Late one night, nearly 10 years ago, I discovered that the Calcutta night sky is fiery red. Disregarding the mundane laws of optics, I had stayed up all night on the terrace, marvelling at the sky, at the stars whose names I would never learn, and looking down at the sleeping North Calcutta para. I have been nocturnal as long as I can remember. Growing up in a little town at the foot of the Himalayas, where people were more diurnal in nature, I would read till late at night by the light of my night-bulb. By the time I moved to the city, the night-bulb had been replaced by a more luminous light. Yet there would be nights when I would switch off the lights, go to the terrace, and sit there, imbibing the faint sounds, and weaving stories out of them. My septuagenarian neighbour would sleep with the radio on, and the faint notes of vintage music would waft in the autumnal night air. It was then, just as I was beginning to stay alone, that I began to associate music with the night.
Most of my favourite associations of the nocturnal with the musical have been in autumn and winter. Monsoons meant being locked indoors with power-cuts, and I had learnt to equate the sadness of confinement with Sultan Khan playing Desh on the sarangi. Etta James’s ‘Stormy Weather’, listened late one night a couple of years later, would take on a completely different meaning. And on one late autumn, I listened to Bach’s Mattheus Passion for nights on end from Martinstag until Christmas, relentlessly repeating the aria ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’. The seductive ‘Strawberries, cherries, and an angel’s kiss in spring’ sprinkled in Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Summer Wine’ made the long, heady, summer nights only that much more palpable and alluring.
Nights make one unapologetic and reckless, inducing a certain amount of flair and a debonair defiance. When Frank Sinatra sings,
‘We’d be sharing love before the night was through
Something in your eyes was so inviting
Something in your smile was so exciting
Something in my heart told me I must have you’
he makes sure that these two ‘lonely people’ are ‘Strangers in the Night’. For Ella Fitzgerald, it’s only the ‘Blue Moon’ that would shelter the heart-broken. For, the days and the seasons of the sun are for the boisterous achievers. The nights are subtle.
Like O’Henry’s short story, I have often wondered about the voices of the cities I’ve lived in or visited. On that bright afternoon when I was sitting at the Piazza San Marco, I heard a local band playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. By late night, after most of the tourists and the workers had returned to the mainland, I imagined that the music that would live on in the alleys of Venice would be, however, of an immigrant softly playing the Godfather theme ‘Speak softly love’ on his accordion, and a distant, discreet splash of a gondolier as he manoeuvred on the canal. Although Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina had written to her father that she could hear ‘La Vie en rose’ being played one night in Paris, the song that kept playing in my head when I had reached my hotel on the outskirts of the city, past midnight that autumn (yet again), was Sarah Vaughan’s 1954 version of ‘April in Paris’ with Clifford Brown on the trumpet, one that goes on for eight minutes. Ella’s I love Paris every moment of the year’ is just so diurnal, like those souvenir shops near the Eiffel Tower that only attract tourists. As Paris sunk in, the song that haunted my mind more starkly was Rod Stewart or Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong crooning ‘The nearness of you’. The version would depend on the Paris sky that night.
While driving through Tuscany late one full-moon night, I hummed ‘Killing me softly with his song’ (Roberta Flack’s version, of course), Don Mclean’s ‘And I love you so’ and ‘Starry, starry night’, Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’, Mme Edith’s ‘Non je ne regrette rien’ (and quite meant it), Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful tonight’, and rested my tired but contented mind with Doris Day’s version of ‘When I fall in love’. I rediscovered Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago in the heart of Schwarzwald when my friend and fellow-flâneuse found a wooden jewellery box which played the theme when its lid was opened; and the beautiful fall colours in the forest reminded me of Clapton’s soulful ‘Autumn Leaves’.
Yet, there are quiet nights, when you turn off the lights and listen quietly to Chopin’s Preludes, you think of such people as Rosemary Clooney and Fred Astaire, you travel with the ‘Rhinestone cowboys’, with Bobby Gentry, Glenn Campbell and Paul Anka, dream about Jamaican sunshine, of the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte, and know that the lady in you is a tramp, true-blue Lena Horne style. You move from Julie London’s ‘Days of wine and roses’ to ‘Cry me a river’, and end with ‘Around midnight’, ‘Twirl around’ with Mary Jane Carpenter, and travel to the top of the world with the Carpenter siblings. On certain nights Kenny Rogers willingly agrees to be ‘the knight in shining armour’ to his lady, and Perry Como catches a falling star while being a prisoner of love. On some nights you listen to Márta Sebestyén crooning beautiful songs in a language you do not understand, and marvel at the vastness of ‘La mer’, and finally accept ‘Le Tourbillon’. You listen to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, are wooed out of your comfort zone by Beethoven’s 9th and seek respite in Connie Francis singing ‘Die Liebe ist ein seltsames Spiel’, because Billie Holiday just sang ‘I’m a fool to want you’. For nights, like Chopin’s Nocturnes, are ubiquitous, come rain or come shine, and despite Al Bowlly singing ‘Guilty of loving you’ the nocturnal will never be acquitted of their clandestine addiction.
At dawn a few days ago, I was in the twilight zone between sleep and awakening. I did not want to rise and greet the glaring sunshine, and my mind suddenly crooned after many months,
‘I thought that love was just a word
They sang about in songs I heard
It took your kisses to reveal
That I was wrong, and love is real.’
La Vie en rose? Really?