Have you seen Little Miss Sunshine? It’s supposed to be the story of a dysfunctional American family. But I really think it’s a story about kicking ass. It’s the age of innocence and of wisdom untainted with cynicism. It’s about rebellion, not from anger but a sense of mischief. Let me tell you my own Little Miss Sunshine story.
It was 2001, the year of big dreams that came to nothing. Of a plane ramming into the Twin Towers bringing down a shower of bricks and employment dreams for the rest of us. I had quit a great job to get a shot at the bigger corporate scene, armed with an MBA. I didn’t get into an IIM but I reasoned that it didn’t make sense to spend two years preparing for a two year program. So I took the college that I got and figured I’d make it up along the way. 9/11’s impact was felt all over the world, not the least of it, in the lives of young people on the brink of their careers.
My life was a mess of decisions gone wrong. I was in ‘class B’ of a batch that one of our potential employers described as a ‘not even tier 3 college’. I found myself sharing desk space with a lacklustre, sluggish group of people that weren’t my ideal peer group. I pushed on, nothing deterred, the sluggishness around me spurring me on to do more, rather than less. Most of my attempts ended up as duds, (comical when I look back, much like the trials of the family in the movie). I had organised and ran for the class elections only to suffer a resounding defeat. 3 votes to 42, I discovered and a little later, that my best friend was not one of those 3 and much, much later that she had sealed my fate with a dissenting opinion. I was publicly humiliated. And my classmates did not like my eagerness in class anymore than they approved of my jeans-and-sneakers-weraing self in class.
A couple of months later, some of us were at an intercollegiate festival. Our seniors had asked us to participate in as many events as we could, to rack up ‘participation points’. So while we waited to be called in for the case study competition (which was the only ‘appropriate’ event for a management college), I signed up for the singing competition. We didn’t even make it past the qualifying round of the case study. But we had travelled across town for the festival so we decided to hang around. In the evening was the music event. With not much enthusiasm and absolutely no trepidation (you’re only ever nervous when you care about the outcome), I went up on stage and sung the first song that came to my mind. To my surprise, I won. Not just a prize for the duet but also a special mention by the judge for my solo rendition.
It won me a few ‘cool’ points. The next thing I knew, was that I’d been slotted as ‘the college singer’. And so I became a regular on the college festivals scene. I made a lot of friends, lost track of the number of events I represented my college in, and brought back a few certificates that would never help further my career. My more intellectually-inclined friends would occasionally attempt a case-study competition and scoff at the time I wasted on ‘these silly music competitions’. But come lunchtime and someone would turn to me and ask for a song. I had found a place in the peer group as well. This was a time before iPods or even personal MP3 players. I was the batch’s personal jukebox. And on the larger circuit of city colleges, people were starting to recognise my name.
But my luck was running out there too. After that first win, I seemed to keep hitting dead-end. Ask me sometime about college audiences. If you can survive one of those, you can survive practically anything. This audience will rip you apart and hang up your carcass if you make the slightest mistake. I saw people get booed off stage. Once the entire audience stood up and turned their backs to the performer, mid-song. Another time, a large group of people interrupted the singer with a loud, raucous rendition of the Lifebuoy jingle, drowning out the person on the stage. I thanked my good luck that that never happened to me. People sat through my renditions and clapped nicely but the prize-winner was always someone else. And I started to wonder if I was losing my killer instincts to win and settling for what I got.
At every single competition, I got beaten by a girl with a Runa Laila/Ila Arunesque voice. Her entire repertoire was Mast Kalandar and Lambi Judaai. That was it; no one had ever heard her singing anything else. If you closed your eyes, it would sound like you were listening to the original. But, I’d seethe silently, it’s supposed to be a contest among singers not tape recorders!!! Where’s the individual style, the creativity that one must expect from an artist? No one else thought so and my much-wider repertoire went unappreciated. I had a new song for every contest (or two or three at least) but I’d always end up having to go over to congratulate her on yet another win. While she smirked back. No, she didn’t actually, but allow me a brief moment of loser bitchiness…
A few months later, I had given up. I would never defeat her and the elusive Best Singer title would never be mine, no matter how hard I practiced or how well I sang. It was time for my own college festival, the last of all of them in the city. My classmates had given up expecting a win and one of them whispered to me before I went up,
“At least if you lose this time, you can blame it on the college wanting to play good host and award it to someone else.”
I walked up on to the stage, nervous as always. I felt like I had let everyone down, even before I had even began. Then I looked out at the crowd. They had sat through so many of my performances, in classrooms, in the canteen, the parking lot and on stages around the city. They even knew how long I’d take to overcome my anxiety and start singing. I closed my eyes for a long minute. And they waited. And when I opened my eyes, they were still there. I was going to perform and they were going to listen. That was all. The competition melted away.
I opened my mouth and belted out a song none of them had never heard before (not even my friends who had sat through my daily canteen riyaaz). It wasn’t the kind of song anybody was expecting to hear at the singing competition of a management college. It didn’t showcase my ability to span a range of notes. It did not pay allegiance to a classical raag. It wasn’t playing on every television and radio channel as ‘Top of the Pops’.
The crowd was silent for a whole twenty seconds, the entire length of the opening bars. One of my classmates, who had accompanied me at the winning duet at the start of the year let out a loud, piercing whistle. And the crowd exploded. When I began the second stanza, the compere (who was also my arch nemesis through the college years) danced up onto the stage and did a little jig behind my back. By the time I reached the last note, every single member of the audience was up and dancing, I kid you not. I ended the song but the crowd was still cheering and kicking up a storm of dust in the seats. I ran back into the audience to a wildly enthused bunch of classmates cheering. Inside of that performance, I became one with them.
A day after this festival, someone from the nearby pharmacy college stopped me on the road to congratulate me for ‘a really great performance’. In another college festival a few days later, as I walked off the stage, a lady stopped me. She had been one of my lecturers in undergraduate college. She asked me how I was. I told her I’d just finished performing. She started laughing and said,
“I was inside correcting papers when I heard this song. And I just had to come out and see the girl who had the nerve to sing this on stage. When I saw you from the distance, I just knew it was you. No one else I know, would have done that.”
There are words that hurt and haunt you all your life. And then there are words like this, which you treasure always, because they make you so proud to be you. I did not win a prize that day. Nobody told me that I had a lovely voice, for singing it. I wouldn’t have been able to list it in my portfolio of musical accomplishments. But the audience enjoyed it as much as I did. The moment paid for itself. And it reminded me of something I forgot when I signed up for b-school. I was an ambitious go-getter but I was an artist, first. Joy, living it and creating it, would always be my biggest success story.
That song went on to become the anthem of my batch. The ‘not even tier 3, not winning but having so much fun’ class B of 2003. Every time we met after that, every alumni meet, every single get-together, someone would request this song and we’d forget our ‘adult’ differences for that moment and just lose ourselves to the wild abandon of our own class anthem. I finally understand why that song and that performance was so special. It was a Little Miss Sunshine moment. It made ordinary, special.
This is the song I performed:
*An earlier version of this post is here.