From Madonna to Nanda Malini: The Music of My Childhood. (දෙලොවක් අතර: Part II)

Suddenly, it seems this being in the in-between, is the root-narrative of my life: Of constantly being torn or dangling between two unknown spheres. The real and the imaginary; the East and the West; the English and the Sinhala; the Buddhist and the Christian; the mother and the father, the home and the rest of the world;  etc, etc, etc. I’m surprised I didn’t find myself bi-sexual.

I am a child of Generation M. (M for Media.) I grew up in front of a TV screen, watching Cinderella finding Prince Charming, Snow White finding Prince Charming, Ariel finding Prince Charming, Aurora and Jasmine and Belle and Mulan and the whole retinue of Disney princesses finding Prince Charming. Since I didn’t grow up to be a princess, little wonder I never found my Prince Charming. My brother sat in front of the same TV and grew up watching Defenders of the Earth and Voltron.  It puzzles me that children could grow up in today’s world being fed such a different diet, based on whether you are a boy or a girl.  I’m sure the thought of a princess never crossed my brother’s mind. And surely, this must have some impact on us, no?

Anyway, what I wanted to get at was that the TV unraveled in front of us, a different world to that of our home. While at home our world was made of green cement floors and flower-print curtains and time that ticked at a certain pace, the television brought to us…well…you know what the television brought to us. Sesame Street was perhaps the better of it.

The television gave us a different culture to compare the one in which we existed. Take music, for instance, and today, I just want to write about just that – the music of my childhood.

I remember, at home we listened to light Sinhala classical, the kind categorized today as ‘ප්‍රබුද්ධ සංගීතය’. I’m not sure how I found it out, but I know that my father met my mother at the Victor Ratnayaka concert ‘ස’.

සඳ කැන් වැසිලා – අඳුරේ එතිලා
ගනඳුරු රෑ – තනිකම නෑ
සොයා එන්න ගනඳුර තරු නිවලා
මගේ එළිය අද ඔබ පමණි

At that young age my mother thought she was falling for my father when what she actually fell for was Victor’s voice. They were drawn together by their common musical taste and soon forced apart by greater incompatibilities and yes, capitalism. Okay, okay, I’ll tell you about it some other day, but basically, my father ended up in Fålkenberg, a small Scandinavian town full of snow, so that decades later his children could drive Toyota Allions and Fiat Puntos. My lonely young mother ended up listening to lots and lots of Nanda Malini.

පෙම් ලොවදී දුටු ඔහුමද මේ
ඔහුටද මා – අන්ධ උනේ
යෞවනයේ දුටු ඔහුමද මේ
ඔහුටද මා – අන්ධ උනේ

C’est la vie! And so Nanda Malini quietly, pensively entered my childhood world. But wait, I think Madonna got there first. I’m confused now, and I want to trace my earliest musical memories.

Chronologically speaking, the first beating of my heart was for Reggae. As a baby I had rocked with my uncle high on marijuana to Bob Marley and the Wailers. So the music of my infancy was without doubt Reggae. Even today, Reggae puts me in the zone. Jimmy Cliff’s I Can see Clearly Now, and Reggae Night and Roots Woman are like the primal heartbeat that sustains me. I don’t want to get started on Bob Marley. He probably got into my head before I figured out I had one. That Bob Marley poster in my uncle’s room was perhaps one of the first pop images that got burnt into my sub-conscience. I can’t even believe it, but probably Marley smiled down at me saying that the best things in life are sex, drugs and music when I was like, what, one or two? I’m not into grass but I just love the panache of Marley. And later, I came to respect the politics of his music. Of course at the age of one and two, it was just his crooning and strumming guitar that rocked me to sleep.  But discovering much later, that before he died at the age of 36, Marley managed to truly put the Trenchtown ghettos full of wretched souls and soup kitchens on the world map for me, is something I don’t take for granted. If I am to die at the age that Marley died, I’ll die in another five years. And I would have put nothing on the map for anyone. Did you know that the lyricist of No Woman No Cry – Vincent Ford ran a soup kitchen in Trenchtown ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica and the royalties he receives from the song go into the continuation of that soup kitchen to date?  I don’t want to fill up this post with Marley hits, cos I love each and every one of them. But let’s have this one’s for the underdog, and those who sing for them.

And here’s for the sweet intoxication of reggae:

TV introduced me to Jackson. Who’s the kid who doesn’t get mesmerized by that Billy Jean moonwalk? At school we started making song books. The first song in my book, I remember, was Black or White by MJ. I remember how I cut out MJ from mirror magazines and stuck them in. And how I adorned my walls with his posters. And then, when he suddenly turned from black to white, I took it as my personal mission to steer MJ’s name clear of classroom insults. In school, some of the teachers knowing my Jackson mania, confronted me quite openly. “So, what’s happened to Jackson?” I was at a loss. So I lied blatantly. I denied that MJ was ever black despite the fact that his poster on my wall was very much black. Can you beat that? Now, those were the days without the internet. By the time I found out about the real health condition of poor MJ, I had grown out of Jackson mania. But oh, what an artist.

Now, while MJ and George Michael and Madonna were practically adorning my bedroom walls, my musical world fortunately included Nanda Malini and Amaradeva and Sunil Edirisinghe. I know Nanda Malini’s Pawana by heart. What attracted me to Nanda Malini is not so much the politics of her songs, but it is her image. And the same is true for Madonna. As I grew up, Nanda Malini and Modonna sort of marked the contours of my feminine identity. Nanda, in her white sari and bare soulful voice somehow struck a chord in me. Even when I sometimes felt that this snow white puritanism leaves certain bitterness about life in your mouth, the minimalism and the calmness of her step drew me in. In a way she taught me that a woman does not need to be beautiful and sexy and display a prince charming by her side like a tennis trophy all the time. That you can be yourself, by yourself. She was plain, single and dignified. And her songs went right into your heart. From the pensive රුවල් ඉරී ගිය නෞකාවේ to the delightful හද විල කළඹන පෙම් ජල රේඛා to සුළං කපොල්ලේ to all the rebellious songs of Pawana, Nanda Malini stood for something I recognized as concrete.

සඳළු තලේ සඳ පහන් රැයේ – මධු විත් පුරවා උන් බොන්නේ
අපේ රුධිරයයි සොහොයුරනේ //
පැන් සනහන විට අරුණ උදේ – වතුර මලින් උන් පූදන්නේ
අපේ දහදියයි සොහොයුරනේ //

Opposite end of my identity spectrum , there was Madonna with her girly true blue voice. She is the antithesis to Nanda Malini. Just keep them side by side and you’ll need no further explanations. With her bold sexual outlook Madonna, struck a different chord in me. There’s something liberating about a woman who recognizes that she is a sexual creature, especially in a man’s world, and is quite comfortable at being that sexual creature. She is the woman on top, who is true blue, who pushes her love over the borderline. The truth is that Madonna is not at all avant-garde, especially if you compare to what Bob Marley stood for. As sexy as she projected herself to be, she always wore a crucifix about her. God-fearing, church-going, middle-class girl. She always had a young man about her. And she seemed somehow powerful and vulnerable at the same time.

Now that’s the kind of woman a convent girl could easily relate to. All of us had limits to our moral worlds, but we dream of asserting our identity, sexual and otherwise. So, we don’t quite think that sex and drugs and music are the be all and end all of life. Oh no, we are material girls. But we want sex alright. We want more actually. We want love and romance and fidelity. We want everything. That’s Madonna’s material girl of the 1980s– the girl who wants everything.

So Madonna, though she often seemed to mock tradition, was very firmly within it. Even while we talk of liberation, us women are the keepers and bearers of tradition most of the time. It will make you laugh, but between Madonna and Nada Malini, I really think Madonna is the more conservative one. And gosh, I love her. Sometimes, even more than her music, I feel Madonna’s legacy to a generation of young girls, is a series of images, symbols and identity markers. Even better, Madonna is not a drunk and a drug addict. She works hard and fights hard to be herself. She can fall in love with a Latino, or Afro or Asian guy. She can stand up for the gay and lesbian rights. She’s unafraid to experiment with her sexuality and still comes off without being wacko. So Madonna, like or unlike the virgin she sings of being, meant different things, but meant quite a lot, to a girl like me.

But how do I reconcile the two? Madonna and Nanda Malini? Is that possible? Are they really the polar opposites? Or two sides of the same coin that’s in all of us? As much as I love the sexuality of Madonna I also like the a-sexuality of Nanda Malini. Or is the subtlety about her more appealing than the boldness of the former? Look at the range of emotion in their love songs. From the meditative ඔබයි රම්‍ය සඳ කිරණ to the self-sacrificing රුවල් ඉරී ගිය නෞකාවේ of Nanda to Madonna’s pregnant teenager in Papa Don’t Preach and invincible Material Girl. I have no clue which one is my default mode.

Nanda Malini and Madonna have enriched my musical imagination. They have increased my ability to feel a range of emotions that would have escaped me otherwise. For instance, by listening to both Nanda Malini and Madonna, I am a different woman than my mother, who only listens to Nanda Malini, or another girl of my generation who only listens to Madonna. The tough side of it is, for a long time, I was torn between the two. Not only were they from two cultures, two value systems, two different worlds, they were two extremely different ways of being woman. Invariably they appear on polar opposites and seem absolutely un-reconcilable. I don’t know if I could ever put the two together, but at least, in my head, they are both there, together.  And like many extreme opposites, at some point, they meet.

In case you wonder why on earth I think that this is even worth writing about, let me put it this way. We, in the end, are the books we read, the music we listened to, the cartoons and films we watched, people we loved, and the God we believed in as children. And these identity formers affect generations, not just individuals. I find it easier to understand others when I understand myself better, and I understand myself better, when I understand where I come from. I just thought, because men often complain that women are difficult to understand, it’s worth exploring.

So here’s the trick for any man who wants to figure me out as a woman: Listen to Nanda Malini and Madonna. You got me. It’s as simple as that. 😉

The Nestorian Cross

A colleague I had worked with sometime back dropped into see me this evening at my office. I was delighted to see Kalle. Usually, when projects finish, people forget you. When you no longer profit them in some way or the other, they no longer have time for you. Kalle dropped in at around one o’clock to say Hi – and probably to find out how I’m faring under the regime, whether I’m still red or blue – and our chat continued till five. I know him to be an old foot of the left, with whom I have plenty of ideological common ground.
I can’t quite say how Kalle ended up telling me about a parents’ meeting at his daughter’s school – it must be the first time we ever refered to something personal – but I found out that his daughter is a Sirimavian. His description of the meeting rang a bell. Aha! I told Kalle about how I ended up in Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya for the last two years of my schooling. Kalle immediately gasped that there’s no trace of a Sirimavian in me.

Indeed. I am not much of a Sirimavian. I just had to meet Kalle to realise that!

Should you care to read here’s the story. At least Kalle found it interesting… 🙂

I turned six in Nineteen Eighty Six, when bombs were popping-up around the corner every now and then like a carnival in town. Colombo was totally unsafe terrain. Our red brothers, probably Kalle could tell you more about them, were bleeding our streets with tyre-pyers. That was when my very young single mother had to decide all alone which school to send me to. She couldn’t think of sending me to a Colombo school, and so my mother saved me from a life-long complex, or perhaps replaced it with another one. Maybe she thought it is better to be at least Convent-educated if not Colombo-educated. And so I ended up in a small town convent school of 800 students, run by Roman Catholic nuns. Not to mention that my home town is home to hard-core Buddhists. I don’t know how my poor mother had the sense to make such a decision but I thank the Lord in Heaven that she did. She probably thought it was the practical thing to do, because she could just walk with me to school.
If anyone’s interested in a colourful account of my Sister Principal Mary Dhammika – bless her soul – read the story Silent Night, Whispering Night. She was a character. Our Catholic nuns were Victorian Virgins Par Excellence. But in that small town back in the Eighties they were less classist, and more inclusive in many ways than their counterparts in Colombo. For one, it was a convent full of Buddhists. And poor Anglicans were way down in the hierarchy than us. Of course, I never made it to Shakespeare competitions, because no one in my small school knew that such a thing existed, but still that convent gave me enough drama to get out of my shell.

Twelve solid years of that Roman Catholic education and I find that I have to do two more in Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya Colombo Seven. So there I am. No more Hallelujas. No more Hail Marys. I walk in from the gate and a gigantic, blindingly white Buddha greets me. In Sirimavo we call our teachers ‘Madam’. In our convent we just called them Teacher. So instead of Shanthi teacher and Doris teacher and Sister Celine, we had Ekanayaka Madam and Kulasooriya Madam. The madams wore Kandyan Sarees mostly. The Monday morning assemblies were long drawn sermons of how Sirimavo makes “Kula Kaanthawan” out of us poor souls. Literally, Ladies of High Caste, meaning Ladies of High Class in a more Sinhala Buddhist sense. Not that things were so much better in the convent school. There we were supposed to grow up to become Mothers or Nuns. I’ve grown up to become neither, but at least I appreciate having a choice.

I had quite forgotten about it, but in Sirimavo, I started wearing a cross. It was a small Nestorian Cross of silver tinted metal. We couldn’t wear chains or anything so I attached it to my wrist watch. For me it must have been a cross of nostalgia. But I recall how it drew attention. Many ‘madams’ noticed the cross, and asked me if I am Christian. I said I wasn’t but I was from a convent school. I remember the puzzeled look they gave me.

Looking back, I can see how clearly I had enjoyed that opportunity to slap that identity marker across their faces. I can’t fathom what they must have thought of me. I couldn’t care less. Even today.

I didn’t understand what I was going through back then but it must have been a culture-shock. The distance between the teachers and students, the quality of that relationship, the unbridgable difference between a nativity play and a pirith mandapa, left me bedazzled. Now please, Sirimavo is a great school. I mean no disrespect. It has taught me as much as the convent and perhaps more. But I realise it had been painfully Sinhala-Buddhist to me. Even more chronic than our Catholic convent. I remember one madam saying, ‘we don’t want to make good doctors, we want to make good mothers’. Sirimavo, named after the first woman prime minister of the world, that aspired to manufacture high-caste mothers. How ironically Sinhala Buddhist is that?

It was suffocating. It was insular. It was pedantic. Parochial. Paranoid. To be there in that environment devoid of music or culture. It kills creativity and gears you up for 4 A’s.

I never understood any of this then. Perhaps it is good that I didn’t. I just wore a Nestorian Cross for two years. Silently. Only answering when an explanation was called for. All I knew was that I found it difficult to fit in and I missed my old nunnery. I missed the carols and the nativity plays and the English Days. So I thought it was just nostalgia, that cute little Nestorian cross. It had nothing to do with faith. Or dissent.It was something I did unconsciously, almost.

But Kalle tells me it is, indeed, dissent. I don’t know if he’s right. I guess so. I have no recollection of wearing that Nestorian Cross after I left Sirimavo. I can’t ever remember giving it a second thought until today.

But I confess I love crosses. The three petal Nestorian beauty being my favourite. They discovered a most delicately chiselled Nestorian cross I posted above in Anuradhapura. From 5th century AD, if I remember my facts right. I love this cross as much as I love the Avukana Buddha.

I haven’t worn or owned a crucifix since I left Sirimavo. Perhaps I still carry one, invisibly, who knows. It certainly isn’t a cross of faith, though.

A cross is the most powerful symbol in the world.

To date, I stare, every time I see one.