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- Mattie Stepanek
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Chennamma wiped her face with the end of the saree and squatted in the verandah of Sastrigal’s sprawling bungalow. Her work over, she sat down for her morning coffee which Arundhati poured out in a big tumbler. The notes of some four or five children singing sa sa re re gaga mama papa… came through the drawing room where Mahadevan Sir was teaching them Janthai varshi. The children would usually come in the evening but the schools being closed for the Christmas break allowed the children to come in the mornings. They were free to play in the evenings or sit and chat in the society compounds.
Bhanu, Chennamma’s nine year old daughter, was looking at the children singing. She loved to listen to them after her chores were completed. She knew her mother and Aruna mami would talk for some time before mother and daughter would leave for other houses. Today, she got vadas and dollops of chutney to go with it. While nibbling the vadas, she listened carefully to the singing and noted how each child’s voice was different.
Class over, the children trooped out hurriedly to avoid the long lecture that saar would give on the importance of daily practice. Mahadevan sir or saar went out for some work and the music class was extremely quiet after the violent notes from the young vocal chords. Bhanu stood looking at the tanpura for a long time. She could listen to the faint voices of her mother and Aruna mami discussing the different ways to make idlis as soft as possible. Seeing the coast clear, Bhanu picked up the Tanpura and idly pressed the strings when panic gripped her as she heard the deep rich sounds of the instrument. She immediately put it down, waiting for some sounds from the kitchen. Silence! No one came. She picked it up again. This time around, she held it in the right position and strummed the strings carefully and in the right sequence.
Lost in her own world, she failed to see sir looking at her with what looked like a deep frown. Bhanu opened her eyes and was petrified to see sir looking at her. She got up immediately and was beginning to mumble some apology when Saar’s grim face showed a rare unexpected smile. The whole face changed, showing a kind heart. He sat down quietly, took the Tampura and showed the little girl how to strum the strings properly. Bhanu smiled shyly and extended her hand in a half hearted, hesitant manner to show that she was interested in showing what she had learnt in those few minutes.
Mahadevan Sir gave back the tanpura and listened to his latest student’s performance….expecting perhaps nothing ….perhaps quite a lot…nevertheless his face showed no emotion. But one thing was certain. He showed enough interest in her to give her a dismissive nod and to say, “Come tomorrow, after work and tell mami to send a tumbler of coffee”
Bhanu hurried to her mother’s side looking as quiet as ever but today she felt her heart beat in a different way. The tanpura classes of Bhanu went on quite smoothly for some months before they were abruptly stopped by a minor tiff between Aruna mami and Chennama. The matter was extremely trivial, to say the least, but misunderstandings festooned in both the ladies’ heart to rupture the ages old relationship.
Some years later, Bhanu stood outside the Mylapore temple selling knickknacks for some extra income. She enjoyed coming here in the evenings after doing the daily chores rounds of households. She enjoyed the sense of freedom that she had running the steps of the temple, pestering the tourists especially ladies to buy this or that. In another ten days, the arubathu Moovar festival would start and lakhs of devotees would land here. Though she had started selling bangles, combs, peacock feathers only since the last two years she had a knack to pick on a soft target that would end up buying even things that they do not need. She could gauge from a distance the kind of person who would be willing to take out money from the purse.
One Monday evening, as Bhanu sat with her friends talking and giggling, she saw a white lady around 30 years of age. She was wearing an Indian dress and a big bindi on a forehead. What caught Bhanu’s attention was not the attire but a Tanpura held precariously in the lady’s left hand and on the right hand she was carrying a large bag, some flowers and a coconut. Bhanu ran to her and offered to hold the Tanpura as she saw the latter struggling with everything.
Smilingly, the lady handed over the Tanpura and even sowed interest in the peacock feathers. The sale done to everyone’s satisfaction, Bhanu suddenly said, “I knowing how to play it…..”
“Really! That is great….will you teach me how to play…I don’t know many people in Chennai” said the lady.
“Oh, yes….why not….” , said Bhanu ,now wondering why had she blurted out those words.
“Yeah, fine …. I will come to your house……” said the lady.
“No….no you no come ...i come to you…..” said Bhanu hurriedly as she thought of her small shack with no place to sit except a worn out mat.
The lady smiled and said, “Ok, you know the Residency Guest House… come there at 5 in the evening. Is it ok?”
“Ok…. What name?” asked Bhanu.
“Sarah … my name is Sarah. And how much will you charge?” answered the lady.
“ Charge?” asked Bhanu with a big question mark on her face.
Quickly Sarah showed the gesture of counting money with her fingers which perhaps is the most understood gesture in the whole world.
Bhanu’s face lit up. She liked the idea of getting money because half of the month her mother kept telling people, knocking at the door step, to come later for money.
And then she did something that sounded strange even to her ears. She blurted out , “ 1500 rupees….i ch..charge 1500 for a month.. She had heard that her brother, working at a general store, got this much for slogging it out from morning 7 tonight.”
Bhanu looked expectantly. Half her mind told her that she would be shoved aside. Sarah, on the other hand, just smiled and nodded her head.
She said, “Come tomorrow at 5 in the evening. See you.” She waved bye and proceeded to climb the steps, balancing all the sundry objects in her hand.
And so it came about that Bhanu would wear one of her two best clothes, each alternate day with a gay trot to the Guest house. At first, the Durban did not allow such a person entering the haloed halls of a 3 star rated place. Later, he relented and chatted like an old friend.
The classes went on to almost three weeks. Bhanu was happy. Sarah aunty was nice and kind. She did not know if she was a good teacher or not but aunty learnt a few strings very fast. Language posed a problem. Sarah picked up a few phrases of Tamil and Bhanu picked up a few English ones. Bhanu wanted to learn because it helped her to talk to foreign tourists and she knew Gopu, Badri and Lalli did not even come close to her as far as English was concerned.
After the three weeks Sarah aunty had to leave for Delhi. She had some work there. Bhanu would miss aunty and even the biscuits, and chocolates that she always had in abundance. But she also knew, she could not pull on with her limited knowledge of music for long. She was relieved. She was waiting for the money. Her mind soared at the thought of the crispy notes in her hand. She would buy so many things…..1500 may not be much…but for Bhanu it was the Alladin’s cave ,full of goodies…full of unseen treasures…she would get a pink frock like the ones on TV….she would eat all sorts of cakes and sweets that shown through the glass shelves. So many times she wanted to get to the other side….slide open the doors and pick up lip smacking creamy pink and white soft mushy pastries.
Bhanu entered the lane of her temple, now suddenly conscious of her great treasure. She felt that all eyes were on her and would suddenly pounce on her to take away the money. As she slowly walked , her eyes fell on the demon goddess Kali with her tongue popping out. She thought that those eyes seemed to point out at her money and scream- “You have cheated …..You have cheated.. .you have lied…..teaching Tanpura for 1500…..you have made a mistake….” Each phrase became louder and louder as she put one foot forward…the voices were so loud that she was amazed that no one heard them.
Petrified, she sat down on the pavement ….unable to walk further….the money in her hand now became something terrible, dreadful and monstrous. It felt like an overgrown spider in her hand. She felt as if all eyes were pouring down her back..
And then she saw a taxi slowing down next to the tea shop. She hailed the taxi and asked the driver, “ anna, anna, will you take me to the airport? Please?”
“What will you do at the airport? Do you want to fly to your village? I don’t think your village has an airport. Tut tut…go let me drink my tea in peace” said the driver and dismissed her.
“anna, anna please… I have someone’s money…I have to return it…. I will pay the fare.” pleaded Bhanu.
Something in her voice must have touched a chord in the taxi driver’s heart as his face softened.
He nodded and asked her to sit. As the taxi drove past Chennai’s busy roads Bhanu’s mind was in turmoil. She was relieved that she was doing the right thing, was worried that she might be too late and anxious as she had never seen an airport. Bhanu’s mind raced faster than the wheels of the taxi. Where will she find Sarah Aunty? How big is an airport? Would she have to buy a platform ticket?
As they reached the airport, she was suddenly seized with the desire to turn back as she did not have the heart to see the pained look on Sarah aunty’s face.
She got down and told the driver, “anna, please wait… I will be back in a minute”
“Oh, oh so this is the plan…. You pay my fare and let me go.” said the driver, cursing the moment he had taken pity on this young girl.
“Anna… I promise I will come back…please”
“What are you doing here, Bhanu?” drifted a voice from far as Bhanu saw the familiar face full of kindness and concern.
“Sara aunty…sara aunty….i…..i ch…..cheated” words failed to come out of her choked throat and she burst out crying.
“There..there don’t cry…”said Sarah as she bent down to comfort the child.
“I know you have come to tell me that Tanpura is an easy instrument and does not take more than three classes to learn. I knew it in the second class itself as the hotel receptionist had informed me. But I continued because I liked your spunk….your ….dhairyam….” said Sarah.
Bhanu could not understand much that was spoken but she understood the smile, the warm hug and the beauty of the kind face.
“Promise me that you will study in the morning and sell flowers only in the evening,’ said Sarah.