Make Music, Not War
It’s true—in a world torn apart by violence, distrust, and prejudice, music is indeed the food of love. Heartwarming notes from the diary of an American music teacher who took 20 Pakistani students on a concert trip from Karachi to Mumbai.
I am not exactly what you would call a “bucket list” type of person. It’s not that I lack a spirit of adventure, but I am an American teacher and a cellist living in Karachi, Pakistan; which means my daily life is filled with all sorts of surprises, so I don’t have to look very hard to find hairraising events.
However, I do have an “antibucket list”— experiences that sound so awful that I would avoid them like the plague: home dental surgery or eating chicken sashimi, to name just two. Self-preservation tells me that some activities will just end in tragedy. I’m enthusiastic about the prospect of traveling to India. I would love to see the Taj Mahal one day, and of course, as a former California beach bum, soak up some sun on the Kerala coast. I also love traveling with my Pakistani students. More often than not, they are hysterically funny, energetic, and unfailingly polite.
But taking Pakistani kids to India definitely tops my antibucket list. There is just too much seething awfulness between the two countries. The antipathy between India and Pakistan seeps into everyday language among my Pakistani students: “Indians hate us. Indians are trying to steal Kashmir. Indians want to overthrow the government of Pakistan.” The litany goes on. It amazes me how prejudice infects the minds of ones so young, but it does.
The author Marianne Ide in front of the residence of the American ambassador to Pakistan. (Photo: Mike Glenn)
Against all reason and common sense, here I am waiting for a van to carry me to Muhammad Ali Jinnah International Airport: 20 students, 3 adult chaperones, 7 clarinets, 3 bass clarinets, 1 trumpet, 2 trombones, 3 violins, my cello (of course), and a handful of singers to attend the South Asian International School Association music festival hosted by the American School in…Mumbai.
The prospect of procuring Indian visas for 20 kids, much less the arduous task of passing through Indian immigration, had made me want to lie down and take a nap. Yet, in the end, I simply couldn’t help myself. Call it a musical kumbaya moment, the idea that five schools in countries ranging from Oman to Bangladesh could come together and play music seemed like polyphonic nirvana. If that weren’t enough, my daughter agreed to tag along and play violin. The Karachi-Mumbai round-trip would only last 72 hours. How bad could it really be? Plus, I would have reinforcements: I was one of three music teachers chaperoning the group, so at no time would I be left to my own devices to witness the Pakistani/Indian rivalry up close and personal. Or so I thought.
December 3, 12:01a.m. Nothing like the last minute…literally. Our Indian visas arrive in time for our 5:00 a.m. flight. Oh wait, scratch that. The music director’s passport has been mailed to Punjab. Having to stay behind in Karachi, our music director begins making phone calls, attempting to locate his missing passport. I have no idea if he will ever turn up in Mumbai, but the show must go on, right?
3:00 a.m. A student loses his paperwork from the Indian High Commission at the Karachi Airport and is denied permission to board the plane. After rummaging through nasty trash cans, bathroom stalls, and under vending machines, we come up with nothing. He is sent back to school with the other chaperone. Now I am the only adult left with a passel of kids and the instruments on a plane bound for India. I should add at this point that I have never been to India either, so I have no idea what to expect. My clairvoyance astonishes me....
7:00 a.m. We have a seven-hour layover in Abu Dhabi, because there are no direct flights from Karachi to Mumbai. I have been up all night, so I order a double cappuccino hoping for a caffeine rush (or at least to make the spots in front of my eyes disappear). While I snooze over my coffee, my kids race around the airport mall, gorging on junk food, shopping, and generally having a grand time. I relax a little, because in Abu Dhabi, no one seems to care that they are Pakistani. It occurs to me that while I thought that a seven-hour layover with 20 kids would be worse than hammering nails into my toes, the kids saw it as a day at the mall with their best friends.
But as boarding time nears, I am starting to feel uneasy. The jets fire up and I feel the rush as our plane departs for Mumbai. I realize that I am actually scared. Not so much of India, but of bringing 20 Pakistani kids into India, because the responsibility for what happens next is mine alone to bear. If I were traveling by myself on my US passport, I would ease back in my seat, order a glass of wine, and watch Bollywood movies. As the plane ascends, every awful story I have ever heard about how Indian Immigration deals with Pakistanis is now thrumming in my head. As we draw closer to Mumbai, anxiety tightens my neck and shoulder muscles into knots.
5:00 p.m. We arrive in Mumbai and at Immigration, the real fun begins. As we exit the plane, a small green sign reads “Pakistani passports” with an arrow pointing to a distant room down a corridor, and I feel my heart rate accelerate as about three fourths of my kids, some as young as 12, are led off without me. I know the look on my face must have been one of pure alarm, as a very sweet-faced young Indian woman in a glorious sari approaches me, lays her hand on my arm, and says “Madam, they will be alright. I will make sure.” I believe her, because really, what choice do I have? Another, equally beautiful, Immigration woman comes to help the remaining students traveling on other passports fill out the necessary documents, and we all get in line.
I stare at the corridor, willing my kids to reappear, and finally they do, with new paperwork in hand to join us in the Immigration line. I check for cuts or bruises, but everyone seems intact and in good spirits. This might work, I think. Indians aren’t going to rough up my kids after all. One by one, we work our way through Immigration… that is, until two seventh grade girls are stopped and we have to wait for their “pending” visas to be confirmed. Call me stupid, but I assumed if the visa was properly affixed in your passport, you were admitted to the country. Who knew? The other 18 kids move through passport control and on to baggage claim while I wait for the mysterious pending visas to unpend themselves.
(Left) Five schools in countries ranging from Oman to Bangladesh came together for a symphony orchestra concert for the music festival hosted by the South Asia International School Association. (SAISA)
6:00 p.m. Still waiting…
7:00 p.m. Still waiting. Nothing appears to be happening in Immigration, but I am starting to wonder what the kids in baggage claim are getting up to. I plead, whine, and wheedle my way out of Immigration and into baggage claim, only to find all of my kids guarding the instruments and luggage and telling stories. My daughter tries to convince the group that she is adopted. Over the course of the next two hours, I sneak back and forth between Immigration and baggage claim like some demented Mata Hari making sure that everyone is alright.
9:00 p.m. My phone calls to the director of the American School in Mumbai are becoming increasingly hysterical. Are we ever going to be allowed to leave the airport? What do I do with the 18 kids in baggage claim? Is there any conceivable way India is going to send us all back to Karachi? She is calm, and reassuringly tells me this goes on all the time in Indian airports. It will end, she tells me. Yes, but will I survive, I wonder?
It isn’t that the Indians are being especially unkind, it’s just that no diplomatic solution is coming at 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night. Are we supposed to sleep in the airport? My conversations with Indian Immigration are getting shorter and snippier as my patience disappears and total exhaustion kicks in. They have no good answers, and they just keep telling me to sit down and wait, but they won’t tell me what I am waiting for, exactly. A miracle?
10:00 p.m. My girls are finally, begrudgingly, released “at a risk” because you know, seventh grade musicians armed with Pringles and clarinets are highly dangerous. I realize Indian Immigration has probably just been messing with us all along. Why? Because they can. But I am so relieved and so tired that I can’t even muster the energy to be indignant.
December 4, 12:00 midnight. We arrive at our palatial hotel. The Indian concierge takes one look at my exhausted, haggard face and tells me very kindly but firmly, my kids have been escorted to their rooms and put in bed, all of the instruments have been safely sent to my room, and that I should go get some sleep. Everything is under control. And I believe him. I drop in bed, so tired that brushing my teeth feels like a chore. I have to weave an obstacle course around the music cases, but no matter. We are here in Mumbai. Somehow, I did it. I slip into a coma....
8:30 a.m. God, I love my sweet, resilient musicians. My kids are rested and ready to go. It’s almost like last night’s ridiculous events never happened. We mess around in the infinity pool, eat way too much at the breakfast bar, and generally do nothing useful. I unpack my cello, and miracle of miracles, it has survived yet another difficult plane journey. It needs tuning, but other than that, all is well.
11:00 a.m. The other two chaperones finally turn up and check in. Thanks to God, Allah, Ganesh, or whoever, but I don’t think I could face three days of rehearsal, dealing with instruments, and a performance by myself.
December 5, 9:00 a.m. First rehearsal with the guest conductor. I glance around the room at the 150-odd musicians. There are students from literally all over the world sitting behind music stands ready to play. Indian trombone players sit side by side with Pakistani trumpeters. Nepalese violinists tune with American and Chinese players. Bangladeshi and Korean saxophonists bang out old school jazz. Teachers from all schools join in the various sections. I wondered what a multinational orchestra would look like, and here it is in all of its colorful glory. The guest conductor, John Lynch, was from Australia by way of the United States, but if Anthony Bourdain ever took up music, he would be our conductor today. The resemblance is uncanny, right down to the public shaming for playing like a buffoon, late entrances, and horrible notes. Wow. I feel like I am in a scene from Bollywood Whiplash. This is REAL orchestra.
The title of our concert is “Here and There, Then and Now,” a celebration of music from all over the globe. Some of the music is familiar to a few of the musicians, not so much to others. But after the first raggedy run through, I can sense the beginnings of a commonality of purpose. At first, our collective goal is “to not suck.” Then, as the hours of rehearsal grind on, I can see the intensity in the room changing; the kids want to get it right. No, not just “right.” They want the music to soar, as well it should.
12:00 p.m. We break for lunch, and are treated to an array of curries, some with meat, some vegetarian, and some plainer fare for palates unaccustomed to South Asian heat. At first I watch as the kids tend to congregate by school, to sit with their friends and people they know. But as time goes by, I see the kids starting to regroup by instrument section, comparing notes, thinking through the phrasing, complaining about their aching chops.
1:00 p.m. Chocolate croissants and Starbucks for teachers. There is a God, and her name is caffeine.
1:30 p.m. “The Firebird” rehearsal and the low brass section is smoking hot. They have it, the fire, the urgency—the allegro agitato raises the hairs on my arms. The Indian student on the timpani (the kettledrum) is clearly loving his part. I keep sneaking looks at him as he bangs out Stravinsky’s thunderous rhythm. If this were the New York Philharmonic, Misty Copeland would be making her spectacular entrance, and this young drummer plays like he is awaiting the lovely prima ballerina. You don’t need to be Russian to appreciate the fact that Stravinsky’s music is masala hot. Best still, I practiced this section to death and I can totally keep up on the cello. Score!
2:00 p.m. The choir appears for the first run-through of the final number, “The Promise of Living” by Aaron Copeland. An American composer, Copeland was trying to convey that you really can build a country in the face of adversity. I don’t imagine he conceived of this piece sung in South Asia, but if ever anyone needed to believe that a peaceful homeland is indeed possible, it is these kids.
The polyphonic nirvana brought about by young students from diverse and sometimes warring nations is described by the author as a musical kumbaya moment.
December 6, Concert Day 9:15 a.m. Our first run through with the choir isn’t too bad. The orchestra is way too loud, though, so the conductor starts dumping the second and third chairs of all the sections. Strings, however, move to the very front row. The choir sounds better, just missing some vocal power, but as the kids get used to singing with an orchestra, they ramp up their voices so that they can be heard.
1:00 p.m. Lunch. You guessed it: curry.
3:00 p.m. My back is killing me, and no amount of yoga is alleviating the pain. I am thinking about just moving on to street pharmaceuticals....
We have two complete run-throughs with the choir and the orchestra. All of the musicians are looking exhausted. Horn players are rubbing their lips and making funny horse noises. Everyone is taking turns massaging each other’s lower backs. Some are lying on the floor. I feel a little sorry for them. They’re just kids, but they have been treated like professional musicians.
4:30 p.m. Dinner. Curry. When this festival is over, I am composing a brief concerto to all things curry….
5:00 p.m. We change into our concert dress. Some schools designed exotic outfits based on their national dress. The Lincoln School from Kathmandu, for example, is wearing scarlet and gold traditional gowns. Mumbai and Karachi, on the other hand, opted for concert black and white dress. But my kids now want national dress outfits for next year and I agree. The salwar-kameez is perfect for musicians: loose, comfortable, yet colorful and classy.
6:00 p.m. The concert is just wonderful. I stop from time to time to breathe and take it all in. There aren’t symphony orchestras in Pakistan anymore, so this may be the only chance my kids ever get to be part of a big sound, a symphonic sound that fills this enormous space. We end with the “Promise of Living,” and the orchestra and choir are in perfect balance.
As we reach the dramatic conclusion, Copeland fills my heart. There is hope. There is beauty and light and magic. It’s here in this room, in the 150 kids and teachers creating music so extraordinary that the roof could lift off of this gym. Briefly, my eyes tear up. Some of these students come from countries that absolutely hate each other, as I well know. Where the Taliban and the Islamic State kill people. Where devastating earthquakes, floods, and ridiculous politics create unimaginable hardships. Yet at this moment in Mumbai, the music temporarily erases the grief. This world, our world, is a beautiful place.
Some of the young musicians who flew with the author from Karachi to attend this momentous concert in Mumbai.
As the concert ends, I turn and look at their faces. The exhaustion is gone, their eyes are glowing, their smiles incandescent. They feel it, too, the magic that music brings. I want to hug them all, and remind them to hold on to this glorious feeling of being young and alive and lucky enough to be musicians.
A month later, I am sitting at a literary festival in Karachi. It is a gorgeous, bright blue day, the smell of roasting chicken tikka, biryani, and, of course, chai, perfume the air. Many South Asian authors and journalists were invited to celebrate the printed word in all of its forms. In one breakout session led by an Indian journalist, the conversation turned to the number of Indians that were denied Pakistani visas to attend this event. I listened as Indian after Indian stood and expressed their rage, their helpless indignation, that the increasing tension and hostility between the two governments was wreaking havoc in the lives of South Asians whose very job it is to bring culture, beauty, and understanding to a region in desperate need of hope for a better future.
So, I thought, the poisoned knife that sliced South Asia in two, spreads its hatred both ways. Indians experience the same biases, the same ridiculous bureaucracy that I did while traveling to Mumbai. How stupid, how unbelievably wasteful it all seems. I realize I am just an observer. I am neither Indian nor Pakistani, but having just witnessed the music festival in Mumbai and the literary festival in Karachi, it seems to me that the artistes in the desi community have it right: They can’t worry about Tehreek-a-Taliban, or the Islamic State, or who gets control of Kashmir or any other political goings on. Those issues they must leave to their respective governments, but the political minds are failing miserably at solving these problems, and as such are letting down the very people who bring so much joy and light and passion to a region badly in need of something to celebrate.
Marianne Ide lives, works, and plays cello in Karachi, Pakistan.
Enjoyed reading Khabar magazine? Subscribe to Khabar and get a full digital copy of this Indian-American community magazine.
blog comments powered by Disqus