Yesterday Once More

One of the highlights of this past weekend was embarking on a magical memory tour thanks to The Darjeeling Limited, a lyrical comedy that is also a light-hearted allegory of letting go of one's earthly possessions (portrayed as baggage in the movie) in the quest for absolute freedom. The soundtrack benefits heavily from various films of Satyajit Ray, to whom director Wes Anderson dedicates the movie. The incongruity of these timeless tunes blaring from a modern Hollywood movie is made somewhat palatable by the director's sensitive handling of the rich visual innuendos of Indian society. But what really caught me by surprise was the central role played by a half-forgotten ditty, "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)", both in the movie, and in its short prequel Hotel Chevalier.

"Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" was a 1969 single by one-hit wonder Peter Sarstedt, an Anglo-Indian pop singer/writer who spent his childhood in Calcutta and Kurseong (which is near Darjeeling!). His ballad about an attractive society girl of humble origins (often wrongly identified as Sophia Lauren), set to a wistful faux-French waltz tune, seemed to embody the ultimate European jet-setter's life to my juvenile ears, and I would wait with boyish anticipation for its rare broadcast on All India Radio's "Musical Bandbox" on Sunday afternoons. As I look back now, the thrill of those days is heightened by the fact that the state-run radio station would play the unedited version of the song (very daring for a corporation that was otherwise trapped in Victorian morality), including the verse that prudish American labels consider too incendiary for mainstream playback to this day (it was also excised from The Darjeeling Limited):

"You're in between twenty and thirty,
A very desirable age,
Your body is firm and inviting,
But you live on a glittering stage."

Being able to add the extremely rare 45 rpm single "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)/Morning Mountain" to my record collection was an adventure in itself. In the leisurely student days of my youth, when time was at a surplus and disposable money at a premium, I used to scour the advertisements for estate sales in the Sunday classifieds in the hope of coming across uncommon records at an affordable price. One such listing led me to a nineteenth-century colonial mansion in central Calcutta, whose wealthy occupants were moving to a modern flat in a fashionable locality, and were auctioning off items that would seem archaic or superfluous amidst their new lifestyle. The sale catalogue listed a huge record collection, that included the single my heart was set on. Despite my best efforts, I could not persuade the auctioneer, Russell Exchange, to allow the single to be sold individually, and I stood helpless as the complete set of records was sold at a price that I could never hope to challenge on my meagre budget. At the end of the auction, I gathered all my courage (and my savings) and approached the winning bidder with the intention of buying the single from his recently acquired stack of vinyl albums. To the proverb that fortune favours the bold, I would add that it also favours the young, for the old gentleman (who, I suspect, was more of a classical music enthusiast) rewarded my tenacity by gifting me the record with a nod and a wink!

I often wonder why this song continues to discover new audiences, in spite of its somewhat trite lyrics and pretentious name-dropping, and can only conclude the reason is that it allows a jilted lover to come to terms with the loss of the unattainable ("desire of the moth for the star", as Shelley would say). After all, unlike the over-simplification of a silver-screen love-triangle that is inevitably resolved in favour of the hero (the good guy!), in real-life one courts one's beloved in competition with rivals who are often just as good, noble and qualified. Thus, a rejection, although not indicative of one's deficiencies, may have the unfortunate consequence of sending the loser into a spiral of depression and low self-esteem. By contrast, in daring the object of one's affection to "remember just who you are / Then go and forget me forever", this song allows the vanquished to adopt a moral high ground by pretending that one's life could be better off because, not despite, of the unbearable loss. It may be a cynical, scornful and unhealthy attitude, but it is effective under certain circumstances.

I'd sit alone and watch your light,
My only friend through teenage nights,
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio.
Queen, Radio Ga Ga

No comments: