As she recuperates slowly but surely from the attack by the greatest villain civilization has encountered since Gabbar Singh I recall my first encounter with Lata Mangeshkar which is still vividly etched in my memory.

From the age of six, I’ve believed that divinity dwells in her throat. I still do. For years I wondered what she she like in person.Or did she even exist?!In 1995 a mutual friend set up an appointment with her at the Shiv Sena Bhavan where she was rehearsing for a concert.. I couldn’t believe my luck. But she was unwell, and had to miss our appointment. I consoled myself saying it was not meant to be. But the very next day, she was there in front of me: frail, warm… and real. She was full of jokes.

Since then, I’ve come to know one truth about the lady humility comes naturally to her.

In 1999, when Lataji missed out on the Bharat Ratna in favour of Pandit Ravi Shankar, I commented on the unfairness of Bharat’s real ratna of Bharat being denied the highest civilian honour.”Aap aisa kyon sochte hain ,” Lataji admonished me. “You might think I am a big talent. But Panditji is far bigger than I have been or can ever hope to be.I still remember how nervous and excited I was when I had to sing his compositions in Anuradha. I kept wondering whether I would do justice to the creations of an artiste as great as him. Artistes like Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Bismillah Khan come once in a century. They deserve to be honoured far more than I do.”

Of course, Panditji’s creations in Anuradha, like Kaise din beete and Hai re woh din, attained new heights when Lataji sang them.When Panditji tried to recreate the same magic with another voice (Vani Jairam) in his score for Gulzar’s Meera, the compositions fell flat.

Lataji refused to do Meera bhajans even though Panditji, Gulzar, even leading lady Hema Malini personally pleaded with her to do the needful. “How could I?” she reasons. “I had already done Meerabhajans for my brother Hridaynath.”

This timeless singer lives, breathes, earns and yearns only for her family. Her world begins and ends within the Mangeshkar clan of two sisters (Meena and Usha), Hridayanath, and their families. They stay together at Peddar Road, Bombay.

Iconised, and now canonised, Lata Mangeshkar is more than a singer. As director Sanjay Leela Bhansali puts it, “It doesn’t matter if she no longer sounds as she did ten years ago. At her age, it’s a miracle she can still sing. Lataji has long ago transcended human definitions of excellence.”

There was a time when composers like Sachin Dev Burman and Madan Mohan waited months to get her to sing. Once, Asha Bhosle went up to Madan Mohan asking why she couldn’t sing more of his songs. “Nahin, jab tak Lata hai aur koi nahin,” (As long as Lata is here, no one else will do), came the firm answer.

It is the love of the latabhakhts that overwhelms Lataji. When she got the Bharat Ratna she was in London for her annual holiday. When I called her to congratulate her she had said, “I consider it the highest honour. It is all thanks to my parents and my listeners’ prayers. Bharat Ratna ke baad to ab kuch bacha hi nahin (there is nothing left after the Bharat Ratna). I don’t deserve so much recognition. There are many artistes far greater than me.”

To have received the Bharat Ratna in the same year as Ustad Bismillah Khan was a matter of double joy for Lataji: “He was a sweet and simple soul, whom I have known and admired for years. Not only have I attended his concerts, he also performed at my father’s death anniversary.I’ve got so much love and appreciation . I must give some of it back to my country. I have never considered myself an extraordinary singer.”

How dud she assess her own career as a singer? “If you ask me, I did okay for myself. Acha hai…Lekin aur bhi achcha ho sakta hai(I did well. But I could’ve done better). I’ve never stoped to admire any of my songs, ‘Wah wah kya gaana gaya hai.’But I know what you don’t. I know the places where I’ve made mistakes in my songs.And an artiste should never be satisfied with what he or she does. There should always be hunger to excel. That fire….look at Bachchan Saab! That’s what keeps him going. No matter what your sphere of activity there must always be that hunger to do better.As a writer I am sure you also want to do better.With my songs also I always felt I could do better, even the ones that people today think perfect.”

Ok, so which is the song that has given Lataji maximum satisfaction? “ The songs that I sang for my brother(Hridayanath Mangeshkar) in the album of Meerabai bhajans Chala Vahi Des. I always feel that I’ve done justice to whatever Hridaynath gave me to do in.It has been my must successful endeavour to date.I’ve also done justice to some of the compositions by Salilda(Chowdhury), Madan Mohan and Jaidev. Jaidev was the most challenging among the composers. He had a sound knowledge of classical music. He would say, ‘I’ve told her what to do. Now I don’t need to worry.’ Once he composed a song he left it to me to worry about it. It became my responsibility.And I’d be endlessly worried.I remember he had composed a Nepali song for me written by the King Of Nepal King Birendra(Jun Mato Na Mero in the Nepali film Maatighar).It was one of the toughest songs of my career.”

It is often said that composers like Shankar-Jaikishan and Laxmikant-Pyarelal made Lataji sing songs at an unnecessarily high pitch just because she has the range? “This is true. I’ll give you two examples Ehsaan tera hoga mujhpar in Junglee and O mere shah-e-khuba in Love In Tokyo, both composed by Shankar-Jaikishan. Both the songs were first sung by Mohd Rafi Saab. Then they decided they wanted the same songs sung by me. They came to me after filming the songs with the leading ladies of the two films Saira Banu in Junglee and Asha Parekh in Love In Tokyo,in the voice of Rafi Saab. And I was asked to sing the songs exactly the same way, since it was already shot with the heroines in Rafi Saab’s voice.I was’t allowed to lower the scale of the original tunes since it was already filmed.So I had no choice but to sing in Rafi Saab’s pitch.I remember how difficult it was for me.And I was very upset with Shankar-Jaikishan for making me do this.”

While Lataji misses her riyaz she also once made a startling declaration to me. “Shall I tell you something? It is much more difficult to do playback singing for films than to sing classical vocals. When you are doing classical vocals there is room for improvisation . But when you do playback singing you have to go exactly by the requirements of the character on screen. I used to find out what the heroine was supposed to be doing , why was she singing the song,etc…Playback singing requires tremendous amounts of precision in rendering the lyrics and tune.Har cheez sambhaalni padti hai. Maybe composers felt that Lata could pull it off.”

Once I asked her to assess herself as a singer and Lataji’s replied, “There have been better singers than me like K L Saigal Saab and Noor Jehanji and there will be better singers than me in future.I always say whatever skills I’ve imbibed are God’s gift. I’ll also admit that it’s never been an insurmountable challenge for me to sing anything.Every artiste has a talent. What the artiste does with that talent is up to that artiste.