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When home is a song

opinionWhen home is a song

In Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop asks: “Continent, city, country, society, the choice is never wide and never free/and here or there…No. Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?” Travel—whether for whim, wisdom or need—is mostly seen through the prism of gain, economic and otherwise; but for many travellers, as latitudes shift, there is as much the matter of lingering loss: a familiar hill here, a fading horizon there. A decade ago, somewhere in Oxford’s quaint covered market with the high raftered roofs, I lost a song.

The last lecture for the day was done, and it was during an absent-minded stroll that I heard the piece play, in the distance at first, then nearer: a melodious composition in multiple octaves that appeared to blend conch shells, sitar and guitar, tabla and tarana. The wandering mind became alert, even frantic, as I tried to locate the source: asking vendors, scanning passing baskets for portable radios. Until, failing to find it, and realising that the next moments might snatch that song away from me forever, I began to hum it. Over and over, all the way to the Carfax Tower in the City Centre, then to the bookshops that dotted Broad Street, and then back home on Iffley Road, until the song settled into the deepest crevices of me. For years.

The song, not just music but memory. Of the many hours spent in morning riyaaz, on my grandmother’s old harmonium. Yaman, the evening raga, was my favourite because of its wilful teevra madhyam, but Bhairav, Bhoopali, Malkaunsand Malhar had to be mastered too, along with others. Memories of our talented, exacting music teacher at school, who pushed us to challenge our own limits and never demanded any unjust gurudakshina, who gave me a prize when I sang Madhuban mein Radhika naache re on stage. Ma’am, would you love me less today if I tell you I can no longer sing the difficult taan at the end of Madhuban Mein Radhika? Walking alone on streets slick with snow, walking the tightrope between the days’ clutter and the evenings’ chores, my life as a single working woman in the United States has left me with little time for riyaaz. It is a road I would gladly embark on again and again, as I challenge my own boundaries—but I cannot sing as I once could.


Listening to an online album by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who created the Mohan Veena, I heard that piece play. I stood transfixed for a moment, and then laughed out in joy. The composition is called Pathway to Peace.

Over the years, that unnamed song came to represent a million journeys, the roughness and the rewards, an intangible loss despite some tangible gains, finding home in the world. Then, this week, something unbelievable happened. Yes, I found my song! Listening to an online album by the Hindustani classical music maestro Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who created the Mohan Veena, I heard that piece play. I stood transfixed for a moment, and then laughed out in joy. The composition is called Pathway to Peace. Friends and music enthusiasts in America might recognise the musician for his Grammy-winning album A Meeting by the River, with slide guitarist Ry Cooder, as well as his other genre-bending and cross-country collaborative works. Some traditionalists criticise his music, just as some traditional academics criticise interdisciplinary scholarship, but there is something to be admired in the craft of those who challenge the boundaries of genres and of disciplines, creating something eclectic and astounding. I had the honour of hearing him play at a concert when I was still in high school, and have heard his pieces off and on; and yet, for all this knowing, I could not identify the artist from the sonorous piece for so long. Some things cannot be rushed, perhaps; they are meant to be discovered step by step, piece by piece, note by note.

No. Whatever those patriarchs and politicians might say, I do not believe I should have stayed “at home,” however we define it. Yes, faced with choice, I would make the same ones again. As Joni Mitchell crooned, something’s gained and something’s lost in living every day. Yet, lost songs can sometimes be found, and homes built in many worlds, between the lines of new songs. The thought, at least, might make us smile.

Dr Debotri Dhar is a visiting fellow and lecturer at the -University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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