Friday, 3 August 2012



(Part IV of a short novel by MV Swaroop)

 (Continued from blogpost dated 2 August 2012)

Mani’s cell phone was switched off for a week, his landline was ‘disconnected’ (Ajith wondered if he had forgotten to pay his bill) and Ajith was too nervous to go to his house without calling him first. For three days after the first interview, Ajith expected no call and didn’t get one. Then, like a husband with his wife nearing her ‘due’ date, he started expecting a phone call at any moment and obsessed over being around his phone at all times. At the end of the week, he realised he had to make the phone calls, but met with the irritating switched-off-voice every time he called. Slowly, he grew desperate and started calling Nethra everyday, whining to her about geniuses and their need to show to the world that they were eccentric. People always mistake eccentricity for genius, he told her, and most often, geniuses are taken seriously only when they are eccentric.

The very next morning, Shankar called. “Sir wants you to come at three-fifteen this afternoon.”

At three-ten, Ajith found the front door wide open and Shankar sitting in the verandah and ironing a veshti with great concentration. The old iron traversed the garment in careful straight lines, crisping it in the process. Shankar looked up when he heard the gate and peered happily at Ajith through those black glasses. For a moment, the iron left the garment and rested on a side table.

“Hello!” Shankar exclaimed. Ajith waved, as he approached the verandah. Shankar placed a chair next to his own, and asked Ajith to sit. Ajith obeyed. Shankar then disappeared inside the house. Ajith, partly mechanically, and partly because it seemed like fun, began ironing the veshti. Almost three minutes later, Mani appeared at the front door, preceded by a four-legged walker and escorted by Shankar.

“Good afternoon!” Mani said, sounding as cheery as he did the other day, “You don’t have to iron my veshti, you know! Only my students do that...”

Shankar lunged to take the iron out of Ajith’s hand, while Ajith put the iron away on the side table. “It’s an honour!” Ajith said.

Mani laughed. Shankar went into the house and returned in a moment with a folding easy chair. He placed it in the verandah facing the road. Mani sat on the chair. Ajith and Shankar then took their seats next to him, and Ajith put his recorder on the armrest of Mani’s chair.

“You are looking so much better today!” Ajith said.

“I am better! But the end is near... I can feel it,” Mani said, in a natural, cheery tone.

Ajith merely smiled and said, “My grandmother always says, ‘After seventy, everything is a bonus.’”

Mani said expressionlessly, “Bonus?! It’s a curse, I tell you. The physical torture I go through each day. I wish it all just ended.” A silence followed that statement. “Where were we?” Mani asked, unmindful of the reaction his declaration had caused.

Ajith took a second before replying, “You told us about the girl in Tanjavur...”

“Madurai,” Mani corrected him.

Ajith looked at him curiously. “You said Madurai? I somehow thought it was Tanjavur...”

“No. Madurai.”

Ajith was pretty sure the short story by Janani referred to the Tanjavur Railway Station, but he wasn’t sure of what Mani had told him. He couldn’t believe that there could be a discrepancy between Mani’s story and Janani’s.

Mani broke the silence with, “That story’s over. What next?”

“You were saying... You were saying you met that woman again, but she didn’t recognise you...”

“I don’t know if I want to tell you that story,” Mani said, looking mischievously at Ajith through the corner of his eye.

Ajith tried again, “But if you met her again…”

“I told you. I don’t want to get into that.”

There was a long silence that Ajith broke with, “Sir, are you actually a recluse? Or is that just a perception?”

“I’m not fond of social gatherings. Except kutcheris,” he chuckled. “I like smaller groups of people for social interaction. I get uncomfortable when I am at a wedding or a function. Too many people know me, too many people have met me. I am always worried that I’m inadvertently ignoring people, or I’ve slighted someone, or I’ve been over-friendly with someone I don’t know too well. It scares me. So, I avoid all these events. People then think I’m introverted or anti-social. I like a group of three or four people. Then, we’re all talking to each other, we can all have our conversations. I’m spending time with all of them. Large gatherings are overwhelming. Frightening.”

Ajith did not know how to maneuver this odd conversation. Mani then said, “To tell you the truth, the world inside my head is far richer than the world outside it. I prefer living there.”
Ajith knotted his eyebrows. Mani signalled something to Shankar. Shankar got up and went inside the house.

Then, Mani said, “Even in my childhood, I had a world inside my head. It was, usually, a version of the world outside. Real people are more complicated in my head than they are in real life. Emotions are stronger, responses are magnified, scenes are in full colour and 3-D. If my father was actually cold and strict, in my head, he would be caring - and perhaps he was on the inside! If I was known for my singing everywhere, I was an actor in my head. I always wanted to act in the movies, and imagined my Abhimanyu play being made into a famous movie. When I watched Ben-hur in Bombay, I was blown away! I spent months trying to convince directors here to make an Abhimanyu movie on that scale and cast me in it. And I would spend days imagining myself in those movies, acting, singing, fighting, romancing... And giving interviews! I read these film magazines that came from Bombay with interviews from the stars. I must’ve been in my twenties by then, but the interviews really fascinated me. And because no one ever wanted to interview a Carnatic musician then, I imagined interviews, answers, reactions.

“But then, you know, the world is a noisy place. You can’t hear what is inside you when the world chatters all around you. An artist needs to spend enough time in that world inside his head. If someone says he has no such world, he’s no artist at all. He’s just a photocopying machine. A musician’s music should be his own. Not someone else’s.

“This Shankar, for instance,” Mani said, pointing at Shankar who entered again with the usual tea and Marie biscuits, “Sings brilliantly. Lovely voice. But sings only my sangatis. I sometimes think he writes down my raga alapanas in a notebook and reproduces them.” Shankar attempted some form of protest, but Mani cut him off and continued, “He has a band of followers now - a cult of old men and women who liked my music. They hear me in his voice, in his style... Not good at all. I don’t teach him anything these days. Just let him sing on his own. I don’t even correct him if he makes a mistake. He needs to live in his head for a while.”

“Sir exaggerates,” Shankar said, nibbling on his biscuit.

It was a confused monologue from Mani that seemed to start nowhere and end nowhere. Ajith wondered if he was going a little senile. He sipped his tea, and found it tasted like dissolved mud. It was the sort of tea his grandmother made – boil cheap tea powder in milk, strain, add milk, sugar, boil everything together and serve hot. The same procedure could result in excellent chai, like the tea kadai at the end of Boag Road proved, but his grandmother and Shankar had got something wrong. Perhaps, they did use mud.

Just then, a Maruti 800 pulled up by the main gate. An old man got out, opened the gate and drove straight in. Mani called out joyously, “Sivan!” and said to Ajith, “My brother, Sadasivam.”

Sadasivam waved from the car, parked it, got out and hollered, “Anna! Not bad! You’re sitting in the verandah!” and looking at Shankar and Ajith asked, “Sishyaalaa?

“That one with the glasses, he is Shankar, my student. He lives with me now.”

“Of course I know Shankar,” Sadasivam said, suddenly recognising him.

“And this one here, Ajith,” he paused, “Am I right? Ajith?” Ajith nodded. “Yes. He is Ajith. A reporter from Sruti magazine. Interviewing me.”

“My Anna is a big fraud,” Sadasivam said, “Always telling people that he’s an ordinary fellow and all that. Even he doesn’t know the extent of his genius.”

Ajith laughed, “Don’t worry. We’re not fooled by him!”

Mani said, “Ajith, I need to take my brother inside the house – I’m just getting rid of some furniture.”

Shankar helped Mani to his feet, but Mani brushed him aside. “Siva will take me from here!”
Sadasivam gleefully put his hand on Mani’s shoulder and guided him through the door. He turned to Ajith and said, “Come with us. You can continue the interview while we look at the furniture.”

Ajith walked with them into the bare drawing room and through the dining room to the landing where the stairs led to the first floor. Lurking at the far end of the landing, partly hidden by the stairs and partly by the dim light, was a door that Ajith wouldn’t have noticed if Shankar hadn’t opened it. It led to a room that was a grand bedroom in its heyday, where the owners of the house slept. Now, it was a storeroom for old furniture and books. Ajith recognised it as the room he saw on the first day when he opened a loose window. Sadasivam said, “I need a bookshelf and a study table. I’m converting the first floor sit-out into a study of sorts.”

Mani stood with his walker at the head of the room and said, “Leave that one there on the right for me. It has my cassettes. Take anything else.”

Sadasivam scanned the room, moving furniture around to make space for himself. He spotted a large bookshelf at the near corner filled with Tamil books and said, “That shelf looks good.”

Ajith, meanwhile, walked straight to the shelf with Mani’s cassettes. It was a fascinating collection of Mani’s music, concerts from the 1950s to the 1990s, all arranged in chronological order, labelled in crisp English lettering, with the year, sabha, accompanists and main ragam, on the sleeve. Ajith saw TNK, TKM, UKS, PR and other familiar abbreviations on many covers. There was one that caught his fancy. “SC (nagaswaram)”, it said. Ajith asked, across the room, “You’ve sung with Sheikh Chinnamoula-saheb?”

Mani said, “Oh yes! Three concerts. All of them were bad! When I sang with Rajaratnam Anna, it was so beautiful. I was trying to recreate that effect, but it didn’t come off. There’s one next to this cassette with T. Viswanathan on flute, right?”


“That was a great concert: Saveri, Suddha Saveri, and Asaveri were the first three ragas.”

“Yes!” Ajith said in amazement, “How do you remember such things?”

Shankar said from near the other bookshelf, “Once, I told him that I had a recording of his 1980 concert at Bangalore, with a Todi ragam-tanam-pallavi in it. M.S. Gopalakrishnan on violin. And he said...”

“There’s Sahana, Kanada, and Hindolam in the ragamalika. Yes, I remember that concert very well!”

Ajith suddenly noticed something out of place. There was a set of Pink Floyd cassettes! “Sir, you listen to Pink Floyd?”

Sadasivam laughed, and Mani joined him. Mani said, “I gave a concert in London, after which Roger Waters gave them to me. I never tell people this, because they never believe me. I’m sure even you think it’s an old man’s hallucination.”

“You know what is special about Anna’s music? It is universal, every damn fellow loves it. He is a true genius.” Sadasivam said, now looking for a study table.

Mani said, “I wish I could be like my brother.”

“What rubbish!”

“Siva, you don’t know. You have such an advantage in that you understand people around you. I’m always a little lost, always the oddball. People like me from a distance – it is their admiration for what I am and what I’ve achieved.”

“Don’t get fooled by this self-pity, Ajith. Anna has admirers who will do anything for him. Ask Shankar.”

Shankar agreed.

“Admirers?” Mani asked, “I don’t see a single one at home today. You don’t understand, Siva. I can’t walk, there are things eating me up from the inside. Doctors are trying to prolong my existence, God knows why. And my children are in the US. Too busy to spend time with me. You fractured your leg and your son came to India for a month. It’s my fault. I wasted my life being a genius. I should’ve been with them more when they were younger.” Mani addressed Ajith now, “Look at Sadasivam, I’m sure you like him already, with his easy charm. I would’ve preferred being like him.”

“The whole world wants to be you, Anna. Now shut up.” After a moment, Sadasivam sighed and said, “I guess I’ll have to buy a new study table. Nothing here.”

Mani turned around, his walker clanking against the red-oxide floor as he walked into the landing, into the dining room.

Suddenly, he told Sadasivam, “Dai, Siva! Take me to the beach?”

Soon, Ajith found himself in the old Maruti 800 with Mani, Sadasivam and Shankar, hurtling away towards Marina Beach.

Sadasivam asked, “Ajith, you’ve been with Sruti for long?”

“Six months.”

“Oh. Where were you before that?”

“I was with a market research firm in Bombay.”

“Didn’t like Bombay?”

“Umm, sort of. But I was always looking to come back.”

“Your parents live here?”

Shankar interjected, “You live with your grandmother, don’t you?”

Ajith said, “Yeah. My mother’s no more. She died when I was barely two.”

“I’m so sorry,” Sadasivam said. “What about your father?”

“He married again and left me with his parents. They brought me up.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Mani decided to break it with, “So, Ajith what does your grandfather do?”

“He was in the I.R.S. He’s also no more. I moved back to Madras because my grandmother was alone.”

That was the second successive awkward silence. Everyone muttered a sorry, but said little more. Ajith said, “He was old.”

Finally, Mani said to Sadasivam, “Hey, I.R.S! You may know him!” and said to Ajith, “Siva’s an I.A.S. retired.”

Sadasivam said, “What was his name?”

“S. Ramachandran.”

That revelation produced the most awkward of the three silences. Sadasivam said, with a fake enthusiasm, “Ram is an old friend! Great man, he was! Great man. The most honest of them all. That’s not very common in the revenue department, you know!”

Mani went unnaturally quiet until they reached the beach. Ajith realised he shouldn’t have given away his grandfather’s identity. His cover of being an innocent young fellow trying to understand Mani was exposed. Mani would soon suspect that Ajith was only interested in one story. The story of his grand-aunt. Mani’s openness, his twinkling eyes, the rants, the vague stories would all go.

“In the 50s,” Mani told Shankar, “when I was around your age, I used to practise here, on the beach. There was almost nobody. Can you imagine Marina like that? In that corner, sometimes I would hear a piercing flute, especially early in the morning. That was N. Ramani. He often stayed with Mali in Triplicane during his school holidays, but Mali would often want to sleep in the mornings and ask poor Ramani not to practise. So, he would come here, and play with the waves as his accompanists. Imagine his breath control, playing amidst a strong sea breeze! We would wave to each other, and sit out of earshot and concentrate on our practice. Sometimes, after practice, we walked back to my house and had a coffee together.”

Ajith imagined the young, handsome Mani, with his striking voice, the drone of the tambura and lashing waves. And he looked at Mani today, his walker clanking ahead of him as he navigated the pavement towards a cement bench. His brain suddenly conjured another image, of a middle-aged Mani, still handsome, and Ajith’s grandaunt, a most beautiful woman, sitting together on this very beach, oblivious to the scandal they were creating in their homes.

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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