Let me tell you a story of a young girl living in Madras back in the mid-80s.
She went to a very famous school known for its high standard education it imparted to the few girls who were lucky enough to make the cut; in kindergarten. The school was run by catholic nuns and had its high standards of learning, discipline, and a good share of the affluent. The quarterly tuition was a little more than what an average middle class income family living on a single income could afford. Yet, there was no compromises to be made on the quality of the cornerstone that such families build their lives on. So she went to school there, wearing a white uniform and a red tie and learnt to speak flawless British English, how to eat with a spoon the right way, and how to cross your legs every time one sits down. She got to peek into the lives of chauffeur driven daughters of celebrities and business icons from her place on the road as she stood for the bus that would take her back home.
Sporting two well oiled long braids she trudged on, her only consolation being that she scored well in her subjects and if not for being completely lost and missed in a sea of Lady Di and Dimple Kapadia’s hairstyle and perfect white uniforms, folks (especially the teachers) would remember her for those answers to the questions. She was quiet and shy for the most part, speaking only when spoken to and to an extent enjoyed the anonymity of her existence. It was not like she was a sad girl, just quiet, and withdrawn and not visibly happy. Wearing a slight tongue thrust, she lived in her own imaginary world, waking from her reverie only when necessary. She had a few friends, very few. One stayed with her from when she was in 3rd grade and then there were a couple who joined on in 5th grade. She was the most comfortable with her 3rd grade pal. They came from different communities and lifestyles, but it was like they knew what each was talking. She felt the need to be nurtured and the friend nurtured.
Every year there would be an excursion. She would go, because one just goes for excursions. Her mother would pack her loads of pulao or tamarind rice and she’d bring it all home because no one really wanted to eat the boring stuff during an excursion. Some did, but mom packed more than what was necessary. The food was always exciting, with sandwiches and other luxuries and unheard of snacks were brought out during that day. Girls were nice for the most part and she enjoyed them. That was the fun part. Then they’d take out their portable tape recorders and play music. Music she was clueless about. She’d listen to them play and jive anyway. She’d wish her mother would allow them to play those tapes at home. Friends offered to make her copies, that she refused. What was the point? Her mother did not appreciate screaming music and so it was not allowed at home. Indian, traditional kinds were always welcome. Even her dad had to give up on his small valuable collection of BoneyM and ABBA, because of the noise it created. The only songs she would remember for ages to come.
9th grade came and she was becoming a teen, where the pressure to fit in seeped up onto her and knowing fully well that a haircut was out of question and silently thanking the nuns for the leveling white uniform, she hoped to at least broaden the scope of music. From what she heard during lunch break, a young African American had made some amazing brilliant music and had won the Grammy awards for the same. Thriller, they called it, true to the music that it was made of. The hums were everywhere. The bathrooms, the benches across the lined driveway, the assembly lines before the prayers, the evening walks out of school towards home. She desperately wanted to be a part of it all. Especially considering that yearly excursion was coming up soon and she knew the music that would be played relentlessly. She heard bits and pieces of it, but could never make out the words. One girl told her during last year’s excursion: “If you put your ear close to the speaker and listen with your eyes closed, you’ll get them soon. American accent isn’t too hard.”
It was time she did her homework. But how does one do homework without being taught, or without doing research or picking up a book? Perhaps a tutor?
So gathering nerve and willing herself to walk outside of her corner seat, she walked up to another classmate of hers who knew the songs well and asked her during the lunch break: “V, this song that comes in Thriller that all of you are talking about? Do you think you can write the words out for me?”
V: “Oh, which song do you want?”
She in a stupefied voice: “Which song? Oh, I don’t know.”
V with a smile: “The popular ones are ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’. Will bring it on Monday.”
Monday she received this ruled notebook paper with V’s scrolls, filled both sides with a different song.
That excursion, she sang at the top of her voice and had the best time ever. People started noticing her.
She still isn’t sure if it was MJ, the lyrics, V, or the age that she decided to break free, but in 10th grade, she slowly came to be recognized as the one who makes all girls laugh, cracks a joke, is witty, breaks into accented perfect French and will one day become a linguist, and was even nominated for the House Vice-Captain. Despite her oiled two braids, her pimpled brown skin, and unwaxed arms, folks knew her by name.
No one wants to be defeated
Showin’ how funky and strong is your fight
It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right
Just beat it, beat it
Just beat it, beat it
She’d never forget those lyrics and what they mean to her. Thanks MJ. May your soul rest in peace with the comfort that you sure saved some lost souls out here.