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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
Venkatesh is doing well now that he is out of the hospital. The burns were only minor and can barely be seen, except on his thigh where the acid spilled. He is in good spirits and speaks often about you, asking constantly when you will arrive to see us. I tell him that it will still be a few weeks before your return. I have not told him that I have secretly been planning a trip for all of us to the Golden Beach. I do not want to raise his hopes just in case I am suddenly called away for work.
I have been enjoying my leave for this past month and made good progress on my story. As you suggested, I incorporated the interview between the stationmaster and passenger, even adding a section explaining the passenger’s background. The paper has agreed to publish the series but will not pay until I have completed the final portion.
It feels good to be writing, now that the summer heat is beginning to fade and often in the evening, a cool draft comes through the windows to refresh my sentences. The maid sometimes will have my dinner called early so that she may take leave and enjoy the pleasant evening with her family. I do not mind. I enjoy eating alone where I am able to listen to the sounds of the crickets, bullock carts and distant car horns, as if somehow there is a great river dividing the city and myself.
I lead quite a systematic routine; you have no need for concern over my health. Surprisingly, after our peripatetic travels throughout the west coast, I don’t feel at all restless or the need to explore my surroundings. You asked me whether I felt I could call this place my home, but that question seems to mean, would I ever call anyplace home? Since I once removed myself, my roots have grown large as I carried them around and can no longer fit into the same opening. Perhaps the reason why I left altogether was only a matter of a gradual growth or awakening, I know that Talik and Amma have different ideas, but even each of them had enjoyed their particular and individual metamorphosis at one point or the other. If they mention the fact that I had suddenly changed or grew distant, they are only misleading themselves. I had not been in their world for many years.
My day is simple. I often rise early, as the fisherman leave and I can watch the sails on their boats glistening on the water like fingernails. It is good to feel the sun come up, and I know that if I practice my breathing exercises they have the greatest effect. After I have had my bath and shave, I go down to the office to check my mail and receive any wire transfers from the city. When I come back I usually practice for a bit. A wake up call for the neighborhood you might say.
Then I usually walk Venkatesh to school. His mother used to pay a small fee every month to have a bicycle carriage pick him up. But since I told her I could walk with him, she was gracious, and offered to serve me an afternoon tiffin as well.
This is one of the more pleasurable moments of the day. Venkatesh and I sit next to the fallen wall on the verandah and his mother spreads banana leaves and rice and vegetables served in little dented copper pots. Venkatesh and I eat solemnly as if he were a guest and I, a respected elder. He does not realize how ineffably our routines are entwined. The workmen pass by and the women go to and from the bazaar. Sometimes the vegetable lady walks into the square and I can hear her hawking in her musical voice. Often it becomes so quiet all of a sudden, that I can hear the lady next door softly persuading her son to wake up in the morning and finally the sound of him brushing his teeth by the drain.
I was invited to perform in Ettayapuram for a concert. Chandran picked me up at the bus stop and escorted me to the host’s house. The husband and wife were both doctors and lived in a large house in the middle of the textile district. The bus ride had been long and disagreeable and I did not sleep much. In the afternoon after lunch, I felt drowsy and the heat seemed to stick in my throat. I lay down upstairs in a lonely room until I was woken for the concert.
It was a lonely room because the son, who had grown up in that house and slept in that room, had set up all his memorabilia and photos around. The ornaments and collectibles I passed a brief glance over with weary eyes until I picked up a sandalwood figure to turn in my hand. They inhabited a space in another life. Now they were just forgotten and overlooked placements on a desk. It amazed me, the sorts of belongings he had in that room, decorations and memories sitting on a table. For a long time now I had been living only among austere surroundings.
As I awoke I could hear the artist singing downstairs. The pattern of notes floated in the background of my thoughts as I slowly gained my bearings. During the concert I played energetically and without calculation. As I boarded the bus for home, considering my regrets, it began to rain.
A young man has arrived in the village through the foreign exchange. His name is Albert. He says that he is studying architecture and desires a closer look at the temple statues, although his attitude is of quiet condescension. Often he asks me to accompany him to the temple and I begin to explain to him how at any time of the day no shadow can be seen from any side of the walls. It is as if I am selling him something. I can tell that he is attracted to the statues and architecture, but is pained over the fact that they are located in such a rural environment.
We often have discussions about the various aspects of stone and the cutting. He sometimes accompanies me to the office. It is fine to converse with him for he has just arrived and can tell me much of the latest news. He speaks as if he knows all parts of the world through the books and maps he has studied. But his speech is convoluted with such antiquated phrasing that I hardly bother to correct him. Once he took me aside as we were walking back from the temple and said, “You, at least, I know believe in only one god.”
“Actually, I pray to many gods,” I answered. Then after a short pause, I said, “but don’t worry they’re all dead.”
He sensed my lack of seriousness and became irritated. We continued our walk in silence.
An unpleasant incident this afternoon. I decided to take an auto into town to receive some mail that could not be sent to the village. The driver arrived to pick me up in front of the street and I paid the fee in advance. The driver took his time traveling down the main road until we entered the outskirts of town. I had no idea where the post office was and had to trust the driver. He drove down a few turns and bends until we were no longer on the main road. He continued to drive until we entered an extremely poor area of town. At last I inquired as to our whereabouts. The driver, in answer, stopped the auto and shut off the engine. He turned around and stared at me over a drooping mustache. I asked him again, but he continued to stare at me. I looked around and saw only a few shacks and roofless homes. A few naked children played down the path by the gutter. The place was eerily quiet. “Are you American?” the driver finally asked.
I looked at him and realized that he was up to something, but could not decide whether I should lie to him or not. I had a feeling he already knew the answer, and was simply asking the question to cement his intention, which, I guessed was money. If I lied to him he might become annoyed and pull something more drastic, on the other hand if I told him the truth, he would probably ask for an amount of money I did not have.
Looking around for some sort of escape I was struck by the obvious answer. I gathered my things and without saying a word stood up and walked away. I looked back only once and saw the driver still sitting there, eyeing me with his hand on the gear.
After negotiating the labyrinthine corridors I was able to find my way to the main road. I hailed a riksha and rode to the bus station.
There are several girls here who have begun taking dance lessons from Malati. She lives down the road towards the beach in an old dilapidated house. Sometimes when it rains she calls me to repair the ceiling. All I can do is patch up the holes with some jack wood, but by the next rain the wood has been removed by her students to let the sunlight in. I tell her that she ought to bring a carpenter to build a verandah for her, so she can have her dance lessons outside. I have offered to pay, but she told me that she does not wish to spend money on the house as she may be moving soon.
Playing for the dancers taught me a valuable lesson. It is essential that one play not for the music of the dance but for the feet of the dancer. The students each have their own rhythm and it is sometimes impossible to coordinate, but I find that by playing with a slow enough tempo I can often guess where the next step may fall.
The villagers also say that Malati is a good singer and that she is completely self-taught. When I am playing mridangam for the students, she will sometimes sing a tune that sounds familiar, I wish I could have her inscribe the words so I can take it back with me. When I ask her, she says she has forgotten the words and will look for her old books where they are written. I have a feeling she may not know to read or write.
The paper asked me to do a piece on the younger generation of musicians. The editor cited specific examples of how the music has gained appreciation abroad, especially in the form of academies that have sprung up in a number of major cities. I told him I would be happy to write about my experiences, how the concerts and recitals enjoyed steady and enthusiastic crowds; how the young musicians seemed charged with a duty to give their greatest concerts in foreign environments where the art is fledgling and uncultivated. But I was forced to tell him I would always favor the older generation. How could I explain to him that all the great artists were dead? Has this generation already forgotten those musicians? I did not think I could do justice to such a topic, because music had become an extinct and unrealizable purpose in my life.
I have felt the same way about my presence here, especially in the beginning when I was either treated with gratuity or mistrust. As a result I have remained distant of local affairs. You speak as if the harassment is more in the form of a withdrawal of supplies or blackmail of funds. I am not aware of the details, but it appears that they may be simply trying to pare down your operations until the treaty is signed.
As to your question, I do not think much about the past. Doing so requires superhuman effort that I do not posses. I have had my suspicions that Talik must have stumbled across our letters long before we were aware of it. As for the rest of it, insane cravings and rushed hours between calls, catching our breath under the perpetual fog, the drills and sirens and bodies pressed to the floor. I cannot think of the past except woven through a single thread.
Your courage is admirable for staying in — despite the tribal disputes. It would seem that the militia has annexed the neighboring village only to quell border arguments, but this would make your situation as an American citizen precarious for their civil laws. You have told me about the wounded and of the inadequate facilities to maintain a working ward for the sick, but it appears that this turn of events actually allowed you to obtain the supplies you have lived so long without. I feel that your trips back and forth across the lines are more dangerous than you describe. I read in the newspaper of kidnappings and terrorist attacks. I can only hope that the embassy allows you an escort. It is disturbing that the soldiers seem to have no partiality for your passport.
Here, it is as if all activity has ceased. We are in preparation for the festival and most of the afternoons I am out in the square, building the stage and making the various thrones and props for the performance. Venkatesh is sometimes allowed by his mother to come with me and watch the workmen fashion their backdrops and giant cut-outs. He is fascinated with the idea that an entire story, encompassing many lands, characters and settings can be entirely performed on a stage. He will ask me, “Are there really cities made of gold?”
I want to reply, “Yes, there are cities made of silver and bone as well,” but then I would be forced to tell him another story.
When will you be arriving at —? I am happy beyond words that you have allowed yourself a trip to the coast. That would place you just a few miles from the airstrip. It seems you are enjoying a somewhat quiet and brooding rest. I wish that you could see all the fall leaves here, the simple elegance of the bare chiku trees, and the thick jackfruit trunks which are always warm when I place my hand upon them, and all the little ants that hide between the cracks and come out to crawl over my fingers.
For a while now I have had the feeling that you may not be getting all my letters. Perhaps you are preoccupied with more significant matters and cannot reply with the emotions you feel.
What are the ways in which you remember? Do you drive over one dune to the next and imagine your life a desert? Have you lost your mind in stations and metros and doors that open and close but never shut? Yet you speak as if we were never at the meeting places, under the trees, between the shadows and over the dips and plateaus of the field. Where the waters always have the reflection of the moon and the distant ducks are seen but never heard. Under the night or evening sky when the heart is alone in company, and the windows are thrown open to the fragrance of jasmine. Or alone in the crowd of memory, do you sit still?
Is it just you standing over the hill, or is it you and your many ghosts? When the wind plays its flute every night, you flash the look of a blind woman in its face and ask for a tambura. Leaving all your work at the hospital undone, as if we had not spent our last afternoon together.
An invitation arrived for a concert in the city so I traveled by train. I planned to leave the program early to make my return ticket and after the solo performance ended, I considered my departure. Chandran had followed along perfectly. Knowing he was familiar with my playing, I set a brisk tempo. When it was over I felt fatigued and did not look forward to the train ride home. However, I had promised Venkatesh and others that I would be home in time for the festival performance the next morning.
The applause finished and the sponsor queued me to make my exit. I paid my respects to the musicians and rose to leave. From the audience someone launched a slipper in my direction. It missed me, but flew just a few inches by the main artist’s head. I peered into the crowd to see who had thrown it but it was too dark to see anything.
A scuffle broke out in the front row and the sponsor emerged to speak to the people. Once the issue was resolved everyone sat down. I left the stage and gathered my things from the dressing room. At the door while putting on my slippers, I heard the concert resume. The singer started Bava Natu. Chandran had taken up the mridangam and played gently to the rhythm. The sound created a mood of such subtle beauty that for a moment I was rooted to the spot as I listened, forgetting I had a train to get to.
Rajnesh Chakrapani is pursuing a degree in liberal arts.