What happens when you resign yourself to fate? Fate loses interest in you, allowing you to take control of your destiny. It sounds like hocus pocus, but it isn’t. A bit like the Delhi band, Menwhopause.
Menwhopause is special for many reasons. For one, it has been around, in some form or the other, for close to 18 years. It was in 2000 that future bassist Randeep Singh approached the band at a gig, in Dilli Haat of all places. Sarabjit Chadha, then lead vocalist (now proud father) and scion
of a car radiator empire, was wailing like a banshee in the august company of cotton bedsheets and woollen durries.
The band, like the city they sing about, is a survivor. Between them, Menwhopause has seen life up close: bipolar disorder, alcoholism, cancer and Parkinson’s. Some of its members chose to go their different ways, but the larger Menwhopause project has never stood still. Lead guitarist Anup Kutty has played the role of Amar Singh, the ultimate backroom boy, stitching together stable coalition governments year after year.
An example of this malleability is the entry of former fanboy Shiv Ahuja, who has taken on keyboard and synth duties after the departure of acoustic master-weaver Inder Pal Singh.
Venues for alternative rock have dried up in Delhi, but the band hasn’t let this deter them. India is a vast country; Menwhopause has turned this geography into an asset.
Last month, when india today spoke to them over the phone, they were lost in a forest somewhere in Arunachal Pradesh.
They were looking for a place called Seijosa, where they were contracted to play a gig. There is a delicious irony to this. A band from Delhi makes an album about Delhi, then says eff you to mainland Delhi and takes the message to the interiors of the Northeast instead: the Pakke Paga Festival, the International Loinloom Festival, as well as venues in Karbi Anglong (Assam), Diezephe (Nagaland) and Aizawl (Mizoram). It’s the ultimate revenge of the native. To these they’ve added their own Ziro Festival of Music, which Kutty and Randeep have been curating for the past five years.
In 2017’s Neon Delhi, their muse is Delhi, the city they grew up in. It’s about New Delhi changing colour and character. The album is littered with references to what the capital has witnessed, from monster Redline buses to the 1984 Sikh riots. As Kutty says, “It’s also about noise. Wherever you go in Delhi you hear the sound of the electric drill. It’s inescapable. It bores a hole in your brain.”
Kutty and Randeep know something about these changes. They ran a successful restaurant and bar called The Toddy Shop in Hauz Khas Village, which briefly became the hub of Delhi bohemia. Their take on the ‘capital’s hood of excess’ can be seen in the video to the single ‘On a Boat’ (featuring Preet Vihar Hindi rapper Faadu), the happy healthy offspring of bilingual fornication.
The music video features their current manager Sahaj Bhatia, who spent a night in jail for chucking a glass of water at a Congress politician accused of fomenting the Sikh riots. These are kids from the 1980s who started out in Delhi’s unfashionable suburbs: Sriniwaspuri, Gautam Nagar and Paschim Vihar.
Neon Delhi is a slow burner, arty, experimental and weird. Good albums, it is said, take time to grow on you. One should be mortally suspicious of anything that sounds great on the first listen. When they first debuted these new songs at a packed gig in Hard Rock Cafe, Delhi, the effect was that of a band solipsistically tinkering with their instruments.
First impressions can be misleading. Neon Delhi is a headphone album, each song a carefully crafted, heavily-layered piece of jigsaw that welds perfectly together. Under the pounding opening riff of ‘Maybe Who Knows’, you will hear snippets of Modi and Kejriwal. Says Randeep, “When we play live, we jumble up the order of songs. It’s a new jigsaw every time.”
Neon Delhi, though, is more than a comment on the rise/ decline of a city. There are subtle moments of looking inwards; they find islands of quiet in the midst of city thrum: ‘Let my words remain/ The blush from the line/ That my bass rings into the void/ Let me give you a sneak of what the song sings’ (‘Let’s Sing a Song’).
The quietest of chords have been written in the car in the middle of Delhi traffic jams. The band doesn’t mince words about working in a soul-killing Indian environment of stifling mediocrity and its handmaiden, peer envy: ‘You are crabs, in a bucket, with no perspective/ Searching for the unspeakable truth (while) you’re just a bunch of lies/ It doesn’t matter if you come out good, cos in the end it’s out of spite...’ (‘Ship of Fools’).
In the Netflix documentary on Keith Richards, Tom Waits says writing songs is like an ancient ritual; you have to wait for the song to let you in. Pause for a minute and allow these men to welcome you into this timeless tribal ritual, arms wide open: ‘Now that the song has ended/ You’ll get the tune/ When you’re back home’ (‘Back home’).
Bipolar disorder, cancer, Parkinson’s— the band has survived it all