By Ambarish Ray Apr. 22, 2016
The Artist Formerly Known As Prince was more than a musician. For a gawky, lisping, introverted Bengali from 1990s’ Kolkata, he was a rite of passage.
I normally don’t like men who have “Prince”, “Queen”, and “Bow Bee” in their names. Mallus and a certain Parsi aside. This one, though, is a different banana. This is personal. This is also a rite of passage for a left-wing migrant from Kolkata.
I grew up with Prince; I also grew up as a prince but that is a different babble. Prince gave me ideas. He gave me a voice. But most crucially, he gave me sanction. To say, sing and erupt. I found the courage to express my deepest instincts because of a guy a million miles away, who carried off eyeliner better than any Bengali girl in my ’hood.
In the Kolkata of the ’90s, you were either well brought-up or you were the son of a trader with a dirty mind. There was no middle ground. My parents were doctors and I liked to secretly listen to Prince’s “Dirty Mind”. Here is a lovely morsel from said song:
Whenever I’m around u, baby
I get a dirty mind
It doesn’t matter where we are
It doesn’t matter who’s around
It doesn’t matter
I just wanna lay ya down
In my daddy’s car
It’s you I really wanna drive
When Prince sang a song with the words “sexy motherfucker”, I first turned crimson and then I turned wise.
My daddy’s car was a Padmini (even the car sounded like a khandani deity) and you certainly didn’t lay any woman down in it. Let alone drive her. But Prince said it was okay and I believed him. And I believed in him. I discovered what all you can do in a car because of Prince.
On one of my trips to the barber for my regular, five-rupee haircut in Kolkata’s sweltering sepia-toned CPM afternoons, I found the courage to dictate Uncle Scissorhands to cut my hair like Prince. I drew in the beard with a colour pencil after I came back home. I thought I looked like Prince but my mother quietly clarified that I looked like one of those people who were always roaming around in questionable areas. In motherspeak, it meant I was looking like a painted pimp. But it was okay. I experimented and the experiment bombed in my funder’s opinion. As experiments often do. Prince never said “fail often and fail fast” but I got that from him. I failed often and fairly fast because of Prince.
When Prince sang a song with the words “sexy motherfucker”, I first turned crimson and then I turned wise. In Bengali, it is common practice to refer to a person you don’t like as a piglet. There was nothing cute about it and the image that always came to my mind when I heard someone being called a piglet was not that of cute, little gambolling piggies, but that person’s mother having sex with a pig. But just like that, after sexy motherfucker, I had a watershed. I realised, one doesn’t have to visually imagine every word one comes across. It was just fine to kick back and groove in life and I learned that because of Prince.
When he changed his name to a symbol, I wanted to do the same. But I didn’t know how to do it and also didn’t have the money. To be honest, I also couldn’t think of a symbol fast enough before I grew up. But that didn’t deter me from truly getting the meaning of “what’s in a name” on all those “what’s in a name” tee shirts. I realised there was nothing in a fucking name. It didn’t matter whose sperm made you. What mattered was what you made of yourself. For a gawky, lisping and introverted Bengali with a mother load of imagination and no friends, that was a diamond in the mind. Because of Prince.
When MTV finally arrived, with the delicious Daisy Fuentes (fuck knows how she pronounced her surname. But goddesses, I knew, were cool like that so I didn’t complain) playing Prince’s songs with the little info clip at the bottom left of the screen calling him “the artist formerly known as Prince” I knew I was ready to join the world. Confidence was a scarce resource, sure. But not the monopoly of the silver-spooned sonsofbitches. Confidence was what you built for yourself. I got that. Because of Prince.
As I was ready to leave Kolkata, taking a train to never come back ever in a real sense, he switched his name back to Prince and was also being called “the artist formerly known as ‘The artist formerly known as Prince’”. And then I got something that is really important for me. I got a glimpse, an insight into the universe – that shenanigans are just that. And that you never truly leave something that made you, you only come back to it when you are ready. Because of Prince.
All because of Prince.
I don’t have a guitar but I gently weep. I owe you that much. And more. Now rest like a king, you sexy motherfucker.
From selling cigarettes and Y2K software to teaching undergrad and grad students about brand planning and advertising, Ambarish has done possibly everything a migrant Bong could do in Bombay. Except get off his ass and publish his book. Which he finally did. Bastard Hearts, his first "flawed as fuck" love story, is half autobiographical, but he will be damned if he knows which half.