Saturday, 4 August 2012



(Part V of a short novel by MV Swaroop)

(Continued from blogpost dated 3 August 2012)

Sharada’s house has two bedrooms; one where she sleeps and the other were Ajith sleeps. But neither bedroom really belongs to either inhabitant - Ajith’s books are in his grandmother’s room, some of her sarees are in his. The radio is in Ajith’s room, and she listens to the afternoon radio concert on her way to sleep on the bed there. His room has more light during the day, and she reads the newspaper there (the drawing room is always dark). Ajith likes listening to music in Sharada’s room; he thinks it is quieter. Ajith partially closes the door only late at night when he wants to watch adult stuff, and even then, he doesn’t lock the door; he only turns the screen away from the door.

Spaces simply aren’t private in Sharada’s house, save the bathrooms.

But there are spaces that have become private because no one looks there anymore - like the lofts in both bedrooms. Sharada, her husband and her cousin had collected an assortment of junk during their lifetimes that found their homes in that loft. There was old, dismantled furniture. A folding chair on which Ajith’s grandfather spent much of his waking hours in his fifties. When his son bought him a new one, reluctantly, this was broken into three pieces and relegated to the loft. Three legs of their first dining table were there, hiding amongst back issues of physics journals. The cradle on which Ajith and his father rocked, remnants of the small table on which Ajith did his homework, all lay defunct and disused.

Then there are vessels the family brought from their ancestral house in Tirunelveli when they moved to Madras. Vessels large enough to cook for forty people in forgotten shapes and forms. There was one in which his great-grandmother apparently made soanpapdi once a year, another copper vessel used to store water in which Ajith bathed till he was five. There was also that other vessel in which Ajith’s father burnt his hand trying to taste boiling payasam whilst it was still on the stove.

Somewhere in that space was a set of books and photo albums that belonged to Ajith’s grand-aunt - the one he called ‘Taapi’. She wasn’t his Paati, but she was similar - of similar age, build, look, dress sense. But they were vastly different in their temperaments. Sharada was strict and slightly cynical. Ajith couldn’t tell whether she was cynical because she was who society wanted her to be, or the other way around. She loved Ajith dearly, but sometimes Ajith thought of her love as almost mechanical - she loved him because she was supposed to. She was wise, she was good with finances, and she had a natural feel for human behaviour. But she was dependent - on her husband, her son, and now her grandson - for her courage.

Circumstances taught Saraswathi to fend for herself. Her parents died even before she could register their presence. She lived with her uncle after that, along with nine other children. She was, as her uncle put it, too pretty for her own good, and had to learn to cope with all the attention she got from the boys in her school, her college, and even the cousins she grew up with. She learnt quickly to keep them at a distance, but keep them.

The two girls went to their music classes with the sole objective of being able to sing when a prospective groom came to see them. Sharada perfected Seetapate in Khamas, while Saraswathi, the more proficient singer, was saddled with having to execute Emani Ne in Mukhari. Her music teacher soon discovered that Saraswathi was too good for this. He wanted to make her a singer. Her uncle had issues with the idea; he stopped her music classes and got her to learn cooking from her aunts instead. Saraswathi eloped with her music teacher. She was only fifteen then. Eventually, her family caught up with her, the marriage was annulled by a court, and her teacher was convicted for kidnapping.

Saraswathi still learnt music, at her aunt’s insistence, now with a female teacher. As consolation, Sharada also learnt with her. The two girls progressed steadily, though Saraswathi was clearly the better musician. They even performed together until Sharada got married.

The first photograph in Saraswathi’s album had the two girls seated together on a stage in matching half-sarees, matching pottus (the black-and-white photo showed them as black, but Ajith imagined them in crimson), matching nose and earrings, their hair neatly double-pleated and ribboned and their eyes heavily lined with kohl. They were surrounded by a violinist who looked more at ease on stage than they, his bow resting by his side and his hands on his knees; a mridangist staring at the camera nervously while holding his tuning stone in his left hand, and their mother holding up a tambura in the background. There was only one microphone placed between the two girls, a flask on Sharada’s right with two tumblers by it, a notebook, and a banner behind them with the words, “Vinodini Gana Sabha (Regd.)”. Ajith found it funny that sabhas always found it necessary to announce to the world that they were registered.

The photo was taken before the concert started, clearly. Back then, photographs were too precious for people to take chances with live action. If one of the girls shook her head too much or the mridangist moved his hands too violently, the motion blur would make the entire exercise pointless. So, they settled for a photograph where the girls stared at the camera as if it were a firing squad. They could have smiled, Ajith thought.

But even in that solemn, posed photograph, the girls’ characters came through. His grandmother seemed to be there because they told her to be there, and his Taapi looked as if she wanted to be there. Something in the way they sat, the way they stared, the way they wore their clothes revealed this. His Taapi looked every bit the stunner she was. Her frame was fuller than her cousin’s, she had sharper features, brighter eyes and a darker complexion. One of her eyebrows was raised, as if she was questioning this process.

On the back of the photo, in clear, black lettering belonging to Taapi, was the song list for that evening. Ajith noticed a proliferation of eclectic ragas - Karnataka Behag, Suddha Bangala, Srutiranjani, Gundakriya - amidst Kalyani and Madhyamavati. If someone as beautiful as his Taapi sang E dari sancharintuvo, Ajith would have melted.

Ajith turned the page to find his Taapi staring at him again. She was sitting on a bannerless stage this time, without her cousin by her side. The mridangist was the same as in the previous concert, but the violinist was a young girl (Ajith wondered if it was T. Rukmini) wearing a dark half-saree as against Taapi’s light one. Taapi looked a little older and prettier than in the previous photo, and the mridangist’s Adam’s apple looked more prominent than it was in the other photo. On the tambura was an uninterested, feeble, old man who looked incapable of holding the tambura up for three hours. But that’s what tambura artistes looked like all the time. The setting was outdoors, there were pillars around her, and the background was not a screen - it looked like the pathway of a temple. There were no microphones here, only flasks and cloth bags.

What struck Ajith, though, was the freedom and authority with which Taapi sat on the stage. Her regality suggested that the stage belonged to her. She wasn’t just going to sing, she was conducting durbar. She couldn’t have performed too much by this time, Ajith thought. She looked barely twenty. Sharada was married and had stopped performing. Was it the absence of Sharada’s nervousness that allowed her to lord over the stage?

There was nothing written behind the photograph, no date, no kutcheri list.

The next page had a curious photograph. It was of a young NV Mani in the middle of a raga alapana. The mridangam was off the mridandgist’s lap and the ghatam player was leaning on his ghatam. The violinist watched Mani in close concentration. Ajith knew there would be photos of Mani in that album, but he didn’t expect one so soon. He turned around to find, “12th October, 1969: Found you!” written in a hand that was not his Taapi’s. Ajith guessed, correctly, that it was Mani’s handwriting. He didn’t understand what the photo was about, though.

Ajith excitedly turned the pages of the album looking for an explanation to Mani’s inscription, but he was soon distracted by the other pictures. There were many photographs of his Taapi - black-and-white photos that played spectacular games with light and dark. There she was, sitting at a table and turning around to look at the camera, as if the photographer had just called her. There was another one, where she sat on a cane chair in a verandah, the hills behind her, holding a steel tumbler in her hand. Then, he found a photograph of her tuning a black tambura in a dark room. He could only see the outlines of her figure, her face and the tambura, lit by distant, dim, balmy sunlight, and her radiant eyes fixed on the tambura. The rest of the photograph was just black.

There was a photo of her hair, just her hair, and her eyes peeking out through them teasingly. Another one of her fingers as they strummed the tambura. One photo of her feet almost smashed against the camera as the blurred outline of her face could be discerned in the bokeh in the background. Another one, extremely alluring, of one-half of her tilted face in a subtle smile.

Ajith’s favourite photograph was one in which she was sleeping on one side, facing the camera, her dark eyes closed to the world, a blanket covering everything but her head, her hair strewn over the top half of the face. Again, there was more darkness than light in the photograph; a feature common to most pictures in that collection. The light only drew outlines - guides to define the contours of the subject. The light’s lines were only suggestive, the viewer had to participate in the photo to draw the rest.

They had an intimacy to them, it was clear that the photographer loved his subject deeply, in a way that he saw beauty in everything Taapi did, in every single movement of hers. She must have loved him too, for the photographs suggested an affection, almost as if he weren’t simply capturing her with each photo, but caressing her with it.

He ogled at the photo for a whole five minutes before telling himself that she was his grand-aunt. He wondered if the photographer had done the same - watched Taapi when she slept. Women looked most beautiful then, Ajith believed.

Ajith instinctively turned the photograph around to see if there was anything written on the back. In her neat lettering, there was “November 1987, Swara”, written on it. Quickly, he went back to the other photographs. All of them had the same inscription.

She was forty-seven years old in 1987, but didn’t look a day older than thirty-five. She died in early 1988.

Before Ajith thought too much about “Swara”, the explanation came in the next photograph. Taapi stood, wearing trousers and a sweater (he had never seen her in these clothes before), at the gate of a house that said, ‘Swara’, No. 9, Eastern Hill Street”. On the other side of the gate, there was a board that said, “S. Ramachandran, Sharada Ramachandran”. He suddenly remembered - this was the house his Thatha owned a little away from Kodaikanal. He sold it when Ajith was fairly young, but Ajith still had vague memories of holidays in that house. What he didn’t understand, though, was what Taapi was doing there, and who took all those photographs.

Just then, Ajith’s phone rang from the other room. He left the albums on the bed and rushed to receive the call. It was Nethra.

He excitedly told her about the album and what he saw in it, when the conversation meandered into other topics. While he lost track of time in this conversation, Sharada entered the house from her shopping and walked straight into the room where the album was kept open.

She dropped her bag of vegetables on the floor and gasped. She then collected herself, went into the kitchen and started putting the vegetables into the fridge.

Ajith finished his call, and noticed his Paati in the kitchen. He panicked and rushed to the bedroom. He found it undisturbed and presumed that his Paati hadn’t been into the room. He packed the photos back in the carton and climbed up on the chair to put it back in the loft. Then he realised that he needed to look at them again. So, he put the carton under the bed.

* * *

The photographs lay, unmindful of the storm brewing around them, under the bed on which Ajith slept. A full moon lit up a hazy Madras night, the streetlights causing the haze. If you looked carefully, squinting your eyes, you might have noticed a star or two, a few of the brighter ones. Otherwise, as in all cities, the sky was just a blanket of Prussian blue and faint orange.

Sharada’s eyesight, even during the day, wasn’t the best. She needed a cataract surgery that she kept postponing. By night, she managed to go to the toilet or for a drink of water only using an LED torch that Ajith bought for her in Bombay.

Presently, the torch threw a circular light on the wall behind Ajith’s bed, under the loft that held the photographs. Sharada, as quietly as she could, moved a stool under the loft, stool in one hand, torch in the other. She tried standing up on the stool when it made a loud creak. Ajith didn’t wake up. Emboldened, she tried again. This time, she made it on to the stool. She opened the loft and started looking inside. She found a box with “Saras” written on it, but it was too heavy for her to move. Those were Saraswathi’s books. Sharada was looking for the one with the photo albums. She craned her neck to look around. It could not be too far inside. Ajith had just seen it that afternoon.

“It’s under the bed,” Ajith said. Startled, Sharada almost fell off the stool. “The carton is under the bed,” Ajith said, calmly, “Paati, get down.” Sharada obeyed. Ajith pulled out the carton from under the bed and gave it to her. He turned on the light, and their eyes narrowed as they adjusted to it. Sharada simply picked up the carton and strode out to the other bedroom without a word and slammed the door shut.

A space had become private in her house.

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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