by Sonia Arora
In those days there were no bright digital numbers, blue against black, assuring you had found the right place. You’d turn the dial and find the radio station, sometimes jiggling to avoid static, cobwebs of sound muffling the tune, until you found just the right spot and heard U2, Prince, or some other idol of your liking. You’d hear such artists in the grocery store and at work, and so you imbibed the songs of the 80s, and they stayed in your bloodstream long after, even if you chose not to seek them out at live concerts.
Maybe I was counter-culture; maybe I was queer. This Yonkers girl, having lived in both Punjab and New York, found succor in the devotional music of kirtan, mystic poetry set to a harmonium, like a piano with a pump, and tabla, like bongo drums. Not something I could often find on the airwaves. Devotional music was the hum under my breath as I traversed the world of public high school delving and questioning American Literature, European history, biology, trigonometry, and so much more
Kirtan caught me like unspooled thread. I latched onto Punjabi poetry about finding the beloved. It echoed the language of my grandparents, who were slowly slipping away from my life. My grandfather died when I was sixteen, prompting family members in Ludhiana to quarrel about property and inheritance. My family was disintegrating. The music, the poetry, remained. In them, I found shelter. As I took the 20 bus down Central Avenue to high school, I tapped my knee to the rhythms of kirtan, dhun dhanakadin dhun, as if home could be eternal in the wavelength of sound or in the Punjabi hymns of shabad. I searched for the outdoor bazaars of Ludhiana pink carrots and mooli (radish), among strip malls and the Yonkers Raceway.
I could not turn the dial to find it. Instead I’d play tapes, worn from use, forwarding and rewinding to find my favorites, like the one about not being able to fall asleep until seeing the beloved. I would also hear it live in the gurudwara, a place of worship for Sikhs. I’d ride the melodies, slowing decoding each song, knowing some words and figuring out others through context and still others through the lilt of sound. “I have come a long way, seeking shade and sanctuary, beloved. I place my trust in a greater consciousness, losing all my sorrow and pain along the way.” In Punjabi, it sounds so much better, like laasi sounds better than yogurt shake, like gol mol sounds better than chubby. Still I continue the journey, one of language, one of culture and race, translating sometimes and others times venturing inside the music without translation.
Ultimately, it’s the mystic poetry that hooks me, realizing only when Prince died that he is of a similar tradition. In my middle aged funk, Prince guides me through the post punk landscape helping me transcend boundaries of cultural identity. Prince sings, “I wanna be your brother/I wanna be your mother and your sister, too/There ain’t no other/That can do the things that I’ll do to you.” There is a spiritual shabad or hymn Punjabi, “Tu mera pita, Tu hai mera mata,” which translates into “You are my father, you are my mother, my friend and my brother.” Of course, there is no rock star straddling a guitar in a purple outfit singing the hymn. Rather, there are men, sometimes women, with turbans sitting aside a holy book draped in silk playing music. The shabad makes me think like a Zen philosopher. In the relations of this world you can find a connection to loving consciousness and loving consciousness is beyond relationships.
Somewhere there is a connection between the fingers on the frets of Prince’s guitar and the palms on the tabla, between the pain of living and the subsequent search for meaning. As I age, I find some relations and lose others. I dream of my grandparents’ home, 698 Gurdev Nagar, for if I were to try to search for the brick and mortar, the veranda with the gecko skittering across the ceiling, the crow my grandmother shoos from the lemon tree, I’d find an altogether different home, reconstructed by another family. Too scared to find the reconfiguration, instead, I awake to find a lost tune vibrating within my body.
Sonia Arora has been teaching literature and humanities for almost twenty years. Her work as a teaching artist takes her into classrooms across Long Island, New York City, and Philadelphia where she explores oral history, digital media, poetry, activism, and film-making with youth in elementary, middle and high schools. She has published short fiction, poetry and essays. Publications include: Apiary; Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching; Prompted, an anthology printed by Philadelphia Stories, 3-2-1 Contact, Sonic Boom, and more. For more information about her work, go to www.ed-lib.org.