Monday, 6 August 2012



 (Part VI of a short novel by MV Swaroop)

 (Continued from blogpost dated 4 August 2012)

After 22 years, Sharada looked into her cousin’s eyes. Frozen in time, cast in glossy paper, they were twenty-two years fresher than her own. Sharada’s face, wrought with wrinkles caused both by age and worry, was a sorry shadow of her cousin’s. Saraswathi would never look as careworn as her, Sharada thought. Even in those photographs in the last year of her life, she did not look like a person battling a terminal illness, two broken families and a vicious, gossipy society.

Sharada gazed dreamily at the photograph with the tambura. She remembered her cousin’s exact expression when she heard an apasruti string. That very expression of slight disgust and amusement had been caught perfectly in the picture. She tamed those off-key tamburas as she tamed off-key people around her—calmly, ruthlessly. Yet, the person at the receiving end came off feeling that he had been done a favour.

Sharada smiled.

The image of Saraswathi sleeping reminded Sharada of the way her nostrils flared and relaxed with each breath, her lips curled into a contented smile, her closed palms tucked beneath her chin. It reminded Sharada of the time when, as a teenager, Saraswathi fell asleep on her lap in the afternoons while Sharada read a book.

The photograph that affected her most was the one Ajith skipped over—one of Mani performing to a sparse audience. Ajith found the inscription at the back interesting, but didn’t investigate. If he had looked at the photo closely, he would have seen two women in the front row facing away from the camera: his grandmother and her cousin. The black-and-white photo didn’t show it, but they were in matching blue sarees, the shade made popular by MS. It was a concert at a noisy wedding at a noisier wedding hall on Boag Road in T. Nagar. Sharada remembered the entire evening vividly, as if she had been living it each evening.

Mani sang that day, accompanied by a young, spirited Veeraraghavan on the violin. An ageing Palani Subramania Pillai sat at the mridangam in his characteristically emotionless fashion. Sharada never found out the name of the ghatam vidwaan. She remembered the exact phrase with which Mani began his Todi alapana. It was a lengthy, labyrinthine briga that traversed two and a half octaves at unreal speed—starting with the mandra sthayi panchamam, snaking towards the atitara shadjam, before settling down on the dhaivatam. Saraswathi, who was milling about, talking, socialising, paused mid-sentence and turned to the stage.

“Let’s listen for a while?” she asked Sharada.

They settled down in the front row. Mani looked at her and stopped singing almost immediately. At twenty-eight, she was that beautiful. Mani collected himself and continued his alapana, although he seemed distracted by Saraswathi’s presence in the first row.

As if to collect himself, he rested on the panchamam for unnaturally long, closing his eyes and knotting his eyebrows in concentration. Dha pa, he hummed. Dha pa ma pa dha pa, the violin repeated. “Hmmm,” he said, in appreciative contemplation. He repeated after the violin, and fed off that sangati, revolving around the madhya sthayi to come back, each time, to the same phrase. Dha pa ma pa dha pa. And every time he came back to that phrase, he opened his eyes and looked at Saraswathi, as if he expected the phrase to trigger some memory.

Saraswathi began losing herself in the Todi. Languorous, formless, floating, yet precise, imaginative, structured, it disarmed her. She was listening to a Todi that was fresh and new, yet traditional and classical. It was a Todi of paradoxes. It was a Todi you could touch and feel, but never hold. It was a Todi that softened Saraswathi’s heart.

With each passing song, Mani began ignoring more of the audience and concentrating only on Saraswathi, and she, for her part, forgot that she was at a noisy wedding.

When the concert ended, the bride, a movie actress, came to the stage to honour the artistes. When they were descending, the bride spotted Saraswathi in the front row and called out, “Sarasi!” Saraswathi came out of her trance and noticed the bride standing with Mani. She walked up to her.

“This is Mani. I’m sure you know him,” the actress said, “And this is Saraswathi - I know her because she sang at my first wedding,” she giggled.

Saraswathi had heard of Mani, but had never heard him until that day. She had seen him at social gatherings. She had vague memories of listening to him when she was around ten years old, but she couldn’t confirm whether they were true.

“You sing?” Mani asked.

“Not much anymore, I teach more than I sing now.”

“This is Saras’s cousin, Sharada,” the actress said.

Mani smiled, briefly glancing at Sharada before turning to Saraswathi. Sharada smiled back. The actress then whisked the cousins away to introduce them to other people.

They ate in the dining hall, Mani and Saraswathi safely away from each other’s eyes. After dinner, the cousins stayed back to talk to the bride her and siblings, and Mani and the groom’s uncle were sitting in the portico of the mantapam, arguing out some musical disagreements.

Saraswathi whispered in her cousin’s ears, “I’ll come back,” and headed towards the restroom. On her way back, from a shadowy corridor, she heard a voice, “Janani!” it said, in a stage-whisper. Saraswathi ignored the voice. “Janani!” it came, again. The same urgent hiss. Saraswathi turned to the corridor to see Mani silhouetted against a dim room behind him. He beckoned her again, “Janani!”

She asked, suspiciously, “You’re calling me?”


She walked to him, and said, “Janani?”

Mani’s face fell. He looked at her closely and asked again, “Aren’t you?”

“Aren’t I what?”


Saraswathi frowned, “No.”

“Janani, the old man with the veena, that town on the hill, the railway station?”


Mani looked as if someone hit him with a club. He muttered, “Sorry,” and walked through the door that led to the side exit. He walked briskly, opened the side door and found himself in a narrow back alley.

“Sir!” a voice called behind him. It was Saraswathi.

He stopped.

“I just wanted to tell you - I have never heard anyone sing like you.”

“Thanks,” Mani muttered, slightly flushed. They were walking towards each other now, involuntarily.

“Sir, can I learn from you?” she asked, almost floating towards him. They were only a couple of metres apart.

“Come home tomorrow, I’ll listen to you sing, and we’ll see,” he said, standing two paces away from her.

“Thanks!” she said, taking one step towards him. They were close enough to touch now.

“Saras?” came Sharada’s voice from behind her. Both of them took a step back.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Mani said, putting on a formal voice.

“Yes, sir,” Saraswathi replied, sounding even more formal.

Sharada realised that she had walked into a moment where even though there wasn’t any physical closeness, there was intimacy. She wondered for years if it had been her entry that day delayed Saraswathi’s crime by a few days. She also wondered if she could have averted the whole thing if she had walked in moments earlier, if she had just stopped Saraswathi from running after him into the gully.

Sharada couldn’t sift through those photographs anymore. She felt the kozhukattai in her throat growing, butterflies in her stomach flying more intensely, and drops of saltwater on her cheeks with each passing photo.

Sharada wasn’t too fond of nostalgia. She found it awkward, even slightly disturbing, to look at old photographs, remember the ‘good’ times. Somehow, the good memories tended to throw up bad ones. The two were always intertwined, as in those photographs. For every photo of Saraswathi looking ravishing, there was Mani on the other side of the camera, prowling around her to capture her charm. For every carefree smile, every happy phone call from Saraswathi in Kodaikanal, there were phone calls from Mani’s wife, and the questions that the world asked Sharada about her cousin. Nostalgia tickled her, and pricked her at the same time. Sharada couldn’t take it.

Just then Ajith knocked on the door and cried, “Paati!”

Sharada didn’t say a word. Ajith called again, and again. The knock grew louder, and more worried. “Paati? Are you there? You don’t have to come outside. I just want to know if you’re okay.” Sharada didn’t say anything. She picked up her TV remote and turned it on. The Kerala TV channel had started its early morning Guruvayoorappan bhajans. She increased the volume until it drowned out Ajith’s remonstrations.

The phone in her room rang. She turned down the volume and picked it up. It was Ajith, “Paati. I’m going to Kodaikanal. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”

Sharada did not react, just put the phone down and sat on her bed.

* * *

Ajith didn’t go to Kodaikanal. He called Shankar instead and asked if he could meet Mani for another interview. At eleven o clock, after a lengthy breakfast at her house, Ajith and Nethra found themselves at Mani’s gate. The house, as always, looked disused. But, the gate was locked from the outside. Ajith called Shankar’s phone and found out that Mani had been rushed to hospital - he had lost consciousness that morning. Shankar could barely speak on the phone; fear made his voice tremble.

When they reached the hospital, they found Shankar and Mani’s brother, Sadasivam running around, completing all the formalities. Amidst filling out forms and making payments, Sadasivam told Ajith, “If Anna becomes conscious again, the first thing he’ll want to do is get back home. He hates this hospital business!”

Sure enough, the next morning, a conscious Mani kicked up a fuss and shifted back home. First, he complained that the ambulance that brought him was dirty and bad, and demanded that the ambulance that took him back should be the posh, new one. Then, he pointed out that the bed they gave him was uncomfortable, “This is the one you give to dying people, no?” He told off the doctor for missing his rounds and delaying Mani’s discharge.

When he reached home, the first thing he did was order Ajith to come and finish the interview that afternoon, “I have only three days left to live,” he said on the phone, his voice, once an arresting baritone, was now too feeble and unclear to even convey this message intelligibly. Shankar translated it for Ajith.

* * *

Ajith sat by Mani’s bed, now housed in the same dingy room upstairs where Ajith met him the first time. The curtains were drawn and there was little light in the room. Ajith sat on a chair and Mani, leaning towards him on one side, was almost on his lap. Ajith held his dictaphone right next to Mani’s mouth as he asked him the questions.

“Sir, your second disappearance, in 1987-88, what caused it?” When he asked him this question, a piece of a jigsaw suddenly fell in place—the dates in Taapi’s photographs were all late 1987 or early 1988.

Mani took some time answering the question.

“Unrest,” Mani said, finally.

“Can you elaborate?” Ajith asked.

Mani didn’t say a word, but turned his head and faced the ceiling in silence. Ajith was supposed to infer that Mani wanted to say nothing more.

“Sir,” Ajith tried again, “do you have any interest in other arts? Say, photography?”

Ajith realised, as soon as he asked it, that the question was too direct. Mani’s eyes turned almost instantly from the ceiling to Ajith and glared at him. There was no response to this question either. Ajith had hit a dead-end. He had to pursue his story elsewhere.

Resignedly, he asked, “Sir, do you have any regrets about your musical career?”

“No,” Mani said, clearly having lost the inclination to talk anymore.

Ajith asked, “For instance, you haven’t been awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi...”

“No regret about that, definitely,” he said with a start, “MD Ramanathan never got it. Ramnad Krishnan, Mali, Rajarathnam Pillai, Palani... Were these people not treasure houses of music? Connoisseurs, musicians listened to my music, many of them loved it. I’m happy.”

“You stopped performing after your wife’s death.”

“I loved her a lot. I almost died in 1988; she saved me. The only thing I could give her in return was my music. Once she died, I had no reason to perform, no one to perform for. Anyway, all this is there in that old interview that you’ve read.”

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Ajith said, frustratedly. Mani was startled. Ajith said, “You didn’t love your wife all that much. Both of us know enough to know that. That can’t have been the reason.”

“I’m too weak to smile. I would have smiled otherwise,” Mani said. “That isn’t the reason.”

He paused, collected his breath, and continued, “I had been a bad family man - ignored my wife, my children, immersed in my musical world.”

Ajith still didn’t understand why Mani held up this facade. Both of them knew it wasn’t always Mani’s music that separated him and his family.

“When I lost my mind and nearly died, my wife came looking for me. She nursed me back to health. I realised that she had no source of income apart from me. She did some tailoring, but that wasn’t enough. I had to keep performing and teaching to keep her alive. So, I performed to keep her going. When she died, I saw no reason to continue performing. I had lost interest in the process for fifteen years anyway.”

It was an unconvincing story, but it seemed closer to the truth than what Mani had been telling people all along.

“Your wife came looking for you. Where were you at that time?”

“You don’t know? I thought you knew more.”

Ajith didn’t know what to make of that.

Mani carried on, “I had a house near Kodaikanal then. I was staying there, alone. The weather didn’t agree with me, I almost always had a cold and severe breathing problems. One evening, I went for a long walk, and I became breathless in a fairly secluded place. I fell down that day, and I woke up a few days later at home, with my wife. We stayed there until I was strong enough to travel again. We sold that house, and came back to Madras to start over again.”

Mani began coughing uncontrollably, and Shankar, who was under strict instructions not to enter the room, rushed in. Mani motioned to Ajith to leave, as he still coughed. Shankar, peering through his thick glasses, told Ajith, “He’ll call you when he’s better. See you then.”
Mani wasn’t going to tell him the truth, Ajith had to ask his Paati.

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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