Ours was a joint family. I had found a couple of nooks where I could indulge in fantasies which at the time were not sexual. A chair behind the door in the balcony, the spot behind a bed, the bathroom were spaces for my imagination to run wild.
There was much music in the house, but it was primarily ghazals and old Hindi film songs. The occasional Neil Diamond or Frank Sinatra were sung but not often enough to become part of my musical initiation. “See you later, alligator” was a goodbye greeting at the door. At the missionary school it was no different. All attempts at high-pitched hymns were rendered blasphemous due to my tremulous contralto quiver.
Trapped between two contradictory paths, I was to find salvation in a small gift from a cousin who had returned from a school trip to Nepal. There was a lip gloss called ‘Kiss Me’ and a cassette of ‘Disco Hits’. Curiously, it was the first that raised eyebrows. No one realised that it was the other gift, a used one bought at the flea market, that would be the real gloss. I waited for night, and took the small player to bed and covered myself with a blanket. There was no one around, although light from the other room penetrated like a sliver of moon. Boney M and Abba were foot-tapping and, constrained as I was in that position, I still managed to sway.
And then she came. I knew about love – all those Indian songs had enough of it with variations of longing, togetherness, and joy. I knew about the unrequited and the realised. I did not know about release. I did not know that when the body spoke and broke into a sweat in febrile motion its crescendo was a whimper. A few seconds at a time.
I discovered it whispered in my ear. There would be times when we’d be echoes. Such was the power of not a word. I cannot call it silence, obviously. It would be unfair to reduce Donna Summer to a moan, which I was to later find out was uttered 22 times in that one song. I did not count then or ever. But, it’s often that one look, that one sound that stays with us.
Details of her life are known, but it is interesting that she wrote “Love to Love you baby” that is referred to as a “sexual song” for a reason. As she had said at the time:
“I let go long enough to show all the things I've been told since childhood to keep secret.”
Four years later she, a practising Christian, stopped performing it.
“If I were to do that song like I did it in the old days, the fire department would have to be at the show. Seriously. Riots broke out in, like, Argentina and Italy... It's not the kind of song you just want to throw out there.”
Was religion a constricting factor? If music can break chains, then it is not unlike faith. Devotees at rock concerts are believers praying to a sweating god covered with neon light. In fact, disco as a genre seems to have had that quality of inclusiveness.
There is much concentration on lyrics to ‘get the song’ or the message. However, it is often the singer and the instruments that can convey the meaning beyond the verbal.
The videos that are now shot with mood lighting and uploaded on YouTube cater to those that need to be spoonfed or assailed by visuals to take away what could be considered tedious. You cannot hide beneath a blanket, listening to the music at a volume so low it could be your breath held back.
I have not forgotten that moment. I remember Donna Summer…