As a writer, I’m always thinking two or three sentences ahead, two or three pages ahead, two or three chapters ahead, and back again, the process of writing much like thought itself, jumping from one place to another, like a chattering monkey leaping from branch to branch: moments and memories and ideas sparking and flashing and rustling like an erratic breeze through the leaves.
And yet, there are times when I’m so immersed in what I’m writing or reading that I forget the time, my aching back, my numb leg, the press and thrum of my worries and neuroses, wondering if what I’m writing is any good, how I’ll pay the bills, what the point of calling out into an increasingly noisy void of social media and fake news and the chyron streaming across the screen screaming at me how many cases, how many job losses, how many deaths, how much is happening and how little I know, and how much less I can do.
If this pandemic has revealed anything – apart from the fragility of capitalism, and the necessity of touch, and the dangerous infectiousness of fear and ignorance – it’s the fallacy of certainty: what we thought would be now might never be; what we thought could happen tomorrow probably won’t.
As the child of Indian immigrants, my future was as clearly predestined as the horoscope the purohit charted at my birth. I’d study hard, become a doctor, make my mother proud. Medicine is what brought my parents here, under the long shadow of the White Australia Policy.
It gave them the semblance of status that their cheap clothes and pungent food and sing-song accents and gaucheness with cutlery belied, all of which constantly reminded them, and me, in Blacktown’s hot bitumen playgrounds, that we would never be quite Australian enough, no matter how hard we tried to disavow our noisy, unintelligible Indianness.
I hated always being reminded of where I ‘really’ came from: it was never Blacktown, or Australia, though I was born here, and despite the timorous shoots of multiculturalism supposedly celebrating our difference, my parents never taught me their languages. By the time my father had left my mother, the only Indian words I could ever speak were ones I’d heard them shout at each other in anger (the first time I tried to speak my father’s language, to try and impress on his cold, old mother that I was, ironically, Indian enough, she was so shocked at the words I used, she slapped me).
I hated it when my mother made us sing monotonal, monotonous, unpronounceable Sanskrit bhajjans and slokas before school, in that long dead language, which meant nothing to me – not compared to the hymns we sang at school, where the invisible Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm hath bounded the restless wave and midst the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep meant more to me in English, the language people mocked my mother’s inability to speak ‘properly’, than the songs and colourful idols she held close, fluttering as tremblingly as the lamp in the little cupboard she kept the brass idols her own mother had given her, burnished by her fervent prayers and fading hope.
I remember now with shame dreaming of how and when I could escape her tight embrace, even though I and my brother were now her only family in the world, or at least the world she’d made out of the rubble of her marriage, so far from everyone and everything she loved.
When I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and met dharma bum Sal Paradise hitting that wide open road, full of the crazy rhythms of bebop and poetry and thrumming with adventure, writing, writing, writing – and living, living, living – without thought or consequence, I knew I’d never be a doctor, and all I wanted was something more, anything else, anything but the deadening sound of those ancient mantras washing over me like the echoing whispers of countless generations and expectations, reminding me over and over how un-Australian we were.
When I first listened to bebop, it was like when I started listening to thrash metal, or had my first beer, or smoked my first cigarette: I couldn’t understand how anyone could like it. But as Kierkegaard famously observed, we pursue that which retreats from us, whether it’s an acquired taste, or unrequited love, or Australianness.
And as I persisted, and heard more (and drank, and smoked, and desired more), the more I heard exactly what Miles Davis meant when he said it wasn’t the notes he played, but the ones he didn’t, and the more I understood what August Strindberg meant when he observed that we often use words to hide the meaning conveyed by the silence between them.
Silence, as you may have surmised from this prolix reflection so far, is not easy for me. Although I can spend most of the day not speaking to another person, even my wife and children as we’re locked down in the house together, my head is full of voices: my characters, interview subjects, my father’s, my mother’s. But I cannot listen to music with lyrics: I’ve ended up transcribing it as I’m writing, in that liminal place between consciousness and mindfulness, between awareness and aliveness, when more than forgetting the trivialities I mentioned before, I forget myself and lose myself in my work.
And yet, where I could find a kind of purchase on the erratic, improvised rhythms and atonalities of hard bop (or the relentless raucousness of thrash metal), Indian classic music, especially the South Indian Carnatic music my mother loved, was as unintelligible as her own mother tongue: it was just noise, going nowhere, saying nothing to me.
I struggled to follow it, just I failed to understand the distinctions between Vedanta and Advaita – and whether my soul was just an indistinguishable drop in the ocean or the crest of a wave, only superficially different, but ultimately the same as the water it was a part of.
Much less the idea of Atman: utter, utterless, unimaginable unconsciousness! For someone always so self-conscious of my Westieness, my Indianness, myself, it was unbelievable.
And in my cruel, callow youth, I thought it ridiculous that my mother would continue to light the lamp to her two favourite gods, elephant-headed Ganapati and flute-playing Krishna, her voice quiet and shy as she sang those old slokas alone, afraid of my disdain, her idolatry at odds with those impenetrable philosophical problems.
One of my favourite musicians was always John Coltrane. There was something about him that was both poetic and rock n’ roll: the quiet thoughtfulness of his music, his tragic early death. And my favourite Coltrane album was 1965’s Love Supreme, one of the greatest jazz albums ever, an album that soars and swoops from the opening notes, like a swan about to take flight across shimmering water.
Music, especially jazz, is like a flowering vine, the notes branching out, like a great banyan tree into other directions, even seeming to be other trees, although like the great Tree of Knowledge in Adyar in Chennai, near my mother’s family, they are but the same.
Given the great blooming of ground-breaking talent in the 1950s and 60s – Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, many of whom Coltrane had played with – it was natural to explore them all, each leading to the other, each of them infusing each other’s music.
Of course, had I been more perceptive, I’d have realised that the complicated rhythms and unpredictable syncopations in bebop most resembled the Carnatic classical music my mother loved, the underlying melody a trellis allowing the music to discover its own path, with no idea where or how it would go or end up.
Much like living in a pandemic.
And then I discovered Coltrane’s widow, Alice. I remember that now long-closed record shop in Bondi where I first saw the cover. It was pouring with rain, the mist blurring the raging waves out to sea. She was sitting in a paisley kaftan, looking somewhere else, a distant look on her face, and I saw my own face, sitting in temples and ashrams with my mother after our father left, my legs aching and bored, wishing I was somewhere else, doing anything else, mouthing words I couldn’t speak as we chanted bhajjans for what seemed like hours.
What struck me most was the title: Journey in Satchitananda. Not Satchitananda, the famous swami from Chettypalayam, not far from where my mother’s family now lived, after they’d lost everything to Naxalite Maoists? From the same, dry, dusty, forgotten, faraway corner of South India, much like Blacktown: a place people passed through, not where they went? Even he had left for America years ago.
Now, of course, yoga and meditation and vegetarianism are all fashionable – and profitable. But then, when I first held that record, I was both astonished and ashamed. Why would this American musician be interested in something so Indian? And why couldn’t I be?
From the first notes, a swirl of harp that sounded much like a sitar, I was entranced. It was as if, translated by jazz, I suddenly heard the magic I hadn’t seen. I listened to the album over and over and over and whenever I felt stressed or alone or sad, I’d listen to it and it wouldn’t just wash over me but course through me, each track leading on from the other just as each note did. And although in parts it’s exultant, there’s a deep, reflective sadness pervading the music, of sorrow and loss and acceptance.
Alice Coltrane had had a multitude of lives before that journey into Satchitananda: classical musician, gospel accompanist, big band leader, jazz prodigy, her knowledge and experience of all these different forms informing and interacting with each other, especially in the way she played classical harp.
Wife, mother, bandleader… and then, in the 1970s, after unbearable grief following her husband’s death (and around the same time as my father left my mother) she became a swamini, or spiritual leader, establishing her own ashram and devoting herself to prayer and meditation, changing her name to Turiyasangitananda, turning her back on commercial recording and only singing for her disciples.
I’ve listened to a lot of her music in the past 18 months. There are moments when I am just as transported and unselfconscious as I am when I’m writing, really writing, and I lose myself in the music, as I sometimes do in the writing.
It’s been a solace, especially now, when I cannot see my mother, who is safe but alone in her nursing home due to lockdown. I am unable to touch her or console her as each lonely, indistinguishable day passes into another, her past life as a doctor now distant, as she increasingly is, lost in her memories, or at least those she can remember.
Earlier this year, as Sydney’s lockdown extended into an uncertain duration, and our future seemed increasingly unpredictable, a new album was released, produced by Turiya’s son Ravi, from old cassettes she recorded only for devotees at the ashram called Kirtan: Turiya Sings.
Although I was familiar with her music, I’d never heard her voice, and now, it is a revelation. She sounds at once distant and intimate, her voice faraway and so close – like so many of us right now in lockdown. Her voice, especially on the elegiac Krishna Krishna, sounds as if it is floating above water – just as the first sound, OM, did before time began, or the Word of God did over those restless seas. You cannot expect a chorus or a refrain: you can only immerse yourself in the music and let it happen, without expectation, and let it carry you to places you could never have imagined.
It’s haunting to hear Turiya’s long-dead voice so alive, and make you feel so alive, even as you cannot understand the ancient words she intones in that long-dead language, Sanskrit.
And yet, you do. Not because you can comprehend what they say, but because you feel what they mean. Jai Ramachandra, Govinda Hari, Pranadhana… all the words my mother taught me to say, all flooding back to me, remembering lives long lost, including my own, in a country where they always did things differently: the past, which, given the increasing uncertainty of the future, seems realer than ever before.
Like good writing, great music connects us to each other, and enables us to imagine beyond ourselves, without thinking of the repercussions, only experiencing the moment. It acknowledges what we’ve suffered alone, and in accepting this, exhorts and inspires us to come together, going beyond words.
In an eloquent and perceptive review of the album and Turiya’s work and significance, critic Jenn Pelly said that ‘[her] compositions make you feel connected to yourself and the world with preternatural clarity. They make you believe things you otherwise wouldn’t; they may even facilitate the process of temporarily suspending fear.’
More than this, they make me not only feel connected to myself (whoever that is) and the generations of ancestors before me who sang such songs in the same words, but to my mother, and everything she left behind to bring us here, and even as my own children look at me with similar disdain when I try to teach them a little of our heritage, I somehow feel I finally understand. Although we’re still apart, we’re a little bit closer.