Musical But Not By Identity
I am musical. I come from a musical family. I trained in vocals and an instrument. I have performed with both on stage. I’ve sung competitively, won prizes, represented my alma mater and performed in much-practised concerts. But music is not and never will be my identity.
My first experience of sex was a music teacher assaulting me from age 11-13. It was couched in what I know now is called priming. This is a different kind of diabolism that people who haven’t experienced CSA will never understand. Children’s egos like their personalities, are malleable and like plants, animals and all living things, they respond to compliments. Imagine the kind of monster it takes to weaponize that? I knew him as someone my culture protected with the worship of a guru. “You sing so well” will always sound like a threat, a red flag. Thankfully for me, I was not treated as a pretty child so my shields against compliments about my appearance would develop only later in life.
Years later, I picked up nerve to go on stage again. I was in b-school so it wasn’t another tactic in my well-planned career effort. This was just for me. I represented my alma mater and won prizes. I led the college in the national anthem for Republic Day and Independence Day. I opened special events with a song. Some of my batchmates across campuses still remember me as ‘that singer girl’. I even shattered the glass ceiling with my voice. It also brought me into the crosshairs of more predators. The rapist ex (from Delhi, where else?) spotted me when I was singing on stage. In the year after, he hit me, assaulted me, called me dark & ugly & fat and made me starve. He would decide what I wore, the handbag I carried, my body language. And because he was Bengali, he fancied himself a culture aficionado. So he would order me to “learn this song & sing it next time we meet” (never mind that he couldn’t carry a note, let alone a tune). There is nothing respectful about feeling entitled to someone else performing for you. It is not a sign of appreciation. It is a sign of resentment, of an attempt to control, cage and dehumanise what touches you. This is why fandoms are toxic. Especially for an Indian woman, “I am your fan” is just as much of a threat as “I know your name.”
Still, I endured. After I escaped that monster, I started another life (yet again). A career, a harder shield against men. And singing on stage, something that the previous predator had pulled me away from. Men who appreciate women are really saying they want to own and cage that thing. I went on to perform a three hour gig with some very nice people. It was for a meet of one of India’s most prestigious b-schools and had people from all batches. This means the event was attended by some of the most respectable, senior people in corporate India. While I was singing, the men near the stage drenched me with beer. And in parallel, they tried to grope another woman who was standing near the stage. She turned out to be married to the drummer, who with more dignity than that entire room walked off stage and out of the hall. The band stopped in protest too. And the revelry continued because that’s just how cultured these IIM-types are.
I stopped singing after that. Still the predations continued but I was learning to navigate with more safety. My ex fiancé was/ is a rapper with a horrible voice. Of course he had a HUGE chip on his shoulder about rap being music, about being the Biggest Victim (of course that describes a Hindu Brahmin North Indian man from a rich family). The one time I gave him feedback (which he asked for), I suggested that he articulate his words better, that he use his vocals differently. His reaction was venom, to say the least. This same man hit me multiple times and constantly called me stupid. He consistently attacked me for my choices in popular culture and even broke my iPod. Eventually I stopped reading out my writing at the open mics where I met him. I wasn’t fool enough to ever sing in his presence. Life had taught me that when I sing, the monsters come out. Music just is that special brand of evil in my life.
In the years after that, I’ve learnt to fight more strategically. Spoken Word was my close alliance with words to navigate the minefield that is a stage. Having grown up in a musical family, I had been trotted out like a performing pony at all social gatherings. That would be followed by berations for not practising enough, the backdrop of community politics colouring everyone’s emotions and somehow getting expressed as critiques of my singing. There was nothing pleasurable about it. Demands to sing were consent violations, no different from demands to hug someone that I didn’t want to. Maybe even worse, because singing uses your emotions as well as your body. Forcing someone to sing is telling them that their feelings matter even less than their bodies, that they are nothing but personal music boxes for someone else’s pleasure & glory. I was constantly told that my voice was a gift. But it was a gift to the rest of the world, one over which I had no agency.
It has taken me years to articulate exactly why I moved towards writing (and words) as my safe space. There was no room for my emotions through a troubled childhood. But also, writing is an act of the mind. But singing, that’s an act of the body. And my body has never been my own. It has been touched, divided, edited, policed, assessed, rescued, fluffed up and in general used by other people. Everyone from the government to the male gender to my neighborhood lays claim to this body and what it can or may do. I fight these suffocating attempts every minute and sometimes I succeed. But there isn’t room for joy or creation on a permanent battlefield. My mind though, is my own. Even if I’m alone in it with nobody to see or hear. In fact I prefer it that way, given that audience has only ever been predatory for me.
Some time ago, I dated someone who seemed kinder on my traumas as he had witnessed the entire nightmare with my ex fiance. But then he got angry that he had to tiptoe around me because “everything triggers you”. Apparently, my jaw clenched when I saw him pick up the guitar (a reaction I hadn’t even realised). “Grow a pair and get over it” was his parting shot. After all my experiences, those words don’t land any harder than a spitball. I have learnt to snatch my lessons from the monsters because there’s no other way I can wake up in a world of predations every day. I thought even his nastiness had a point. I’m never going to ‘grow a pair’ (because why would I want a weak pain-intolerant apparatus that hangs around and causes embarrassment when I have a self-cleaning, strong powerful body myself?). But like it or not, my life story appears to be lived on a constant battlefield. I’m always going to have to fight off predators, narcissists and others who feel entitled to my existence. My journey will have to be to mine my riches despite all of these.
Three years ago, I began doing jal-neti, the yogic practice of nasal water massage. After years of struggling with respiratory issues, I finally have a way to help myself. The only other thing that did this for me was swimming, when I started at the age of 11. Back then, I was struggling as a near-asthmatic, being bullied, beaten up and constantly told how useless my body was. I turned out to be good at swimming. It was the first place on earth where I felt cherished the way I was. I wasn’t too thin, too tall, too anything. Physics blessed humanity with an incredibly specific set of circumstances that allows us to move through water without sinking to the depths or rolling on the surface uncontrollably. I learnt grace in the water. I learnt communion with water. I learnt to feel ownership of my body. All these years later, jal-neti brings me another dimension of this ownership. Some believe that phlegm represents the pain-body. This yogic practice is letting me release it, melt away the blocks it causes, let it pass naturally out or within. I feel safe in my body when I’m able to navigate what bothers it with grace. And because jal-neti like all yoga, is fundamentally and universally about breathing, I can sing again. Oh yes, that too. Singing is all about breathing. And I’m snatching by my right to breathe from the suffocations of my life.
My voice sounds different these days. I can trace every component of the difference. It’s the writing that helped release buried trauma that was choking me. It’s the tears I wasn’t allowed to shed, that I released as reactions to pool chlorine instead. It’s years of diet and schedule discipline so I could teach 3 hour webinars, keeping people interested, reassured and engaged with just my voice. It’s all the times on stage, weathering the gendered harassment (and occasionally using silence) to find my own voice amidst the screaming. It’s the residual pain that jal-neti washes out. It’s the bed I bought myself last year where I can finally wake up rested and without adding to the pain in my body. Now when I sing, my voice can trace a direct journey from within to my lips. And where it stops, I know how to remove the blocks or navigate around.
Music is still too rife with bloodshed and tears for me to willingly embrace it as my identity. Right now, it is a hardwon battle over cruel foes. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe it was never meant to be owned by any one human being. Maybe music is just a thing that passes through people’s lives. It so happened that it passes through mine in an orchestra of bombs and dirges. That’s a musical journey too.
The last time I wrote about this particular kind of rawness, I waited two days, shared it with a couple of close trusted people before hitting publish. And I returned to find my blog beseiged with comments from people. That post was the first time I had spoken publicly about the issue of child abuse. It carried me into more political thought, redefined my sense of responsibility to the world. That sense has been battered with the narcissistic activism & cancel culture of the last decade, making me wary of sharing something like this. Then just now, this message showed up on my timeline.
I’m darkly amused that Qala is about pettiness, cruelty & narcissism all ignored because MUSIC! The song Shauq shows the needless violence of musical people & everyone aspiring to be music-adjacent. All the while the song’s lyrics are about romance & love. Heh, hypocrisy. I’m entranced by the song. Have I become a connoisseur of pain (bikharne ka shauq)? It is new to me to even consider sending out a question to the universe but maybe I will. Will you gather me as I fall apart? Sametega mujhko tu bata zara?
(I was going to include an audio recording of a cover I sang but it might be a copyright infringement to publish it on an open blog. If you’d like to hear me sing, drop me a comment and I’ll send it to you privately. You can also DM me on Instagram where I occasionally message my songs to people who say they’re interested in hearing.)
This is good stuff, and interesting that it’s more about trauma than music.
@Topher: Thank you for supporting me through this journey today.