“Beta, Gana Ga Ke Sunao!”


“Beta, Gana Ga Ke Sunao!”

Illustration: Cleon Dsouza

Ionce met a dog named “Smooch Inder Pal Singh”. Inder Pal Singh was his human father’s name and I remember the whole family, not because of the dog’s awesome name but because of what my father did to me.

It was the middle of the party and I was swooning over Smooch, when my father insisted I sing. The music was too loud for me to even hear my own thoughts let alone my voice, but apparently Inder Pal Singh and wife had flown down all the way to India and they just had to hear my voice. The party around me was moving to dinner but that didn’t matter to my father. Singing had to be done. So I sang “Every Breath You Take” in the lady’s ear while she was chewing her chicken tikka kebab at a tempo much faster than the song I was singing. It is, to date, my most enduring childhood memory.

There is a tribe of parents that subjects their guests to the prodigious talent of their progeny at every given opportunity even when said guests have no desire to be subjected. My parents were the leaders of that tribe.

I realised I had some measure of musical ability at the tender age of nine when I was a Bollywood-crazed pre-teen and my parents forced me to sing “Kaho Na Kaho” from Murder at a cousin’s wedding. (I gather it was cute back then to make little children sing songs from adult crime thrillers.) The audience’s applause and the smile on everyone’s face after that first solo performance was enough validation for my parents to make a full-time hobby out of it.

It would start innocuously enough. At parties, people would be laughing and making merry in the living room and I would be minding my own business in my room until someone would come knocking on my door and call me outside for dinner. I’d almost never get any food. The dining table would turn into the stage and I, the main dish.

At every party that you go to, you’ll always find the Loud-Aunty-You-Haven’t-Met-In-Years who gets fixated with the fact that you lost your baby fat and absolutely insists you sing.

Sometimes the stage would be bigger than the dining table. Like the time my uncle, in a state of complete inebriation, told Mika, the Punjabi singing sensation that I was a better singer than him. Three minutes later I found myself on stage with his band where I was asked to sing a “peppy number”. They made me sing “Waka Waka” while Mika barged in with his dhol and added “Jugni Naughty Nakhre Wali” in the pauses in the song. I left the stage feeling somewhat like a favourite t-shirt that goes out of fashion and then becomes the duster of the house.

At some point I did grow up but not enough to say, “No” to the simultaneously benign and threatening demand of “beta gana ga ke sunao”. You have to battle the pressures of being a teenager and also face the disappointed gazes of all those who want to hear your overhyped voice. At every party that you go to, you’ll always find the Loud-Aunty-You-Haven’t-Met-In-Years who gets fixated with the fact that you lost your baby fat and absolutely insists you sing. Then there is the Cool-Uncle-Who-Used-To-Live-Down-The-Road-And-Saw-You-Puke-In-The-Plants-When-You-Were-Sixteen-But-Never-Told-A-Soul who hates all the songs that everyone is asking you to sing because he has a better taste in music; he looks at you disapprovingly like you’ve let yourself become a sell-out because you know the lyrics to “Baby Doll Main Sone Di”.

When someone across the room asks what you do, your mother intervenes and exaggerates that you’ve been performing with all the big stars of the music industry. Aunty raises her eyes questioningly and asks, “REALLY?” She then drops her lipstick-stained wine glass on your mother’s favourite carpet, which you have to eventually clean. Right in the middle of this emotional detour, the bell rings and Mom’s-Half-Baked-Classically-Trained-Best-Friend arrives.

She looks at you sitting on the lonely sofa in the middle of the room and eyes you like a Komolika who has stolen the Mr Bajaj of her life by snatching her spotlight. She creepily sits on the corner of the sofa and begins to sing along with you. Obviously, she changes the key of the song with every new line, after which you stop singing in the middle of the song. You have no idea how to tell her that she’s ruined it so you continue faking a smile, even as her body hogs up your arm rest while she puts one arm around you and you can’t even change your angle because your butt hurts from all the sitting. After you have exploited your vocal chords beyond their limits, comes the most dreaded question, “Beta, tum Indian Idol kyun nahi chali jati?” This is a question that takes all the courage in the world to refrain from answering.

Over the years, I’ve come up with some pretty far-out reasons for not wanting to sing, because “I have a bad throat” or “I’m tired” doesn’t seem to work anymore. My latest one-liner is, “You can’t ask a peacock to dance when it’s not raining” but even that is valid only until your mom’s birthday party when the emotional atyachar quotient is reaching the sky. Then you have no option but to succumb to the needs of drunk aunties who transform into vocal gurus and try to instruct you how to sing.

I suspect my parents will remain part of the Beta Gana Gao Tribe for some time to come (my father recently made me whisper-sing an entire song to him over the phone while I was in the middle of a movie!) But I keep telling myself it could have been worse… I could have been a dancer.