I often sit beside the small window of my bedroom looking outside, observing the events out there. I have never been a social person. I am more of an isolated soul who likes to brood inside the room. My place is beside the window from where I can actually socialise on my own terms, studying others’ lives and keeping myself aloof. I have grown to love my solitary confinement. Alongside the building where I live in an apartment, there is a temple. The lord of the temple being Lord Shiva. The destroyer of the worlds and free from all desires. The temple is simple in its architecture like any other one would see in the state of Maharashtra. It has a cemented courtyard and a small garden with benches, where devotees rest and feed the birds.
It is the time of evening prayers or “Sandhya Aarti” that I particularly like to sit by the window. I watch the small crowd gather in the courtyard of the temple and repeat the prayers that the priest chants. Different people from different occupations and social class, who find unity within the Lord. Often a few religious individuals sing a song or two for the Lord and others join them to form a choir. The children play “tag” or from a distance examine the pigeons that swooped in to feed on grains scattered by someone to gain a few ounces of virtue. They remain uninterested in the unexciting religious rituals that mostly captivated the adult minds full of complication and guilt.
The sound of claps, bells, gongs and drums echo for some time and thereafter the crowd takes the blessing of the Lord by waving their hand over the pious flame and touching their forehead. Then most of them disperse quietly. A few lovers stay behind occupying the benches spending a moment together before they separate and wait for their next meeting. Old people remain back discussing ordinary life events, socialising. They too leave after a few minutes. After about an hour or more the temple has only an old man remaining in the courtyard. A girl child plays nearby on her own, most likely a kin to this old man, who now opens up a small bag beside him. He brings out a flute and he starts playing.
I know nothing of music but I like to hear the music that soothes my senses and stirs my soul. It may be a song of love, dream, failure or loneliness. I need to sense it from within before I can appreciate it. Anything else seems to me less alluring as I cannot relate with it.
The old man plays melodies that commonly a shepherd plays in the wild. It often makes me feel attached to it. The music takes me through the moments of joy and grief that I have experienced, bringing back nostalgic memories. It resurfaces thoughts that haunt me, ones which I keep buried deep. I like the music, I contemplate much on it and become a philosopher listening to it. I dream and relive lost moments, recover missed opportunities, mend broken relations and redeem lost love. I close my eyes and listen to it; till he stops, gets up and leaves with the child.
I have never thought about questioning about the man and never have I ventured to get acquainted with him myself. I do not want to know him. All I care about is the overwhelming music that he plays on his bamboo flute and the range of emotions that erupts within me as he plays. He is not a regular visitor to the temple. Perhaps he is not completely independent as I have seen a woman accompanying him and the child to the temple and leaving them there. Though he walks away on his own after his performance, by which I have come to conclude that probably he stays nearby and does not need much assistance all the time.
One midnight there was a power cut. It was the beginning of July and amidst the hot breeze blowing outside, one could suddenly smell a sweet scent wafting in. The scent is that of the first drops of rain hitting the dry earth and sending an odour known as “Petrichor”. The air grew cooler and within a few minutes it was stormy and chilly. Rumbling thunder was heard and lightning flashed through the darkened sky. I woke up and breathed in the cold air that now filled my room providing me with relief, easing the uneasiness of the hot weather from last couple of days. I opened my balcony door and went out. A few drops of rain fell on my dry skin. It was drizzling. A soft music started to play somewhere nearby. An untamed melody played by a master with his nimble fingers along the keys of his bamboo flute welcoming the rain to quench the thirst for love.
I had read a poem once, written by Tagore. It was titled “Flute Music”. It told the story of a clerk who worked a daily job with little pay. He lived in a shabby small room in a narrow lane. By his window garbage was dumped and often the stench drifted into his room. He had left his village with lots of dreams. He had left a girl behind waiting for him, with whom he was to be married. All he wanted was to escape the shackles of the mundane family life in pursuit of freedom to live up to his own ambitions. He tried to escape from responsibilities which he was not ready for. He had only one source through which he earned freedom from the monotonous life he lived. That was through the music that Kantababu, a connoisseur of music played nearby.
I imagined if I am that clerk. I work in a multinational corporate and live in a comparatively comfortable apartment. No one else would accept me to be similar to that clerk who used to manage in a harsher reality than me. I am a person with an easy living. However I know within, how much I wanted to be free from all the shackles and bonds that forced me to continue with my repetitive life and job. I envy the gypsies that often visit the city. I wanted to be born a gypsy so that I can travel to unknown destinations with my magic and my remedies. I wanted to camp under the stars, gazing at the constellations. I wanted to stay awake by the camp fire and drink, sing and dance. I wanted to fight duels for the kiss of a beautiful girl from the caravans. I wanted to be an explorer who would sail the seven seas like Sindbad the sailor and embark on adventures to an unknown peninsula in Africa like Professor Challenger. Instead I have grown up to be a person with a daily job and a family to care for.
I walk away from beggars begging alms and fail to help people in need because I save for myself and my family’s existence, our happy livelihood. I avoid the tumults and quarrels. I stay away from anything that has a tinge of dispute related to it. I see old men dying and accident victims pleading for help, and walk by. I see people taking videos of girls raped in footpath and I hesitate and then walk past away from any trouble. I save my skin, my job, I save myself and my family, so that we can live happy as we live now.
I can now effortlessly mask my true emotions to mingle in the society when required. I speak of secularism and support the communal ghetto living. I speak of socialism but hate to see the maid sit in the chair at our dining table. I speak of equal rights and pine later against people who apply for reservations to attain it. I speak of freedom of expression but cannot support the voices raised against the atrocities committed in name of patriotism and law and order. I support women empowerment and secretly objectify them as means of satisfying sexual craving. I protest against kissing in public and yet like watching the lewd advertisements on family time television and billboards. I have put on my self-made garb of hypocrisy and I have learnt how to act on world stage.
I kept listening to the melody and looked at the temple. There was no one. I was wrong, there was a shadow moving there in the courtyard. I looked intently. Another flash of lightning illuminated the surrounding darkness and I saw a little boy looking back at me. His innocent eyes staring as if looking inside the darkest corner of my soul.
“I remember you my younger self. What are you looking at? I have grown tamed to the society which has moulded me, like another puppet that plays its part and silently leaves the stage. I am without a name, never to be remembered as a person after a few years of my death. Even the clerk from the poem, Haripada, would be remembered through the immortal works of Tagore, but not me. I look at you and you stare at me naively, and lightning illuminates our faces at intervals. I try to find my dreams in your eyes, but they are now lost and I cannot revive them. You are perhaps my true self which hides within me but had long been forgotten, never to reveal yourself in the open until now. You look at an unknown person who changed from your idealistic visions of life and the world. Your adventure seeking dreams have been churned into pages of children’s stories. You are looking at a coward who never fought the society for freedom to live life on his own terms, but waited upon the orders and abided by the set down code. You see someone who has followed each and every rule with reluctance, but without a single world of rebellion. You look sad! Perhaps you now understand that you do not exist anymore! You are only a mere shadow who is fading with each passing day. You will probably never show yourself again and return to the shadow world where you dwell and cease to exist at some point of time.”
I looked away, the music was still playing and with a sad melody. A few more lightning forked through the sky, as I stood in rain and soaked myself to the skin. I was absorbing the rain within me and then crying it out in form of tears. Nothing can be repaired now. I have come too far to let go of these materialistic attachments. I feel happy to obey. I understand, I have to carry on my performance. Each day I have to appear on the stage and perform. This show goes on forever with or without me.
I stood there in the rain for long and even after the music had stopped. That night I washed away my remaining individuality. Now I have accepted the rules completely. I am more tamed now than ever.
This story is inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s poem of the same name. The thought provoking poem is provided below for the readers.
A poem By Rabindranath Tagore
Kinu, the milkman’s alley
A ground floor room in a two storeyed house
Slap on the road, window barred.
Decaying walls, windows crumbling to dust in places
Or strained with damp.
Stuck on the floor,
A picture of Ganesha, Bringer of Success,
From the end of a bale of cloth.
Another creature apart from me lives in my room
For the same rent;
There’s one difference between him and me:
He doesn’t go hungry.
I get twenty five rupees a month
As junior clerk in a trading office.
I’m fed at the Dattas’ house
For coaching their boy.
At dusk I go to Sealdah station.
Spend the evening there
To save the cost of light.
I stay till half past ten,
Then back to my dark, silent, lonely room.
A village on the Dhalesvari River, that’s where my aunt’s people live.
Her brother-in-law’s daughter –
She was due to marry my unfortunate self, everything was fixed.
The moment was indeed auspicious for her, no doubt of that –
For I ran away.
The girl was saved from me,
And I from her.
She did not come to this room, but she’s in and out of my mind all the time:
Dacca sari, vermilion on her forehead.
My tram costs go up,
But often as not my pay gets cut for lateness.
Along the alley,
Mango skins and stones, jack fruit pulp,
Fish-gills, dead kittens
And God knows what other rubbish
Pile up and rot.
My umbrella is like my depleted pay –
Full of holes.
My sopping office clothes ooze
Like a pious Vaisnava.
Sticks in my damp room
Like an animal caught in a dead trap,
Lifeless and numb.
Day and night I feel strapped bodily
On to a half-dead world.
At the corner of the alley lives Kantababu –
Long hair, carefully parted,
He fancies himself on the cornet:
The sound of it comes in gusts
On the foul breeze of the alley –
Sometimes in the middle of the night,
Sometimes in the early morning twilight,
Sometimes in the afternoon
When sun and shadows glitter.
Suddenly this evening
He starts to play runs in Sindhu-Baroya rag,
And the whole sky rings
With eternal pangs of separation.
At once the alley is a lie,
False and vile as the ravings of a drunkard,
And I feel that nothing distinguishes Haripada the clerk
From the Emperor Akbar.
Torn umbrella and royal parasol merge,
Rise on the sad music of a flute
Towards one heaven.
The music is true,
Where, in the everlasting twilight-hour of my wedding,
The Dhalesvari River flows,
Its banks deeply shaded by Tamal trees,
And she who waits in the courtyard
Is dressed in a Dacca sari, vermillion on her forehead.