Ocean to Ocean

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Author: Susmit Sen with Sehba Imam
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 149, Price: Rs. 699

The guitar hero’s story is one of the predominant narratives in music folklore. It allows the reader a peep into the romantic story of the early rebellious, always intelligent, mildly apologetic, but mostly proud life of the virtuoso. Susmit Sen’s memoir Ocean to Ocean, written with Sehba Imam does not disappoint. The book is remarkably neatly organised into sections that separate the musical influences, the relationships, and the constant pursuit of “expression”. A little like the man himself.

First up, the new information. The now familiar childhood battle many creative geniuses have with conventional academics and a possible dyslexic trait. In this aspect, and in general for the manner of living his life, Susmit’s father emerges as the real hero in the book. Always supportive, believing, proud.

Susmit’s inspirations as he seeks to find new forms of expression are revealing. Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Bhimsen Joshi and perhaps most so, Mallikarjun Mansur,feature for being individuals who “engaged all the senses”.There is other resonation – they carried themselves “without airs, down to earth” (read later in the book: “I have always been a trouser-shirt kind of guy with my colour palette limited to grey, brown, white and black). But musically, it is their spiritual, almost meditative quality to music that Susmit continues to seek. There is also a hat doffed to the soul-stirring quality of Dylan and Cohen, and a sense of being utterly moved by classics like Dark Side of the Moon. Interestingly, Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack gets a special mention.

Somewhat ironic in hindsight is the“Good Times” titled chapter of his “best” years with Indian Ocean. Here we get a view into all that Susmit has left behind. Aseem Chakraborty stands tall for the sheer “taseer”, and a voice “like no other … heard before or since”. And for being the human being that he was –warm, no airs, and bearing no grudges.

What Susmit leaves in the attic is interesting too. Relationships with the other Indian Ocean bandmates (the core, 1994–2009 configuration) are less fleshed out. When described, these are mysteriously less charitable. Amit Kilam was previously described by Susmit (in Jaideep Verma’s seminal “Leaving Home” documentary about the band’s life and music), as bringing an incredibly positive transformation to the band, with a unique “capability to break barriers”. Amit gets mixed chits now – described as a complete musician, but also obliquely as cause for the separation – shifting the band’s focus to presentation, weaving in colors and clothing effects that made the band look like “lozenges in a packet”. Amit and Rahul Ram appear to drive the band towards “what the crowd wanted to hear”, versus creating new expressions that would drive what the crowd heard next. The equation with Rahul (in many ways a force, and the most colourful persona in the band), is also shrouded in silence, interspersed with not-sopositive throwaway references.

This leaves the reader a little wanting. Shaleen Sharma(early band member, and credible musician in his own right), described well Susmit’s role in the creation of the Indian Ocean, arguably India’s most original and successful band. Susmit’s “single minded focus during the early fragile days” kept the band alive and vital – almost every song was weaved around a central idea of Rana’s (Susmit’s pet name). This is the band that broke away from the “brown-wannabe-whites” mould, in the words of Rabbi Shergill.

Not unfairly, the reader craves more from Susmit about this process of creation, the interplay between the band-mates, the creative differences and debates, the fraught “verse-chorus versus free-flowing rhythm changes” discussion. These are alluded to, but all too fleetingly.

Perhaps that’s the whole point though. It’s over, time to move on. And if the 2014 Chronicles’ album Depths of the Ocean is anything to go by, we might be in for another good run. Another 52-year-old guitarist, Kirk Hammett of Metallica thought differently:“there’s a signature Metallica sound, and if we stray too far from that, our fans gets impatient, or they just don’t understand”.

Patience people, you’ll understand, maybe.

In any event, when giants like Susmit Sen and Naseeruddin Shah get down to their memoirs and let us in, it isn’t really about whether to read or not. These individuals are national treasures, and this book ranks high in this all-too-short list of autobiographies. “Compulsory reading”, as one of his less-inspiring Patel Nagar school teachers may have reminded Susmit.


Sachin Rajan

The writer is in the business of Leadership Search and Assessment. He has a strong interest in music, books, and where they meet.

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