To be 18 again, I need to flashback 24 years. I’m in my school-leaving year. I keep my head down, chin up. I’m itching to leave my small town and see the world. I have to crack my boards, no matter what. If I don’t, I’ll spend the next three years drinking Fanta in Civil Lines — downtown Allahabad. It’s incentive enough to study.
Eighteen is when the big transition happens. I scale the provincial walls of Boys’ High School and embrace the cosmopolitanism of St Stephen’s College, Delhi. It’s the year when I have a distinct sense of having two selves within me. The Ilhabaadi hands over the baton to the Stephanian. I have this odd feeling that I am being left out of the events of my own life.
Before I make it to St Stephen’s, I sit for other exams. I practise sketching A-line skirts and palazzo pants for my National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) entrance. I have no interest in fashion, apart from dropping my sideburns.
I flunk the entrance. I make it to the National Institute of Design (NID) interview. I’m rejected again. I am beginning to have a vague inkling that my future might lie in words, not visual images.
If I have to focus on one thing that shaped me at that age it has to be music. This might not sound like a big deal — all teens are shaped by music. “Bands, ok, give me something new”. But 1993 was an exceptionally good year for music. One had grown up listening to an older generation go on and on about The Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zep, the Dead. The bands and songs of 1993-94 marked a paradigm shift that would leave a lasting influence on what was to come after it. One was lucky enough to be the right age at the right time. The songs poured in from all corners of the English-speaking world.
None of it was available in Allahabad. I’d tune into radio stations on short wave. I’d ask my father to get me tapes from The Music Shop in Khan Market in Delhi.
From the UK came the indie wave: Blur, Pulp, Suede, and Massive Attack. From America, Beck, P J Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins, 4 Non Blondes, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Blind Melon and Green Day. Dr Dre went No. 1 on the Billboard charts with his gangsta rap classic The Chronic, while Garth Brooks led a country-music revival. From New Zealand came Crowded House, their hummability disguising a gloomy underside; from Iceland, the enigmatic Bjork.
At the same time the old guard — Prince, Madonna, Meatloaf and Aerosmith — was going strong. The past and the future brimmed with exciting possibility.
Stuff across genres — grunge, punk, alternative, the very first stirrings of electronica — was breaking through simultaneously. Words were coming back into music. No one was singing love songs. Bands were critiquing the local realities they dwelt in. Blur’s album was called ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’. Beck was rapping about saving food stamps and burning down white trash trailer parks. Soul Asylum was singing about depression and runaway kids. On ‘Zooropa’, U2 railed against a world saturated with mass media and technology.
Rock musicians were no longer comfortable with being entertainers. Songwriters were mining the depths of the soul. Depression and alienation were dominant themes — ‘I’m a creep/ I’m a weirdo/ What the hell am I doin’ here/ I don’t belong here.’ (Radiohead, ‘Creep’), authenticity an overriding obsession. Many of these singers would go on to commit suicide or succumb to drug overdoses. This self-destruction was taken as proof of their authenticity.
One listened to everything one could lay one’s hands on. One traced one’s steps backwards. The first ‘70s punk songs I heard were through the Guns ‘n’ Roses album, ‘The Spaghetti Incident’, an album of punk covers. The saturated reality that U2 was singing about in 1993 would be our reality in India two decades after economic liberalisation. ‘Zooropa’ was prophetic for us, a sign of things to come.
I was writing bad songs myself at the time. I had no band and I didn’t know how to play an instrument; I was writing imitative lyrics. In the NID interview I took umbrage when someone on the panel said: “In your lyrics you try and copy Rod Stewart.” I protested: “No, no, you’ve got me wrong — I write like Kurt Cobain.”
Looking back, the music did have an influence on my writing. My first book was subtitled ‘Stories of Love and Destruction’. The dark themes and the desire to explore the gloom within, the alienated characters, came from grunge and alternative rock. The brevity came from the punk of Green Day. These were stories in the realist vein — the realism came from British bands of the time who didn’t hesitate to put insignificant details of everyday life into their songs.
Blur’s ‘Parklife’, for example, was about — park life: ‘I feed the pigeons, sometimes I feed the sparrows too/ it gives me an enormous sense of well-being’. These were lyrics about crumbling council estates, which I could relate to the shabbiness and impoverishment around me: ‘I’ve been sentenced to three years/ In the Housing Benefit waiting room’. If Jarvis Cocker could write ‘Sheffield Sex City’, then, I thought, I could write about sex and the small town.
There was one problem though. No one in Allahabad was listening to this. I struck up a friendship with a girl in St Xavier’s, Bombay. We wrote long letters to each other. We sent letters in parts. Owing to the vagaries of the Indian postal system, at times Envelope Two would arrive a couple of days before Envelope One. The sequel preceded the original. We discussed each song line by line. We exchanged Sylvia Plath poems. While our friendship was purely platonic, those feverish letters exchanged when we were 18 were also my first serious exercises in writing. It taught me how to write for an audience without inhibition — how to build a narrative about one’s own self, without giving everything away.
The writer is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India.