Readers Write In #333: Charu’s Melody

Posted on January 29, 2021

3


(by Kannan Baskar)

Author’s note: I have been working on a story, a short story, during these COVID times. It is just amateur attempt at an art form that has largely managed to define me (the stories I have read and seen have influenced my own narrative—from ‘Charulata’ to ‘Mouna Ragam’ to ‘Metamorphosis’ to ‘Lolita’ to ‘The Great Gatsby’. 

#

Yerpa valley, cloaked in mist, seemed paralyzed to a greenish-brown stillness. It was the seventies; widowed walls of destroyed monasteries gawped at the pointless expanse. Many curious souls had discovered their truth in this Tibetan village’s caves.

Thirteen-year-old Tashi, at home in the lotus position, had been meditating for weeks. The young monk’s cave chapel, embedded high up in a cliff face, was a six-foot-tall gash in the mountainous meat. His face’s bony angles seemed to withhold an elliptical grin and the baggy maroon robe rendered him formless; yet, the billowing fabric, backlit by the goblet-shaped butter lamps, demanded a respectability, which neither he nor the venue deserved. Though engrossed, he remained aware of his surroundings: water trickling through the stony clefts, the stench of rotting leaves, warmth of the butter lamps flanking the statuettes of the Buddha and Guru Rinpoche. However, Tashi never lingered on these sensations; he managed to juggle them like they were some weightless Ping-Pong balls: acknowledging but never attending to their needs.

A sense of control sneaked in, flattening the grin’s curvature to straightness: anything even remotely promising felt genuine amidst the starkness. Through a crevice in the ceiling, a Ghost moth intervened, breached the meditative balance with its powdery flap. He opened his eyes to marvel at the moth’s scales, sparkling in the lamps’ glow, subtended between him and the statuettes like a boatless, iridescent sail in a sea of blackness.

He cried out, “Ah! I see sound.”

#

The melody existed like a dream, relevant only within Charu’s mind, rippling out like an aberrant echo, episodically. In form, it resembled her favorite Carnatic Raga Keeravani; however, it never felt like a familiar sound. It started off as thannaaaaanaaaahhhh. . ., an elaborate hum with recurring motifs; then the internal music assumed the svara form—Carnatic Solfège—sa…ri…ga…ma. . ., with a painfully symmetric crescendo-decrescendo. Even the embellishments on the svaras occurred with a compulsive periodicity. The sounds kept repeating until her defenses submitted to the eeriness, like a doll she danced tremulously to a hidden switch. Even between the spells, her eyelids twitched like fluttering flags, a quiver accompanied each breath, the heart raced, needlessly; senses, though vigilant, reacted with a delay—like an afterthought

#

In the 1990s, Charu, then a budding Carnatic singer, and Vishal, a medical student, were in a relationship; they shared an apartment in one of those anonymous, congested lanes of Madras’ Saidapet. The affair was a chronological glimmer, yet rich in detail: the cheap detergent’s floral smell on the Solapuri blankets; afternoons in the balcony—he read the fat Pathology books, she cut his fingernails; the broken omelets—colorful and sloppy with too much stuffing; the walks on Elliot’s Beach—he admired the Bay, Charu, invariably, observed the kids—the rich ones rode horses, the poor ones sold roasted peanuts. When Charu adopted Vani, her niece, they had to part ways; however, the memories like resolute paper boats stayed afloat,
jostling each other with their bob and jiggle routine.

Two weeks ago, Charu had been to Cochin to meet Vishal Menon. Vishal, now a cardiologist, had married Parvathi. In 2018 he became the chief of his division. He met Charu occasionally, soaking in the past’s irrelevant shimmers, acting on singed desires—orchestrating an alternate reality in the stolen hours. Their suite, in a seaside resort, was suffused in the late afternoon’s citrusy glow; the creamy fish curry they had for lunch had rendered their senses pliant. Charu was reclined on a Chaise Longue, her neck arched back beyond the headrest to regard Vishal. He unwrapped her wet hair from a towel and let it tumble down.

“Your hair smells different,” he remarked, “is it the hotel’s shampoo.”

She nodded and beckoned him.

Vishal’s lips and tongue played with, nibbled, and narrated the lost memories to her luxuriant nape and moved to kiss her lips.

Charu withdrew abruptly, hurting his chin; she sat upright, breathing fast and loud. Her eyes motionless were fixed on a dancing Shiva statue. The inner melody had surfaced.

“Let’s not do it today,” she said. This meet up had been her idea.

“Is something wrong? We can do it some other time.” Vishal sat down beside her.

“I hear things,” she buried her face in her hands. She couldn’t cry, but her hands trembled, and the skin turned pale.

“Sorry, it was too weird; it comes on suddenly,” Charu spluttered, “knots up something, and I get all . . . helpless.” She gripped Vishal’s arms like a girl clasping her father’s hands when rattled by a crowded fair. Charu said, “The sounds are in my voice, a sick, mechanical Keeravani, repeating itself like a broken record, all in my mind.”

“Could be auditory hallucinations, Charu; when did they start.” Vishal stroked her head and put his hand around Charu’s shoulder. “I’ll text you a psychiatrist’s number in Madras.”

Charu had a glass of water; the melody had dwindled. “These concert tours were stressful,” she looked at the calm Arabian sea through the Suite’s bay windows, “It started in Cincinnati, in a restaurant; the first time was awful.” She hugged Vishal, kissed his chest, and mumbled, “I felt possessed . . .”

Charu got into her Pajamas and sat down on the floor, she wanted to dwell on something else, but she couldn’t. “The sound, you could call it a recurring melody, reminds me of all negative things; my dad’s suicide, in particular.” He had put on his trousers, was getting ready to leave, “Can we lie down for some time,” she pleaded.

They cuddled up on the floor; he wrapped his arms around her; she flexed into a fetal position. The floor was cold but honestly flat and hard. The king-size poster bed seemed visibly white and empty. She sobbed liberally that day, and her tears’ saltiness lingered.

“I’ll have to leave now; Parvathy gets doubtful,” Vishal kissed her on the cheeks, “I bought that DVD of your concert at the Royal Albert hall.”

She smiled, kissed him again: a poor girl licking a stolen candy that was never her’s in the first place. He exited the Suite with the physical urgency of someone trying to escape a magnetic field. Their intimacy was like the broken Omelet; it came apart because of the excess filling.

#

On September 22, 2000, a green Hyundai Sonata, while negotiating a hairpin bend in the Nilgiris hills, had collided with a Bajaj Matador Van; the Sonata’s driver was Soman, Charu’s brother-in-law, her sister, Chinmayi, was with her 2-year-old daughter, Vani, in the back seat. The Nilgiris Police had found Vani playing in a pool of her Parents’ blood. Charu was all of twenty-three then, working on her undergraduate research—the morning Ragas’ melodic framework. She adopted Vani. Vani never got orphaned; in fact, she called Charu, Ma. However, the accident had a noticeable effect on Charu: a crispness soddened.

#

A hesitant Madras morning, fluffed with smog, assigned an amber identity to Charu’s roof terrace. Charu, dense with sleep, lay deposited in a sectional; a striped awning—sheltering her not so subtle curves—flapped and clanged with a gusty breeze. Sleep had to be rummaged for, in the restive recesses of her night. The inner tune and its anticipation denied anything fluent to assume control of her. Sometimes, she found sleep in the gaping milieu of the roof terrace; in more cruel times, she waited for the weariness to drown and strike her down to a state of apathy.

The wind persisted, played around with the pages of a red paperback, Hallucinations by Oliver
Sacks.

Vani hurried into the open area; her anklets and the creaking deck woke up Charu.

“Hey! Good morning” Charu mumbled and sat up awkwardly, adjusting her nightgown’s neckline.

“Are you okay, Ma?” Vani seemed worried; the unrelenting breeze messed up her hair.

She tried to knot the ponytail into a bun.

“C’mon, let me do it,” said Charu; her face glowed with a patent enthusiasm. She squirted some coconut oil into her hands, ran her fingers through Vani’s hair, massaging the scalp. She begun braiding the strands to a single, fat plait.

Vani asked again, “Are you well?”

“Did you like the Pongal that I made yesterday?” Charu’s trembling fingers lost control of a strand of hair.

“At 2:00 AM, your room’s light was on.” Vani pushed Charu’s hands away. “You’ve not been sleeping. Weren’t you pacing around?”

Charu’s smile dissolved; she looked above, in the direction of the Sun, now overhead and bright.

“Why would a singer choose to sleep on the terrace? Have you gone mad, Ma!” Vani was now yelling.

Charu walked away to the parapet walls, stood by the perforated parapet walls, and continued staring at the Sun. “Don’t worry,” she said, “they are bad dreams, mostly.”

Vani’s eyes moistened; a thin forehead furrow bulged out. “Something isn’t right; you aren’t telling me.” She untied her half-braided, oily hair, wore it as a messy bun. “I’m not a kid, Ma, I am old enough to be a Mom.” She rushed away.

Vani’s hands were greasy, so were Charu’s. Coconut oil.

#

In 2018, the Indian government had awarded Charu with the Padma Shri award. She was inundated with concert invites that year and ended up touring the US and UK: in Cleveland, she gave a lecture and demonstration on Gamakas, tonal embellishments; her Raagam-Thanam- Pallavi recital in Raga Kalyani, at the Royal Albert Hall, received a standing ovation; the following January, she rendered a Jugalbandi duet, at Calcutta’s Dover lane music conference, with the Hindustani vocalist Param Chakraborty—a controversial performance, but celebrated by the critics, nonetheless. However, she maintained an emotional blandness through all this hustle and bustle. Like brightly colored petals falling limply, her immiscibility muted all the attention and accolades.

#

Mount road zigzagged like a raga stringing out-of-sequence notes, snaked through Madras’s disparate parts, devising navigational meaning from chaos. A white Mercedes-Benz GLS rushed past the jaded LIC building. Charu’s generous form appeared subdued and consumed in the plushness of the backseat. Her chauffeur, Chandran, was at the wheel.

“Madame, is it Music Academy or Naradha Gana Sabha?” Chandran asked.

“No, the new one, Dr. Gopalan Auditorium.” Charu was staring at a tassel pendant on the rearview mirror

She had bought the pendant in a glass-doored shack in Delhi’s Tibetan refugee market. The items sold in the market’s cramped confines promised a drop of a lost vastness, a share of high altitude purity for a few rupees. A lad in a green jumper and a face bedaubed with mountainous ruddiness, had sold the pendants to her; he tried explaining its significance, but Charu had rushed away, rudely. The six-month-old memory was distinct; his articulate smile— lyrical; she should’ve apologized; her Bengali friend, Paoli, had informed her that the pendant was a Buddhist charm. The car stopped at a busy underground parking lot.

In the concert hall, Charu and her accompanists: Ravi on the violin, Ramesh the percussion artist on the Mridangam, and her student Nalini on the Tambura, were seated crosslegged on the stage like chess pieces in strategic formation. The Tambura’s strumming sound filled the air behind the curtains with a filling drone.

This was a free concert for the public conducted by the Bhagavathy organization. The crowd was an amorphous bunch: the curious floated in with restless eyes, not knowing what to do and where to sit, while the faceless skeptics dissolved away to become part of the city’s dust. A seventy-year-old lady in crutches, Mrs. Lakshmi Sitaraman, introduced Charu and her team.

“Charu,” the lady said with great pride, “was a student at our Fine Arts College.” She continued piling layers of creamy praise, “We are blessed to have in our presence a Padmashri awardee, a sort after singer . . .” The offering continued for almost ten minutes.

Charu drank a glass of warm water from her flask, whispered into Ramesh’s ears, “Ask that organizer to shut her up. We don’t have all day.”

Some youngsters in the audience started to fiddle around with their gadgets, checking texts, and random posts. In the middle rows, the fat ladies engaged in light gossip, adjusting their gold jewelry and silk saris, frequently. Mrs. Sitaraman concluded without any need for a reminder.

Charu’s first song was a customary Varnam, a short composition, then a hymn praising lord Ganesha ensued. Her voice saturated the small hall with an acoustic fullness, rarely encountered by this crowd of occasional music enthusiasts; it set the stage for the pièce de résistance, the Kriti song. She rendered the piece’s preamble, a hum, with eagerness, teasing out all the intricacies of the composition. While weaving the Keeravani Raga’s patterns onto the line, “karabhaya mudram vihita Jana bhadram,” in the song’s third stanza, her internal melody returned.

Like an overflowing pond of black, glistening fluid, the mind music filled, in minutes, all meaningful contours in Charu’s mental landscape. Unable to hear the Tambura through her drenched cognition, the singing degenerated to an out of pitch mode. Nalini checked if she was strumming the Tambura incorrectly, and Ravi, finding it difficult to play to the off pitch singing, tried to give Charu a visual cue.

The sinister din coupled to the external sound was a piece of unearthly mind music, started off as a mere overflowing pond in a deep nook, but in minutes deluged her entire mental landscape. A certain constricting noose seeped down from the head into her throat; she couldn’t utter the lyrics anymore; the voice broke, sounding like a crumpling paper’s harshness, “aaa…re…grrrrhdhhhhhhffrrrr,”

Charu clenched her throat, perceived a grating sensation; she scanned the audience; her eyes welled up; drenched in sweat, her wet blouse and bra grew tighter; the concert hall felt like a swelling space, trivializing her; external sounds became distant like her head was being dunked into water; the breathing turned deep and rapid—all she could hear was now the howling breath sounds; the enlarging space transformed to a cottony blur. An acute powerlessness descended, bleaching her waking thoughts; she turned limp, fainted.

The ER doctors called it panic attack, advised a psychiatry consult.

#

Chandran negotiated a sharp turn to enter into the Raj Bhavan road, the SUV’s wheels swerved, churning up the road’s sandy grime to soot. Soot was omnipresent; Madras’s locals called it—ashes of the forgotten.

All of Charu’s concerts stood canceled, organizers reluctant to answer her calls. Madras music weekly’s gossip column even predicted her to be pregnant. One bad news and “she has gone mental” replaced the music industry’s year-old affection.

At breakfast, Vani attempted to convince Charu, “Dr. Surya is a great psychiatrist Ma, you should go.”

“Vani, I’m not mad!” Charu’s voice was loud; the shaky breaths intervened. “I’m not going to the madhouse, even for your sake.” Vani tried to renegotiate but she strutted away; in the kitchen, she yelled at the maid for leaving water spots on her stainless steel cafetière.

The car pulled up outside an office building; a tedious structure glossed up with glass and metal. She took the stairs to the surgeon’s office. Aimless edges crammed Dr. Moorthy’s waiting hall: rectangular sofas, oblong coffee tables, circular basket chairs. The ENT surgeon had treated the playback singer Srinath’s vocal cord problem; Sri was persuasive, “Moorthy is the best Laryngologist; if he can’t cure you, go abroad.”

She got interested in a coffee table book, considered picking it up; the surgeon interrupted, “Sorry for the wait, Charu.”

He examined her nose and throat with a lucent, black, worm-like catheter. The melody reemerged. She could barely hear him but followed his instructions. The tune, an internal reaction to the trespassing brightness, was less harrowing this time. An LCD displayed a red hollow tunnel with a wriggling “V” at the end. The internal sound stopped after the laryngoscope was withdrawn.

“It’s mild Laryngitis,” Moorthy was confident. “The inflammation is not worrisome; rest your voice, that would do.” He sent the nurse practitioner to prep his next patient. On the way home, the SUV came to a halt at the choked Bazaar road. Charu, gazing at a red traffic light, didn’t notice the sidewalk’s paper figures, conspicuous in their brown bony grins—ever the setting, the brown silhouettes were never the scene. A girl in a loose-fitting red blouse, double-braided hair, knocked on the SUV’s window; she was hawking jasmine garlands. Charu didn’t notice the girl or her desperation; she was busy convincing herself that Moorthy was a mercenary. The signal turned green, the afternoon’s harshness disbanded the sidewalk’s brownness, scattering the mob to islands of smudges.

She looked at her larynx’s pictures that Moorthy’s office had sent to her on email; it looked swollen with fleshy, bloody ridges; it felt like a war was on.

How can voice rest heal anything this horrible?

This fancy throat doctor, she thought, treats a disease by assigning fancy Latin names. He’s no doctor, she reckoned; the half-baked posh accent—thanks to three months of fake training in London—only confirmed her doubts.

Moorthy is a charlatan, a crook.

She glanced at the pamphlet the clinic clerk had given her. The tacky piece of card was crammed with generic, dumbed-down patient information for Laryngitis. The sixth sentence, from the top, read: “Try to avoid coffee.” Charu’s knotted up expression got disentangled, and she started to laugh.

“Take me to Tulane café Chandran, the one at Boat club road”

#

A young mother, carrying her toddler, examined Charu through Tulane café’s limiting glass panes. The lady’s Sari was mucked up; the boy would’ve been naked, but for a silver waist thread, which denied him insignificance. Charu was seated on a barstool and did an about-turn to avoid them; but the duo’s image followed her; their reflection was now scrutinizing Charu through a large elliptical mirror and appeared closer than before and more intrusive.

The lady turned her attention to the traffic, but the child continued to study Charu, making faces and winking with both eyes. He had a protuberant belly, but his limbs appeared thin. Charu turned back to regard the kid. His face was puffy, and the hair was half-tanned. The coffee had turned cold, the Beignets were drenching the humid air. A security guard shooed the mother-son duo away.

#

The drive from the café to her home was a long one. They passed by a fruit vendor.

“Chandran can you stop at Suruli store?” Charu asked; he made a “U” turn to get to it.

She got a dozen Imam Pasand Mangoes. They were manifestly ripe. Their peels overwhelmed by the succulence, behaved like the flesh—internal forces become the organism; nature prevails centrifugally. She smelt them, her dad had instructed, “Smell ‘em, before you eat Charu, mother earth talks to you through them; she tells you her secrets.” He used to wink his eyes like the boy in the coffee shop.

“We have to get home soon, hurry, Chandran.”

Dark clouds were gathering; the entire country had a deficient monsoon. Charu’s village, in the foothills of the Western Ghats, Thevaram took on a luxuriant coat even during the driest of monsoons; a sensory abundance usurped the place: the smell of fresh cardamoms in gunny bags, the temple pond’s mossiness, rhythmic splatter of the rain on the clay-tiled roofs, even the smoky woodiness of her dad’s Beedi felt rich.

#

Streams of midmorning light had reddened her cheeks. She had dozed off but woke to the smell of tempered spices wafting from the neighbors. Three concert-less weeks had drifted away. Her chiffon sari’s pallu slid off her shoulders to dance around in the ceiling fan’s draught; it stroked, caressed the floor, performed a sensuous twirl on the black marble, eventually submitting to the stone’s solidness.

Vani walked in, unannounced. “Good morning, made these sandwiches.” She placed them on a side table.

Charu got up from her armchair; kissed her on the forehead.

“You seem rested.” Vani smiled; she had missed talking to her Ma.

Vani leaned on Charu’s shoulder, narrated random details, micro-stories populating her existence: she had been on a trekking trip to Kodaikanal—the Shola forest situation worried her; the idiocy of dystopian fiction had become apparent, yet she couldn’t stop reading them; she wished her shoes were eco-friendly like Vasanth’s. Their resonance—flavorful and substantial— filled the large room; bits of it seeped out through the balcony, visited the neighbor’s kitchen blended with their onion sambar’s tanginess, underscored the dish’s taste with jaggery like sweetness. They didn’t discuss Charu’s hoarseness or the panic attack; it was just a session to assert their unfettered affection.

Vani opened the door to leave and said, “I like you this way, all lazy, and at home.”

#

Mani was in his seventies with a wiry frame and wrinkled skin, yet his face had retained a busy vigor. He had been waiting for Charu in her front lawn. He was talking to Charu’s gardener, Amir, he acknowledged her presence with a smile.

“We were having a discussion about manure and earthworms,” he said to Charu.

He sat down on a stone bench. Charu knew him through his dad, they had been good friends. She called him Mani uncle. He was a well-connected concert organizer; rumor had it that he was behind the national award for Charu.

She sat beside him. Her front lawn was more yellow than green; the topsoil in the grass’ bare patches was crumbling to grayish dust. Her internal sound returned. Charu’s hands clasped on to the edge of the warm sandstone bench like the flooded cling on to anything rooted. She panted a bit forcibly, her eyes tried to avoid Mani.

Mani placed his cold right hand over her’s. Charu believed that as the traditional senses of the aged waned, they grew unusual ones. Charu’s gaze turned to the teak sapling in the clay pot. The dull green, ovate leaves were incongruously large, heavy causing the facile stem to arch to an inverted “U;” the leaf pointed to the earth.

“I heard about the fainting and hoarseness,” Mani said. He was one of the few whom Charu trusted. He had even initiated Charu into music.

“Srinath referred me to Moorthy and he just gave me pills and advised voice rest.” She felt like hugging him and crying it out. But she didn’t. “I need a quick fix, a solid one.”

“This is swarabedham, I know someone in Tanjore who can treat it.”

It was a pleasant surprise to Charu, even that Sanskrit name sounded better than the cold distance of “laryngitis.”

“The treatment is Ayurvedic, Panchakarma they call it.” Mani straightened up his wiry frame and ambled about, trying to relax his cramped-up legs. He walked with a broad-based gait and his knees frequently buckled. He found a chair and drooped into it. “In fact, I have talked to the Ayurveda specialist in Tanjore, they want you to come within a week.”

Charu remained silent for some time sipping her filter coffee; it all seemed a bit fast for her. It was a 3 weeklong treatment. But the Panchakarma treatment sounded more tangible to Charu, than the pills or voice rest. “I think, I will go mama.”

“You can take Vani with you Charu, stay in the Mansion next to the treatment center. Very scenic place. She likes traveling, doesn’t she.” Mani didn’t pester further. If he did, he would’ve sounded like a promotional agent.

“Where do you get your coffee beans from Charu.” Mani’s eyes orbited into an eccentric position, gazing at a distant nowhere, with intrigue.

“Thevaram.” replied Charu, with a nod.

She spent some more time in lawn after Mani left, examining the flowers, and giving instructions to Amir, about her new saplings. She stopped by a coconut tree and regarded the slender yellowing leaves and their porous canopy; light was diffracting at their green edges to reddish-green glimmers.

“Amir tomorrow make sure we harvest those coconuts,” The trees were pregnant with bulging bunches of greenish-yellow, and some brown, coconuts. “There are too many of ‘em and I don’t want them falling on Mr. Sridhar’s courtyard.”

Amir, “Yes, Ma’am he was complaining too.”

#

The SUV coasted past the weekend’s scanty traffic. Vani was seated next to her Ma, in the back seat, busy with a book, The Hunger Games. She was drawing ovoid shapes on its fore edge with a 2B pencil.

The car stopped at a busy traffic signal. Charu heard someone knocking at her window. An adolescent girl, in an orange half-sari and a black blouse, was trying to sell mirrors. “Please buy a mirror, Ma’am, twenty rupees only.” The girl moved her matted hair away to reveal her pale brown eyes. Charu bought it and patted her cheeks. The girl waved “Tata,” as the car drove away.

The SUV sped past the rest of the signals. The city’s dissonance got consumed by the coastline’s monotone. The SUV zipped past a smooth stretch of the East Coast Road. To the road’s east: the azure vastness of the Bay of Bengal dominated, interrupted occasionally, by the views of the brackish Lagoons. The automobile’s haste distorted the graceful stillness of the algal lagoons to glistening samples of green streaks.

#

Chandran had been driving for six hours, took the ECR route from Madras to Tanjore.

The Monsoon had been kind; a deep green imbued the delta’s paddy fields. The smell of water hyacinth and Indian anchovies announced the nearness of the Cauvery river. Vani was next to her Ma, in the backseat, busy with the Hunger Games book, drawing ovoid shapes on the paperback’s fore edge. They passed over an arch bridge across the Kollidam river; Vani lowered the window; Charu regarded the water; she imagined the gentle waves to be undulating mirrors; she fancied they were diminishing the sun’s harshness to reflected glares, by design.

Isn’t there usually a truth, behind and beneath mirrors?

They pulled into a petrol station. The navigation system indicated that it was eightyeight kilometers to the temple. Vani got out of the car and kept walking towards a juice stall, kicking up red sand on the way. After filling gas, Chandran got into the convenience store.

Charu plugged her phone into charging, tried reading Vani’s book. There was something fresh about the first-person narration, she thought. She was on the eighth page, when her internal melody started bothering her again. It was louder this time, unsettling. She felt the sides of the Mercedes converging, impinging onto her, exited the car, sweating profusely.

#

The voice within, singing now at a deafening amplitude, delivered overdone, nauseating music; it’s disturbing regularities, more grotesque, sounded liked a girl’s rendering; it resolved the Raga’s grammar to a tasteless consonance, doling out signature phrases.

The initial hum was prolonged, mmmmmmmmmAAA. . ., but it still adhered to the Raga’s grammar, then a burst of Nam…Thaaanam…Thaaaa; the embellishments, aaahhNiiiIIIIII, were now of piercing quality, could’ve cracked her skull—if they had been an auditory reality. The tune’s tumorous existence was exhausting its sustenance, with Charu’s mental faculties giving up, it had to find novel means to pervade.

Crows, a murder of them, near a garbage dump drew her attention, were quarreling over a piece of rotting lamb shank. She couldn’t help looking at it. A lorry, carrying sand, blared; even its horn’s coarseness failed to break her gawp. An enraged little one pecked a fat crow on its head, earned a shred of dusky, wet meat for its enterprising vigor. Her inner melody was now more in tune with this morbid scrutiny of a primal, animal meanness. She was at it for almost a minute.

She closed her eyes; the depressed eyebrows drew together; bit her lips and the restless fingers drew patterns on the car’s surface; the inner melody continued but dissonant thoughts squeezed through. If Vani were to know about these sounds, what would she say, Charu thought, Vani might call her a lunatic, Vani could leave her; Vani might never forgive her; why the hell should it even matter? She shook her head and opened her eyes.

Girls dressed in green and white school uniform passed by.

Vani can manage; she’s grown up.

She hated the compulsion to be correct, colorless. She contemplated running in a southwesterly direction, towards Thevaram.

I’d be amongst the foothills; Such Peace.

A Koel’s mating song came from afar. She walked towards the driveway, talking to herself, “Ah! the mirror-like river.”

No one saw her exit the gas station.

#

The inner tune persisted. Charu’s agenda was to get to the river; she believed it was her destiny. She knew: the river would tell her how the riddle disentangles, how it all works?

She waltzed through a crowded Agraharam street, series of cramped alleys, a farmer’s market intervened; she navigated like a sailor employing trade winds; she had never been here; however, the streets seemed to know her.

She reached a dirt track; fallen fronds of dying Palms lined the south side; she walked for two miles, red sand changed to gravel. Her left shoe’s heel broke; she tripped and fell flat on the face, cheeks got abraded, swollen. Her yellow Sari’s pallu, daubed in red sand, came off to a fanned-out spread; she rose to her feet, kicked the shoes off; with rapid movements of her arms wrapped the Sari around, tucked the extra fabric into the petticoat.

The track bifurcated, the left one, a fish market; the right path, flanked by thorny shrubs of Mesquite, lead her to a coconut grove. She had not noticed, the grove was at a level lower than the path, stumbled and came rolling into the plantation. Her skin got smeared with wet black soil, the right great toe’s nail was torn away from its fleshy roots; blackish clot filled the nail bed. She got back on her feet, wiggled the toes, walked on. The riverbank was visible through slit-shaped views the palms afforded; keen on getting to the river, she ran, emerged out of the thatched space, breathless, stomped through the silt.

#

The vast left bank seemed empty. Even the washerwomen who dried colorful pieces of clothing on the white sand had left; it was almost dusk. She could make out a shoal in the river, a narrow stretch of sand, upstream and moved towards it. She was at the river’s edge, noted a girl silhouetted by the setting sun, in the shoal. The inner tune had stopped; Charu had not paid attention.

“Can you hear me,” Charu called; tried waving and clapping with a wide grin plastered
on her—unable to get her attention.

She stared at the distant figure; It wasn’t just curiosity: she needed a reason to exist.

Is this girl the clue, my secret personified?

She waded through the water; it was chilly, the current strong and eastward; the riverbed inclined down; she plodded through, near the shoal, the stream was vigorous, and water chest deep.

The girl was now only ten feet away from Charu, sitting cross-legged on a mound of grayish silt, clad in a bright green half sari and orange silk blouse with Zari work. She was burdened by heavy ornaments; the girl’s hair was matted and bulky with random streaks of tanned strands. Backed by the setting rays of the Sun, the girl’s form seemed like a visceral vision and not a strange guise. She reminded Charu of goddess statues in Thevaram, goddess Durga, smeared in vermillion Kumkum; the camphor lamps and their sharp menthol odor; the bitterness of Neem and Tulsi water; possessed women in red-white saris, bedaubed with Kumkum, dancing in a trance to internal Ragas.

The girl was singing a melody; with her impoverished gestures and fixed expression,
she seemed a singing Tanjore clay doll—all sound and no mime. Her song was in a tribal
language, the quaint tongue of the Irula girls who used to bring Charu forest honey for her Tea. It
was a lullaby, sung with precision, didn’t feel human.

“I’m Charu,” she yelled; the girl did not respond.

Her injured toe hit a rock, the pain caused her knee to buckle; she sank; the current pushed Charu away from the shoal, she couldn’t get her head out of the surface. The Sari’s edge got caught in a mesh of river weeds, pulling her down to the riverbed. With a subsuming intent, water gushed in, into her nose, mouth—permeating, prevailing through all ports of life. She forced open her eyes, caught a glimpse of the twilight-lit
surface above.

The inner world of a massive mirror, behind and beneath, am I blessed?

She choked; her air hungry lungs, oozing pinkish froth, gave up. She longed for Vani’s nearness, the crispness of her sandwiches. Blackness seeped in from all sides.

#

Fishermen rescued Charu. She had lain enmeshed in river weeds, in the deepest portion of the western riverbed. In the red and white confines of an ambulance, she opened her eyes to see the same girl, with matted hair, peering at her; Charu tried to move and touch her.

The paramedic yelled, “Don’t move,” sedated Charu, put a tube into her mouth, and down through her laryngitic throat, connected her to a transport ventilator. Four days later, in the hospital, she was disconnected from the ventilator.

Vani, silent and distant, was by her Ma’s side; she preferred non-fiction now, was reading a book titled the moth’s powdery flap, by a Tibetan author.

Charu had three sessions with Dr. Sharma, the psychiatrist. She had to confront her problems this time; much like her melody, the girl was not real; she knew it now. As Sharma pointed out they were just hallucinations, only as real as mirror images.

#

Charu twisted her room’s doorknob; it squeaked; the hefty cherry wood door opened. An old chest of drawers abutted the wall opposing the doorway; two picture frames rested on it. The metal frame had a picture of a thirty-some Charu holding a child on her waist. A wooden frame leaned on the sturdier metal frame; it had a bleached-out polaroid picture of her, in her teens, with another girl. Both girls sported a neatly oiled double-plaited hairstyle, were in half saris.

Two weeks had passed since her discharge. Like notes sung off-key, Charu’s internal melody loitered around: a reminder of her porosities. The tune—now a guest she knew well, was no more the trespasser she was scared of. It existed like any shelved, blurred-out memory.

She had stopped texting concert organizers, difficulty singing at high pitch persisted; music research interested her now.

Vani entered with a knock. “Your pills.”

“Can you play Carnatic FM using that App?” Charu smiled at Vani.

“I’ll try.” With the zippy precision of a twenty-first-century youth, Vani turned the phone into a portable FM radio.

Charu put her headphones on. The first two songs were dull renditions. Charu was about to give up, the RJ announced: “Chandrashekharam Ashraye, by M.S. Subbulakshmi.”

M. S. Subbulakshmi’s voice filtered in; Charu closed her eyes and sang along. The sound from within gushed out like a geyser to meander past tones and syllables, festooning them at will; it flooded and filled all shapes, defining everything with an acuteness.

Charu never sang in Carnatic concerts.

#

Tashi, now the head of a Monastery, author of a New York Times Bestseller, the moth’s powdery flap, was addressing Madras’s musician on the topic: “Me and my moth’s flap.”

“God’s sound cannot be heard; it has to be seen,” he paused for applause.

Vani, in the first row, was the only one to clap.

“Control yourself,” Charu composed her, who was now working on a research project with a Psychology foundation, “Raga signatures in auditory hallucinations.”

Twenty minutes of god, sound, and sedative verbosity rolled by; half of the audience egressed, translated to traffic congestion in Cathedral road; most of the other half, two-wheeler riders, chose to doze away in the hall; the forecast was for a high of 41 °C.

“The inner sound is a moth’s flap, in a silent cave,” he said, “the sound maybe nonexistent.”

He closed his eyes, cleared his throat, “but, the released powdery scales, aren’t.” He nodded, smiled, and cupped his dimpled chin with his stout right hand. “These sounds, you have to embrace them; be mindful of them; have them on a leash.” He laughed until his eyes teared.

Dissonant snoring, notes emanating from disparate echo chambers, magically resonated with the air conditioners’ coarse hum. A kid’s laughter embellished the sound mix.

Tashi did not open his eyes this time.

THE END