It’s a summer evening, my parents are out in the garden. She in her cotton saree, juhi buds wreathed into a gajra in her hair. He in his kurta pyjama, his thick black spectacles wedged firmly on his nose, his gin and lime idling in his hand. Music playing, always heavenly heady music. Maybe, a Vilayat Khan’s Khamaj, or a Bade Ghulam Ali’s Sainya Bolo, or a Bhimsen Joshi’s Chhaya Malhar. And she tells him about the song she had heard on the radio in the afternoon, how the dulcet call of O Sajna had spoken to her, how it had reached deep into her heart and made her tantalisingly aware of the love and longing that harboured within. And he smiles and nods, reaches for her hand and asks tenderly, “Lata, my dear, shall we buy the record?”

My father would often joke about how all we heard at home was Lata ki awaaz (Lata’s voice): his wife’s, whose word was incontrovertible law, and the singing diva’s, whose sway over listeners, us included, was unassailable. As I watched my parents’ love story grow, I revelled in the songs that nourished it, many of them in Lata Mangeshkar’s surreal voice. Yes, there were others as well, Saigal Sahab’s Main Kya Janu, Gham Diye Mustaqil, Rafi Sahab’s Tere Mere Sapne, Baharon Phool Barsao, many more, Talat Mehmood’s Jalte Hain Jiske Liye, many more of his too, but their numbers were dwarfed by the omnipresence and omnipotence of that matchless, flawless sur, the one that everyone said epitomized Saraswati herself. My Aai’s list of favourites was long, the stellar among them, Khemchand Prakash’s Ayega Aanewala, the most sublime of all Hindi film music; Jane Kaise Sapnon Mein and Kaise Din Beete, capturing the polar extremes of love’s vast domain and set in mesmeric melody by the maestro, Pt Ravi Shankar; Naushad Sahab’s Do Hanson Ka Joda, C Ramchandra’s Mohabbat Aisi Dhadkan Hai, and, of course, Salil Chowdhury’s O Sajna, Barkha Bahar Aai. 

As I grew older, I added the Madan Mohans and Jaidevs and Roshans and Burmans, father and son, to our list. As also the Marathi abhangs and bhavgeets from Shrinivas Khale and Hridaynath Mangeshkar. We would buy their records and play them one after the other. My Aai, who had lost her Aai when she was barely sixteen, would tell us how Lata Mangeshkar had guided her through life’s successive stages and experiences, given her the songs to celebrate the flush of romance, understand and respect the honour of commitment, throb with fulfilling love, be uplifted by humbling devotion, cherish the newborn in her lap, weep and be consoled upon loss and bereavement, and find peace for her thirsting soul. 

My music lessons had started chiselling my nazar, my critical appreciation of all sounds melodic, leading me to imbibe this from here and steer clear of that from there. And while Hindustani classical remained my steadfast preference, I also enjoyed Hindi film music, a different song for every different occasion, every mood, day and age. Their notes spoke to me like the words in a story, more than the lyrics themselves. And there were two schools to learn from, I discovered, one of Mohammed Rafi and the other of Lata Mangeshkar. I would listen to them both carefully, how they would enunciate every note and word and emotion in its perfectly exact measure, revealing love or pathos or reverence or merriment, but always just enough, neither underdone nor exaggerated. How their voices would glide effortlessly, taking a meendh here or a murki there, all kinds of taans too. And especially how Lata Mangeshkar’s voice never lost that tinkling delicacy, nor that crystal clarity even in the swiftest of taans. I still get goosebumps when I listen to those that her Mana Mohana in Jaijaiwanti culminate in. Pure gold. 

There were stories about how she squared her twelve-year old shoulders and courageously carried her family and its needs on them after her father’s early passing. About how she engaged a tutor to refine her diction in Hindi, so that she would never have to face rejection from composers on that score. About pretending to eat from an empty lunchbox, braving penury, confident that better days would come if one worked hard enough. About the long hours she worked, learning, singing and recording tirelessly through days and nights, and yet every note and word sounding as fresh and pristine as the morning’s virgin dew. They were all so inspiring, so humbling too, her journey so arduously complex, they taught me to face whatever measly challenges that came my way and power on. There were unpleasant stories too, about how she had monopolised the music scene and denied other singers their rightful space. I would shrug them off. So, she has a natural monopoly, doesn’t she, I asked? For there were none like her, I knew. 

One of those serendipitous miracles that life and fate sometimes bestow upon us, took me to her some years ago. Invited with my husband, her cardiologist, to celebrate a milestone birthday, I stood among the outer periphery of her guests, surreally breathing the same air she did, hearing the same sounds as her, and watching and absorbing for my eternity every nuance of every expression that drifted across her face. The joy of meeting friends, the patience in greeting them all, the gratitude towards those that had helped her overcome hurdles, the bewilderment at the ceaseless press of well-wishers, the beginnings of fatigue, the need to be alone again probably, to have her home for herself again. All to be gathered and narrated in minute detail to my waiting mother, who then saw it through my eyes, but was as thrilled as if she were there herself. Vicariously living her fan moment.

One day soon after that first meeting with her, I heard her Ni sultana re on the radio as I drove home from an errand, and I inexplicably started crying. Overwhelmed with wonderment, maybe. The lady I had seen, serene and dignified, the pallu of her white saree draped decorously over both shoulders, her hair neatly braided in two long plaits, wearing her majestic aura simply but surely, the diamonds on her person winking and glittering, but paling against the wealth that shone in her eyes, that rich, long life replete with lessons and challenges and tragedies and achievements and connects and wisdom. How do I reconcile all of that with the frolicking, simple and innocent village belle in the song? How had she sung that teasing balam babuwa with such youthful abandon? Thank goodness, she had! Time and again she proved that she could throw herself into whatever the context given, be whatever age expected of her, feel whatever emotion handed to her, and all at the snap of the composer’s fingers. 

She remained unmatched. So many wannabe Latas came and tried their luck. Many strongly sweet, some cloying, some straining, some piercing. Some succeeded somewhat. Some came up with cover versions and remixes of what had been sung before, but they all looked and sounded hapless, all sorry imitations. For, none had what she did. That natural monopoly, that gift from God, as she herself always acknowledged. That magnificently and divinely pure, surel voice, that could with a single note switch on all the lights in the universe, illuminating all in blazing bright transparency; whose unique sweetness was especially magical as it came honed with assiduous training and riyaz, combined with enormous power and presence and yet an unbelievable floating lightness; that was sustained with a huge reservoir of lasting breath; blessed with a phenomenal range; and whose dhaar or incisiveness was that of a shining scimitar that sliced through all firmaments at once, as also our mortal hearts. And who had that uncanny ability to slip inside the skin of the song so completely that it rendered the annotation in celluloid images superfluous. She matched her voice to the lyrics, immersed herself in the mood of the music, and portrayed it all with an earnestness and honesty so rare that it made the listening universe smile or weep or sigh or laugh or pray or celebrate or just be rejoicingly grateful to be alive in her time and reign. 

Well, time never stands still and as the musical landscape changed with sound and rhythm and tempo trumping melody, other voices emerged and shone and notched up their coteries of fans. Lata Mangeshkar withdrew gradually but gracefully, occasionally returning to sing something composed by Rehman, the songs themselves choosing her, as she said. The changed popular music lost its appeal, for both my Aai and me, the newer songs ruling music charts for a brief while and then quickly sinking into oblivion. The burnished gold in the old still gleamed powerfully, and we stayed tuned in to its timeless allure, Aai listening faithfully to her Bhoole Bisre Geet on Vividh Bharati before falling asleep. Where her Lata still sang to her, resurrecting that train of rich memories, the mementos of a life well lived. 

My mother left eight years ago and ever since Lata Mangeshkar has helped keep alive that circle of love. Every time I hear Ayega Aanewala or O Sajna, my heart breaks in acute unabated grief, and then heals itself again in the infinite beauty and grace of the music. And then this year, she left too. I mourned and wept all over again, not only for the passing of the earthly Saraswati but also for the one that had worshipped her from afar. I foolishly hope that they’ve met. I sometimes fondly imagine her singing in the heavens, maybe with her trail-blazing father, or perhaps with that other Bharat Ratna, Bhimsen Joshi, whom I idolised since my earliest memory, maybe all the other musical greats are there as well. Maybe it’s an eternal mehfil for them, each regaling the other, each applauding the other. And since I’m imagining it all, maybe it’s summer there again, and my parents are listening in again, he in his kurta pyjama, she in her cotton saree with her juhi gajra. And he looks at her and smiles. Lata, my dear. She smiles too, fulfilled.

Discourse is becoming increasingly fractious, I find. Frivolously fractious too. So much so that labelling it as discourse is an insult to the word. There are more verbal brawls today than there are respectful discussions.  

Am I growing out of date, I ask myself, when I fear I cannot keep pace with the histrionics that pepper otherwise routine conversations, sometimes spiralling them into slanging matches. Eyebrows drawn together, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed, breathing rapid, fingers wagging, fists thumping, that is how normal genteel people I’ve known all my life have begun speaking. Everything is exaggeratedly terrible or praiseworthy, everyone is fit either for worship or for the gallows. Hyperbolics are exhausting, when they aren’t disgusting. 

Societies are becoming more and more polarised they say. Ironic, isn’t it, in this era of globalisation. This and the other. Us and them. Ours and theirs. It is as if demarcating lines are drawn clearer for combat and it is our duty to recognise and defend the territory we occupy, political, ideological, social, economic, religious, regional, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, artistic, sartorial and on. Ambivalence about whether and how we pray, unsureness about whether or not we support a paradigm, reservation about whether or not a government deserves our support, that could be construed as the vacillation of the typically weak. We must belong. This side or that. Not that everyone on the side we’ve picked necessarily knows all about the side they are defending. One may know nothing, but one still needs to voice opinion in support, all in the spirit of proud partisanship. The speaking voice must be loud and clear even though the substance of speech is shaky and hazy at best.

I’ve stopped watching the news on our TV. I find the tenor there an insufferable effrontery. The decibels are deafening. Even when I mute the newscast to salvage my ears, the myriad contortions of newscasters’ faces are voluble enough. And the debates are a farce. Harangues, rather. When a motley group of guests is invited solely for the host’s pleasure of pulping them in public view. Why they continue to accept invitations is a mystery to me. Masochism? Maybe. Or then, losing face is just a staged sham and there is something bigger to be won off stage. 

Yet these debates are consumed avidly by our citizenry. It is prime time entertainment. When allegiances are put to the test every night, when questions are thrown in the face of the other while denying any reasonable room to answer, when their hapless discomfiture and their ineffective dancing around to edge a word in are pounced upon gleefully as vindications of their contemptibility. When tables overturned bring forth wrath, the more intense when the embarrassment is larger. I find this appetite for aggression, the addictive excitement of anger rather disturbing. When viewers vicariously quarrel with all their ‘others’, badgering and berating their opponents paraded every successive night on that idiot box. And it is this style of address and debate that has seeped into our living rooms. Where we see ourselves as legitimised in breaking into quarrels, shouting above each other, slanging one another viciously, sometimes even without provocation. It is as if there is a contagious itch to fight. An itch we don’t wish to cure. One that we are growing fond of. 

The itch gets exacerbated during the seasonal tamasha of elections. Head honchos of political outfits bellow through megaphones at their captive audiences shepherded forcibly to the rally grounds hours and hours ahead on the promise of darshan of their lords and masters and, of course, some pitiful lucre. But the address is to the entire constituency, not merely those hapless heads arrayed ahead. The target audience is the mohalla, the state, the nation, whatever the pie up for contest. And the spicy snippets of their speeches become the screaming headlines in the press, print and electronic, and thence the theme of the subsequent debates. Our excitable citizenry is agog, alert on their chosen warpaths, ganging up with their ilk against their adversaries. Often, there isn’t much that differentiates the two really. 

Group chats on digital platforms are also at times irritatingly LOUD. Yeah, the capitals go with the volume of the impact our netizens want to make when typing words to match. Many have an ongoing angst to share. Really? Where is the energy for this coming from? Oftentimes the angst has been formatted for them, I suspect, with an insidious reaching in for whatever discontent that might have been simmering in them already and purposefully deflecting it and exploiting it for other agendas. So then we have positions and counter-positions, posts and counter-posts, forwards and counter-forwards, people gathering on their respective sides, defending their threatened echo chambers, picking up virtual cudgels to battle it out on their phones and tabs and other what-have-you-s. Emojis get deployed as missiles. Exclamation marks abound. And then the labels fly thick and fast, that these so-and-sos are this-and-that-and-the-dreaded-other and that they must be challenged, made to rescind their traitorous opinions and beliefs, silenced and perhaps hounded out of chat groups. Wordy warriors wearing their judging hats oh-so-seriously. Oftentimes the labels regress to uncivil name-calling, but hey, civility is an old-world virtue, passé for this volubly brash world of today. 

Hmm. I am out of date. For I miss the even tenor that marked debates earlier. That of gentle persuasions, resigned acceptances, the agreeing to disagree and still being respectful of the other. When questions poked but did not bludgeon, when answers were substantive and not mere rhetorical theatrics, when the speaking voice was polite though clear and firm, when the listening ears paid attention not merely to rebut but to first absorb and reflect and then accept, qualify or refute as the case may be. 

Yeah, I’m probably a misfit, I guess. And you may agree with that and may have already condemned me with pursed lips and frowning foreheads. No matter. I assure you that when you want to be heard, I will lend an ear. And I will try to reply without the theatrics. 

Anyway, shush for now. From me too. 

Rohini Paranjpe Sathe

Returning home has always been an absolute joy for me. Howsoever fascinating and fruitful the sojourn abroad, the promise of retrieving my own customary space to reclaim myself, my own bed to dream in, my own land and sun and soil, happily lures me back every time.

I remember one morning on reaching home from the US, being immediately assailed by the unmistakable aroma of curry leaves sizzling in hot oil. Breakfast in my neighbour’s kitchen, all so comfortably familiar. I stood a moment longer at my door, debating, pohe or upama? And instantly wanting a plateful of both. It isn’t as if these options aren’t available outside India. But it is their alchemy with our own exclusive contexts, the unapologetic glare of the sun shining outside, the heat I typically sense on my skin, the sound of the fan whirring overhead, our voices raised in our speech with our own idiosyncratic intonations and accents, the jabbering of the mynahs and bulbuls in our champa and gulmohar and amaltas trees …. all of that and more that makes it so distinctively and uniquely ours.

On a lighter note, it’s a relief for me to again stash away those bulky jackets, sweaters and scarves, all that swathed my tropical-raised self while braving the bracing chill of the temperate lands I roamed. I remember wearying of the bleary blues and blacks that swamped the sartorial there, my eyes hungering for the unabashed riot of colours we have at home.

Of course, it isn’t just about the trappings, the sights and sounds and senses that I feel myself at home with. It is much much deeper. I am rooted here, completely and thoroughly. That is, I am not merely a sentimental or serendipitously patriotic Indian. Not that I would flaunt my patriotism on my sleeve even though it is the ruling flavour. But yes, I am utterly convinced that this is where I was and am meant to be.  

I remember the time many years ago when I was mulling over some tricky choices. Whatever ambiguity I might have overlooked in other respects, there was one, among a few, that was categorically non-negotiable: I would never live elsewhere. I can be happy in any corner of this country, I averred, not abroad. I belonged here. All my people were here, all my contexts came from here, my music grew here, I was fulfilled here and imagined myself to continue being thus fulfilled in the years to come as well. Then why forsake this for any other?

Or, was I not brave enough, adventurous enough to pack my bags and try to make my life elsewhere? Test new waters, new climes? Was I playing it safe?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I was raised by parents who believed passionately in the concept of India, who themselves were raised in pre-Independence years dreaming of unfurling the tricolour one day. Raised by men and women who fought determinedly to free this land, to nurture and educate its children, to inculcate values of free and rational thought and expression. Growing up I would hear stories of my grandmother being battered in lathi-charges or being locked up in prison and my mother pining away for months on end without her. My other grandmother worked hard to rescue our women from their travails, to empower them, as also to help found a school for children. I heard about my grandfathers who supported their wives’ dreams with a dedication that did them proud, me too. I know how my maternal grandfather would step in to write editorials in his wife’s newspaper, sustaining her readers’ spirit and morale while she suffered incarceration. My other grandfather helped balance the women’s council’s books when his wife had torn her hair out in frustration at the unconquerable magnitude of the task. So many stories, so much pride in my clan, my people and my land, all that bound me to them. Why not revel in it for all time? Why play with loyalties?

And that is what I happily did all these years. Yes, there is plenty that ails my home, land and people, plenty that has gone awry from what had been imagined and dreamed of by my parents and theirs. This is not the India that they had fought for. Nor is this entirely the India I wish to wake up to every morning. Agreed. It is what it is. But that still never made me question where I had chosen to be. Migrate? Not for me. Not that I had any quarrel with those who did cross overseas, nor did I ever judge them their choices. They had their valid reasons to leave, I had mine to stay on.

And so, as and when those of the diaspora that I knew came visiting their old home, spending quality time with their ageing parents, hopping around to the corner for a batata wada, catching a night of music at Sawai or a home-grown natak, refreshing old memories, I knew that some of what they had left behind still called them back. And when we holidayed in locales abroad, soaking in their air and life and customs and systems, traipsing through their palaces and chateaus, museums and galleries, serenaded by their violins and cellos, forging connects with people there and breaking bread with them, we lived and did as them. All global humans for every happy while. But home was always where the heart finally was.

Until our daughter left for the US. And made her own home there with her husband. The years rolled from one to the next and we watched closely as she made her life there, studying, working, living, growing. Rooting herself in another land. Building her own tribe around her. Melding all that she had carried from here with all that she chose to embrace there.

Then we predictably and routinely juggled with time zones, picking convenient hours to call and chat, imagining her comfortably asleep while we worked through our days, praying that her days were productive with zero glitches while we slept. And that she stayed safe, happy and healthy. I suppose she did the same, but I’m guessing not with my intense fervour. She might have outgrown her umbilical attachment, but I’m still holding tight.

Many parents do the same, worldwide, we are not unique in that. They all do it bravely, some easily, some less so. They swallow their concerns and their worries so that their children don’t feel weighed down by them. It is how it is. But it feels all the more challenging when the physical distance that separates us is so punishingly vast that we need to travel long hours and days just to be together again. Yet I would gladly do it every single time. I did, through those rolling years.

Now when I look at the hills that surround the suburb she lives in, when I stroll through the spacious park close by, see the brilliantly blue skies overhead, spy the tiny hummingbirds flitting through her garden, see her neighbours stop and say hello when she is walking her dog, hear their music playing in their cars and malls, drive by their majestic evergreens lining their wide roads or their southern magnolia flowering magnificently in their summers, it also feels reassuringly familiar. And when I see her happy face in the midst of all of that, it feels right.

I make my pohe and upama in her kitchen and she smiles her satisfied smile that says, Just like home. I know it isn’t, her selective nostalgia notwithstanding, but how does that even matter? Isn’t home where the heart is?

So, what holds me back in my land today, I ask myself. My parents have passed, many of my tribe too, yet their history remains. I know in my gut that I still nurture myself and my life here. Much of me is still anchored here. I still despair at the grim stories that crowd our headlines. I still cheer when our young raise our flag in sporting arenas. My ears perk up with interest when I hear spicy chatter in colloquial Hindi and Marathi. I smile when the koel calls from the kamini blossoms in our garden. I luxuriantly inhale the petrichor from the first monsoon showers on our parched soil. My heart warms when my bai celebrates her children’s school grades with me, popping a pedha in my mouth.

And yet all the while my treacherous heart feels perversely and wretchedly torn between this home and our daughter’s, longing for them to somehow coincide. Knowing they won’t.

And then, when we came back from our recent visit to the US, after I thought I had well recovered from my moping and missing our daughter and was again glorying in my life here, I caught myself suddenly longing for another glimpse of those Californian hills. My eyes began to wander through her neighbourhood, going through its corners and turns as if they were my own. My ears pick up the sounds of a familiar western number from a passing car, my head beginning to bob in rhythm and I am washed with a brand-new nostalgia. My hands now long to cradle an ice-cold margarita, pair it with some chips and guacamole, and immerse myself in that idyllically lingering twilight. My fingers always itch to call her, hear her voice, see her face, see my son-in-law’s head nestled beside hers. Watch as she stirs her coffee in the mug we had bought together. Ache to be there again.

And I think, heck! There are loves and longings and loyalties, aren’t there? I know that what I feel for her transcends everything else, it is how it is. That makes me adopt what she has claimed as hers, that makes me want to join in on some of her adventures, that makes her new contexts mine as well, that makes my heart happy when my mind and memory conjure her familiar surroundings again, no longer as foreign.

Then am I no longer as loyally Indian, are my roots breaking loose? Or am I being clingingly maternal? Neither. I still love my land, my people and I believe I am as fiercely respectful of her space as I am of mine. I guess I’ve only now realised what many already have before me: that there can be another wonderful place to call home. It need not coincide with the one here. That I would be just as full of joy to return there. For the heart is just as happy there.

Kindness attracts me immensely. There is a quiet luminescent glow to it in comparison to which the brightness of wit and the radiance of genius pale.

Of course, I admire men and women of intelligence. We, of the human race, benefit from their curiosity and their inventiveness, the questions they ask and answer, pushing the frontiers of our knowledge. I wouldn’t be writing words, discerning and labelling each one of my thoughts and sentiments, typing them out on a computer and sending them to you to read, if it weren’t for the humongous advances that our gifted proponents of the sciences and the arts have made over the millennia, propelling forward that ongoing evolution of us sapiens. 

I also appreciate that genius doesn’t grow overnight. It needs accurate spotting, careful nurturing, and sometimes ruthless pruning, cultivating it along productive channels, much like that tree that bears bountiful fruit only upon the painstaking efforts of a dedicated gardener. Society invests heavily in genius for it is selfishly interested in its fruit. And that is only natural.

I find wit good company too. It is entertaining. It can also be rewardingly insightful and illuminating. A sharp pleasantry, an acerbic but apt comment may relieve many a dull moment and may alleviate an otherwise banal conversation. A chance or calculated pithy remark by the witty wise may open my eyes, opening up a person, a situation, hinting at covert agendas, and other such interesting details. Opening windows that were hitherto closed, prodding me to look beyond, probe further.

When talents are put to productive use society rewards them, handsomely at times. The size of that reward is, of course, determined by the relative scarcity of that talent: the scale and urgency of the need for its output vis-à-vis its availability. The everyday unavoidable market scissors of demand and supply that supposedly impartially decide price and thence incomes. The impartiality begins only after the initial distribution of resources, wealth and human capital, has been accepted as an unchangeable given. That could be cruelly unequal in itself. But that is a matter of discourse on equity. 

And that’s the thing. Equity, and similar goals that may render humans humane, is not the goal of unfettered market decisions. Our market and trade paradigms that explicitly or covertly hail maximisation of self-interest (read profits, incomes, utility) as the efficient guiding motive of decision making, don’t give a damn about equity. They are not supposed to. And that is only expedient. And then popular clamour to factor in humanitarian concerns prompts the powers that be to tweak the system, blunting those market scissors somewhat, trying to secure a minimum decent dispensation for the less privileged (including those that had been left out in the cold in that initial distribution of socio-economic resources). Welfare, subsidies, and so on. Beyond that the markets continue to do their work.  

So, that rare talent that could effectively carve out a monopoly of its much-in-demand produce, earns at a premium rate. A neurosurgeon will earn several multiple times what a janitor does, and that is but fair, given that the surgeon has invested that many years of sweat and money in training herself, to render herself worthy of people trusting her to do right by their ailments cerebral and neural. Maybe the janitor didn’t have the talent and/or appetite and/or opportunity for higher studies and specialised training. Though I could ask the surgeon if they have the talent and the appetite for cleaning office spaces every day for a living?

Yet, the market governed hierarchy of professions also determines the quotient of respect that they earn. More often than not, an investment banker will consider herself superior to the teacher in a municipal school. Money talks, as they say, and people listen. Respectfully. Earning that kind of money is the prime aspiration of many. And however much pastors preaching from pulpits and priests praying in temples may warn common folk about the shallowness of the lure of lucre, lucre does lure. And I am not convinced that that is sinful at all. 

But what I do question is the badge of respect it flaunts. Respect that even the most corrupt politicians command from their hapless constituents just because they are willing to flex their material muscles to squash them. Respect that celebrities earn because of the cars they drive and jets they fly, the diamonds they flash, the mansions they can afford, aspirational for so many. That allows them and their ilk to, for example, jump queues, because ordinary citizens accept that they deserve that preference and deference because their time is not to be wasted waiting, their time is money. 

It is this equation of respect and deference with material reward that I am not comfortable with. Just because my child is not as smart as yours, does not top the ranks, or win competitions, bag that to-die-for-job, invent the next life-saving medicine, search for life on a remote astral body, have that rare gift to do what you are willing to pay money for, does she not deserve to be respected? Not pitied, allowed for, consciously included, accommodated (read, lumped and dumped) in the lacklustre category of also-rans, but just plain respected for who and what she is? 

I could shout from rooftops that my child is loving, nurturing, helpful, empathetic and downright kind, but really who’s listening? Is she a professional healer? A life-counsellor? Does she have a CV or a list of achievements that define her worth? If not, well then all those attributes are near redundant. Not just because they are not accompanied with a societal certification of her merit which I accept is more valid than just my word for it, but more importantly, because none of those attributes can be monetised. 

Intelligence, genius, talent and so on are then proven to be so when there is a societally agreed reward attached to it, actual or potential. Seeing someone in need, lending them a hand to help them out of the hole they are in, giving someone a shoulder to lean on, lighting up someone’s day just by your attentive supportive presence, spotting all situations where you can help, being kind to a stranger on the street, are not slotted in the categories of recognised talents. There is no premium attached to them. They don’t command respect. 

But they are the backbone of our humanity. Of how we get through crises, swallow tragedies, heal ourselves and live fruitfully the next day and after. When an earthquake strikes, the janitor helps pull the neurosurgeon out from under the debris she may have gotten buried under. Free of charge. Maybe she was cleaning toilets when the surgeon was examining patients. And she was kind enough to risk her own life and help. Or, when the next Mumbai monsoon deluges us and we are stuck in our cars in unmoving traffic, the hand that knocks on our window and hands us that bottle of water and that pack of Glucose biscuits, is probably just the nondescript sweeper or unglamorous vegetable seller or even the failed derelict human living in a nearby hovel or hole, just trying to be of help. Or when our old helpless parents or grandparents are gasping for breath, their frail bodies blazing in a debilitating fever, and we are stuck in a frightening pandemic in a city far away from theirs, an out-of-work rickshaw-wala coaxes his vehicle back to life, braves contact with Covid and ferries them to the nearest hospital. So that they may breathe freely again and then so can we. These uncelebrated ambassadors of kindness respect us as fellow human beings and recognise our need. 

Do we respect them? Their needs? Equally? Enough?

Not just because they have been of service to us when we were in need, but because they have it intrinsically in them to be kind. They disregard the layers of neglect that their lives have been cloaked under for all those years, the wretched losers in the original distribution of socio-economic resources, and stand up for us when we need them to. How much are we willing to pay for that? 

And then when we’ve moved on from our tragedy or crisis or upheaval and are in the thick of shining things again, will we remember those kind hearts? Or will we look for them only the next time we are in need? Will they inspire us in turn to be kind? To reach out and help? Maybe, make us understand that all that we’ve learned and earned and are proud of in our happy lives is just a fraction of what this human race is about. That maybe we still have to learn that vital bit, the being humane bit. And learn to prioritise the respect we give that. 

Well, kindness and genius are not mutually exclusive. This is not a them and us situation. But the kindness that may rest in the genius even, how highly do we value it? On par with the genius itself? Not at all. In fact, the attribute of genius adds a sheen to the kindness, makes it a tad attractive. Which is why a good deed by the already celebrated is hailed whereas the same by a non-entity goes unnoticed. If the neurosurgeon from the example earlier were to rescue the janitor from the debris in an earthquake, that would make headlines. Not the vice versa.

What if it were the norm to shine the spotlight on the obscure good Samaritans amongst us? And the applause rang longer and louder for them. And these kind and nurturing humans were held up as examples to be admired and emulated. Above all else. The first among equals.

Well, every morning when I wake up, I tell myself: Be kind. Whatever else I may or may not be and do, I must try be kind. And when I see that kindness in you, my fellow human, believe you me, I become your fan. 

It was in the middle of the afternoon on a regular weekday. I was driving to school to pick up our daughter. Well, the car practically drove itself for I was hardly conscious of steering it. It was on its customary route, taking the usual turns this way and that with indicators flashing accordingly, stopping at traffic signals turning red, buzzing through those that were still green, honking a slow scooter out of the way. I registered none of its movements. It was as if all were on auto cruise and my car understood better than to disturb my mood. 

The sun was searing from up above, not a cloud between it and the wilting humans beneath. Pelting and melting as was its wont. But I felt it not. For I was in the land of Vrindavani Sarang, in the cooling shade of serene melody, listening hypnotised to those lilting notes and that majestic voice that called upon them with the love that only he knew, suffused with the like love and devotion that he inspired in all us acolytes. The sun was in veritable song. Tum rab, tum saheb, an ode to divinity in a languid loop of the ten beat Jhaptaal. 

I had been addicted to that voice ever since my childhood, it echoed from my earliest memories. My parents, both his ardent fans, buying their first LP with his Maru Bihag and Malkauns. Then buying another and yet another with every paycheque every month. As their record collection grew, there came more Ragas that he had sung, and then were added more voices and instruments too. A Pandit Paluskar, a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib and an Amir Khan Sahib. A Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Vilayat Khan Sahib and a Bismillah Khan Sahib. Our library of music grew richer over the years, my mother carefully choosing the programme for the evening, lovingly removing the jackets and carefully prising out those mysteriously shining dark discs from their sleeves, gently blowing away the rogue specks of dust she spied on them, positioning that sharp needle on the outermost edge and then with breath drawn in in expectation, lowering it to play. Aah! 

Rasiya! I would hear that voice call in earnest entreaty and I would listen as if compelled, as if nothing else mattered, as if that Maru Bihag was all that there was of any import. That stoic shuddha ma, the genteel ga, they had become my friends before I even knew them by name. Tadpat raina din, he would confess his yearning for a glimpse of his beloved and I, all of two years old then, would be in harmonious sympathy. 

The sun blazed on, my car was at the school gates, children were pouring out. Mine came too, satchel dumped on the backseat, door slammed shut and the music changed from the CD that had been playing to her favourite Radio Mirchi. I drew my car out from my parking slot and drove back home, listening to her excited chatter and the equally animated radio jockey.

Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the lustrous and illustrious gem of India. Swar Bhaskar, the voice of the sun and the sun among voices. Estimable and knowledgeable Panditji. Fond elder Bhimanna or simply Anna. We of this prosaic material world came to know and address that musical giant amongst us according to our closeness or distance from him. I knew him as my first repository of true music, the sachha sur, my own revered musical deity and my reference for all issues melodic. My ears had been trained listening to him right from my cradle. My sensibilities musical had been defined by him, resolutely in favour of the leisurely build-up of a Raga’s ambience in its khayal, the sombre and stately alaaps progressing measuredly against the protracted dhin dhin of the favoured ektal on the tabla, graduating to a quickened tempo and traversing through all three octaves in boltaans and taans, some in blinding speed, simple or complex, rolling with rumbling gamaks or cutting through like flashes of lightning. I was already familiar with it all before my formal training in Hindustani classical music commenced. And while I enjoyed the five-minute film songs that ruled the popular roost, I found that their flavour faded soon. In contrast, the Ragas that the maestros sang sustained and endured, resounding and resonating long after their last tihai.

I remember a concert from many, many years ago, a private mehfil that I had been privileged to attend along with a few dozen invitees. Bhimsenji had begun with a Darbari Kanada. Diving in introduction into the well of the lower octave, that all important mandra saptak in Darbari, he had at once drenched us all in its thick swirling currents. Enunciating each note with polished precision, clarity and mellifluousness, then blurring and merging them in gliding meendhs and Darbari’s trademark andolans or oscillations, and then standing poised and still on the bedrock of his reverberating kharja, he had woven his magic over us all, connoisseurs and laypersons alike. Then climbing up through the middle and higher octaves, steadily approaching and gathering in every successive precious note, he had structured layers and layers to that magnificent edifice of his khayal. Regal and assured yet deeply introspective, melancholic in some phases, caressing tenderly in some others phases, supplicating piteously in yet others, it was a continuing alchemy of overwhelming emotions and I listened mesmerised. His voice, the most robust that I have ever known, would roar in command and then whisper in intimacy and then again plead in all humility. There was heroic power, abject pathos, stark asceticism, all in a glorious and wondrous mix, transporting us to rare other-worldly bliss. I had forgotten myself, forgotten my surroundings, rapturously lost in the darbar of his majestic muse. I doubt any other singer I have ever heard could match the impact of that night’s rendition. It washes over me still. Darbari was his, his alone. 

But then so were Puriya, Marwa, Shuddh Kalyan, Mian Malhar, Miyan ki Todi and many more. Yes, I enjoy and follow other classicists’ interpretations of these Ragas too but I still return to Bhimsenji, not merely from fond nostalgia but with a sure knowing that in him I will find only the Raga in its purest and most sublime form, not a projection of he himself or his prowess. Whenever he sang it seemed as if he, his voice and body as also his spontaneity and virtuosity, were all possessed by the Raga itself, commanded unto its bidding. And the bizarre contortions of his face and torso and arms that became his caricatured personality, were simply in driven blind-eyed pursuit of the next magically musical phrase. 

Some of his contemporaries and critics would denounce the limits of his repertoire: “He sings the same few Ragas everywhere! And the same thumris and abhangs.” And his loyalists would bristle in anger: “No, his repertoire is wide enough! His reach in every Raga is the most profound! And his Teerth Vitthala is matchless!” Well, all I knew was that his every performance in any given Raga would be different every single time, revealing this face of a Miya ki Todi today, for example, another tomorrow and then yet another the day after. Yes, like all other artists he probably had his share of off days too, when his heart and mind refused to apply themselves to the Raga at hand, his mood refusing to submerge into the Raga’s, when magic refused to happen. And yet there are priceless recordings of a Yamani Bilawal or a Multani or again a Komal Rishabh Asawari and many more that I play and replay again and again, for days and months on end, unable to escape that magnetic pull, unable to pack in not only the strength of his notes but also the golden honey-like Kirana gharana sweetness that he doused them in. 

Two of my uncles had been privileged to be among his friends. Doctors by profession their hearts, I suspect, beat happier in tandem with the tempo of khayals and bandishes. I would be hungry for all the interesting anecdotes that they had to share, tales of his sharp wit and mischievous humour, of historic benchmark performances, of hobbies and interests. I would read all I could lay my hands on, his interviews, the stories about his formative years, his crazed obsession with music, his scouring through the length and breadth of the country in search of a Guru. The rigorous discipline and arduous training under the famed Sawai Gandharva, the Guru he was blessed to find, his long hours of gruelling riyaz, the swallowing of personal pride and notions of privilege to be merely allowed to remain in the vicinity of a handful of melodious notes, the unswerving loyalty to his Guru. His rapport with other luminaries of the music world, his encouragement to young artists. The commitment and dedication with which he organised the annual Sawai Gandharva music festival, inviting both established maestros and upcoming artists, looking after their comfort, tuning their tanpuras, listening to them in humble attention while they performed. And then capping it all with his own magnificent performance in the last session of the last day, his resplendent homage to his departed Guru. I devoured it all. I learned of his eccentricities, his failings too, but I judged him not for his human frailties. For all I ever saw in him was his divinely sachha sur, the sur that continues to reign supreme. 

The sun still sings for me. He still propels my day forward, guiding me through its gradually changing texture and complexion, showing me the fledgling streaks of orange in a day-breaking Lalit, a little more of light and warmth in a Ramkali. At burning noon, he coaxes me into the resuscitating shade with his Sarang, then shows me the morphing world in the evening’s Puriya Dhanashri. Later, he slips away beyond the horizon leaving me the riches of a Bihag, a Yaman, a Chhaya, an Abhogi, many and much more to revel and rejoice in, to nourish my searching soul. 

Many sang after him, many stake ownership of the stage, many have won millions in audiences and admirers. Yet to me none can hold a candle to him. The singularly luminous star that burned so unbelievably bright that he lit up all firmaments, the earth, the sky and the universe beyond. The one and only Swar Bhaskar.

Photo Credits : Sateesh Paknikar

It hasn’t been easy, has it? This year and more of struggling, surviving, losing, coping, adjusting, wrapping our heads and hearts, minds and bodies around the new emerging normal. All yet fluid and floating, unsettled and undefined, allowing this today, prohibiting that tomorrow, and then perversely changing everything all over again. 

At first life threatened to stagnate or worse, disappear. It began to stand still not just within our isolated spaces but also in the stoic scenes outside the walls of our confines. Birds sang, dogs barked, bees swarmed as busily as before, but our own species seemed somewhat stifled, somewhat muted. Justifiably so. Hunkered down. Waiting. Watching. Breathing. Praying that breath would not cruelly forsake us.

Of course, there were those who still continued to scream shrilly. Out of TV boxes, on social media, in newsprint, in living rooms and, shamelessly flouting all consideration to the vulnerability of others’ lives, in indiscriminate public gatherings. At each other, with each other, sometimes at the virus itself. Go Corona! 

Corona didn’t go. But jobs went. Bread on tables dwindled. Migrants marched home, some died on the way. Shops shut. Manufacturing reduced to essentials. Construction halted. Temple and churches and mosques became silent. Buses, trains and planes hung around in their depots and sheds and hangars. Schools emptied. Play stopped. Hope flickered thin. 

Hospitals burst at their seams with the bloating influx of the infected, the coughing, the gasping, the sinking, the dying. Beleaguered and bleary eyed, doctors and nurses struggled to piece together a line of treatment to fight a brand-new unknown variable. We thanked them sincerely, profusely, bestowed upon them bouquets of gratitude. Sometimes brickbats when they could not save someone we knew, was dear to us.

Breath faded quietly. Ventilators hummed loudly. We lost some of our own, some dear, some admired. We mourned. We looked on others of our species with suspicion, would they be the harbingers of our demise, we wondered. We clung to our old trying to save them from being snatched away. Then the not so old and then the younger. 

Somewhere in between those two pandemic waves many cast their vulnerability aside, refusing to get beaten by that frightfully microscopic parasitic entity that was looking to lodge in our lungs. They stepped out as before, meeting, gathering, thronging, a token mask dangling on their chins. Breathing in and out unconstrained, daring disease, daring death. Unto themselves as unto others. We called them foolhardy, myopic, irresponsible and so on. I guess they were all of that but they were mostly fed up of being cooped in. Of being idle, unemployed, un-fed. Many did what they did to survive. What if there is no roof over one’s head or means to earn food for the belly? Starve to death in fear of the virus catching one alive? Conundrum. 

Those fortunate and privileged to remain safely ensconced in their well-equipped houses became smarter. Children and youth, students alike sat glued to their screens, “Yes, Teacher! No, Teacher!” they chorused as the teaching community tried to salvage their education, teachers retraining themselves, learning new skills so that they could still faithfully discharge their responsibilities. Many woke up in the middle of the night to record lessons in the quiet that they were denied during regular school hours. Many pined for the tea breaks on campus, the chai as hot as the gossip that was shared. Most stayed the course.

Men and women continued to work from home, hunched over their computers, tapping away on their keyboards, calling, dealing, Zooming, beaming. Protecting their incomes. Spending and shopping online. Ordering in food. Insisting on contactless deliveries. Hygiene and sanitation and safety, they demanded. Some barking at delivery boys who scurried around fulfilling customers’ orders to feed their own bellies. Some whining about the number of phone calls they had to answer to confirm addresses, some about the bungling of orders, some suspecting that their food had been contaminated, perhaps sampled on the way or worse spit into. Congratulating themselves on doing their bit to save the human race: staying home, staying safe. Outsourcing danger to deliverers.

During the first few months of the nation-wide lockdown the great Indian middle class moaned and groaned about having to clean their houses, cook their food, tend to their gardens. They believed it their birth-right to outsource all of that to the underprivileged women and men who worked in their homes for a pittance. They now cursed the necessity of picking up brooms and applying elbow grease in scrubbing the burnt bits off pots and pans. The Indian diaspora in the west sniggered about how housework was not a new burden for them, perhaps privately welcoming the denial of domestic help to the brethren they had left behind in their motherland. As soon as it was legally permitted, we opened our doors and welcomed back our maids and cooks and gardeners and drivers. We sighed with relief. Husbands who pretended to have been harassed by belligerent wives turned their backs once more on the piles of dirty dishes and laundry, expecting all to be cleaned, sorted and stored again just as before, that is without their having to lift a finger. Yet the sexist jokes on women subjugating men into domestic chains continued to abound.  

Stories of domestic violence started doing the rounds. Whispers about the shouts that came from this house and that. A wife longing for the lockdown to end so that she could get some respite from her ever-present abusive husband. Children watching in fear as they saw their parents quarrelling, sparring, fighting. Staying safe from the virus but not from the ugliness that lurked within themselves. Tempers frayed on the enforced togetherness, small homes growing smaller, noisier. Tight budgets growing tighter as each child, each adult demanded their own exclusive internet access. Bills accumulated, savings shrank, patience thinned, words and objects flew. A few searched for a stretch of rope to end it all.

One wave receded and work resumed, shops and factories opened up, labour turned up at the gates again. Temples and churches and mosques opened their arms to their believers again. Roads grew crowded again. Festivals. Weddings. Funerals. Gatherings. Rallies. Protests. Melas and melees. Another wave washed over us taking away many many more. Oxygen grew scarce. Hospital beds were scarcer. Governments and their oppositions harangued, blamed each other and this and that and then slammed rhetorical what-abouts to silence already timid lay voices. Netizen and other volunteers stepped up to steer the sick towards healing, sending ambulances to their homes, securing admissions in hospitals, medicines for recovery, oxygen to breathe, food to eat. All moved by compassion. Experts warned of a third wave that could take our children away. Fear grabbed us by our throats.

Working quietly, whisked away from the everyday drama surrounding the virus, men and women worked diligently yet speedily in labs, decoding the enemy, mapping its structure, studying its behaviour, trying this, testing that. A process that normally took a half-dozen years was heroically squeezed into months. Brave ordinary humans offered themselves as guinea pigs in trials. Success, scientists announced, the vaccines were ready. Hurrah! Their pharma patrons rejoiced too, their investment was to bear noble fruit. Vials were packed and distributed. Hope consolidated. We hurried to immunise ourselves, outsmart that evil cunning Covid. We had survived, we felt lucky. We would survive, we were confident.

I watched it all from home. I swung from hope to despair to hope and all of that all over again. I wrote. I read. I sang. All with as much conviction and energy as I could muster. I laughed, I quarrelled, I reconciled. I brooded, I introspected. I talked to myself. I unearthed old memories, made new ones. I bonded virtually with a few old and new friends, some old and new colleagues. Checking and re-checking that all was well with them. For some it was not. I learned of them suffering. I worried. I learned of their passing. I mourned, I wept. I consoled, I comforted. I longed to reach out and hug, kiss away that hurt of loss. I didn’t. I stayed at home. I stayed safe.

I survived. As did you. Of course, I am no longer the same. Nor are you. But that’s okay. For this is our new normal. Whatever the hell that means.

Photo Credit : Copyright free images Canva and Pixabay

Sometimes the words dry up. Sometimes, ideas do, which is a darker prospect.

It isn’t as if the creative part of my brain has shrivelled away. No, I believe that it’s just taking some time off. Or, giving me a break, allowing me to focus elsewhere. Or, it’s allowing me to channel my creativity differently.

In due course, which is a comfortably vague length of time, the thoughts, words and the urge to record them start to itch again, and I reclaim my space as a writer. So, is the intervening unproductive period a manifestation of the infamous Writer’s Block? Not sure that it always is. Living life, the busy-ness of doing, the devouring of food for thought and the clamour of introspection, any or all of these might put words on hold for a while only to release them in a richer torrent at a more propitious time. Or I flatter myself.

But the Block does notoriously exist. In one such barren phase some years ago I had penned a few words about it, which I share with you again in this blog. The dry spells recur, but fortunately the wordless tilling and toiling yield rewarding harvests later. And it all happens in repeated cycles. Again and again. And again….

6e34b79b-174b-45e0-9b46-789ac5884b69

AGAIN

I wish I could resume writing. Just pick up my pen and pour the entire melange of thoughts, sensations, memories and reflections onto waiting reams of paper. And that the streams that issue forth from my mind form beautiful shapes of their own, sorting themselves out obligingly, creating art in black and white, reason and arrangement in apparent confusion, a tidy ease in a busy melee. I wish I could portion out the bundles of joy, sorrow, anger, despair, contentment, hope, grief, all the emotions in their myriads of hues, interwoven, intertwined, flowing from and merging back into each other, seemingly seamless, yet distinct.

But before that, I wish I could know what I know. Be able to know each thought, hold it in my palms, feel it, look at it, hear what it wants to say, understand its intent. I wish I could separate all the strands that are swirling around, pick one before the others. Which one? They are all mine, my progeny. Born of me, yet each day, each moment moulding a new me. A new perspective. A different idea. A fresh twist to an earlier epiphany. Fresh colours to an old memory. And I hear myself, “Aah! That’s what it is about!” The excitement of small things.

But so much is lost in translation, in communication. Putting into definite words what are at best nebulous ideas. And my mind mocks: “Was that really it? How it really was?” And then a little more is lost on its way to its recipient, the reader. “Has she really understood what it was all about? Have I been able to tell her as it is?”

Yet people write, effortlessly at times. And I am envious. I search for my muse but she eludes me. She is elsewhere. She has forsaken me. I beseech her to return. I promise obeisance. All in vain. I fret. I despair. My old foe, self-doubt, returns. Maybe, I am not good enough. Maybe, I never was. Maybe, I never will be.

But then I find I’ve picked up my pen again. My heart beats. The rhythm divine. Life as I know it has begun again.

It had been a quiet, peaceful, uneventful, everyday sort of day. I had been winding up the routine chores around the house, clearing the last pile of laundry in particular, as I remember. The phone rang and I reached out to answer it in an immediate instinctive reflex, a half folded shirt in my hands. My father’s voice came through, “Hello! Rohini?” and I answered as was my wont, “Hello, Dada! Tell me?” Only, it wasn’t him, but an old family friend who had been trying to reach my husband. The spell was broken and I talked to the friend. Coherently, I believe.

 

My father had passed away years ago but at that moment it had been his unmistakable voice in my ear. Gruff, strong, assertive, distinctive. Not that friend’s. I tried to shake off the oddness of the incident as an auditory illusion and returned to the ordinariness around me. But something within me had been jerked alive. A tingling, unsettling sense of the extraordinary. And as I worked through the rest of my day a question flitted in and out of my head: Why would that friend’s voice which I was familiar with suddenly come masked as my father’s?

WhatsApp Image 2019-11-30 at 8.58.19 AM

 

That evening while sitting down to my customary riyaz, I embraced nostalgia like a warm, comforting shawl. Bandishes that my father had loved listening to surged through in my consciousness and I wallowed in them as one would in memories that are both vividly and vibrantly alive yet steeped in swirling sentiment. Dada had been a staunch Bhimsen Joshi fan, and the maestro’s Sakhi, Shyam nahi aaye in Chhaya Malhar was much loved. He would point out to my mother excitedly, “Do you see how he calls out to sakhi? A different approach every time!” and they would both listen to that old LP, over and over again, completely enraptured. I too tried to emulate Bhimseji’s sakhi but, of course, there is none like him and his sakhi was also equally unique. But that evening I came as close to him as was possible for me, remembering and reproducing the fine variations he introduced every time he sang the word, the lilting love, the sense of urgency, the insistence, or then the resigned acceptance of Shyam’s disappointing non-appearance. Hope and loss playing hide and seek, Shyam’s sakhi and Dada’s daughter swivelling from the one to the other, back and forth on the tides of unrestrained emotion. That night after dinner I ate a small bowl of mango ice cream, again a firm favourite with Dada. It felt appropriate, feeding myself, feeding that dearly beloved parent of mine who had reminded me once again that he had never really left.

 

Well, both my parents have passed on. I miss them, of course. That is the inescapable quotient of attachment and bereavement, being reminded of what once was when one’s dearly beloved were still by one’s side. In fact, I miss the air that they breathed with me, the sunshine that would bathe their skin and mine, the mildly fragrant breeze that fanned the summer evenings in our garden, the song of the koyal that we heard together. The sun rises and sets as always, the seasons follow each other as before, gardens bloom and birds sing, and I appreciate it all every day, yet there is that fine edge to all my experiences and emotions today, an awareness of the difference in the seeming sameness. The undeniable presence of loss.

 

33f7b74a-c407-49c0-a5fd-7eb0a3fcabda

Both my parents, Ai and Dada, lived full lives, loved each other, their children and life itself to the fullest. In retrospect, I know and accept that their passing was inevitable, perhaps timely too. But I remain their child, a greedy one at that, still hankering for that one more moment of togetherness, wanting to bury my head in Ai’s lap, inhale the caressing love that she exuded with every breath, hold Dada’s hand and step out into the lane outside our old house where I grew up, step out into the world as it were knowing that he would always have my back. Hear them call my name. Hear their response when I called theirs’. Hear them talk, laugh, hear the sound of their footsteps, the rustle of the newspapers they read, the sound of their TV, their rhythmic breathing when catching an afternoon nap. Smell his eau de cologne, her fragrant hair oil. See the faint depression on the sofa chairs they vacated. Pick up the phone to call them, talk to them. Drive over to their place and see her standing on her balcony, waiting in welcome. Not to be. Not anymore.

 

But is it all really final? There are instances when I feel that all I need to do is close my eyes and call out to them and I know that they will be there. Friends tell me that spirits of people live on, that death is certainly not the end. There are philosophies I have explored that are based on the continuing existence of the soul, of cycles of birth, death and rebirth, where the body is the garment that the soul wears during a particular life period, that garments change over the cycles of birth and rebirth, but the true spiritual essence, the soul, lives on. Until it is absorbed into the infinite, supreme, divine power that is God. That nothing is final, that death is just a separating façade, that we need to look beyond it. That all is a continual ceaseless flow, that the sentient and insentient may metamorphose and evolve, but never disappear. That just as matter and all that is material is constant in its sum, the spirit is equally indestructible.

 

There are times when I am sorely tempted to imagine that the souls of those I have loved and whose earthly presence has ended, linger on around me, like a nurturing loving wrap or a protective guiding ambient light. But I stop short of belief. For I do not know. I remain a hopeless sceptic. But, and this is just as important, I do not disbelieve either. For while I accept that souls, rebirths, god, salvation and so on are concepts born of the human intellect driven by a striving to pierce through the limiting walls of our pitiably finite knowledge, to make sense of this world and our life in it, I do not know for a fact that they are fallacious. My Ai and Dada may still be there, floating somewhere in this infinite universe, hopefully blissfully. Or, they may not. The dear young nephew I lost a few years ago, and my dear dear sister, my dearest confidante, friend, philosopher and guide, who followed some months later, may still be floating too, perhaps still invested in those that they tragically left behind. Maybe. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is that I do not know. And I am mostly okay with that.

 

For the essence of who and what they were still lives on in me. I carry them with me in everything I think, feel, do. As time passes and the jagged edges of memories get rounded and smoothed, comfortable and mellow in warm sepia, those that live on therein grow more loving, more forgiving, more endearing. And I grow increasingly loyal to them, fiercely possessive of every word they spoke, stoutly defending or even espousing every value, moral or ideal they lived by, tenaciously guarding every single thing they left behind for me, be they letters, books, photos, sarees or memories.

 

There have been days when I have been preparing something in the kitchen, a recipe that Ai had taught me, and I call out to her. Aloud. Ai, dearest, come and taste this, tell me if this exactly how it is supposed to be. No, she doesn’t answer, but that has never really mattered. For I still hear the echoes of all her previous approvals and affirmations, her genuine heartfelt appreciation of every single thing I ever did, whether it was a cake I had baked or a plateful of pakoras I had fried, a Raga that I had been singing or a story I had just written. There are days when I look at my reflection in the mirror and I see my mother’s eyes smiling at me. I wave out to her quietly, happily. And we both smile. That umbilical cord that once tied me to her still holds on.

WhatsApp Image 2019-11-29 at 8.02.54 AM

 

I am still awash with the impact of an incident that occurred soon after her passing. Pune had been reeling under exceptionally heavy though late monsoon showers, I had been driving to my French class, the wipers swinging furiously to and fro, the radio playing old Hindi songs, and my eyes streaming unstoppable tears of overwhelming grief. In the secluded privacy of my car I hollered out to her. Ai, how could you leave so suddenly? How could you not even wish me a goodbye? This is so unfair! Where are you, Ai? Show me where you are. Now! The radio crackled and a rather inane song that she had been inexplicably fond of started playing, dheere dheere bol koi sun na le. Speak softly, else … My heart flooded with gratitude.

 

Memories, illusions, moments of willing delusions, there is nothing tangible or measureable about them, is there? It’s all in the mind, as they say. An intense yearning to reach out to those who have left, a bullish resistance to accepting that they are no more, a bewildering vulnerability in their absence, a refusal to accept that death is unshakeable or a wild hope that there may be ways in which we could outsmart it and continue to communicate with those it has taken away. Any or all of that could be responsible for the games that our minds may play with us.

 

But just because it’s all in the mind, is it less real? I agree that my random moments of connection with my deceased parents could well be mere illusions, but does that negate their validity for me? When Darcy insults Elizabeth in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I fondly and perhaps foolishly believe that the tears that gather in my eyes are actually my sister Pratima’s, the ones that she had shed for the wounded pride of her loved and admired Austen heroine. That may be completely irrational. But is the heartache that I feel irrational too? Is it unreal? That erupting anger against the arrogant young man, is it exclusively mine or is it laced with what was once hers? Every girl and woman who has read and watched this classic wants Elizabeth vindicated, I more so because Pratima wanted it too. And Pratima is not sitting here with me feeling angry or wretched or sad or relieved or happy or satisfied. No, she trusts me to feel all of that by myself and on her behalf too. That may be my self-deluding assumption, but is my enduring love and longing for her to reclaim her earthly space a delusion? No.

b4a90b0b-f2d0-48cc-8473-1ec195314cc3

 

Parting and grief teach one as much about togetherness as togetherness itself. More, I suspect. Loving intensely makes losing that much harder to bear. But we survive, don’t we? Beautifully and gloriously, I think. For there is then wrought in us a refinement of our very humanity. Our capacity for empathy and compassion grows. Our appreciation of all that life has to offer is keener, heightened, for we know that life itself is ephemeral, our experience of loss and sorrow has handed us that wisdom. We value and cherish all those who stay on with us, holding our hand, leading us from crushing grief to a lightness of being and then on to an embracing of our everyday joys with as much lust as before. To be ready to love and lose again. And again.

 

And every happy or bizarre experience that reconnects me to those of my family and friends that I loved and continue to love dearly, those whose love for me survives in the memory of every cell of my being even after their physical presence has faded away, is like a precious gift. My lurking cynicism warns me that I am probably gifting these experiences to myself. Maybe. But I see no reason to refuse those gifts. If there were to be another time when my father was to miraculously speak to me on the phone, I would not turn away from him or remind him that he’s dead, just a sentimental memory I am clinging to, a vestige of my attachment taking refuge in my head, and that he has no earthly business to call me from the beyond. If there is a beyond.

 

The beyond may not exist. But are we sure that the here and now is not an illusion too? All is Maya as our sages insisted through the ages. Well, give me the Maya, I say. Any day. Every day. It is my inalienable birth-right as a human, the Maya of fulfilling love and of equally fulfilling illusions. Then death shall not do us apart.

 

There was a time when I would appreciate the elegant beauty of a mathematical equation, especially its pretty economy when it would succinctly and successfully encapsulate a wordy essay in Economics. Of course, one needs to be equipped to be able to read/write that equation, explain its variables and defend the nature and direction of causation. But that thing of beauty would give me so much joy that it made the exploration of the caveats to it a pleasurable exercise too. 

 

Of course, my thing of beauty may be a mere ugly thorn to you, and vice versa. For aesthetics are essentially subjective. And I do not contest that at all. My point is that beauty could be anywhere and everywhere, not just in the visual but in every possible form and sense of the human experience. A scientist could find a perfectly designed experiment with its unique incontrovertible result her thing of beauty and joy. There could be an artistic elegance in the arrangement of a sequence of steps, be it in a recipe for a culinary dish or in a proof to a theorem or in a movement in a dance. Art pervades every aspect of our life irrespective of whether we are cognisant of it or not, and along with it come dimensions of aesthetics whether we perceive them or not.  

 

Today, as an artist and as an acolyte of musical notes and the written text, I see and am stirred by beauty every day. But I search beyond it. Musicians, writers, painters, actors, dancers et al can, when they are true to their calling, best be described as seekers. The term ‘seeking one’s truth’ has become overused and tired and cheap in today’s world, but it still epitomises an artist’s voyage, searching not only for the truth in the world as she sees it but also the nebulous truth that rests within her own being. Aesthetically marrying the two and then celebrating that marriage in the language she knows best. Through a musical composition or a building up of a Raga through a khayal or even a short musical phrase. Through the etching of a scene on the walls of a cave or through the strokes of a brush on a canvas or on the ceilings of chapels. An epic or an ode or an epistlolary offering. A ballet of power and grace or a single stoical stance capped with a precise mudra. An alignment of the entire body to depict the personage enacted on stage or in front of a camera, or a fleeting emotive nuance in the performer’s visage. Words, notes, colours, forms, textures, and so on represent the medium of expression, the subject of expression is always that essence of discovered truth. That thing of sublime beauty.

 

When I sing, I could be so immersed in the spell cast by the notes of the Raga that I lose myself completely, my mood merging into that of the Raga. All I see are those polished notes lighting my path helping me find my way through the melodic maze of the Raga. Irrespective of whether one sings to one’s potential or rises successfully to the challenge of the Raga, every presentation, performance or session of riyaz is a tryst with oneself, entirely by oneself. Secluded from the world around, wrapped up in a cocoon spun through melodic strands. There are times during riyaz when I am so in sync with the emotional content of the notes that I feel I could almost dispense with words. They appear to be superfluous or at best crutches that I lean on when too lazy to walk on my own. That the current of emotion seeking expression powers through, no, blazes through on its own sans the sub-titles of lyrics. 

 

To me, notes are complete in themselves, each one of them with a distinct personality of its own. Each appearing and behaving differently in different Ragas, revealing some facets of its personality here, hiding others. Just like us humans, opening up or bottling shut according to who we are with and where. Camaraderie with friends, formality with our boss, intimacy with our families, reserve with strangers and for those of us who believe, a laying bare of our very souls to the god we worship. So also with notes: sometimes a lover, sometimes a friend, a lord, a servant, a mother, her child, deity, devotee, each note dons the robes to suit the Raga it finds itself in. Each note then interacts with the others in the neighbourhood of its Raga and that builds up the emotional ambience that is that Raga. The words of the khayal or the bandish may annotate that swirl of emotion to the uninitiated, but they do not define it per se. In fact, there are compositions wherein I have found the words ill-suited to the temperament of the Raga, sometimes describing a visual that has no relation whatsoever with the emotional current of the notes. In which case, I merely go ahead and compose another, one that appeals to me and conforms to the mood that is being explored. This mirroring of melody in lyrics stems from a sisterhood of the arts of music and poetry. Similar to the fraternity of Mathematics and Economics that once enabled me to write that equation then. 
c5d6c494ac5edde64c0ddeb139e8d088

(Image Source: Pinterest)

To illustrate: if I am singing Bhairav, which is an early morning Raga, I am seized by the sense of dawn breaking. I see myself eyes closed, the world around shrouded in darkness, and I will myself into a meditation of that combination of notes. And then as my Bhairav builds up I sense the streaks of amber that begin to light up the horizon, the sun rising from its slumber and gradually awakening the sleeping world. It is still a world of quiet, of serenity, of an enriching yet calm absorption of that pure and distilled morning air. There is that essence of purity in Bhairav, almost ascetic in nature, that to me cannot and should not be vitiated by any other element. My khayal cannot be about a frolicking Krishna in the pretty surrounds of Brindaban. It could be a call to Krishna to awaken, it could for that matter be drenched in Yashoda’s motherly love, but it cannot be an image of his Rasalila. Of course, your Bhairav will be different from mine, but the underlying well of emotion is the same, a well that is defined by the character of that peculiar combination of notes, a well from which we can drink only when we surrender to it completely, drowning in it, allowing its depth to swallow our individual egos. So even if the words you sing are a lavani about Krishna romancing his gopikas, the detached purity in the Bhairav notes reasserts itself, tempering the erotica, and that is what I hear. My Bhairav is always an homage to the rising sun irrespective of the words you dress it with.

 

The mirroring works both ways. There are times when I have woken up in the dead of the night and heard a musical phrase or aalap playing repetitively in my head. The soft cajoling strains of a Tilak Kamod. Fortuitous. For that aalap translates exactly into the words of the mother in my story, gently, tenderly coaxing her child to close her eyes, to sleep, for night is gathering and there are beautiful dreams waiting to be dreamed. And I can’t wait to hit the computer and pour it all out in faithful text. 

hb_29.100.370

(Image Source: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dgsb/hd_dgsb.htm)

 

Moving away from specifics, collaboration extends to all the arts. For it is the creation of a beautiful and enriching experience that matters, irrespective of whether it entails the invoking of one medium or more.  Dancers portraying the theme of a verse through their abhinaya. A sequence in celluloid relying on a piece of music to build up viewers’ expectation.  A singer or a dancer in a trance inspiring a painter to reach for his brushes and palette. A sculptor freezing a dancer’s pose in stone. Each knocking on the doors of the other and borrowing that cup of sugar. Knowing that that cup will be freely given.  

 

For underlying it all is the artist’s ceaseless voyage. Of discovery of self, of the other, and the contexts in which these find themselves, merging, separating, merging. My vision of myself and of the world around me is mine and mine alone, it may or may not coincide with yours. My medium through which I express myself is mine too, it may not be yours. Even if it were, my expression is mine, not yours. Yet, I see and respect the path you have travelled. I see and respect the hunger and energy in you that drives you to explore further along that path. I see and respect that joy of discovery, that brief resting in it and the restlessness that spurs you on again. I feel your excitement, your pain, your heartache, your angst, your loss, your gain, your frustration, your validation. Empathy. For we are bonded in a sisterhood of our arts. Creating under the aegis of and in the service of our muse.