Morning arrived like every other morning. The usual chores, the usual rituals surrounding ‘toast and tea’. Staring for a while at the newspaper without reading it. Then, to prepare myself ‘to meet the faces that I meet’, a stroll over to the balcony. A sunny day awaited me and people were going about their ways, each towards his or her destination, too busy to notice me. Which reminded me. This had not always been the case. People who used to walk past our balcony in another part of the city during another epoch of history, did notice us, or at least some of them did. That’s putting things somewhat mildly though. There were passersby who not only noticed us, but actually made it a point to draw our attention towards them.
Amongst them was the old man we came across in A Two Penny Opera (to be called two-penny for short), the one who possessed dubious singing skills. And there was of course the other old man too, who could have offered him stiff competition as far as the nuisance value of vocal chords went. If memory serves me right though, the two-penny entertainer had given his last performance well before his rival showed up. Consequently, the tournament actually never took place. Which is not to say that a tournament was not fought at all. A somewhat violent confrontation in this context did actually occur, but two-penny had no role to play in it.
The aforementioned locality for the story, if you permit me to refresh your memory, was one of the right hand branches of Jatin Das Road that connected to Lake Terrace. Lake Terrace itself, despite its somewhat wiggly appearance, ran more or less parallel to the main stem of Jatin Das Road and, as I had told you elsewhere, I physically arrived on earth near the midpoint of this connector. If Jatin Das Road were to be likened to a river, the connecting branch that bore the same name, could well remind you of one of its tributaries. However, the same logic should have applied to Lake Terrace as well, except that for reasons unknown to me, the municipality refused to accord to this southern neighbour of Jatin Das Road the status of a street that allowed us an address named after itself. Not that it didn’t have a branch of its own too, but to locate it you needed to walk eastwards from the Jatin Das branch where I found my identity.
The cluster of neighbourhood buildings that constituted my customary hangouts during the Jatin Das days could be approached therefore either northwards from Lake Terrace or southwards from the Jatin Das mainstream. And people arrived there in their respective journeys with or without maps. Happy people some should have been. Some complaining about vague misfortunes. A few searched for addresses that never existed. A man who had completely lost his mind and visited our residence in the small hours of the morning looking for my dentist dad. He had, unfortunately, once been employed by my dad to carry out small errands. Many of them may rightfully show up some day or the other in these pages. The present story, however, will be reserved for two-penny’s successor and the duel he fought with a member of the opposite sex.
He was tall compared to two-penny, who was in turn shorter than most people I have known. The new arrival carried, like his predecessor, a tin can. Curiously enough, the can too was somewhat longer and narrower than two-penny’s. Its paper wrapper had disappeared, so what the tin originally contained when sold across the counter is a mystery we will not pursue. Unlike two-penny, he didn’t use the can’s bottom as a percussion instrument. He belonged in fact to the doleful category of visitors and simply begged in multifarious tones, collecting in his can whatever he was offered. Like most of his kind, his dark skin grew darker each day as the sun shone unsparingly on him. His hairless face sat above his bare torso, while a piece of cloth that had once been white covered him waist downwards. It was hard to make out if he ever washed either himself or the cloth. As I remember him, his face bore an inscrutable expression. His lips were permanently stretched in a manner that made it difficult to figure out if he was smiling or crying. He could well have been a real life male version of Mona Lisa, even if he failed to inspire any gifted artist to draw his portrait. Like two-penny, he too deserves a name. We shall refer to him therefore as Mona Lisa Man, or simply by an acronym of sorts, Mlm (to be pronounced Mlem).
There being little novelty in Mlm’s begging skills, he did not draw much attention to begin with. Soon enough though, he realised that he needed to turn innovative to increase his earnings. And lugubriosity being the only capital in his possession, he decided to sell it under the garb of music. In other words, two-penny’s successor arrived one fine morning in a new role. The role of a singer. This was a misfortune for us, for Mlm produced sound waves, or simply noises, that were totally out of tune. He was musically handicapped, and severely so, even compared to two-penny. Besides his repertoire consisted of a single number. And this was Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, the much popular bhajan sung all across India in praise of Lord Rama, the godly hero of the Indian epic Ramayana.
As most Indians know, the second line of the bhajan runs Patita Pavana Sita Ram. For those unfamiliar with Hindi, a rough translation of these two lines is in order. It says — ‘O Lord Rama, descendant of Raghu! You and your beloved consort Sita are the uplifter of the fallen.’ The words ‘patita pavana‘ refer in fact to the fallen awaiting elevation by the royal couple.
Quite apart from singing this song out of tune, Mlm, regrettably enough, appeared to change its very meaning as well. Being asthmatic perhaps, he struggled to find back his breath by the time he reached the ‘patita pavana‘ part. He broke up the second line of the song therefore into two distinct parts, ‘patita pava’ and ‘na-Sita Ram‘. Since Mlm invariably applied extra emphasis on the ‘na‘ after finding back his breath, his version of the song changed Sita to na-Sita. Sita, replaced by ‘na-Sita‘ sounded like ‘no-Sita’, for ‘na‘ has a negative connotation in most languages. This produced a fresh new interpretation of the song, one that ran totally counter to its original meaning. Instead of rescuing the fallen, Mlm lamented as it were that neither Sita nor Ram were even available to perform the task.
But there was room I felt for yet another interpretation; that instead of praising Lord Rama, Mlm was moaning over the misfortunes suffered by a Sita-less Rama. And since Rama does in fact shed tears in the epic over Sita’s abduction by a demon King, the Sita-less Rama idea could not be entirely ruled out. Rama finally ended up killing the demon to rescue his beloved wife, but that part of the story has no bearing on the song in question.
Let us move on now to the second character in this tale, a woman, who is best described as a wandering minstrel. She wasn’t exactly young, but Mlm was definitely older than her. She wore cleaner clothes, a white saree and some sort of a matching top. Her plentiful hair was tightly bound into a knot above her head. She was dark skinned too, in fact more so than Mlm, with sandalwood markings on her forehead. These were unmistakable signs of some religious sect or the other to which she belonged. She carried a traditional one stringed drone lute, the ektara, which she played in accompaniment with a whole range of bhajans that she sang with remarkable grace. Her voice was endowed with both weight and range and it was clear that she had managed to be musically trained sometime in her unknown past. Begging might well have been a way of life that her religious beliefs dictated. But there could have been other causes, not excluding tragic ones, underlying her peripatetic lifestyle. No one, however, was particularly inquisitive about her past. It was her singing alone that concerned us. It was literally a balm for our ears, suffering as they were from the Mlm engineered bomb blasts.
As soon as the notes floated out of her voice, the residents in the area turned alert and quite a few of them gathered in front of their homes as the woman sang from the pavement. This was a treat for us all and she received alms way above what the middle class neighbourhood could afford. After entertaining her audience with a number of songs, she departed I think towards the Lake Terrace end of the Jatin Das tributary, to rest a while perhaps prior to her next performance. The woman had dropped like manna from heaven and we waited impatiently for her next show each time she regaled us with her charming voice. She was a happy surprise for an audience accustomed to little other than mundanity.
The treat was not destined to last too long. And that was a tragedy, though the tragedy had a comic touch about it.
The woman arrived one late morning in spring and pulled at the single string of her instrument. Her voice echoed back the tune and we ran to our ring side seats on balconies and windows. Soon she sank deeply into her music with half-closed eyes and her audience too responded with dreamy appreciation. She didn’t exactly dance as she sang, but her head nodded lightly to the rhythm of her song and there was a ripple in her body. Her feet too lightly tapped on the pavement.
This day though was different from the others. For, all of a sudden, we received a rude shock. Immersed as we were in the music, no one noticed that Mlm too had arrived on the scene from the Jatin Das mainstream. He had crept quietly behind the woman and, without any prior notice at all, jolted her with his inimitable first strain of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram. We were totally unnerved by this unanticipated intrusion, though, to her credit, the woman sang on for a while, ignoring the interference. The man too did not stop. He stuck to his own performance ignoring completely the fact that someone else was singing simultaneously. And compared to her singing, his voice sounded as disconcerting as a loud drilling machine boring a hole through a metal sheet.
The woman was no Lata Mangeshkar needless to say, but the fiasco that ensued began to resemble the great singer being interrupted by the said drilling machine in her immediate neighbourhood. She was singing, if I remember correctly, Hari Mere Jeevan Pran. Translated, this should read, Hari (or, Krishna), thou art the very breath of my life. But Mlm was simultaneously treating us to his version of Raja Ram. Each ignored the other, with the result that the two lyrics mingled into a single one that left no scope for human comprehension at all. We were treated to a perfect fusion of tune and the tuneless, a musical cyclone of sorts. Some of us were irritated, but some smiled too, for what was happening in front of our eyes was buffoonery of the highest order. Even Chaplin might have found it difficult to reproduce.
In vain did we signal the man to stop. For Mlm, faithful to the name I christened him by, carried on his performance without batting an eyelid. The woman ignored the interruption for as long as she could, but eventually she lost her cool. And this happened, when much to her annoyance, she lost track of the notes and sang one totally out of rhythm. She stopped for a moment to correct herself, but failed again. And this is when the expression on her face changed with lightening speed from devotion to hatred. She swung around and faced the drill machine. Her entire appearance had changed and she was ready for battle. Now there was a single song being aired, the one Mlm sang, totally indifferent to the proceedings.
The woman screamed at Mlm in a voice that surprised us all. A ferocious battle cry it was which had no trace at all of musical softness in it. She was bitter and poured out her hidden supply of venom, one that could have been accumulated only through endless suffering. Her musical magic gave way to her torment ridden past. Music forgotten, she snarled like a leopard ready for the kill. However, before she could initiate her attack, Mlm too responded, for the first time throwing away his Mona Lisa mask.
They screamed at each other in a North Indian dialect that I could hardly follow, but I understood enough to know that there was no love lost between them. The woman, who had entertained us with her mellifluous voice so often, proved beyond doubt that she could get far more out of tune than Mlm. The latter at the same time swore at his loudest best. As I watched the scene, I wondered if either Rama or Hari were witnessing the incident sitting wherever they normally sit. Perhaps they did, but they certainly didn’t interrupt. The audience, however, finally lost its patience and began to disperse. Seeing which, it was the woman who decided to give up. A public road though being a public road, Mlm refused to budge. Not only so, he kept returning back to his na-Sita Ram refrain at the slightest sign that the woman might resume singing as well. She didn’t do so and simply walked away in disgust towards Lake Terrace and, sadly enough, never showed up again in our locality. In comic contrast, Mlm continued to sing at the appointed hour every day of the week. I cannot recall when his time ended, but he certainly did vanish one day, leaving the na-Sita puzzle eternally unsolved.
Our Jatin Das locality, however, has managed to withstand the test of time. Even during these rapidly changing days, the locality has not transformed too much, as I found out quite recently. The patch of pavement where the duel was fought exists still. The performers have disappeared for good of course, but that didn’t prevent in the least my ‘inward eye’ from resurrecting the concert from sixty odd years ago.
My eventfully eventless day is over now as evening is about to herald in yet another night. I have come back to the balcony to stare for a while at the moonlit sky. The street below is almost empty, except for a lonely street dog that passed by. Then suddenly, out of nowhere appeared a man with an open umbrella above his head. He walked away swiftly, protecting his head from the moonbeams I suspect, for it was not raining, nor was the scorching sun a source of discomfort. He was a loony no doubt, as lonesome as the dog. I have no idea where he is headed, but for a reason I cannot fully comprehend, I wish to follow the trail he left. Perhaps it can lead me back to my Jatin Das world once again.