Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

SRUTI FICTION

TRIPLICANE MANI

(Part VII of a short novel by MV Swaroop)

(Continued from blogpost dated 6 August 2012)

T.S.V. Raghavan, Senior Advocate, was a curious old man. In the corridors of the Madras High Court, he was spoken of as the country’s fiercest and most knowledgeable company lawyer. Bustling from one court to another, always followed by two or three harrowed, busy-looking juniors, he never seemed to have the time for small talk. Raghavan was also on the Experts Committee of the Music Academy. As he often reminded people, he was the first Senior Advocate to be on it since the great Justice T.L. Venkatarama Aiyar. He was nominally Mani’s student – they had only three or four face-to-face music classes ever. Only four years apart, Mani and he were more like old friends. Often, it was rumoured, Mani landed up at Raghavan’s house for breakfast and coffee after his all-night jaunts.

Presently, Ajith sipped Mrs. Raghavan’s hot coffee, as Raghavan declared, “Mani is not a nice man. He looks like a helpless, old, forgotten musician, doesn’t he? All tosh!”


Not knowing how to respond, Ajith stared intently into his coffee. Raghavan continued, “I have tolerated him for years, because he is a great musician. But I think it is time to call a spade a spade. The next time you speak to him, ask him about his student, Trichy K. Rangarajan. He was the best student Mani ever had. He came from Trichy with nothing but a letter of recommendation from a musician there, and started living in Mani’s house. Mani taught him nothing. He spent all his time washing clothes and vessels, sweeping and swabbing the floor, cooking, paying bills. It was disgusting. He went with Mani to every concert and picked up music just by listening. Mani treated him like an insignificant spider. Mani’s friends, his accompanists, knew that Rangarajan sang very well. They gave him small concerts here and there. And somehow, out of the blue, he got called to sing at the Academy. 


“Srividya, Mani’s wife, was highly upset because Mani’s son, Narayanan, had applied but didn’t make it. She fought with Mani for days until Mani intervened and asked Rangarajan to write to the Academy declining the concert. Rangarajan obliged. Then, Mani lobbied for his son who sang in that very same slot. It was disgusting. 


“A few months later, Rangarajan took his life. They never talk about him in that house. I’m sure if you ask Mani, he’ll deny the boy’s existence. It is very easy to erase a seventeen-year-old from the world, isn’t it?”


Ajith asked, “But Narayanan is a good musician, isn’t he?”


“Narayanan is a top-class musician. But his aesthetics were completely different from his father’s. Sadly, the only people who came to his concerts were his father’s fans who wanted to hear ‘young Mani’, which Narayanan wasn’t. He faded away from the concert scene silently.”


“Mani didn’t do anything about it?”


“I think Mani was tremendously upset by the Rangarajan episode. He didn’t lift his little finger for Narayanan after that. Narayanan fled to a foreign university. He teaches there now. People should know, young man, that their hero is actually a villain.”



* * *

On a rickety bus to Kodaikanal, trundling along a highway in disrepair, Ajith called his father. They hadn’t spoken in almost a year. 


“Ajith?” his father asked, immediately.


“Dad,” Ajith said, in a tone that suggested he wanted to stay away from small talk, “where in Kodaikanal is that house Thatha owned?”


“Why?” his father asked.


“Please answer my question.”


His father paused, considered his response, and then said, “Your Thatha sold it. I’m not sure if it exists anymore.”


“Address?”


His father hesitated, and then said, “Listen. Your Paati called me the other day and told me that you were meeting NV Mani about your grand-aunt.” Ajith was surprised. Sharada had not been on talking terms with her son for as long as Ajith remembered. “She wanted to know if I told you about them.”


“Well, you did,” Ajith said, bluntly.


“I might have. But that doesn’t mean you go looking for these stories. It has split three generations of our family already. Leave it alone now.”


“What does that mean?” Ajith asked.


“Why doesn’t your Paati talk to me?”


“Because you left me.”


Ajith’s father sighed, and said, “No. I had stopped talking to them even before you were born. I didn’t leave you, Ajith. I left your mother and my parents. You just happened to be with them, that’s all.”


Ajith was silent. His father continued, after a few moments, “Your Thatha gave away that house to your Taapi a year before you were born. For nothing. And she gave it away to Mani. Again, for nothing. And your grandparents did not say a thing. They said it was her property, and that she could do whatever she wanted with it.”


“And you left my mother because?”


“They were all together. In their love for your Taapi and Mani.”


“I never thought you were such a prude.”


Ajith’s father went completely silent; the words stung. They lingered for as long as father and son held their phones. His father finally cut the call. Ajith stared out of the window as a dark, indiscernible landscape spiralled around him on the climb up the mountains. He couldn’t sleep. Thoughts formed whirlpools in his head—swirling, chaotic and deadly. He drifted occasionally into snatches of sleep, only to be awakened by the rumbling of the bus or of his own mind. Ajith woke up in the morning, from that half-sleep, to the cry of touts and autorickshaw drivers at the Kodaikanal bus stand. His phone had two messages from his father. One gave him the address of the house, and the other said, “My father loved her. Everyone knew.”


The weight of that revelation fell surprisingly lightly on Ajith’s shoulders. Too many lofts in too many houses with too many secrets had been emptied out on to the floor too quickly. 


Ajith barely remembered how he made his way to that address. He didn’t register how much the auto driver asked him for, he was only vaguely relieved that the driver immediately knew the place. He noticed that the house was slightly away from the bustle of the touristy quarter of Kodaikanal. Inhabitation became more sparse as they made their way through an untarred, climbing road towards the top of a densely forested hill. 


“Shortcut!” the driver announced. Ajith nodded distractedly. “You’re working at the observatory?” the driver asked again. Ajith muttered, “No.”


“A writer, then!” the driver said. 


“Yes,” Ajith said, not wanting to engage in any conversation.


When they reached the house, Ajith found that it had been converted into a guesthouse of sorts. A home-stay, they called it. A caretaker emerged from behind the house with a pair of gardening shears in his hands. 


“Yes?” he asked Ajith, scanning him through his glasses. His gaze reminded Ajith of Shankar.


Ajith didn’t really know what to do at this point. He needed to see the house, but he had no idea what else to do there. He said, “This is a guesthouse?”


“Yes.”


“I need to stay here.”


If the caretaker was surprised, he didn’t show it. “How many days, Sir?”


Ajith made up his mind as he went along, “Two days.”


The caretaker now stopped hiding his surprise, “Sir, what do you do?”


“I’m a writer,” Ajith said, almost naturally. 


“Ok,” the caretaker said, “This way. I’m Thanjan, owner.”


“Hello,” Ajith said, swinging his backpack over his shoulder, as he walked along the pathway to the door. Thanjan’s gait was slightly off-balance, with each step, it seemed he would fall over to the left. He wore a faded khadi kurta and track pants, and hadn’t shaved in four days. 


As he walked towards the makeshift reception, Ajith had this disconcerting sensation that something was wrong, somewhere. He had seen this house in those photographs, and he vaguely remembered the place from his childhood, but something disturbed him. The place was largely familiar, but not entirely. There was a newness that troubled Ajith; since the owner had kept it so similar to the way it used to be, the small changes stood out. It was almost what he remembered, but it wasn’t. That unsettled him. 


As Ajith filled the details in the caretaker’s register, tweaking small details here and there, changing one digit of his telephone number, or changing the old and new number for his house out of sheer habit, Thanjan asked, “Only two days, Mr. Ramachandran?”


“Yeah.”


“The reason I’m asking you, is because we’ve had writers before, and they’ve all spent months here, writing.”


“I’m not writing,” Ajith said, “Merely looking for inspiration.”


“For a novel, Sir?”


“Perhaps.”


Thanjan picked up Ajith’s bag, and led him along a corridor. “Until last month, there was this girl staying in this room,” the caretaker said, joyfully pointing Ajith to a bright room with a sit-out. Ajith remembered it as the sit-out where his Taapi sat with a cup of tea in a photograph. “This writer, Sir,” the caretaker continued, “Sharanya Ramkumar, her pseudonym is Mythili Iyer.”


“Ah,” Ajith said, “I know her. Very autobiographical novel...”


“Yeah? A sad life, then! She wrote the whole thing here, in this room,” he said, almost wistfully, then, suddenly, springing to life, “Shall I get you some chai?”


“That would be great.”


“You don’t mind a light tea? Flavoured?”


“Sounds great.”


“I’ll get you the tea. You have to guess the flavour. You will not get this anywhere else in South India. I grow the flavouring in the garden!” Thanjan left Ajith to himself and scurried away to the kitchen.


Ajith spotted a black tambura in a corner of the room, in a pretty wooden stand, nestled amongst floor-pillows. He recognised it immediately as the one in the photograph.


He fished out his toothbrush from his bag, and found he didn’t have toothpaste. Thanjan came back, almost on cue, and said, “I thought you might not have toothpaste!” and handed him a Dabur Red. The paste tasted as foul as it looked, and Ajith washed his mouth until he could taste his teeth again. 


When he finished, he found Thanjan waiting for him in the sit-out, laying out the tea. There were two cups. Thanjan had invited himself.


The sit-out was sunshiny; it opened out to the view of a rivulet twisting around moss-ridden grey rocks amidst a thicket. There were two cane chairs—Ajith recognised them from the photographs again
and a plastic teapoy that looked woefully out of place. 

“I suggest you have it with honey. No milk, no sugar,” Thanjan said.


Ajith obeyed, as he was hardly given any option. He brought the hot cup towards his mouth, and smelt something fruity. He sipped the tea and found that the flavour was a mix of two or three fruits. Pineapple, definitely. A dash of mango, perhaps. And a little lemon.


“Wrong,” Thanjan declared, “It’s only one fruit.”


Ajith was surprised. He took another sip, the taste began to grow on him now, and it achieved some coherence, Instead of tasting like a mixture of three flavours, it tasted like one. But he couldn’t put his finger on what it was.


“Passion fruit!” Thanjan said, “The previous owner of this house was a bit of a gardener also.”


This made Ajith curious, “Who was he?”


“There was a she, who was the gardener, and then there was a he, who sold it to my father,” Thanjan said, “Biscuit?”


“Mani sold it to your father?” Ajith asked, ignoring the biscuit.


Thanjan put the biscuit back on the tray, “How do you know Mani Sir owned this house?”


“I’ve been interviewing him.”


Thanjan didn’t believe him, “He wouldn’t have told you this.”


“Why?”


“I can’t tell you that. Anyway,” he said, emptying the contents of the teacup into his mouth in one large gulp, “I must be going now. You can leave the cups here.”


Thanjan stood up to leave, when Ajith said, “I am Ramachandran’s grandson. I’ve been to this house before.”


Thanjan sat down, “Please don’t tell me you are going to write this story?”


“Why is everyone so ashamed of it?”


“Mani Sir is a respected classical musician.”


“Many respected classical musicians have had open dalliances.”


“But at his age, you want all this to come out? And,” he said suddenly, “Saras Akka is your own family!” Then he declared with an air of finality, “If you came here looking for a story, you’re not getting one.”


Thanjan stormed out, and walked back in to say, “Do you want hot water for a bath? I’ll have to heat it on the stove.”


Ajith nodded. 


Ajith bathed lazily. The hot water from Thanjan’s stove was exhausted too quickly, but his body got used to the sting of the cold tap water after a few tentative mugs. How quickly we get used to things, Ajith thought. What seems indigestible, intolerable, painful, soon becomes a part of our everyday. This isn’t about making friends with discomfort, he thought, it is about redefining it for yourself. 


He felt a lot better after that bath. The happy smell of soap and shampoo lifted his spirits. He went back to the sit-out, spread his legs out on to the teapoy and picked up the newspaper. He tucked into the sports page when Thanjan came back and said, “Breakfast is ready.”


Ajith took his newspaper with him to the dining table, where he ate in silence. Thanjan coldly served him hot idlis, fresh from the cooker, with steaming sambar and slightly salty chutney. They didn’t say a word to each other. Another cup of passion fruit tea later, Ajith went back to the sit-out and sat down with his laptop. Now that he had two days to himself, he thought it might be a good idea to sit and transcribe the interview. 


With his legs on the teapoy, laptop on his lap, recorder in his shirt pocket and earphones in his ear, Ajith started transcribing. He started with the first part of the conversation, Mani’s memories of his childhood and his early teachers. He spoke of his mother, of how he kept talam with the clatter of her sewing machine. “She had rhythm in everything she did,” Mani said, “You could play the mridangam to her walk, to her talk, to her cutting vegetables, cooking, churning the cream into butter.” And his father, who could imitate the great nagaswaram vidwans, the distinct violin styles of Chowdiah, Dwaram and Papa, Dhanammal’s veena, all with his voice, and Mali with his whistling. He wrote about Mani’s brief schooling in a convent, where Mani claimed to anger his English teacher by asking him how Jesus could carry a goat in his arms and walk around when his followers ate the goat with relish. Then came his memories of the drama company, practising long and hard to get every entry, exit, every dance sequence, every song perfect, travelling by bullock cart to different villages for performances, singing and acting about eight hours a day without a trace of tiredness or boredom, tasting alcohol for the first time at fifteen after a particularly successful show, and learning Tyagaraja kritis from unnamed ‘mamas’.


Ajith remembered Mani’s wonderment and joy while recollecting these memories. He really didn’t want them lost with his passing. And he was happy he found a patient listener, who would also write about them. 


By lunch, Ajith reached the part about Janani, but he had already exceeded his word limit. He had two-and-a-half days’ worth of conversation still left to go through on his recorder. He decided to transcribe everything, and then begin the editing process. 


Thanjan announced lunch as sourly as he had announced breakfast. Ajith ate the lunch at the common dining table as sourly as he had eaten the breakfast, which was a pity, for the food was excellent. There was another man at the table for lunch, but Ajith buried himself in a novel, not wanting to make any conversation.


After lunch, Ajith resumed his writing in the sit-out, but found it a lot harder to concentrate. The food had settled heavily in his tummy, and kept sending him into snatches of sleep. 


The rivulet gurgled outside; the water sparkled in the sunlight that fell from directly above it. He saw a rabbit by the trees, hopping about aimlessly. His phone rang, and a woman’s voice he had definitely heard before said, “Follow the rabbit.” The voice was familiar, but Ajith couldn’t exactly place it. Something told him, though, that he should follow the rabbit. Soon, the rabbit had led him to a part of the forest where Thanjan and Mani sat discussing something in hushed tones. When they saw Ajith, they bolted, and Ajith ran after them. Soon, Ajith found he wasn’t chasing Thanjan or Mani, but his father and grandfather. Saraswathi overtook him, caught up with them, and ran past them. Ajith ran faster, overtaking all of them, and nearly reaching the finish line, when he found the rabbit and a tortoise had reached before him, and were bickering about some cheating. 


Ajith woke up when his laptop fell to the ground with a thud. He was disoriented and worried for a second, but he calmed down when he found that there was no damage done. He saved the file, and put his computer on sleep mode and took a proper nap on the bed. 


He woke up nearly three hours later, with a faint sense of a tense, nagging dream. He didn’t remember it, though. He could do with another cup of that passion fruit tea. He found Thanjan in the garden again, with his shears and a hosepipe, tending to a tree that Ajith had never seen before. 


“What tree is this?” Ajith asked.


Thanjan, his voice still unfriendly, replied, “Tea tree. You let the plant grow, and it turns into this.”


Thanjan didn’t seem to be doing anything with his shears or the hosepipe. He was just walking around the garden with them for company. Once he reached the main gate with Ajith following him, Thanjan asked, “Do you want tea?”


Ajith was now at the desk in his room, his laptop on the table, a cup of tea by its side, attempting to restart his transcribing. After much thought, he decided to skip the portion about Janani for now, and moved on to the second day of the interview. Here, Ajith found, very little of the conversation was recorded. Most of it happened in the room when Mani’s brother was picking out furniture, or in the car on the way to the beach. Ajith dropped the conversation format, and wrote in a more freestyle prose way for this part of the interview.


It was almost eight before he finished writing this part and editing the entire interview until then, when Thanjan came again for dinner. Ajith said, “Want to read what I’m writing?” Unsurely, Thanjan said, “Yes.”


Just then, Ajith’s phone rang. It was Nethra. 


“Hello!” he said.


“Where the hell are you?” she asked, urgently.


“Kodaikanal.”


Ajith heard her take a deep breath, before she said, “Mani’s very breathless. May not last till morning.”



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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