affect your interests, your education, your vocation. I am interested in literature and music but always had to learn on my own, with little encouragement from my parents who weren’t very interested in either (though my sister was a voracious reader herself and I often borrowed (sometimes stealthily) the books she brought home.

Well, a bit unfair to say my mother wasn’t encouraging — she determinedly carted me or accompanied me to dance lessons and music lessons. But there was little music in our home. My father used to yell at us when we put on the tape recorder. Apparently, use would ‘spoil’ it. For a few years, I practised my singing regularly but somewhat half-heartedly. My parents seemed to tolerate this rather than derive any pleasure from this. Not because they thought I was a bad singer, because they did encourage me to perform in public. It was the societal reward that encouraged them, the idea that someone might praise their daughter (and them for being cool parents), not any love of music or even pleasure in seeing their child working on something.  

Never would they ask me to sing for them at home… and I realise now how odd this is when my husband often asks me to sing when we are home alone. I am not a parent, and have no wish to be, but if I were, surely I would like to hear my child discover music, like to be part of the journey, maybe sing with her myself? I remember a time or two when my father did sing for us, and he had a lovely voice. But it was as if music was too unproductive an activity to waste time on.

There came a time, though, when my father asked me to sing for him. He was in hospital after cancer surgery. He was even more impatient than he had been in health, especially with the rest of the family — strangely, he showed me affection then that he never had before. Never a very religious man, he seemed especially soothed when I sang hymns. He died two years later.

I wanted to be a writer. I ended up doing an MBA and starting a career in marketing. It’s been a decade, and now I finally have the time and the energy and the money to explore more music and literature. I can afford to buy books and take a correspondence course in literature. I can afford to go to music events and listen to music and take music classes. And yet it is all so little, so late. 

My husband and I recently went to an Indian Ocean concert (which was amazing). While introducing one song, band member Rahul Ram said his grandmother (or aunt?) used to sing it when he was a boy. I have one uncle who writes and sings songs but he has long had little to do with us. 

I went to the Tata Lit Fest and attended a couple of very interesting panel discussions. On one, one of the panelists talked about the study in her parents’ house, and how her father had a shelf of modern classics that he encouraged her to read when she was fifteen by the simple expedient of saying he thought she was too young for them!

I don’t know which made me more envious: the room full of books, the father’s affection, or his love of literature.

During my summer holidays when I was maybe eleven, I was really bored and kept going through the books in my home to see what I could read. I picked up A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was engrossed. My father laughed and said I was too young to understand it.

Though I did have a ‘house full of books’. Guests would exclaim over the fact. Most of the books were fancy hardcover sets: they included the full Encyclopaedia Brittanica, some classics (my favourite was a set of four in a red cover — Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Wuthering Heights), many volumes of short stories (Saki, O Henry, Kafka, Chekov). There was also some other non-fiction including books on popular science and a few on art. My father had brought back most of these from the US in the early 70s when he ended his stay there and returned home. 

This was a treasure, and no other home I knew then boasted of so much. I am grateful. I read many of these over and over again… I would have read new books but had little pocket money or friends with many books of their own or even easy access to a good library.

It wasn’t until I was nearly grown up — or maybe not until a couple of years ago — that I realised that my father had not read most of his books. They had all been bought up and hoarded and used as decor. I never had a conversation about any of the books with my parents, and now I realise it was because they couldn’t have talked about them. 

Or maybe we were just not a conversation kind of family. My sister read too, but we rarely talked about books, or anything else. 

So I deeply envy those with more expansive educations than me: the bloggers I read whose parents discuss books and feminism with them, the friend who learned to sing from her mother and whose daughter is also a very good singer, all the people who have picked up art from their very environment. It is so much harder, and slower, to learn on your own, especially after you are grown up and have a job and adult responsibilities.

Yet I was so lucky: I had that little treasure trove of books, my parents occasionally gave me a little money to spend at a bookstore or the annual book fair, I had my sister and a few friends who would sometimes lend me books, I had some access to limited school libraries and for one glorious summer, a local children’s library where I spent many wonderful hours reading Asterix and Narnia. 

Sure I had friends and relatives who mocked me for my reading, but none of them were like a friend’s father, who threatened to tear apart the book he saw her reading — a copy of Pride and Prejudice, borrowed from a friend, the only novel she had ever read. (Thankfully, she doesn’t live with her father anymore, and she enjoys reading and was thrilled when I gifted her daughter a book.) 

It is so important, this early exposure to literature and art and music. Yet we do so little to make this available to kids who are far less lucky than I was. We complain about quotas and discrimination against upper castes and do so little to make it easier for a kid in a remote village to discover Shakespeare, like I did at eleven.

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