“.. As a ten year old I didn’t quite know what exactly it meant. After all these years, I do now; but both my uncle and the singer are no more ..”
ONCE UPON a time I had aspired to become a train driver. That was when I was four years old.
The rail track was only a few meters away from the entrance of our house. Commuter and express trains went up and down through those tracks all day. Most villagers, women in particular, matched the time table of their daily activities with the arrival and departure schedule of the trains.
Because of the heat generated by the burning coal within, the train driver more often than not would unwind standing at the door of the engine room rather than inside. I would be in attendance right in front of our gateway and offer him a salute, no matter whether I was in his line of vision or not. Most of the drivers never paid any attention. But there were a few who felt amused, and took the trouble of returning my gesture.
You cannot imagine the point of rapture that the return salute would take me to. The rest of the day I would hold my head high in pride, and the pattern of my walk would vary to that of the strut of a rooster! My mother, unsuccessfully though, would try to hold back a meaningful smile that would linger over her generous lips. She always knew what had come over me.
A lone tamarind tree stood in our backyard which all of us considered was more of an old war horse than the mere tree it once was. We tied two thick ropes over its lowest branch, at the other ends of which we also fixed a narrow wooden plank and satisfied ourselves by addressing the whole dynamics as a swing. My sister and I spent as much time as we could manage after school hours in and around what we called the swing. Between where the tamarind tree stood and the stretch of paddy fields began was the canal. It lay dry the entire summer months in waiting for the monsoon to disembark. Once the monsoon arrived and its glory restored it would go back to its benevolent ways and carry the water liberally to the paddy fields and beyond.
Far from the shadows of the tamarind tree branches my mother grew a vegetable garden. Every morning my sister and I would run up the yard to find which seed had emerged out of the soil, which flower bud had blossomed, which snake gourd needed a stone weight to be hung to its loose end.
The first time when I saw my mother hanging a stone weight to the snake gourd I asked her why did she have to do that?
She said the snake gourd was her baby too, like my sister and me. If we misbehaved she would restrict our freedom a little bit to steer us through to the right track. When it becomes apparent that the snake gourd’s intention is to go wayward, it is her responsibility to straighten its course by hanging a stone weight to the fruit’s end.
My mother had a great ear for music. She hired a Brahmin hotshot to come to our house and give ‘Karnatic’ music lessons to my sister. After the Brahmin had left the first day I couldn’t control my tears because I felt left out. The following day I too joined the group as the music teacher’s second disciple. The music classes went on for over five years. My mother felt very proud of the way my singing turned out to be.
There was a women’s league of which my mother was the chair person, and once in a while the young women’s group used to assemble in our house. During one of those sessions my mother insisted that I sing before her friends. I felt so bashful that I obliged her obscuring myself behind the curtain in an adjoining room.
I had appeared in a number of musical shows while in school as well as in college. Once I had accompanied a candidate during electioneering to a class mostly populated by females. One of them from the middle row said they would en masse vote for our nominee if I would sing for them the song I had sung the previous week at the musical show. I had no other choice but to fulfill my part of the bargain. The girls too stuck to their part of the deal because our candidate got elected. But that was to the extent it went. I couldn’t sing the high octaves and had to leave it at that.
When my uncle had come home after a 20-year stint in the Far East, he had brought along a black metal trunk full of books, an ‘Olympia’ portable typewriter, and a ‘Telefunken’ record player together with a fairly large collection of 76 and 45 RPM vinyl records. Though he was in his mid-forties he had preferred to remain a bachelor. Most of his time he spent either reading or listening to songs from his collection of records. Out of frustration that he was unyielding to wedlock once my mother asked him if he intended to spend the rest of his life listening to music. To which he only smiled nonchalantly and wished aloud if only my mother understood what the singer was trying to express: ‘.. hold it in your heart lest it slips out of your hands by chance..’. As a ten year old I didn’t quite know what exactly it meant. After all these years, I do now; but both my uncle and the singer are no more..
How do you take measure of happiness? A number of years ago, while seeing me off at the air port, my father asked me for the wrist watch I was wearing. When I gave it to him, he wore it over his wrist, held it at a distance and glanced at me with a contented expression in his eyes as if saying, ‘this was precisely what I had wanted’. As a matter of fact, my wife had set aside small sums of money for over two years to gift it to me on my birthday, because she had seen me eying it longingly at the watch dealer’s display window every time we went by the shopping district. But then seldom have I felt life ever becoming as rich in indulgence as it did on that day at the air port lounge.
Doesn’t happiness mean giving what you consider most precious to whom you love most though it also happens to be like the rainbow strip that reflects through your window pane, and as the moisture in the air wanes it’s gone too before you realize it.