Raga 2 Rock: Dono Ne Kiya and the cassette age

May 29, 2022

Continuing on the theme of cassettes, I heard this song in a Rafi compilation we had. I would have been ten the first time I heard it and I had no idea this was supposed to be one of his rarer songs (or at least not one of the usual suspects you come across in best of Rafi lists).

The compilation was ‘unofficial’. At that time, people bought blank tapes and made copies of the official cassette(s) owned by one person in their circle. This led to the music industry publishing messages in newspapers to ‘stop piracy’. Sounds quaint today when streaming has ensured that music revenue essentially amounts to a few pennies for thousands of views.

We had so-called ‘two-in-ones’, clunky but versatile machines which doubled up as cassette player AND tape recorder. If you just wanted to copy all or most of the songs on one side, you used high speed dubbing mode. And you could hear the songs being played as they were recorded…at triple their speed or something. It would be amusing to listen to the voices of these great singers reduced to something like the sound of squeaking mice as the machine did its work.

You can read more such reminiscences about a time that was recent enough that someone of my age can recount it vividly and yet a time that seems so, so different from now…in my book Raga 2 Rock (https://www.amazon.in/Raga-Rock-Mumbai-Musical-Journey/dp/B09WYSNBBZ/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3N9W3412IU6GE&keywords=raga+2+rock&qid=1653797715&s=books&sprefix=Raga+2+%2Cstripbooks%2C434&sr=1-1)

Raga 2 Rock: The Cassette Age

May 26, 2022

This is the only cassette cover that has survived relocations and clean-ups. Note, I said cassette cover. No trace of the cassette itself!

We once had a large and wonderful collection of cassettes and, like it was for anybody growing up in the 90s, these cassettes were my introduction to the golden era of Hindi music (actually, ANY music – we also had cassettes of Aashiqui and Baazigar! 😛).

My most cherished items of the collection were a five cassette Rafi set which had such beauties like Jaag Dil-e-Diwana and…a cassette of the multi-Grammy winning Supernatural album of Carlos Santana. It is hard to articulate today, in the age of streaming and abundance, how exotic an item like that was for a family in far flung Kalyan.

If reading this makes you feel nostalgic about your own collection (or, curious about cassettes if you were born after their extinction), you will find a whole chapter dedicated to the cassette experience in my book Raga 2 Rock (https://www.amazon.in/Raga-Rock-Mumbai-Musical-Journey/dp/B09WYSNBBZ/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=raga+2+rock&qid=1653579032&sprefix=Raga+2+%2Caps%2C246&sr=8-1).

Raga 2 Rock: En Kadhale

May 22, 2022

This song begins with English lyrics delivered in Western style by a voice that sounds like Gary Lawyer and moves into Vairamuthu’s Tamil lines sung by SPB. Throughout, Kadari Gopalnath’s saxophone punctuates and elevates the song into the stratosphere. The scene too has all kinds of emotions compressed into its 5-6 minute length. Those were the days, my friend!

I heard this song for the first time when it was 10 and it has been a regular visitor to my playlist since then, probably always will be. This is my take:

Why film music pt2 – Prog Raja/Funk Raja

May 8, 2022

This is part 2 of my video series ‘Why film music’, a spin off of my book Raga 2 Rock.

You can check out part 1 here.

In part 2, I have compiled a bunch of Ilayaraja parts that are influenced by prog rock, funk, jazz-fusion. I preface this by saying that this aspect of his music is what made it easier for me to eventually get into progressive rock. Because it created a sense of familiarity I wouldn’t have expected from my vantage point as a mostly Indian music-listening person.

Why Film Music pt1- Ilayaraja

May 8, 2022

This is the first instalment of a video spin-off series around my book Raga 2 Rock. This series is also tailored for the interests of those who may not be into film music or may not even live in India and be into Indian music (or what they think of as the only Indian music, i.e., Hindustani or Carnatic).

So, naturally, I had to start off with Ilayaraja. I showcase preludes and interludes from one song and the prelude of another to show how the instrumentation could often fit right into a Western composition and how some of the ways in which he combines guitar/synthesizer with classical-based string sections would have been unprecedented even in a purely Western context.

Test drives pt4 – The amaze you need and not the one you desire

April 16, 2022

When I was testing cars and weighing options and the Jazz drive turned out to be a no-go due to its super-low ground clearance, I said I would hate to go for the Amaze. Famous last words, huh!

Years back, when Honda got into the compact sedan segment, I was excited. My father was looking to change his company car then and move on from the Fusion that had given us no end of trouble. I thought it would be great to have a smaller Honda that would fit in our parking (unlike the City). But early reviews weren’t great and we went for the I20. A year later, we happened to book a cab that turned out to be an Amaze and the noise and vibration levels convinced us that we had made the right decision.

That was what I had been thinking of when I said I would never choose an Amaze.

But things changed pretty fast over two days. After the Jazz no-go and after finding out that neither i20 nor Altroz (nor Swift/Dzire/Baleno) would fit in my parking, my options had changed a lot and for the worse. I was now looking at the lower Bs or the few compact sedans that would fit. Tiago, Tigor, Grand i10, Aura, Amaze, these were options that would fit…as per the specs anyway. None of these options were particularly edifying…and they were all I had.

It so happened that the Honda sales executive who had fixed up my Jazz test drive called up and asked if I would explore the Amaze. I reluctantly said yes, fully expecting that I would not be impressed and would say no. A voice within said, however, that the model of the new Amaze I had seen at the Honda showroom did look a lot better than the old one (first generation; 2018 and 2021 models look very similar).

The car arrived and the interiors looked decent enough. The engine came across as smooth in the test drive though the drive itself was uncomfortable because the dealer staff who brought it over to my home had set up the seat height in a way that was terribly awkward for me. And the car fit in the parking. And no, its fender didn’t brush the road while climbing down the ramp.

That’s it, I said. This would be the one.

It was a gut decision, made speedily, and could potentially have been terribly wrong (might still be, in terms of long term ownership). But the clincher was this was the only one of the viable options with CVT. Colour me biased but I really wasn’t enthused about AMT. I wanted a real automatic. No torque converters in this segment but a CVT would do splendidly, at least compared to an AMT. And…it was a Honda, after all.

Well, it’s been a month since I bought it and the car in regular use has impressed me more than it did in the test drive. The CVT lag isn’t quite as bad as I had thought it would be from the test drives (of both this and Jazz). It’s more how the engine sounds than the speed itself. I find that in fact, it isn’t really that different from driving a manual in that sense (while, undoubtedly, not having to use the gearshift makes it so much easier to drive). I do have to add torque at times to overtake and I did used to find it easier to manage those with the manual. But the car is well capable of accelerating quickly up to good speeds.

It’s also super easy to maintain a speed with this car than it was with my old manual. Say I am cruising at 40 in drive mode – I could simply take the foot off the accelerator and rest it on the brake without actually applying it and the car would keep going at 40. It doesn’t start decelerating the way a manual would. And of course, in stop go, it is so wonderful to drive the car by merely releasing and re-applying the brake and an occasional use of the accelerator if it is running out of power or if the traffic slightly picks up speed.

It has thus far also returned a better mileage than the old i20 and that’s without sedate driving to get the best mileage out of the CVT. And it’s yet to undergo its first service after which mileage usually improves.

Other pluses include ample legroom in the back as well as boot space.

The suspension being so soft is both a plus and a minus. On the plus side, the ride is magnificent as long as we are on smooth roads. On rough or uneven patches, this is a shaky customer. It’s by no means unsafe, but the handling will not inspire confidence on bumpy roads.

The one other slight drawback is the bonnet is higher and therefore its entire length pretty much is visible from the driver seat. Some people mention this as a plus and I have no idea why because not being able to see road below me hampers my judgment in parking.

As such, how well will the car age will be the true test from hereon. But that’s good news because it has at least passed the test already as brand new.

And there it is. The car that I never thought I would buy is the one I did. And…I am happy!

Test drives pt 3 – A pinch of salt

April 5, 2022

The first car my father’s company gave him was a second hand Maruti 800 that a colleague had used until retirement. It was fine for the first few months before more and more problems began to mount. My father asked for a new car and the company gave him and a bunch of his colleagues new cars – all Tata Indica/Indigo.

This was a 2003 Indica V2 Diesel. It had no power steering or power windows. Oh, and a manual transmission. A car that would have still been regarded as respectably modern back then and would now be regarded as hopelessly out-of-date. We will one day look back on the 2010s-20s as the period when the Indian car industry saw the thrust shift to must-have features (including even the infotainment system or reverse cam) much more than the engine itself, the beating heart of the machine.

At that time, Tata had a justifiably earned reputation of building strong and rugged cars that weren’t necessarily too user-friendly.

Now, all these years later, when I was in the market for a premium hatchback, things had/have changed a lot. Tata is a strong no.3 in the market (which it was, actually, back in 2003) and snapping at the heels of Hyundai who don’t have production capacity to hold off Tata for much longer (should Tata produce just one more ‘hit’ that delivers volumes in the 10k per month region). It’s an amazing turnaround and it makes me a bit sad as an ex-employee who, for a variety of reasons that shall not be discussed, had to leave just at the cusp of this turnaround. They say the darkest hour is before dawn but I didn’t know that Tata had reached its darkest moment just then (when I left).

So, like many others, Tata’s cars were actively under my consideration and in fact very high up on the list. At that time, I hadn’t really thought of the new i20 due to its price point. With the Altroz, Tata was delivering a premium hatch experience at a showroom price that was at least a couple of lakhs lower. What wasn’t to like? In a roundabout way, they were delivering more car per car again. Only, this time it didn’t mean a bigger but somewhat ugly and unwieldy car at a price point a tad higher than a Zen. Now, Tata was doing something like the Chinese Xiaomi/Vivo/Oppo phones – delivering an experience close to what premium smartphones provide at a much lower price point. As a Vivo owner, I do approve of this strategy.

Anyhow, the first showroom I visited this time around was a Tata showroom (which happens to be a ten minute walk from my place!). The sales executive politely and patiently explained the features. Since I told him what I wanted clearly (Altroz), he didn’t have much work to do, to be honest. I asked about a test drive but he told me he could possibly try in the evening and failing that only in the week up ahead. Now I live in New Bombay and have to commute to Andheri so taking a test drive on weekdays is impossible. And remember, I absolutely need to park the car in my slot as part of my test drive!

Evening came and he couldn’t make a car available. He reserved a car for next Saturday but only with multiple reminders could I make it happen.

And then, when I sat in the car and began to drive, he told me he had fuel only for a short ‘stroll’ and that I would have to coordinate again for an elaborate drive next week. I was pissed off at this point but still willing to accommodate…if it worked out. I could tell that demand for the car was high. If I couldn’t wait, the showroom wasn’t going to sweat it.

I did get some insights from the short drive that I was permitted.

The positives were, firstly, the interiors. They were superb and more or less best in class. Secondly and related, the air conditioning was brilliant too, especially considering it was mid-noon. Thirdly, the steering. I had to make a U turn and I could effortlessly complete the turn without the car butting into the middle lane. OK, don’t try this unless you have been driving for a while and have attempted such maneuvers before but still, the car basically can turn in such a small radius.

But…and there’s a but. There were two things I took a dislike to. One was the pickup/power…or lack of it. The Altroz comes with a 1.2 litre petrol (or a 1.5 litre diesel) and the petrol delivers a mere 85 bhp. This added to the weight of the car makes it feel really underpowered. And, if you have read my previous reviews, this is coming from someone who doesn’t necessarily like cars that zip too soon off a standstill. I like cars where the acceleration matches my throttle input because I then feel in control. But even so, man, this took some real pushing to get it off standstill. It improved as I gathered speed.

But as I gathered speed, I had to change gears and at this point, I ran into a gearstick that was rather reluctant to, uh, move. Maybe it is unfair to compare the gearbox of an i20 to an Altroz. But it nevertheless stood out immediately. It’s not like I couldn’t shift gears but it took some effort. And at this point, I can change gears with a finger on the i20. So it’s not me.

In a roundabout way, Tata cars are still more comfortable to ride in as a passenger than to drive. Check that, the Altroz is. Maybe the Nexon delivers a more pleasurable experience, I wouldn’t know. But if I compared my experience of driving the Altroz to the old and new i20s as well as the Jazz, effortless wouldn’t be the first word that would come to my mind.

I still did like the overall package enough to keep it in my consideration list. Until…the new i20 wouldn’t fit into my parking slot and I began to look at specs of other cars in the segment. That’s when I found the Altroz too was too big for my parking. And so was the Nexon. Or the Punch. Tigor was the only option (like Grand i10 or Aura of Hyundai). Downgrading to the lower Bs felt very disheartening to me. You could argue that it’s just a car and still just a hatch (or compact sedan). And I know and would agree. But when you can afford a premium hatch and have to opt out only due to the parking slot, it’s very frustrating.

Additionally, the Tigor would have taken a month to deliver. The waiting for Grand i10/Aura was minimum three months. Did I really want to wait that long for the lower Bs? I didn’t think so. But what options did I have? Or was there an option that somebody else would enlighten me about and take me in a completely unexpected direction?

More on that in the last part of this series.

Raga 2 Rock: My book on film music

April 3, 2022

I have previously written articles on film music on this blog. On one such article, I received a suggestion that I should write a book (rather than multiple articles). I have received such a suggestion on Quora as well before.

I don’t know whether the readers in question simply wanted for me to consolidate the articles under one roof. But I thought of undertaking an altogether fresh endeavour instead. I have compiled my thoughts on the great composers of the golden era of Hindi film music …as well as the three titans of Tamil music – MSV, Ilayaraja and Rahman.

It has some of the analysis that those who do visit this blog like. But it also tries to capture my experience of discovering the respective composer’s works. Some anecdotes about the composers (not all but some) have also been reproduced.

There is also, for good measure, a chapter devoted to top 10 albums of each composer. Yup, I have tried to tick all boxes.

And with that prelude, with no further ado, here are the links where you can buy the book:

Notionpress: https://notionpress.com/read/raga-2-rock (free shipping from tomorrow and for two weeks)

Amazon: https://www.amazon.in/dp/B09WYSNBBZ

Kindle/e-version is also available.

Oh, and as you can see, this time I have enlisted the services of a professional publisher so that the book is, well, professionally put together.

So do let me know both how the book (as in the writing) was and how the experience of purchasing and using it was.

Happy reading!

UPDATE1: Raga 2 Rock is now available on Flipkart as well as on Amazon.com/co.uk:

Test Drives pt2: The car that outgrew me

March 27, 2022

So…with the Jazz ruled out, I thought about my options and one immediately came to my mind: how about another i20? I had wanted to buy a different car this time. But after all, my 2013 petrol Asta had served me well for 120k km (other than the fact that the engine went out once! Yeah.). So why not? And the i20 had automatic options anyway. It would be costlier than what I had budgeted but it gave me enough car for the money, it would be worth it.

The problem was by the time I thought of the i20, it was too late on Saturday evening to schedule a test drive. So I decided to just ring up the showroom on Sunday and try my luck. They said it wouldn’t be a problem but that only the DCT was available for test drive and not the CVT (which is what I had had in mind). I had heard reports about problems being encountered with the Volkswagen DSGs so I wasn’t too keen on landing up with what might be a white elephant.

But I said the rest of the car barring the transmission would be the same so why not just take the DCT for a spin. When I reached the showroom, the salesman had nearly talked me into junking the CVT and going for a DCT. But I said I wanted to drive it anyway.

Well, boy, did it convert me. The salesman had said that the pickup would be noticeably better than a CVT. And sure enough, this bird could fly. Basically, with the DCT, the feedback I got from the throttle input was similar to a manual. When I steadily increased the acceleration, the car responded. It didn’t whine unlike the Jazz CVT when I stepped on the gas. And past 40-50ks, the turbo kicks in so that the wondrous i20 gives a ‘big car’ feel at higher speeds. This was the thing I had loved about driving the old manual and I was delighted to see it had been replicated in the DCT too.

For all that, though, I still wouldn’t quite compare the response to my manual. It was still just a bit less of a livewire than the manual and I noticed the difference immediately when I drove my own old i20 back home from the showroom. True, I was driving the test drive car more cautiously than I would mine, but I still did rev it up to nearly 80ks as I hit Sanpada flyover. And the i20 DCT turbo 1.0 can generate 118 bhp power which is a lot, lot more than my manual, which does 82 bhp maximum. Given that massive power differential, it didn’t fly quite as much as I would have expected. But it was enjoyable enough to drive.

And as for the rest, I loved the interiors as well as the cooling. Overall, the package was a beauty. And since I had been parking the old i20 in and out hassle-free anyway, everything was taken care of, right? This was going to be the happily ever after, right?

Wrong! This is where I was dead wrong, in fact. I hadn’t accounted for the fact that models would actually grow wider, significantly wider over time. My old i20 is 1710mm wide. The new one is 1775mm wide. Wait, that’s just 65mm, i.e., 2.5 inches, right? Surely, that’s not a big deal, you say? Well, those are the margins I work with as far as my parking goes.

Additionally, the new i20 has a bigger turning radius by nearly 10% than the old. Now this I couldn’t get at all. I do understand why hatchbacks, especially in the premium segment, are getting bigger. The market is getting more and more demanding and not everyone is stuck with a nightmare parking slot like mine. But why increase the turning radius, why, why?

The salesman would point out the increased turning radius later. But I felt it intuitively while attempting to park it in. I had enough margin between car and the right pillar to make it if this was the old i20. But this one wouldn’t turn. I narrowly escaped grazing the pillar and being inflicted with a damage claim. But the car was a no-go.

With great disappointment, I had to let the salesman know this wouldn’t work out. He added insult to injury by telling me that if this one didn’t fit, none of the premium hatchbacks would. And he was right. It’s not just i20 that has gotten wider. So has the Swift, the Dzire as well as Magnite (the Micra replacement). Back in 2013 when we got the old i20, I had around ten options or so at least in the premium hatch/compact sedan segment. By 2022, I discovered, most wouldn’t fit into my parking.

As I began to tell the salesman about how the parking slot thwarted us from buying the car we wanted to, he offered comforting words, saying after all I had a 2BHK flat in Vashi to live in and that counted for much more than what car I owned. He was right again. But the thought of downgrading to something like a Grand I10 was still upsetting.

Would I have to? Or would there be other premium hatchbacks that would fit? Or some other segment/body style altogether?

By the way, this was the third of the four cars I tested. I will write soon about the very first one that I tested. Watch this space.

Test drives pt1: A streetcar named desire

March 24, 2022

I was recently in the market to buy a new car, trading in my old i20 which had rendered its service well for the most part but, at 120k km, was pretty long in the tooth. And now that Putin decided three covid waves weren’t enough and there wasn’t a better time to, er, denazify a country with a Jewish President, I said I had had enough of postponing the purchase and bit the bullet. Yeah, spirit of the roaring twenties, baby!

For a variety of reasons, I ended up testing four cars en route to completing my purchase.

I thought writing about these four cars and what made them different would be interesting. So here goes.

Long before I had finally decided to go ahead with the sale of my old faithful, I had had my eyes on the Honda Jazz. The automatic transmission (a CVT) made it alluring. But a big part of it was just the name. A name that might appear to be bland to most car users meant a little more to a jazz aficionado like me. I even dreamed of sticking a Charlie Parker poster on the rear door or some such crazy idea.

And so it was that the second car I tested was the Jazz. I will write about the first one a bit later.

My visit to the dealership reaffirmed my choice. Not because of anything the dealer staff did but because looking at the car up close appeared to confirm my faith in this selection. The paint looked terrific, the car looked sturdy. It is way roomier sitting in the passenger seat than it appears to be from outside. And its design was unconventionally stylish. A hatchback with personality. I asked for a test drive.

On the appointed day, the car arrived outside our condo for the drive. I got in and didn’t have to adjust the seat height too much to get it to where I liked it. That is, the transfer from the old i20 to the Jazz was seamless.

It was my first experience of driving an automatic. And boy, did it feel awesome. To not have to keep your left hand ready by the gearshift, to not keep the left foot ever ready to move to the clutch. Mind you, the old i20 had a very smooth gearshift and as I got better and better at driving, I learned to virtually slide it into gear with a finger. And I drive fast though never beyond the edge into dangerous driving. Or so I think. I am the kind of guy who would back a manual to vroom faster than an automatic.

Even so, driving the automatic was so relaxed it outweighed the cons. And let’s be honest, unless you are driving on the Eastern Freeway or on Palm Beach Road, there isn’t much ‘performance’ to enjoy on Mumbai roads anyway. If most of your driving is bumper-to-bumper, the automatic is such a breeze compared to a manual.

I did notice the infamous CVT rubber band effect right away. It kind of growls and lags before the acceleration really kicks in. You cannot expect a manual transmission-like responsiveness to the acceleration input. But…if you can live with that, then the gear change is smooth in a CVT (because it isn’t really sequential gears in the conventional sense, if I understand the engineering correctly).

I liked the steering, the braking. I took a quick spin around Vashi and brought the car back in for the all-important test any car about to be welcomed into our household must pass. The parking test.

Our condo consists of two back-to-back (rather than side-by-side) plots combined into one. What this means is it’s oriented lengthwise. And therefore has a narrow passageway for cars to approach the respective parking slots. Our stilt slot is sandwiched between two pillar walls in addition. You get the drift. The room to turn into the parking safely is very limited and cars beyond a certain width and length simply won’t make it inside. So…if a car can’t be parked into our parking slot, it’s a no-no, no matter how good of a car it is otherwise. Skoda Octavia or Honda Civic (well, they don’t offer it for sale in India anyway) or any other of my adolescent crushes? Just forget about it!

I was able to park it in our slot without much difficulty. That’s very encouraging with a new car because with repeated iterations, we learn to manage the parking with greater and greater ease. So if the first attempt is easy enough, parking is not a worry at all.

I collected some more information about the car’s features and asked for a quote for the old car value. On hearing it, asked for a higher figure. The person from the dealer-end agreed to check and get back to me on that. I was thus one step short of the handshake.

It was all going swimmingly well as the two guys who had come from the dealer-end began to drive the car away and back to the showroom. That is, they were driving away until they stopped dead in their tracks as they descended down the ramp back onto the road.

We headed over to check and our worst fears had come true. So…the Jazz has a pretty low front fender. Our condo has a fairly steep ramp to begin with. And because of some gas pipe work done recently by the municipality, they had covered the patch with an additional layer of tar. Which raised the road level just at the point where the car gets onto it and off the ramp. With the result that the Jazz fender lightly touched the road on descent!

The dealer staff nervously assured me that it was fine. But I couldn’t agree. Let’s say I found an alternative parking slot from somewhere and somehow. The route to my office has some pretty rough speedbreakers especially in Andheri (I mean, Fantasyland didn’t used to be too far away from it, so makes sense!). How would a car with such a low fender navigate them? No, I decided this car wasn’t fit for Indian conditions and all that jazz.

I had always wondered why a car that offered as much value as the Jazz didn’t sell more than it does. Had I got the answer now? Was it basically the low fender that turned interested buyers away? And yet, right in my street, there is not one, not two, but three Jazz cars parked by the roadside.

There are people who drive it, who seem to have owned it for a long time. One has to presume they didn’t encounter significant issues owing to the fender during their ownership of it. No, I won’t say anything against the car. Except…that it wasn’t for me as much as I had wanted it and as much as I had got so close to signing off on it.

So which one did I sign up for? Watch this space…as I write about the other ones that I tested before finalizing.

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