My parents have an oft-shared anecdote, one set in the mid-1990s, where they set out to buy a washing machine and bought a music system instead. It would take another decade or so for a washing machine to finally find a place in our family home, but the music system was used regularly the whole time. With it, of course, we started to build a collection of cassettes and CDs that now form hillocks of redundancy in corners of the house but were among our most prized possessions back in the day.
Among this was a collection of ghazals by Jagjit and Chitra Singh. It played in our house quite often. I don’t remember how it happened but one song from this collection became my father’s and my duet that we would perform when in company. That song was ‘Woh Kaagaz ki Kashti’, a song about an intense longing to return to childhood. Of course, it makes sense for one to get nostalgic over a song about nostalgia, but in my case, things were a little different.
I never thought about it then because I was unfamiliar with the concept of irony as a child, and I did not understand the language well. But as an adult, the memory of me singing this song puts a smile on my face because I imagine a seven-year-old singing a line like ‘Bhale cheen lo mujhse meri jawani, magar mujhko lauta do bachpan ka saawan’ (Take my youth away in exchange for returning my childhood). How absurd!
With age came greater understanding of the lyrics and, subsequently, higher relatability to the song. It’s like that meme—somewhere between this and that, we grew up. For me, somewhere between parroting the syllables unaware of what they meant and looking up each individual word on Google, I grew up. The line ‘Badi khoobsurat thi woh zindagani’ (How beautiful that life was) now makes perfect sense for those times when homework was the greatest burden in life.
A song is like a time machine. It takes you back to the time when it was a big part of your life. For a moment, you are that person again, her confidence and her insecurities assailing you before something from the present reminds you that you are a different person now. In that way, ‘Woh Kaagaz ki Kashti’ represents so many things to me. It reminds me of the hours spent playing outdoor games with friends, of a time when one had to rewind a tape several times to listen to one’s favourite song but did it without complaint. It takes me back to an era when a power cut meant playing antakshari, where wars were fought over whether the song begins with ‘Yeh Daulat bhi le lo’ or ‘Woh kaagaz ki kashti’, and you had to wait for the electricity to come back on to decide who was right.
Nostalgia is the victory of remembering over memory. We choose to look at the past with rose-tinted glasses and pick out the best parts. The reality is that we are glad to have smartphones that enable us to buy flight tickets in seconds because that means we no longer have to spend an hour in line outside a ticket window, unsure till the last second whether we will actually get a ticket or not. And yet, despite the pragmatism and the score of music streaming apps at our fingertips, it’s hard to throw that music system and the mounds of cassettes away. These remain, for us, the relics of a time we obstinately hold on to and cherish, the ‘toote khilaunon ki jaagir’ (the kingdom of broken toys) that Jagjit Singh sang of in ‘Woh Kaagaz ki Kashti’.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.