Dear reader,

Badminton courts in Indian apartment complexes are reserved for cricket and cultural programmes. There’s one under my balcony, which means there hasn’t been a single Independence Day morning in the last five years on which I haven’t been jolted awake. My fellow dwellers do everything short of a parade on that badminton court. A fairly normal occurrence. I’ve no qualms about a bit of celebration; except the militant use of a microphone in a closed area.

Last week, after a long time of waking up to “check check hello” or piercing audio feedback, I woke up instead to the sound of my own alarm. They had turned the volume down! I wondered if anything else had changed. I listened for a minute.

“And now, we call upon the Nightingales of Surabhi [Apartments] to sing for us.”

Nope, nothing had changed.

The Nightingales of Surabhi is not a group that voluntarily called itself that. They’re just three or four residents, women – probably trained singers – who sing Vande Mataram together on August 15. It’s just how the genteel presenter (always the same man) has chosen to introduce them over the years.

And then the children sing. And then the children dance. Quite sweet when you take out the explosive opening.

About twelve years ago, I was one of the children thrust to the forefront of these celebrations. Before the Nightingales, it was pubescent teenage boys singing Vande Mataram in white kurtas – and not particularly well. At one point it got all presidential too: I gave a speech written by somebody else. What a rush.

Based on our raging success, we were enlisted for Republic Day performances as well. We’d expanded from the original line-up too. We went on the road briefly, shuttling between between A block and B block, even putting in some sessions on the terrace. The weariness of this endeavour was neutralised by our fame and success. We took risks. Sometimes we even sang in denim jeans.

But in the haze of independence movement history, we ignored the lessons of several rock and roll stars. Risks are only rewarding when they haven’t lapsed into downright arrogance. Deciding to sing Sare Jahaan Se Achcha was that lapse for us. It was far and out of our comfort zone.  But if that decision set us up for trouble, then the unanimous agreement that one of us would play the piano was all but the death knell. Because this decision came on the day of the performance.

Unlike the Nightingales, no one in our group was actually a trained singer. A predicament, but not a disaster. But one line into the song, we learnt for the first time that our pianist wasn’t trained either.

A song, like any form of writing, is meant to tell a story. When I look back at the sequence of things that day, the story we told was this:

Sare jahan se acha, this incompetent piano solo

Ain’t nothing better in the world than watching an incompetent piano solo. More than a decade later, this is a story I would pay to hear. But at the time, it was the end of an era. The piano was so woefully off key that there was no way we could have continued singing. So we stood together in attention, by his side, and waited for the abomination to end. We’d unwittingly opened a market for the Nightingales.

But the moment was probably most excruciating for the pianist – he hadn’t exactly planned to debut as a solo performer that day. The attention of the audience and the indignation of his buddies must have weighed heavy. We didn’t even get pity claps at the end of it, something I’ve never witnessed again.

I hope he was able to move past it. A below average pianist, but an all-round talented guy, who was good at badminton. If only we’d had a venue for that .


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