It’s a summer evening, my parents are out in the garden. She in her cotton saree, juhi buds wreathed into a gajra in her hair. He in his kurta pyjama, his thick black spectacles wedged firmly on his nose, his gin and lime idling in his hand. Music playing, always heavenly heady music. Maybe, a Vilayat Khan’s Khamaj, or a Bade Ghulam Ali’s Sainya Bolo, or a Bhimsen Joshi’s Chhaya Malhar. And she tells him about the song she had heard on the radio in the afternoon, how the dulcet call of O Sajna had spoken to her, how it had reached deep into her heart and made her tantalisingly aware of the love and longing that harboured within. And he smiles and nods, reaches for her hand and asks tenderly, “Lata, my dear, shall we buy the record?”

My father would often joke about how all we heard at home was Lata ki awaaz (Lata’s voice): his wife’s, whose word was incontrovertible law, and the singing diva’s, whose sway over listeners, us included, was unassailable. As I watched my parents’ love story grow, I revelled in the songs that nourished it, many of them in Lata Mangeshkar’s surreal voice. Yes, there were others as well, Saigal Sahab’s Main Kya Janu, Gham Diye Mustaqil, Rafi Sahab’s Tere Mere Sapne, Baharon Phool Barsao, many more, Talat Mehmood’s Jalte Hain Jiske Liye, many more of his too, but their numbers were dwarfed by the omnipresence and omnipotence of that matchless, flawless sur, the one that everyone said epitomized Saraswati herself. My Aai’s list of favourites was long, the stellar among them, Khemchand Prakash’s Ayega Aanewala, the most sublime of all Hindi film music; Jane Kaise Sapnon Mein and Kaise Din Beete, capturing the polar extremes of love’s vast domain and set in mesmeric melody by the maestro, Pt Ravi Shankar; Naushad Sahab’s Do Hanson Ka Joda, C Ramchandra’s Mohabbat Aisi Dhadkan Hai, and, of course, Salil Chowdhury’s O Sajna, Barkha Bahar Aai. 

As I grew older, I added the Madan Mohans and Jaidevs and Roshans and Burmans, father and son, to our list. As also the Marathi abhangs and bhavgeets from Shrinivas Khale and Hridaynath Mangeshkar. We would buy their records and play them one after the other. My Aai, who had lost her Aai when she was barely sixteen, would tell us how Lata Mangeshkar had guided her through life’s successive stages and experiences, given her the songs to celebrate the flush of romance, understand and respect the honour of commitment, throb with fulfilling love, be uplifted by humbling devotion, cherish the newborn in her lap, weep and be consoled upon loss and bereavement, and find peace for her thirsting soul. 

My music lessons had started chiselling my nazar, my critical appreciation of all sounds melodic, leading me to imbibe this from here and steer clear of that from there. And while Hindustani classical remained my steadfast preference, I also enjoyed Hindi film music, a different song for every different occasion, every mood, day and age. Their notes spoke to me like the words in a story, more than the lyrics themselves. And there were two schools to learn from, I discovered, one of Mohammed Rafi and the other of Lata Mangeshkar. I would listen to them both carefully, how they would enunciate every note and word and emotion in its perfectly exact measure, revealing love or pathos or reverence or merriment, but always just enough, neither underdone nor exaggerated. How their voices would glide effortlessly, taking a meendh here or a murki there, all kinds of taans too. And especially how Lata Mangeshkar’s voice never lost that tinkling delicacy, nor that crystal clarity even in the swiftest of taans. I still get goosebumps when I listen to those that her Mana Mohana in Jaijaiwanti culminate in. Pure gold. 

There were stories about how she squared her twelve-year old shoulders and courageously carried her family and its needs on them after her father’s early passing. About how she engaged a tutor to refine her diction in Hindi, so that she would never have to face rejection from composers on that score. About pretending to eat from an empty lunchbox, braving penury, confident that better days would come if one worked hard enough. About the long hours she worked, learning, singing and recording tirelessly through days and nights, and yet every note and word sounding as fresh and pristine as the morning’s virgin dew. They were all so inspiring, so humbling too, her journey so arduously complex, they taught me to face whatever measly challenges that came my way and power on. There were unpleasant stories too, about how she had monopolised the music scene and denied other singers their rightful space. I would shrug them off. So, she has a natural monopoly, doesn’t she, I asked? For there were none like her, I knew. 

One of those serendipitous miracles that life and fate sometimes bestow upon us, took me to her some years ago. Invited with my husband, her cardiologist, to celebrate a milestone birthday, I stood among the outer periphery of her guests, surreally breathing the same air she did, hearing the same sounds as her, and watching and absorbing for my eternity every nuance of every expression that drifted across her face. The joy of meeting friends, the patience in greeting them all, the gratitude towards those that had helped her overcome hurdles, the bewilderment at the ceaseless press of well-wishers, the beginnings of fatigue, the need to be alone again probably, to have her home for herself again. All to be gathered and narrated in minute detail to my waiting mother, who then saw it through my eyes, but was as thrilled as if she were there herself. Vicariously living her fan moment.

One day soon after that first meeting with her, I heard her Ni sultana re on the radio as I drove home from an errand, and I inexplicably started crying. Overwhelmed with wonderment, maybe. The lady I had seen, serene and dignified, the pallu of her white saree draped decorously over both shoulders, her hair neatly braided in two long plaits, wearing her majestic aura simply but surely, the diamonds on her person winking and glittering, but paling against the wealth that shone in her eyes, that rich, long life replete with lessons and challenges and tragedies and achievements and connects and wisdom. How do I reconcile all of that with the frolicking, simple and innocent village belle in the song? How had she sung that teasing balam babuwa with such youthful abandon? Thank goodness, she had! Time and again she proved that she could throw herself into whatever the context given, be whatever age expected of her, feel whatever emotion handed to her, and all at the snap of the composer’s fingers. 

She remained unmatched. So many wannabe Latas came and tried their luck. Many strongly sweet, some cloying, some straining, some piercing. Some succeeded somewhat. Some came up with cover versions and remixes of what had been sung before, but they all looked and sounded hapless, all sorry imitations. For, none had what she did. That natural monopoly, that gift from God, as she herself always acknowledged. That magnificently and divinely pure, surel voice, that could with a single note switch on all the lights in the universe, illuminating all in blazing bright transparency; whose unique sweetness was especially magical as it came honed with assiduous training and riyaz, combined with enormous power and presence and yet an unbelievable floating lightness; that was sustained with a huge reservoir of lasting breath; blessed with a phenomenal range; and whose dhaar or incisiveness was that of a shining scimitar that sliced through all firmaments at once, as also our mortal hearts. And who had that uncanny ability to slip inside the skin of the song so completely that it rendered the annotation in celluloid images superfluous. She matched her voice to the lyrics, immersed herself in the mood of the music, and portrayed it all with an earnestness and honesty so rare that it made the listening universe smile or weep or sigh or laugh or pray or celebrate or just be rejoicingly grateful to be alive in her time and reign. 

Well, time never stands still and as the musical landscape changed with sound and rhythm and tempo trumping melody, other voices emerged and shone and notched up their coteries of fans. Lata Mangeshkar withdrew gradually but gracefully, occasionally returning to sing something composed by Rehman, the songs themselves choosing her, as she said. The changed popular music lost its appeal, for both my Aai and me, the newer songs ruling music charts for a brief while and then quickly sinking into oblivion. The burnished gold in the old still gleamed powerfully, and we stayed tuned in to its timeless allure, Aai listening faithfully to her Bhoole Bisre Geet on Vividh Bharati before falling asleep. Where her Lata still sang to her, resurrecting that train of rich memories, the mementos of a life well lived. 

My mother left eight years ago and ever since Lata Mangeshkar has helped keep alive that circle of love. Every time I hear Ayega Aanewala or O Sajna, my heart breaks in acute unabated grief, and then heals itself again in the infinite beauty and grace of the music. And then this year, she left too. I mourned and wept all over again, not only for the passing of the earthly Saraswati but also for the one that had worshipped her from afar. I foolishly hope that they’ve met. I sometimes fondly imagine her singing in the heavens, maybe with her trail-blazing father, or perhaps with that other Bharat Ratna, Bhimsen Joshi, whom I idolised since my earliest memory, maybe all the other musical greats are there as well. Maybe it’s an eternal mehfil for them, each regaling the other, each applauding the other. And since I’m imagining it all, maybe it’s summer there again, and my parents are listening in again, he in his kurta pyjama, she in her cotton saree with her juhi gajra. And he looks at her and smiles. Lata, my dear. She smiles too, fulfilled.