by Mahadevan Ramesh

"Zindagi Ek safar Hai suhaanaa...."

Kishore Kumar's timeless melody filled the entire living room of Dr. Srikanth Gupta's house. Suddenly Dr. Gupta stopped whatever he was doing. The music was so arresting that Dr. Gupta actually found himself tapping his feet to its rhythm. "My God!" he thought, "How many years has it been since I heard this number !" It was one of his all time favorite songs. Now, where did it come from, all of a sudden ?

"Oh, I just picked up this CD from the Indian store yesterday." his wife answered. "I know how much you like this song."

Dr. Gupta even remembered the lyrics. He was amazed at his own memory. It is just that some things just stay etched in one's mind. Also, those lyrics had a lot of meaning - not like the 'Hamma hamma' type of songs that are routinely cranked out these days. As the song progressed, Gupta even followed the music in the interlude. Then, of course, came the famous trademark yodelling by Kishore Kumar. Gupta too yodelled with the music. Wait a minute ! Something was not right !

As Gupta listened, he figured there was something seriously wrong with the whole song. Somehow the yodelling didn't sound like Kishore Kumar's. Gupta quickly grabbed the CD jacket, read its fine print and discovered that the CD was actually a 'best of Kishore Kumar' CD, but sung by someone else !

"Arre, Begum. You got ripped off. This is not sung by Kishore Kumar" he told her, much to her surprise.

"Maybe we should go to the store and return it. How terrible !" his wife exclaimed.

"Why would they have Kishore Kumar CDs sung by other people ? How can they improve on perfection ? You tell me." Gupta asked her rhetorically.

"You know what. I used to have an old cassette tape with this song. Remember ? Do you know where it is ? I have this incredible urge to listen to the original version by Kishore Kumar."

"I have no idea where your cassette is. I am busy. You have to look for it yourself," his wife answered.

For the next half a day, Dr. Gupta was looking for his old cassette. He had already looked into the cassette storage boxes, inside and outside his stereo cabinet, underneath the TV, in the Pooja room, inside his technical junk. Even after a methodical, linear and thorough search he had no idea where that tape might be. He even turned his basement upside down and ransacked his garage.

"Where is the box I put all my old newspaper clippings, old letters and stuff ?" he asked his wife.

"What are you talking about ? I don't touch anything of yours. I don't even know what you consider garbage and what you keep as treasure. You know that.."

"I can't even find my other box with my old shirts and pants.."

"Don't you remember ? We gave them away to charity last year. I asked you ten times before I did that. You are not going to slim down and get into them any time soon." his wife was exasperated.

"Don't you have anything better to do on a sunday morning ? Why don't you take the cars for service or mow the lawn ? Or, now that you are sorting out stuff in the basement and garage, why don't you do a general spring cleaning ?"

"I am not giving up till I find that stupid tape." Dr. Gupta said with finalty. "I am now taking this as a challenge. How can we not know where things are in our own house ? We don't have the kids living with us any more to blame it on them. Could it be that our son took the tape with him to his college.."

"Your son ? Forget it. He is not going to listen to old hindi songs."

"Why can't I find anything of mine in this house ? You have no respect for my sentiments. My likes and dislikes mean nothing for you guys. You just throw everything of mine away...."

"Wait a minute ! What has gotten into you today ? Why are you wallowing in such self pity ? We can't possibly keep every little stuff that you had once used. I am not a packrat. But I never throw anything away without telling you. Maybe you should build another room in the basement so that I can stash away all your old clothings and general junk. Or better still, why don't you hire an archeologist to rummage through our house ? Why in the world would I knowingly throw a cassette tape away ? Perhaps you ought to keep track of all your sentimental things yourself from now on. Make a list and put it in your computer."

"Did someone borrow it ?"

"How do I know ? For heaven's sake. What has come of you ? We can always go to the store and buy a real Kishore Kumar CD...."

"You won't understand it. There is a whole lot of history behind that song and that tape..."

Yes, there sure was ! Dr. Gupta was a simple Mr. Gupta when the song and the movie were getting popular. He was a mere college student then, in the sprawling Delhi University campus. Those were the days ! He could picture himself and his chums wandering around the campus, as if they owned the place. He could remember everything, as if it was yesterday. - the hot summer days, the crowded DTC buses, the 'hep dames' from the Miranda House and LSR who often broke his heart (and his friends) and made them look like they were some kind of uncivilized villagers from some remote state in India.

And yes, the Sher-e-Punjab dhabha near Kashmiri Gate ! He and his gang would hang out there almost everyday. The tall, tall glasses of lassi. Wonderful meals of hot, hot phulkas with the Sardar's special subzi that melted in your mouth, not to forget the 'daal makhni' that was personally seasoned with a red hot 'thadka' by the Sardar himself. The glorious past ! By the time the 'masala chai' was served the radio would blast "Zindagi ek safar...", almost on a cue. Heck, Gupta even remembered the Vividh Bharati commercials that went alongside the song.

"I like this song very much" he would tell his friend "Even the lyrics are amazing."

"Did you know that this song was actually composed by Ajit Singh ?" his friend would inform him.

"Kya, Ajit Singh ? Are you sure ? That is news. The same Ajit Singh who sings english songs ?"

"Yes, the same guy. That's what I heard."

"Isn't he supposed to be a sharaabi (drunkard) ?" Gupta would ask, lighting his cigarette. Those days he thought it was cool to smoke. "I heard that he created a lot of problems in Hindu College when he was invited there for their festival..."

"How do you know he did all that?" his friend would argue "Don't spread rumors unless you know the facts."

This would ultimately lead to another two hours of idle arguments and discussions. His friend Roop Mishra always loved such debates. "Define what you mean by 'sharaabi'..." he would ask Gupta like an ancient Greek philosopher. This would be followed by endless discussions on politics, especially campus politics and Delhi University elections. Wow, how many decades have gone since then ! Mishra never came abroad. He finished his Ph.D. too, but decided to work in a government lab in India - what a waste of a brilliant mind ! They met even the last time Gupta was in India.

Gupta also remembered that day when he and his gang sat down to eat in the dhabha and out of nowhere came "Zindagi ek safar...", almost startling everyone around.

"I have bought a cassette recorder." the Sardar informed them shyly. All right ! Gupta and his friends played and replayed the song numerous times. Then on, they didn't have to wait for the probability gods to send their favorite song along. 'Zindagi ek safar...' then became a part of their dinner menu.

"Do you know something ? Rajesh Khanna and Hema Malini act together in this movie after a long gap. They don't like each other and don't act together ordinarily." someone informed them. Even though they didn't see too many hindi movies, Gupta and his gang went to this particular movie, 'Andaz', one day at the Rabindra Rangshala, followed of course, by a large order of Kulfi at Anarkali Kulfi. He could still remember how the song was picturized in the movie.

Maybe I should call Roop Mishra in India and surprise the hell out of him, thought Gupta. Maybe I should go to India ! The last time he was there, he showed his college and hangouts to his children. He was shocked to see how run down and old the campus had become. There were less trees and the 'India Coffee House' was terrible. The dhabha wasn't even there - he was informed that it was destroyed in a mindless communal violence a few years ago.

It was actually Roop Mishra who even recorded the song and the entire cassette tape for him from India - the tape he was so desparately searching for. Gupta remembered everything so well. Just a few months after coming to the USA to do his Ph.D., he found out that a friend of a friend was going back to India for a visit. Gupta hurriedly called his parents. Those days, calling India was like pulling teeth - in spite of huge per minute charges. His parents didn't even own a phone and he had to go through convoluted means. Somehow they managed to contact Mishra and he in turn recorded the tape. It was sent to Gupta along with a big bag of home-made masala. Initially, Gupta wasn't even sure he would be able to pull it off. Finally when his parents wrote to him that a parcel was on its way, he was much relieved. He would await the mailman everyday with the hope of getting his cassette tape.

When nothing happened for two months, Gupta lost his patience and even called this guy who went to India to find out whatever happened to his parcel.

"Abhey, can you at least find out if the cassette is there in the parcel ?"

"Wait, I have to open the sealed bag." his friend said. "Yes, I can see it."

"Have they written down the contents of the tape ? Importantly, does it have all Kishore's songs, especially 'Zindagi ek safar...'..."

"Yes, I can see it..."

"My baap, would you please send it to me soon ? I really love that song. You know, I have a lot of nostalgia associated with it. I will pay whatever it costs you to mail it..."

On the seventh day he got it. From then on, he must have played that tape several hundred times. In fact, the song must be engraved in the recorder's magnetic head. Numerous copies of the tape were made for all and sundry. And now, ironically, he couldn't even find it. Worse still, he didn't have the slightest idea where it might be.

Gupta felt very frustrated.

"You know, this morning when I heard the CD and the song, I was in such a good mood. And now when I can't find my cassette tape in my own house, I feel so rotten..." he complained to his wife.

"Somehow you think I have conspired against you and stole the tape from you..."

"No, I am not saying that. But it is amazing how things go out of control. You just can't keep track of anything any more" said Gupta, ruefully, still unwilling to give up looking for the cassette.

"Uh, oh, Doctorji. Stop looking for the damned cassette." his wife said, almost consolingly. "Don't you get it ? The cassette tape is just a metaphor. What you are actually looking for is your lost youth - your lost Indian youth. There is no way you are going to get it again. Instead, settle for something that is possible ! Let us go to the Indian store and rent a NEW hindi movie and return this CD...."

Copyright Ramesh Mahadevan