The iPod nano came into my life in the spring of 2006, five years after Steve Jobs’ iconic music device had changed the music industry forever and a year into a long-distance relationship that was now poised on the brink of a resolution. The hazy outlines of a life together were beginning to take shape, but, as an inconvertible introvert, deficient forever in articulating my emotions in words, I turned to music to take the relationship ashore. Every night after work, in my twin-sharing paying-guest apartment, on my roommate’s battered Philips portable twin-player stereo, from music albums borrowed and scrounged from friends and colleagues and from late-night radio shows, I would record the songs that seemed to speak for me —Tagore and Leonard Cohen, Beatles and Joan Baez, Alanis Morissette and Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Ace of Base — a playlist that was both the old tentative me and a new person thrilling in the headiness of adulthood. We were to meet that summer and decide on the future. Perhaps, the music would be my voice, when words (invariably) failed me.
In his deeply personal collection of essays, 31 Songs (2002), English writer and lyricist Nick Hornby wrote about the high fidelity between music and one’s emotional life — the deep resonance some songs have with a particular stage in our life, no matter the cultural distance between the musician and the listener. “I love the relationship that anyone has with music … because there’s something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. … It’s the best part of us probably …,” he writes.
Looking back, music had always been the soundtrack of my life, and the changing musical interfaces, a record of the passage of time. The AIR years of my childhood in Kolkata, listening to Ameen Sayani on Geetmala read out letters written by the audience to their loved ones in faraway places; my mother recording songs from the radio on “blank” Sony audio cassettes that my NRI aunt always brought for her; the angst of my teenage soothed by the late-night FM radio shows — RJ Jimmy Tangree speaking of love and relationship on programmes such as Direct Dil Se – my cousin and I saving up pocket money to buy the latest Bollywood chartbuster secretly after our parents had resolutely refused to buy the album for us (to be fair to them, both of us had dubious taste in Bollywood music, a trait that continues to this day); the liberation of the Sony Walkman, a high-school gift from my father, that moved music away from a shared mode of entertainment to a personal one, and, finally, the iPod, that little miracle worker that made the sharing of the personal with the one you chose, an act of faith.
But the ownership of the iPod was still in the future. In that spring of 2006, I was consumed by the thought of which eight, or 10 if I was lucky, songs to keep and what to record over in the hour-long duration of the blank cassette. Did the lyrics of Mitchell’s “You’re my thrill” seem too forward? Could I squeeze in another Cohen besides “Bird on a wire”? By the time the summer of decisions rolled in, I had given up trying to choose, and racked by self-doubt, abandoned the idea of the personalised gift.
When we meet eventually, it’s not a difficult decision to make. The conversation flows easily and my crippling social anxiety dissipates even before I am aware of it. We don’t discuss the future, but we feel more certain of it. The day after I see him off, a tiny package arrives at my apartment. Inside, there’s a sleek box with a gleaming pocket-sized rectangle in burnished silver grey and a pair of headphones. It’s an iPod Nano, that holds up to 1,000 songs. “So you don’t have to choose,” reads the handwritten note with it.
Reading about Apple’s decision to phase out the iPod Touch, which would bring to close the 21-year-old run of a product that had revolutionised not just how we listen to music but also how we communicate, I am reminded of the old Nano. In the nearly two decades since, it has long been discarded as we discovered newer forms of streaming music. But its promise of abandon and the connections it established linger on like a half-forgotten lyric you can’t get out of your head.
Write to the author at [email protected].
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