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. 😉