One of the few sweet memories I have of my mother is about the rare occasions she would bring out her old Veena. Rare? Once in blue moon, rather. In her girlhood, it was mandatory that girls should be proficient in either singing or dancing; my mother took up singing, but her voice wasn't that good so she switched to playing Veena. Which she did so beautifully. I still remember how haunting it was. I would sit before her and watch entranced, her long, gracefull fingers skimming over the strings, the way she would tease music out of the instrument.
And then there were yet rarer occasions I would catch her humming old Hindi film songs; songs from the 1940s, from her youth. One particular song she loved was - ' Hawa mein udtha jaaye, mera lal dupatta malmal'. As a diehard devotee of old Hindi film songs, it counted among my favourites too. A few years back I got a video CD with this song sequence. The scene was just as I had imagined it always. A pretty lass running about in a beautiful landscape with a stream and open country.
In the early 1980s I started my banking career at Chidambaram, in Tamil Nadu. Those were miserable days but it was at Chidambaram that I first learned how to glean happiness out of solitude.
The following is an unpublished poem which I wrote when I was in Varanasi in 2004. My mother was with me on her very last journey; in a clay pot, pieces of bones and ashes, her very last remains.
An Old Song
The tower of the temple loom up to the skies
Chidambaram, holding the skies aloft.
The mid-day sun, relentless, scorches
The last drop of pity evaporates.
The awnings of the shops like stiff, windless sails
Shiva in temple does his cosmic dance.
Devotees do a jiggle or two
Barefoot, on the hot, stone-paved yard.
In the corner where the jewel shops eat
Into the shops with groceries full
Stands an old woman with a cross, hung
Not Christ, but naphthalene balls and safety pins.
Her hair is dusty with grime and grit
Her ‘chela’ hangs in folds so loose
Her skin and partly exposed breasts
Swing as she turns, like flappy old sails.
She chants something – Paacha chana re?
Probably meaning, saying something
Calling out her wares or calling out to the Lord
Never will I know or couldn’t care less.
The old woman has fine bones still,
Her flesh, once firm, now hangs from it.
She is tall and her gaze scans all
The sky and the people moving about.
Standing in a shade, I watch her for a while
Her wares worth a few rupees.
She doesn’t sell for the while I am there
But still she chants- Paacha chana re?
Naphthalene balls for my moth-eaten life?
Safety pins to pin up the shreds?
A cross, when I am already hung
Rusty nails, stuck into my heart?
Time drifts - the day shifts from noon to dusk
The woman hardly lifts her legs.
I smoke, drink coffee, stare-a-blank
At the girls who pass in nonchalance.
Five and twenty years have passed
I still can see her as I did.
I am old now - so what happens
To the old of twenty, thirty years back?
The old, they drift, like grains of sand
They do not die, they just shift
Their legs from one world to next
Stand in their corners and chant or hum-
Like my mom-
Of her red Dupatta caught in the wind1 .
*********** Varanasi 26/10/04
1. Lata’s old song – Hawa mein udthaa jaaye, more lal dupatta malmal …