The most positive thing one could say about the annual elocution competitions at my school was that they were consistently strange. Reduced to basics, it was a gathering of unfortunate sods bound by honour and loyalty to their house colours, parroting texts ranging from the 16th to the 21st century, tested by a crowd which could go from expectant to bored to hostile within the space of a single speech. Like all expositions, it was also an expose – of one’s memory, of pitch and timbre, and more revealingly, of one’s origins and ambitions. And if you think you can’t get all this from a stuttering 16 year old’s reciting ‘To be or not to be’ then you haven’t tried to fill the vastness of Spence Hall with a voice that hasn’t broken yet, you haven’t seen the fear in the eyes of a contestant when that slow hand clap begins, the one where the contestant forgets his lines and the audience tests his will to ever set foot on that stage again.
And then there were those moments which no one will ever forget. Like how every year someone would take a crack at Rebecca, but never quite match up to Gautam Bajaj’s original performance, authentic, sneering, spitting out the lines ‘You think I loved Rebecca? I HATED her”. There was the inspired and oft-repeated choice of The Odessa File by Fredrick Forsyth as speech material. There was Rana Pahwa doing a note-perfect Rex Harrison with ‘Let a woman in your life’. There was Udayan who had the temerity to read out, amidst all that Shakespeare and Shaw, a self-composition. And most memorable of all was that afternoon when we first heard the words boomalay boomalay boomalay boom…
‘The Congo’, a 1914 poem by Vachel Lindsay, is set in colonial Africa and is a sort of tribal chant in both form and spirit. The fact that Lindsay wrote his poems to be spoken out loud brings the material thrillingly close to the arena of rapping. I would have loved to see Public Enemy go at it, 'Tusk' by Fleetwood Mac playing in the background. Or maybe just the guy who recited it on that fateful day. I forgot who he was, but he went at it like a crazy preacher.
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table
‘Huh’ went his audience. At least it didn’t sound British.
The man explained - ‘THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK’
‘Ah’ went everyone. Now it made sense.
‘Death is an Elephant
Torch-eyed and horrible
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies
BOOM, kill the Arabs
BOOM, kill the white men’
‘Boom’ responded his audience. In one of those moments that came rarely on that hallowed stage, speaker and spoken to were both flying.
‘Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you. Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you. Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you’ he ended. There was nothing left to say.