Nothing Rhymes With Rhythm
When a place is more than a place
It’s been a long (very long?) time since the last time one of these appeared in your inbox and I sincerely apologise for this hiatus. I make no excuses, except that life and its increasingly frequent tribulations came in the way. I haven’t written anything much all this time, except tidbit poems that I am too shy (ashamed?) to share here or anywhere. However, I’m really excited about this newsletter edition. We have our first guest post! Ever since I started this Substack project, I have been trying to get many of my friends to write here and I’m so happy that one of them has finally agreed.
I have known Advait for a fairly long time. I first read Advait’s writing on Quora. He had compiled a list of his favourite movies of the year and I marveled at two things - at how diverse the list was, and how astute his observations were. Advait is a gifted writer. Reading his reviews and essays on films, lovingly curated on his blog, has been a real education for me. Somehow we exchanged email IDs and over the last decade or so, constructed a friendship entirely over long email threads. These usually started with a casual - ‘hi boss, long time!’ and then quickly shifted into discussing stuff we had watched and read over time.
It won’t be a stretch to say that I wholly owe Advait my love and insatiable hunger for films. Back when my ambit only included Bollywood fare and action films, he was watching and writing about movies from all over the world. From Advait, I learned to sample cinema from a much larger tapestry. I freely borrowed his scope and it has served and saved me much over the years. Advait taught me that movies need not only be watched, they could also be felt, pondered and mused over. He basically gave me a new pair of eyes.
I don’t quite know why I haven’t met Advait yet IRL. But, I am sure I’ll correct this mistake soon. We’ll probably go to one of the Irani cafes in Kala Ghoda and bond over some Brun Maska. Multiple glasses of chai will be consumed. It will be time to shut the cafe down for the day, but it’ll seem like our conservation only just started.
Here’s Advait’s beautiful piece on a place close to his heart. It’s honest and full of longing and nostalgia. I hope you’ll love it as I did.
There was always something rather peculiar about recommending a visit to Rhythm House to someone. I would never ask my friends visiting Bombay for the first time to head to this small music store in the heart of Kala Ghoda. It was always, ‘Go to Cafe Mondegar, shop at Colaba Causeway, eat an ice-cream sandwich at K Rustom,’ and do this and that, and then, almost like an afterthought, ‘Oh, if you’re going to be in that area, you might as well pay Rhythm House a visit.’
And it was the same when my father would drive us down from the suburbs to Kala Ghoda on Sundays. We would discuss where to eat and shop and stroll and sit. Someone—usually my father—would invariably say at some point during the trip: ‘Let’s go and see what Rhythm House stocks these days.’
No plan of ours ever revolved around going to Rhythm House. But dropping in was always on the memo.
I remembered this detail last week while watching Megha Ramaswamy’s lovely “The Last Music Store.” The forty-minute documentary traverses, through conversations with its staff, the store’s seventy-year-old history. But Ramaswamy doesn’t linger on its roots; rather, she pieces together a holistic picture of the place mainly through anecdotes. Like its patrons, its staff too remember the place differently: while Nutan Fernandes, one employee, recounts brushes with celebrities in the old days, Shekhar Nandodkar, another employee, remembers a customer who has been coming to the store for twenty-seven years. Ramaswamy collects these discrete memories and strings them together to give us a vibrant and poignant picture of what we let slip through our fingers.
A thousand songs and movies at our fingertips but still an immutable sense of loss persists.
My father’s association with the store began in the ‘80s when he was a student at the Sir J. J. College of Architecture, long before the country came into her own. Back in those days, he says, Rhythm House had a music booth. It piqued this young chap’s curiosity enough for him to want to see the booth for himself. Gradually it became a habit: whenever he had some time to kill, he would loiter about the store. One time he chanced upon a cassette of the Grammy-winning songs of that year. A real discovery, he thought, and a steal. But when he put the cassette on after getting home, he realised that it actually contained not the original songs but their covers. So he took it back the next day and explained his mistake to the person manning the counter. The person—he cannot remember who it was but reckons it was Mehmood Curmally, the store’s owner—took the cassette and put it aside. ‘Pick anything else you like,’ he said simply. And that was that. My father remembers this incident with affection.
The staff, I would learn later, had their own ways. The pleasure of browsing stacks and stacks of CDs and DVDs aimlessly is a rare one, afforded only to the fortunate, and the staff left us to it. Perhaps it was never so much about making a ‘sale’ as it was about revelling in the joy of finding something intriguing, taking it home, and unpacking its many facets over the next few hours by blasting the radio at full volume. My father remembers only one instance where Nandodkar asked him, with impeccable courteousness that was characteristic of the store’s staff, whether he'd be interested in one of their original compilations featuring the late Veena Sahasrabuddhe, the esteemed Hindustani classical vocalist who finds a mention in the documentary. (We still have that compilation) Other times we were left at the mercy of their collection, as we should have been.
When my parents were dating, they went to the store together, separating for a few hours as they explored different aisles. My mother liked Hindi film music and stationery; my father pored over every aisle. They wouldn’t talk to each other until they reunited near the counter a little while later, each armed with their own picks. This habit continued even after they got married. Sometimes after leaving the store the young, broke couple would cross the road and stand outside Khyber Restaurant to admire its rustic luxuriousness. My mother remembers thinking that someday they would walk into Khyber Restaurant and have a meal there.
They did, when I was fourteen. Later, we popped into Rhythm House to review their new stock. Even on the day an item got crossed off a bucket list, we couldn’t do without visiting the store.
My memories of the store are not tied to music. I was more interested in the movies they kept, and they kept a fabulous collection. On one of the trips I picked up the DVDs of Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s “Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro” and Ramesh Sharma’s “New Delhi Times.” Another priceless find was Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s “Khamosh,” a murder mystery starring Naseeruddin Shah and Amol Palekar that played at the Regal briefly in ’85 for which my father and his friends skipped a couple of classes. Memorably, Chopra, having failed to persuade film distributors, had released the film himself in only one theatre in Bombay, the Regal, and here it was, twenty-seven years later, resting idly in one of the aisles at Rhythm House, about half a kilometre from the Regal. We quipped that perhaps nobody outside that 500-metre radius has seen that brilliant, brilliant film. We revisited it and a few others over the weekend and wondered where our collection of cassettes got to.
At the beginning of the documentary we are asked to consider what the store and its people went through over seventy-odd years: a spate of terrorist attacks, two spells of major communal riots, the assassination of a prime minister. Cycles of violence and madness. At one point Mehmood Curmally touches upon the time when they had to take the CDs featuring Pakistan artistes off the shelves lest the store come under scrutiny. With changing technology and tastes, the staff had to keep up with bitter changes in politics, too. But it weathered the harshest storms, so to speak, only to be foiled by piracy.
The shutters came down on Rhythm House in 2016; the word got out a few months prior. We made plans to go, though an earlier obligation prevented me from making that trip. The final stock was selling at a discount—the ‘Goodbye Sale’. I suppose old patrons like my parents went to reclaim the place for the final time, or simply to enquire if something can be done. But the nub of the matter remained—and remains—this: for how long would Rhythm House have held out? It had fought a long, lonely battle against piracy. Even if piracy was contained (which, in India, would be a significant feat), it would have stood no chance against the mighty corporations offering music and streaming services that came in hordes and scuffled amongst themselves for our attention, and who spoiled us by making music and movies so cheaply available that even the sceptics among us were obliged to sign up. I took time to face up to the truth and took heart in the fact that Rhythm House chose to bow out with dignity. It wasn’t coming back.
We still drive to South Bombay a few times every year and do the same things we always did. When we pass by Rhythm House, our heads turn in unison to check if the shutters are still down. And then one of us invariably wants to know whether they are going to open it again. After all this time there is still hope.
Reads (long or not)
Sticking with the theme of Advait’s piece, I want to recommend this beautiful longread about a centuries-old butcher shop seeing the world around it change - The butcher's shop that lasted 300 years (give or take).
This by Riddhi Dastidar is a stunning and sublime personal essay of the highest order. These always stop you in your tracks, and give you a warm blanket, shared realities notwithstanding - My Jackie: On Yellowjackets and a Missing Friend.
I read Adrian Tome’s darkly comic and real graphic novel - Killing and Dying and absolutely loved the hell out of it. I think fans of Bojack Horseman will dig Tome’s humour. And even otherwise, it’s well worth a run through.
I remember really falling for the charm of Ritesh Batra’s second movie in his ‘loneliness’ trilogy - Our Souls at Night and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was based on a short novel by Kent Haruf. Haruf places all his books in a fictional small town and infuses his characters with keen humanity. His sparse prose is pitch-perfect. Maybe it was just the time I was reading the book, but it broke me and made me whole and I was better for it.
If you haven’t already, do watch the Daniels’ latest wonderfully whimsical and almost deeply profound movie - Everything Everywhere All at Once. The entire cast is superb, but oh boy, Michelle Yeoh is every kind of awesome.
The Windshield Viper won the Oscar for Best Nominated short this year and is available to watch on Youtube. I was very moved by its kaleidoscopic presentation of love and gorgeous 2D animation style.
Vishal Katariya raved about this video on How to Be Alone and I finally checked it out after it lying in my downloads folder for many months. I won't say much about it except that claims about it being one of the greatest YouTube videos aren’t unfounded at all.
Ivan Ayr is one of my favourite directors working in India. His first feature film Soni was brilliant and is totally a must-watch. Ayr then followed up with Meel Patthar (Milestone), a slow burning meditative film about a truck driver named Ghalib. Go figure.
My post-rock phase continues and I’ve been continuously listening to aswekeepsearching, an Indian post-rock band. If you had to listen to two of their songs, make it Kalga and The Tattva.
I quite liked the songs Jhonka and Batohi from the soundtrack of the third season of Gullak.
This sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay took my breath away.
“Time does not bring relief; you all have lied”
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied Who told me time would ease me of my pain! I miss him in the weeping of the rain; I want him at the shrinking of the tide; The old snows melt from every mountain-side, And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane; But last year’s bitter loving must remain Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide. There are a hundred places where I fear To go,—so with his memory they brim. And entering with relief some quiet place Where never fell his foot or shone his face I say, “There is no memory of him here!” And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
I had the good fortune of visiting the Dali Theatre and Museum in a small town called Figueres in Spain recently. I saw a drawing I immediately recognized as a depiction of the Greek mythology tale of Saturn devouring his son. It took me back to Goya’s haunting take on the same legend that was apparently based on Ruben’s baroque painting of the same. The difference in style between the three is immediately apparent. I thought it’s cool.
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Do read Advait’s wonderful writing on his blog - these talkies gabble. Do you have a place that you do or used to flock to all the time? Do write back!