It was a loooong trip to Bangalore from Varanasi by train. The year was probably 1988 or 1987. One also had to change a train at Chennai and connect to Bangalore. Two nights and God only knows how many days later, I was finally at the Bangalore station. Literally waiting for my ride to the hotel, a quick shower, food, and then off to get some sleep.
While at the platform waiting for someone to receive me, I saw some people running around with garlands (traditional way of welcoming someone in India). There was a placard with “something” written on it… I say “something” as it was written in Tamil and it could be as foreign to a North Indian as to a North American or anyone else from any part of the world!
One by one every one disappeared from the platform except me, and these few people who were still running around... were definitely looking for someone. Remember, these were pre-cellphone days and thus there was no way for me to reach the organizers to ascertain who had come to receive me.
I finally decided to stop one of them with the garland and ask if by any chance they were looking for me. I stopped him and gave a smile as sweet as possible, and signaled and asked if by any chance it was me... but before I could proceed any further, he gave me a disgusted look as if to say, "I have enough problems already, don’t add to it." And he hurried away from me looking carefully inside every coach that he could.
So there I was, left alone again and starting to imagine the worst-case scenario.
Concert has been cancelled.
Now I have to fend for myself.
My return is booked on the day after tomorrow.
Do I have enough money to sustain my stay in a hotel?
No credit cards for self employed musicians in those days…(that’s another story.)
Suddenly I see these people looking at me from a distance and talking amongst themselves, almost placing a bet on me…! Then, a glimmer of hope as I see this one with the placard coming towards me. He comes to me and signals at the placard, obviously trying to ask me whether this was my name on the sign or not?
But there were three problems:
a) The placard was written in Tamil
b) The guy could only speak and understand Tamil
c) I could not read, write, or speak Tamil.
I desperately kept saying my name in English, almost begging that it was me that he was looking for. But he looked at me and just turned away. I thought, "There goes your chance of getting a free ride into the city, at least."
Just as I was giving up hope, the others in the group arrived and one of them asked, “Are you Sandeep Das, Tabla player from Varanasi?” with a heavy southern accent. Don’t take it otherwise, but if you have faced it you know what I mean. Making out what the other is saying can be pretty tough.
I jumped at the mention of my name and almost shouted, “Yes!” three times!
They all looked at one another, almost in surprise. The one with the garland decided that he had had enough of carrying this thing around and promptly put it around my tired neck. The others started another animated conversation amongst themselves. A word of which I could not gather.
Then the one who could speak bits of English turned towards me and almost apologetically said:
“We were not expecting someone young and dressed in a T shirt and jeans to arrive as Sandeep Das. We thought Sandeep Das, the famous Indian Tabla player, is someone older, and since he is from Varanasi, he would definitely be chewing Paan and wearing a traditional Kurta and Pajama!”
Little did I know, this was not going to be the first or the last such experience. Starting with this incident and many such that followed, there was a time that (whenever I was going to a new or little-known place, or going somewhere for the first time) I would change into a Traditional dress before getting off the train or, if taking a flight, would wear one to start with.
Not to say that I am any bit famous now …but I am glad to be an Indian Tabla Player at least!