Us and Them

Posted on November 21, 2014


With a new Pink Floyd album out, Baradwaj Rangan reflects on the band’s longstanding popularity with kids across college campuses in India.

So Pink Floyd have a new album out. It’s called The Endless River, which sounds about right for a Pink Floyd album. It’s the kind of name the band is so fond of, suffused with new-agey imagery from nature. I mean, just look at their discography. There was Delicate Sound of Thunder. There was Obscured by Clouds. There was The Dark Side of the Moon. There was The Wall (okay, not exactly nature, but you build walls on the earth, and that’s surely nature). There was The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. There was Atom Heart Mother (which sounds like a greeting card Schrödinger would send his mum, who was surely made of atoms, as is all of nature). There was Animals. There was even something called The Final Cut, which, come to think of it, is how a slaughterhouse hand might view Animals. Anyway, back to The Endless River, which debuted at No. 1 this week, a bit of news that has surely unleashed waves of joy in English-speaking college campuses throughout the country.

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Some decades ago, you were probably one of those college kids yourself. Your children would find this hard to believe, but then there you were, in a trance in your hostel room, air-guitaring along with Learning to Fly, something college kids today would never do because if they did, someone would be filming this on a phone and it’d end up on the internet and the next day everyone would greet you with a snicker and a raised hand with vibrating fingers. But back in the day, you did these things. I knew one of those dudes. I knew many, actually, but this one guy comes to mind now because he (and this is really another person, not a version of “doctor, my ‘friend’ likes to wear his wife’s nighties”) had a series of email IDs that went That was short for “earth-bound misfit,” as in “Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earth-bound misfit, I,” as in the lyrics of Learning to Fly. In my scientific opinion, this pretty much sums up the appeal of Pink Floyd in those college campuses.

Oh, sure, the music’s a reason – there’s no doubting that. There’s also the fact that it wasn’t all that easy to lay hands on new Western music those days, and we lived on hand-me-downs from older students, who learnt that Floyd was cool from their seniors, and so on, ad infinitum. So kids who’d be listening to Fernando and Daddy Cool in school would, after one semester in college, begin air-guitaring to Learning to Fly, while denouncing ABBA and Boney-M as… pop crap. But more than anything, it was the mood, that vaguely portentous mood of Pink Floyd’s music, which sounded as if you were having some kind of spiritual revelation while trapped inside a giant synthesiser, and you realised that the voice of God came with awesome backup vocals. And this mood, when combined with the equally portentous lyrics, became the kind of… black hole that just sucked students in. (You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve just seen Interstellar.)

The age when you get into Pink Floyd is usually the age when you’re feeling alone, alienated, misunderstood, when Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the greatest book ever written, when you’re asking questions like, “Is there anybody out there?” And then you stumble on a copy of The Wall, and find that there’s actually a song in there called… Is there anybody out there? If you were more into Indian film music, you might have discovered that there’s a ton of angst in the lyrics of film songs as well, a song for every earth-ending adolescent trauma that befalls you. Dad ticked you off again? Sodhanai mel sodhanai… Teacher just announced a pop quiz? Enge nimmadhi… Can’t think of answers to any of the exam questions? Mera jeevan kora kaagaz… Best friend saw the new Spielberg movie with someone else? Dost dost na raha… Girlfriend dumped you? Kehta hai joker saara zamaana

Imagine, then, what it’d be like when you find the same thing in Western music, in English, the language you think in. It’s impossible not to be blown away by lines like “You were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom, blown on the steel breeze.” Today you may think… uh, childhood and stardom? Steel breeze? But then, today, you are also embarrassed you took life lessons from a seagull and that your answer to the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question was Howard Roark. Back then, when the sky was infinite and not obscured by adult clouds, it all sounded so… cool. Actually, if you think about it, Pink Floyd is relevant to our grown-up lives too. Money, get away. Get a good job with good pay and you’re okay. Truer words, etcetera.

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