Song of my father: On the Trans-Europe Express to India

A Kraftwerk album acts as a bridge between generations in India, and a window into a past that might be the future.

Illustrations for Essay: Trans Europe Express main - [Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera]
[Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera]

“A young man stepped into the hall of mirrors
Where he discovered a reflection of himself

Sometimes he saw his real face
And sometimes a stranger at his place”

– Kraftwerk, Hall of Mirrors

In the spring of 1971, my 26-year-old father would spend his Friday mornings at Kolkata’s crowded train station and empty airport. A bright-eyed university student, he would skip a weekly class, and sport the widest of smiles to pick up surly, fussy South Indian classical musicians – chaperoning them around the city to play at music festivals he had helped organise.

Kolkata was ablaze with political ferment. The Naxalites, a nascent Mao-inspired student movement, were spreading through university campuses. My father, like all young idealistic students, dabbled in activism and politics. Their generation was charged with disenchantment for the strongholds of the established order. They read and shared widely, seeking alternate paths and solidarities with student movements around the world. They gloried, as the city’s patron poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote, “in the illumination of a lamp anywhere in the world”.

Five years later – for reasons unknown – my father would leave it all behind, move back to the south of India, and never mention those days again.

Forty-three years after that – unaware of my father’s past or the resonances between our lives – a 26-year-old me would spend weekdays waiting at Beijing’s airports and train stations, to pick up surly, fussy indie musicians to play at music festivals I helped organise.

Despite his frequent claim that I was “a lot like him”, I knew very little at the time about my father’s life. Even less about his mind.

As the years passed, a cold distance replaced his impassioned anger. His experience coiled inwards, tense yet inflexible. When I ranted – as an 18-year-old student activist – about the Indian government’s response to the still-strong Naxalite movement, he would just nod, “I know a thing or two about them”, and would say nothing more.

Then in 2015, at age 71 – 44 years after he left his life in Kolkata – my father suffered a heart attack and passed away.

Trans-Europe Express

“Do you know who I am?” asked the stream of unfamiliar visitors at his funeral, and I did not. His death opened up a terrifying emotional absence – a silhouette of a father – as I expressed grief at the death of someone so close yet so unfamiliar. Into this hollow flowed a kind of anger, soaked with loss.

At his funeral, confronting this furious emotional disquiet, attempting to fill the blanks in the tabula rasa of my father’s early life, I found the tracks that led to a hall of mirrors. The details of his life and mine, separated by a generation but united by a similar yearning.

They were on a tattered vinyl record, one of his few remaining possessions: Kraftwerk’s 1977 album Trans-Europe Express.

Trans-Europe Express is the song I remember hearing most in my childhood in Chennai, India. My father was a keen early adopter of consumer electronics after the country’s economic liberalisation in the late 1980s. Pride of place in our three-room apartment was given to our home audio system. Massive speakers, a tape deck and equaliser, a pre-amp, and a record player. When entertaining guests, I would be summoned to put on the Trans-Europe Express record as a “demonstration” of the system’s booming, expansive sound – an act that thrilled me every time. It was a song for a certain kind of occasion – visiting friends or relatives, lazy weekend afternoons. Moments that underscored a certain pride in the life we had, what today might be called a “humblebrag”. It was an indulgence, a treat.

Illustrations for Essay: Trans Europe Express 3 - [Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera]
[Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera]

Kraftwerk were a notoriously circumspect German band from the city of Dusseldorf. Their albums in the 1970s and 80s – Autobahn, Computer World, Trans-Europe Express –  were startling works of visionary clarity. Their precisely engineered, synthesiser-based music prefigured many genres of what would later be called electronica. They are the “reason music sounds like it does today,” in the words of a BBC documentary.

Trans-Europe Express sounded like nothing I had ever heard. It had an abrasive edge, a metallic heaviness that did not belong with the everyday music around me. Syrupy Tamil film songs and televised Carnatic classical concerts, our daily musical diet, had nothing on the album’s title track – a loud, clanging, skittering seven-minute instrumental passage that seemed to mimic the long train journeys I took every summer with my father.

On the Tamil Nadu Express, my father would settle into his typical, inflexible routine – a breakfast of idlis at Bhopal station, lunch at Nagpur; all the while paging through his well-thumbed copy of the Indian Railways timetable to estimate how late the train was running. I would lean against the window seat, marvelling at how a passing train sounded like that passage one minute and two seconds into Trans-Europe Express, or how the train’s slow passage over the Godavari Bridge sounded like the track Metal on Metal. Kraftwerk sounded real, of this world, a launchpad for the imagination. Tamil film songs, on the other hand, felt embarrassing. Like overwrought escapist fantasies that left nothing to the imagination.

For seven-year-old me, it was the first inkling that music could do more than just make you dance. That it could bottle everyday activity. That it could be an evocation, that soundscapes could both conjure and unlock feelings and memories. Kraftwerk were master sculptors, carving a sonic negative space that made their thematic silhouettes sharp, and clear.

A radical, confident iconoclast

Funerals are all about negative space. Regrets, things unsaid. Deafening silence in its myriad textures. There was a Kraftwerkian melancholy to my father’s funeral. An arpeggiated soundscape bathed in elisions, marked by absence. A slow-build revelation. As I met the streaming host of visitors who came to pay their respects to him, his body waiting to be cremated, I heard the stories from Kolkata; the details of his life in music and politics that I did not know.

Growing up, my father had been everything I was scared of becoming – stubborn, frequently blindsided by arguments, a slave to routine and tradition. His parenting style, to me, seemed like cold distance and indifference. The report cards I brought back from school with middle grades were signed without a second glance. His return home from the office would cast a “cold pall” over the apartment in the evening. He favoured silences and time alone. I was jealous of the intimacy, both physical and verbal, that seemed the norm in other families.

The coldness, it turns out, allowed his children to find a kind of freedom apart from him. I was brash and angry and radical in a way my father was not any more, and could not be. He was content, willing, to experience that vicariously by letting us explore the world on our own terms. In a way, then, my father was also everything I wanted to be (although I did not know it at the time) – a brash, radical, confident iconoclast.

It was terrifying to encounter death to have to reconcile this paradox, but Trans-Europe Express would turn out to be more than just the bridge between our stories. It was the substance of the story itself.

Illustrations for Essay: Trans Europe Express 1a - [Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera]
[Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera]

When released in 1977, Trans-Europe Express’ s soaring futurism and skittering synthesisers were seen as bewildering artistic choices. This was, after all, the year of punk rock. It was a time for loud, grungy, distorted guitars and laments about the lack of a future. Sonically, Kraftwerk seemed to swerve wildly in the other direction. There was hardly any anger and almost too much future in Trans-Europe Express.

It was a strange thematic choice too. The real-life Trans Europe Express (TEE) train network was an expensive, unprofitable relic, on the verge of obsolescence. The TEEs were being phased out just as Kraftwerk was conjuring twinkling futuristic landscapes in their name. Fresh in public memory was also the tragic 1971 TEE crash in Aitrang, in which 28 died. Kraftwerk, then, were intentionally channelling this paradox – suffusing futurism into a nostalgic past. Finding in a seemingly obsolete idea the seeds for a better future.

My father was born in 1944, three years before Indian independence from the British Raj. He grew up in a country enamoured with overturning customs, and found his voice in the political and social ferment of the 1960s. His ambivalence towards tradition ran, partly, in the family – his father, my grandfather, was a fierce atheist and self-made businessman, and many of his cousins and uncles would rise to be prominent scientists in independent India.

Much of his iconoclasm, though, was his own. His decision to leave home for distant Kolkata, his choice of university subject (physics, rather than business or commerce), his easy fall into the worlds of radical culture and politics.

But then he chose to return home. He disavowed everything he had found exciting and meaningful in Kolkata, and gave in to family, duty and tradition. The rest of his life is what I saw: a lonely struggle with rote, daily, ordinary middle-class life.

No one, not even the people who knew him both before and after this pivotal decision, could explain why.

The opposite of erosion

I never knew this man that people said my father was – a maverick organiser, a man of energetic ideas, a radical empath and negotiator. Someone who almost became a Maoist radical.

The mythology casts my lived experience with my father in stark light. The person I knew, I realise, was a shell of that former self – filled with regrets, outmoded ideas and stubborn habits. I think of Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent: “Men don’t get knocked out. They can fight back against the big things. What kills them is erosion. They get nudged into failure.”

What, then, is the opposite of erosion? My father made an unwavering decision that split his life, but he was not helpless in the face of his gradual decline. He had us, the kids he raised with abnormal freedom in a country that favours straitjacketed parenting; his vicarious maverick life through our radical acts and quirky pursuits. And he had music, especially Trans-Europe Express.

Illustrations for Essay1b: Trans Europe Express 1a - [Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera]
 [Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera] 

Kraftwerk’s album was a slow-burn sensation, an initial oddity that soon found its place in the world. Today, it is considered an avant-garde classic and a futurist masterpiece. A headstone of electronic music that prefigured the “radical language of electronic music and the global village”. It had a radical impact on early hip-hop after being sampled by pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa. It broke from its roots to become something more, something lasting.

I have often wondered, as I put on Trans-Europe Express today – what did my father hear in it? It was likely given to him after he had returned from Kolkata, and maybe it was just a gift that he held on to with characteristic stubbornness.

But the album was a constant presence in his and, by extension, my life. Trans-Europe Express was my gateway into avant-garde music. My early exposure to it would radiate outwards, expanding my sonic diet, tweaking my receptivity to strange sounds. The Napster-era hit just as I was hungry for new music as a teenager, and I consumed widely. From Brian Eno’s ambient albums to David Bowie, much of my taste seemingly moved station to station along tracks laid by Kraftwerk.

Trans-Europe Express stood, I believe, for a radical separation from our own upbringing. A separation he was unable to fully commit to, but that I later realised he wanted us to pursue. As a parent, my father left me to discover the world on my own terms, and to pursue interests even if they had no instrumental value. Growing up, we strained towards the future so relentlessly that we left no past behind us. I am a terrible custodian of the Tamil cultural traditions that my father represents and chose to uphold. But that was the point. His disavowed radical past was our ideal future.

A map to my own journey

They say you only begin to understand your parents after they have passed away, but you also begin to understand yourself, their absence like the negative space around your silhouette, suddenly sharp. In Trans-Europe Express’ s clattering, clanging rhythms was the disquiet that animated my father. But it also had the map to my own journey.

Illustrations for Essay: Trans Europe Express 1c- [Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera]
[Illustration by Krish Raghav/Al Jazeera]

We were never an expressive family, physically or emotionally, but there was one annual ritual that gave my father great joy. It happened, as is appropriate, on long train journeys from Delhi (where he worked for a decade) in the north to Chennai in the south.

When the train pulled into Nagpur station, the midpoint of the trip, he would disappear onto the platform. The train would start moving again but he would not reappear. Alone, on board, I would be distraught, thinking something terrible had happened. That he had been left behind. I would begin crying, only to find my father hiding out of sight, laughing.

I knew there would be a day when the train would leave Nagpur and no one was getting on. No one hiding out of sight. The rest of the ride mine to take, by myself.

But listening to Trans-Europe Express means this is not a lonely trip. The song’s swelling synths are a remnant, a reminder of our separate lives, divided by a generation but united by purpose. It is a bottled memory, simultaneously my father’s past and my present.

It will not bring my father back or reconcile our incomplete stories – but as the bridge between his life and mine, it brings us together every time I press “Play”.

Source: Al Jazeera