Pondicherry – 90s
He was barely three years old and wore a soft blue hoodie and baggy jeans. He moved his feet from heel to toe, keeping them close together, his arms reaching out towards the varnished wooden stool. Climbing on it with some difficulty, he stared in awe at the magnificent white piano that graced the hall of their home.
The toddler's fingers spread individually on three black keys, and the melody of 'Hot Cross Buns' rose in exquisite harmony. Aden and Freddie's parents, sitting on the champagne-gold divan and chatting, paused in delight.
"Did you hear that, Susan? Our Freddie has already memorised the chords. Look at his finger movements."
Husband and wife stared with wonder at little Freddie, whose dark curls framed his exuberant face. His fingers moved with agility; his feet balanced on the footstool as he played with enthusiasm.
Behind the curtain stood eleven-year-old Aden. He was tall for his age, pale and attractive, having inherited his good looks from his French mother. His chocolate brown eyes were trained on Freddie, and he gripped the curtain with one hand while the other wiped his damp cheeks.
Aden had once dreamed of being a concert pianist like his mother. But dreams were for the talented, not boys like him, whose mother passed on, leaving her loving husband to replace her with an Indian bride. Not that Aden was bitter about it.
He blew his nose on a clean handkerchief as he remembered his beautiful mother. As long as she was alive, she had sent Aden to private school and got him the best tutors who knew how to draw out Aden's talent. But, too soon, she went away, leaving Aden and his dreams unfulfilled. His father had taken a second wife, Susan, in the hope of finding a mother for him.
Susan was a sweet stepmother, unlike what you read in the fairytales. Only Aden soon had a stepbrother, Freddie, who was loved more than him. Freddie was brilliant and seemed to have a flair for the piano right from his birth. At three, he was already moving his five fingers individually. Their music teacher confirmed what Aden had already guessed: Freddie will be a great musician … he is gifted. Aden will need to work to get there.
Aden came home crying that day. He longed for his mother. Had she been there, she would have politely told that teacher what she thought of his judgement. He had no right to discourage students.
Aden's father found Aden brooding near the window, staring out into the night. Lisa's backyard was visible from the window, and Aden shifted his gaze slightly towards it as he heard her voice. She was his classmate and had a huge crush on Aden.
The outdoor lights came on at 6 pm and went out at 10 pm. During that time, the bougainvillaea- white, red, pink, and fuchsia, the rose plants, and palm trees would be lit up from under and looked so splendid that he couldn't help but admire the view.
"Haven't you gone to bed as yet, son?"
Aden stared at his father's reflection on the windowpane; he seemed to have aged since his first wife's death. Could he be missing her too?
"I can't sleep, dad. Mom's in my thoughts a lot these days."
"You must give Susan a chance, son. Every time she approaches you, you cut her off."
"She only loves Freddie, Dad. You both barely notice my existence."
Five large healthy snow-white ducks with cinnamon heads scattered in different directions in Lisa's backyard. Lisa chased after them, managing to trap one under a basket while hunting for the other four. By the time she got all of them under that basket, she was wiping her face with her dupatta and breathing hard. The mischievous devils were quacking beneath the basket, not sounding too elated with their abode and probably complaining.
Aden's sullen expression brightened, and a reluctant smile teased the corner of his lips. Lisa was monitoring the ducks with a stick in her hand. The straw basket was too light a roof for those strappy ducks, and after a while, the basket was moving.
"Goodnight, Aden," his father brushed his lips on his forehead and patted his shoulder. Aden muttered under his breath a dutiful goodnight, his smiling gaze on Lisa.
Lisa was wearing the pink churidar Aden had gifted her for her birthday. After working for days with his father repairing their refrigerator, he had earned that money. His father felt that Aden should use his summer breaks wisely and taught him how to fix almost every electric gadget – televisions, refrigerators, toasters, etc. Aden had become such an expert that his father told him that he would send him to technical school. Aden was somewhat thrilled, but his heart still longed to go to a music school.
Aden smiled at Lisa during the school's lunch break as she met him under a banyan tree with her hot case. She looked sweet even in a boring uniform and her hair in twin braids. They studied at St Mathew's High School. He cultivated the friendship for one reason, Lisa's dad was a violinist. Through Lisa, he got to go to concerts, chat with him and continue to dream.
"Aren't you afraid your dad will notice the missing music books?" he said as he took a mouthful of delicious lunch of sambhar rice with cabbage poriyal. Aden had left home in a hurry, not wanting his stepmom to force him to take Freddie to school. She could do it; she had a car. A school bus was available too. Karim, the bus driver, adored Freddie and, for an extra buck, would take special care of him.
"I don't steal, Aden." Lisa said, drawing his attention back to her, "I asked Dad." She gave him the extra tiffin box and opened a packet of lime pickle and fresh papads that she saved in a plastic bag for Aden. Aden crunched on papads as he wolfed down the meal. "He knows you are talented."
"Not me, Lisa. Freddie's gifted. I need to practise, according to the music teacher," Aden said with his mouth full of sambhar rice.
"You are both gifted, especially when you play a duet," Lisa said, failing to notice how Aden winced. The last time he did a duet with Freddie, his stepmom placed a hand on his shoulder, requesting that her son play the lead and Aden should accompany him. Aden had allowed Freddie his limelight after that. The boy was a genius; how could Aden fault his parents for fawning over him?
That evening Aden toured La Ville Blanche (White Town), built by the French in the same Gallic and Mediterranean style as in Marseille. Mrs Koshy lived in one of the colonial edifices.
"Mrs Koshy, has mom come by?"
Mrs Koshy, their beautiful neighbour, was married to an Italian expatriate. She refused to accompany her husband on his projects to foreign countries and lived in luxurious dwellings. Many a time, Aden would go there to play on the keys. She'd always have a lovely meal for him. When he was depressed, she would try to reason out the situation and get him back to his smiling self.
"She came by yesterday to tell me of Freddie's progress."
Aden held on to his smile, although his lips were trembling. "Did she mention my progress?" he asked in a choked voice.
"Of course!" she said a little too quickly. "Seriously, Aden. She praised your technical skills more."
"Dad must have exaggerated as usual. If Mom contacts you, Mrs Koshy, let us know. Dad's worried."
"Where's she gone?" Her plucked brows creased as she posed the question, her hand still on the doorknob.
"To Patti's place. Every time she goes there, dad's heart is in his mouth."
"Understandable. Patti was against their marriage, you know. She felt Susan could do better than marry a widower with a child."
"Susan is lucky to get my dad, Mrs Koshy. He treats her like a queen."
"Yes, I tell Patti the same whenever she asks how Susan and her family are doing."
"Better if Patti makes the trip from Chennai and finds out how her talented grandson Freddie is doing!"
Mrs Koshy gave him a reproving glance. "I know you're still hurt about your dad marrying so soon after your mom's tragic death. But Susan loves you, Aden."
"Not as much as she adores Freddie."
"It's no fault of Freddie that your parents pamper him. I hope you won't be mean to him because of that."
"No, Mrs Koshy. Believe it or not, it is difficult not to love Freddie. You should hear him play. The room resonates with melodies as soon as he wakes up. He hears a song once, and he instantly hits the right keys."
"I can imagine. Okay, I need to go now. I want to try out a new recipe."
Aden spotted his best friend, Roshan, returning from Le Club, a French Restaurant on Dumas street, where he'd been helping out, much to his father's distress. Roshan's father wanted his son to join him in his camera repair shop. Shouldn't the youngster be learning the ropes of his father's business? He mourned day and night. Roshan, however, had made up his mind: "I'm going to Paris, Aden. I'm going to own a cafeteria."
Aden's worried expression lightened as he saw the angular-face long-hair boy on his Sun Atlas bicycle, skidding to a halt. Mrs Koshy ducked inside with a quick wave, smiling as she heard Roshan singing 'Voyage Voyage'. Everyone knew of Roshan's dreams of going to France.
Aden hopped on Roshan's bicycle while Roshan was in motion and managed to land on the backseat without shaking the bicycle. The song was a classic by artist Desireless, and he had to say Roshan was doing it justice. But something was missing; Aden gave it some peppy accompaniment with the right piano chords.
Voyage Voyage…plus loin que la nuit et le jour
(travel travel further than night and day)
F G Em
Voyage voyage…dans l'espace inouï de l'amour
(travel travel in spaces unheard by love)
F Dm G Em
Voyage voyage…sur l'eau sacrée d'un fleuve indien
(travel travel on the sacred waters of an Indian river)
F G Em
Voyage voyage Et jamais ne revient
(travel travel and never come back)
F Dm E
So involved was Roshan singing with his flawless French accent that he rode through a brood of ducks, knocked down a woman carrying a basket of vegetables and ran over a speed bump at top speed, almost unseating Aden. Suddenly, a broom flew their way as the cycle rolled over a freshly drawn rice Kolam. Roshan dodged, and having missed her target, the gigantic woman panted behind them, whacking Aden on his back and startling him out of his musical genius.
"Muṭṭāḷkaḷ(fools)!" she screamed.
"Nilanaṭukkam (Earthquake)!" Roshan screamed back as he speeded down the pathway, leaving Earthquake in rage.
"You're asking for trouble," Aden giggled, gripping his friend around the waist as Roshan increased the pedalling. "What if she complains to our parents?"
"Voyage Voyage…" Roshan sang enthusiastically.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram' Park Guest House was situated along the Bay, bordered by a line of coconut trees. The rooms overlooked the garden and the ocean. Aden had seen an advertisement on the notice board of Alliance Française that Park Guest House was looking for cleaners. So he took Roshan with him.
He and Roshan wore their Sunday best and decided to walk the stretch of the Bay to save on rickshaw fare. He asked Roshan not to bring his bicycle as he was already noted for rash riding and everyone waited to get back at him. By the time they slid through the tall, imposing gates after screaming their identities to the strict guard, they were not looking that neat. Roshan's long curls were damply clinging to the sides of his face. Aden's pants slid down his bottom as he had forgotten to wear a belt.
An old stern-looking woman dressed in white, her head covered in a white cape like a nun, looked at them up and down as they stood there, feeling as if they had displeased her already. She pointed to the laminated sheet on the reception desk. Roshan read loudly as if he was attending his English Oral Exam.
No indulging in alcohol and drugs.No coming in or going out late. No unnecessary chatting. No listening to music. No rash behaviour. Roshan giggled suddenly in between and attracted the woman's wrath. Aden interrupted before she threw him out. He needed Roshan with him to ease the atmosphere and was going to convince Aurobindo Aunty that he was a good worker.
"We are here for the job, Madam. We saw the advertisement for cleaners."
"How old are you?"
"Eighteen," Roshan said with a straight face.
Her eyes blazed like burning coals. Roshan swallowed hard. "Fifteen."
"There is one more rule which is not on the list: no lying!"
Roshan and Aden scampered down the tiled doorstep, darting to the left instead of the right after spotting the security guard running after them. They scaled up the wall and heaved themselves over, landing on their backsides on the lawn. With barely a moment to waste, they leapt and sped along the shore, sprang on the rocks and climbed back on the pathway where people were having their morning strolls.
Breathing hard, they held their sides, "Who'll want to work in that place anyway? We'll walk out like devotees," Roshan said. They laughed heartily and continued on their way.
When the school bell rang, Aden fetched Freddie, who attended primary Class and hurried to see Mrs Narayanan, the singing teacher. She had sent word that she wanted to meet the Pianist Brothers. Usually, she would be in the teacher's staff room, but she wasn't there.
"Aden, my legs are paining," Freddie said, squatting on the mosaic floor and refusing to budge.
Aden swung him over his back and lifted their bags on his shoulders. Freddie giggled as Aden galloped down the corridor and halted in front of the classroom where singing practice took place. He pushed open the door breathing hard. Freddie wasn't a featherweight, and he offloaded him with relief along with their heavy bags.
The classroom was in a harmonious choral as they entered. Mrs Narayanan had arranged the children according to their parts. Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, Bass. Lisa was leading the sopranos.
"Come on in, Aden, Freddie. Join the Class. Aden, you know the notes for Voyage Voyage?"
Aden grinned at Roshan. The latter looked like he was performing on stage with the way he was inhaling, exhaling and tuning his voice with Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do.
"Freddie, sit there in front of the piano. Aden, beside him. Freddie will play the melody at your prompting. You back him up."
Aden obligingly whispered the chords, not that Freddie needed much help. The long fingers flew over the keys, making that old piano sound like a Steinway in a concert hall. Aden improvised on the song, jamming in extra notes to give it some pep. In no time, the music room rocked.
Roshan's voice was deep and powerful, the vocal exercises seeming to have benefited him. Lisa was doing the chorus back up with a few girls and came in on time. Mrs Narayanan was smiling.
"If you perform like this for Inter-School Cultural, we'll walk away with the trophy."
After practice, Roshan, Lisa, Freddie and Aden stopped at Le Club, opposite the Alliance Française. They were famished. Roshan asked them to wait and hurried inside to meet the chef. Since he helped out during his summer breaks, the chef was fond of him. Their dear friend returned ten minutes later carrying a plastic bag. The fresh, crisp apple aroma intermingled with warm, mouth-watering spices tickled his nostrils.
"Tarte aux pommes (Apple pie)," he said.
"Tarte au citron (Lemon pie)," Freddie chirped, smacking his lips.
"Tarte banane chocolat(Banana Chocolate pie)," Lisa joined in.
Roshan beamed, "All three! I told the chef I'll work on weekends to make up for it."
They hurried across the nearly empty road, sat on a wall in front of the sleepy water boulevard and opened their packs. Aden shared his tarte with Freddie, and Lisa shared her tarte with Aden. The chef had thoughtfully provided a bottle of mineral water too. A few pigeons circled them, begging for some crumbs. Freddie could not finish his portion and shared a part of it with them. Roshan shooed away a fat pigeon rushing to steal every morsel before his peers could even smell them.
After the rich dessert, they walked Lisa home. Lisa's mother was at the gate, frowning anxiously as she saw them. She glared at Roshan before smiling at Aden and Freddie.
"Where did you go? Your mom has been frantically searching for you, Aden."
"You mean she was looking for Freddie?"
"We ate three tartes, Aunty," Freddie informed her with an air of importance. "Roshan got them for us."
Lisa's mother gave Roshan another glare, looking at the colourful bandana around his head and the blue shirt untucked from his dark blue shorts. Her attention shifted to Lisa, "Your father is waiting for you," she drew her inside, "Don't repeat this."
"We had singing practice, Mom," Lisa protested.
"I spoke to your teacher, Lisa. Practise got over one hour ago."
"It's my fault, aunty. I told Lisa I'd walk her home if she came with us," Aden said.
"As long as this boy," she gave Roshan a quelling glance, "is with you, you'll only be dreaming - not doing anything!"
Roshan didn't bother to defend himself. It felt like he was deaf to her insults. Lisa gave them an apologetic smile and scampered behind her mother.
When Aden and Freddie returned home that evening, their father was pacing the hallway. Patti, who never visited them, was seated on a straight back chair, sobbing in silence. Freddie had no reservations where his grandma was concerned and perched on her lap and wiped her tears with a soft hand.
"Why Patti is crying?"
She hugged him to her bosom and nearly suffocated him. Aden didn't want to overthink the sudden appearance of Freddie's grandmom, but something seemed wrong as his father strode out in a hurry without a word.
Aden ran behind him, his footsteps muted on the carpeted hallway and caught up with his father just before he got on his scooter.
"Dad, what's wrong?"
He looked at Aden with teary eyes, "Susan had an accident. She's in the I.C.U."
Aden turned pale. He fell against the wall, breathing fast as the news washed over him. Again? He hadn't gotten over the loss of his mother, and now his stepmom, whom he was beginning to love, was in the I.C.U.? He staggered inside, his shocked face communicating to Freddie's grandmom that he was aware of the news. He dropped on the canape and covered his face with trembling hands.
Would his stepmom make it? O God, forgive me! You gave me a sweet stepmother to love me, but my jealousy came in the way and choked my love. Suddenly, every harsh word, expression came to his mind. How his stepmom and his father had taken Aden to her home and unveiled the beautiful white piano. Aden had refused to play on it, although his fingers had been itching. The lovely smile on his stepmom's face had disappeared.
But she hadn't let that deter her and had baked his favourite Hachis Parmentier, a French casserole of mashed potato and beef mince layered with Emmental cheese.
"You can never be my mother!" Aden had screamed after taking the first bite. The dish had reminded him of his loss and that his mother would never come back. Susan had run out in tears. His father had looked at Aden and said, "Your mother was a good woman, Aden, but she's dead – D.E.A.D."
Aden wiped his eyes. Why was he feeling this way? His stepmom was in the I.C.U. He could always make it up to her when she returned home. Freddie also seemed pensive now as no one was talking to him. He strolled to the piano and perched on the stool. He didn't play the usual happy songs; his fingers began to touch the keys of a mournful melody that Aden had often sung behind closed doors.
Mother of mine
You gave to me
All of my life
To do as I please
I owe everything
I have to you.
Mother, sweet mother of mine...
Patti cried inconsolably in a corner as the heart-wrenching song reverberated in the hall.
The doorbell chimed. Aden wiped his eyes, still wondering how Freddie picked up that song and opened the door.
"Any elders here?"
Patti got up and ambled towards them. Aden placed his arm around Patti's shoulders, "Don't cry, Patti. Dad would have told us if things got worse."
Four men came in carrying an icebox. Two long wooden benches were dragged to the centre of the hall. They were sprinkling Eau de Cologne around the place.
Aden froze. His knees folded. Patti held him in her arms as he cried softly, wetting her sari pallu. Behind them, Freddie was well into the chorus, hitting all the right chords, his little fingers throwing the room into despair.
Did he sense his loss? Could he know his adorable mother had gone to paradise and would never return?
Aden staggered to Freddie's side, a hard lump in his throat as he sat beside his brother. Without disturbing Freddie, he played along, adding to the melody.
Mother of mine
Now I am grown
And I can walk straight
All on my own
I'd like to give you
What you gave to me
Mother, sweet mother of mine