Origin: 1780–90; < Sanskrit raga: color, tone >
I’ve been in Chennai for over two months living in the cozy predictability of my father’s home. My life is regimented by rules made by my father and his Man Friday. We keep to permutations and combinations of sleep, food, drink, walk, outing and concert, much in the way a classical raga or “tune” meanders along a path predefined by rules and logic.
A typical day begins with my father fussing over his coffee filters and the potence of his coffee decoction. Now that Dad is almost fit, he won’t allow the milk to roll into a virulent boil. He won’t allow aliens such as his sister or myself to touch his stainless steel coffee equipment until he has finished making his own first cup.
Dad believes in process and finesse for everything. “This burner is for water, that for coffee. And keep the flame on low,” he says every morning, now that he has resumed poking his nose into kitchen affairs.
Out of respect for my father, I will say, in the kindest way possible, that this morning raga of his is so infuriating that I want to fly out by the first available flight on Cathay. I’ll just simmer down, I suppose, and deal with my father’s ragas and those of all the others who troop in and out of our home.
The word raga originates from the Sanskrit language in which the word means “mood,” “color” or “musical tone.” In Indian classical music, a raga is simply a pattern of notes having characteristic intervals, rhythms, and embellishments. This note pattern is a basis for improvisation by a musician. Some ragas are predictable: they follow a specific ascending and descending musical scale but some ragas which follow an unexpected pattern in their scale are called vakra ragas. Still some others introduce a note or two that are considered foreign to them.
My father’s Man Friday Vinayagam’s ragas also follow a specific pattern; I don’t know much about music theory but I’ll offer this. All his ragas seem to have only dominant notes. So I’m thankful my father knows how to scale him down to size in his unpredictable, inimitable way.
A few mornings ago, Vinayagam was humming what seemed like the sketch of a yet-to-be-discovered raga. During this last music season in Chennai, he has been inspired by towing along with us for several magnificent free concerts happening around town.
On this particular morning, he was singing while helping my father groom himself before going to work. He was dusting Yardley powder over my dad’s neck and back. I’ve told Vinayagam time and again that he showers so much of it on my father that he may be the first valet in the world to snuff out an old man’s life with scented powder.
Vinayagam addresses my father as “saar,” a pidgin version of the respectful “sir” which, while it’s meant to be a term of respect and obsequiousness, really sounds like a “hey” because it’s always uttered as a mild admonition coated in a veneer of jeer. But my father who has lost a substantial bit of hearing makes it clear to all of us, and especially to his impertinent valet, that loss of hearing never equates to a loss of processing power.
“Saar, didn’t you just hear me sing? You’re not saying anything?” Vinayagam asked
“I don’t want to,” my father said, his soft voice rising over the white jasmine dust.
“You know, I don’t want to interrupt the flow,” my father said in response to Vinayagam. “Just in case something really good should come out of you.”
Did you note how smoothly my father transitioned into his ending symphony? This is why I love my dad. The notes that rise from him always catch those of us in the family unawares. He is the unfêted maestro of the non-musical phrase. He is the mason of cadence. He is the artiste of the crescendo, the master Black Belt of the killer punch line.
Since my birth, I’ve been subject to my father’s verbal forte. In the last two months during which I’ve cared for my dad I’ve flown into a rage at several of Dad’s uncalled-for overtures that then propelled us into arguments at the end of which we gave each other glum looks and sat far away from each other for hours until one of us or Vinayagam managed to find a concert for us to attend. Thankfully, we manage to forget our differences whenever we talk about a song or a raga.
Like the exposition of a raga in a Indian classical concert, the same notes seem to repeat in our daily lives. The same ragas return every day. But during the course of our day something happens—the cook doesn’t show up, the power goes out or the roof leaks—and my father is out on another of his unplanned performances improvising and surprising us all with a turn of phrase or a sudden observation. His observations seem simple and crude at first sight but they are universal in their implication. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that every day with him is like a ragamalika that, in Sanskrit, means a garland of ragas.
“Watch out,” my father said last week to no one in particular as he stepped out gingerly from his bathroom into the dressing area. “The bathroom is slippery. Someone may fall.”
Vinayagam who never knows his place laughed aloud. “Saar. Someone may fall?”
“Yes, someone may fall,” my father repeated, a little louder this time.
“Saar, I’m afraid you may slip and fall. Not someone else, Saar.”
“You sing the same raga, you know. Change your tune!” My father’s voice serrated to its finale as he noticed his valet overstep his bounds yet again. And then, probably feeling a little sorry for losing his temper at the man who had become his lifeline, he became gentle again. “You do know about a ragamalika, don’t you?”