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

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?

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT

                                                                                                                                                                    by Elena Ferrante

 

A Review

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 There sometimes erupts in our midst a voice so powerful that it cannot be ignored. That speaks in words rooted in reason, yet appeals unabashedly and undeniably to emotion. That questions and answers, pleases yet puzzles, appeases then assaults, scorns and shocks. That carries us aboard a roller coaster of discovery and sensation, motoring relentlessly and ruthlessly through the tortuous bends not only in the story that it is narrating but in our own lives as well, revealing us to ourselves.  And that continues to echo in our minds long after it has spoken its last.

Elena Ferrante is one such powerful voice of contemporary fiction. A voice that I had been hypnotised by in her Neapolitan series, leading me on to The Days of Abandonment. A comparatively slim offering but just as compellingly hypnotic.

The storyline is threadbare. One April afternoon, Olga, a woman of 38, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her husband Mario. A man whom she had loved sincerely, for whom she had put her own career on hold, with whom she had two young children, and who had grown to become the fulcrum of her existence, exits. At first in denial, she persuades herself that this is at most a temporary aberration, or an “absence of sense” as he had occasionally shown in the past, and that he would inevitably return. His wilful duplicity is however revealed when she discovers that a pretty young woman has been in his life for some years. Age supplanted by youth in man’s quest for (carnal) gratification.

Grappling with her changed reality, she is frequently accosted by the memory of the poverella from the neighbourhood where she grew up, the abandoned wife who slides from happy well-being to impoverished desolation and ultimately commits suicide.

The days and months that follow are a painful but failing struggle to retain a semblance of normalcy, to go through all the routine steps of living each day, both for herself and for her children. And then one horridly hot day in August, the day after a bizarre sexual escapade with her cellist neighbour, she finds herself physically and mentally trapped in her apartment. Suffering from a deep derangement, disturbing hallucinations, a spiralling down into a dark abyss of rage, anguish and despair, she battles through and thankfully resurfaces to retrieve her sanity. This newfound mental equilibrium, though precarious, is supported by a clear realisation that she no longer loves her husband, and by a desire to return to the essence of her earlier self by effacing all of his impressions on her personality.

Ferrante places the woman’s psyche under a gigantic microscope, ferreting out with forensic precision its multiple layers, facets and complexities. There were several instances in the first half of the book when I felt like screaming at Olga in frustration. Woman! Get a grip! And a life of your own! But therein lies Ferrante’s genius, ruthlessly exposing the man centric whorls of the protagonist’s life, her pitiable lack of self-esteem, her defining her very raison d’être through her husband, and her abject confusion on desertion, and then delving so deep into her agony that one suspects it to be her own. One needs to have both loved and lost to depict in such elaborately textured and resonant detail all the nuances of that suffering.

The writing is brilliant. Simple language, raw at times in matching Olga’s naked pain and anger, hard-hitting in the portrayal of man-woman relationships, examining the mother and child dynamics without placing motherhood on its customary virtuous pedestal, and rutally explicit in describing sexual episodes. Little actually happens in terms of events or narrative, Mario and his girlfriend hovering mostly on the periphery of her real space though completely swamping her mind and heart. Yet there is a pace in the writing that keeps in step with Olga’s accentuating mental turmoil, shifting gears from an even rhythm in the opening chapters, upping the momentum when she gives in to a maniacal rage on seeing Mario and Carla together, and then hurtling through during the crescendo of her near breakdown.

Yes, there were times when I felt it all to be a relentless onslaught of details, when I (prudishly) squirmed at the sexual imagery, when I wondered, good so far but where exactly is this headed? But this isn’t the usual narrative. Nor is it a new one, this track has been trodden many a time before. No, this is a mirror that shows a woman what she truly is, how and why she thinks and feels the way she does, how and why she submerges her own persona to accommodate another’s, how and why she is confounded when the anchor that she has moored herself with is suddenly wrenched away and she is cast miserably adrift, and what then. The mirror is neither flattering nor sympathetic.

There were so many concepts thrown up, so many expressions and phrases that made me go, Wow!
Cutting oneself to pieces to look for something within, which could, in fact, be a calling card for Ferrante’s writing.
The preference for stability in affections and the threat of sinking through the security net of relationships.
Or, disparagingly describing grief as gaudy.
Or again, reality without rouge.
What is the face, she asks, but a disguise of our living nature?
Or again, her crazed fear that the “odour of motherhood” had ruined her appeal.
Or then the passage where she comments “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” assimilating each other’s attributes.
Her brooding that her children would become a “half-caste din”.
The casual remark that she loved the dog Otto but only after his death.
So so many….

Hold that mirror and look if you have the appetite for reality. Reality without rouge.

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.                                                           Movie Poster Source : Wikipedia

Oh! What a twisted and tortured world it must be out there in modern day Kashmir. Where truth and lies overlap and blur and lose themselves in each other. Where everyday breaths are stolen against the everyday din of screaming bullets and pelted stones. Where the lakes freeze over the memories of stifled lives and the flickering hopes of those that yet live. Where blank eyed women queue up in front of their local constabulary or their visiting ministers, holding placards of missing sons and husbands. Where men of God become men of insurgence and violence and where mosques are centres for both prayer and propaganda. Where the echoes of clarions from the plains beneath and beyond rouse men, women and children to their patriotic duty. And where the chinar reaches out higher and higher to the skies, carrying with it tragic cries for help, for shelter, for peace, and for that ephemeral, traitorous or glorious azadi, only to fling them all back unheard on the blood soaked ground beneath.

Hamid is a cinematic ode to this present day Kashmir. A tale of cruel, irredeemable loss. Of a local boat maker, Rehmat, who goes missing one night. Of a father and husband who leaves his boat, his wife and his child suspended in limbo. Of his forlorn wife, Ishrat, who staunchly averts her face from the grim prospect of widowhood, losing herself instead in a frenzied search for her missing husband, forgetting even how to be a mother to her little boy. Of that little boy, Hamid, who telephones Allah at a miraculous configuration of the magical number 786, berates him soundly for his sorry situation, and orders him to return his father, Rehmat, to his rightful home and family. Of that telephone connection that crosses political divides and stirs concern and compassion in the beleaguered and tired CRPF jawan Abhay’s heart, spurring him to play along as Allah, offering sympathy, help and advice to the little boy. And keeping him afloat.

But above all it is a tale of lost innocence. As the seven-year old Hamid steps up to take charge of his life, his mother and their home, he simply squares his shoulders and grows up. He learns his father’s trade and completes the boat that he had been crafting. And then rescues his mother from the abyss of blind denial, bringing her back to life, teaching her how to be his mother again.

The beauty of Kashmir is breathtaking, but we see it as in a mirror cracked, the shards reflecting remnants of what must have gloriously been. The gentle splish-splosh of oars paddling along a peaceful lake, the hum of wood being sawed, the tender thrusting gold green of the chinar, the narrow roads winding through steep mountains and verdant valleys, the firans and the walnut, the light eyed Kashmiris and their peculiar sing-song intonation, the smoke billowing from wooden houses and the snow piling in the distance. The picture postcard of yesteryear now creased with barricades, soiled with gun powder and stamped equally as terrorist and terrorised.

Hamid stole my heart completely. Reshi as the little boy is heartbreakingly endearing. His confusion, his impatience, his stoicism, his humour, his beliefs and his doubts, all come through so cleanly and clearly, it’s hard to believe that this is actually a child acting. Rasika Duggal, whom I’d loved as Manto’s wife in the Nandita Das film, impressed me yet again as his distraught mother. Sumit Kaul makes your heart leap with love and joy in those tender nostalgic scenes between father and son. And Vikas Kumar as the stressed out jawan chafing against the killing of his comrade and aching to go back home to hold his newborn baby girl, makes me want to hold his hand and tell him to just breathe. All such mesmerising, eloquent performances.

But the one who stands above them all is the director, Aijaz Khan, who pins you down to the narrative of the little boy, to his dilemma and his resourcefulness, and his innocent heartwarming conversations with Allah. The strife that tears through the region remains firmly as the backdrop. There are no loyalties or partisan sentiments that are stoked, no jingoistic calls parading as patriotism, and no glorification of the call to azadi either. The canvas is what it is, and the lives painted in the foreground are those of Hamid and his family.

hamidlake(Image Source: Reuters UK)

The cinematography is vivid, making the lake pristine and pure or dark and secretive, the mountains menacing or friendly, the people opening up or clamping up, all as the mood of the story may be.
The music is haunting, and the Kashmiri song that the father and son sang together, plays on as the credits roll and leaves you ruing the loss of the melodic serenity of that land.

Oh! For what may have been. If only.

Oh! That it may still be. Inshallah!

When I first started writing it was just something to do, to kill time that sat staring at me, mocking my uselessness in a world of busy and productive people. A bad back had put a temporary halt to my normal routine and I was at my wits’ end as to how I would get through the vacant long twenty four hours of the day, each day, each week, each month, for some months. I grew restless and then listless. And deprived of regular company, extremely lonely.

 

Then I suddenly remembered my friend Lila’s suggestion: write. It had been made soon after I had returned from a beautiful holiday in Ratnagiri and had recounted my experiences to her. My Guru, Madhuritai, had always insisted that there is a writer in me waiting to come out, but I had never really paid much heed. Where was the time anyway? But now there was more than plenty of it, and I undertook it as a project, a challenge. Picking up the pen was an achievement in itself, as was writing the first few lines. It wasn’t easy. My pages looked ugly, marred with scratches and squiggles as my mind ploughed back and forth, searching for appropriate expressions, suitable phrases, the apt words to clothe my raw and sometimes equally elusive thoughts. When my article on Konkan was complete I mailed it to Lila, relieved that it was done, but also happy that I could do it. Hurrah! After the euphoria had subsided a little I thought I could do it again. I did. I wrote. And I wrote. And Lila faithfully read it all, prodding me along, ever encouraging, ever supportive. Her mail box was soon deluged. I read some of my work to Madhuritai and she too was happy and proud like an indulgent parent.

 

That was then. Life has long since returned to its old routine and my day is happily full again. Yet I continue to write. Why? Because I just couldn’t stop. Because it is so wonderfully rewarding, so cathartic, so therapeutic and so liberating. I have found a loyal and committed friend in my computer screen. (Yes, I have graduated from paper and pen to that modern day contraption. Well done, I congratulate myself!) It has opened up a window to my mind, helping me understand my own sentiments, gather my thoughts, formalise my views, making them lucid, almost tangible. It helps me retrieve caches of dusty memories, giving me a fresh insight into my own past, where I come from, why I feel the way I do. And it never doubts my sensibilities. It takes, and it takes, without faulting, questioning, reproaching. Ever accepting.

 

Of course, what is written will be read. That is a given. It is first read by me, and so it must be true to me. It must honestly portray that bit of me that I am opening up. It must satisfy me. If it satisfies others who read it, that is a bonus. And I got plenty of such bonuses from a growing group of readers.

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The first not-so-good, unfavourable feedbacks that I received made me rather grumpy and miserable. I sulked a bit. I was assailed by self-doubt. I would wonder why something that appealed to me wasn’t universally appealing. I wondered if I should change my style, change my outlook, or if I should stop writing altogether. But I changed nothing. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I still maintain that if my work appeals to me, if it is good enough for me, then it is good in itself. For, the bottom line is that I write for myself. Primarily a readership of one. And I reminded myself that I needed to be democratically liberal, that people will have different views, different perceptions, different tastes. I write from my perspective and with my integrity, my expression largely conditioned by what I have experienced, read and assimilated over the years. A feedback does not only endorse or question the veracity or appropriateness of my views and my expression, but also opens up the reader to me: her views, her reading habits, her preferences, her yardsticks of judgement. And there is enough room in this world for multitudes of those. I just needed to learn to accept that. And get along. And continue to request and welcome feedbacks, open minded.

 

Of course, the process of writing can be a lonely one. But that is true of most art. One communicates with oneself, engaged in a dialogue with one’s mind and heart and soul. All our faculties are turned inward. Excitedly hopeful about the end result yet anxious. All on one’s own. When I sing, I am all by myself, even if the room is full of people. Nobody holds my hand and guides me along. The agony over a missed note or the ecstasy over a true one are mine and mine alone. But therein lies a beautiful truth: the art itself is the artist’s true companion. True friend. True guide. I am blessed to have discovered that. And that just adds to the adage, art for art’s sake.