Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A life-long Ohrwurm...

My grandfather was an incredibly wise man. I do not remember him doing much but that was because he had retired from whatever he did for a living by the time I could remember details about my life. I do not remember anyone talking to me about what he did for a living either. So perhaps he did nothing at all throughout his adult life. Perhaps he was a man of leisure; a person with incredible wealth and social position who merely followed his hobbies, passions and interests. Then again, he appeared to have very few hobbies or expensive tastes and precious few personal friends. He had very few compulsive habits and only a passing interest in sport and radio. Nor was he wealthy.

But that was somewhat irrelevant to me as he was my hero when I was growing up.

I remember that he smelt of vibhoothi all the time. He would plaster it across his forehead, his arms and chest three times a day. It was a ritual that he followed. He chided me in the most kind manner when I purchased my first bottle of deodorant; he asked me to use vibhoothi instead. "This vibhhothi is natural no," he would say  immediately, and add with a naughty smile, "and besides it is at one-fiftieth of the price too!"

He spent a lot of time in the pooja (prayer) room of our house, doing his stuff; it was his refuge. On most days he would spend at least 4 hours every morning and 2 hours every evening in the prayer room. Perhaps this was his escape from the world. 

I didn't quite understand what he did in the pooja room, but he would often spend hours on end, chanting. I am not convinced he focused much on his prayers. First, he wasn't really a pious sort of a person. He was a good man, a very good man, but not God-fearing and pious. Second, every time someone gossiped in the living room about a vagrant neighbor or an irritant uncle or the raucously painful laugh of a distant aunt, he would be the first to offer a mild opinion from the inside of the prayer room, "He is not really that bad no, what makes you think he is as terrible as you say he is" he would ask, with an air of absolute innocence, in a subtle attempt to keep the gossip fire burning. Or he would say, "The laugh could be grating, I agree. But poor thing maybe no one has told her yet no" he might offer as sympathy, only to stoke the burning frustration of the people participating in a discussion on that topic.

Whatever the topic, Mr Ramasubramoni (or Ramsups as we called him) would have a view. One that would be mostly expressed from the confines of the prayer room. And it would always be expressed in soft tones. I do not believe I have ever heard him raise his voice or get angry.

But, as I said, it seemed to me that he spent way too much time in the pooja room even though he was not what I might call a very religious man and even though he participated in all family discussions. I think it was just his way of escaping the acid tongue of his wife, my grandmother. 

My grandma, Ponnammal (referred to by all of us as Kopaks -- don't ask me why, for it is a long story) was a loving person too. But she would never step back from a fight. She would call a spade a garbage truck, this lady. People who define "political correctness" should enshrine her words and phrases as litmus test. 

I remember this occasion when our maid was sweeping the floor in a somewhat hurried manner. My grandma pulled up the maid, pointed to a corner of the house and told her, "Last time I checked, this corner was also part of our house only. It does not belong to a neighbour!" ("yevati, indha moolai-um namma veedu thaan" she said in Tamil).

Another time, a visiting cousin of ours was acting rather too friendly with his heavily pregnant wife who playfully pushed him away. Kopaks, who was in the middle of her own prayer, snapped, "idhulla nee pannaradelllam panniyaachu, ippo porum nirutthu." ("you have participated in this child birth process to the extent you need to, now stop your amorous behavior and get lost").

A cousin of ours had just been to the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. On his way back, he stopped at our home before heading to his own home in Kolkata. He had not had a bath for the near 20 days of his religious expedition. As a result, he was rather unkempt. It is a custom for an elderly person to pour the first bucket of water on a person returning from this religious expedition. So there we were, all bunched together in a small shower cubicle, watching Kannan, our cousin receive his first post-expedition bucket of water. Kopaks stood on a wooden stool, with a bucket full of water. Kannan raised his folded hands above his shoulder, exposing his underarms. I must declare I was shocked at seeing the growth in Kannan's armpits. I gasped, but kept my respectful counsel. Not Kopaks. Instead of participating in what was essentially an intense religious ritual, she dropped the bucket of hot water, pointed to the raised under-arm and yelled, "Dei Kanna. Ennadu daa idhu. Indha anyayatha pinni vittudalaam pol-irukke!" ("What is this under-growth Kanna? It is so bad, you could even plait the darned thing!")

Little wonder then that Ramsups spent nearly 5 hours on a pooja that ought to have taken him an hour! It was his escape from the brutality of Kopaks!

I enjoyed the equability and poise with which Ramsups handled most things. I often wondered if I would ever acquire that Zen-like state he seemed to exist in. Perpetually. Nothing would ruffle him. He took on every task with a smile. He took every rebuke on the chin.

He could never get shopping right. He would get a kilogram of cherry tomatoes. Kopaks would yell, "Who do you think will chop these many? The neighbor?" The next day, he would get large tomatoes and he would get told off, because the large tomatoes, "tasted like cement, did he not know."

I would often go to South Indian classical (Carnatic) music concerts with him although, more often than not, I had no idea what the artistes were singing. I remember vividly asking him why we were listening to an old man with a kudimi (tuft of hair tied at the back of the head) sing. This was Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ramasups' favorite singer. I remember being scared listening to another old man, also with a tuft, and a frightening squint! We were in the first few rows. I remember screaming because this singer frightened me with his on-sage contortions. This was M. D. Ramanathan. Ramasups had to run out of the venue with me and we heard the rest of the concert from behind a convenient pillar in the auditorium. But Ramasups did not chide me for my unacceptable behavior. He understood and held my hand. We listened from afar. 

I had no idea if Ramasups understood what these artistes sang. At that age, I did not. But I would look with much respect at Ramasups. He nodded his head in appreciation and much knowledge. But I am not totally convinced he knew what they were singing. I am convinced he went to the concerts to escape his wife's continuous rebukes! For, if he understood what these musicians were singing, he might have hummed a line or two or even sing a song every now and then. 

But no. 

The only musical phrase he ever hummed was a short phrase in raga bhairavi. For the 30 years I knew him, he had no other variant on that one phrase! Perhaps he did not believe in improvisation. Perhaps he did not know how to improvise. Perhaps he felt that his life was complicated enough with that one refrain. He must have played that line in his head over a trillion times. I would have heard that line a million times myself.

It was simple: “sa sa sa ri ni da pa” was all he ever sang. All his life.

According to Kopaks, he only sang that one phrase for over 60 years. Of course, that phrase is not quite definitive enough to pin it as raga bhairavi. But that is what he thought it was and that was good enough for me. His life was simple. His life was uncomplicated. I never asked him, but I don’t believe his life was ever boring. 

A earworm is the calquing of the German phrase "Ohrwurm" that is used to suggest a portion of a song or a tune that repeats in one mind over and over again. It is used to suggest music that is stuck in one's head. I have had earworms every now and then, as I am sure you have. I even had full earworm days. I have known people to have been afflicted by the earworm, "I just can't get this song out of my head," is a commonly heard plaint.

But I am yet to come across anyone with a life-long Ohrwurm.

-- Mohan (@mohank)


  1. I would like to share one anecdote related to my grandfather. The incident happened when I was at the age of 3-4 years and I remember this event vividly as I have been told this over and over again by my parents. My grandfather was pious person and he was spending lot of time performing pooja. I have noticed (as a kid) he applies ‘white thing’ (viboothi, I then did not know what it is) when he does pooja and stay like that for most of the time. One afternoon he was taking nap and was in deep sleep. I was playing around and saw him not covered with ‘white thing’. When he woke up, he sees that he has been coated with white powder (rangoli) and me playing happily with it. That was I coated him with rangoli. Seeing this everybody shared a shared a good laugh that day.

  2. Anonymous9:59 am

    A pachcha Pashu! We took his side in all whether he was right or wrong :). I remember he was there for us to help Amma and Appa out whenever they needed it. Kopaks was quite the garrulous character full of observations. I do miss both of them.

  3. Ewww first. With that grooming issue out of the way, let me say- Lovely post! The many intertwined layers gave a nice narrative. Something from the heart, it was.

  4. Rip-off! Your paati and her sarcastic quips! ;)

    and some men are always at peace, sometimes to an extent that they make us skeptical about their true nature!