Kavita Das | Longreads | February 2019 | 27 minutes (6688 words)
New York City, 1980
Mommy and I had a deal. On our twice-a-week, 45-minute drive to speech therapy, I practiced singing South Indian Carnatic songs, the ones she grew up playing on the violin, and on the way back I was allowed to listen to anything I wanted. So, as soon as we hit the road from our house, she prompted me to begin with sa-pa-sa. Sa is the equivalent of do, the starting note in Western classical solfege, and pa the equivalent of sol, the fifth note above do. Singing these fifth intervals helped ground me in my pitch before I began any song.
Once that was done, Mommy picked from songs she had already taught me during previous car trips, or began a new one. She quizzed me on which raga, or key, it was in, and then we sang the scale of that raga together. Unlike Western keys, ragas might have different ascending and descending scales, which struck me as hazardous. Even if I knew my way up the mountain, taking the same path down might send me careening into a ravine of shame. Then, she began tapping out the talam, or the time signature, on the steering wheel of her deep blue Chevy Horizon hatchback, while navigating through traffic, and I followed along, tapping it out on my thigh or on the vinyl seat next to me. I began to sing. When I forgot a lyric or the melody, she piped up and sang alongside me, and then chided, “Start again and this time concentrate, and sing it correctly.”
We went from one song to the next as we made our way from our home in Bayside, Queens to Albert Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx, driving over highways, crossing bridges, stopping at lights, paying tolls. Sometimes we arrived at speech therapy mid-song, and then afterwards, when we got back in the car, instead of switching to my choice, per our deal, Mommy made me finish the song first, which meant I only got to my music when we were halfway home. So, I learned to gauge how close we were to the medical center and speed up my singing so that the end of the Carnatic song coincided with our arrival. This way, the whole car ride back was just for my music.
As soon as we were back in the car, our seat belts fastened, I popped in my favorite tape. It was “The Ultimate Engelbert Humperdinck,” one of the only non-Indian music albums my parents owned, by the first Western musician I was allowed to listen to. I loved everything about him and his music. He spoke to me, an almost-5-year-old who felt she already knew a thing or two about the world — having visited India, Japan, Hawaii, and New Jersey; not to mention endured the pain of multiple surgeries and the monotony of speech therapy for a cleft palate, and the loneliness of being an only child, who was not so much misunderstood as not understood, receiving quizzical looks whenever I spoke. He knew me and cared deeply for me — it was all there in the beautiful lyrics of his songs, and in the way he crooned them just to me. His voice oozed with feeling. It was as smooth and sweet as the caramel squares my grandfather loved so much that he asked me to climb a chair and sneak up to the candy box and fetch him some more.
My absolute favorite song off the tape was Killing Me Softly. Listening to it, I felt as if I was all grown up, sitting in the audience at a small café. I was the person he sang about, who comes undone by the lovelorn songs of a soulful troubadour. I sang out with abandon, the windows down, drowning out city noises. Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song, killing me softly. My mother continued to drive as I sang my little girl heart out all the way back to Queens.
I had named my dearest possession after him — my nubby pale blue woven blankie, which stayed steadfastly at my side as I played, before I carried it to bed each night, and which in turn carried me to my dreams. And when my 5th birthday rolled around, and preparations were being made for my party, I instructed my mother to invite Engelbert Humperdinck. My mother assured me that an invitation had been sent to him in England, where he lived and where my parents used to live before they migrated to the U.S. I was so excited, I ran around our basement swinging from the foundation poles, which usually served as the villains I lassoed as Wonder Woman. I could barely believe that in just a few days, Engelbert Humperdinck — I always called him by his full name — would be here in our basement. I wondered what to wear. None of my Indian stuff. Perhaps my powder blue shift and jacket, trimmed with white faux fur. It made me look like a lady, just like the long silk gowns my mother had gotten stitched for me in India. My powder blue number was a hit when I wore it in Japan — while we were snapping photos of the sights and surroundings, Japanese young women were asking my parents if they could snap photos of me in the photo-finish outfits Mommy bought, hand-stitched, or had tailored for me.
I decide that when he arrived, I would give him the frosted flowers from atop my Carvel ice cream cake, a token of my selfless love and admiration. I hoped he would sing Close to You — my second most favorite song, with perfect lyrics for celebrating me as the birthday girl. On the day that you were born the angels got together, And decided to create a dream come true, So they sprinkled moondust in your hair of gold and starlight in your eyes of blue. Well, hair of black and eyes of brown, but I still believed he meant me since Engelbert Humperdinck himself was no blonde-haired blue-eyed being.
I had taken out the album liner notes from the plastic cassette case so often to stare at the two jacket photos of him that the case had broken. He had a head of shiny blue-black hair that cascaded in waves over his smiling face, culminating in two sturdy pillars of sideburns. It reminded me of Daddy’s hair. Unlike Daddy, though, he didn’t have a mustache, which meant he wouldn’t scratch me when he kissed me on the cheek. His nose was pointy, but not too pointy, and his honey brown eyes seemed to twinkle at me like stars from the nursery rhymes I’d learned seemingly so long ago. Now that I was a 5-year-old, I had graduated from nursery school to kindergarten, from nursery rhymes to love ballads, and from imaginary play friends to real-life music idols. I imagined us holding hands, going to the park, and, of course, singing duets together. And sheepishly I wondered if maybe, when I grew up, we could get married. When Mommy and Daddy weren’t around, I pressed my lips against his in the jacket photo, the way I had seen grownups do in TV shows. I never saw any of the Indian uncles and aunties do it, but I knew it was something other grownups — white and Black — did when they loved someone. When I closed my eyes to make a wish, I sometimes focused on a Barbie doll, but other times I hoped for the chance to kiss Engelbert Humperdinck for real.