‘Wearing the night on my sleeve’ by Daya Bhat

It’s early November; winter has just set in. The temperature hasn’t dipped much yet and the night is perfectly balmy. It’s a quarter past eleven. A time when thoughts, tangled in the din of pots and pans, and mundane chores and mindless banter, slither out. For an insomniac like me the day has just begun and I’ve all the time to catch up with some nostalgia. I settle down in the cane chair on my third floor balcony. From where I sit I can see crowns of densely grown trees and tiny bits of sky. Some shy leaves aren’t done yet washing themselves of the summer dust. Fog has settled on them releasing heady whiffs of moist dust. I think- nights are all about scents and reminiscence.

The rainforest like ambience seems like an indulgence, when a few feet away, on the other side of the house the nocturnal city rolls past my windows on two three and four wheels. The trees are home to a variety of local and migratory birds. In the day, one can easily spot a red whiskered bulbul, spotted dove, jungle myna or a black kite. It takes more than a casual glance to trace the camouflaged barbets and parrots. Occasionally I am treated to kingfishers, golden orioles and the Indian roller birds. It’s amazing how the trees that appeared bright and playful in the day, with all kinds of colourful birds chirping on them, assume a certain sobriety in the night. At this time they belong to the mystique bats and owls. I think- nights are all about indulgence and transition, about feeling liberated.

From the ground floor house Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali’s thumri—ka karun sajani—aaye na balam—rises up. Recently a well-known Hindustani vocalist has moved into our building. She owns a soulful voice and a beautiful mind. I hear her riyaaz whenever she is in town. It’s a bonus when she plays her gramophone. I drum my fingers to the Teen Taal, somewhere I miss the beat. I remember my daughter practising aarohan-avarohans, alaaps and bhajans of different raagas, her tender fingers moving back and forth on the keys of her double reed harmonium. Those fingers in her late teens strummed the guitar too. It has been a while now, both the instruments are sitting masked in her closet.
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When I think music I remember Vaasanna, my mother’s distant relative. I haven’t seen him in the last ten years but from what I recall, an image stands before me- almost six feet tall, dressed in khadi jubba and dhoti- the kachche panche style. When he went out he wore a black coat over the jubba and a Gandhi topi. The last time I saw him, his hair line had receded considerably.

Vaasu lives in his ancestral home in Navilgere, a remote village in North Karnataka. The village is home to peacocks and has a sweet water lake (hence the name Navilgere which means peacock lake.) Summers here are severe, soil a dark grey. Thorny bushes run along mud paths. The village sees a very colourful fair at the end of every summer; special pujas are offered to the village deity praying her to usher in timely monsoon. Yellow turbaned heads sitting on over tanned torsos exclaim- ‘Our banyan tree Hanuman is happy, see he is smiling!’ Their turbans point at the vermilion and turmeric smeared stone Hanuman at the foot of the tree. The stone idol reflects the mood of Navilgere according to them. When rains are delayed they exclaim- ‘This drought hasn’t spared our Hanuman also. See, how sad and thirsty he is!’

Talking of Vaasu’s house, let me begin by saying it has a name- Mahadi Mane. It was the only two-storey house at the time it was built, so the name stuck to it though many more mushroomed later. It has a spacious courtyard with periwinkle and jasmine bushes forming its hedge. In the centre is a vrindavan sporting more greenery on its painted creepers than on the basil plant. There are intricately carved, lion-headed, teak pillars; the tapering tiled roof rests on them. The main door is in rosewood and has huge brass hilts. The outer look of the house speaks of a flourishing era it has seen. There was a time when meals were served on silver platters. With time the grandeur dimmed and steel replaced silver. The entire flooring of the house is in blue slate. The unused portions along the length and breadth bear huge pad locks and are submerged in semi darkness even when the sun blazes right above the house. An antique wall clock, about five feet long, hangs in the nadumane- the living area. It was gifted by one of the British officials to Vaasu’s father, Prahlad Raaya (Raaya was a common suffix to names of blue-blooded aristocrats then.) Things soured between them when freedom struggle gained momentum. Prahlad Raaya had roared- ‘Let this clock tick like a bomb in our hearts. Wait and watch you traitors, we will explode one day and that day is your last on our soil. I shall live to see it.’ India won freedom days after he died. The clock continues to be a symbol of old friendship, a period of turmoil followed by victory.

A wooden staircase from the nadumane leads to the upper floor. Huge brass utensils are stacked in most of the rooms. There is one big room which is used as study. Vaasu practised law for some time, so the book rack holds mostly law books. There are also books on mythology, and self-teaching books on Homeopathy and Hindustani classical music. He has read and researched extensively on Homeopathy, so much so that he is just short of a degree. His wooden box- it has rows of perforations to hold slim, two-inch long bottles – never runs out of the wonder pearls. These bottles with wooden corks have labels- Lycopodium, Nux vomica, Pulsatilla, Rhus tox etc.

Vaasu loves music, it was his dream to become a singer. He chased his dream hopelessly for many years. The walls of Mahadi Mane have seasoned over the decades absorbing his vain attempts, woeful sighs and faulty renditions. A forlorn tabla set is as much a victim as the walls. As a young boy he had seen musicians frequent the Mahadi Mane, they were still training then; later on some of them became great artistes. Perhaps his fascination for music took shape in the frequent baithaks arranged at the house. Music reverberated from dusk to dawn at such baithaks. In spite of growing up in a musically charged atmosphere music remained elusive to Vaasu. He has limited his passion to listening to All India Radio programs on the Murphy radio.
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My first memories of Mahadi Mane date back to when I was six years old. Those days communication was through post cards. Unfailingly every summer we received an invite from Vaasu. Staying in the rustic palatial house would be our dream. Who would not want an escape from the relatively smaller city house! Mother and I would be off to Navilgere. Vaasu’s cousins would join us with their children. Cook Subbu had by then become the heart and soul of the Mahadi Mane kitchen. It was he who had nourished a heartbroken and miserable Vaasu after Gowri’s death. The kitchen had come back to life in Subbu’s hands. We would get to savour home churned butter, masala coated chanas, pickled amla and what not. Subbu cooked authentic family recipes. We would go to the fields in bullock carts. Subbu would pack lunch for us- jowar rotis, stuffed brinjal, thick curd and raw onion. The tomatoes and tender chillies plucked off the plants would add zing to our picnic lunch. While the elders napped under the trees, the children went around for some adventure. Evenings were set aside for stories. Vaasu would tell us stories about Navilgere heroes who were part of the freedom struggle and about youths who fought sloth bears. Some of us would doze off half way through his stories.

After all lights would go off, Vaasu would go upstairs. Once unable to contain my curiosity I had tip toed to the top floor and peeped inside his room. It looked so comical- the radio was on and Vaasu was pacing up and down. His arms were folded tightly and fingers were drumming feverishly to the tabla beats. His eyes were shut but he knew exactly where to turn at both ends of the room. Occasionally he shook his head in admiration and broke into- ‘bahut achaa—wah—wah.’ Not finding anything exciting from my investigation I had returned. Mother asked me changing sides- ‘Why did you go there? Vaasu listens to music that’s all—curious girl! Now go to sleep.’ I felt cheated, she had been snoring when I’d sneaked out. It must’ve been the sight of Vaasu’s midnight activity that I had a disturbed sleep. Few hours later I saw him enter the kitchen and heard him making tea. He took the tea upstairs. He came down twice after that and made tea. Vaasu seemed like a mystery man. ‘Why doesn’t he sleep at night?’ I had asked mother the next morning. She said- ‘You’re too young to understand.’ After a pause she added- ‘Vaasu misses his wife Gowri, he feels lonely—some bad things have happened to him and he keeps remembering them. To forget bad things what do people do? They do things that make them happy, so he listens to music.’ She sounded more reasonable. 

Mother told of the past I hadn’t seen, of the times when they went to school. Mother, Vaasu and his cousins went to the same school because all of them lived in villages a few miles apart from each other, and there was only one school in all the surrounding villages. Girls of affluent families were carried to school in palkis while the boys walked along in groups. It was in the 50s, grown up girls wore sarees, and boys- pyjamas. When Vaasu married Gowri he was just twenty. Vaasu’s mother had passed away, his elder brother Pandu was already married and for a short while the two couples lived together. Tragedy struck Vaasu merely a couple of years after his marriage when Gowri died of mysterious bouts of vomiting.

As I grew up Mahadi Mane intrigued me more and more. I heard rumours that Gowri had not died a natural death. I asked mother, she gave me a vague answer and looked away. I told her of what I had heard. Mother told me the most painful part of the past that she kept from me until it became inevitable to tell.

Pandu (Vaasu’s brother) got into bad company and didn’t make anything out of his life. The family worried that one day he would bring shame to Mahadi Mane.  Vaasu’s parents were shattered, they carried this worry until their death. He got married to a girl of his choice and we all thought the house would see happy days again. But all that she wanted was to break away from Mahadi Mane. Soon after Vaasu got married Pandu wished that property be divided. Mahadi Mane came under Vaasu’s possession along with a handful of barren fields. Vaasu had become a victim of two crafty minds. ‘Riches or rags, I accept this share,’ he had said not raising his voice against the unjust distribution. His brother moved to the sprawling farm house on the outskirts of the village and enjoyed bountiful yields from fertile lands. But Vaasu worked hard and even with those barren lands made enough progress. The two couples never met and this troubled Gowri a lot. Much against Vaasu’s warnings she visited Pandu and his wife. Surprisingly they seemed to warm up to her a bit especially after she had told them of her pregnancy. They invited her for a special lunch. Little did she know they served her the last meal! She had returned looking so happy.  But soon she felt restless and sick. By the time she could get help it was all over.

Maybe somewhere I was hoping mother would say the rumours I heard were untrue. After hearing her I did not wish to substantiate it any further. Gowri’s ethereal face sailed before my eyes. She looked so timid and vulnerable in the wedding album. I was trying to digest the answer to the question I had asked mother years ago- ‘Why doesn’t he sleep at night?’
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My neighbour’s gramophone is still playing, now it’s Kishori Amonkar’s Kaanada vitthala—I sit until the gramophone stops and come in. It’s past 1 am. I can’t stop thinking of Vaasanna and Gowri. My dreams are flooded with Gowri, whom I’ve never seen in my life- she’s sitting on the moonlit terrace of Navilgere house, I’m six years old again, I’m wearing my favourite candy-orange frock. I’m sitting before Gowri, mesmerised. Gowri becomes the ocean, and I, an orange fish; she becomes the sky, and I, the crimson sun. A new dawn breaks and my dream merges with my neighbour’s riyaaz. I wake up with a sense of relief that at the end of every day there will be a night to lead me inwards.
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Author’s Bio: Daya Bhat has published her first collection of poems in English ‘A maiden of 29’ with the Writers Workshop (India) in Dec 2013. Poems from her second manuscript River twin have featured in New Asian Writing and The Criterion: An International Journal in English, and are forthcoming in Poetry Pacific. New Asian Writing, The Bangalore Review, eFiction India, Earthen Lamp Journal, Creativica and Indian Short fiction have published her short stories. She has translated a book, originally in Kannada, to English which is forthcoming shortly. She lives in Bangalore. Visit her here.

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