By Aashika Ravi
9 Songs is an occasional series in which people mark major memories in their lives with the songs that accompanied them.
1. Hips Don’t Lie- Shakira
The year was 2006. We were in Riyadh. My father had just bought a new supercool SUV called Rav4 and we were testing out the car stereo by playing one of those 50 Greatest Party Hits CDs that were all the rage during that time. There we were, in the parking lot of a supermarket, bobbing up and down in our seats excitedly while we sang along to Hips Don’t Lie. I felt a little dirty enjoying the song because the lyrics were so explicit, but at least we were in it together. When we left Riyadh, we lost the car, and the feeling of being a family too somewhere along the way. The next time I felt that was ten years later, at the dining table with my mum while we patiently watched our phone screen, waiting for my father and sister to settle a silly argument in their separate tiny screens- one in Congo, one in Canada and the two of us, here in India.
2. Sai Baba Aarti
My tone-deaf father’s love for religious karaoke formed the soundtrack of my childhood. So the importance given to Sai Baba in our household is directly proportionate to the difficult times our family is going through. When we were in a particularly tight spot financially, so many years ago, I remember a frantic amma and appa reading the same worn copy of the Sai Satcharitam. The rules were simple: Start on a Thursday and finish by the next Wednesday.
As an agnostic, my middle-class parents whose middle name was “Safe” and their brief flirtation with the wrong side of the law for Baba half-amuses and half-embarrasses me. Every Thursday, we’d visit Mr. Bhagyanathan aka Pakhi (a Sri-Lankan Tamilian)’s house, complete with soundproof curtains and a cut-off time to enter. What we did inside was fairly innocuous- singing bhajans and doing a Sai Aarti, but in Saudi Arabia, where we were living at the time, it was forbidden to publicly practice our faith. How edgy.
Years of living in the Gulf meant digging our claws into whatever remnants of our culture we could retain, from the makeshift shrine on our mini-fridge to being forced into attending Carnatic music classes for six years at least, alongside my sister who was magically good at everything. This is the part where I divulge that I meanwhile had inherited the tone-deafness from my father, and you all feel sorry for me.
3. I Want It That Way- Backstreet Boys
In sixth grade, when I returned to Bangalore, I found myself smack dab in the middle of a Backstreet Boys phase, a tad bit too late (this was 2008). I remember thinking I was so cool for listening to English music, picking out a single girl in class who I had deemed just as cool, and asking her confidently if she listened to Backstreet Boys. She laughed in my face, and I realized with horror that Backstreet Boys was not considered good music by any stretch. What followed was a few years peppered with embarrassing moments like pretending to like Jonas Brothers and telling my crush that “I hated heavy metal bands like Nickelback.” Naturally, he mocked my poor knowledge of cool English music while I stood there hoping the earth would swallow me whole, but now I laugh at it as I proudly listen to K-pop, completely unironically.
4. Deewana Hai Dekho- Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham
K3G gave us everything from a Desi Mean Girls to unbelievable fashion disasters and fodder for ridicule for the next 15 years, and for that I am eternally grateful. It’s so built into my everyday life that I casually quote from it (Rahul, take a chill pill ya!), sing along perfectly with back-up vocals to any song from it (even the oft under-appreciated but lyrical masterpiece that is Banno ki Saheli) and steal comebacks from it (“Movie tonight?” “Tell me how it was!”). It’s an exercise in emotions, every one of which starts and ends in cringe, whether it was Jaya Bacchan’s mournful “Pati Parmeshwar hai” spiel or the domestic help literally worshipping their employers.
Most importantly, I have somewhat morphed into a Poo these days, complete with self-love bordering on obnoxious and a tendency to coin lingo that only I use, and I have her to thank for not feeling the least bit bad about it.
5. Called Out in the Dark- Snow Patrol
Every woman at some point in her life, should go to an all-girls school or college, even if for the briefest of periods. Simply because. In my two years at MCC, I found myself in a girl-group unlike one I had ever been in. Our biggest drama was that three of us liked each other more than we liked the others. It was devastating and friendship-breaking in the way that only sixteen-year-olds’ fights are. A summer break later, we were all best friends again.
For a friend A’s birthday, two of us orchestrated an entire wedding at Cubbon Park with a life-sized stuffed doll with a balloon for a face, all based off a small inside joke. She hated it and threw flowers at us from the bouquet but eventually agreed to walk down the aisle while five-six men ogled us from the other side of the fence in the way that only men who see a group of girls doing something fun do.
This song was a mutual favourite, so we changed the lyrics for her and it was very appropriately retitled “Called Out to Cubbon Park”. Today we cringe at the memory but also feel wistful about the times when friend’s birthdays were events that required months of planning, and not just phone calls made in a hurry.
Transatlanticism- Death Cab for Cutie
I chose Transatlanticism, but I’d like it to be known that there are so many other Death Cab for Cutie songs that awaken a part of me I didn’t know existed. It’s the band I dared to call my favourite, the one I bonded with my best friend and soul sister over, the one I hold close to my heart like a secret and the one whose lyrics enchant me to this day.
My best friend had somehow managed to miss both our birthdays on an overseas trip, and when we met, we exchanged our gifts in the back of a ratty cab. She’d gotten me a CD for one of two of my favourite Death Cab albums, Plans and I’d gotten her printed cards with Death Cab artwork that I’d stayed up all night making and wished I could’ve kept for myself.
Whether Ben Gibbard is singing about gentrification in Gold Rush or just plain ol’ heartbreak in A Lack of Color, every word and every syllable is meant to hurt where you hit. Picture these lyrics from Marching Bands of Manhattan and cry like I did. “Sorrow drips into your heart through a pin hole/Like a faucet that leaks, and there is comfort in the sound/But while you debate half-empty or half-full/It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown.” Gibbard could sing The Alphabet and it would mesmerize me.
7. Something in the Rain- Rachel Yamagata
In the past few months, I have discovered what it’s like to live with retired people and by extension, what it’s like to live on terms not dictated by the tick tick ticking of a clock. I have moved out of my Type-A 50-something parents’ house to a 60-something relatives’ house and imagine my surprise when I found out that clocks here serve no other purpose than wall décor.
As a result, I have traded my own Type A personality for lazy morning walks and showers that last however long I want them to, and ironically enough, I feel some renewed kind of life taking residence in me, even if it is one of a retired cat lady.
Yamagata’s Something in the Rain is my #1 background music recommendation for soaking in a bathtub. Every time I sing this song I feel like Esthero’s ghost has suddenly possessed me, or I am transformed into a Carla Bruni crooning “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, giving all your love to just one man” as if I have some hundred mans to distribute my love among. I am even ready to forgive Bangalore’s now it’s sunny, now it’s rainy, now it’s sunny and it’s raining weather if I can have those small moments of pretending I’m in a Korean drama, clutching at my umbrella daintily and hopping and skipping along the roads.
8. 99 Luftballons- Nena
I don’t ever distinctly remember hearing this song or watching its video, but I feel like I came built-in with the lyrics to the English version. Recently, a meme on Instagram said that 99 Luftballons was the German Despacito and I can’t stop thinking about how it must’ve defined the postmodern angst we all fancied we carried around.
For a while in college, my anxiety and depression took turns in dragging me down, and I was convinced I had been chosen for some cruel Groundhog Day simulation when I rediscovered Nena’s iconic song. Over time I began talking about my feelings and made some huge changes to keep them in check. But every time I listened to 99 Luftballons, it took on a new meaning.
I like to picture my anxiety as a Luftballon (in the English version, it has become a red balloon). Sometimes, I have been the balloon, misunderstood and unassuming, sometimes I have been the General, misunderstanding everything and happily jumping to conclusions and sometimes, the jet fighter who fancied himself Captain Kirk, ready to show my anxiety its place. Every time I struggle with it, I try to do what Nena tells me, “Denk’ an dich und lass’ ihn fliegen” (I think of you and let them fly). This is my favourite retelling of Nena’s story- one where I am both the luftballon, and the one who realizes it can be harmless and lowers their gun.
9. Therapy- All Time Low
My favourite spot in college was not under a shady tree, or at a cool kid canteen, but the inside of a friend E’s little red Nano, fondly called Paddy (short for Paddington). Paddy was our chauffeur for everything from cozy friend gatherings to crazy parties while I passed out in the backseat, our personal getaway car from Puke Central.
Apart from being “a misunderstood bad boy” in his words, E moonlights as the most wonderful person I have ever met. He was also the only person in my immediate vicinity who shared my love for early 2000s pop rock, and the one who always offered Paddy’s services and most importantly, his time whenever I was feeling low.
The day I broke up with an ex, E dropped me home because I was feeling too vulnerable to do my usual “No, I don’t want to inconvenience anyone” dance. All the while, we played All Time Low and All-American Rejects songs, singing at the top of our voices, and at the end of the drive, I felt a little less like the world was ending and a little more like happy.
This happened many times over the course of three years and every time, I was surprised by the cathartic release that shitty pop rock provides when you’re frustrated. Recently, E has been having a hard time in another city and I am counting the days till I can drive up there in a Paddy of my own with Damned if I Do Ya blaring through the speaker.