Was a sunny day
Not a cloud was in the sky
Not a negative word was heard
From the people passing by
’twas a sunny day
All the birdies in the trees
And the radio’s singing song
All the favorite melodies
Paul Simon, Was a Sunny Day, 1973
Have you noticed how, when you listen to an old favourite, you get transported instantly to the time when you used to listen to that song regularly? And sometimes do you feel yourself teleported more precisely, more specifically, to the time and place when you first heard the song? The surroundings. The temperature. The aromas and smells, the light, the colour, the weather.
And the people. Memories are made of people.
This teleportation, it happens to me a lot. Probably because I spend so much of my time listening to music made in the mid-to-late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s. A wonderful decade. As a result, almost every day, I experience what the Carpenters memorably called Yesterday Once More. It doesn’t mean I wallow in nostalgia, I’m essentially a happy person, happy with my lot, happy in my present. Contented. I just happen to like the music of that time: I don’t listen to the music in order to evoke memories. But memories do get evoked.
Paul Simon’s Was A Sunny Day is a case in point. Every time I listen to it, I am reminded of a time when I would hear childhood friend Gyan sing it, often in duet with my cousin Jayashree. The same thing happened more recently when I was walking past a store and heard Wings’ Wino Junko. Suddenly I found myself in the “chummery”, the bachelor pad for young executives of a bank in Calcutta, sitting on a chair made out of a sawn-off wine barrel, with Gyan and Jayashree, listening to At The Speed of Sound for the first time. I think we also heard Diana Ross do the Theme from Mahogany for the first time that day. Memories.
Earlier this week, I was away in the western US on business. Woke up around 5am as usual, showered and got ready, then sat down to check on news and messages before going down to breakfast. Web headlines. Check. Chatter messages. Check. Twitter DMs and @messages. Check. Facebook messages and notifications. Check.
Facebook notifications. My classmate and friend of 46 years, Minoo Wadia, had commented on something that Les D’Gama, another schoolmate, had shared. Does-Not-Compute.
Rewind. Read again. And again.
That’s how I learnt that my childhood friend, husband to my cousin Jayashree, father to my nephew Jiver, Gyan Singh, had passed away. He was only 61.
Floods of tears. Floods of memories. I didn’t know what to do. So I called Jay and spoke to her, tried to pass on my condolences. Had no words.
Then I sat and prayed. Prayed for Gyan, for Jay, for Jiver, for their family and friends.
I still had a few hours before my first business meeting. Hours to reflect on Gyan and to give thanks for him.
I’d known him since 1972, when I was approaching 15; we were introduced by Albert Silliman, my then girlfriend’s brother. A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to be present while Gyan played Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song and then followed it with Famous Blue Raincoat. I was hooked. Entranced. Even in those early years he was an absolutely brilliant guitarist and musician.
Over the next 8 years I got to know him better, as he met my cousin Jayashree and they became fast friends. I think I introduced one to the other, but that may be my memory playing tricks …. we all like to rewrite history the way we’d like history to have been. One thing’s for sure, my heart was fit to bursting with joy when I heard they were getting married, and I knew I just *had* to make it back to Calcutta for their wedding, even though I could not afford it. I was there. Twas a Sunny Day.
Gyan was always “family” in practice, and with the wedding that status became a legal one as well. And so I felt close to him even though I was thousands of miles away; no trip to Calcutta made sense unless it centred around spending time with Gyan and Jayashree. Sometimes Gyan would make it to London, but our meetings weren’t frequent, spread over half a dozen occasions over the past thirty years. And I would try quite hard to speak to him on the 5th of September every year, just to wish him happy birthday.
I could not see him the last time he came to England; I was myself hospitalised unexpectedly in the US and could not fly back. These things happen.
Gyan was a brilliant musician. The tributes that are flowing everywhere are testament to that. But that’s not what I want to write about.
I want to write about the Gyan I remember, above and beyond musician. Gyan the friend. Gyan the shoulder to cry on. Gyan the guy who did the things that needed to get done, often without being asked. Gyan who never sat in judgment, Gyan who knew when companionship was what was needed.
I want to make sure the world knows about the Gyan who made himself available unquestioningly and self-sacrificially whenever a friend was in need. I was a pretty moody teenager; seeing I was upset about something, Gyan would say “Come on, let’s go for a ride”. Sometimes it would be the Strand, sometimes Bihar (near Nizam), sometimes the fruit juice sellers near Lighthouse, sometimes just driving around. It was an amazing quality of his. No words. No judgments. No nothing. Just a companionable silence, during which I would calm down, settle myself and be fit for human consumption again. [I learnt a few days ago that he would do the same thing for my sister Sreepriya, something I’d neither noticed nor known. And I’m sure he did it for others.] It was something that Jayashree would also do, so I’m not surprised they got on swimmingly. I remember the two of us sitting somewhere on the Maidan, watching the sunrise, saying nothing.
I want to make sure the world knows about the Gyan who would speak with incredibly infectious enthusiasm and passion about the things he was interested in: it didn’t matter if it was a book, a play, a song, a band, a film, a dish; all you had to do was listen to him and soon you would have that same enthusiasm. So it’s no surprise that he was a big influence in the kind of music and books and films I listen to, read, watch, even to this day.
I want to make sure the world knows about the Gyan who’d pitch in and help, practically, whatever the situation, even if it meant putting himself to considerable inconvenience and sacrifice. Giving people lifts. Being the designated driver before the world realised the need for designated drivers; Gyan was the one who’d make sure everyone got home safe…. especially the ones who had somewhat reduced their chances of getting home safe by the end of the night. If someone was ill, he’d offer to go get the medicines from the pharmacy; if someone needed picking up or dropping from station or airport, Gyan would be there. Gyan and his little black Fiat, seemingly running errands for the world.
At a time when many of us didn’t know what stable meant, Gyan was the epitome of calm. At a time when irresponsibility was common, Gyan was a pillar of prudence.
It’s not that he never let his hair down. His smile was infectious, his laugh a delight. He just knew how to retain balance and limits at a time when many around him didn’t.
I was one of those many.
It was a privilege to have known him, his ability to befriend “warts and all”, unjudging, yet uncompromising in his values. An unconditional love, a covenant relationship.
It was a privilege to have shared his companionship, sometimes in silence, sometimes in gales of laughter.
And it will continue to be a privilege for me to be able to say “I knew Gyan. He was my friend”.
Gyan introduced me to much of the music I listen to, many of the songs that are my favourites. So every time I listen to one of those songs, I’m going to be reminded of Gyan.
Gyan, from whose mouth Not A Negative Word Was Heard.
My thoughts and prayers continue to be with Jayashree, Jiver, and the rest of his family and friends.
Requiescat in pace.
[Photo of Gyan credit Hari Adivarekar].