A couple of weeks ago, I met a man who kindly let me take over the music playing in his living room. I had asked with that slightly shady expression of someone aware of making a marginally rude request. If you do let me take over, I am happy playing music for the rest of the day, music that is moderately calibrated to the tastes of other people in the room but mostly organised to make me happy. Like I said, a rude request to make in the house of someone you are meeting for the first time.
This man twinkled, though, and brought out elegant, knee-high speakers and stands made specially for the speakers. Serious speakers, I said. No, the serious ones are inside, he said. This made me laugh. Audiophiles who are not obnoxious about it are to be loved forever. They are committed to the idea of the world being improved by a soundtrack but not so much that they are fiddling with the sound (and your goodwill) forever.
You agree with me, don’t you? Isn’t the world so much improved by a soundtrack? For me it’s the one ingredient that can make a banal situation enchanting. Queue in the bank. Park with children. Car with colleagues. Washing a whole weekend’s dishes. Long autorickshaw rides in a new city. About the only situation I have not tried to enhance with speakers/headphones is swimming and that’s only because water comes with its excellent whoosh-whoosh pre-recorded tracks. This doesn’t stop me, though, from looking once a year at headphones for swimmers and thinking what they would be like.
Walking in the city with headphones on brings on a Main Character vibe that is unbeatable. In his poem Man Listening To Disc, Billy Collins (an American poet who has gone from beloved to maligned and back) writes with pin-point accuracy: This music is loud yet so confidential/ I cannot help feeling even more/ like the center of the universe/ than usual as I walk along to a rapid/ little version of “The Way You Look Tonight”. How can you not feel like the centre of the universe when whole civilisations play in your ears wherever you are? When your morning feels like a series of 1990s music videos?
At home, my headphones are everywhere, like my hair ties were in my long-hair days. They are cheap and generic, red, pink and blue. Every now and then, a birthday will bring something marvellous for my ears. I have these Bluetooth babies that come in a stark white pod designed by a minimalist alien. It gives me the aesthetic thrills that an iPod Mini gave me for the five minutes I had it a decade ago. Unlike the iPod Mini, these headphones are pure joy, happy to mingle and not tyrannical (if you don’t know what I am talking about, please find an older person who will need to sit down to roll their eyes hard enough).
On rare occasions I wander into other people’s soundtracks and am dazzled. On recent trips to large Delhi parks, every few hundred metres I would pass a middle-aged man with his small Bluetooth speaker held as affectionately as a puppy. The flat prettiness of Sunder Nursery is so much improved by this immersion theatre. Another time, a terrace party with two 21-year-old librarians playing Daler Mehndi’s Tunak Tunak (from 1998!), exactly (who knew) what everyone needed. A cabbie whose radio station tuning skills were Olympian. The sulky teenager who was the only other person in the Metro car at night and was playing Sean Paul. Dhol and tamate players at festivals taking over the air in your lungs and the sky above.
Back at that party, I thanked the man with some sheepishness for allowing me to change the music. He told me that when he was younger, he went everywhere with a T-shirt he had painted himself, under his coat. And every now and then, to express his discontent with the music being played, he would open his coat and display the T-shirt, which said “The DJ sucks”.
I now think often how handy that T-shirt would be to complain about soundtracks real or metaphorical. Should my T-shirt say, “Excusemeifyoudon’tmindcouldIchangethemusic”, which is my actual mode, rather than “Make me the DJ. I know what you want to hear”, which is the truth?
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.