The Wandering Minstrel
Updated: Dec 2, 2018
Some memories are best kept under wraps. However, with time, they can cause heartburn and demand to be released to the wider world, at times in a fit of catharsis...
This happened at least twenty years ago, maybe earlier. Abira and I were heading to Jamshedpur, in the first flush of marriage, aquiver with excitement at the prospect of watching a high quality live performance of ghazals. My uncle and a host of my cousins lived in Jamshedpur, the steel city, still a beacon of hope back then in the industrial desert that was the state of Bihar.
The concert featured Hariharan, a vocalist of exceptional ability; and to add spice to the mix, Bula, a budding singer (who also happens to be a distant relation) was going to accompany the great “Hari” on a couple of songs.
The event was part of the annual cultural fest of XLRI, a management institute nestled in a leafy campus and peopled by nerdy young folk wearing serious expressions. At the appointed time, we and the cousins bundled out of the car, which was threatening to burst at the seams due to the weight of humanity packed inside. After duly checking that our finery and make up were all in place, we walked into the auditorium, trying our best to look like cognoscenti of the fine arts.
The Concert and the Morning After
The concert more than lived up to our expectations, and with our hearts filled to the brim, we came back home, floating in what seemed like an ocean of melody. Everyone agreed that Hari was the best thing to have happened to ghazal in decades. Bula’s efforts to match the master note for note were also highly commended, and there was unanimity that here was a star in the making.
As the day after dawned, we packed with heavy hearts. I dreaded the return to the daily drudgery of professional life, and my wife was already fretting over the mountain of housework that awaited her — this was in the days of single-income households, where conjugal roles were split in very traditional lines. We waved tearfully to the whanau on the train station, and with a rock and a jolt, we were off steaming back to Kolkata on the Steel Express.
The matchless Hariharan - with a rendering that blends western elements into a Hindustani classical fabric
Till today, I struggle to explain to myself the sequence of events that unfolded soon afterwards; it’s possibly a bit extreme to say that I took leave of my senses. I remember getting off my seat, promising to Abira that I would be back in a few minutes. Perhaps I intended to check out the food available in the pantry car, I really can’t remember now. What I do remember with perfect clarity is the presence of Hariharan in a red tee shirt, slouched next to a window, turning his head to look at me companionably as I was walking past. There was never a greater opportunist than me, as I held out the back of my train ticket for him to scribble his autograph. After the usual fan-blabber, I felt it was time to show off my encyclopedic knowledge to him; stamp my mark on his memory, so to speak. ‘I really loved the way you sang “Seene mein jalan” in the movie Gaman. And on debut too!’ I gushed,’ One of my favourite ghazals!’ To which Hari replied, an angelic smile lighting up his face,’ That song was sung by Suresh bhai (Suresh Wadkar). Not by me. I sang “Ajeeb saaneha mujh par”.’
I made a hasty exit, after mumbling ‘Yes of course, that’s the song I meant’. There was a burning sensation at the back of my neck, and I thought I could hear faint sounds of laughter from around me, but when I looked around all I could see was an old couple seated at the far end of the compartment, engrossed in their home-made samosas.
Abira later commented that I looked unwell when I came back to join her, and I responded by saying it might be the after-effects of the prawn curry I had the night before. But I could never really explain to her why I remained unusually quiet over the duration of the trip home.