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  • Few things are as hard for me to translate as the memories of a classical music recital. What memorable performance or recording isn't, well, memorable, humbling, great? Or their superlatives -- breathtaking, leaving us apparently speechless? What does any of that tell me anyway, and what comes of saying that I really should have been there to experience it?

    But every now and then, like Nabakov suggests about reading, something seems to happen in the retellings. It may not happen in the second, or the third, or the tenth or fiftieth. But it does happen at some point, when you come to realize that you were there at the recital, that you knew the audience, the lighting, the hushes, and the moment the person in front nodded his head just a little in anticipation of the sam, the start of a cycle of beats in Indian classical music.

    I first chanced upon Ustad Amir Khan's Megh at a library in graduate school. Crystallography and materials science assignments were best tackled in a chair at the Braun Music Department library, with a pair of headphones and something to block the outside world. Amir Khan was a nonchalant volunteer in the proceedings at first, and became an inveterate co-narrator over time. The cycle would begin, Komal Rishab Asavari, Jog, Gujari Todi, Megh, and when it first looped, it was a collection of esoteric Raga names. With each retelling, the renditions shed their individual identities. They became at first, a well oiled soundtrack, and then, a part of my fabric.

    It wasn't my own bootlegged copy of a recording, or a rare 'house concert' recording that was not released. It didn't matter to me that the two-volume album, Taskeen, is a fairly popular Amir Khan album. It doesn't matter to me, listening to it over and over again now for seven years, that Amir Khan first sang this almost a decade before I was born. As far as I am concerned, I was there. I don't remember much of the crystallography problem sets but I do remember waiting for the moment when Amir Khan will suddenly stop singing, stare at his audience, his tabla accompanist, and then at nobody in particular as he says in Hindi,

    "Mooh pakadne ke liye
    Bahut se hamaare bhai log
    Talaash mein rehte hain ki
    Kahaan khaali aa jaye."

    A rough translation: "So many listeners in the audience just keep searching the music, waiting to catch me red-faced, when I slip on the beat."

    As with most translations, much has been lost.

    I didn't know that he was singing Megh, or what the taal, the beat cycle, was. But I was there when he said it. It was a personal memory, this dialog, from a perfectly well blended Amir Khan tale that only I knew. I imagine our fables are safely preserved in such fleeting and partial glances at history. Some years later, I heard him on the soundtrack of a Ritwik Ghatak movie with misplaced pride.

    These live recordings, I later learned were probably from an outdoor live session in Mumbai in the early 1970s. But I already knew my reality. Much like the spoils of a movie screenplay based on a novel, I feigned offence that someone should have to tell me what the atmosphere was. Komal rishab asavari jog gujari todi megh is a story that starts at a library in California and has traveled over seven years now. Amir Khan often sang just before a short bike ride to a class near the quad, and then over the years, he accompanied me on drives along the Central Expressway from Stanford to Sunnyvale in the San Francisco Bay Area. He sang on my rare day on the running track, while biking up Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. His renditions would reverberate when I stood stunned looking out at the loneliness of the city from my room in Teachers College in New York, and he jostled for space amidst traffic sounds in Chennai. He may have changed venues but it was always the same story, so well reproduced. It didn't matter that he was in New York or Chennai or San Francisco or in a car on a long two-line highway in the middle of everywhere. What remains from these recordings are not the words that he sings. The stories I carry forward are the ones Amir Khan has lived with me. Like Rebecca Solnit hints about artists, he has brought with him open doors, the unknown, the unfamiliar.
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