balasubramanyam-rajeev-starstruck

Starstruck in Bellini’s


Short Fiction by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

 

Honourable members . . . ‘

‘The Oxford Union, in conjunction with OU Asia Society, is privileged to have Mr Swami Saint with us today.

‘Born Sanjeev Ravindran, and raised in London, Mr Saint read Mathematics at New College . . .’

A cheer and several boos.

‘Graduating in 1990, he spent three years waiting tables and playing in cocktail lounges, before signing to EMI records, cutting his first LP, Shades of Mind. The rest, as they say, is history . . .

‘Adopting the pseudonym Swami Saint, Mr Ravindran is one of the most successful jazz recording artists in Britain, famous as much for his diamond-studded sandals and designer turbans as for his technical virtuosity and precise, invigorating compositions. He has toured all over the world as both a solo pianist, and with his trio, Solar 3. He has made fourteen albums and collaborated with a dazzling array of artists from Brian Eno to Courtney Pine. Aged just 47, Mr Saint has already accomplished more than many musicians do in a lifetime. New Musical Express described him as, “the ultimate jazz fashionista without whom the music world would be as drab as cold tea on a November morning in Staines”.’

Laughter, though not much.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Swami Saint.’

The President shakes my hand. From the way he was reading off a card, I suspect he has no idea who I am. I do not want to do this. I also have no idea who I am.

‘Thank you, Mr President. Thank you, members. It is my great privilege to be here. I apologize for being somewhat underdressed but, technically, this isn’t a performance. Let’s think of it rather as surgery without anaesthesia, a way to get inside my head. What the President did not mention was that I actually began to study for a PhD in the Macrostructures of Sound embodied in classical Carnatic and Dravidian musics. I gave up when I realized quite how much work it would entail, but it was a thoroughly excellent opportunity to catch up on a good deal of music I might otherwise have missed.

‘Music, you see, is dearer to me than life itself; all kinds of music, not only jazz – though this is my expertise. Indeed, I consider myself more a listener than a musician, one who has tried his hand at composition and muffles his own inadequacies behind a thin veil of flamboyance and extraneous idiocy.’

They are not laughing, these Oxford students. Near every one of them is South Asian, which could well mean they aren’t jazz fans. Perhaps they’ve come to be inspired. That old cliché: ‘If he can do it, then so can . . .’ But you can’t, you can’t. It takes talent, darlings.

Oh, I loathe myself.

On and on I drone, a good fifteen minutes before going to the piano (a beautiful black Steinway, polished to a mirror) and demonstrating how I work my variations and crossovers from simple three chord melodies. I talk about John Coltrane and My Favorite Things, show them how even advertising jingles and nursery rhymes contain all of free jazz inside. ‘It’s like Blake said,’ I say. ‘To see a world in a grain of sand.’

I am losing them, I can tell. These idiots.

‘And so the essence of music, like the essence of life itself, is time. The notes only matter if they are played at the right time, in the right order. To quote Bananarama, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way” . . .’

That was a stupid joke. I thought it might work on undergraduates who subsist on a diet of Pot Noodles and Countdown, but it’s entirely possible that none of them know who Bananarama are.

I step forward for my applause. Lukewarm, but who cares? Now I can get out of here. Damn you, Frankie, I should never have done this.

‘Mr Saint has very kindly consented to answer your questions for twenty minutes, after which there will be an opportunity to . . .’

Oh Christ. What is wrong with this one? He has a fucking flag draped over his back, and he isn’t even asking a question. He’s beat-boxing. And now, ‘Om . . . Om . . . Om.’ What the fuck? He’s speaking in Hindi. I have no idea what the hell he’s saying, but everyone is laughing.

‘Mr Saint, or should I say, Mr Ravindran,’ he asks in English, ‘my question is very simple. You’re an Asian musician. Your name is Swami Saint. You wear turbans and salwars in your shows. But what is so Asian about your music?’

I reply, cold, cutting, to the point. The outfit is flamboyance, showmanship, performance. I wear the colours that appeal to me. What makes clothes ‘Indian’ or ‘ethnic’? It’s only a style. Why fixate on this and not the music? Why is Bowie never asked this question?

‘Because he isn’t Indian, Sir, and he isn’t making millions by parading his ethnicity.’

‘How do you know he isn’t? Hasn’t he sold Englishness for years? Isn’t that what helped him across the Atlantic?’

Yes, I merely add a little colour to an otherwise drab and dreary world. A cup of tea on a cold morning in hell.

‘No music is Asian,’ I tell them. ‘No clothes are Asian. Art does not have an ethnicity.’

And here is another one, of the female variety: she’s wearing a sari with a bindi. It’s a Tuesday evening in Oxford, love. You’re going nowhere.

‘What did you mean when you said that fusion music is the “mating grunts of mongrels”? Are you trying to say that hybridity is invalid? Do you actually think you’re superior because . . .’

Four hours later and I am sitting at a bar. I have sat here before. No, I used to stand behind the bar. This was my first real job. From five to seven I mixed cocktails, and from seven to midnight I played piano. Sometimes When We Touch, Goldfinger, Under my Skin. The usual stuff. Fifteen years ago, but the place hasn’t changed. It used to be called ‘Blues’, and now it’s ‘Bellini’s,’ which is what I’m drinking.

I worked here for three years, beginning in 1990 when I was in the fourth year of my maths degree and at my loneliest. My trio, the Mandelbrot Set, had just broken up. Sean and Anand had moved on to London, a barrister and a researcher for the Economist. I was in mourning, ranging from inconsolable to hateful. When my father died a few weeks later and I went home for the funeral, my mother said I should drop out; she cut me off financially; said she couldn’t afford it. So I worked here every night, often ’til early morning, trekking back across Magdalen Bridge in the cold.

I did not cry when my father died, but I did write a variation on the funeral march. Each note plunged like a suicide from a high ledge on a breezy day. At the end the song sort of spiralled until the edges broke and the entire structure disappeared. That’s what I thought death must be like. No more structure.

People always say you have to feel, but for me thinking’s more important. That’s jazz. Thinking your emotions. It’s a different way of feeling.

My father didn’t even know I played in a jazz band.

I can hear Sarah Vaughan.

 

He started coming in the spring of 1990. You meet a lot of people when you work behind a bar. I did not like to chat, but it was part of my job to listen. It was the end of my first bar shift, my mind limbering up to play. Gaunt, bone-thin, the colour of piano keys left out in the sun, his face bore several small burnished bruises. He wore a wig too, though I did not know it, and a false beard, thick and black. Aquiline nose, big teeth, and when he sucked at his cigarette a longing came into his eyes. A homesick child in a conservative suit and hat. He returned twice that week, and the next, always ordered a bottle of Moët and drank it over two hours, staring at those spirited temptresses behind the bar who winked and lifted their liquid skirts.

‘Do you know, I don’t think I’ve sat alone in a bar for twenty years until this week.’

He introduced himself as Farrokh. His voice was well schooled, but with a clear Indian lilt. I imagined him squatting on the banks of the Ganges in a dinner jacket, handing out hundred dollar bills to cats.

‘I can be impatient, but I never bitch about people. I never moan. It’s so fucking tedious, dear. There isn’t time to moan. But now I have to ’cause it hurts so bloody much and I can’t bear to shatter their dreams. Would you mind?’

I shook my head.

‘I’d love to cry now, darling. Would you mind if I did?’

I conveyed that I would not.

‘The thing is, you can’t ever let them see you cry. You have to pretend. You have to be the spectacle they want to see. Don’t try to be you: it isn’t worth it. You is only the you you want to be. Be who they want, or better still, be who they need and they’ll love you for it and you can love them in return. But for god’s sake, don’t trust them. Oh Lord, what on earth is this? Verdi?’

It was. Va, pensiero. In 1901 at Verdi’s funeral the crowd spontaneously broke into the chorus. And now Farrokh was singing it too. His control, his pitch, it was all quite perfect, and he sang across four octaves, a range no jazz singer I knew could match. When I closed my eyes I saw fireworks, soaring so high and bright they looked like planets in the sky.

When he had finished I opened another bottle and set it in front of him. I would pay. I would find the money.

Farrokh stayed for my set and ate his dinner in a dark corner. At around midnight he joined me at the piano and sang a Hindi song. There were only a handful of people left, and he sang so quietly I doubted they could hear. But then it started.

‘Fuckin’ hell. That’s –’

‘It isn’t!’

‘It fuckin’ is. I’m telling you.’

‘Get me out of here, darling.’

I had to elbow a man out of the way who was pawing at us while his wife clawed at her camera, trying to remove it from its case.

‘My car’s outside.’

A driver, in a peaked cap and a moustache, was waiting on the pavement. I helped Farrokh inside. He was weak, and as he raised his leg I saw him wince before yelping like a terrier.

‘Sorry, Farrokh.’

‘It’s all right, love. Come here.’

Farrokh kissed my cheek and hugged me hard. ‘The thing about life is, you’ve got to enjoy it. Enjoy it, you hear me? Or it’s pointless. The rest doesn’t matter. I’ve never been fashionable, you see. They just love me.’

I watched him leave. His black Ferrari tore a hole in the dying Oxford night.

 

‘Mr Saint, you claim to be above politics, and yet you’ve said, a dozen times, “I am a citizen of the world; I do not consider myself to be Asian.” Isn’t that a very political statement?’

‘Then why did you call your album Karmic Visions?’

‘Do you wear Indian clothes at home, or only on stage?’

‘Are you a part-time Asian?’

It has turned into a lynching.

‘You say you take things from many cultures; you say you like Afro-jazz and samba, but why not take something from our own culture? When are you going to play some Asian music?’

‘Oh for Christ’s sake, fuck off.’

Sometimes you hear your voice from outside of you: you know you will regret it, but it isn’t you speaking anymore.

‘What the fuck have you ever done? Go back to your studies, you little shit.’

Silence in the debating chamber. I stare him down, my arms outstretched. A self-hating, vigilante Christ. No time for losers, ’cause we are the champions . . .

‘Fuck all of you. You came here to hear me. Me.’

I am at the piano and playing. Schubert, I think, blending into ‘Toxicity’, my own composition, and now some variations on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

On and on I play. They are leaving the hall. I can hear someone shouting expletives. A sock falls from the balcony. The chamber is only a quarter full, but some were up there nonetheless. It is cold in here, cold and vast. When Malcolm X spoke they mocked him too. I wish I had worn a turban. Then they couldn’t see me. I mustn’t let them know who I am.

You can’t hurt me, I’m famous.

People in glass houses should build fucking castles.

‘Mr Saint, Mr Saint, please. We have to lock up.’

But it’s all right. There are eight, maybe twelve, left. They are nodding, tapping. Their minds have left their heads, swirling like cigar smoke on the ceiling.

I will, I will rock you.

‘Sir, the Society would like to invite you for dinner, if you still . . .’

‘Of course I want dinner. Do I look like I don’t want dinner?’

‘Of course. Sorry, Mr Saint.’

‘Then let us proceed.’

My god, I sound like a queen bitch, but I don’t know how else to talk to these folk. Why are they so fucking obsessed with being Asian?

It was November 25, 1991 that I figured it out. I was, as it happened, with Sean, and we were waiting for Anand. It was our first reunion since the break-up, and we were fighting. I called Sean a sell-out. He called me a queer. I said that both of them abandoned me because they were too afraid to be themselves. Then Anand came in with the newspaper, saying he’d quit the Economist and was moving to Manchester to become an anarchist. I laughed and he threw the papers at me, but I saw the headline even as it arced through the air.

Freddie Mercury had died of AIDS aged 45.

Born Farrokh Bulsara he had attended St. Peter’s boarding school near Bombay, then St. Mary’s in Mazagaon. Few knew he was gay. Even fewer that he was Indian. At the eleventh hour he recorded songs with only a drum machine, knowing he’d be dead when the rest of the group finished the tracks. But I think he enjoyed it, I think he enjoyed it all.

‘Why aren’t you more Asian, Mr Mercury? Why aren’t you less gay? Why don’t you sing in Hindi, in Parsi, in Farsi, why don’t you whistle out of your crown? Why can’t you be more, more, more, more?’

But he wouldn’t have spoken in a debating chamber. He hated interviews, especially after the NME ran the headline, ‘Is this man a prat?’ He learned from that. He was probably a Thatcherite, though if you’d asked him he would have said he had no politics. Maybe that’s why people loved him. lover of life, singer of songs. When he was at college he was found in a pub with his head in his hands. They asked him why and he said, ‘I’m never gonna be a pop star.’ And he stood up, stretched out his arms, and said: ‘I’m gonna be a legend.

We are in the restaurant now. Jaipur Kitchen. ‘Asian food’, I suppose, to distinguish it from mere food. I try telling them I’m South Indian; that this isn’t what we eat at home, but it’s another black mark against my name. They’re like the fucking gestapo. If only I had a piano. There’s a sitar on the wall. I think about taking it down. I was trained on the violin. Been playing since I was three, mainly Carnatic, though I wouldn’t tell these fuckers. My god, they’d eat dried horse shit if they thought it was from India.

He kept it from the world, but it’s so obvious now. I can hear it in his voice, the accent too. He drinks Moët & Chandon . . . I can’t even say if I like his music. Rock isn’t usually my thing, but was it even that? More like rock opera with disco-funk, and then they had an album called Jazz, which had nothing to do with jazz. I should do an album called Sitar.

‘Sir, sir . . .’

I have walked out of the restaurant.

Fuck you all, you Asian Asians. I’m going to Bellini’s.

It was 1994, the night Kurt Cobain killed himself. His suicide note:

It doesn’t affect me the way which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to pull people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.

I was 25 and at home alone when I heard about it. I started pitching things out the upstairs window, books, records, a portable television. In the kitchen I threw eggs, bottles of milk, china cups, at the refrigerator door. I hit my head against the sink and chipped a tooth.

When my mother came home I told her I’d gone out to smoke and some village boys had rushed the house and gone berserk.

‘Why didn’t you smoke out the back? Why didn’t you lock the house?’

‘There are bats out back,’ I said. ‘They scare me.’

Six weeks later EMI would call, but at that moment I was a palpable failure. I had moved back home when I couldn’t stand the bar anymore. I needed time to compose. But my mother smelt weakness and went for the kill. She was like that. She’d wanted to be a musician.

When my deal came through I went to London and met the executives. They took me around their offices: finance, marketing, the basement. I left with an armful of CDs and a parting thought.

‘Your average punter can’t tell a bog-standard session musician from a virtuoso. There are only a handful of people who know how good you are, a handful. Think of all the mediocrities who people routinely mistake for geniuses. Don’t get me wrong, you’re the real thing, but the public has to believe it. And they don’t believe their ears; they believe their eyes.’

The turban came a little while after that. The sandals and salwar too. The turbans were usually Afghan-style, but embroidered with gold, once even with a lion’s mane. I’ve worn cholis and petticoats, all manner of scarves and earrings. Even a sarong. When I was prettier, I was a little like a musical David Beckham: a virtuoso with a sense of style. But I seem fated to go down like Beckham. They say he lives in Manchester now. Perhaps that’s where I should go. Wall myself in like the Selfish Giant.

But at least Beckham stood for something.

‘’Scuse me, you’re Swami Saint, aren’t you? I was at your talk today.’

I hold out my drink for her to spit in. It’s a joke she doesn’t get.

‘I’m Mala.’

‘I’m me.’

‘I thought it was really unfair, all that crap about being authentic. You just keep on doing what you’re doing. How many of them could play like you?’

She touches me on the arm. She has a scar on her left bicep: it looks exactly like the Apple logo. They just get weirder and weirder.

‘Thanks for stopping by,’ I say, lacklustre, cold, needing a cigarette.

‘My pleasure, Mr Saint.’

I step outside and onto the pavement where pools of streetlight glow like urine splashes. I light my cigarette and breathe in hard. My lungs feel red. From inside I can hear Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’. I always wished I could sing. The piano . . . it feels like I’m trapped inside it, a prisoner of those colourless keys. When I want to soar all I hear is sadness. I’ve never played outdoors. Or on the dunes, like in the movie Shine. That’s what I’d like to do. That’s what I’d really like to do.

I step into the road. Cars swirl like songs around my ankles. Somewhere a man is shouting. Rain slants down my neck. Oh wouldn’t it be lovely . . .

A man takes my hand. He has aged, but his eyes are still bright.

‘It’s all right, dear. Come out of the rain now.’

We are back in the bar. He is smoking. You can’t smoke in here, but he’s smoking. Of course he is. He’s the Queen.

He can’t be.

‘We’re older now, darling. We’ve come a long way.’

I look into his eyes. It is.

‘Farrokh?’

‘Yes, love. Sorry I’ve been gone.’

‘I needed you, you know.’

‘You did, you really did. You forgot to enjoy it.’

‘I don’t know where I went wrong.’

His parchment skin, once so smooth, is wrinkled, but his lips are still full, his fingers long and elegant, made for the piano. He used to be insecure about his playing, but no one played quite like him. The wig and beard have gone now, a half-inch of stubble in their place. He wears a short military jacket with a white handkerchief and starched blue linen pants. His shoes are white and stainless. He has a cane in his hand, gnarled and made from transparent plastic. Quite the ensemble.

‘You forgot, dear. It’s only a game. You took it too seriously.’

‘I know, Farrokh. I’m sorry.’

Listen.’ He takes my chin in his hand and lifts my face ’til my eyes meet his. ‘Forget it now. Forget it. Let it go.’

I try to smile, but my eyes are crystal with tears. He takes out his handkerchief and dabs at them. I let myself fall and he holds me. We stay like this, frozen in space.

‘Let’s go to the piano,’ says Farrokh.

‘But it can’t be you,’ I say. ‘I read it in the papers.’

He is already walking away. His stride is effortless, lusty; he bounces on his heels, beats time with his hands.

At the piano, he takes my hands and places them on the keys.

‘Come on.’

I begin to play, I know not what, and he sings in that natural baritone that drifts from tenor through falsetto, singing in no language at all, harmonizing with the piano. It is perfect. I want this moment to last.

But I stop.

‘You’re dead,’ I say.

He is about to speak, but he’s choking on his words. How could I have been so cruel?

‘Let’s have a cigarette,’ he says.

Through the bar we exit onto the street. Couples stare, but not at us. The sky is reddish, strange for this time of night. Streetlamps crane their necks.

‘Look,’ says Farrokh. ‘Look.’

I do. Two police cars are in the street, blinking blue. An ambulance stands behind them. The cars have stopped. The road is blocked.

It is me. My body is spreadeagled on the tarmac. My head is bust in, a single strike from an indifferent bonnet. My legs are unharmed though. Those socks were silk, a present from Anand.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

‘Let it go now,’ says Farrokh. ‘Enjoy it.’

‘Did I waste it?’

‘Of course not, dear. You lived it to the full.’

‘So what comes now?’

‘Look up.’

I do. I was right. The sky is empty of stars. There is no more structure.

‘A last drink?’

I nod.

‘It’s all a show,’ he says. ‘Just a show.’

I follow him back inside. This time the room stands and applauds. I take a bow, and Freddie steps backwards into grainy shadow. This is my night.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Sanjeev Ravindran.’

 

 

Featured Image Credit