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Good Times Bad Times: Remembering 'Bonzo', The Man Who Gave Me Rock N' Roll

04/01/2016 12:58 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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I love December, the month with all its good cheer and festivities, but on every 4th of that month, I cannot help but remember that this was the day that Led Zeppelin ceased to be, following the death of drummer John Henry Bonham, better known as Bonzo. That day probably changed the history of the rock n' roll world forever.

I was a horribly precocious kid in the 1980s. Most of my time was spent reading. Hungrily, I sought new ideas, new experiences. Today I can see the truth of writer Jane Yolen's words: "Literature is a textually transmitted disease, normally contracted in childhood." I was thus a congenitally "sick" child, living in fantasy and make-believe worlds. My Ma would despair and mutter about my rather fanciful imagination and my steadfast refusal to behave like a "lady". A glorious "performance" of femininity and womanhood was perhaps what she wanted for and from her youngest daughter, condemned as we all are to live within the severe limitations of society. But the Scorpion woman that she is, she passed on her fierce independence and proclivity for fearless forays into the unknown to me, her Scorpion child. So I learned very early to tread forbidden paths and make friends with those who were "marginals" -- those who lived on the peripheries of society, listening to tunes of rapture. Ecstatic. Mad. Glorious. Deep.

"I had heard passing references to him in my parents' conversations. Vague murmurs about 'wandering', 'cannot settle down', 'idealist', 'irresponsible', 'alcoholic'...."

One such "marginal" was Bonzo, his self-styled nickname after the Led Zep drummer (I won't mention his real name here because he is survived by his wife and two children). He was a friend of my parents, a couple of years younger than Dad. He came to live with us in the summer of 1980. I had heard passing references to him in my parents' conversations. Vague murmurs about "wandering", "cannot settle down", "idealist", "irresponsible", "alcoholic"....

Before I left for school on the day of his arrival, I heard my Ma telling the house orderlies to prepare the guest room, in a remote corner of our ground-floor bungalow, for Shahib's friend. I remember being very curious and excited about this mysterious man.

Nothing had prepared me for his eyes. Coal black, glittering and haunted. They bored into my being, searching for something. Then he smiled a smile of exquisite tenderness and camaraderie. "Little friend." he told me in English, "you shall be my light." I clutched his hand trustingly and looked up to see my parents smiling gently.

His devotion to my parents was touching. They were Dada (elder brother) and Boudi(sis-in-law who is both mother and sister) to him. He never ate with us and rarely left his room, drinking throughout the night. Yet he would be cold sober and sharp during the day, reading relentlessly from stacks of his books kept in cardboard cartons. And listening to Led Zeppelin on his gramophone. He would smile and say that he would leave his books to me. I cherish the beautiful ramblings of his poetry and prose he scribbled on loose sheets of paper, now yellowed and frayed, but the fountain pen ink, surprisingly, still not faded. As if his blood still flows brightly and restlessly in the words. I have a framed sheet of paper in my study with his handwriting that spells out a quote from Anaïs Nin: "Build a stillness within you, a sanctuary where you will retreat and be mad. So free that even the Gods shall be envious" His initials "S.R.C" are signed with a flamboyant flourish. He made me love rock n' roll. He cried when he talked of Jim Morrison. He said Hendrix was God. He was devastated by the death of John Bonham and the band breaking up. He told me about the rock concerts of the late 60s/70s when he lived the life of a "useless bum", touring Europe and North America.

As suddenly he had come into my life, he left... within five months. I never really said goodbye to him. I wasn't there when he left for his village, very near to my Dad's in Balasore district of Odisha. It was said he wanted to sell off his ancestral home, land, ponds, granaries etc there and give the money to his family who were in Calcutta. A few months passed before I again heard his name in my parents' conversation. Sorrowful words -- "wasted his life'', "shouldn't have'', "so brilliant'', "we should have stopped him".... My question was answered with a gentle, "He is no more. He was very ill." Much later, I learned he had shot himself.

His books, his papers, his records, the gramophone, his fountain pens, a silver pocket watch, a cheap cigarette lighter, a damaged leather wallet with a picture of Marilyn Monroe, several cloth bandanas, a copper glass, a table lamp were all packed and kept in our store. His family did not want them.

"[H]is legacy lives on in me, inasmuch I can never relate to a man who doesn't explode in Led Zeppelin."

Some years later, I opened the book cartons and lost myself in them. Rumi says, "Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure." This strange , ruined friend of my childhood, gave me Borges, Joyce, Nabokov, Blake, Rimbaud, Anaïs Nin, Beckett, Marcus Aurelius, Rilke, Elliot, Tagore, Proust, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Kerouac, Tolkien, Vonnegut...whew. I took all of them out and arranged them in our study. His records were broken and damaged. I used Fevicol and cello-tape to put them back together. I couldn't bear to throw them away. They lie with his other belongings, still, in our own house (i.e. my Dad's house after he retired from the Government of India). One day, some house help, in a spring cleaning mode, will just throw them out, I know. But I guess it won't matter. They are inanimate objects... and I have learned in life that the souls of people we have lost can never be captured in their totems.

Do I miss him? Not really. He is a shadowy figure in my mind. Bonzo, the investigator of shadows. Bonzo, of the haunting sweetness. Bonzo, whose beautiful madness was scorned by those who thought they were sane.

But yes, to an extent perhaps, his legacy lives on in me, inasmuch I can never relate to a man who doesn't explode in Led Zeppelin. And a thin bamboo bookmark with galloping horses etched in black ink takes my eyes repeatedly to these lines in one of his books by Anaïs Nin. They read:

"I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman."

"Write emotional algebra," as Nin says. "No analysis, because that is for people paralysed by life."

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