By: Shamik Bag
The music is best heard when Fulu falls into a rhythm. It’s a close tango; a drum ‘n’ bass kind of compact between music and Fulu — my humble, nine-year-old small car whose much-scratched and weather-beaten wine red skin is evidence of a roughened, on-the-road past. Fulu is a little beat-up, a wee Beat too.
Christening of a car might well be inspired by the humanising of automobile machinery in Satyajit Ray’s Abhijaan (a Chrysler), Jagaddal (so named by the Chevrolet’s protagonist-owner) in Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik, or the talking-blinking limousines in Leos Carax’s French film, Holy Motors. Or the name Fulu (an Alto), shortened from Fulmoni, may have emerged from a life on the highways with music on the go. Fulmoni is a strapping male for some, a pretty girl for others. For me, Fulu could well be androgynous when on the road.
Fulu belongs there — not so much to city streets but the great wilderness that takes us away from the neon-lit nooks of the mind. A veteran, uncomplaining traveller, one night Fulu gave up. Music was playing. Was it that great road song, Tom Petty singing Into the great wide open, under them skies of blue, out in the great wide open…, when the tyres sunk into the loose gravel of the dry riverbed around the densely forested areas of the Bengal-Bhutan border? This was prime elephant terrain: felled trunks of trees and piles of elephant dung all around indicated as much. Headlights failed against the fog and not a human soul around in that chilly night. Fear melted down as sweat.
Then we heard the sound of silence. Occasionally, the wind carried an indistinct whiff of a song. Eventually, beyond a column of fog, there were indistinct specks of light. The song is clearer now — the kids of the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation, where we were headed as campsite volunteers, were singing Pratima Barua’s enchanting Goalparia tune and ode to the elephant handler, O Mor Mahut Bondhure. This time it was a piece of serendipitous music, really, that saved us and Fulu. Next day, at the riverbed, there were fresh heaps of elephant dung where Fulu stood before help came to haul the car away to safety.
This is just as well, for Fulu, over the 90,000-odd km clocked on the odometer, has been mobile almost entirely on music. On the way to distant corners of Sikkim, the Dooars, Assam, Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar, the excitement of the open road, as well as its monotony, has always had a melodic backdrop.
On different occasions, as the maverick Jamiroquai shuffled through with the heavy bass-bottomed Deeper Underground or Extreme with Get the Funk Out, it’s been a fight to not floor the accelerator pedal. While a clear patch of asphalt is often provocation for Fulu to display speeding male genes, Indian highways, despite spectacular progress in recent years, demand contemplative speed checks for an unexpected bicyclist or a cow can hurt either or both parties. The head rush is often tempered well with slower comforting fare like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cooing Road Trippin’ and Scar Tissue, Lou Reed’s lush Perfect Day or, better still, Del Amitri’s ruminating Driving With the Brakes On.
Never short of friends to ferry along, each coming with a baggage of musical predilection, Fulu has got used to the negotiated playlist that finds the likes of Lucky Ali and Rabbi tossing things up with their typically rooted-yet-global sounds. A more exotic mix has Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder’s enthralling Talking Timbaktu or the delightfully diverse Putumayo Presents: series of albums spilling out. PJ Harvey or Rage Against the Machine spins out to drown the noises of our compulsively honking-and-swearing chaotic city streets — not where Fulu easily fits in.
Places have sometimes commanded the playlist. Navigating through eastern India’s Maoist-affected areas, I’ve found myself changing the music from the layered jazz-rock delights of Steely Dan or Jean Luc Ponty to the red-soil earthiness of the amazing Parvati Baul. Better pretentious than provocateur. Fulu could be Sade’s Smooth Operator when moving into a self-indulgent 50/kmph cruise, best accompanied with the sounds of Radiohead, Neil Young, CSN, Gotye, Alt-J and Sixto Rodriguez, while moving through the sparkling up-and-down, hilly-green landscape of Santhal Pargana of West Bengal.
This is when the windscreen opens up to vistas often unseen: a slow-mo ethnic lifestyle, stunning mix of earth colours on village homes, beautiful tribal motifs on walls, astounding cleanliness and a life ethic best felt slow. Sometimes, butterflies crash on the windscreen, seemingly suicidal but, in reality, alive in colour.
Among its many passengers, Fulu has also found my mother on long road trips. On a 14-hour drive from Kolkata to Siliguri, foggy conditions forced upon us a six-hour delay. It was nearly midnight and the fabulous playlist of Bangla’s Prattoponyomoti, Arnob’s Doob, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan- Michael Brook’s Night Song and Paban Das Baul-Sam Mills’ Real Sugar, was no longer effective: my sleepy head was hitting the steering wheel. Play something loud, my mother cried out from the backseat.
On the road, music was again called to rescue. As the stratospheric pitch of Led Zeppelin’s Over the Hills and Far Away knocked Fulu’s driver back to his senses, from the looking glass I spied my mother nod her approval.
Shamik Bag is a freelance writer based in Kolkata
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