In 1957, in his mother’s maika in Bombay, a three-year-old boy had a favourite chithi (thank you, Kamala Harris, for telling the rest of the world who a chithi is!). She was a teenager, and the nephew, yours truly, sat spellbound as she hummed the lines “I took a trip on a sailing ship…” I made her repeat the Jamaica Farewell song again and again.
In 1959, my father, a civil engineer in the railways, was posted to Chopan, a hick town in south eastern Uttar Pradesh, near Mirzapur. A railway line was being built. He was trained in Carnatic music, was learned in musical theory, and played the flute. My mother played the veena. While my chithi told me that he would tease her for singing “somberi paatu (idlers songs!),” I often heard my parents humming the same Jamaica Farewell.
In that bucolic railway settlement, the watering hole was the club, and a bachelor “uncle”, Mr Da Cunha sang Belafonte, Pat Boone and Frank Sinatra, joined by Subramaniam “uncle” of the dulcet voice. That’s when I heard the Banana Boat song, and I thought “Mr T-a-a-lly Man” was a gentleman of that name who was being asked to come and count the bananas. Incidentally, that Da Cunha uncle of the fierce handlebar moustache loved children, and we loved him and his dachshund. He once got the “colony” children together to teach them (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?, and the know-all me said “Uncle, I already know this song” – courtesy the aforesaid chithi.
Once, on a “colony picnic” to the beautiful Vindhyachal, my father sang snatches of Island in the Sun as we rowed on a boat.
Soon, the maika shifted. My grandfather retired from an officer’s life in Bombay to a consciously chosen traditional life in Madras, with the dining table and chairs abandoned to give way to wooden palagas on the floor. I was placed in the care of my grandparents, because neither Chopan nor the neighbouring towns of Mirzapur or Robertsganj had good schools. The favourite chithi was now a very senior teenager, and had got many records (mainly 78 rpm) for the gramophone. And so, even as we ate our tiffin or our sappadu sitting on the floor, the songs of Belafonte and Pat Boone were played every day. The anchors of the Binaca Hit Parade, Happy go lucky Greg (yes!) and Hamid Sayani gave us more Belafonte, Pat Boone, Frank Sinatra and Eartha Kitt. In school, the Anglo-Indian music “miss” did timepass between classes by playing out-of-syllabus songs like Matilda, Matilda on the grand piano.
In 1964, my father was posted in Delhi, and it was then, at the age of 10, that I began to hear more of Belafonte, on the longer, increasingly popular 33 rpm albums. Come back Liza, The Jackass Song, Man Smart, Woman Smarter and the hilarious Hole in the Bucket were some of the songs in one treasured album. And my sister and I often listened to our favourite tape carrying the Carnegie Hall performance (copied from another railway “uncle’s” recording). The most memorable song from that performance was Man Piaba. And I remember Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu Paloma and Mama Look a Boo Boo also from that concert.
All India Radio’s ‘A Date with You’ and ‘Forces Request’ programmes brought us even more of him. I often heard my parents hum my own favourites, and now chuckle at the thought of my father’s reported disdain of them as “idlers songs”, wondering how he could have ever felt that!
It was many years later, when I was well into adulthood, that I got to know about his involvement in the civil rights movement, his friendship with Dr Martin Luther King and about his activism. When our children came, they came into a world where the radio was passe, and so were ‘A Date with You’ and ‘Forces Request’. But the old record player and the old discs were still doing gallant duty, and the children heard the same songs as I did, with their grandfather as facilitator.
The Master’s memoir My Song, was published in 2011, and my daughter, by then a PhD scholar in New York, bought a copy for me immediately after it came out. Inscribing it, she wrote, “Dad, with all the childhood memories I have of you singing and listening to these songs, I thought you would enjoy this.” As I devoured the pages, and I read more about his commitment to public causes, admiration turned to awe and soon to worship.
I moved to a new office nine years ago. I didn’t want my conference room to look lawyerly, and had posters of my favourite musicians all around: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Cliff Richard, Engelbert Humperdinck, Nina and Frederik, and The Beatles. But the presiding deity over the conference table was Harry Belafonte, and many innocent souls asked if he was my father. To the right of Belafonte is a cartoon of me which a couple of cheeky juniors got commissioned as a birthday gift. It seeks to convey an insolent message: only half your dimaag is on the law; the other half of it is on your hero.
In the last eight years, three grandchildren have come. A few years ago, I overheard Aadya, then four years old, humming, “Come, Mr Tallyman,” and my eyes went moist. Last week I asked my son what Belafonte songs Nimay, four, and Nirad, less than two, had on their playlist. I was happy to know that they had Day-O, Matilda, Jump in the Line and Zombie Jamboree on it.
Earlier this week, my God died. The next day, my chithi, now in Ahmedabad, turned 80. I called to wish her, and then we condoled with each other. She went on to remind me of Happy-go-lucky Greg, and we were back in the Ceylon and Madras of 1961.
Raju Ramachandran is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court.