by Sudha Nair
Raag Bhupali is playing on the gramophone in Shankar’s room as he lies outstretched on his lounge chair, inhaling the fragrance of the incense sticks that he lights every day, the ash-coloured, jasmine-scented smoke pervading the room and relaxing his mind.
His thoughts wander to the day he had first met Rama, at the bride seeing ceremony at which she had sung, mesmerising him with her enchanting voice. He recalls their wedding, Rama looking resplendent in a crimson bridal saree bordered with gold zari. As he thinks about her, he remembers his utter surprise at her gift to him on the day of their wedding: a shiny new gramophone in a box wrapped with tissue, something that he had never considered acquiring in spite of his love of music. It was a surprise because it was so unexpectedly eloquent like a rabbit pulled out from a magician’s hat, and so much more meaningful than the gold chain he gifted her. Such a perfect gift for a stressed out accountant, he smiles in retrospect. Such thoughtful gestures were typical of her. The first record he had purchased, he still remembers, was an album by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi that he would play in the evenings when he got home from work. The records he bought subsequently were all associated to some phase in his life, like the Marathi bhavgeet he was addicted to during his posting in Mumbai, and the Meera bhajans he played for months after his son’s birth. There were months during his son’s school years when he played M.S. Subbalakshmi in the mornings and Begum Parveen Sultana in the evenings. He loved to play Raag Yaman on weekends when the mood at home was relaxed and Rama pottered around in the kitchen making him his favourite biryani dish with raita for lunch or pakodas with tea for the evenings. She could be heard humming along sometimes; even now he remembers the beautiful, controlled vibrato in her singing.
He is seventy years old now, living in a forty-year-old house in Bangalore that has four bedrooms, a terrace, a car porch, a backyard with a decent vegetable patch, and a small flower garden in the front. His son, Arun, daughter-in-law, Abha and grand-daughter, Matangi live with him. It was six years since Rama’s demise and Arun’s job had a serious setback around the same time, forcing him to consider moving in with him, if only as a temporary consolation to his ageing father. Shankar accepted Arun’s moving in just as naturally as he accepted Rama’s death despite the sudden circumstances in which she had died. Her brain tumour, detected late, left her suddenly incapacitated, hospitalised, and both of them in shock. She was gone in a few months leaving him to confront her loss stoically. “She was a wonderful person; it was hard to see her go,” he muttered to those who came on the day of her cremation. “There was nothing I could do,” he added to his friends.
After that day, he planned his days meticulously, reading or working in his garden or going for a walk every evening, and listening to the gramophone for most part of the day. It was the least he could do to ensure the smooth flow of time, making his days seem effortlessly full just like it used to be when Rama was alive. She was the exuberant one, pulling him along to meet up with old friends on an impulse or inviting neighbours home for bhajans and tea. He mostly went along with whatever Rama wanted to do, and he admired her energy and enthusiasm. Now all of that was in the past. Now he visited no one and invited no one home. His gramophone gave him company all the time. The only people who ever came to his room regularly, where he spent a large part of his days now, were the cleaning lady, and Matangi.
Matangi used to spend her summers with Rama and Shankar even before they all moved in. She was a quiet child who liked to watch or help Rama in the kitchen, or sit beside Shankar in the evenings to be told a story. Matangi was the most upset when Rama died. She was six then. “How come she is never coming back?” she kept asking. “Why did she go?” She was inconsolable. She took to sleeping in Shankar’s room at night, thinking that Rama would perhaps miraculously reappear. Then one day, he couldn’t remember how many months later, she was convinced otherwise and she moved out.
She is now twelve and is, in a way the one who reminds him of Rama because of her responsible and caring nature. She still runs straight into Shankar’s room after school. If Shankar is asleep on his lounge chair, she carefully takes off his glasses and keeps them aside, and replaces the needle of the gramophone if the record has finished playing, then softly tiptoes out of his room without waking him up. On days that Shankar isn’t tired and sleeping, she tells him all about her day at school, and when she leaves to change and have her snack, she puts on another record for him. She knows how he loves to listen to his records all day.
Shankar’s hearing though is getting weaker now. He no longer can listen so well to the songs on the gramophone despite being played at the highest volume. Abha comes into his room more often now than before to ask him not to play his music so loudly. She says politely that it disturbs her or Matangi when she studies or Arun when he returns tired from work. He misses Rama now, wishing she were here to soothe the sadness he feels. Arun offers to get him hearing aids, and buy him a new Walkman. The gramophone is so outdated now, he claims. Hearing aids are a good idea, Shankar thinks; he cannot imagine a life in which he cannot listen to music. The gramophone is in a precarious state too, and some of the records are irreparably damaged, but he cannot give up his gramophone, unless it gives up on him, like Rama did. But Rama did leave behind a reminder of their life, of all the good times – this piece of junk to some, aged forty years. Even if there was nothing he could do to save her life, he holds dearly the one thing that he knows will preserve the beautiful memories spent with her.
Sudha, a mother of two, is constantly trying to pursue new avenues to push her creative boundaries. A chronic daydreamer, she is in awe of people who have followed their heart. Sudha is passionate about music, fitness, her family, and most recently, writing.