Portuguese for “Slightly out of tune”. And the name of a wonderful bossa nova song written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. A song that made its way into my heart via the brilliance of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd et al on an album called Jazz Samba.


I didn’t just fall in love with the song, I fell in love with the very word itself, what it meant, what it stood for. Slightly. Out. Of. Tune. I was eighteen or nineteen and it described, perfectly, how I felt about myself and about the world then.

[I was lucky enough to be able to see Charlie Byrd when he visited Calcutta soon after, something I wrote about here.]

At the heart of my slightly-out-of-tune-ness was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on then, a sense of being at peace while in disequilibrium.

That was a long time ago, while I was still in my teens. In eighteen months time I will be 60.

This morning I went shopping for a razor. Ever since I left India, in 1980, I’ve been a Gillette man, listening to the siren call of their marketing while moving from the Trac II through the Sensor and the Sensor Excel to the Mach. More recently I dallied with King of Shaves and then tried one of these newfangled subscription services.

I don’t particularly like shaving; I’d much rather have a beard; but my wife doesn’t like beards, they’re not easy to keep clean and now I have to think about how my grandson would feel. So I go shopping for a razor.

Of late, particularly since I switched away from Gillette, I have been less than happy with my shave. Five o’clock shadow at variable times of day. So I went shopping for a razor.


That’s the kind of razor my father used. Maybe old habits die hard. But it’s the kind of razor that I came back home with today. Habits. What would you do without them?

It wasn’t quite the razor my dad used. What was metal was now ceramic. The child, the young man, the nostalgist in me, only wanted one thing: that the blade-box had a tiny slit through which I could slide the next blade when needed. And it did. So all was fine with the world.


Hmmm. Why am I prattling on about razors and shaving? Have I finally lost it (if I ever had it, I hear you murmur)?

That blade, that blade-box, that razor, they all represent something that’s been part of my ethos ever since I could use words like ethos.

And that is this: to be able to cherish and hold the past while knowing it will never be back, to live in and to keep learning from the present knowing it will soon be past, and to look forward to the future and to keep applying whatever I’ve learnt, knowing that it too will pass.

[Occasionally I run out of steam or joy or optimism or whatever, and for a very short period I am empty. Blank. At my wits’ end. But those times are rare, and they too tend to pass.]

I love spending time with my mother and with my siblings, with my cousins and aunts and uncles, the family I grew up with, and I love reminiscing with them.  I do that in the here-and-now.

I love spending time with my school and college friends, some of whom I’ve kept in touch with for over fifty years. I love keeping in touch with colleagues whom I’ve worked with over the past four decades.

I love spending time with my wife and my children and my grandchildren (OK, my single solitary grandchild, if you insist on being pedantic; I live in the hope and expectation of more, many more).

Memories. Memories of shared experiences, of laughter and tears, of pleasure, even occasionally of pain.

It’s not wrong to look back and to remember, fondly, how things used to be.

It’s important to see that things have changed. When I meet my mother and siblings, I have to understand that they are not the family I left in India when I migrated to England in 1980. They have experiences that weren’t shared with me, experiences with their husbands and wives and children and colleagues and neighbourhoods; experiences with laughter and with tears. Memories.

When I go to Calcutta, I have to remember not just that it’s not the Calcutta I left in 1980. I have to remember that it will never be the Calcutta I left in 1980. It too has experiences that aren’t shared with me.

Change is not an easy thing to deal with. Cataclysmic change even less so. When I was younger I was fascinated by stories of great civilisations. How they came into being. And how they stopped being. How what’s left of them influences what today is.

Even today, I continue to be fascinated by the rise and fall of many things: civilisations, empires, cities, towns, religions, fashions, diets, everything. Which means I read and re-read a strange pantheon of writers: Jane Jacobs. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Joseph Tainter. Just to give you a few examples.

Change is not an easy thing to deal with. Cataclysmic change even less so.

Some people would like to Make America Great Again. Some people would like to Make America Great Britain Again. We want to airbrush and photoshop history, we want to cocoon ourselves and escape from today’s reality.

We want to turn back time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if…..

Many of the things we invent to solve some problem or the other come with the risk of creating new problems while solving old ones. Much of our angst comes from using tools designed to solve old problems to try and solve new ones.

We want to put the genie back in the bottle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if….

I want to be able to marvel at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, at Indus Valley Civilisation, in just the same way as I want to marvel at Incan or Aztec or Mayan or Greek or Roman or Egyptian civilisation. I want to be able to look at the chili pepper I am about to eat and reminisce about the role that Columbus and da Gama played in introducing that spice into Indian cuisine. I want to be able to celebrate and to mourn the past without trying to force-fit it into the present.

Kevin Kelly, in one of his excellent books, said something about one of the roles of technology being to speed up evolution. I like that. I really like that. [Incidentally, I hope to be spending time reading his latest book, The Inevitable, as soon as I can lay my hands on it].

There’s a lot of anger in the world right now. Maybe it’s always been there, but right now it feels to me as if I’ve never seen this level of anger before.

If that anger was deeply rooted in seriously depressed economies, large swathes of people completely unable to make ends meet, increasing ill health, severe repression, considerable growth in crime, a general and growing concern about personal safety,  and a bleak outlook for the future overall, then it’s the kind of anger that makes for revolutions. Maybe. My gut says it isn’t so. My gut says it’s more to do with the sweeping changes we’ve had even in my short lifetime, and the disaffection that such change entails.

For sure there’s a lot of turmoil. States “failing”. Refugees in their millions. Whatever the reason and the stimulus, there’s a lot of turmoil.

That turmoil doesn’t just challenge the status quo, it sets back any attempt to reverse that status quo back into a cherished past. Make <historical-civilisation-of-choice> great again.

So there’s a lot of anger. Some of that anger is directed at the pillars of erstwhile society: the government, the politicians, the priests, the policemen, the financiers, the industrialists. Big is not beautiful in such times. Some of that anger is directed at the symptoms of change, some at the tools of change.

The anger is about the change.

Not all of that change is reversible.

So I remain unangry. I remain desafinado.

Slightly out of tune.





One thought on “Desafinado”

  1. I have been a Jobim fan for 50 years. I have a vinyl album that has as the 1st song “Águas de Março” in Portuguese, and as the last song “Waters of March” in English. One time my daughters kept listening to them alternatively. They decided they liked the Portuguese better. It is my favorite Jobim. An interesting song, the verses are just a recitation of nouns.

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