January 19, 2020
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Outlook-Picador Non Fiction Contest 2002

Shillong, Bob Dylan And Cowboy Boots

The third-prize-winning entry -- a reflection on what Shillong's famed and unfussy love for western music implies for the city's self-perception ...

Shillong, Bob Dylan And Cowboy Boots
Shillong, Bob Dylan And Cowboy Boots
Every year in Shillong on a grey afternoon towards the end of May, a man in a crisp white shirt walks down to a busy main street in a neighbourhood called Laitumkhraj. He carries a guitar, shiny with use, in a black guitar case and walks with measured slowness; nothing, not the kongs huddled behind minute wooden cartons that house supplies of tobacco, kwai and cigarettes, nor the anxious crowd that throngs the pavement, awaiting a crowded city bus, nor the idle waiters from Kelsang, lounging outside the restaurant's dark doorway, cause the man to break the rhythm of his leisurely, swinging gait. He steps around puddles of afternoon rain without wetting his brown cowboy boots.

This year he could be on his way to the municipal swimming pool in the centre of town, one of the venues where Bob Dylan's birthday is annually celebrated through song. In twenty minutes he will be walking down to the large swimming pool, blue as ice and empty of swimmers, a surprisingly evocative setting for an evening of what will essentially be gentle music. For while Dylan will be performed with unrestrained passion, his feverish poetry will lose its growls and wit and wistfulness. It will evoke, instead, the languor of a pleasant evening in a small hill town, and lull the listener into a sense of serene timelessness.

Here, on a low cemented platform facing the pool, looking out at the small crowd standing around, talking, giggling, and at the wooded slope beyond, lush with a rain-fed green, Cowboy Boots with his trademark grey ponytail and effervescent style will lead the Dylan concert. A couple of well-known names, some just born boy bands, some solo women performers with remarkably resilient voices, some old friends from Calcutta -- all of these will join him to sing Bob Dylan numbers, songs of love, protest, mythology, warning or just plain sadness.

I never found this ritual exceptional till I came away from Shillong. For this is a ritual -- it isn't your Channel [V]-style rock music party. It is an unobtrusive ritual, though a couple of people will always get a little drunk and tentatively scream 'More!' It's not a concert that attracts hordes -- it has the sense of near-insignificance associated with a hundred people huddled in the front of a hall that can seat five times that number, listening to the same songs that they've heard sung in the same way as last year and the year before.

And yet, till I lived in that city, all of this seemed fine. You went to the Dylan concert to hear musicians you knew play songs you knew, and their obvious talent filled you with admiration and restlessness. It worked both ways -- the contained ambition of these singers, happy to be doing small things in a small town, filled one with a desperate desire to be elsewhere, to be someone else. And yet the power and belief in their voices, oblivious of the fact that they were, year after year, singing the songs of a man who was known for always being anxious to move on to the next thing, stilled you, taught you something.

But later, moving away from Shillong and meeting people who found an annual Dylan concert up in the hills utterly quaint, I began to wonder what an annual Dylan concert up in the hills actually counted for. What did Shillong's famed and unfussy love for western music imply for the self-perception of the people of this city?

Take Cowboy Boots. People recognise him on the streets -- if not by name, if not as someone they have seen perform, then as a familiar oddball, a man who's often seen walking around grinning, a man who is deliberately different. He is utterly irreverent, has a fantastic stage presence, sings rock and roll, does Chuck Berry-style shuffling duck walks. He is very local. He is often without work. He sings for money in the dimly lit lounges of three-star hotels on certain nights of the week.

In his own songs, Cowboy Boots writes about the small fry, the little man who gets conned by the big man, the guy who gets his head stuffed with education at school only to become a 'wiser fool'. His songs are full of general observations on love and sorrow and the big themes. He stands out as a pop musician, though, because he has developed a unique personal style. He has taken the flourish of pop music, the narcissism and whimsicality that it allows for, and grafted that onto his small town anonymity. To me there is pathos not in the songs themselves, which are not especially evocative or original, but in this sphere he inhabits, a sphere full of unrecognised contradictions. In order to sustain his pop musician image he needs to live in this private 'nowhere', this Oz that exists only in a dream.

For the minute Cowboy Boots acknowledges the peculiarity of being a western pop star, he will cease to be anything at all. While pop musicians in the west might be able to reflect on their situation and somehow connect their art to what is actually happening around them, should Cowboy Boots attempt to allow the outside world into his music -- its language, its noises, its problems -- he will lose his hold on the image he lives by. However much western pop music develops its own fictions and appearances, Cowboy Boots will always only reflect them. He is playing out the part of the showman who is playing out the part of a showman. He is a mirror within a mirror, a permanent fantasy, something that disappears on touch.

And that is why his music speaks to you only if you suspend disbelief, imagine away Shillong with its beauty and squalor, and think instead of a sanitised little world whose sorrows and joys are only universal and never particular. The audience for pop music participates equally in this act. Originality in music here never means more than writing your own songs. It doesn't mean questioning the idiom of western pop music. But originality even in this basic sense is boring, it turns people off. A student bemoaning the lack of originality in an article in Funk, a college music magazine, quickly realises he just might be asking for too much.  'After reading this article this far, there would be a lot of people saying, "What the hell is wrong with this guy? If he thinks he's so hot and oozing with creativity, let him go jam with Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan."'

So does it matter at all, this music, which is so much like the sounds Naipaul's Mr. Biswas hears in his inconsequential little neighbourhood, 'sounds thrown up at a starlit sky from a place that was nowhere, a cot on the map of the island, which was a dot on the map of the world.' But if each dot on the world's map functions according to its inner, inimitable logic, then pop music in Shillong, however derivative, expresses something about common sentiment.

It points to the confusions of identify that beset us all in some measure, but it also shows how a city like Shillong can make these contradictions seem not just acceptable but cute. Shillong has space for exotic individuals like Cowboy Boots. In many ways, it is a city of make-belief. You could sing nice cover songs at concerts all your life, make people happy, and bypass post-colonial angst. You could put on a cosmopolitan air here, for other cities in the region like Kohima and Aizawl are too provincial, Guwahati too alienatingly urban, and the rest of the country too far away. You could live there for twenty-five years, as I have -- loving its small-towns charms, chaffing constantly about not knowing your place in it -- and spend the rest of your life fighting nostalgia.

Shillong then is susceptible to the glamour and the seductions of pop music. People like Cowboy Boots are completely at home here. Here he can be a local celebrity while dreaming irrelevant dreams about global fame. For he actually wishes to do nothing to be that famous. He would be lost in New Delhi or New York. Here he can be bohemian in an unthreatening way, poke fun at Backstreet Boys, speak to strangers about the vegetables he grows. He can combine in himself so many things that are typical to Shillong -- the love of music, the small-town imperviousness to criticism, a certain innocence, a certain swagger...

But this also means that the stance of dissent in some of Shillong's music cannot be much more than a harmless posture. For those people who sing the blues, swear by Dylan, do rock and roll, adore Bob Marley, are not necessarily those likely to assert a point of view, question authority, reflect on their identify as artists. There might have been a larger culture of protest that produced singers like Dylan, and the Beatles got where they did because they spoke with daring confidence to an entire generation, but in Shillong pop music is still very much practised like a traditional art. There is no self-consciousness attached to it, no reflection. Its purposes might be important, but they are unexamined.

Pop music is performed with a tremendous enthusiasm and genuine joy. Yet because of its context it expresses a yearning distinct from that of western pop. It expresses the yearning for another life, a life revealed in luminous five minute flashes, a life that we can only experience vicariously, a life that we wouldn't know how to describe except that it seems to exist in the West. The differences between a Bob Dylan and a Bob Marley are irrelevant, they melt in that beautiful sadness we feel as soon as a guitar note is struck and this fantasy re-lived for the thousandth time.

Musicians, then, are friezes who come to life on stage and then disappear into the malaise of everyday life in Shillong. They play with rare spontaneity and skill, and you listen to them not to get a point of view on life in the city, but to escape it. For while there might be no real dissent in the music, all around us is more dissent than we can handle. On the streets of Shillong, protest is always so many things. Anxiety about the fragility of ethnic identities is expressed in diverse ways -- from murder to letters to the local newspaper editor. This is protest that constantly impacts on the lives of people, demanding of them fixed positions and points of view. Yet pop music does not reflect these anxieties -- it does not even reject them. It feeds off itself, off its own pleasures and poses.

Western music cannot enter this volatile world because the west is from where we derive the images we find desirable and wish to imitate. The west does not tell us how we should treat our neighbours or which ideals we ought to burn down shops for -- all it gives us is a greatly seductive style. And no other form of culture is as susceptible to style -- in the sense in which this word is opposed to substance -- as pop music. Maybe Marley was able to make style a function of an intellectual position. He had something to say about the Carribean's position in history, and he thereby put his own stamp on pop music. But take away this need to express something important, and all that pop leaves you with are memorable gestures.

Which is not to say that political agendas of themselves lend substance to art. On the contrary, the sense of community that forms the basis for protest and violence in Shillong, could actually be a rather restrictive thing. It is compelling and counts for a great deal, but it sets itself up as the last word on the question of who we are, when it is actually one of the many possible answers to that difficult question.

Take the case of my friend, Riti. Riti has never been on a train but her greatest aspiration is to have her children study outside the Northeast. Her parents belong to a generation that regarded all imports from the plains with awe -- from English-speaking Mems to pressure cookers. Riti thinks it a sign of great accomplishment if she can get her homely traditional kitchen to turn out something like fried noodles. Her uniqueness, the uniqueness of her position is worth chronicling, just like Cowboy Boots is important for what he reveals about Shillong. But these individual aspirations, which can only be described as modern, somehow get erased in general formulations about tribal identity, and art, which could fill this gap -- hold up a mirror to people's ambiguities and specificities -- fails to do so.

Hanif Kureishi writing about the Beatles phenomenon in his essay, 'Eight Arms to Hold You' describes what they represented to people of his generation in Britain. 'For most, this pleasure [of listening to the Beatles] lasted only a few hours and then faded. But for others it opened a door to the sort of life that might, one day, be lived. And so the Beatles came to represent opportunity and possibility. They were career officers, a myth for us to live by, a light for us to follow.'  The Beatles were able to upturn prevalent notions of what constituted 'culture' because they showed now it was possible to both be creative and have a good time, to both have something important to say and eschew pretensions to high art.

Shouldn't a singer who takes the risk of living entirely by an image of the 1960s western pop musician, who genuinely considers himself an artist, who displays a great deal of cheek and naughty humour, who sings with seductive charm, be the most sought after role model of Shillong's west-infatuated youth? But he isn't. His concerts are only attended by faithfuls, and are rarely sell-outs. I don't know how many young people would be able to identify his songs. He is recognised on the streets of Shillong less for his music, and more because he has great style.

Consider my friend Riti again. Who are her children's heroes?  People who have somehow 'made it', who have travelled abroad, who wear the right clothes, who speak good English. Riti desires financially secure futures for her children -- and never mind where the money comes from -- futures that are a whirl of lacy pink dresses and polished black boots, guitar-playing, child-bearing, church-going, house-building, money-making futures.

For music is fine sometimes, but you can't make a living out of it. I have known pop musicians to complain that their more distant relatives consider their chosen careers ludicrous. And yet, there is music everywhere and 'western' musicians of all persuasions -- elderly, mildly eccentric, men in Stetsons who run music schools where kids learn to play 'I am Sailing' on the guitar, middle-aged men from pop bands who work in government offices by day and jam with friends three nights a week, middle-aged women who play classical western piano and teach music in convent schools, screechingly loud boy bands, young honey-voiced women who sing solo or perform Christmas carols on the local television channel in December. Then there are people who just play music because it's part of their upbringing -- like the women in the neighbour's house when I was growing up, who would drift into carpeted drawing rooms and sit at the piano for a while playing something sweet and melancholy, and then sigh and get on with their unhappy lives.

And the west is near, and yet so far. Bob Dylan could be a local hero, the way devotees sing happy birthday to him each year. But despite these birthday parties, he will never age. The words of his songs will remain frozen in memory, Cowboy Boots will do Dylan-voiced imitations every 24th of May, while all around him life in Shillong ebbs and flows to the rhythm of some other, less audible music.

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