Skip to main content

EASTERN SPRING PART 1 - SUNSET THESE ARE THE ELEMENTS


When the love & emergency credit runs out, if you lie face-down long enough you can arrange the duvet, your coat, the pillow, the floor and yourself until all light is extinguished in your world, until you live in a post-stellar universe. There is no difference between opening and closing your eyes. A panorama of pitch resolute blackness. After a while the eye adjusts, the mind ticks over, you can start picking out details. The hairs on your arm, the crook of your elbow, the bony straits and ridges of your clenched hands. A little longer, a few hours, and you start existing in this dark miniature cavern, this shrouded netherworld beneath the bedding. You, foot to head, are as tall as your eyeball, in a murky expanse where your lacklustre limbs become cliff-faces, mountain ranges viewed from the salt-lake plateau of the mattress, you start to wonder what lies beyond the wrist’s horizon, who sails down your muddy veins through the valley of the clasped sheet. I saw you, traveller, exile, walking there, tiny against the vista of creases, a dot in the tear-stained egyptian-cotten scenery. You stepped from a train, strolled up a hill, over a bridge whose lozenged walls lent your breath deep tremolo. You turned a corner the shape of the moon, near where monastery orchards once lay and got to number 7 and, somehow knowing, you knocked my door. I don’t get many visitors. You will be my last.

Neil Kulkarni, August 2011

Chapter 1. 
 Sunset These Are The Elements 



Vultus oriens, Ecce Homo Sacer, Rodus Dactlyus Aurora I don’t have long so listen now, before your house wakes and time starts stealing your future again an ancient song for a new dawn. See the sun? Feel it in your heart. 

Listen to Ghan Shyam Sundara, from the film Amar Bhoopali. In 51 this movie was nominated for the Grand Prix Du Cannes, one of those rare Marathi films to gain a brief international audience, but don’t watch, close yr eyes and hear. Ask yourself, as Lata’s voice soars, why is this poet teaching this beautiful song to a whore, one of the whores he’s dedicated his life to preaching against? Why is she singing it more beautifully than he’s saying it? Vasant Desai, the composer, comes from a little strip of land in the state of Maharashtra called Konkan, same place my mum sprang from, same black sands my roots got lost in a long time ago. He created the tune that made the song a nationwide hit in India, a song you have to almost have implanted in your false-memories before you can even call yourself a Maharashtrian. The words were writ by a cowherdpoet, Honaji Bala, who lived in Maharashtra between the middles of the 18th & 19th Centuries, and the movie is the story of his life. The words are simple, littered with original Sanskrit amidst the Marathi (hence the song’s ease of translation into the similarly Sanskrit-derived Bengali later), and are about the morning, the sun, and what God must do today. He must, like the rest of us, pick up pots, watch the kids, and work until sunset. These are the elements the song contains but quite why it still contains me, confounds me, remains a mystery, particularly to me.


This morning, like many mornings, I hold onto it to stay alive. Because like all the Marathi music that’s saved my life it’s about acceptance and refusal, the need for god when you know you live on a godless planet. And though it comes from a definite place, it’s in the key of me, which is a twisted, in-crisis key, as willing to be destroyed in an instant as it constantly searches for immortal renewal.

You can go tomorrow morning. I hope that’s good for you. I hope it’s good for me.

I’ll keep it short, about survival now, barely controlling those dangerous whims that could become intent, like when you were stood in assembly and a school kids death was announced and you have to bite yr lip to stop laughing. There will be similar stifled giggles tomorrow when news percolates out of this critic’s final demise, I have decided to make tonight my last night of stepping in between music and you. I need no stress-ball, have no happy-place to float my mind to, rather all my life I’ve had this little mental trick, an invisible yet realer-than-real realer-than-me ice-cold ring of steel I can conjure at my temple that makes the heat leave, a fantasy gun-barrel beaded with my own sweat that makes the mind rest, promises deliverance, a platinum doomsday slug to my super-solipsist noggin.    Enquiries have been made since about the age of 15, access to an idiot-proof firearm secured and ready to roll whenever I want it, only interrupted when its owner takes a spell behind bars. He’s out at the moment, said he might pop round later and so I’m inside my house, a pop fan dying and expiring as pop dies and expires, my nerve-ends fading into obsolescence. If pop is a conversation that’s reached its end, and I can’t talk about or live by anything else cos it made me, in order for these exit-strategies to stay a trick and a fantasy and for me to stay alive, a different conversation is going to have to start. I have to find a different party to vanish myself to because this one, this black and white one called Western Pop that I haven’t been able to leave until now, is played out, is populated now by the kind of white folk who say ‘kmt’ and the kind of black folk willing to humour them.
    Everyone forgetting. I have many friends. None of them can help me. I have some products made of plastic that have helped me in the past. None of them can help me anymore; can only make time slip by faster, when it’s precisely time I’m running out of, time I need to hold on to, time I need to spend carefully. I have a memory and a sob in my heart that it creates. Only this can save me and perhaps I’ve been dumb to even imagine that the white or black could lend a hand - black and white folk have always hated me anyway, as any true second-generation Paki should have learned and never forgotten a long time ago. If the only thing that ever pushed me on, the pop music you made from each other, is now actually starting to drag me down into its morass of meaningless cliché and paralysing indeterminacy then I have to conscientously object to this battle now so deoderised, wax-tipped for safety, listed into listlessness. This banter is going to have to step off its cultural-tourist treadmill between uptown and downtown, between the right and wrong side of the tracks. I don’t want to sulk and scowl on these stairs any more. Tonight I wanna get rid of this writer I’ve been because I have nothing more to say about music and a new relationship with music to forge. My life is going to have to turn around and get possessed by quiet, earthshaking voices from elsewhere, looking and leaning eastwards and listening a while, just as music itself must listen, rather than just hurriedly thieving what’s useful for the old empire, saddling shards of Chinoisery and other exotica to the same old 4/4 modes of transport before militarily rolling them down the streets back home to the ‘oohs; and ‘ahhhs’ of the easily duped and desperate.

This is what I want to suggest to you before the night’s out, that we need to recalibrate our sights to find an escape from these old tactics. Sometimes, fear of the future is the greatest reason for doing anything, and fear can point the way. And racial fear, if anything, has gotten worse in my lifetime - even though I’m of a generation that isn’t in the pioneer situation my parents were in, a 2nd-generation that, perhaps cos we were more scared than them, rejected the timidity or politeness that was their only available response to what racial hostility they encountered. Forty, and surely by now a man and a dad and a grown-up that shouldn’t be scared, carry that fear in my cells, still look out for myself and see no reflection anywhere. I grew to depend on that isolation, that throne above where you think you can’t be reached. Only later with the death and onset of family, the realisation that god might as well exist for those life-and-death moments, those stopped clocks where you need magic again, do I find myself a heart and a sound head at the precise moment the nation becomes demented with tearing into each other. Until then I’m a certified dipshit, maybe still am, just realise you’ve come to the house of one man. This is not a movement. This will not win. But I'd like to suggest to you a new way of thinking about sound, a new direction away from the diminishing dimensions of our new glass identities.

You’re here because no-one else is really talking. Ask people about Indian music as processed here and they’ll point you towards Madlib or Timba if smart, more likely M.I.A, fkn Diplo and his Blackberry, 70s/80s garish sleeves of second-hand disco pastiche, perhaps some bhangra, the vaguelyoffensive notion of ‘desi-beats’ and a lot of UK hip-hop if you’re lucky. Too often the treatment of Asian music displays a racial awareness & sensitivity only marginally above that of an Uncle Ben’s advert. Too often, if white pop has ever looked east , in a bored sahib way, it’s usually about that which can be used, dear boy; what can be salvaged from Indian pop and retooled for Western consumption, so that the Beatles can be less bored, so the Pussycat Dolls can buy a new house, so that folk on the dancefloor can throw those stupid head-moves and make the snake with the praying-hands, what stray bits of camp nonsense can get a giggle or sit with a breakbeat; or handily (but with good humour and the full acquiescence of ‘bollywood’) reaffirm the bouffant-barneted big trousered big collared stereotypes we’re comfortable with. In the case of the best Timba, RZA & Madlib, or in the heat of a DJ Nonames track for Foreign Beggars, vintage Indian pop is treated as pure sonics, as an equal against Jamaica & Düsseldorf & New York. In mainstream pop culture though, and throughout the mainstream media, what’s going on is the reassurance of another culture getting Western culture a little bit wrong, a little bit laughable, the silly smiling Western Oriental Gentleman trying to crash the party. Like the word ‘Bollywood’ itself, a construct that needs the West, that can only ever be seen as a ‘charming’ or ‘colourful’ attempt to replicate Western cultural invincibility, an essentially failed occasionally ‘interesting attempt’ that only re-emphasises the West’s inherent, inherited, immortal superiority.


Bhimsen Joshi 1922-2011

Sure there are more opportunities than ever to ‘dabble’ in music from elsewhere, but I don’t judge the health of a supposedly tolerant culture by how many sidebars or specialist-sections or shitty 2-page guides it gives music from elsewhere to assuage it’s guilt, I judge it by what happens when genius dies. Sure everyone’s equal round here. Check the obits. At the end of January 2011, legend, alcoholic, playback singer, classical vocalist and musical titan Bhimsen Joshi died at the age of 89. He’d been making music for 78 of those years. It is some of the greatest music ever made on this planet. Answer me – had you heard of him? There’s no right or wrong answer there, only an honest one, and if the answer is no it’s not yourself you should be questioning but those who made you, those who are meant to keep you informed, those who decide the fit and constrictions of what you listen to and how you listen to it. And further, what music you can pass on: music, of all types, and from all places is instinctively appealing to kids, the freshness of new sounds and words they’re not used to always intriguing to young minds yet to build their mind into an impregnable edifice of ‘taste’.
   The xenophobe cultural blockade that nurtured us Brits never admitted voices from the commonwealth that weren’t easily amenable to our own orthodoxies: if we’d ever been informed of the wealth of stuff we weren’t hearing, the shape of pop would’ve changed from the mainly African, American & European impulses that govern most of what we hear. Pop is stuck in congestion at the moment, all is resurfacing, no new journeys are being made. Even though current technology has made more from more places more instantly accessible than ever, listeners still proceed along tired, pot-holed roads, tied-up traffic-laden routes from which pop’s sat-nav won’t permit detour, never admitting that the very blood and guts of music could be saved by a look east, not just for new sounds but for new ways of thinking about music, and being a musician. Musically, we’re all still looking at the same old pre-47 maps, goggling at the pink bits and wondering what savagery we’re gonna step into. If we’re facing a future in which, in the west at least, what can be learned is under serious threat of strangulation in the name of economic purpose and vocation, then don’t be fooled into thinking that a more globalized world doesn’t mean you’ll end up hearing the same old hierarchies. The music from elsewhere will still be processed into what they think is fathomable to you, what can be fed into the grinder to churn out more of the same old same old.
   You and I have been lied to because what this music, this old, old music, suggests time and time again is not how to re-fry, reheat, or reinvigorate Western models but a whole new ancient different revolutionary way of thinking about music altogether. Surely be the next step if we’re going to move on from the dwindling needy dialogue of today’s monochrome eclecticism, the shackles and trade between black and white. Going back not just to accumulate shit and make ourselves look cool but to find a way to fucking live again, because right now if I keep feeling things less and less at this rate, by tomorrow I’ll be in a coma. Look. The window. See the sun? Feel it in your heart.





At times, when I want to time travel I look at the sun and I pull my arm across it, left to right, because that’s my earliest memory, when all was colour and shape and sound and I saw my dad’s arm flashing left-to-right across my 6 month old vision, across a window in an estate in Coventry as I goggled and doubtless dribbled outwards. Every time I do this move to this day, it moves me back through time. Now that my arm is older than my dad’s was when this originally happened the magic happens even quicker, the years fall away in an instant. I go left to right, like this, and see the cartoon spirals, hear the falling clocks, feel the distant light accelerated towards at a geometric rate? Vanished through the 4th dimension to my chosen glade of reverie – I use magic not because I can. But because if where you are right now is hell, and you know it’s partly because you’re making it so, sometimes you have to get out even if your means are suspect & stolen and your motives cowardly. Hold my hand. Come with. Fifteen thousand days ago.


Walsgrave hospital.
Another beautiful Coventry Building
Born in Walsgrave hospital 72 and back to Wood End, Coventry. Now Cov-snob shorthand for shithole, a dream estate turned desolate warren, always like much of Cov an odd combination of blue horizon far ahead and grey step right in front of you, in my big brown eyes things were simple. Green. Space. Old folks home. No memories at all bar that arm, protection, colic, chickenpox, whooping cough and a whole lot o’love. My parents have been married five years. My mother, a Chitpavan or Konkanastha (i.e. from Konkan) Brahmin from a reformist family, is the descendent of shipwrecked reanimated corpses from Greece, Iran and the Middle East who’ve been dragged ashore in Konkan 3000 years ago and given life by the 6th avatar of Vishnu, Parasuram. This is as good an explanation as any (and there are many explanations) for such a remarkable woman as my mum. Her family are magicians and farmers, turn out milk and hexes and she has light skin and a look that means she’s been spoken to like a native everywhere from Spain to Dubai. My dad’s family weren’t called Kulkarni until they were given clerical jobs – Kulkarni is a name given to households in which village records are kept and maintained. ‘Scribe’ is the closest translation of Kulkarni, ‘Lord’ is the closest translation of Thakur, his family’s original surname. They all have a beautiful cobalt-blue ring around their black eyes, a genetic quirk I unfortunately don’t inherit. He came in 1963 on a boat that stopped in Egypt and Italy with a suitcase that 50 years later is on top of my wardrobe, she came in 1967. In 1972 I am called Neil after Neil Armstrong who was landing on the moon when I should’ve been born, three years previously. My elder sister was born instead, but my parents keep the name and with an unoriginality I still lament (I would’ve much preferred ‘Buzz’, or of course, ‘Chilli’) apply it to their son when he finally turns up. The astronaut-connection pleases me now, but nothing but milk and Fab bars and toast and breaking my sisters nice things pleases me for my first two years on planet Cov.


The Konkan coast. Where my folks are from. 

What I can’t know then, and can barely understand now, is that my genes have been 5000 years in the forging. A responsibility I’ve been kicking against and resigning myself to ever since my my feet started touching the floor, ever since I stopped sitting at the back of the bus cos I thought it gave me a longer ride. A Bhramin is a fire-priest, a rememberer, one of the 4 highest castes in India. A caste you can proselytize yourself into if you’re canny, but a community whose millennia-long laws of clan and marriage are, to a huge extent still, a closed system. Even though those clans have long been marrying with each other, to this day marriages within the clan will be sought, & only after those avenues have been exhausted will marriage outside be even countenanced. Bhramins are taught that we were made this way, and like the Vedas which are our texts, we are without beginning or end. Genetic research from the Europeans who found us so fascinating (incl. Hitler – the swastika is a symbol I was familiar with long before I even knew about Nazism) indicates that we were actually migrants from Iran and Central Asia, who at given points between 6000 and 4000 years ago drove the native Indian population (Dravidians) towards the south. The division of labour and specialisation that was propagated in those roaming groups made Bhramins the top of the pile, given the highest reverence, expected to perform ceremonial and ritualistic duties whilst also keeping records of village life, and having the inside word from God, if God were needed as explanatory device to the masses. We bought our Vedic rituals and fire-worship south, assimilating in the gods and rituals of the indigenous population. This synthesis creates what you might call Hinduism. We called ourselves Aryans, the Sanskrit word for ‘noble ones’, our caste called ourselves Brahmins and saw it as our duty to hand down the ancient rituals, to also hand down the ancient taboos & strictures & freedoms. Brahmins give women a role in ritual where Hinduism does not, but those rituals have been preserved & guarded by us zealously for thousands of years, never shared. Our ritualistic root is sound, through mantra, archaic emanations that have emotional, physical and mental effects.


The first mantra ever taught to me, the 'Gayatri' mantra

This is not language, or communication in its usual sense, this is the recitation of sonic phonic patterns that follow elaborate rules but have no explicit meaning. Meaning is meaningless in a mantra, this is simply what is handed down, a genuine living breathing audible relic of an otherwise inaccessible, and unimaginably ancient past. The doing, the chanting of a mantra is its point. Not language then, but perhaps music, which, like ritual doesn’t need meaning to exist. Certainly, like music, a mantra (even the ones I was taught and can falteringly recite) is a sound-object, an experience that creates emotion, but it was only later in Brahmanical history, when texts and stories started getting woven around the new gods and practices we were assimilating, that we could approach anything resembling a rational system or religious ‘order’. Computer analysis of Brahmin mantras shows that they are closer to birdsong – perhaps the prayers I know and keep to myself, were performed long before human language even emerged, back when sound and it’s arrangement by the throat was purely a ritual matter. A good atheist should denounce it all as bunkum, but it’s the link through and beyond religion to a pre-linguistic world of nature-magic that makes Brahminism, if your name and genes denote it, less easy to shake from your system than simply a book, or a figurehead or a god.
   Looking at what Brahmin history we can legitimately retrieve it’s clear we’re the big baddies in Indian history, the unfairly privileged elite keeping the masses in ignorant slavery to maintain our status. In modern India we account for about 10% of the population, in some areas that drops to less than 1%. Transplant that minority overseas and you can imagine what happens – you end up with 2nd gen kids who are not only part of a minority simply by being brown in a white country, but are part of a minority within that minority, elevated by birth to a position impossible & undesirable to maintain in a country & community where thankfully you can't flex that power or assume that holy status. Amongst particularly hard-headed soft-brained Brahmins (and I’m sure, other castes) there’s a current attempt to maintain an almost medieval notion of caste & marriage over here, the usual attempt to cling to a racially pure past in fear of the inevitable interracial future. Lords of nothing, aristocrats of a long-defunct empire, spiritual leaders who’s spiritual home has vanished, many of us are still subliminally expected, by our parents, to somehow rise above, keep some sliver back to the ancients, even though those parents are frequently at a loss to explain Brahminism’s significance, can only frame it with books and rituals and prayers you can recite but never understand. At age 13, I am initiated properly, a sacred thread wound round my skinny torso, my head shaved in a piecemeal fashion (like many ancient Hindu ceremonies enacted now, we go through the motions of symbolic importance without going the whole uncomfortable hog), mantras chanted & droned into hypnosis, water and rice and coloured dyes thrown over me and smeared on me, my dim confusion at the whole thing still to this day a fog unbroken by reading, only occasionally cleared by music. Looked at from the uncharitable angle of a kid trying to fit in, Bhraminism has been a head spinning barrier to much progress, the insertion of astrology and philosophy and witchcraft into a kid trying to get on being a good non-believer like everyone else. For my folks growing up it was all more woven in with day to day reality, the way things are rather than the way things were, although both my mum & dad’s natural leftism & teenage idolisation of Ghandi meant they also knew it was a way that must end, a system they resisted and a system that is absurd. A system increasingly taken over in modern India by more complex lattices of local corruption, but that still endures.


The caste system, presented in India's favourite format, the comic book. Clockwise from top left, Brahmins (Priests, academics), Kshatryias (warriors, kings), Sudra (commoners, peasants, servants), Vaishya (merchants and landowners). Not pictured - Untouchables

By the time my dad was 6 days old in 1934 he’d had his nose & ear pierced, had been placed, as youngest brother of 7 kids, in the line of equigeniture, knew the obligations of his identity whether a soldier, student or engineer. He did all three, and most of my dad’s generation kept & carried the ghosts of that Bhramanical past into the new cities of technologically advancing India, occasionally high-tailed to the mountains to meditate when the rub between their pasts and present got too confusing, wondered how to not lose their roots whilst irresistibly losing them, a battleground that accompanied them all the way from the jungles of Maharashtra to the factories of old England and a battleground us 2nd Generation Brahmins waited in the trenches on, waiting to see how that first wave would end up. Within the Bhramin caste, my parents come from two distinct branches. The Chitpavan Bhramins who are my mum’s clan could’ve come from Turkey, Iran, might even be Jewish in origin: they grew in prominence as the Maratha empire extended out of Maharashtra in the 18th century, given major roles in the Maratha confederacy by successive Peshwas (prime ministers). They are generally mistrusted amongst other Bhramins as being too close to the dark arts of sorcery & witchcraft, a reputation that still pursues my mum’s family back in India and has dragged them into court on a few occasions. My father’s family are Karhade Bhramins, darker, what a Victorian anthropologist might call exquisitely featured, i.e. with a finely-filigreed pomposity I can still detect in myself but more mongrel according to legend, bought forth from the smouldering bones of a camel, relics of the Yushan empire, vice-royalty of the lost Yuezhi tribes, depending on who’s taking the piss at the time (usually my mum). Marriage between different types of Bhramins was strictly forbidden for centuries, only relaxing in the 20th century as travel to the big smoke of Bombay and the dwindling of security & jobs in the rural communities that are Bhramin strongholds really sets in. Consequently I’m a mongrel like everyone else, but I’m also made of two families, Kulkarnis and Dandekars (my mum’s maidenname) whose roots were ancient and lost in the dizzying movements of people thousands of years ago. I can point to a point on the map where I’m from. I can point to points on the map where my folks are from. But where their folks came from is more complicated, becomes more mystical the closer you try and hold it.
    Digging as I tentatively did growing up, into my family’s backgrounds, I heard stories that horrified me, about Aunties married at 10, widowed at 12, spending the rest of their lives in head-shaven shame. I heard stories that entranced me, of spells, and creatures and ghosts that walk our farmlands, the dizzy dream of the palaces we could have if we ever followed ol’ Enoch’s advice, cashed in and returned home. We, me, my mum, my dad, my sister, were living relics, and when I look to our antiquary I feel simultaneously warmed by its age but confused by its mystical distance. We’ve been tutored by modernity’s hype & hurry to think that if we ever hark back, it’s to simpler times, easier structures, a clear sense of place and space. What actually emerges, when you turn back and prod your roots, is that they’re suggestive of a time when the array of influences on your life were way more variegated than the brute simplistic confines of categories as nebulous & fashionable as ego, or your personality, or your beliefs or your income or your ‘class’. And you’ll never know, even if your lazy 20th century ass is properly careful about surmising anything about people who were always dirtdirtpoor and worked unimaginably hard, whether they felt freer than you’ll ever be. You would have been, at various times in your ancestors’ past, a magician, a mystic, an ascetic, a spreader of manure, a spouter of glossolalia, a milker of the herd, more important than a king but seeking a smallness and superfluity beyond the sub-atomic, consulted by the great, hated by the good. My dad had 4 elder brothers, 2 elder sisters, and a little sister who also ended up in England (big up the Deo-Kulkarni Woodford Massive). Their births spanned the first 3 decades of the 20th Century. One of his elder brothers was called Shridhar. Everyone called him Abba because everyone in India has a real name and a used name and usually a birth-date that doesn’t translate to our calendar (my mum came over, only knew her birthday was a certain point in April, so put down 1st April on the first form she had to fill in & of course it had to stick – me and my sister still have a chuckle about that every year). Abba was a poet and writer, a freedom fighter, teacher, Shakespeare obsessive & had to elope with his lover to marry her because she was a Konkanastha Bhramin and he a Karhade - it’s odd to think that his younger brother, my dad, would only 20 years later have an arranged marriage with a Konkanastha Brahmin, my mum, not only without the need for midnight dashes by rickshaw & boat but with the full blessing of both families, families whom increasingly through the last years of the Raj & the new years of independence, were en-masse flying their rural poverty for the hunger & heat of Mumbai. My parents grew up in changing times for India, times that perhaps changed a bit too much & too fast for some, hence India’s current vacillation between benevolent technocracy & rural-nostalgic fascism – they were part of the first generations in India to see through, with moral clarity, the absurdity and horror of the old rules and the old life, the first generation, with Nehru (another Brahmin from Kashmir) at the helm, to truly accept secularization, understand its importance in positioning India to be ready to slide into the modern world.


Nathuram Godse, Ghandi's assassin pictured before the trial 

Being a Bhramin, particularly a Chitpavan/Konkanastha Brahmin, has frequently been at odds with that modernisation. The hard-line Bhramin Hindu-nationalists (Hindutva) in Nehru’s party would eventually break his will to govern. Chitpavan Brahmins, a small world within a world, made up most of the Hindu-nationalist assassins of Gandhi, and innocent Chitpavan communities faced public rage that spread in a state-wide explosion of anti-Konkanastha thuggery the night after Gandhi’s death. My mum remembers our banana-field burned, her father my granddad (who I met once, as a month-old baby), surveying the smouldering vista and declaring ‘old people, who know us . . . did not do this” - family friends who’d left Pural, her village, for Mumbai found themselves fleeing back to seek shelter in our stables & barns, particularly those who shared a surname and family with the assassin, Nathuram Godse. Small world of agitants, extremists, intellectuals, mystics.



Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
The man who blessed Gandhi’s assassins before the act was also a Maharashtra Brahmin. Like our Abba a poet, playwright, writer and scholar, like my mum a Konkanastha, like many of their generation amongst the first to demand the dismantling of the caste system - Vinayak Damodar Savakar came from just down the jungle path. He was also a terrorist, nationalist & self-avowed pragmatic realist who through his writings gave birth to the Hindutva movement currently polluting India’s body-politic. Chitpavan’s have a history of rabble-rousing in this regard: the British called them ‘the Pune Brahmins’ and singled them out as a community to be watched. In a secret letter dated 09 July 1879, the then Governor of Bombay Province Sir Richard Temple wrote to Viceroy Lord Lytton, “The Chitpavans imagine that some day, more or less remote, the British shall be made to retire, into that darkness where the Moguls retired. Any fine morning, an observant visitor may ride through the streets of Poona and mark the scowl with which so many persons regard this stranger”. In his book Indian Unrest (1910), Sir Valentine Chirol wrote, “Among Chitpavan Brahmins there has undoubtedly been preserved for the last hundred years…an unbroken tradition of hatred towards the British rule, an undying hope that it may some day be subverted and their own ascendancy restored”. Balchandra Tilak, who Chirol famously dubbed ‘Father of the Indian unrest’, was a Chitpavan Brahmin and first leader of the Indian Independence league, born a year before the armeduprising of 1857. In the mid-stages of a busy life he wrote a wonderfully suggestive book in 1903 (in the midst of his far more important nationalist, insurrectionist & terrorist activities) called The Arctic Home In The Vedas, wherein he argued that the Vedas could only have been composed in the Arctic before Aryan bards brought them south after the onset of the last ice age. Looking at my mum’s features, I can almost believe it, or at least understand how Tilak might seek that explanation for his own unique, outof-step Konkanastha skin tone. Tilak saw this as a positivist explanation for what had previously only been myth, that Chitpavan meant ‘corpse saved from the funeral pyre’, a reference to skin colour & their uncanny avoidance of Buddhist persecution. Likely also that Tilak believed the rumours that Chitpavans had purer Aryan blood than any other Hindus - Chitpavans have let the rumours about them grow, unconcerned, unapologetic for their slippage back into myth – in a way I see mirrors between their visible oddity in India and my selfperceived oddity here. I also see mirrors in how, in resistance to the English a hundred years ago, different Chitpavans reacted differently – some seeing the issue as one of anti-imperialism, socialism and progress beyond religion, others seeing the struggle as religious, essentially about claiming back what belongs to a people, including a chance to wipe the slate clean and create a new ethnic purity in being Indian. For all Chitpavans, struggle against the British wasn’t just that of the downtrodden against a new persecuter – it carried the ferocity of the dispossessed racial aristocracy, inspired by western revolution to see their moment to return to their proper status. My mum remembers being told by her elderly great-aunt, for whom the Aryan past of the Chitpavan’s wasn’t a literary-motif or theory but a fact taught to her and her grandparents in turn: “To be reborn a human makes you special. To be reborn a Brahmin makes you even more special. To be reborn a Chitpavan Brahmin, makes you one of the most special people on earth.” You can understand how Chitpavan Brahmin’s have seen their destiny and India’s destiny as intertwined, how passionate unhinged ambition can be accepted as an ancient trait.

Balchandra Tilak, spiritual godfather of both early 20th Century Maharashtrian unrest and later Hindutva nationalism

Despite his theories, Tilak’s nationalism and demand for self-rule was always a secular vision, even if his resistance to appeasement kept him at the extreme, nationalist end of the Congress, with the kind of antimoderates who attracted the most violent radicals. Religion mattered hugely to him, but his nemesis was the British, not the races and religions within India he saw as equally important. When, in 1908 he was arrested for sedition by the British Govt. (for supporting 2 ‘revolutionaries’/train-bombers’ in the Kesari newspaper he wrote & self-published), he asked a young lawyer called Muhammed Al Jinnah to defend him. My granddad read Kesari, my mum remembers him spreading it out on the ground and reading it cover to cover, she also recalls him firmly rejecting the anti-Islamic filth spewed by Tilak’s more extremist comrades and disciples, the intolerance that didn’t reflect the open-house diversity of friends our family always had. Emerging from imprisonment Tilak was a more mellow, chastened, non-violent voice but his words had always lit fires, and it’s his political disciples who take them to an extreme new frenzy. 2 years before his hiring of the future creator of Pakistan, plague had broken out in Pune, the old capital city of the Peshwas who first boosted the Chitpavan Brahmins into politics. Heavy-handedly dealt with by English civil-servant W.C.Rand’s Special Plague committee & the British army, Tilak heard reports of rapes & intrusion & thuggery & theft & blasphemy, sees an opening & writes inflammatory articles in Kesari, citing the Gita & insisting ‘no blame could be attached to anyone who killed an oppressor without any thought of reward‘. The next day Rand & another officer are shot and killed by the 3 Chafekar brothers, Pune-born musicians, Tilak is charged with incitement and given 18 months, the three Chafekar brothers & an accomplice are publicly hanged. Like Godse, Chafekar's a surname famililar in our home, their descendants are part of our family. The Chafekar-bros hanging is remembered as a crucial moment of tragedy & turnaround by all Maharashtrians, but Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, at the time a young man progressing past local Muslim-bashing to a more militant strain of nastiness, sees it as life-forming. When Tilak emerges from prison and adopts the slogan “Swaraj (self-rule) is my birth-right and I shall have it” Savakar devotes his life to explaining and bringing about Swaraj and sees Tilak as his guru. Savakar’s Swaraj however, as expounded in his books, poetry, plays & political activity was a scarier kind of rule than Tilak’s, more spuriously founded on his own fascistic philosophies, and insistent on Hinduism as being the key to the religious reform needed, or rather Hindutva, his atheistic vision of Hinduism as grisly fusion of patriotism, common blood and fatherland. Seeing any compromise with the Muslims (esp Jinnah’s Muslim League’) as appeasement and one-way, he rejects Islamic separatism (in 47 he issues delighted statements about the formation of Israel), and at rallies & marches spouts threatening warnings that Muslims should not expect ‘special treatment’ in a post-British India, could only ‘expect representation in proportion to their minority status’. Savakar’s militancy grows when he studies in London in the 30s, his sophisticated terrorist plans to suicide-bomb the capital of the Empire scuppered by the British government and leading to his imprisonment, then escape, then re-capture. .My granddad, and his kids, quickly spot Savakar for the lunatic he is – something made plain by his desire in WW2 to seek rapprochement with the axis powers in order to fight the British, a batshit proposal that fellow psychopath & Indian Independence leading light Subhash Chandrihsda Bose took all the way to a deal with the Japanese.

Subhash Bose, freedom-fighter, nazi-sympathiser
Hatred of the English translated into a lot of fascist sympathy in WW2 India from both Hindu-nationalists and Muslim-separatists: to this day, accusing Savakar’s ancestors in the Indian far-right of ‘fascism’ frequently engenders an instant retaliatory accusation of ‘colonial tricks’. Even so, by 1947 Savakar’s murky connection with the assassination of Gandhi made him a political outcast and a hated figure by many of my parents generation. Savarkar commits suicide by starvation in 1966 still protesting his innocence, a martyrdom that ensures his prison writings and Hindutva philosophy cast long shadows over modern India, shadows perhaps more damaging than those cast by Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic fundamentalist group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. What Savakar says feeds directly into the workings of the Sang Parivah movement, the umbrella organisation whose roster of political affiliates includes the virulently Islamophobic BJP & RSS parties. Of course, Bollywood loves him, this poet who wrote his lines with thorns and stones in his cell wall – he’s a ‘hero’ like Michael Collins, a figure whose righteous anti-Britishness masks his actual words and deeds. In 2010 a lavish labour-of-love biopic Veer Savarkar is made by long-time right-winger,RSS supporter, and Marathi-film legend Sudhir Phadke, a release that hips me to the fact that one of my favourite ever Marathi composers is also a wielder of the Saffron swastika, casting a new light on the beautiful Marathi songs he’s filled my life with. As I find later, this taint, this fine-line between pride and dogmatism is something that many of my favourite singers & composers in Marathi song stomp over, and in doing so stomp over my love for them. No movie was ever made about my Uncle Abba, but I’ll always go for the inscription on the only photo I have of him over Savakar’s bigotry any day: “I don’t want to teach you to know, but to interpret . . . “ . He grew up, like Tilak, like Savakar, between Brahminism’s ancient roles and new political ambitions but he chose love & teaching over fear and loathing. Brahmanism, in the 20th century, meant choosing between the past and the future, for me not life or death, for those only a few decades older than me, absolutely that. The definitions of Bharat, or India, were, are, still up for grabs – but being a Brahmin (and there are Buddhist, Jain & Sikh Bhramins too), being a Hindu, isn’t a choice at all, and that’s why Savakar’s lies permeated so deep, twisted pride so completely into chauvinism. Hinduism, even if you’re a carey-sharey Hindu as I am, is nothing you can join, no matter what the Hare Krishnas or new-agers think. It’s something you’re born as. Taking part in Hindu ceremonies, sitting in Hindu temples, is forbidden to no-one, anyone of any faith can be part of them. But being a Hindu is something you don’t have a choice in, something you can’t just step into with the pass of a bindi on your forehead. Where Savakar saw Hinduism’s history as meaning we own/deserve something, some piece of the rock, I like to think me my dad & my uncles know that the precise fact we’re born Hindus means we have only one duty. To try and figure out what the hell that means. Start reading back dictionary definitions of the supposed ‘beliefs’ that have been foisted upon you by your Hinduism and you’ll be puzzled . We believe in an afterlife? Well some of us do, some of us don’t believe in life at all. We believe in God? Well, some of us did, many huge schools of Vedic thought saw no need for him. We’re vegetarians? Well I’m descended from 5000 years of Bhramin stock and I’m sat in my little chair in Wood End aged 3 eating crispy bacon and waiting for Friday night’s treat of Goblin burgers out of a tin. Bhramins, as peddlers of the mystic, as my uncles and father and I understand it, have always moved around, and adapted wherever they’ve settled, ended up having ketchup with their bhajis like all good Hindus, can’t be tied to notions of nationhood without explicitly denying their past, not affirming it. The populations I’m talking about, especially in the context of such a vast nation as India, are tiny – Karhade Brahmins number about 60,000 in the whole world, Chitpavan just shy of 100,000. Strict introversion of those societies has kept those numbers low, my parents were of the first to freely break those bounds and marry ‘outside’ their Bhramin-clan, and they also were amongst the first to feel a slight shame in what they were, a distaste for the ideas of hierarchy and birthright that seemed entirely out of place in the new secular India they were growing up in. To a point, that rapid secular progression has meant the history and genealogies of these tribes has disappeared into the obscurity of local knowledge and temple-scriptures, in my mum’s case a whole language has been lost, Konknii, spoken by her elders but never by her friends and containing words unheard anywhere else in India, now vanished. Such vanishings of the past, in the rush to the cities that accompanies independence bred a dangerous obscurity that breeds myth and misinterpretation. But even given that increasing obscurity, even given the perilous 20th century history of when Brahmins start historicising, it was clear, and always made clear to me, that we, esp. me and my sister, were special, came from something that though incompatible with the modern world still warranted remembrance and absorption. A Brahminism that could somehow stay, not intrude, and be a positive force. Put that mindset in a country where you’re just another nigger, just another wog, just another (my personal fave) blackistani, and you’re headed for trouble, if not for the outside world, then for the internal world within. Born a problem. It’s taken me a long long time to realise I wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have it any other way.




In 76 we move to Stoke Aldermoor, Coventry. No space. Another old people’s home. Still no memories bar nights of pain and illness, days of matchbox cars and pillow fights. Starting, perhaps, to realise that indoors and solitude is safety, suits me. One day, my sister thinks she’s killed me but it’s just one of the few, occasionally self-inflicted concussions that I chart my early childhood with. Trapped in the lift I can’t understand to step back from the door and cry until I fall back. Door opens, a swimming sea of concerned faces, 90 year olds, people who remember when it was all fields and farms around the disparate villages that Coventry was. I toddle, inspected from above by people born in the previous century, people who occasionally die, bequeath their snuff tins to their cell-mates, good spreads, roll out the barrel. Wonderful people with terrifying lives and pasts of their own, themselves born in Britain’s imperialist days, people who recall workhouses and orphanages, people with vintage manners not reflected out in the street, where I start to learn that dogs and other kids, don’t really like me. At 3, my parents are worried that I’m deaf as I flatly refuse to speak. Speech therapist finds out that I can speak but am too shy, a problem I will later bequeath to my own kids. It’s from this moment, of being played tapes in a surgery, and being asked to respond and speak that sound finally enters my memories in about 76. Through this process my parents worries are allayed. Sound, and the recordings of it, become an obsession, the sense I choose to lose myself in beyond all others. I become instinctively hungry for music, and the processes of making it happen through buttons pressed and plastic placed. Records have been given to us by friendly staff at the old-folks home and they make their way up to our little flat and onto the Dansette. I’m starting to watch way too much telly, I hear the Seekers and Charlie Drake and see the Sex Pistols on telly and Val Doonican and Johnny Cash & it all sounds the same but it all has rhythms popping under my skin. In a few years, in our new home, me and my sister will conduct yay/nay boos and hisses to the run-down on TOTP lolling on the floor, thumbs raised or lowered like Roman emperors as each hit flashes past. I also hear orchestral music for the first time in our last year at Aldermoor thanks to a few ‘100 Greatest Tunes’ records, and that blows my tiny mind, puts me on the 40 year chase for melody I’m still engaged in. But there’s another song I hear just before we move. A song that takes me out of the here and now realities of others, and magic-carpets me back, scarily, to myself. This song I don’t see on Top Of The Pops or hear on the radio or learn at school, it’s played in a quieter, sleepier moment, a moment I can neither precociously conduct with a knitting needle or dance to, a moment in which I realise that songs can make me cry and choke, that there’s something inexplicable yet immensely intimate about music, even if the identity it touches on is something I have no awareness of. The song is called Ghanu Waje and is played to me by my dad on a Phillips EL3538 reel-toreel tape machine. Straight away, I can tell it’s not from round here, I can tell it’s from another place.


Later, I learn what the words mean and it’s clear not just that this is music from elsewhere but that this is music created by people with different concerns than the love and romance that seems to dictate all the Western pop I hear. “The clouds softly rumble/The wind sings a melody/the shelter/the moonlight/Champak flower & sandalwood/I have no desire without you . . .” The song sounds soft and glowing like moonlight, like shelter, but is about looking in the mirror and not seeing yourself looking back, “I anoint myself with sandalwood/But it burns my body/It is said the bed of flowers is soothing/but it scorches me like fire/ Oh you cuckoo birds/cease your sweet song/ When I look into a mirror/it’s not my reflection I see/God has done this to me‘. The vocal swoops and melodic teasings transform God into your lover, then says there is no distinction between the lover and the loved one. It says that Krishna is you, that you can blend your blues with his reds and become one blackness. It’s by Maharashtrians of a similar vintage to my parents, Hridaynath Mangeshkar and his sister Lata, a familial combination that created gold whenever it collaborated... but at age five I knew none of this. I just knew it felt funny, that this song woke and walked into new chambers of my still-growing heart, instrumentation I couldn’t quite picture that pulled the brine from your eyes in pure melodic yearning and sent you on through your day levitating a few inches above the ground. A poem that’s over 1000 years old. Hits you like it were writ tomorrow. With music growing in my life, but this song keeping a creepy, unwavering presence within, we move elsewhere in 78. Revolutions Per Minute, learning new things, new prone shapes to throw, new realities. Like real sadness. Like real fear.

('Eastern Spring' is published by Zero Books and is available here)

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

MANIC STREET PREACHERS, ASTORIA, LONDON, 1994, LIVE REVIEW, MELODY MAKER

(photo by Pat Pope, full text)  MANIC STREET PREACHERS  ASTORIA, LONDON  SORRY, lifelong fan, but I’m a new convert. I got into them a week ago and here I am. (They start with “Faster and, after the dub and horrorcore they’ve played, it jarrs and fits perfectly.) OK, see it ain’t attitude cos anyone can do that, just cock a snook and suck your cheeks. It ain’t glamour. Glamour is boring. Glamour is loud pretty people who hug, hug, hug, giggling at your geek self all night. And it ain’t rock’n’roll; it was your rock’n’roll that made a nigger-hater the King, your teddy boys who Paki-bashed for Mosley, Notting Hill 1958, your rock’#n’roll build on SAMBO DON’T SELL. I ain’t interested and the Manics are way beyond that. (“Yes” is Stjepan Mestrovic’s “Balkanisation Of The West” turned punk anthem, as if it could be any more punk. No higher compliment exists.)    The four founding points of Manics songs – one: modern life is untenable. Two: no one ever gets used to loneliness. Three: if tr…

BRITAIN SEE THYSELF PART II. A POST-REFERENDUM DIARY AND A HISTORY OF BRITISH SELF-PITY

Tuesday June 28th, 2016.

OK, a week since the vote and hey, I know the drill. Similar to those habits you kicked back into after 9-11, after 7-7. Heads down. Don't notice the people crossing the road to avoid you. Don't register any reaction to the shop assistants who drop the change with a panic'd repulsion into your foul brown palm. Keep your eyes down, no eye-contact with anyone. Get through the street to safety because the street is a place where you are a target again now, just as you were as a child. Don't ever ever relax again because that moment where your vigilance slips, when you start doubting your own paranoia, is the moment when the van draws up and three pink faces look your way grinning, when the kids see their chance to have some fun, when the guy on his bike who you hadn't thought of leans into the pavement to spit his venom, when the words will come unbidden and deafening, those words that won't just fuck up your day but will haunt your sleep, …

WHY WE MUST BAN THIS UKULELE FILTH NOW

Top Eight Worse FUCKING Ukelele FUCKING Breathy-Voiced FUCKING Covers For FUCKING Adverts

I can't think of any more because I don't want my head to explode with rage.

1. Dogs Trust - 'I Only Want To Be With You
2. Renault Zoe - That's Entertainment
3. McDonalds - Rhythm Of The Night 
4. T-Mobile - Teenage Kicks
5. Lloyds Bank - Mad World 
6. Kia - Ever Fallen In Love 
7. John Lewis - Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
8. Chanel No.5 - You're The One That I Want 


My uke-hate I think came to a peak with an ad from last year. I blamed Lily Allen for the mannered vocal unmanneredness, Mumford & Sons for the fucking ukeleles, David Cameron for the ideological basis for it all, but it was AXA Insurance I blamed for that appaling cover of 'Little Things Mean A Lot"  and they will therefore burn for all eternity in the skin-flaying flames of hell, alongside Dave, Lily and The Mumfucks. Artists (esp. Britschool-alumni-style priveliged CatPowerfan-feckers like …