This one is inspired by two posts by very gifted authors – Ramaa Ramesh‘s Conversations and Krtgrpher‘s The Price. If you aren’t following their blogs, you’re missing out. The following is set forty years from now.
To my dearest chella kutty Thulasi,
I hope you never read this. I hope I get better. I hope God gives me the chance to tell you all the things that only a paati can tell her pethi. I hope I get the chance to see you grow up into a wonderful woman. But this diabetes may have other things in mind. They say the heart attack was very mild, but it has left me very weak, and I fear the next one will not be long in coming.
As I write this, you are laughing on the swing, six years old and the dearest thing in the world. Your rettai jadai, your smile, the way you run to me when you see me, the way you play with my hair… I see more and more of your mother in you every passing day. You are the pride and joy of my life, as you are your mother’s, and I hope my love will protect you long after I am gone. But I am not writing this letter to tell you I love you. No, it is to tell you about our family, your grandfather, your mother and about singing itself. And to give you one final task that only you can do.
For seven generations, the women in our family have been gifted with the ability to sing. It comes naturally to us, much like breathing or walking. Our ancestors have won much fame, singing for the royal family on all their auspicious occasions. But we have never done it for money – we sing because it is what we do. Our family is revered as one of the few traditional houses of music still in existence.
Our family is also well-known for the importance and freedom we give our women. Both your mother and I were well educated. Even your kollu paati was well educated by the standards of her times. As a young girl, when I announced I wanted to work in Bangalore, and that I wanted to stay alone, I was encouraged rather than admonished. My friends were astonished that my parents would let me stay in a strange city alone, as it was unheard of at that time. As fate would have it, it was staying at Bangalore that led to meeting your grandfather.
I still remember it so well. I had come home after a long day at the office. I slumped onto the apartment’s balcony swing (it is the same swing you are now having so much fun on). My apartment was on the 6th floor, and there was a gentle breeze. The sun was setting on the horizon, throwing a pink haze on the sky. There was no one around. I closed my eyes and started singing one of my favorite songs, Lesa Lesa.
I lost myself in the tunes and finished singing. The sound of somebody clapping startled me and I opened my eyes to find a young man in the opposite apartment balcony, smiling and clapping. He was wearing a slightly wrinkled white checked shirt and a black pant, with a large metal watch on his right hand. He looked so handsome with the wind in his hair, his light stubble, and his eyes twinkling in amusement. I somehow managed to stutter my thanks and go inside. Your grandfather later used to joke I blushed so hard that even in the dim light he could have noticed it a mile away.
The next day I saw him again on the balcony, and I screwed up my courage to talk to him. Chatter about work and our impossible managers slowly saw us become friends. One day, he asked me to sing again. That made me more nervous than singing for concerts! I closed my eyes and slowly sang Lesa Lesa again. His applause and the look in his eyes when I finished made me feel like I was the best singer in the world. In the days that followed, my singing for him on the balcony became a regular event. I found myself looking forward to it more and more, and I just zipped through work each day so that I could be there at my balcony. At first, I was too shy to open my eyes when I sang for him. But later on, I grew to love looking at him as I sang. He would drink in my song, with his eyes fixed on me, as if he was seeing my song rather than hearing it. When I sang his favorites, he would look away into the distance, and I could tell from his eyes whether the song had a joyful or a sad memory for him. Somehow, when I sang for him, I knew he felt the same nameless joy that I felt, in the same way that I felt it. And I knew that one love had led me to another.
Years later, your mother was born, and started singing as well. She used to sing everything she heard when she was little. Ottagatha ketiko was one of her favorite songs, I still have a recording of her singing it that brings a smile to my face whenever I hear it. I should remember to pass it on to you one of these days. Later, as she was learning singing, I would sing along with her. Your grandfather would sit with his eyes closed, enjoying our singing. He was the only person who could tell the difference between our singing and our voices. For your mother, singing meant your grandfather enjoying it, and the hug and the kiss he would give her at the end.
Your mother was becoming an excellent singer. Your grandfather was so proud of her, he would drag all his friends to our home to hear her sing. The date had been set for her debut performance. Two days before the performance, your grandfather was called away to Bangalore on business at the last moment. Your mother threw a tantrum, refusing to perform until he returned and was seated in the audience. And your grandfather, in spite of the heavy monsoon rains, promised to return, taking a late night bus. He never could refuse his daughter anything.
He never reached his darling daughter’s performance. The bus he was travelling in met with an accident, a head on collision with another bus. The dark of the night and the heavy rains had reduced visibility to almost zero, leading to the gruesome accident in which over 12 people died.
The world fell apart for your mother and me. Your mother thought it was all her fault, that if she had not called him to come in such haste, he would not have boarded that bus. She kept saying that over and over again as I held her to me weeping. You can imagine what singing meant to her after that. She said she would never sing again. She holds to that even today.
Your grandfather was a good man Thulasi. He was kind, loving and thoughtful. He never raised his voice to either of us. His passing left a void in me that I can never hope to fill. But I knew that he loved hearing his wife and his daughter sing, and that the last thing he would have wanted was for your mother to stop. It was singing that brought your grandfather and I together, and I feel his presence in every note that I sing. When I sing Lesa Lesa, I am transported back in time to that balcony, when your grandfather smiled for my song.
I have told this to your mother many many times, but she will not listen to me. She will not let me teach you singing either. In her mind, she knows it is not right, but such things are matters of the heart, and words and reason have little effect there. It must be you, my chella kutty, who must get her to sing again. For I know that if you start to sing, her heart will melt and she will not able to contain herself. The song will flow. The tears will come. And your mother will finally be able to let go.
But even if none of this had happened, I would still urge you to sing, just for the pure joy of singing. You are too young to understand now, but when you grow up and start working, there will always be something on your mind, something to do, some goal to work towards. You will always be tense that there was something to do that you forgot. And therein lies the beauty of singing.
“Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I am dancing, I have felt touched by something sacred.In those moments, I felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing then it is the eternal dance or creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy. I keep on dancing…and dancing…and dancing. Until there is only…the dance.” – Michael Jackson
When you sing, there is nothing else. There is only the next note that you must hit. And the gap between notes, that delicious gap when one note slowly disappears and the next one is born in your mind. In a song, there is no goal, no deadline, no destination. The song itself is the goal, and it teaches you to enjoy the present, to lose yourself in the flow, to think of nothing but the next thing to do. A song can teach you much, if you listen to more than the music.
I had hoped to tell you all this when you are older, when you could understand such things. Fate is forcing my hand. I wish you a wonderful life my kutty. Look after your parents, especially your mother. Be happy. Sing.
*Raagangal Pathinaaru – the sixteen ragas. Also a great song from one of my favorite movies.
chella kutty – darling
paati – grandmother
pethi – granddaughter
kollu paati – great grandmother
rettai jadai – two plaits