Choosing the Slow Lane

It takes tremendous courage and self-control to quit the arena of fame and adulation while one’s potential is not fully actualised. Photo: Unsplash/Dingzeyu Li

Recently, I have been reminiscing about my music guru, the late Kanika Banerjee (known to her intimate circle as Mohordi). My reflections are not only focused on music lessons, but on our long discussions during her later life. These meandered through a kaleidoscope of topics, not just Rabindrasangeet. Mohordi had achieved her status as a musical icon, but retreated from public life at a relatively early stage of her career. What intrigued me was that her voice, technique and rendition quality were still in good form, yet she made a dignified exit from the music world. There was no prolonged winding down of a luminous career, neither a sudden resurgence through a Television or stage appearance. She simply chose to shut the media out and fade into her own niche. When I asked why, she said, "I want my listeners to remember me at my best. Not as a wilting flower struggling to hold on to my fame. For an artist, it is important to know when to quit."

My thoughts move on to another great singer, Lata Mangeshkar, who passed away recently at the age of 92. Unlike Mohordi, she chose to sing throughout her long and illustrious life, and preserved her iconic status until the very end. Lataji always strived to climb higher peaks and was never shy of trying out one more experiment, one more nuance, one more finale. She was financially secure, had won all the awards possible, but she moved her goalposts further and further. Her rare talent, monastic discipline and tremendous determination enabled her to test the limits of artistic excellence.

Many of us have crossed paths with versions of the two types of personalities: those who aim for a certain threshold and are content in their achievement, and those who never stop even after their fortunes have crossed the uncountable. Both leave behind legacies of different kinds. While we may not know the right path to follow with exact certitude, we often wonder: where would our world be without maximisers, or people who exploit every opportunity to maximise their possibilities? For them the frontiers of abilities and aspirations are almost infinite.

The bioscientist couple who discovered the Covid vaccine springs to mind. They spent their honeymoon in a lab wrestling with the indomitable challenge of producing the drug that would save humanity. No doubt these people gift us with the best music, the best paintings, the best literature, the best scientific discoveries and technological inventions. However, a more intimate peep into their personal lives reveals that most of them have regrets and are dissatisfied with life for having failed to take one more leap into yet another accomplishment. They are usually haunted, burning with ambition, and squeeze the limits of their endurance to the utmost.

In contrast, people who give a voluntary pause to their aspirations and say "good enough", yearn to spend more time nurturing their family or simply leading a peaceful life "far from the madding crowd". Many consider them to be lacking in drive and motivation. But having observed Mohordi closely, I believe this is not true. It takes tremendous courage and self-control to quit the arena of fame and adulation while one's potential is not fully actualised. It is a remarkable ability to set aside thoughts about how much better things could have been or how much more someone else has achieved. Some disappointed fans may consider such a choice to be a sign of weakness or lethargy. On the contrary, not succumbing to the temptation of "one more" entails discipline of the highest kind!

Readers may be curious as to why these reflections have been occupying my mind with such intensity. It may be because I have often been asked whether or not I nurture regrets about the fact that my musical journey did not reach its potential. It may be appropriate to answer the question in the context of my limited goals and abilities, since I am not in any way close to the luminaries I mention above in terms of talent and fame. The truth is that I have never been a maximiser. Call it a lack of motivation or a humble recognition of my own mediocrity… Or perhaps I did not wish to undermine my achievements by deviating from the course that I believe satisfied my spiritual yearnings. My musical adventures have given me more than fame and material gains—they have helped me observe, feel and experience the world around me. Although I never received standing ovations, my singing touched my consciousness with beauty, tranquillity and humanity and left me with a sense of fulfilment.

Hence, I have no regrets that I have chosen to walk the slow lane. After all, not everyone is meant to play Hamlet on the world stage. We can also find contentment in the role of "an attendant lord… To swell a progress, start a scene or two…"


Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.