By MV Swaroop
Anna was surprisingly tense. He had given at least 200 concerts before, including far more important ones, but he was edgy all morning. He tuned and re-tuned his mridangam every fifteen minutes, until even he couldn’t tell the difference between the sound before and after the tuning. He then took to ironing his veshti with a vengeance. The dhobi had done a stellar job, but Anna wasn’t satisfied. He had chosen a kurta on the previous day - something he’d never done before - but that morning, he decided to fish another one out. This one was crumpled. So, it was taken to the dhobi again and ironed under Anna’s personal supervision.
“Is your girlfriend coming to the kutcheri?” Appa asked tactlessly. Anna answered with a scowl. Then, he purposefully walked out of the house, returned in two minutes, unearthed his first mridangam book and read some very fundamental rhythms with nervous concentration.
I sat quietly with the newspaper through all the drama - the Sunday Crossword in the Hindu was always hard.
Suddenly Anna asked me, “Are you coming to the kutcheri?”
“Who’re you playing for?”
“Oh. Is he good?”
“Yeah. Why do you ask?”
“No, you seem nervous...”
“I-I-I... I’m not nervous!”
“No, the thing is, you’re revising some basics and all. I just thought you were playing for someone big.”
“I always revise!”
That was a lie, but there was no use in pointing it out to him in this mood. I went back to my crossword. I hate it when the Sunday Crossword requires you to know the names of port towns to the east of Essex. Or wait, maybe “east” was “e” and Essex was... Curious and Curiouser. I stared on.
Lunch was served. Anna ate nothing. Appa and I had a cursory discussion on clues in the crossword. Amma, who just returned from her sister’s house gave us a detailed report on our cousin’s lives. One hadn’t done well in his semester exams, a cause for worry for everyone, and the other had rejected the fourth “boy” who came to see her.
Amma suddenly asked Anna, “This Avi is a nice boy, no?”
Anna distractedly said, “Yeah.”
“Ma, I’m not his horoscoper!”
“Is that even a word?” I asked.
“Poor chores are future-tellers!” Appa declared.
Anna muttered something and left the table. Amma was about to get up to console him, when Appa said, “Leave him alone.”
Lunch resumed. “Poor chores! Too much, Pa!” Appa’s speed with anagrams always amazed me.
“Dai, forty years of solving the crossword...”
Just then, Anna stormed into the dining room, picked up his bike keys from the table, and charged out purposefully.
“Where are you going?” Amma asked.
“Need to buy some stuff.”
“What?!” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
“There’s coconut oil in my cupboard. Use that,” Appa said, and added softly, “Gel spoils your hair.”
“Leave him alone,” said Amma this time.
The sound of the door banging was following by the roar of Anna’s bike.
The three of us settled down into a bad afternoon movie on Sun TV. Appa and Amma dozed off as the first dream sequence, consisting of extras in embarrassing costumes and the hero and heroine in equally garish, but contrasting clothes. They declared their love to each other for this life and all their reincarnations. I wondered what would happen if, in the next life, one was born to a descendant of Osama, and the other to a descendant of Obama.
Soon, sleep overtook my senses, and I had a strange dream of a wrestling match between Osama and Obama with Anna in a veshti as the referee. As the wrestling intensified, and Osama stood on the rope to jump on Obama, a loud bell rang around the stadium, and a voice spoke through the microphone, “Uncle! Saar, Harish, Saar!”
I woke up. Appa was already walking towards the door. There was urgency in the voice calling him. I joined him at the door. Senthil, the watchman from the adjacent apartment complex, spoke very fast, “Arjun was turning into the main road, and he skidded and fell. I was going on my moped, and I took him on it to the hospital. His phone wasn’t working, so I came here.”
“Is he okay?” Appa asked.
“They’ve asked him to get an x-ray of his arm.”
Appa and I rushed to the hospital to find Anna’s chosen kurta soaked in blood and wet mud from the recent rains. But his arm was the cause for worry, the doctor told us. It was a fracture.
Anna’s first reaction was, “Fracture-aa? Six weeks-aa? Today’s kutcheri?”
“Kuttan will play,” Appa said, pointing to me.
“He’s... He’s not good enough. No offence, Kuttan.”
I hadn’t taken any offence. I was used to being treated like a back-up option.
“Avi isn’t that good. He can make do with Kuttan.”
“No. Let me call Sir. He’ll suggest someone else.”
Sir suggested my name, and the matter was settled.
There was something dubious about Anna’s behaviour. I had played in quite a few concerts myself, and although I didn’t have Anna’s wisdom, inventiveness or promise, I was steady. While reviewers showered praises on Anna and his ‘impeccable control and understanding of laya aspects’ or his ‘spectacular tani’, they reduced me to a mere reference, ‘S.H. Anil on the mridangam provided apt support’. There was, therefore, no reason for Anna to get all nervous about the concert.
I would provide apt support.
Anna called me towards him and whispered in my ear, “No naughtiness. Play the way you play usually, and come back home.”
“No. No mischief.”
“Ok da. Whatever.”
Amidst all the drama, I reached the concert slightly late. The others were already on stage setting up by then. I settled myself on the right of Avi, in the customary spot for the mridangist. Avi whispered to me, “Dai, I’m nervous.”
“Chill, da. You’ve done this before.”
“Big crowd, da. Usually there’s only Amma in the front row putting talam, and a few relatives here and there.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll do fine. We are here to support you.” Just as I said that last line, I glanced at my co-supporter - the violinist, a young girl from Bangalore. Slim, classical features, pottu, flowers adorning long hair, silk sari and ethereal grace, she explained every little aspect of Anna’s behaviour through the day. If she was a decent musician in addition, there was nothing more one wanted from life. Poor Anna—on painkillers, with his arm in a cast. Here, my life was playing out in slow-motion, like in the movies.
Avi started with the majestic varnam in Narayanagowlai. His rendition, though, was anything but majestic. He was nervous from the first note, sang as if he had only recently learnt it, and kept looking towards me for support. I kept the steady stream of fours going, not experimenting too much with the rhythm, especially with Avi looking like he’d just eaten his angavastram by mistake. As he doubled the tempo, he completely lost track of the song.
But he was seasoned enough to know what to do in these circumstances. He coughed, and started drinking water. The violinist looked at me and winked. It was our time in the sun, as life went into slow-motion mode again. We launched into the anupallavi, since the pallavi was suitably wrecked. I knew a couple of rhythm tricks to play here, and was about to execute them when I heard Anna’s voice in my ear warning me against naughtiness. She didn’t hold back though. There were a few touches whose deftness was masterly. They were always followed by a magical smile.
When Avi joined in for the second half of the varnam, he was rendered useless to the proceedings. True, the audience still listened to him. But the two of us were on a trip of our own, exchanging more than the occasional glance and smile as we led Avi though the swarams. The applause at the end was slightly unenthusiastic, but it didn’t matter to me. Her eyes flirted in my direction before turning to Avi for the start of the next song.
Avi started an alapana. Five seconds into it, I concluded he was singing Arabhi. I set about watching her follow him through the alapana. Five phrases into the alapana, her left eyebrow rose in suspicion. Was he singing Devagandhari? Two seconds later, there was a definite touch of Arabhi again. And back to Devagandhari, and back and forth and back and forth till she decided to stop following him. He turned towards her nervously, as a phrase typical of Shaama escaped his mouth. The audience watched in collective horror. Avi might have cried, but controlled emotions and finished his unsure alapana.
It was her turn to play now. But she didn’t know what ragam to play. Her eyes asked me if I knew the answer. “Arabhi,” I mouthed. Her eyes asked me why I thought so. I just nodded my head, as if I was sure. Truth be told, I wanted to hear Arabhi. She played an Arabhi, and I shook my head more vigorously than required, and Avi, hoping he’d win some audience back, nodded his head vigorously too. Her alapana was followed by applause that sounded thankful. She had, after all, put the audience out of their misery.
Avi asked her sheepishly, “Shall I just get up and go? The two of you play.
I attempted Devagandhari.”
“Dude, chillax. Just sing something in Arabhi now,” she replied.
I wondered if that was the first time that the words ‘dude’ and ‘chillax’ were used on the Carnatic concert stage.
Anna walked in with his cast, and settled in the third row, keeping a watchful eye on me.
The dubious Arabhi was followed by an equally dubious Varali, a trepidatious Mukhari, and a fast-paced Nalinakanti that defied all definitions of the ragam. Throughout, I kept myself under control, playing steadily as ever. Anna wouldn’t like it if I engaged in ‘mischief’. Especially with her around. Avi then proceeded to ask “Brochevarevarura?” in Khamas. I was sure it couldn’t be anyone listening to the question. When I thought of this and grinned, she grinned too, almost as if she had heard the joke. It was time for me to give Anna’s warning the royal ditch - I had to show her my prowess, lest she thought I was just an apt, unimaginative mridangist.
I unleashed all my mathematics on the crowd in the tani. I even surprised myself with my competence. I had something more than encouraging reviews to play for! Something in me had mellowed down, though. I tended to play big-hitting solos in the past, producing loud volumes to get claps, and hopefully the adjective ‘enthusiastic’ instead of ‘apt’ in the reviews. On that day, I played with more poise, mirroring her approach to the violin. The audience decided to make up for the lack of thunderous mridangam with their applause.
Backstage, as we were leaving, she said, “Hey. ‘Twas great fun! It’s funny - people told me you were a really serious person.”
“Ha, that’s my brother! He fractured his hand this afternoon. I was the last-minute replacement.”
“Oh. Nice meeting you,” she said, walking away.
I gathered the courage to ask her, “What are you doing tomorrow evening?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Let’s go eat some... dosas?”
She laughed and said, “I’d prefer idlis.”
In the background, Anna muttered away, “What was that dubious korvai you played, rascal?”
Copyright MV Swaroop, 2012