Song of Surrender

Thursday, 2 August 2012

SRUTI FICTION

TRIPLICANE MANI

(Part III of a short novel by MV Swaroop)

(Continued from blogpost dated 1 August 2012)

Untitled

(This is a short story in Tamil by noted writer, P. Srivaralakshmi, who wrote under the pseudonym Janani. The original, unfinished and untitled, was found amongst the author’s papers after her death and translated into English by VasudevIyer and published in a collection of short fiction by women writers in Tamil.)

As high school girls in Neyveli, we were unabashedly romantic. Brought up on hopelessly mawkish mythology, drama and cinema, we believed that one day, a man would walk into our lives and change it forever. We would love him passionately, deeply, he would love us back; then we would bear his children, bring them up, care for them, get them married; we would weep when he dies, and he would if we died before him. Life taught us, however, that romances, marriages and relationships are far more complicated than that. When this story happened, though, I was only seventeen years and eight months old. Forgive me if I come across as a little naive.

I remember only the strangest details from that summer afternoon. I wore an olive green sari with a darker green border. Don’t mock my aesthetic sensibilities – my mother bought the sari for me. That day, she made my curd rice too milky; she overestimated the heat’s curdling abilities. She also miscalculated the amount of time it would take for me to come from Neyveli to Thanjavur. I reached the station five hours before my train to Madras.

When a train slowed down at the station, accompanied by its hoot, I noticed a pair of grey eyes. I looked away immediately, because I could feel their gaze on me, starting, like the hoot, at the far end of the platform, and continuing till that compartment curved out of eyeshot. I felt a little uneasy. Still, I wanted to see those eyes once more. For a second, I toyed with the idea of getting on the train and seeking those eyes. But I contained that desire. The train started moving.

I don’t know what forces pushed me to change my mind suddenly. Like they do in the movies, I stood up, picked up my bag and ran with the train until I caught up with the nearest door. I was about to leap into the compartment when I felt the gaze on me again. This time, it was from my left, from the platform. When I turned to meet the gaze, I saw those eyes adorning a six-foot-two-inch-frame, a handsome face, long, unkempt hair and the prettiest of beards. I froze. Those eyes looked unfazed, and that face broke into a faint smile.

He asked me in a clear, young voice, “Looking for me?”

I was flooded by another image – of a temple in Neyveli, gas lamps and a moonless night; of laughing faces, waving hands, swaying heads. I could hear the music again – that very same clear, young voice, its clarity and tone untarnished by the high notes or speeds it was trying to negotiate. I felt that high again, that meaningless rush of romantic love!

“Are you who I think you are?” I asked, nervously. He was.

The train had left. The platform was deserted. There might have been a wind blowing, one of those comforting winds, or that might just be my romantic mind adding details to the event. I brought it to his notice that he had missed his train. He said, “I didn’t even know where it was going.” I looked at him incredulously. He only grinned.

“Let’s go somewhere?” he asked.

I considered that offer for a second, before asking, “I know a place. Are you feeling up to a walk?”

He nodded, “I have no plan, no schedule. My time is yours.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yes?”

“Your name?”

“Janani.”

He liked my name, I think, for he repeated it with a certain fondness. “I’m Siva...”

“I know.”

We first took a bus. I rested my head on his shoulder. I felt his initial uneasy excitement at my boldness, but soon he was comfortable, and leaned against me. We spoke a lot, of our families, of our friends, of childhoods, likes, peeves, idiosyncrasies, and music. He spoke of his music with a slight tinge of pomposity. He had the air of someone who believed he was the greatest, but wanted to hide this belief from the world. I spoke of my music nervously; I was only just above average.

I asked him, “What are you doing these days?”

“You’ve ever heard of wandering musicians?” I nodded. He said, “I’m not one. I’m just a musician in hiding!”

I asked him what that meant. “My brothers are trying to get me married off to my neighbour. She’s a sweet girl. But I can’t live with someone who’s just sweet, no?”

“And that’s why you ran away?”

He paused for a moment, before he said, “I was hoping I’d run into someone like you.”

Our trek involved walking through paddy fields, a marsh, a clump and finally to the summit of a secluded hill. It led to a little settlement of no more than thirty families. It was almost ten in the night when we reached there - the entire journey had taken us six hours.

He asked me again what we were doing there. I told him, again, to be patient.

I led him to a house from which the most haunting Vagadeeswari ensued. We entered the little hall, where an old man was playing the veena, with his eyes closed while eight other men, two strumming tamburas, listened. The room was dingy, lit only by two large gas lamps. The windows were open, and faint moonlight made its way in, accompanied by a soothing wind. The artiste took no notice of our entrance.

We sat at the back and soaked in the tanam. It was the slowest, most detailed, heavy tanam we had ever heard. The old man gave each swara such care and attention, they seemed to come alive. He played phrase after phrase around the rishabham, gandharam and the madhyamam, going back and forth, up and down, sliding and staccato, over each of those notes, slipping in and out of a rhythm. My grey-eyed hero watched in disbelief. His aesthetic sensibilities, his theatrical style were all being dismissed by an old, frail man on a veena. The entire room was in a trance when the veena began booming in the ati-mandra tanam. The old man played with an energy that belied his frame. Merging with his veena, he produced music that had the power of a thirty-piece orchestra. In that small space, one could hear the subtlest of the veena’s tones, and the old man had much to convey through the faintest of touches, and the minutest of flourishes. 

When the tanam ended, the old man fumbled for the glass of water that was behind him. His student, seated next to him, gave him the glass. Siva realised the man was blind. The man suddenly asked, “Janani is here? At this hour?”

I never understood how he always sensed my presence. I replied, “Yes... I’m with a friend. He sings.”

I could feel Siva’s nervousness when the old man asked, “Sing for us? Is this sruti okay for you?”

Siva hummed a Todi phrase and said, “Yes. This sruti is perfect.”

The old man said, “Can you sing Ritigowlai instead of Todi?”

Siva started with a striking tarasthayi phrase in Ritigowlai and started adding layer after layer of sangatis over it; like garlands. The old man exclaimed, “Bale!” Siva’s imagination was relentless - like cyclonic downpour! The little audience had never heard anything of that sort before. In ten minutes though, he was done. Exhausted by his own high, he was panting at the end of the alapana. He collected himself before launching into Janani ninnuvina, the grey eyes twinkling naughtily in my direction each time he said “Janani”. It was nearly midnight when his Ritigowlai ended.

The old man asked us if we had eaten anything. We hadn’t. Everyone in the hall walked with the man to a nearby house, where his sister fed us. When we were done, we settled down in the courtyard there. The old man tuned his veena and played a few notes. It was Ritigowlai, again. Siva, who was chatty, happy and proud, went silent. If his Ritigowlai rode on its sheer vitality, this one had pathos. Siva’s was rough, even brash, this one was smooth and heavy. Siva snaked around the raga, like a young man on a motorbike through heavy traffic, the man drove along effortlessly, as if the traffic didn’t exist at all.

It was nearly sunrise when we were done with the music session. Siva didn’t dare sing again that night. One of the men invited us to stay with him. When we walked towards his house, Siva pulled me by my hand into a bylane and said, “Thank you.” Those grey eyes, in the early morning sun, moist, staring into my own, conveyed love and gratefulness in equal measure.

* * *

Ajith put the book down and said to Nethra, “It ends abruptly, but this is exactly the story Mani told me!”

“Strange, I know. And of all the stories in the book, Vasudev Iyer chose to read this one at the launch. I was jumping with joy!”

“You spoke to him about it?”

“Yeah. So, Janani was a Bombay-based writer. She was in Neyveli until she got married to a civil servant. She would send short stories by post to a man in Madras she considered her editor, and he would get them published in magazines and newspapers. She died when she was 31, of tuberculosis.”

Ajith’s face fell.

“I know what you are thinking. She’s not your grand-aunt.”

That evening, Ajith sat on his balcony and heard the last part of the recording again, sipping a glass of whiskey.

“How long were you in that village?” Ajith asked.

“For almost a month. We learnt from the old man, we sang with him, we sang for him. We stayed at his sister’s house, where we were treated like her own children. We went on long, aimless walks. We sat silently for hours by a remote lake, just watching the ripples on the surface of the water. We were nearly married – I think she was pregnant at that time – when her family caught up with her. They took her away.” Mani’s voice trailed away at this point, and with a subtle movement of his fingers he indicated that she had been dragged away.

Ajith asked, after a while, “You didn’t go looking for her?”

“I went to Neyveli,” Mani replied, “where she claimed to be from. No one there knew any Janani!”

“You never met her again?”

“I am sure I did, although she pretended she was seeing me for the first time.”

“When?”

“Almost twenty years later, at a wedding.”

That last statement confirmed it for Ajith. Janani could not have been his grand-aunt, although the woman Mani met fifteen years later probably was.

“That’s a story for another day. I’m tired now,” Mani said.

“When?”

“I’ll call you. I hope you will not publish these stories about women? I’ll tell you enough about music. You can write about that.”

Ajith switched off his recorder, and continued sipping on his whiskey, occasionally killing a mosquito with his electric bat. He had an interview with Mani’s student the next day – Raghavan, an elderly advocate in the High Court who was more Mani’s friend than student.

That night, when Shankar rolled out his mattress on the floor, next to his teacher’s bed, he couldn’t help but wonder what Mani must have been like when he was younger. By the time Shankar met him, Mani was nearly seventy – he had just about retired, and Shankar thought of him as a musical sanyasi. He had never seen Mani talk about anything else with any passion or conviction. The rumour mill gossiped about Mani’s indiscretions all the time, and Shankar had heard wild stories, but they seemed so unlike the Mani he knew that he simply disregarded them.

Ajith’s paati, Sarada, thought of her cousin endlessly that evening. The orphaned Saraswati and she were the only two girls amongst eight boys in her house. Growing up together, they were co-conspirators in everything they did (they were even named after the same goddess!), until Saraswati committed a crime that Sarada couldn’t be a part of. It was a continuing crime that lasted for years, but Saraswati behaved as if she did no wrong. It consumed her in the end, Sarada believed, as she breathed her last in a hamlet near Kodaikanal, away from all her friends and family.

Sarada went to Ajith’s room twice to see what he was writing, but only saw Facebook on his laptop. Mani, meanwhile, slept peacefully.




Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction, with fictional characters. The names of real persons or institutions including those of musicians, e.g., Musiri, and Sruti magazine appearing in it are purely the figment of the author’s imagination, included for verisimilitude, and have no basis in fact. © MV Swaroop 2012

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