Love Songs in Other Languages

1. Soledad, aquí están mis credenciales 

One day, when I find out one of my favorite singer-songwriters is planning a tour stop in Panama, I buy myself a ticket, +1 for Loneliness. I don’t tell my friends. I don’t even invite my spouse to join me. Jorge Drexler and I go back further than my marriage. He was part of my twenties, a soundtrack played on loop inside my head, giving voice to my ever-present sense of unbelonging. I started learning Spanish because of his music—a sort of talk-singing that had the cadence of poetry. Or perhaps it was the other way around—I started learning Spanish around the same time I came across his music and the sudden snippets of words I understood made me feel like I was on the brink of multiliteracy, polyvocality. “Listen to “Disneylandia,” I wanted to tell my friends back then. Is there a better way to capture the beauty and terror of globalization?

Except, I didn’t share music with others. It has always felt too personal, too connected to my identity, my sense of taste. If music is an aesthetic sensibility, if it ties someone to place or time, if it moves their body—no matter how ungainly—if it thrums their throat—no matter how quietly—how could it possibly withstand another’s scrutiny? Any critique of my music felt like a laceration. Instead, music was a private conversation. Jorge would sing, “Aquí estoy, te traigo mis cicatrices,” and I’d think, yes, here are mine, let’s compare.

I’ve moved around—Mumbai, Dubai, a slew of American towns each smaller than the last, and now, Panama City, a place to be, who knows for how long. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve tried to find some holdfast, something that feels like belonging. In Dubai, it was my parents’ shadows, frames of reference that wobbled around the edges—they were also twice removed from their parents’ birthplaces in Chennai, and whatever they passed on to me of their Indianness was muddled and amalgamated. In Panama City, it is in the softening of shoulders that happens when one walks as a brown person among other brown people. It feels good to blend in, on the surface.

But then the radio plays, and I don’t know how to bop along. In Panama, it is reggaeton. In the United States, it was American pop. I’d go on car trips with friends, and they’d belt out songs in a language I knew but to melodies I’d never learned. They’d react with shock at the possibility that I could not know who thrummed their throats.

I tell him I intend to be a novelist and that all I need is a computer and an Internet hookup.

To belong is to sing along, I thought. And it has never come naturally to me, even in childhood. Once, on a train ride from Mumbai to Bengaluru, my parents played a game called Antakshari with the other families in our car. It had become a craze that year—someone would start the first verse of a Bollywood song and when they stopped, the next person would have to sing a new song that began with the last consonant of the previous one. I think there were teams. I think people were keeping score. But no matter whose turn it was, the entire car would erupt into chorus once someone started the first notes of a song everyone knew. My father is tone-deaf, and even he enjoyed this. I sat tucked in a corner, body rocking in time with the train tracks, grinning to throw others off the truth. I recognized the melodies but couldn’t reproduce the words—I didn’t speak Hindi well enough.

I suppose I must have leaned into my lack of knowledge. If I couldn’t belong to the music around me, I would hitchhike through music that was not my own. At university I listened to singers from Iceland, Mali, Turkey, Algeria, Mexico. They must be poets, I told myself. I let myself drift in their music, headphones sealing me away. I existed out of space, out of time.

So when my spouse lands a job in Panama, I tell him I’ll follow even though it means uprooting yet again. I tell him I’m committed to this lifestyle, even though we both know Panama isn’t permanent, and that we’ll have to leave again someday. I tell him I intend to be a novelist and that all I need is a computer and an Internet hookup. I live in a row house surrounded by tropical trees. I wake to toucans croaking, titi monkeys chittering. It is an idyllic setup for writing, and I should feel inspired. But the novel falters and, by stages, so do I.

Or perhaps it is the other way around. I have been adrift for so long that it has crept into the way I speak, the way I write. Broken grammar, borrowed idioms, liminal stories about liminal people who sound like BBC documentarians one moment and like my mother the next. Who code switch across languages that make no geographic sense. I feed self-doubt until it becomes immense enough to sit on the windowsill. Loneliness, here are my credentials, I say, reading my work aloud. Loneliness is unimpressed. I tell myself Loneliness is my foil, and I will build character by embracing her. I avoid deep friendships—Loneliness doesn’t like it when others ask what she pines for. Talking about it might make her disappear, an existential crisis.

When Jorge Drexler comes to Panama, I know enough Spanish to feel doubly resonant with his music, both melody and lyrics. I suppress, for now, how unjust it feels to be able to learn languages written in Latin script so easily, when I can barely write my own name in Tamil, my mother tongue. This is what “Disneylandia” is all about, I say to Loneliness, have you ever heard it?

I follow my fellow concertgoers’ example, turn back to face our chorus leader.

I could tell you a version of the story outlined in that song: Child of Tamil Indian expats, married in Iowa to a botanist from the Netherlands who moves to Panama—whose people trace their lineages to indigenous and Spanish and African waves of settlement, colonization, slavery, whose borders were wrenched from Colombians, whose waters were wrenched from Americans—buys vegetables from the Chino-Panamanian grocery store built across from the tax shelter a Russian oligarch sank into a building made with concrete mixed by undocumented Venezuelans by the roadside where an Indigenous Guna woman sells intricately embroidered molas to a Swedish tourist who hopped off a boat crossing the Canal behind a cargo ship that left a port in Dubai carrying goods from South Korea and a crew from the Philippines, buys a ticket to watch a concert at the American Trade Hotel in Old Panama, where the Uruguayan son of a German Jewish refugee whose family are now in Spain might sing her favorite song—the one that ends with Iraqi children who’ve fled war and are refused visas at the American consulate in Egypt, even though all they wanted was to enter Disneyland. All they wanted was to enter Disneyland.

I take Loneliness with me to the concert. Jorge doesn’t sing “Disneylandia,” but he does sing across his discography, songs I recognize from over a decade of close listening. When he sings, “Hay tantas cosas, yo solo preciso dos, mi guitarra y vos, mi guitarra y vos,” I am shocked to find myself singing along. I look around, self-conscious under the blue lights of the concert hall, my elbows a respectful distance from a couple hundred or so people who are in here with me, who don’t know me at all. Where did Loneliness go, I wonder? I follow my fellow concertgoers’ example, turn back to face our chorus leader. In my twenties, I’d misheard these lyrics as “mi guitarra y voz,” my guitar and voice. I had thought it was a song about self-assurance. About being comfortable in being alone. It is only now that I realize my mistake. The instruments die out and Jorge sings the refrain, over and over again. Of all the things in the world, he says to me, I only need two. My guitar and you, my guitar and you.

Every one of us sings with him. We need to.


2. A song for city birds

Last night at the Teatro Balboa, the maestro of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Panamá held up a hand at a pause in the music to call for us to stop clapping. He then explained, very gently: Ladies and gentlemen, the movements of a symphony are like the chapters of a novel. Just as you would not say the story ends after reading a chapter, you do not need to clap between movements. I ask that you hold your applause till the end.

Because he was kind and did not belittle our misunderstanding, this morning everything is music. I sit on a coffee shop patio across from an auto repair shop, by the side of a little drainage creek full of gasoline runoff and disintegrating Styrofoam. A tree grows resplendent from the far bank of the creek, its leaves trilling like piano keys in the breeze. Some shriek calls my attention to its topmost leaves, which part to reveal a small green parakeet preening brown berries off the twigs. A breeze shivers the leaves to reveal tiny instrumentalists—now, the parakeet bobs, as if to conduct, between each bend of bough below, songbirds the size of tulips—powder blue, red velvet cake, a hornet’s enamel. The auto shop adds percussion—lug nuts wrenched off cars.

I am no birder. My knowledge begins with city pigeons and ends with the parakeet, which I know is a parakeet only because it is green and has a hook beak. But there is something about this moment that makes me linger, as if I must commit everything to memory so I can pass it on. A story-song of a tree orchestrated by little birds, wind and water, the incongruous flourishes from the auto shop, all of it in unplanned, harmonious concert.

To attend a concert requires conviction.

Last night’s concert was also free, and my spouse and I attended it on a whim, because we had nothing planned for the evening and it was just a short walk down the hill for us. We kept an even pace, passed our own shared landmarks: Beside the row of empty houses owned by the Panama Canal Authority, an avocado tree with sumptuously creamy fruit that no one else seemed to notice. Along a stone wall, three wax-tube entrances to the homes of tiny stingless bees. At the base of the Canal Authority building, a magnificent fig tree, floodlit from below—we agreed that the light shone upon it because it was as statuesque as the monument it grew beside. Everywhere in the city, it was these natural flourishes that drew our eyes.

Most of the other concert attendees did not walk to the Teatro. They couldn’t. Panama City grew up too fast for its infrastructure, and a disproportionate number of its workforce commutes—east from the sprawl beyond the airport or west across the Puente de las Americas that spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, two great streams of cars that clench into a knot at the heart of the city. Commuters leave their homes at four in the morning and return after nine at night. To attend a concert requires conviction. When the musicians played softly, traffic noises filtered from outside. Occasionally, someone in the audience would whoop, as if cheering on a loved one at a sports game.

As with the birds, I feel illiterate in music. It fills my system like a liquid and pours straight out again when the players stop. I retain other kinds of details. Like, how when one of the violinists got into the swing of a piece, his feet lifted off the floor with each upward swipe of the bow on his strings. He was seated and yet danced on his toes, and when those toes left the ground, I also came loose off my chair. It was a weeknight concert, but the little, old couple in front of us were dressed in their Sunday best. When the audience clapped between movements I itched to join in, whether or not the timing was appropriate. I glanced at my spouse’s hands, also hovering somewhere between armrests and full engagement. We shrugged at each other—joining in did not feel wrong.

This morning, I sit in front of the auto repair shop and let my coffee go cold for the sake of the birds. It is no small trick to stay alive in the city, especially when your bones are hollow and light as reeds. The birds I know best are hardscrabble trash pickers, dressed in grays and browns and blacks. A city parakeet is a gift, let alone a dozen songbirds, in all their paint-boxed finery, convivially rummaging from a tree growing out of a drainage creek. I want to ID the birds because I think that knowing their names will tell me something about how we make do in a world not built for us.

I hope that they will fly off and hold concert in another tree.

Like my fellow concert goers, many of whom, I imagine, must choose between forests and carports, between art and economy. Who must choose to sit still in a car on a bridge suspended over a Panamax ship or to sit still through a symphony. Who must compare rent on an apartment on either side of that bridge. Gamble on cello lessons for their kid who has so much potential even if it never translates into a career. Postpone work to listen to songbirds asserting their living among the city’s pigeons and grackles.

Months later, I will learn that some birds in Panama form multispecies flocks that forage in cooperative groups. Each species picks through its own stratum of forest, from leaf litter to understory bushes to the layers of the tree canopy, a harmony of birds. Even then, I will struggle to keep apart their names: ant-gnat-wren-shrike-yellow-crimson-bellied-dusky-blue-backed-vireo-tanager­-fly-catcher-wood-creeper.

So what does it matter that I don’t know their names this morning? That I can only tell you I saw pale blue birds and golden-black birds and deep red birds and a parakeet. I hope that they will fly off and hold concert in another tree, by a garbage dump, perhaps, or by the overpass, where the cars are at a standstill and an enterprising young man pushes a cart full of cold soda cans and packets of vinegar-soaked green mangoes down the middle of the road. He’ll hear a shriek and see the parakeet first.

I think I understand the maestro’s gentleness last night even if the music escapes me. We are not audience to this world, but participants. Who would fault me if I wait beside this tree, agog, for the mechanic to wipe his brow, for the birds to close their beaks, for the breeze to catch its breath? For some brief lull to the story, which I feel called upon to fill with my applause?

I return home, I open my laptop, I begin to write. The bird-tree is a poem now. But there isn’t space enough inside a poem, because there are people here too. The sort of people who’d mount a floodlight at the base of a fig tree instead of cutting it down to make more space for a building. The people who play music even though there’s no money in it. And, always, the people who cheer them on.


3. Nila, nila, odi va 

I have always wanted to raise my child multilingual, but my spouse and I only know how to care for each other in English. When I am pregnant, we decide we will try our best to speak only our first languages to the baby, even if that means we won’t have a shared language between the three of us. We both miss the soundscapes of our home languages and recognize that nothing will replace them except to retrace our footsteps, diverge back to our places of birth.

My sister makes me listen to Lizzo on a Pilates ball.

My problem is that my first language is broken. I speak English with fluency and resentment. I speak other languages with heart and bad grammar. I was raised in a mix of Tamil, English, and Hindi at home, a casual, code-switching banter that borrowed freely from one language to the next to plug up gaps in fluency. The year before I started graduate school, I took a yearlong course in introductory Tamil at my undergraduate institution, concurrent with an immersion course in Spanish. By the end of that year, I could just about read out the curlicued letters in a string of Tamil script—enough to realize that written Tamil would always elude me, because it was in a formal register I never spoke at home. Meanwhile, I became proficient in Spanish. Not so much as to appreciate literature but enough, after five years in Panama, to explain to my doctor that I wanted a natural birth. Enough to express, if anyone asked, how much it stung to speak yet another language of conquest. I could not express this thought in Tamil, only write around it in a borrowed tongue.

Pregnancy brings questions of language and belonging back into sharp focus. My parents and sister, even my sister’s cat, fly into Panama the week before our child’s due date. They’ve come from Dubai and California respectively and will stay for a couple of months. My parents organize and put away the junk I’ve collected for unfinished projects—animal bones, interesting shells, scrap pieces of wood. My sister curates a labor and birthing playlist. When we go baby furniture shopping, I translate for my parents. My sister, also adrift between languages, understands the gist of Spanish but finds herself responding in French. My spouse speaks to his parents on the phone in Dutch. I understand a lot of what he’s saying, guessing from context, from cognate words in English. I wonder what the baby makes of all these sounds, muffled as they are by my body.

Ten days overdue, my spouse and I visit my doctor, and she tells us I am too dilated to wander about anymore, that I should check in to the hospital. I feel no pain, but I am swept into a wheelchair by the nurses when I give them my doctor’s note. I am bemused at all the equipment the nurses hook up to me. My spouse, parents, and sister take turns to stay with me in the labor room. It is frigid and we are all underdressed. My father attempts a crossword puzzle. My mother says she is praying. My sister makes me listen to Lizzo on a Pilates ball. My spouse takes a turn in the hospital bed and we laugh when my sister points out how absurd it would be for the doctor to find him wrapped up in my sheets. The night nurses exchange glances, because this isn’t what labor is supposed to look like—boredom and goofiness.

Around 1 a. m. and seven centimeters dilated, my doctor decides it is time to mechanically induce my labor because I still don’t feel anything. And once she does, I feel everything all at once, a gravitational wrenching of my lower abdomen, unbidden and uncontrollable. I forget to breathe—my sister has to coach me. I am delirious and tell my spouse I am worried about the pillows and how everyone will sleep.

Monsoon-clad women declaring their first loves to moonlight, men garlanding trees with their arms because their lovers were beyond unscalable parapets.

Minutes or hours later, the doctor tells me my fetus’ heart rate has plummeted, that she needs to take me in for a C-section. I protest. I struggle to find the words, through a contraction, to explain that this is not what I want. She nods. She is compassionate. But she says that it isn’t about me alone anymore, but what the baby needs. I ask to see my mother, explain in some garbled mix of languages what the doctor says they must do. I don’t know how to tell her I’m afraid, so I clutch for her hand instead. By now, somehow, everyone in the family has been admitted into the labor room, but the nurses inform us that only my spouse can follow me into surgery. I am wheeled ahead of him, moaning through contractions. This, too, is a kind of language, one of few that needs no translation.

While the nurses erect green tenting around my lower half, the surgeon’s assistant asks me where I’m from. The anesthesiologist reassures me that the needle in my spine is doing its job. My doctor preps her tools. She and the assistant surgeon keep up a brisk dialogue that doesn’t seem to involve my imminent bifurcation. The assistant fiddles on his phone by my side and disappears behind the green curtaining. My lower half has gone to sleep but my upper half is overcompensating—the room is too cold, the surgeons’ tools too clinky, there’s too much white light in here, too much green smocking. My inner monologue unravels. Where is my mother, I’m thinking in Tamil; don’t panic, I’m telling the upper half of my body in English; and in Spanish, I’m trying to translate what the doctors are chatting about. Dinners and weekends, it seems. Nothing to worry about, I tell my upper body, but it does not listen.

My spouse hovers somewhere in my periphery with the neonatal doctor. I am about to ask for him when music pours out of the speakers overhead. It is Bollywood music from the nineties. Udit Narayan maybe. A whole orchestra of strings. Maudlin music, I think, histrionic stuff that I resisted as a teenager because I had nothing in common with the characters in Bollywood musicals. Monsoon-clad women declaring their first loves to moonlight, men garlanding trees with their arms because their lovers were beyond unscalable parapets. On the radio, on TV, at the movie theatre, in taxis, Bollywood music was the backdrop to my youth in Dubai. It was another form of linguistic conquest, really, because this was how I had learned enough Hindi to get by in casual conversations. I had thought I had left it behind two countries ago.

The music comes from the assistant surgeon’s phone, hooked up to the operating room’s speakers. He returns to my side to ask me how I am doing. I don’t tell him I don’t like the music. I tell him que la reconozco, esta música. Es de mi adolescencia. Gracias, I say, and I do mean it. Because he never asked me if this is what I wanted, he just thought that in this space that was so alien to me, I should have something that felt like my own. It is such a casual gesture of kindness.

I don’t feel the tang of the knife incising my abdomen, only a dull, tugging pressure. It is as if my lower half is an adjoining apartment. Somewhere beyond that green fabric wall, the side tables are being shoved aside to make way for the sofa, which is stuck in a stairwell it was never meant to fit through.

I kiss the air around your face instead.

It should reassure me—the lack of pain, this rendering of my body into a series of moveable objects—but I am terrified. I know I am open to the world and that, if I could move, I would leap off the table shrieking, doubled over to keep myself together. To control myself, I start to hum. I know this music, you see, so it comes naturally. I don’t know how loud my voice is—the doctors and nurses are talking shop behind the curtains and maybe they don’t notice that my humming is edged in panic, or maybe they do, but I keep it going. I don’t want to know what’s happening next door, as it were, so I focus on the strings, the sudden shiver of a harp, the microtones I need to follow to stay in tune with the singers. Sonu Nigam croons in Hindi about how the sun dims just as the moon begins to blaze. How he stands still as the earth moves under his feet. How hard his heart beats even though he cannot breathe.

And when my baby cries out for the first time, Mr. Nigam sings a question about love that I do not yet have the words or wherewithal to form. Oh, I think to myself, I should remember this moment—it is the literal soundtrack to my life. The doctors place something heavy onto my chest, but my skin is numb to wetness and warmth, and covered with green draping. “¿Ella está aquí?” I ask them. I’m laughing because they don’t need to tell me—this weight is my baby, who I cannot yet hold.

They raise her up and hold her over the fabric wall, so I can see her face. She looks gray, waterlogged, wild-eyed. Her hair seems smeared in cream cheese. Something bright orange dangles from her mouth and I wonder whether it came from my body or hers. A very unserious part of me remembers the back patio of the house, the old turtle shell I’d found on a beach and buried in soil to decompose the flesh, to pick clean the bones, how fatty orange liquid continued to bead out of the bones long after the meat had gone. Why did my baby’s mouth remind me of death?

It is a fleeting thought, and my baby is very much alive, even though I cannot touch her yet. “Vandhute-da nee,” I say to the apparition of my child, now hovering above my body, now distant cries from an incubator, now swaddled and presented near my face. You’ve come to your mother, who doesn’t know how to express herself well enough in Tamil. Who cannot pass you down a full-formed first language, only a language first heard. I kiss the air around your face instead. Forgive me, baby, I want to say. I am paralyzed and you are so small.

After an excruciating time of waiting alone in a recovery room for the anesthetics to wear off, I am wheeled into a maternity room to reunite with my family. My spouse, an inky baby footprint on his forearm. My sister, who shows me pictures of the baby in her incubator. My parents, beaming, telling me the baby’s fine, do not worry, she will be brought back to you soon. Everyone I have loved until this moment is here with me now, and because of this, I do not fear what is to come. They will teach me how to bathe the baby, to put her to sleep, to weather her cries, to remember to feed myself. They will show me things that words don’t capture, a body language of embraces, the many ways to cradle a child.

I tell my family about the music in the operating room. I tell them how I hummed to keep out the terror of what was happening to my body. I wonder if the assistant surgeon had any idea how much it helped.

“And you won’t believe the song that was playing as Nila came out,” I say to them. “Like, this is so cheesy, but literally I heard Nila crying for the first time to the tune of, ‘Kya yeh mera pehla pehla pyar hai?’ ” I sing the line, for added emphasis.

We will teach her how to examine bones and feathers. How to pay attention to rocks and leaves.

My parents and sister start laughing. It gives me such satisfaction to share in this moment with them, here where I have been translating between Spanish and Tamil and English all night. This is what I want for my child as well—a shared basis for laughter. I do not yet know what that will look like for her. She comes to us, swaddled in pink, her wrists and ankles adorned in hospital bracelets, enclosed in a crystalline cradle. After my mother shows me how to get her to latch onto my breast, after my sister takes her last photos that morning, after my father holds the baby one more time, we are left alone, my spouse, my child, and I.

I trace a finger over my baby’s ear as she sleeps. It is pressed flush to her skull, looks like the continent of Africa flipped upside down. It is a temporary deformation, from being stuck in my birth canal for so long. I do not yet know this. I do not know that her ears will unfurl eventually, look like any other baby’s ears, unremarkable. I do not yet know, at the hospital, that my spouse will sing, “Slaap, Nila, slaap, daar buiten loopt een aap,” into that tiny ear at night. In the original version of the lullaby, it is sheep that put the child to sleep. There are no schapen where we live, but titi monkeys troop past our windows each day, and she will learn the words aap from him and korangu from me because I will borrow his lullaby and translate it into Tamil. “Toongu, Nila, toongu,” I will sing to her, a song no other Tamil speaker would know.

I know only two lullabies in Tamil. One, my mother sang to me and will sing to Nila as well, in that formal, poetic register I will never fully grasp. The other is more of a rhyme than a melody. Nila, nila, odi va, it goes. Moon, moon, come running. I chose my child’s name explicitly because a part of me feared that it would be the only word of my first language she would know to say when she is grown up. What else to expect if her mother’s tongue was no more than an island, its shores eroding, its core invaded by other languages? It will take me a long time to reconcile this loss with everything else my spouse and I will share with her. We will teach her how to examine bones and feathers. How to pay attention to rocks and leaves.

My baby’s birth song, from the operating room, lulls me to sleep in the maternity ward. I could not have predicted needing Bollywood at a time like this, two oceans removed from my place of birth. The words from the refrain are both a joke and a truth, a coincidence accidentally orchestrated by my assistant surgeon and an affirmation, just as my child was born, that sometimes when other languages seep into my gaps, they hold me together. I translate those cheesy lyrics for my spouse, because I want him to belong to this music too. One day, I’ll explain to my child as well. That she came out into this world to the sound of a crooner singing, “Is this, perhaps, my very first love?” and my body answered yes before I could speak.