Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
—John Keats, Ode To A Nightingale
One September morning in 1989, as my mother bustled about our house in Kolkata, immersed in the humdrum rituals of getting breakfast ready, the transistor radio next door started playing an old and beloved Hemanta Mukherjee song. And then another.
So many Hemanta Mukherjee songs, so early in the morning! Her heart cold with foreboding, my mother rushed downstairs to get the newspaper. Her fears came true. Hemanta Mukerjee, or Hemant Kumar, a singer she knew, revered and loved, was gone.
The news of Lata Mangeshkar’s death didn’t seep into our lives through the radios of neighbours. Most of us do not even have radios at home any more. It came, as most news does these days, on WhatsApp. But I still imagined hundreds of thousands of radios spluttering to life all over the country, each playing a Lata Mangeshkar song, like a million lamps touched by some lamplighter.
When an iconic singer dies we always say they will live on in their songs. Almost every tribute to Lata Mangeshkar unfailingly reiterates that. One television channel claimed Lata Mangeshkar sang 25,000 songs. Another said 30,000. Yet another said 50,000. That is legacy enough for a hundred singers. And it is true there will always be a Lata Mangeshkar song for every occasion—happy, sad, celebratory, seductive or patriotic. As the television tickers proved, there are half a dozen Lata Mangeshkar songs that seemed tailor-made to mourn even her own passing. Rahe Na Rahen Hum. Chalte Chalte. Meri Awaaz Hi Pehchan Hain. My friend Prashant Rao wrote on Instagram that she will live on in our playlists. I agree. When it comes to Lata Mangeshkar, RIP probably means Rest in Playlists.
The spell a singer casts is deeply personal. Prashant posts about how he would play O Palanhare on loop on his portable CD player when his mother was seriously ill. Again, it was her “Aaj kal paaon...” that best captured the heady feeling of falling in love. For someone else it will be a different playlist. Prashant, and India, will never be without a Lata Mangeshkar song. But on 6 February 2022, we awoke, in a first for most of us, to an India without Lata Mangeshkar herself.
In December, my partner Bishan Samaddar and I were travelling in Rajasthan. As we roamed the crowded, bustling lanes of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, we realised there had not been a single day when we had not heard someone somewhere playing a Lata Mangeshkar song. If I return to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer in a year, I suspect that will still be true. In that sense, nothing will change.
Yet something ineffable is lost. Every time we heard those songs wafting through some marketplace in Jaisalmer, or a paan shop in Jodhpur over tinny mobile phone speakers, they were still connected as if by some invisible thread to the 92-year-old Lata Mangeshkar sitting in her home in Mumbai, typing out tweets and Instagram posts, remembering birthdays and anniversaries, resurrecting memories of long dead composers and lyricists, almost single-handedly keeping that golden age alive. Now that thread has snapped.
When we hear the song next time, it will be connected to a treasure trove of music, but not a living entity. We did not expect her to replicate those songs any more the way hundreds of hopefuls in the singing talent contests did. It was reassurance enough to know that she was still there even if it just meant we could crib about how her voice had straitjacketed Bollywood singing for decades into dozens of shrill Lata-lites.
We are made not of stardust but songs, even the most musically inept of us. Songs mark time. When a singer dies, it’s as if we lose a witness to parts of our lives. It’s not just Lata Mangeshkar, of course. For many Indians no day could begin without M. S. Subbulakshmi. I get goosebumps hearing Iqbal Bano singing Hum Dekhenge or Mercedes Sosa singing Gracias A La Vida, though the military juntas of Pakistan and Argentina are alien to my existence. My English-medium Calcutta childhood is perfectly encapsulated by Julie Andrews singing My Favourite Things. Nina Simone, whom I discovered in San Francisco, taught me a heart can be broken and still stubbornly beat on. Hemanta Mukherjee and Lata Mangeshkar singing Rabindranath Tagore’s Tumi Robe Nirobe remind me of my grandmother, her old boxy record player, the red cement floors, the pigeons gurgling in the eaves, and a box of 78 RPMs older than me. Every time I hear Lata Mangeshkar singing O Sajna, I am back in my tiny graduate school apartment in Illinois, listening to Side B of the bootleg mixtape I had carefully carried back from Kolkata. I would play it while I cooked dal on the stove, not so much as a way to go back home as much as to reassure myself that home would still be there when I returned.
For decades and for generations, Lata Mangeshkar embodied that reassurance. The voice got tinnier but it didn’t matter. As musician T.M. Krishna wrote in his tribute to her: “The ageing was physical, her vocal cords did tire, there was a perceptible tremble in the voice, but she did not sound old. Her musical expression was young.” The quality of being alive,” he wrote, “gave her voice bloom.”
Bishan, a through and through Lata Mangeshkar fan, started a Facebook countdown of his 90 favourite Lata Mangeshkar songs when she turned 90, one song a day. Then life and pandemic came in the way and like many good intentions the list sputtered out somewhere in the thirties. When Lata Mangeshkar died, he picked it up again with a Tagore song by Lata Mangeshkar because for him they were the two constants in his life. “They may disappear, but they disappear, smilingly, into light,” he wrote, riffing on the Tagore song. “From moonlight to sunshine, this light of music shall help us survive.”
Lata Mangeshkar did not sing to help us survive. She sang to keep her body and soul together, to help raise her siblings after their father died when she was only 13. But we fashion our own relationships with the singer, sometimes way beyond their wildest dreams. Did Lata Mangeshkar realise her Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kiya and Chalte Chalte became anthems for LGBTQ+ South Asians marching in Pride Parades in New York and San Francisco? In 2002, Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla published a coming-of-age novel of an Indian from Kenya set in the gay ghetto of West Hollywood. It had a fraught mother-son relationship, nightclubs and bathhouses. And Lata Mangeshkar. He called it Ode To Lata. A Pakistani friend shares how when he first moved to America on his own, he took two CDs with him. Both were of Lata Mangeshkar songs. He calls her this “super-human daily companion I never met”.
The singer sings. The listeners imagine those songs into their own lives, an odd act of intimacy with someone most of us never meet.
I saw her stage show once in California, though show is a bit of an exaggeration. Even the spotlight didn’t have to move because Lata Mangeshkar never moved from her corner of the stage. She scolded the audience of yuppies and techies and Silicon Valley venture capitalists for drifting in late. “My musicians and I were on time,” she said reprovingly. Then, having scolded us enough, she started singing while everyone meekly took their seats like chastened schoolchildren.
At the end, as people kept shouting more requests, she fixed us with that headmistress gaze and reminded us in that disconcertingly schoolgirl voice that if only we had been on time she could have sung so many more songs. My mother never got to see her live but the day after Lata Mangeshkar died, she said wistfully, “It feels strangely empty without Lata, na?”
That sense of intimacy feels presumptuous but she is right. The songs will remain but so will the emptiness. Both are true. And if we look hard enough, there is surely a Lata Mangeshkar song that expresses that very feeling.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.