Is Earthly Music Universal?

“What is this? Australian music? I thought we were in Africa! “, said the little fellow peering into the dashboard up by the driver’s seat.

“Yes- my young man! We have moved on from the plains of the Masai Mara to the deserts of Australia. Traveling the world during lockdown. Feel adventure in your veins!”

He rolled his eyes. His teenage sister has taught him well. 

“Remarkable isn’t it? How we are able to traverse the world in an instant these days? In the years of Ibn Batuta or Marco Polo, I suppose you had to wait to shimmy your way into the audiences of the explorers to get a glimpse of a world other than your own. “

marcopolo

We had taken a drive to catch the fall colors in the nearby mountains, and I was seated in the front-seat clasping the task of deejay dearly. I am usually entrusted with this important task only after several rules have been put in place.

🎼 You are allowed one Carnatic music not more than 7 minutes long (I do have a bone to pick with Carnatic musicians who take up my allotted 7 minute slot with one line)

🎵 Instrumental – cannot be slow, slow music. (Drivers got to stay awake.)

🥁 Everyone’s got to get a chance at their music

🎻 No weird music

“Yet…just look at us swiping away and traveling the world 🌍 with YouTube music? Lockdown or no lockdown. How remarkable music is no? Transports you straight out of this world into another world altogether!” I said. The husband and children gave me looks of amused tolerance that they seem to reserve for holidays and trips. Indulgence, sure, but also a joy in seeing my whimsy rise to the surface. 

The brilliant Youtube recommendations engine stood on the side panting and scratching its head trying to figure out what to recommend next based on my list of songs. Ahh! That happy feeling you get when you stump an AI algorithm is truly priceless. Scottish bagpipers marched down the dales of Scottish highlands with their music; middle eastern belly dancers flexed their tummies with grace and agility; shepherds tended to their livestock with Bulgarian folk dance music; and royal court musicians of Turkish sultans from the past bravely set forth their music to the unwittingly pulled in audience in the car. 

“Ummm – what music is this?”, said the son when I played the Bulgarian folk song, Izlel e delyo haydutin, By Valya Balkanska.

This, my dear, is what the universe would hear if ever anyone intercepts Voyager on its space voyages, and finds a way to extract the music within. It is part of the Golden Record. It is now hurtling through space making  our earthly music universal. ”

Laniakea

“Please! Appa – what is this? I am happy to see Amma this happy I suppose, but this is too much. Can we have some, like, normal, music? “ asked the teenaged daughter. 

“What?! If I may remind everyone in this car, this coming from one who is constantly the one asking me to try new types of music. Who is forever berating me for listening to toiyan-toiyan music (instrumental music)? Amma jazz it up a bit! Shall I create a playlist for you with my favorites so you can listen to it? – huh?! “

She gave into a high pitched laugh, and said, “Yes I meant different genres as in rock, jazz, country, pop, not bagpipes, bongo drums, and what is this now?! Doesn’t sound like an instrument at all!”

“That’s because it isn’t”, I said happily. “We are listening to whale songs now.”

“Okay…that’s it! All deejay rights revoked for some time now. Whale songs! Pass me that phone!”

“Nope!”

And to this musical, lyrical bickering, was added the sounds of harmony, resulting in an orchestra of noises. The trees, that night, as they passed their messages to one another, rustled in excitement. How long since they had heard natural sounds of whales?

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Turmeric Magic

I felt a surge of amusement when I made cauliflower last time. The grocery lists needed love, and the results were showing.

“Yay Cauliflower!” yipped the young son, beaming like the early rising golden moon at this wonderful treat. Moments later, the moon face drifted under the clouds and his face looked disappointed as he looked at the pale muck of a curry that had been ladled onto this plate. “This isn’t Cauliflower curry! Isn’t it usually golden?” he said.

“Yeah ma – this one looks so pale. Like it needs some Vit D or something – should I take it for a walk in the sun?” said the daughter.  

I laughed at their reaction. Running a home can be tricky business in the best of times. My grocery lists are not things one writes home about even then (newspaper articles maybe but not to one’s mothers). In Covid times, I beam when we get by with everyone fed at reasonable times. Of course, this means I had to throw 2 tantrums since nicely asking did not seem to work. (I know!)

  1. Tantrum#1: 
    1. Venue:  work
    2. Subject: No meetings between 12:30 & 1:15! 
    3. Result: Sheesh kebabs reactions but people finding ways to accommodate this unreasonable ask
  2. Tantrum #2:
    1. Venue: home
    2. Subject: All people requiring daily sustenance will come to eat between 12:30 & 1:15!
    3. Result: Jeez-whats-with-her flavored eye rolls, followed by expressions as if indulging the local idiot 

Anyway, what happened was that we had run out of turmeric powder. As any decent south-indian cook will tell you, this simplest of spices is a must in almost everything that makes its way to a stove-top. It was only when one does not have the little sprinkling does one realize the joy and gaiety in the dishes thanks to it. It is like a drop of sunshine in the blobs of goo, and the children picked up on that. 

For the next few days, I quietly turned up more discolored dishes. The jokes became more raucous. Even the taste seemed altered. It is curious how tuned our sensory systems worked: taste seemed better if we liked how they looked, they even smelled more appetizing when they looked that scintillating yellow. Seeing that the world seemed a less vibrant place sans turmeric, the husband quietly made a special grocery run after the third day of discolored dishes. 

That day, I felt like a particularly gifted potion maker working her magic with the spices:

“…The beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses…” – Professor Severus Snape – Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.

I am glad to say that the folks seated around the table glowed from the rays of the yellow mellow sun at this meal.

“Wow! Everything is golden and sunny again!”

“Yep! Appa got turmeric at the grocery store!” I said, and the children cackled.

“Who’d have thought we would miss turmeric?” said the daughter. 

“Well Marco Polo certainly did!” I said. “The world was altered thanks to turmeric, pepper and ginger! So, I suppose it is okay to miss it.” I could see the little titbit had their interests piqued, and they listened in spite of themselves. 

The Travels of Marco Polo

“Many explorers started out in the medieval ages trying to find newer and better routes to the Indian subcontinent for spices. Marco Polo attempted an exploration that lasted almost 24 years . He made his way from Venice in Italy through the Mediterranean seas, past the harsh climates of the deserts in the middle east and the Himalayas in the north and north-east, as he went on past modern-day Tibet all the way to the Gobi Desert in China. His travels along the silk road were published in 1298 and are still sought after – The Travels of Marco Polo! “

“I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed”
― Marco Polo, on his deathbed

“So, you see – It is probable that this brave explorer in search of turmeric, pepper and other spices, altered world history and our grocery lists forever!” I said. 

The discussion then turned to European explorers setting out to find new routes to the Indian subcontinent, silk roads and trade routes. The history of the world, and how we have always been more interconnected on this planet than we realize, is fascinating.

The golden dishes took on an extra flavor with the story of the spices, and I sat back contented and grateful for a good meal in these times of the pandemic.