Many years ago, during my advertising days, while feverishly working on a presentation, I heard someone playing a Tamil song on his portable recorder at the far end of my office.
Usually, it would have made me irritable and I would have probably shouted out loud to shut off the damn thing. But this time, I found the music refreshing.
And by the second song, I was shouting out loud to raise the volume. The songs were from a movie called Roja and the composer was Allah Rakha Rahman.
A few years later, Bharat Bala had come to my office, looking for a sponsor for his Vande Mataram. We were too junior to enter the conference room but I remember standing outside and listening to a song I had grown up listening to.
Rahman’s version gave me gooseflesh. On the pretext of feeling unwell, I took off from office and went to Lodi Gardens and just sat around doing nothing. The song had left a powerful impact on me and I wanted to detach myself from the world for a bit.
Flashforward to Nepal. I was caught in a sticky situation. There were reports in the press about a leading Indian actor making a derogatory statement about the Nepalese. This had triggered off riots.
I was seven hours away from Kathmandu, in the interiors. We were ordered to evacuate immediately. There was chaos all around.. the situation was tense.
It was 10 pm when I was asked to board a pick-up truck carrying dried fish. The smell was so nauseating that I had to sit down to steady myself. The driver looked like Conan the Barbarian.
That night, as I left in the smelly pick-up truck, I was not sure if I would see the light of day. Various options crossed my mind — should I jump off or tell the driver I was unwell? I wasn’t feeling well but should I try to get off, I wondered. Then the magic happened.
I heard the opening strains of Rahman’s Kehna hi kya from the film, Bombay. The cassette was playing and suddenly, the driver looked less ominous.
Even the fish did not smell so bad. In that not-so-ordinary situation, Rahman’s music calmed me the way I’m sure it had done to millions of listeners over the years.
The music played all through the night because I think that was the only cassette the driver had. He played it constantly to avoid falling asleep on the mountain road. I don’t remember when I dozed off.
When I woke up, it was a brilliant morning. The truck took me straight to the airport. As I got off, I told the driver that I was a Rahman fan and that it had been lovely listening to the soundtrack all night.
I offered him money for bringing me safely to the airport. He smiled, showing off big, tobacco stained teeth, and said in broken English, “No money, I Rahman fan too.”
It’s incredible to know that music can bring two strangers to this level of relationship, where money is not a deciding factor.
I have met Rahman only once, at Javed Akhtar’s birthday party Vinod Chopra introduced us. I shook his hand. I wanted to tell him so much.. but I ended up saying not a word. But I’ve always wanted to thank him for that night in Nepal. And finally I got the chance. Jai ho!