I first listened to a Leonard Cohen song at home – when my mother sang ‘Suzanne’. She sang it as she moved around the house, in that soft melodious voice that so wonderfully suits those English songs she first heard when she was young and now sings from memory — and I can still see Amma emerging from the half-darkness of the passageway (that led to the two rooms at the back) into the bright light of the drawing room, singing “and the sun poured down like honey | on our lady of the harbour…” as I sat on one of the sofas in the room, continuing to do what I was doing even as I listened to those lovely words with half an ear.
Some time later, I would go on to listen to Cohen himself singing ‘Suzanne’, his deep, distinctive, scratchy voice made even scratchier by the dust that had settled in the grooves of the old LP my mother owned. A couple of years later, Cohen would become part of my routine at college — his husky voice now emerging from the laptop on my desk as I drifted off to sleep. Later still, I would travel alone (for want of a like-minded companion) to listen to him sing live in Minneapolis, one of the venues he played as part of his long and final tour, a tour forced on him by his dire financial situation but one he learned to love and embrace as it went on and he witnessed the many rapturous and heartfelt receptions he was given.
It’s been a number of years now since we moved out of our house on the IISc campus. We live now in our “own house”, which is a lot larger and has both an upstairs and a downstairs. My room is upstairs, and is where I spend most of my time. Amma, on the other hand, spends most of her time downstairs. Things have changed: we now have a cook (who also plays housekeeper and with whom and whose family we’ve formed a bond) and Amma spends most of her time doing the Sudoku and the crossword, reading her Kindle, indulging in the odd game of Mahjong or Solitaire, and playing the piano. She moves about the house less these days – there is no reason to – and while she may occasionally recall an old favourite song, it is very rare to hear her singing like she used to. Very occasionally, my father brings her a thesis that needs to be copyedited, a task she devotes herself to with a conscientious diligence that comes naturally to her. Her evening routine has also changed. She now goes for a walk with her “new” friends, friends from the IISc she has got to know better upon moving here. It is a daily ritual she revels in – and one that gives her the opportunity and luxury to eat the several snacks and sweets she enjoys.
(To be fair, the singing hasn’t stopped completely, but if she sings nowadays, it is as part of her ‘music class’ – a session where she and some friends spend an hour learning some ‘devi stuti’ or the other and about an hour-and-a-half savouring each other’s cooking and chatting about mundane matters.)
To tell the truth, I cannot remember the last time Amma sang ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Tambourine Man’ – a most favourite song and one I first heard because Amma sang it – or ‘Five Hundred Miles’, another old favourite and my introduction to the wonderful music of Peter, Paul and Mary. However, I occasionally hear her humming and singing one of her old tunes and once in a while, I sit down on the end of the sofa (her sofa really) whose other end she’s at and play a song on my phone, one I know she’ll enjoy – and am suitably pleased when she responds to the cue, looking up from her crossword or Kindle with a smile and often singing along.
I know if I asked her why she’s stopped singing or pester her to start again, she would say ‘I’m old, Madhava’; and I would contest the matter and a needless argument might break out. So I won’t. After all, one can sing only when one feels like singing – and perhaps Amma just isn’t inclined to these days. Also, old or not, she is certainly growing older and her enthusiasm has switched gears and moved towards other things – like the piano, an instrument she’d always wanted to learn and first began learning almost twenty years ago; that she gave up (for reasons I don’t remember) after some three or four years; that she returned to some three years ago after a prolonged break; that she got better at again in those three years, even venturing to learn “Für Elise” upon my request; and that she has just recently been forced to stop playing because of a minor dislocation in her thumb, the result of a freak fall.
In this time of COVID-19, Amma is waiting on two operations. One for her thumb – which isn’t mandatory but that is likely help in the long run – and the second for a cataract in her left eye (the right one already being done), an operation that was to have happened yesterday but has now been postponed indefinitely.
When during my bath today, I suddenly remembered the essay I wrote after Cohen’s passing in 2016 and thought of sharing it, I hadn’t thought to write all this much. It occurred to me to simply write an introductory line or two and then share that essay. But I began – and this is what came of it. And perhaps it is only fitting, because, really, without Amma there would likely be no Leonard Cohen – nor a concert and a remembrance.
“And she shows you where to look
among the garbage and the flowers…”
Leonard Cohen — A Remembrance
(written on November 13, 2016)
It seems like so long ago, but there was a time in college when I looked forward to doing the laundry so I could come back to my room (on 4th Burton) and listen to my collection of Leonard Cohen’s songs as I folded a couple-of-weeks worth of clothes. In fact, there were times I wouldn’t have to even “turn on” the playlist – for it was to that very playlist that I’d have fallen asleep the last night (and the night before and perhaps the night before that too…).
It was a comforting, pleasant feeling – meticulously folding my clothes in the mellow, yellow light of the lamp by my bed as Cohen’s voice sang his songs in the sequence that had become so familiar. (It’s been years now since I listened to that collection, but I seem to remember that the first song was “Suzanne,” the second “Take This Waltz” and the third “The Stranger Song”; each having played some 400-odd times.)
Cohen was also why I put out my first (and only) public announcement in the NNB (Noon News Bulletin) – where I asked if there was anybody else who’d bought tickets to his Minnesota concert on the 2nd of May, 2009. (Two people responded, but were unfortunate enough to miscalculate the date.) I, however, was lucky enough to go and see him perform. While the experience was a little underwhelming (for one, it would have been nice to have had a fellow-fan; for another, I didn’t care so much for the orchestra-versions of his solo songs), his enthusiasm on stage belied his age; his voice had its famous husk; and his fedora beautifully capped his wise, impish, bejowled face. (I bought a fedora, of sorts, in the markets of Delhi some two years ago. It remains a prized possession.)
I haven’t, in recent years, listened to him like I used to, but I still remember those college days fondly – and the frissons of happiness that I felt sometimes as I sailed on the waves of his music and poetry. He was, with Yeats, one of my first-favourite English-language poets.
So – since it’s hard to pick a Cohen-favourite, I’ll offer two. The first one is “Take This Waltz“, a musical rendering of Cohen’s magnificent “transcreation” of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Spanish poem. The second is “If It Be Your Will“, a genuine masterpiece, a lyrically-charged hymn for the ages.
P.S: For the interested, here is a playlist (that I mean to continue updating) of Cohen’s songs.