Life | Afternoon Raga

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Afternoon Raga
Text by Gouri Dange and Illustrations by Salil Sojwal
Published: Volume 19, Issue 2, February, 2011

Alone in the ‘boat of herself’ on her two-month retreat to coastal Dabhol, Oru is immersed in continuous stream-of-consciousness of music on the Internet. She experiences long-forgotten shivers of excitement as a reaches out to her. Gouri Dange pens a sensitive tale of love where the under-tow of emotions threatens to become a rip tide

Someone’s walking over your grave,” Sister Marblis in Oru’s school used to say grimly, when anyone felt one of those sudden inexplicable shivers. And the thought that there was a place already marked for the earth to receive you, and that right then someone was casually stepping all over the spot, sent some more shivers down some more spines. Cross your heart and hope to not die, someone would whisper soberly.

The Hindi teacher had a different take on it. The word for that shiver she used was sarsarahat – like a small breeze going through the leaves. It is a delicious frisson, this sarsarahat, she said, that could be set off by a variety of things, but least of all as an intimation of anyone’s death. There was too much living to be done, according to her, to preoccupy yourself with dying; and anyway you’re not going to be buried, most of you, she added briskly, so what grave-shave? Different things will give you that sarsarahat going through you, as you grow, she told them once…the sound of your father’s car horn when he’s brought back ice-cream on a searing summer day; or the first talks of your marriage; or the feel of your first salary maybe…then the sight of your first grandchild, or just the news of your daughter expecting a baby, that could give you that lovely stirring. “Right now, some of you have the sarsarahat thing, I know. From that little circle of light dancing behind me on the blackboard from the mirror that those silly boys’ school lafangas are flashing from the opposite building. And each one of you thinks it’s a message just for her, like every gopi thought Krishna was dancing only with her.

Perhaps it’s for good old me that this disc is dancing around,” she said, turning around grabbing at the moving oval of light on the blackboard, to their delight. “So you see, it’s about many things, this sarsarahat,” she had said. They were 15, then.

Finely tuned to the ways of the Internet, as she has now become, so many years on, Oru feels that frisson sometimes and thinks, not grim things like someone’s walking over my grave, or not sublime things like Krishna’s asking me to dance, but someone’s Googling my name.

Alone in the ‘boat of herself’ as her husband calls her two-month retreat to coastal Dabhol, she is immersed in continuous stream-of-consciousness of music on the Internet. She has taken leave of him, her grown daughters, her friends and colleagues, and of all those people who rang her doorbell relentlessly for the last 20 years.

There will be no transactions here, she says to herself in great satisfaction, as she occupies a room in the house of Musa Ibrahim on the curved rock front of the Dabhol harbour. A room that can be accessed by its own staircase, once you jump off the boat and walk down the long jetty. Musa and his wife and the neighbours understand that she is not to be disturbed – and believe she is working (the laptop) or pursuing God (the aloneness) in some form, her husband tells her as he leaves. “And are you going to tell people back in Mumbai that too, Ranjan?” she asks him, and he says, “Yes, easier that way.” Ranjan works hard and Ranjan pursues God; he is learning from a guru to be in saakshi bhaav - ‘witness’ mode. And so he is the detached observer – he is not upset with her; he is not trying to understand either. He is just being his old solid-brick self, and attempting to be her enabler, as he calls it.

On her 51st birthday, he had asked her what she wants, and had to then cover up his hurt when she asked for leave of absence from their marriage, their unit. “Nothing personal,” she had added, as a half-joke, and made it a bit worse.

Now she watches his dark grey head duck under the bar of the jetty as he steps into the dhow that brought them here, and will take him back, alone, to the mainland and back to Mumbai.

She can hear the lapping of the Dabhol bay water at the foundations of Musa’s home as the tide slinks in beneath her window. The boatmen at the jetty are making the most of the last few days of fishing and of plying people. The monsoon rumbles-mumbles over the water, but only teases; the dark cloud holds back, not ready to let itself go as yet.

At a small table that she pushes to the window, she plugs in her laptop, inserts the data card, and begins her first step in going where the music will take her, on the Internet. She types the words Megh, and an old recording of Ustad Ameer Khan washes over her. There is no video on Youtube for this recording, but some devotee-enthusiast has uploaded pictures of the monsoon’s foreplay with the west coast of India, as the deep old voice sings with all the gravitas and appeal of thunder clouds in the afternoon. She leaves a comment at the bottom of the video when it’s done. “Thunder, darkening afternoon, light rippling on water, and Ustadji’s Megh – sigh!” – It is her freshly-minted, brand new email id for the New Year, and only to be used for drifting on the music ocean of the Net.

Afternoons are her favourite time. It feels like nothing can take away the afternoon. Not anything that happened before and anything that is to still reveal itself. This moment remains unassaulted; no jagged edges, no need to be nimble-footed. At least not while the afternoon raga plays and the breeze ripples over the water. She taps out these thoughts on a site devoted to afternoon ragas, where Sarangs and Bhimpalasis, and Madhuwantis are waiting to be heard.

There’s mail for her one day. ‘Perhaps it is because you are in the dopahar of your life, that you love dopahar so much? The doubt-filled, struggling mornings are gone; the unknown evening hasn’t come. Only an assured here-and-nowness. And you seem to be at some enviable location?’

She ignores the mail. It’s someone trying to figure how old she is and where she is, and it’s none of his business. But yes, she is in the dopahar of her life, true.

One day she types in ‘Balraj Sahni’, her favourite afternoon man, and finds a frozen shot of him looking on at Nutan singing. When she clicks on it, the video begins just a little before the song itself. There she is, Nutan, breathing fire, smashing medicine vials angrily against a window, using a line from the song to emphasise and punctuate her rage. Mana mohana, mohana, mohana, she spits out as she throws one bottle and then another and then another. Balraj ignores the tantrum and courteously invites her to sing the song. Taken aback, and then becalmed, she sits down with a tanpura, and a sweet Jaijaiwanti pours forth from her – Mana mohana, badey jhutey…haar kay haar nahi maanay. (My mind/Mohan, is such a liar, he won’t accept defeat even when clearly he’s lost the game.)

The tide comes in and out, and Oru catches herself thinking: Oh, am I so glad that I have to do nothing for this tide to do its thing. It is its own master. Nothing depends on me – I don’t have to write it a cheque, call out to it to get back in, or remind it to leave on time, switch it on or off, wonder if it will come today or not…I don’t have to wonder what it brings in and what it takes away. It leaves its salty signature on the stilts of Musa’s house, and even that is not my problem! She laughs, and trawls the Net looking for music that will reflect her unfettering. But she doesn’t find anything appropriate. She finds plenty on how it’s important to unfetter, to let go of maya, to soar, or to submit. There are the songs of the poet-saint Janabai talking about how her God does her hard daily chores for her. Oru listens, and leaves a comment. ‘It’s very sweet music and words, but I feel she’s utterly chained, and has decided that the best way to deal with it is convincing herself it’s God’s work …and that her Master is a good guy.’ The second mail from says, ‘You don’t get it, lady, about the Bhakti Movement to which Janabai belongs. You so don’t get it.’

A PS follows: And I’m willing to bet that you’re not Getting Any either :P.

Ok peace, peace. I couldn’t help making that crack –

She writes him a crisp mail: Hello Bystander, or whatever you’re pretending to be. Does everything have to be in reference to whether a person is Getting Any or not? And I know many people who’re utterly happy without Getting Any, and people who are Getting Plenty and are thoroughly miserable. So I don’t know what you’re on about. I hope we’re talking about the same thing here – It’s about not Getting Sex, right? And not about food or medicines or kindness or love or some of those ‘useless’ things?’ - O

What was she doing engaging, she asks herself. Why is she writing to this random man? But there it is now, that sarsarahat, the little tetter of apprehension that runs through her, when she is sure Bystander is reading her mail at that very moment, or replying to her, or leaving a comment on some music site where she has been.

And there it is again, the sarsarahat, when she switches on her computer in the morning, wondering if he is going to get nasty about her mail. He has chosen to say nothing in response to her rap-on-the-knuckles. His email contains the urls of two pieces of music. One is John Denver’s On the Road…ok, so she has a fix on his age, now – late 50s, maybe early 60s. Her ears pick up on the musing quality of the voice and lyrics. ‘…Go home, said the man in the moon go home, because it’s getting kind of late!’ This one she may have heard before, perhaps long back in some mixed tape that Ranjan had. The other is from more familiar territory: Kumar Gandharva singing robustly ‘Aisana taisan barasata barkha.’ (The rain falls hard, this way and that.)

‘Knew you wouldn’t delete without checking out the music, Ms O,’ – says a mail that slips into her inbox as she wanders down the fantastically divergent avenues –John Denver and Kumar Gandharva – that open out for her.

Cheeky bugger is trying to freak me out, she thinks, but she feels a long-forgotten under-tow, that is not from the tide going out below her window. She lies across the bed, as the monsoon clouds discharge themselves noisily and Kumar Gandharva touches the high notes, now complaining about the monsoon …bahu din sey, chipp gayo surajawa. (You’ve hidden the sun for too many days, now).

That night there is mail: ‘You referred to me as ‘Bystander or whoever I’m pretending to be’. Ms O, when I can be so utterly myself here, why would I want to be other people? I’m being someone else in the real world all the time – father and husband and co-worker and dutiful son and all that jazz most of my week, you know. So here’s the only place I can be myself, the cool harami that no one sees, and what’re you going to do about it?’ – Bystander.

PS: If I get just a couple of co-ordinates, I’m sure I could Google-map you down to the house you’re occupying right now. I already guessed it’s the west coast of India, it’s not a city. I also figured you probably have a pretty great bod under that lyrical mind wafting so abstractedly and academically in the music universe.

She reads it once, and she reads it again. Now the under-tow threatens to become a rip tide. Could this audacious aadmi really just find her, and why was the thought not as alarming as it should have been?

She clicks on the video of Asha Bhonsale singing to a captivated Marathi audience in San Jose – an old song, her voice dripping with thinly-veiled oomph: Aaj pahate shriranganay, mazala puratay, lootalay ga.... (At dawn, my lover looted me, utterly and completely.)

She copies the url and forwards it to Bystander. I’m no prude-aunty, let the presumptuous fellow know. And if he doesn’t understand Marathi, I will even translate this one for him, what the heck, every innuendo-dripping word of the song. And I’ll throw in a couple of old Bengali poets singing decorously about having the hots for someone too, maybe.

Oru has stopped paddling in the shallows; she is on the high seas, now. And she is on her own. Ranjan, she thinks. Ranjan... I’m sorry, or no, not sorry...whatever. She checks her new mail box three times. She stands naked in front of the narrow mirror and allows herself a ‘not bad’ rating.

Late into the night she listens and watches Dharmendra wooing Tanuja, so charged, so very romantic, Aap kay haseen rukh sey aaj naya noor hai…on to Shammi and Sharmila, Raat kay, humsafar, and Kishore’s throbbing O mere dil kay chaiin. Then Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hasan sing Daag and Firaaq and Ghalib as the tide below her room swells.

The next day dawns sunny, the monsoon is on a break after weeks. There is light bouncing off the water, right up to the horizon. A few boats appear. Oru doesn’t allow herself to turn on the computer. She reads her book this morning, determined not to check any mail-shail. At high noon, she looks up at her wall, and sees a disc of light, flashing, dancing, left to right, leaping up, down. A school days’ sarsarahat runs through her. She goes to the window to see where the flash is coming from; it can’t be just the light from the water.

Down by the jetty she sees him, flashing a little mirror, and then he’s up the stairs and inside the room.

He has what they call her ‘eyebrows and mucchi mirror’ in his hand. “I don’t want to be a bystander anymore, Oru,” Ranjan whispers urgently into her hair. “To hell with this witness mode. Will that bod of yours take this bod of mine again?”

The tide romps in and the spray leaps high.

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