Of guitars, English and kalashnikovs

Right at this moment there are kids sitting anywhere from the favelas of Sao Paulo to a barsati in New Delhi to a high-rise in Seoul plucking away at those six strings which mean the world to them. Some of those kids are getting tears in their eyes because it’s so hard to press down the strings for the chords, your fingers don’t seem to have enough strength, and then the strings cut into the flesh of the still delicate and childlike fingers.

Just wait a year or two and you’ll see that kid in his or her first band – the girls usually go for singing and songwriting as well, or is that only in the West? Wait another year and you might be having a J-pop or a K-pop wonder on your hands. Kids, teenies, youngsters everywhere in the world have two ambitions in life: to play the guitar and to be able to speak English – even sing in English. Do both and you’re a star from Poland to New Caledonia – at least in your school. And the joke is that it’s not a dream marketed by Disney studios or Mattel, the kids thought it up themselves.

You see, the guitar – in its original, clearly feminine form, as well as in its latest Heavy Metal incarnations which look more like torture instruments – is sexy, to put it in a nutshell, and that to anybody, anywhere in the world, unless that person is over fifteen.

Secondly, it’s the one thing that’s neither on the school curriculum nor on the priority list of your parents when it comes to the progeny’s accomplishments: do we even realise that Justin Bieber is the true Harry Potter and JK Rowling the pseudonym under which his mother writes about her brat’s adventures? Oh yes, I’ve had friends back then before the moon landing who were practising away at their ‘spanish’ guitars – as opposed to the ‘hawaiian’ guitar – and looking for stray Goanese musicians in Calcutta to teach them the much-coveted ‘finger style’ of the flamenco guitar. Until they went off to study mechanical engineering in Jadavpur.

The guitar overtook English as the lingua franca of the world at around the same time that the annual turnover of the music industry beat the armaments industry for the first time. Can you imagine more guitars being sold than kalashnikovs? And the joke is that you’ll find a guitar in almost every place in the world – be it in the bush in Congo or on the streets of Moscow – that you’ll find a kalashnikov. Both are ubiquitous. This is what those aliens will be saying when they discover the earth in the distant future: “Those earthlings made music before they killed each other.’’

And they spoke English, or at least tried to – I’d hasten to add. “Was it their lanuage?’’ Not really, but they needed it for the song texts – I tell the aliens. “Was it difficult?” Not at that level – you just rhyme baby with maybe and so on, or shake you booty if you can’t think of anything else – I tell my Buddha-like guests. “And that made the earthlings happy?” Yes, all earthlings under fifteen – I tell them with a sigh. “Can we learn English?” ‘You’ll have to learn the guitar first,’ I tell them, upon which they board their flying saucer and whoosh back to outer space to the tune of Ground Control to Major Tom.

I was thinking about it after the aliens had left. Hadn’t English somehow been like my guitar too, throughout my life? Coming from the kind of circumstances that I do, a guitar or guitar lessons would have blown the family budget right up to Higher Secondary (just the Bengali version of School Leaving). So I concentrated on English instead. I taught it to myself as those kids teach themselves how to play the guitar. It certainly helped to go to school but that was about as much use as the music teacher to John Lennon – and we’re not talking about my vanity here. You’ve got to love the language. You’ve got to try out the phrases from Wodehouse to Joyce the way you try out the chords – until you begin to compose on your own. All the while you are dreaming of becoming a lit-star like Salman Rushdie – well, not quite, Midnight’s Children was the Origin of Species of Indo-Anglian literature. And then Arundhati came along, with a sensibility and a language and an X-ray trick of bombarding the central thought with images until the shape begins to emerge. There’s been Adiga’s ‘What the Driver Saw’ in The White Tiger since.

Maybe I should learn how to play the guitar.

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