By Jeffrey Sharlet
A singer competing for the indian idol title brings together the warring khazis and bengalis in shillong.
It’s 9 p.m. in the little hill station of Shillong. The streets are deserted. The incessant rain which has flooded the Umiam Lake patters on tin roofs. I remind my mother that it’s time for Indian Idol. The moment she switches on the television, the doorbell rings. Krishna, our Bengali neighbour, saunters in with his wife and their four-year-old daughter. My sister leaves her guitar and runs to the TV room while my father finally puts down the Jeffrey Archer he’s been reading the entire evening. Krishna takes a cigarette and offers one to my father though his wife frowns at him. They light their smokes settling down just as the signature tune of the show blares from the TV. This has become sort of a ritual for us ever since Amit Paul, a local lad, made his debut on Indian Idol – a Khasi family and a Bengali family watching a reality show together. You might ask, ‘What’s so special about that?’ The fact is that Shillong has been ravaged by communalism over the years; Bengalis and Khasis rarely meet, let alone share a meal. That is, till Amit Paul happened. It is an important round; two of the three remaining contestants will go on to the finals, and one will eventually be crowned the Indian Idol – the voice of a music-loving nation. The first contestant goes on stage and sings his song, an old Bollywood number that sends the crowd into a frenzy. Young or old, all members of the television audience stand and sway to the music, clapping their hands and singing along with the contestant. The judges are pleased. My sister looks at mother as if to say, ‘Can our Amit Paul do better than this?’ Not sure whether our local hero will rise to the occasion, my mother calls up her sister during the commercial break. ‘Did you hear him singing? Do you think Amit will sing something better?’ ‘I don’t know but I don’t think he can be better than our Paul.’ Finally our own BahBah (brother) Amit takes the stage. Spiked hair, red jacket and faded jeans, he picks up the microphone and starts singing an old classic – Kora kagaz tha.
My sister can’t take her eyes off him. Father apparently knows this song and he joins in the chorus. Krishna looks amused at how he mispronounces the Hindi words and pats him affectionately on the back. Once Amit’s song is over the small crowd gathered in front of the TV goes wild, cheering ‘Shillong, Shillong!’ And everybody whips out their cellphones to SMS on behalf of their favourite hero. The equation is simple: the more votes for a contestant, the more his chances are of reaching the finals. Even the four-year-old has a toy phone with her and is SMS-ing ‘Mit.’
Once the show is over, the others relax and chat, while my mother excuses herself to see to the preparations for dinner. The meal is served in a while and Krishna is rather concerned that mother has to trouble herself. ‘No, no it’s all right,’ she says. ‘We’ll come home to your place for the finals; you can cook mach (fish) for us.’ Everyone bursts out laughing. The next day I am in a local taxi on my way to college. The taxis here are rather fancy, I must admit. A music system always adorns the dashboard along with a plethora of CDs. Although they are like buses, since one has to share the vehicle with four other people, not many complain because they serve as a mode of transport and also as a mobile living room where passengers share kwai (betel nut) and talk about politics, economy, sports and music (you cannot escape music when you’re in Shillong). Lately, the economy, sports and politics has taken a backseat; Amit is the only reason one doesn’t want to get off at his or her destination.
‘Did you watch Indian Idol last night right? Hope you SMSed on his behalf?’ an old Khasi lady, whose teeth are stained red with kwai, asks me. I tell her I did, and just then the driver switches on his music system and plays Kora kagaz tha, one of the songs Amit sang last night. The other passenger, who happens to be a Bengali, blurts out in broken Khasi that he is planning to go and watch Amit perform live the moment he comes to Shillong. Soon everybody is exchanging numbers, arranging to meet on the day Amit performs in Shillong. I get down and wave goodbye. The remaining passengers, and the taxi driver, smile back. We’ve all just made new friends.
Shillong used to be a quiet and peaceful hill station. But from the early ’70s, communalism began plaguing the town. Then came militancy, which further crippled it. Fortunately the tremors of militancy are starting to fade, and now, thanks to Amit Paul, this scourge of communalism is likely to be removed. Though he didn’t manage to win the crown, he’s done something far bigger – woven together disparate hearts.And we owe it to him to keep the music alive.Excerpted from Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul published by Westland Ltd. If you have a story, poem or article (your own or someone else’s) that you feel belongs in a future volume of Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul.
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