Mon, 04 Dec, 2023

Life Is Not Just a Stage…

By Umang Gurung

This story is part fiction with all the names changed to hide their true identity. I had been really worried that morning about having stepped on some dog crap. I had brushed my shoe against grass and sand but I wasn’t totally satisfied with the outcome. I hoped no one would look at the soles of my shoes when I walked. My 9th grade friends – Karate Kid and Bakaro (not their real names) and me were in the Sunday assembly trying to fool around under the prefects’ radar. Suddenly the director who had been giving a speech about bribes or something declared that we would soon have a cultural program. That piece of information reached our ears like an innocent goat walking inside the lion’s den. It was going to be our moment. All that singing in class, talking about music, dreaming and irritating teachers was going to finally payoff. But before the fame and glory, we had to pass through selections or auditions. There would be a three day selection where the prefects would decide which acts would get a chance to perform in the program. We discussed it and decided that we were going to perform ‘As Long As You Love Me’ by Backstreet Boys. It was my absolute favorite at that time, I was crazy about it for over six months. We thought we were ready and headed to the top floor hall where the program would be conducted. For the time being, it was being used for selections and rehearsals. At the selections there were two things that were holding us back. First was the fact that none of us knew how to play a musical instrument and the second one was fear. Stage fright is a huge problem for wannabe rock stars and seems almost ubiquitous among Nepalese students. We can blame our education system for that, I guess. I had another problem, weakness. A certain love interest was in the audience whose aura subtracted my already low confidence by about 50%. This also meant that one corner of the room was off limits for me. As for an instrument player, we searched for a guitarist. That meant changing the song to the guitarist’s ability, which meant compromise. That also meant that Karate Kid wouldn’t be happy. He gave up as soon as we decided to compromise. He sat there with his excuse, “I’m not going to compromise”. He would give not one thought to our reasoning.Then started Bakaro and my doomed battle to find a guitarist. There was this veteran guitarist with eight years of experience who, I believe, lied that he couldn’t play our song or anything we could sing. There was one time I hadn’t spoken properly to him and maybe that was the reason. I can’t be friends with everybody. He also had his other band that was in a higher class than us simpleton singers. They were cool with their drums, electric guitars and heavy bass while we, comparatively, were pathetic. Maybe that was also the reason. We really knew nothing about music, the harsh mistress who requires you to give her your mind and soul for any worthy reward. Then a classmate advised that we should talk to another classmate,Channing Tatum (He shares many traits with that guy). He was cool. But he also couldn’t play the Backstreet Boys’ song. He had had three years of experience teaching himself guitar. He used a songbook with guitar chords. That day we were too late for performing our act. Instead we just sang off stage. We also tried finding a song that we could sing and Channing could play. Of all the songs, 21 Guns by Green Day which had released recently seemed to work with our combo. I think I fit in pretty well but Bakaro didn’t know the lyrics of the song. Amazingly he learnt it by the next day. The next day we were more or less ready for the selections. Then out of nowhere I got a call from Mr Wizard (He looked more like Dalai Lama but to me he was a musical wizard). He introduced himself and said that he had liked my voice when I’d sung the day before and would like to help us in our act. Now we had two Laddoos in our hands. On one hand was Channing who was the first one to help us when everyone refused but also I had doubts about and on the other there was this guy who was two years senior and had praised my vocals. Being a senior meant he was talented. We had been effected by the ‘Dai Effect’ or ‘Big Bro Effect’. In school, at that age, you’d think that senior dais could do anything. They could play guitars, ride motorbikes, were highly knowledgeable, beat you in any game, had beautiful girlfriends… you get where I’m going with this. If you hear of the ‘Dai Effect’ anywhere else, know that you heard it here first. We put our hopes on the ‘Dai’ or maybe it was only me. We had to let Channing go and he didn’t make much fuss about it, but I could just feel the anger in his words. I still hate myself for doing that. Since we had to test our compatibility with Mr Wizard, we didn’t try out the selections that day as well. The jam session with Mr Wizard, in his home, reinforced our beliefs that dais could do anything. He was really skillful with the guitar which he’d learned from his big brother (+30 to the Dai Effect). But more than guitar, the keyboard was his instrument. The flow of his fingers and the glossy sound of the keyboard that filled the room with divine music spoke to my soul. The holy light shone on me. I’d never known such pleasure, such divinity. From that day, the instrument that I’d thought to be uncool was my favorite, ‘River Flows in You’ was my favorite piano piece, Beethoven my favorite composer and I started to try to understand classical music. Our song changed again. It was Jason Marz’s ‘I’m Yours’. I’d heard the song and liked it but didn’t know the lyrics while Bakaro had never heard of it. We had to borrow a friend’s self-made lyrics notebook. The notebook was laboriously designed with Tokio Hotel band’s pictures pasted everywhere. Yes it was a female friend’s lyrics notebook. Some of you might have already questioned its existence because you’ve forgotten that at the time (2010), the internet as well as smartphones were a rare luxury. Seems like ages ago, doesn’t it that you used to walk over to the nearest or the most trusted or the cheapest or the fastest service providing or the one with games or the one with a printer or the one owned by your friend’s relative or the one whose loadshedding schedule was convenient or the one which had a generator-internet café. All of those had one great, well maintained, virus free, always working computer that was almost never vacant while others sucked. It was your lucky day if you got to use that computer. The privileged probably do not share this awful but now-that-I-think-about-it wonderful memories. Karate Kid was always with us and participated in the singing but was not  convinced to accompany us to selections. He stuck to his ‘no compromise’ rule. The third day was either get selected or bust. It was time to take the first step at becoming a rockstar. All night I’d dreamed about how I would burn the stage and everyone would cheer for me. And how I became a cat roaming around a dark jungle populated by fish on the moon getting married to some classmate… Dreams are weird and senseless. Reality is worse. The biggest fault in my singing that had been always haunting me did us in. It was the low intensity of my voice and shaking. A mix of nervousness and inexperience that caused problems in my voice and alas it got us rejected. The prefect who was judging us even tried to help me but I didn’t meet the expectations. In the end of it all, we were devastated. Mr Wizard tried convincing the prefect but it didn’t work. He consoled us saying that the prefect was biased and favored performances of his own classmates. Maybe it was true but I didn’t believe it  The reason we got rejected was me. I was not good enough. I don’t know what I dreamt that night. The next day we were at Mr Wizard’s house. We had already developed a good relationship in a short time. He told us of another way that we could perform at the program. We could join his group of friends that were performing at the program. We would give back vocals to a Bollywood song. It wasn’t exactly spectacular but it worked. Plus we would be in a real band and get a taste of the stage. A new opportunity had knocked at our doors and we had answered. The day of the program, we mostly practiced. The classes didn’t run that day so until an hour or so before the program we were at Mr Wizard’s house. When it started the hall was filled and I could see Karate Kid and my friends in the audience. They were cheering us on and ready with their cameras to film our performance. I was backstage with rest of the gang trying to look important and busy and fiddling with wires of microphones and speakers trying to be useful and to look like I knew how to do things. You never know what impresses the love interest in the audience. I was there for music but her interest in me increasing was a nice added bonus.Fame plus the girl, perfect! Everything was looking good even though it didn’t turn out the way we imagined. Our turn came and we put the stage on fire. The audience gave us a thundering applause. The love interest came to the stage and kissed me. An American talent hunter had been in the audience who was so impressed by our performance that he signed us right then and there. Our band’s third album is releasing soon. I am now a millionaire rockstar high on cocaine trying to find meaning in my life after a sold out concert in Moscow. Well… I wish. Sigh! Everything was looking good even though it didn’t turn out the way we imagined but there wasa but. The principle’s brother had passed away that morning. Before our performance there was a group who sang a heavy metal song near the middle of the program which was too loud for the principal’s taste. The director banned any more singing and ordered that there would only be dance performances. We were totally bummed by that decision. We and other bands that still had to perform tried to convince the director that our songs were soft and non-metal but to no avail. It was over. Time to join the audience and sulk. Why did the principle’s brother have to die that day? Why did that heavy metal performance have to be before ours? We’d worked hard for it but why did we fail? So many unanswered questions. I really envied Karate Kid’s position. He hadn’t compromised. Maybe that was the lesson fate was teaching me. We’d leaped over many obstacles to get there and we didn’t make it. We discussed about all the things we did wrong. It was a bad experience. Such a small thing it is to perform on the stage of a cultural program of a school but it seemed impossible then. The planets had to align. How did the other guys do it? We went home defeated. Now that I reflect on it. I think I have the answers to some of the questions. Perhaps we weren’t ready to perform on stage. It was just the beginning to our musical journey, not the end. Our hard work was not enough, our patience was not enough, the time we had given to it was not enough. We gained many things from that experience. We learned about our limitations, our skills, and a little about music. We met Mr. Wizard who taught us a lot of things and had fun listening to all his funny stories. I found my true love, the piano. We took a step forward on the road to learning music and being successful which may not have been remarkable but it added up. In all those jam sessions we were living the dream where each of us saw the other as a rockstar. We grew closer as friends. And last but not least we created a pretty memorable story, I think.