The letter slipped from his lifeless fingers and fluttered to the ground. He stood unseeing into the distance. The lean, long fingers of the graphic equalizer leapt hither and thither, licking at presumed shapeless nuances, a hide-and-seek in the recording studio. But one lonely note already atrophied into a narrow stream in the dry cold air conditioning, flowed painfully like the memory of the distant past that refuses to fade gracefully away.

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It was just such a cold day when he had completed the recording of Madurai Aiyer and his troupe. Discussions followed long into the night, when voices were raised occasionally to the tune of a raga to emphasise a point. Other voices mingled in creating a quaint symphony.

This spontaneous concert would last all night long, and entertain anyone who would care enough to listen.

At first he didn’t notice her. So silently she stood by the shadows of the wall. Later he didn’t notice her either. Even when she walked into his studio with her pitiable collection of music.

He had just finished a training session with one of the new musicians and he was tired, tired of the greedy desire to become a star without talent, without practice. But he couldn’t find it in his heart to turn the young hopefuls away. He was always teased by his colleagues who assured him that his kindness would one day be the death of him. But he smiled and tried his best to help the artists. He was an artist too, and he understood all too well the pain of an empty stomach.

She wanted his help, just like everybody else. He tried to break the news gently to her. But how gently can one say to hopeful eyes that they had no talent? He sent her away saying he was a busy man and had many appointments. She went away that day. He was grateful for the reprieve. He called a packup of the recording and looked forward to spending some time on the beach with his wife and children. Perhaps he would eat roasted groundnuts or maybe steamed groundnuts with slivers of mango and onions and a drop of lemon juice for tang. Yes, he would like that, his mouth already salivating from anticipation.

Did he say it was a reprieve? So it was, for she was back the next day. His mind didn’t warn him of anything dangerous, so peacefully did the day dawn. Yet, there was something at the back of his mind, some memory he vaguely pursued or was it a feeling? He sighed and refocused his attention on her once again. Shaking his head, he refused to take her on as a student, he already had a full class. He gave her referrals to other music teachers but she was an adamant one. It wasn’t that she was eloquent and persuasive but that he was weak and tired. He gave in for the sake of peace. Yet he continued to wrestle with the doubts in his mind.

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He tried to reconstruct all that he had observed during the initial meeting into a logical whole. She was plain, of that he was sure. There was a hesitancy to her steps, as if she was uncertain of where she was going but wanted to go anyway. He knew that gradually he would get entirely lost in the idea of teaching her, so he wanted to hang on for as long as possible to this grasp of reality that he currently felt he had. That he could still turn her away. This was his latest spell. He wouldn’t commit the same mistake over and over again of taking in students who really had no potential in music; maybe he would try a few new mistakes while they remained yet to be tasted. In time he would get so used to this living that he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anymore.

He saw all of this with aching clarity that would gradually seep away with the mists of time. But for now, there were the sharp reminders of the here and now. Reminders kept coming thick and fast that the only way he could exist was to chase them into oblivion as quickly as possible. He turned a tired eye towards her, so eager to go down a path that really had no future. He sighed knowing he was becoming a slave once again, a prisoner of his own making. And so he informed her that she could start attending his classes from the next day.

In that bustling studio, she had eyes only for one person. How funny that she never noticed him before. But then again, why would she? There was nothing remarkable about his tired exterior. His eyes were like shut windows set in a face faded with the ravages of life and living. Had he ever peeked out from the shut windows he called eyes to watch the world going by? She wondered. Had he ever watched her? Followed her with his eyes as she walked into the hall, sat down near the harmonium, preparing for her music lesson? Did he look down at the world insulated in his cocoon? She felt his sadness pour forth wave after wave until she was drowning in it. Gasping for breath, she wished the sadness would ebb and offer a reprieve.

Softly she launched into the first notes of raga Kalyani, “Krishna, nee begane baaro.” As the seven notes wafted gently towards him, he turned surprised. He debated on the wisdom of her choice of such a major raga and wondered vaguely if he should stop her. But there was a certain joy in her eyes as she sang and he blinked. Mildly apprehensive, he rubbed a sweaty palm down his pants and waited for the elaboration and exploration of the notes.

She didn’t fail him. She offered exactly what he thought she would; lack of technical dexterity, lack of vocal quality, and yet there was that elusive something that seemed hard to pin down. He waited some more, listening deeply, thinking to name what escaped him. He should have watched instead.

Perhaps then he would have noticed how she shaped herself to the sound of the raga and flowed with the music. The steel in her spine that made her arch when she lifted her voice to hit the high notes, the slopes of her lips gentled as they shaped themselves to the soft cadences and slowly flowed to a stop. He sat oddly stilled by the lingering reverence in her voice that was eerily familiar. The moment shaped and stretched around them encompassing them within its spotlight. Her face turned up to his in expectancy and his looking down at hers in hushed silence.

She moved then, gracefully shifting the harmonium to the side, she stood and walked up to him. He nodded once and opened his mouth but words were washed away in the clamor of his other students entering the studio and readying themselves for their class. She smiled and walked away.

He was faintly relieved. He busied himself with the new cacophony of noise that had erupted in the name of music. He loved the orchestra, the way he could stifle and stretch and play and mute the notes that danced and tripped their way around the studio. He snorted if only humans were that malleable, he would be a considerably successful man. But there were something, he ruefully admitted, that even he wasn’t able to control.

Days passed into days exhibiting a defiant air of permanence. Notes stood guard over unlit ragas, charms adorned entrances to lure in desires and keep out sanity. It was eminently possible to lose oneself amidst all this clutter of hidden thoughts and half-formed gestures.

Every day the thought stood out a little uglier than before. While every day, for every idea planted, every plan neatly laid, every path paved seems to will their inevitability.

He paused and shook his head as if to clear the grittiness of fate. It took a battle of wits, a personal relationship with every note and the stake in what it eventually becomes. Did he really expect to find a semblance of life here? Recording studios were for ambition, truant talent, and distilled egos.

But she stole the passion he didn’t even know he had. The quiet card games with neighbors were now games with her. Did he ever win? Or play to win? He was too bewildered at the swift inevitability of events. So he played along. Later, he tried a half-hearted attempt to win.

After all, hadn’t he trained the notes to reverberate to the nth degree of vibration to perfect a composition? How difficult was this going to be? He didn’t know then and couldn’t care less, later.

He saw everyday evidence of his new lifestyle taking its toll. He grew more nervous, more hesitant. His lethargy, already well-known, peaked to breaking point. But she took on a new form. Everyday her skin glowed and her laughter echoed throughout the studio. His fear appeared with uncompromising regularity. But his greatest tragedy was the loss of his individuality. All those quirks were soon hers. It won’t be long now before she blends in right with the best of them, his students.

He averted his eyes as compromise after compromise danced in front of him. He suffocated his guilt with her synthetic sophistication. Now, he adopted a new social rite in his life. He was forced to adopt coping stratagems gleaned from people watching and smart decoding of his fellow artists. Artfully dodging expectations took on a new form as his life seemed like patches of wall in his house that needed a fresh coat of paint. He tried playing at “middle class moron” so he could sidle away from the onerous responsibility of his compromise. But she wouldn’t let him. Every show, launch, release, where friends and family were there to clap, praise, buy, so was she. She claimed it was a modern-day friendship ritual.

Huddled in his woollens, he stood staring at the nondescript building in front of him. There was nothing to mark this building out from the others that were cramped wall-to-wall in the narrow side lane. Walls were stained with red spittle he noted as he dodged bored bullocks and brash bikers to enter its gloomy inside. The passage was dark, he groped his way up the stairs by the flickering light of a television from the nearby flat. Upstairs, he stood for a long time facing out the door that had once had a number. He was sure he knew what was behind that door and that made him all the more hesitant.

Even as he stood shifting from foot to foot, the door slowly opened with inevitable precision.

He stepped inside reluctant to disturb the very air in the room. The interior was gloomy as well. Posing as a curtain a sari was tucked into the window grill. The insufficient strip of cloth hardly kept the light out for puddles of sunlight pooled at his feet here and there.

Waiting was no problem for him. Hadn’t he waited patiently to coax a reluctant note from the innumerable instruments at his studio? An impatient sound behind him made him start from his revere. He dreaded to turn around. He knew the long drawn out conclusions of his presence here. He didn’t have to like it, but he acknowledged them just the same.

So he reconciled to the idea that this is what his life would be. The constant anguish punctuated occasionally by modicum of relief. He was always looking forward for the next dose, of relief that is. He could hardly do anything else. It was an addiction that he sought after and savored with savage satisfaction.

The eternal forgetfulness was bliss. Otherwise this constant leeching left him drained. He shifted on the horns of a dilemma, his power of thought suspended. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He did not know what was happening but that it was happening to him. He pondered his next step. But there was nothing that he could do. He was a creature of habit and habits die hard on solitary grey mornings. But every creature has honed a strategy for survival to escape the rigors of a harsh climate. Could he do anything less? He stored experiences like fat reserves in his body. It wasn’t his inability to spot the danger that was at stake here, but his inability to ward it off. He flirted with this too, for a while. To ward off made matters worse.

She was justified in her anger of course. And so was he. He felt the stinging sensation on his skin and the mortification pouring like hot lava. He did not choose this, but he accepted it as inevitable. He noticed for the first time where he was in his life. He looked around his studio, experiencing what it was to inhabit the world. He looked at the musicians with intention, insight and awareness. And for the first time he understood.

And now this, he looked at that insignificant piece of paper that carried so much power as he keeled over slowly to join it on the ground. He hoped it was a reprieve and he didn’t have to live his life over again. People rushed towards him but he was already beyond himself. He was where he had always been. Standing outside, looking back in. And this time, he chose to stand.

R J Kalpana has published a 3-vol set on Feminist Issues in Indian Literature: Feminism and Family, Feminism and the Individual, Feminism and Sexual Poetics. She has published Temple Dreams, a book of poetry and has won prizes for her poetry which have been published in both national and international journals and anthologies. She was an editor for the Encyclopedia of Hinduism and has completed a biography of a Theosophist which will be released in 3 volumes in June 2012. She is a Doctorate in English and professionally a Management consultant for Knowledge Management.

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