Wednesday, 8 August 2012



(Concluding part of a short novel by MV Swaroop)

(Continued from blogpost dated 7 August 2012)

Two hours after the doctor declared that Mani might not last the night, he stabilised. He was very clear that he didn’t want to be moved to a hospital, “Don’t prolong my existence needlessly.”

In a room lit by a dull bulb in the far corner, Mani lay, with Shankar by his side. A blanket covered him from toe to eye; he held its edge across his nose with his hand. His eyes were open, as open as they could be, given his age and health. It was as if he wanted to see death; he didn’t want it to take him away surreptitiously.

What does a man think about when he knows he can do little for the rest of his brief stay? Does he comprehend the end? Or the journey? Does he think about what is in store for him after the end? Do these questions even bother such a man? Is he tired and does he just want to go? Shankar had seen his grandfather die a few years ago. That was a case where the mind wanted to live on, but the body wasn’t up for the fight. Mani was the converse – he had made peace with his end, but his body, Shankar guessed, wanted one last skirmish.

Was Mani ready to go? His eyes told little. Those steel grey eyes once twinkled with mischief, widened with excitement, softened with love. They always spoke a fraction of a second before he did. On that day, though, they just closed the world behind them. They turned into a cold, grey curtain. If there was something on Mani’s mind, Shankar had no way of telling.

He could feel Mani’s fever from a foot away. When he stroked Mani’s hair, he felt it burning. The hair was as grey as his eyes, but there was no sign of balding.

When he was young, Mani’s long hair framed his face, for he never tied it up. When he sang, the hair added layers to his interpretations. They patterned the raga with their whoops of joy. Then came a phase when he cropped, oiled and combed his hair in an elegant side-parting. The music in this phase was also a neat, well-oiled machine – his brilliance held in place by the boundaries of the concert format. It was almost Ariyakudi-like –revelling in the medium tempo, always trying something new, but never overdoing a piece of improvisation. It was an uncluttered presentation of cluttered ideas. His music hid its tricks behind an easy charm.

“We can drive down, if you feel up to it,” Thanjan said, back in Kodaikanal, “We won’t get a bus; it’s a long weekend. Unless you want to rough it out.”

“What car do you have?” Ajith asked.

“A Gypsy.”

“Mani lived like a king in those days,” Thanjan said, as the battered Gypsy made its way down the hills. “I don’t think he had all that much money, but he had enough people willing to spend on his behalf.”

Ajith smiled and peered at what little he could see of the road in anxious concentration as a lorry passed him dangerously up a hairpin bend.

“I think he got tired of it, at some point. There was a string of affairs, your grandaunt being the only constant one. She was probably the only woman he really wanted to spend time with. His wife was a caring lady, fairly good-looking, but little else. Oh, she cooked really well. She brought up his children to hate him. You can’t blame her for it, though. Mani didn’t care much for them.

“That house was a delicate balance, you see. Srividya was fiercely protective of herself and her children, sometimes to the detriment of many people Mani cared for. Mani bore too much guilt for how he treated her to do anything about it!”

* * *

Sadasivam tried to sleep, unsuccessfully, on a chair in the adjacent room. He couldn’t bear to watch Mani’s blank face and lost spirit. The phone rang. It was Narayanan.

“How’s Appa?”

“Last gasps.”

“We’re leaving tomorrow and coming there. If anything happens, don’t wait for us for the cremation. We’ll stay till the thirteenth day.”

Sadasivam felt a surge of sympathy towards Srividya at the end of that phone call. She had spent the better part of her marriage shielding her children from their father’s indiscretions. If she were a little more modern in her outlook, thought Sadasivam, she could have left Mani and sought a more independent, contended life – like Saraswathi, who chose to never marry.

* * *

“The best music I heard was not in Mani’s house in his last years,” Thanjan said. They had reached the plains now, and were proceeding a little less precariously towards Madras. “It was when Mani and Saraswathi sang together. They were geniuses, both of them. Saraswathi had an intuitive feel for the music, even more than Mani did. Her sense of rhythm… I’ve never seen her keep talam with her hands or her feet. And I’ve never seen her miss a beat. They listened to tapes of intricate tavil tani avartanams – Raghava Pillai, Meenakshisundaram Pillai and the like. Mani’s eyebrows would knot in concentration. Not Sarasakka. And she would pause the tape, and repeat the sollus back to Mani as though she had been practising them all her life.

“Their raga alapanas went on for days. Saraswathi was too weak to sing too much by this time. But they always sat down together. He would do the bulk of the singing, and she would join in every now and then with sangatis that she pulled out of nowhere. These last twenty years, he’s been singing her music.”

* * *

“Sing something,” Mani mustered the energy to say to Shankar.

Shankar thought for a moment, and started Purvikalyani. Mani immediately knew where he was going with this. He asked Shankar to stop with his hand; Mani always hated cliches. Shankar hummed Ritigowlai. Mani stopped him, and stage-whispered again. “Poornashadjam!”

Shankar was surprised at this strange raga request. But he obliged, softly singing Lavanya Rama.

* * *

“He was quite an alcoholic, you know,” Thanjan said, “He would start with a drink every morning. A distant relative once received him at the airport in the US. Apparently, the first thing Mani asked for was some whiskey.”

“When was this?”

“Hmmm. This was when I was a kid - late seventies.”

“But I have heard a concert recording from that time. He didn’t seem drunk or anything. Only his later recordings sound like there might have been something inducing his imagination.”

Thanjan sniggered. “He told me once, ‘Thanju! There are these people who say alcohol stimulates the brain. That’s rubbish. It numbs it. It makes you think you’re producing great music! If anything, it gives you the courage to try something you might not otherwise. But then, at that stage, you lack the concentration to execute it.’”

“But later? Once he came back from Kodaikanal?”

* * *

After that second disappearance, the extremities of Mani’s hair had declared independence from the rest of him. They refused to be tamed, forming violent swirls and intricate patterns, still retaining an odd coherence. He was often asked to oil and comb it, by his wife, but he liked it this way. Every now and then, he would be possessed by a doubt – of whether he really didn’t care about his hair or whether he let it be as an act of defiance.

Shankar stroked that hair now as he shifted to humming raga Saraswathi, almost unconsciously. He was holding Mani’s hand; Shankar felt that it communicated this request to him. Shankar hummed a slow alapana around the dhaivatam, unleashing his teacher’s trademark phrases that omitted the panchamam, and gave unnatural importance to the nishadam.

* * *

“Saraswathi’s death shattered him?” Ajith asked.

“I used to think that, till recently. But I think it did more than shatter him.”

Ajith turned to Thanjan.

“The road,” Thanjan reminded Ajith. He continued, once Ajith turned his attention to the road again, “A year ago, I met Mani at his house. I had gone to Madras for my granduncle’s funeral. My granduncle was quite a character, you know. My father got lucky when Mani left him the house. With his pension and the guesthouse, he lived very comfortably. My granduncle, on the other hand was only my father’s age, worked his way up from the real bottom. He was a clerk in a lawyer’s office in Madras. By the time he died, he was a lawyer, and a decent one at that. His sons, my uncles, a couple of whom were younger than me, formed a formidable partnership that rules the criminal courts to this day. Anyway, that’s not the point of this story. I was telling Mani about him, and we got talking about death.

“Watching someone die isn’t easy,” he said. “That morning, I spent three hours by her bedside, holding her hands, both of them in both of mine. We didn’t know it would end then; it could have ended on any of the last nine days. Her hands had warmth, so did mine. We held, our grip tightening every now and then, and loosening again. It was like a game. When one of us felt a sudden eruption of love, we tightened, and when she lost energy, we slackened.

‘After a while, we didn’t know which hands were whose. They were equally warm; each knew every line, every depression, every lump, every fold, every groove in the other. They comprehended every move, every twitch, every squeeze. They were a part of the same system, feeding off each other, they had mingled with each other. Fevered warmth spread from her, through my hands, to the rest of me. From the chair, I moved to the space she made on the bed. Cheek against cheek, shoulder against shoulder, thigh against thigh and toe in toe, we lay, until the rest of each became as familiar with the other as the palms.

‘I don’t remember how long we lay like that. It could have been a few minutes or a few hours. We lost all sensation of time or place.

‘Slowly, the warmth left us. Death had come to take us away. We felt it in the tips of our toes first, then our knees, stomachs and cheeks. The tips of our fingers were last; death left us through there, taking one soul away and leaving only a shell of the other behind.’”

Living in Mani’s outhouse, and working as a clerk in the observatory, Thanjan’s father, Govindan was the backbone of Mani’s existence after Saraswathi’s death. His wife cooked for Mani, kept the house clean, Govindan listened to his stories, his theories, his garbled philosophy.

Mani’s already irregular, undisciplined existence had become even worse. The day had no meaning to him anymore, the sun had no effect on what he did or when he did it. Time floated, and he floated with it. Days went by and he didn’t even know.

He lived those months upside down, sleep and waking flowing in and out of each other, time completely diffused. Nothing made sense and nothing seemed to happen. He spent a week in bed, unwell, tended for by Govindan’s family, and went on a drinking binge for four days with a couple of tea plantation owners, entertaining them with tales of his travels. He spent hours, late into the night, talking to Govindan about music, and spent days secluded and silent. He often sat in the sit-out staring at a tea plant.

He spent hours tuning a tambura and listening to its drone silently. He seemed very distracted when he sang every now and then. The music came in spurts, it stopped and started. It had lost the verve it had. That didn’t seem to frustrate Mani at all. He smirked, stopped singing and strummed the tambura with his eyes closed.

Every now and then, he would go on an interminable walk, ambling through clump hills, not too sure of where he was going or why. When he left on one of these walks, Govindan and his anxious family waited on him, cleaning the house, cooking every meal with a little extra for him. He returned, usually in a day or two, sometimes brisk and happy, sometimes tired and happy, and sometimes simply tired. Sometimes, he came back purposefully and sat with his tambura, and sometimes he just slept.

Mani asked Govindan once, “You know the day I took that crazy walk?” Govindan remembered that day well.

Govindan wedged his way around the thicket with a stout branch in one hand and a torch in the other. He wasn’t sure if he would find Mani here, amongst these bushes. The hills had too many hideouts. Some people had seen Mani walking in this direction, and Mani had mentioned a stream he frequented in this area. Govindan, not familiar with these paths, found it almost impossible to search in the darkness. He had a local with him for help, but even he lost his bearings. The murmur of the stream led them to a spot where he saw a pair of legs sticking out from behind a rock.

The body was cold, but there were faint signs of a beating heart. It took them four hours to get back to the road where they had left a jeep.

“For days,” Mani said, “I had been hearing Saraswathi’s voice, pleading with me to come to her. And then was another chorus of indistinct voices that welcomed me to wherever I was going. On each walk, I would hear these voices egging me on to walk farther till I reached them. Until that day, I was able to fight the chorus and return home.

“That night, when you took me to the doctor, I rose slowly from my body, I hovered above the scene, and the voices became more distinct, the chorus was more discernible. It was Saraswathi pleading with me to join her. My father, a mama from the drama company and Musiri were welcoming me. There was another voice – of a woman whom I only knew as Janani. I couldn’t understand what she said at all.

“And then, something told me that it wasn’t time to go. I don’t know if I fought the voices, or if it was the doctor. I floated back to my own body, the voices stopped, I heard the hum of the machines in the hospital. When I become fully conscious later that day, I felt I was reborn after three months.”

“Were Janani and Saraswathi the same person?” Ajith asked Thanjan.

Thanjan smiled. “Mani doesn’t know. When he first saw Saras Akka, he was sure they were the same. They looked identical, he said. But Akka always denied it.”

“Why did he leave Kodaikanal for the city again?” Ajith asked.

“For his wife. You know he used to say he performed only for his wife. That’s a lie. He performed to keep her going financially. He performed out of guilt and not because he had any love for her. He retired when he didn’t have to earn for her anymore.”

* * *

Shankar sang Ranjani now. He sang the pallavi of Durmargachara. Tyagaraja asks how people bring themselves to praise those who walked on sinful paths. Shankar sang it nearly in tears, for he remembered how Mani embellished each of the sangatis with intricate brigas and pregnant pauses.

Mani said, before closing his eyes, “Such a moralist, this Tyagaraja. And such a genius!”

Shankar felt the warmth leave Mani’s hands. It dawned on him that those eyes wouldn’t open again.

* * *


Ajith inserted the tape gingerly into his grandmother’s old cassette player. The cover said, ‘For Ajith’. She sat on the easy chair a few feet away. Nethra and Thanjan sat on the edge of the bed, and Shankar stood by the player.

“Turn the record button on!” a voice said through the player. Sharada recognised it as her cousin’s.

“It is on!” Mani’s voice said. Ajith was so used to hearing Mani’s aged crackle that this seemed alien.

A tambura filled the room now, in a booming one-kattai. Mani’s voice came first, a sole chatusruti rishabham. The rishabham oscillated from almost the antaragandharam, but not quite there. It had a warmth, a life. It was not a swara taken in isolation, it was the raga’s most distinctive feature. Soon, Saraswathi’s voice sang a phrase, “Ri ga ma pa”, gliding ever so smoothly, yet holding each note in its place for a fleeting second. Mani took over, as Saraswathi held the panchamam, “Ri pa ma ga ma ri.” Each note was only an excuse for itself. The rishabham and the panchamam were conjoined by a drifting movement, the gandharam and the madhyamam were woven into each other. You couldn’t tell them apart. The phrase stopped at the same rishabham where the alapana started.

The two voices sang Sahana in this manner for almost half an hour, hovering around only four notes—the ri, ga, ma and pa. It was the most thorough examination Sahana had received in years. The notes were put through the paces, they were bent, squeezed and turned, but they didn’t break. Sahana’s notorious gandharam, the one that’s neither here, nor there, nor anywhere, revelled in its joyous dance. Saraswathi, as Thanjan had said, was a genius. She would interject with phrases of devilish simplicity and charm, and leave it to Mani to develop those ideas further. Her voice had a vibrant clarity about it, and its cleanness enhanced its ability to move.

Ajith sat by the easy chair, holding his grandmother’s hand. The music formed a vortex of images in her head, but the central one was the clearest. Of Saraswathi doling out sangati after sangati of dynamism with an unreal peace on her face. Of Mani sitting by her side, singing equally brilliantly, with the animated excitement of a seasoned performer. Mani’s music grew on the concert stage, Saraswathi’s in a dark room at the back of her house.

One side of the sixty-minute tape ended. The alapana had barely progressed beyond its first act. When Ajith changed the side, he found that the other side was blank. “They must have forgotten to change the side while recording,” he said.

Shankar, who had walked out in the middle to take a call, came back looking shocked.

“What happened?” Ajith asked.

“A lady called from some newspaper asking me if I wanted to place an advertisement in the paper for Sir’s tenth day. I asked her how she got my number. She said, ‘We go to the crematoriums, get numbers from there and do marketing.’”

Ajith stared in disbelief, so did Nethra. The silence was broken by a giggle from Sharada. Thanjan guffawed. Shankar joined in, and soon, the others.

He would have found this funny, they knew.


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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