Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

SRUTI FICTION

VEENAI BHAVANI

By Kalki (1942)

Translated by Gowri Ramnarayan

It was around nine o’clock at night. Black clouds filled the sky. There was a slight drizzle. In the dim light of the shaded street lamps, the sky seemed to be shedding tears from a sorrow too deep for words.

I simply couldn’t bear the gloomy sight. I came into the house. My mind was sunk in dejection. I shut the windows against both aggravations and switched the lights on. I picked up a book, hoping that it would bring about a change of mood.

Readers may wish to know why I felt depressed. Aren’t there reasons galore for depression? The state of the world and of the country can furnish any number of reasons for low spirits. As if these were not enough, a report in the evening newspaper exhausted whatever reserves of zest I may have had.

There had been a train accident somewhere between Kudalur and Chidambaram. Having left Egmore last night, the Boat Mail had met with a serious accident. The cause was yet unknown. But the city heard several versions of the story. The official explanation was that the tracks had been washed away in a sudden and heavy downpour. Rumour had it that someone had deliberately sabotaged the tracks because a high-ranking official of the Railways was travelling by the train. There were endless rumours about the numbers of the dead.

I was not as badly shaken by the news that a hundred, maybe even two hundred, persons had met their deaths in the accident. But I felt as if the train had crashed right over me when I scanned the long death list and came across a certain name.

Readers may remember Iyampettai Kandappan. He was the tavil player who had told me the story of the nagaswaram maestro Sivakozhundu. Seeing his name among the dead hit me hard.

For God has made us like that. We don’t react when we hear of twenty thousand people dying in a volcanic eruption in America. Yet we feel miserable when we hear of the death of someone we know personally.

Should Iyampettai Kandappan have met such a tragic end? What a wonderful man he was! What a patriot! So good and conscientious! With such affection for his friends! A true connoisseur!

The sound of a horse cab halting in front of my house disturbed my reflections. ‘Who can it be at this hour?’ I wondered with some distaste. My mind was in no fit state for me to receive anyone.

A second later the front door was opened. I wouldn’t have been more astounded if I had found Adolf Hitler or General Tojo on my doorstep. For the man who stood there was none other than Iyampettai Kandappan.

‘Don’t be afraid! It is I myself in the flesh, not my ghost!’ When I heard Kandappan’s voice, amazement turned to overwhelming delight.

‘Welcome, welcome!’ I cried as I took him by the hand and made him take a seat.

‘What happened? How did you manage to escape from the train accident? I was terribly upset to see your name in the newspaper. How could they make such a mistake? Shame on them!’ I went on and on in excitement.

‘Thank God I didn’t board that train! I had reserved my seat in advance. My tavil and luggage had been loaded on to the compartment but I myself reached the station two minutes after the train had left. I was lucky…’

‘Your name must have been on the passengers’ list. Seeing that and your tavil, the press obviously decided to send you straight to heaven!’

‘I think so.’

‘Won’t your people be worried? Why didn’t you go home today?’ I asked him.

‘I’ve sent them a telegram. I thought I should give you a fright before I went home.’

‘You tried to scare me?’

‘Yes. Didn’t you frighten us in the same manner in one of your stories? This is my revenge.’

‘Such things can happen in stories. Not in real life,’ I said.

‘You are completely wrong,’ Kandappan averred.

‘How can you be so absolutely sure of that?’

‘Because I have seen such a thing happen in real life.’

‘What thing?’

‘Danger arose because a man presumed dead made a sudden appearance.’

‘What kind of danger?’

‘Danger to life.’

I knew then that Kandappan had come with the specific intent of relating an interesting incident.

‘Tell me all about it, I’d love to hear it. My mind is very unsettled today. I feel extremely depressed. Perhaps, if I listen to your story…’

‘…This is not a story to arouse enthusiasm. It is steeped in grief. Perhaps we’ll keep it for another day…’

‘Not at all. You must listen to a sad story especially when you feel depressed. So tell me now…’

Kandappa Pillai began all his tales with a question. He made no exception this time. He cleared his throat in preparation and asked me, ‘Do you recall having heard of Poonthottam Bhavani?’

I recognized the name but as if through the mists of a previous birth. I remembered having listened to two or three gramophone ‘plates’ by her. But Kandappa Pillai did not wait for me to prod my memory any further. He went on.

‘Thirty years ago, Poonthottam Bhavani was a celebrated name. She was also known as Veenai Bhavani. When she sang with the veena on her lap, it was as if the goddess Saraswati herself donned a human form and appeared before us. You could compare her voice only to the ringing resonance of the veena’s string when her fingers plucked it. The sound she evoked from the veena found its match only in her voice. Her concerts were held before assemblies of thousands of people who listened in rapt silence. They lost themselves in her music.

‘Bhavani performed frequently in temples, particularly at the Tiruvarur temple during festival time. Nowadays we see atheism gaining ground. Rationalists’ movements and Self-Respect movements are making things worse for the world. On top of all this, we have the advent of cinema. There are very few left who will conduct temple festivals with care and solicitude.

‘But in those days people found their enjoyment only in the rituals and festivities connected to the temples. From twenty miles around people would throng in multitudes to attend them.

‘At festival time music concerts were held in the kalyana mandapam of the temple. Every concert drew capacity crowds, but Poonthottam Bhavani’s recitals broke all records. “As great a crowd as at Poonthottam Bhavani’s concerts” became a common phrase of the times.

‘You can imagine the din and racket at such colossal gatherings. But Bhavani’s fingers had only to touch the strings, she had only to raise her head slightly and align her sweet voice to their pitch. The noise subsided at once. As Bhavani’s mellifluous voice, accompanied by the veena’s resonance rose, and the audience fell silent, there was a hint of other-worldly magic.

‘I never missed a chance to attend Bhavani’s concerts. And I did often get to hear her. I found that Bhavani’s concerts were also held at many of the weddings and temple functions to which I was invited in my professional capacity. Tears would come to my eyes whenever I listened to her music. I would drop my head down, pretending to have a headache, so that the others did not laugh at my response. You ask me the reason for those tears? I don’t know myself. Were they tears of bliss? Or evoked by fears that so marvellous an outpouring may be short-lived? Can such music last long? Can the world bear such divine ecstasy? A few others would worry about the effects of the evil eye on the artiste. I invariably went to meet Bhavani after every concert and told her, “Thangachi, ask your mother to take some ritual precautions against the evil eye.”

(Reproduced from KALKI Selected Stories Centenary Edition, Penguin Books, 1999)
Copyright this version Gowri Ramnarayan 2012

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