This is an old story of mine, one of my earliest, dusted off and polished up for your re-reading pleasure. Thanks, Lekhni, for spurring me to do this!
He stood at the front gate, a short, tubby man, young but balding, his forehead liberally smeared with holy ash, a large red dot in the middle. He hesitated a little before sliding the bolt back and opening the gate. The barking of the resident dog sent him scampering outside, bolting the gate safely behind him.
“Who is it? What do you want?”
A voice floated out from indoors. The house was the most unusual one he had seen, with nothing where he was accustomed it to being. Kitchen smells wafted to him from upstairs; every house he knew had the kitchen downstairs, at the back. He could hear voices, and the dog barking again, but had no idea where these sounds came from. He peered about, trying to locate their source.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The voice rang out again, a note of irritation in it this time. Feeling slightly foolish at appearing to speak to nothing, he raised his voice and said, “Namaskaram, I’m Natesa Iyer, music teacher. I was told that there is a child here who wants to learn music.” For the next couple of seconds, there was no answer. Assorted bits of urgently whispered sentences came to him: “I’m not a CHILD, and I don’t WANT to learn music”……”Don’t talk so loudly, he’ll hear you”…… “I don’t CARE….” “Go and open the gate quickly….can’t keep him waiting in the sun…” Finally, a voice, a different voice from the first one, addressed him. “Please wait a minute, saar, we will open the gate for you.”
A long couple of minutes dragged by, during which the dog resumed his frenzied barking. A vegetable vendor appeared, pushing his cart, hoarsely yelling out the specialties of the day – bright purple brinjals, crisp ladies fingers, snappy beans, unblemished tomatoes – along with the more mundane potatoes and onions. The sun beat down on the music teacher, and he pressed his fingers to his forehead, trying to stave off an impending headache.
Finally the front door opened, and a girl stepped out. She was about thirteen or fourteen, very pretty, with the most spectacular scowl on her face. The music teacher sighed inwardly: one more child forced to learn music by an ambitious mother. This one looked like a tough one. The girl opened the gate, and then turned briskly back towards the house, with nary a word of welcome. The teacher scurried behind her, his smile and words of greeting frozen on his lips.
Once inside the house, he looked around, and his eyes widened in amazement. It fulfilled every promise the outside offered. Accustomed to living in three square rooms, his eyes drank in the unusual angles, the unexpected patterns of light and shadow, the split levels and the artfully arranged knick-knacks. There were books everywhere.
The girl had disappeared. The sound of footsteps reminded him to remove his chappals, which he did hastily. He had hardly finished, when a woman, about forty, appeared, smiling, with a small boy of about seven or eight hopping around her.
“Please, come in”, she said. “Sorry to keep you waiting this long. We had to tie up the dog.”
There was a strong resemblance between the girl and this woman. She had a confident, easy way about her, and a vibrancy and perkiness which he liked.The woman walked down a couple of steps into a large living room. The music teacher and the boy followed her, the music teacher’s eyes darting about him, greedy for as many glimpses of this beautiful house as possible. The woman indicated a sofa, and he sat down gingerly, uncomfortably, at the very edge. The boy sat on a chair across from him, and fixed him with a piercing look. The woman sat down on a chair next to the boy.
“Mrs. Krishnan told me that you teach her daughters”, she began.
“Yes, yes”, said the music teacher eagerly. “She told me that you were here on holiday from States, and were looking for a paatu teacher for your daughter. I am available to teach in your house itself. I have been teaching Mrs. Krishnan’s daughters for almost two years now in her house itself, and lots of other girls from very good families, and…”
She interrupted him gently. “Yes, I know all that”, she said. “I know Mrs. Krishnan quite well, and am happy with her recommendation. I would like you start as soon as possible. Three days a week will be fine, in the morning. Will that be convenient for you?”
“Three days? Why only three days? I can come every day! Mrs. Krishnan told me that you are here for two months only. We can make maximum progress if I come daily.”
The mother thought of her rebellious daughter, furious at been made to learn Carnatic music during what should have been a gloriously free summer vacation, while her little brother got away with doing nothing. After many arguments, scolding and cajoling, she had sullenly agreed to three lessons a week, no more than forty five minutes per class. The mother almost laughed out aloud thinking of what her daughter’s reaction would be to seven classes a week.
“No, no, she has other activities, and she has to visit her other grandparents as well, they stay far away. Three days a week will be fine, I can also coach her in between. If it’s convenient for you, we can start tomorrow itself, at 10 o’clock in the morning.”
The music teacher was a little taken aback by her brisk efficiency. Most of the other families he taught made an elaborate ritual of choosing a good date and time, consulting calendars and almanacs. He combed his mind for possible objections to starting tomorrow. Nothing sprang to mind. Still, he felt uneasy about not following the usual procedures. By then, however, the mother had already got up, indicating that this meeting was over. The music teacher stood up as well, reluctantly. His head brimmed with questions. Where did they live in the States? Whose house was this? Who else lived in this house? Where was the girl? Had she had any former musical training? What was life like in the States? What was the mother’s name?
The music teacher cleared his throat, and said shyly, “My name is Natesa Iyer. What is your good name, please?”
“Oh, I’m Prema. Prema Murali. This is Arjun, my son, and my daughter….let me call her…SAMYUKTA…..SAMYUKTA….”
There was no response. “Let me see where she is,” said Prema. She disappeared upstairs. The little boy, Arjun, remained there. The music teacher decided to make use of this opportunity to satiate some of his curiosity. He managed to gather that they lived in Chicago, but further questioning was cut short by the mother’s reappearance.
“So sorry, but Samyukta has just gone for her bath. So, we will see you tomorrow at 10 o’clock?”
Natesa Iyer felt a little hurt at this quick dismissal. He was hoping for a long chat with this smiling woman, who seemed so at ease with herself and the world. He had never before met anyone who lived abroad. He wished he could have an intimate glimpse into their lives, these people who moved so comfortably between many worlds. He stepped into his chappals, and out into the glaring sunlight.
Natesa Iyer got off the bus at the stop closest to his home. He was drenched in sweat, his hair a disheveled mess. It had been a particularly harrowing bus journey, with the heat and lack of space making the crowd more belligerent than usual. He walked home slowly, his mind still filled with images from his visit to Prema’s home. That lovely house, all those books and artifacts, the mother so cheerful and confident. While her son pranced around her, she had ruffled his hair and tickled him, rather than getting annoyed. His own wife would have shouted and beaten up the boy. His footsteps became slower when he thought of his wife. He had worked hard to provide her with a few luxuries – just last month he had bought her a frost-free refrigerator – but she never seemed satisfied with anything, never seemed to notice his little gestures. After two years of married life, all passion and excitement had ebbed away, and the hard realities of day-to-day life occupied their thoughts and talk.
Once he had thought he could conquer the world. As a young boy of sixteen, he had been “discovered” by the great musician Kumbakonam Mani Iyer, who had taken him under his wing, and trained him in the ancient guru-shishya tradition. He had reveled in being part of that household, thrilled to the sounds of music that rang through the house all day. With great devotion, he had massaged his guru’s aching feet, prepared his coffee the extra-strong way he loved, folded and put away his starched white dhotis and kurtas. For all this, he was sublimely rewarded by being allowed to be present every morning, when Mani Iyer, fresh from his bath and puja, had his singing session. The songs of Thyagaraja, Dikshithar and Purandaradasar would soar through the air borne on a voice as rich, brilliant and precious as liquid gold. Tears came to Natesa Iyer’s eyes as he remembered the pure joy and peace he had experienced during those sessions.
For a whole year, he had been Mani Iyer’s star student, and was the chosen one to strum the tamboora at all his recitals. Then Mani Iyer “discovered” Unnikrishnan. A child prodigy of ten, he was fair-skinned and handsome, filled with boundless energy and charm. The house glowed and sparkled with his radiance. Natesa Iyer was all but forgotten. The only thing he was still allowed to do for Mani Iyer was the daily foot massage. No longer was he needed to strum the tamboora at performances – audiences wanted to see the wonder-child Unnikrishnan, this earthly incarnation of the Lord of Brindavanam himself.
Natesa Iyer sighed. Things had unraveled quite quickly after that. He had left his guru’s house a year later, his soul embittered by what fate had dealt him. He had fallen at Mani Iyer’s feet that last day, tears streaming down his cheeks as he sought his guru’s blessings, but Mani Iyer had just patted his head absently and sent him on his way. Now he was merely an obscure music teacher, and his dream of becoming the latest star on the Carnatic music scene, of taking the sabhas by storm, would remain forever unfulfilled. His was a thankless existence. His students, most of them with appalling voices and no musical sense, were scattered all over the city, and his days were spent getting from one location to another. None of them were anything like Prema or her family, however. All the other mothers were as bitter and sour as his wife, no doubt from stewing in life’s frustrations and disappointments.
He turned into the street where his house was. Flies buzzed over the municipal garbage bins, which overflowed with several days’ worth of rubbish. Mongrel dogs snarled at each other. The harsh sunlight highlighted the utter barrenness of the place, the dusty street, and the houses which had not seen a fresh coat of whitewash in years.
Natesa Iyer entered his house. Normally, he took pride in his home being a little bigger and neater than the others on his street, but today it looked shabby and old. His wife ignored him, and once he was done washing his face and hands, slammed a plate of food in front of him. At least she was a good cook. He relaxed a little bit as he savored the hot, tangy rasam and the meltingly tender brinjal.
Natesa Iyer’s weekly routine now included three lessons at Prema’s house. These visits brought a glow to his heart, a little peep into a home filled with laughter, culture and beauty. The big surprise was the daughter, Samyukta. Natesa Iyer had braced himself on the first day for a voice that matched the scowl that never left her face, but was instead swept away by the sweetness and sheer loveliness of it. Closing his eyes, he was reminded of his days with Mani Iyer. When he opened them, however, he was brought rudely back to the present. Talented though she was, the girl clearly resented having to learn singing, and unleashed the force of her animosity on him, never smiling, or greeting him.
Eager to glean as many details of their life as possible, he quizzed her with question after question. What did her father do? Where was he? Did her mother work? What was school like there? Was it very cold in Chicago? Who did this beautiful house belong to? What kind of clothes did the women wear there? What was that funny color on her hair?
He got curt responses to some of his questions, and silence, or a glare, for most of the others. Yes, her mother worked, as a freelance software consultant. Her father was a hedge-fund manager (what was a hedge-fund?) Yes, Chicago was very cold in the winter.
Samyukta complained to her mother. “Mom, he is always asking questions. He wastes half the lesson with his questions. He keeps staring at me. And he asks too many personal questions. How dare he ask me about my hair!”
Prema attempted to appease her daughter. “He lives a completely different life from us. Besides, he’s never seen an American teenager like you, with streaked hair and all,” she laughed.
One morning, Natesa Iyer arrived at Prema’s house a little earlier than usual. Normally, she would be waiting downstairs for him, with a cup of coffee and a smile (which infuriated Samyukta, as she deemed them both completely unnecessary – she felt her mother was being unduly friendly with this nosy man). Today, however, he could hear her voice on the phone. Standing outside the gate, Natesa Iyer craned his head, trying to catch as much of the conversation as possible. She was inviting someone to a party. It appeared that lots of people were being invited – it was some sort of annual get-together to celebrate her being in India.
A few minutes later the conversation ended, and Prema appeared, to open the front door and gate. Unable to stop himself, Natesa Iyer blurted out, “So, you are having a party?”
Prema looked astonished. “Uhh..., yes, just some college and family friends,” she said.
Again, of their own accord, the words burst out of Natesa Iyer. “Oh, then can I come also? I have never been to a party. I want to meet your friends. I want to observe what goes on in a party.”
There was a moment’s complete silence. Prema struggled with what to say to him. He would be a total misfit at her party. However, she was a kindhearted person, and she felt a wave of pity for the music teacher, for his craving for a glimmer of glamour in his life. After a short pause, she told him that he would be most welcome at her party, that it was on the following Saturday, here in this house, at 8pm.
That day, Natesa Iyer’s heart and soul soared as he sang, while Samyukta, who greeted the news of his invitation to the party with disbelief and fury, ground the songs into the earth with her anger.
On Saturday, the day of the party, Natesa Iyer woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning, after an extremely restless night. His heart pounded when he thought about the party. Still lying on his cot, he allowed himself to succumb to a pleasant day-dream, in which he chatted freely and confidently with Prema and her guests at the party, in which the guests solicited his opinions on the merits of the Ariyakudi style versus the Chembai style, in which he would be requested to demonstrate the differences between Sri Ragam and Madhyamavathi Ragam. He forced himself out of the day-dream and into reality. Party or no party, he still had a full day of lessons to go through.
At 5pm, Natesa Iyer returned home, a bounce in his steps. He got ready with great care. He picked out a dhoti which had been a wedding gift, still crisp in its plastic wrapping, and his best polyester shirt. He applied coconut oil to his thinning hair and sleeked it back in a style that pleased him greatly. Carefully, he patted Cuticura talcum powder on his nose and chin. He told his wife that he was attending a party and left before he heard her scornful splutter.
He had decided to splurge on an auto rickshaw. It wouldn’t do to arrive at the party rumpled and sweaty from the bus. Along the way, all traffic ground to a standstill as a political procession took up the entire road. Natesa Iyer’s stomach churned with impatience, but nothing could be done. He had to wait this out. Half an hour later, the vehicles finally started crawling forward, and at 8.40, Natesa Iyer arrived in front of Prema’s house.
Feeling suddenly self-conscious, he retreated to the shadows by the side of the house. The house looked magical tonight, with soft lights enveloping it in a burnished glow. The sounds of laughter and animated conversation came to Natesa Iyer. The party was in full swing. Someone rang the door bell. Peeping out from the shadows, he saw Prema come to the front door. Dressed in a green silk sari, she looked stunning tonight, with shining hair, glowing skin and sparkling eyes. He saw her greet a man with a hug and a kiss on his cheek. She had always greeted him with a chaste namaste.
Natesa Iyer crept closer to the house. Snatches of conversation came to him through the open windows. About things he had never heard of. Hedging strategies…. outsourcing……global warming….holiday cruises in the Caribbean….More peals of laughter. The clinking of glasses.
These were people who were confident and worldly-wise. They had seen places and things he didn’t even know existed. And they would never know the things he knew. Barely scraping by, month after month. Hanging on by one toe on a crowded bus, his dignity and breath squeezed out by a seething, sweltering mob. Lying sleepless on torrid summer nights with no electricity, driven crazy by the relentlessly whining mosquitoes.
He would never be touched by wealth, fame or beauty. Stepping out from the shadows, Natesa Iyer bid a silent farewell to Prema and her family, and walked slowly to the bus stop.
(C) Kamini Dandapani