Beloved Strangers

Beloved Strangers by Maria Chaudhuri

Book: Beloved Strangers by Maria Chaudhuri Read Free Book Online
Authors: Maria Chaudhuri
hoped to gain from music.
    ‘It makes me happy,’ I said without thinking.
    ‘Oh, really?’ he said, the question, lingering not so much in the words as in the deadening look in his eyes.
    I held my ground and stared back at him.
    ‘Look,’ he said, suddenly relaxing, ‘I’ve always told your mother the truth, so I’m going to do the same with you.’
    It was shocking how quickly he changed his tactic, how quickly he went from openly condescending to cold and calculative. He needed me to believe him.
    ‘Do you know what kids like you remind me of?’ he was saying.
    I shook my head, surprised by how the sharp pitch of his voice betrayed his tranquil features. There were tiny beads of sweat above his thin upper lip. He was trying hard not to let the bitterness spill out of him and into his face and on to the harmonium and down to the very ground beneath our feet.
    ‘You remind me of young green grass, crushed under a rock. You have no hope of sunlight and no place to grow. Your attempts are in vain,’ said Azim Khan.
    I didn’t refute his sweeping verdict. I couldn’t. There was a hypnotic quality to his malice, a certain flair and flow to it. This was a man who spent so much time thinking vindictive thoughts that there was eloquence and ceremony in his words. To argue with him would be to try and fight a wild beast with one’s bare hands. Not unlike the lion or the tiger, he was always poised to pounce on his opponent, dig his fangs into their powerless flesh and tear them to bits. Eventually, I learned to anticipate the first gleam of attack in his beady eyes, just before he was about to make a vicious remark. I memorised how he swayed his balding head from side to side when he disapproved of something, which was often. I came to imitate, perfectly, the shape of his small, cunning mouth right after something vile had come out of it. Listening to his unkind words was like watching a puppet show where, despite knowing that someone else manipulates the lifeless figures, you watch, spellbound by the puppet’s tricks. In later years, when the immediacy of our interactions receded from my memory, a different aspect of his face emerged, penetrating through the mask of harshness I had come to know so well. Deeply embedded in his small features was a vast fear, one that he sought to transfer to others.
    I no longer remember how exactly the lessons stopped. There was no finality or grand conclusion to it. The whole enterprise fizzled out like a fire that never quite reached its potential. I can only assume my mother had expected it because she did not say a word about it nor offered to find me a new guru. Our silence on the matter was mutual, impenetrable and absolute. I continued to sing in the bathroom but there was a hush in my voice and a dullness in my movements. It was hard to believe that just the year before the bathroom had been the sanctuary of my dreams, the mirror a glittering reflection of my unfaltering hope and joy.
    Two years later, in my college course catalogue, I came across a picture of Shiva Nataraj, the God of Dance. I ran my forefinger along Shiva’s raised limbs as I eyed the caption for the class: Indian Classical Dance I. Old yearnings stirred inside. What if I could find a different passion? A passion to replace music in my life, or more correctly, to erase it from my dreams. Was it even possible? Was it worth the trouble? I ended up signing for the class.
    It didn’t take long to discover that my joints, unlike my voice, were stiff, awkward and resistant. Symmetry and balance were completely missing in my limbs. I could easily carry a rhythm on my lips but had none in my feet. I was drawn to the beauty of the dance but I was running a fool’s errand in trying to be a dancer.
    The following semester I signed up for Indian Classical Dance II. I couldn’t help it. It was the only place where I could hear the ragas again, listen to the high notes of the harmonium, the pulsating beat of

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