- Swaroop Mami
Late last night, I went for a walk. I got out of my bed, tiptoed into the hall where my husband had fallen asleep with the TV still running, clicked open the front door as silently as I could, sneaked out and closed the door quietly behind me. I scurried quickly down the four stairs on the front porch, skipped across the garden, opened the gate making sure it didn’t creak and found myself on the street. I was still in my nightclothes; a pair of faded yellow and checked pyjamas and a weather-worn white t-shirt.
The streetlights had stopped working a few days ago and a phone call to the local electrical department was met with a vague promise of a fix in a day. So, the only source of light was the pale moon that bathed everything around me in a dull grey. High dull grey compound walls protected spacious dull grey mansions. A dull grey watchman slept on a dull grey chair holding a dull grey stick in his hand. A dull grey car, parked in a dull grey corner, now looked even duller and greyer.
My dull grey form walked down this street, hands in pyjama pockets, hair tied in a ponytail. Mansion after mansion passed me, each in a different style, each a compromise between the architect’s vision and the owner’s needs. Some houses were cold and closed, others at least put on an air of brightness and affability. Some gardens were denser, some neater. Some houses had no gardens, the buildings kissing their compound walls. The one thing that united them all at this hour was their lifelessness.
In the fifty-odd years of my life I had never ventured out alone this late at night before. I felt like a kid from an Enid Blyton adventure novel doing something her parents didn’t think she should be doing.
Only one house at the far end of the street, unoccupied for months, had a warm yellow light streaming from its windows. It was a single cottage, slightly away from the other houses. It used to be the outhouse of the bungalow next to it. Just behind the outhouse was the alley that led to the fishing hamlets and the sea. This gave the house a certain lightness that the other grim, imposing palaces in the street didn’t seem to possess.
When they realised they didn’t need it anymore, the owners rented the outhouse out to a steady stream of transient eccentrics — artists, recluses and reclusive artists. The tenants, therefore, drifted in and out of the place. They’d stay until they got bored of the same fishing hamlet, the same large houses, the same street and the same sea view. Some of them would come back after a while for a few months, but most never did.
I strolled towards the light, partly curious and partly because it was the only place in sight with any sign of life. As I neared it enough to look through the window, I was enveloped by a cosy sea breeze which brought along with it strains of Schubert’s Sonata in C Minor.
Thirty-one years ago, a year before I got married, I performed the Sonata in C Minor at a local classical music appreciation club. The venue was modest, but the audience was knowledgeable. The applause after my performance was enthusiastic. I heard the words “depth” and “maturity” floating around the hall after. That was the last time I performed.
Those days, I learnt music from a young man who was surprisingly old school. He didn’t think twice before rapping students on their knuckles with a stick at the slightest hint of a mistake. He slave-drove his wards, painstakingly monitoring their exercises and scales for hours on end. He wouldn’t move to a new piece until the old one was perfect.
I had a classmate – a fellow Christian boy, two years younger than me. I had been learning for a little longer than him and was surprised (and slightly offended) when my teacher said he would teach us together. Initially, the boy was out of his depth in our sessions. I picked up ideas and melodies much faster. My hands moved more quickly and precisely. He got more raps on his knuckles.
But he caught up much faster than I expected. Perceptive as he was, he sensed when I felt threatened by him. He fed off it.
As it always does, this competition turned into camaraderie. We lingered around after our lesson. Sometimes, we came early. Sometimes, we met at our teacher’s house on days when we didn’t have a lesson, just to practice.
I never spoke much – I still don’t – but my emotions are never hidden from the world. He spoke all the time. Sometimes, even when he was playing. But I could never tell what he was thinking. He seemed to have only one mood — a bright sort of happiness.
The night of my last performance though, I saw him unusually sombre. We were in my teacher’s house for a dinner after the concert. My teacher had called our parents, some of the audience and some of his friends. It was a rather loud gathering.
My classmate was sitting silently by the piano with a glass of wine in his hand. I sat by him and said, “Hello.”
He looked at me very gravely and said, “You’re really, really good. You know that?”
I looked away. I might have blushed.
He held my arm and said, “No, really. You’re really really good.”
I smiled, “Thanks.”
We were quiet for some time. Then, I said, “I’m hungry.”
“I don’t think they’ll serve any food for a while,” he said. He got up, went to the other room and brought his bag, from which he produced a jam bun neatly wrapped in paper. “Here,” he offered.
I reached for it with an over-eagerness that surprised me. I took a bite.
Then I got up with a start, grabbed him by his arm and asked, “Let’s go for a walk?”
Startled, he asked, “My glass of wine?”
I said, “Bring it along!”
He said, unsurely, “Sure.”
On the way out, he picked up another glass, filled it with wine and gave it to me, “To go with that bun.”
On that half-moon night, sipping wine and nibbling on the jam bun, we drifted aimlessly. Again and again, he said, “You’re really, really good.” On the fourth or fifth time, I said, “Again, a left turn!” He said, “No, the last turn we took was a right.” I said, “No, you say ‘You’re really, really good’ each time we take a left turn.” He shrugged. Then, he said something using the same two words — “depth” and “maturity”. I chided him for talking like an old man. Another time, he said, “I can never play like you. I have no dialectic.” I told him that was rubbish. I told him that I didn’t even know what dialectic meant. I told him that he was as good as I was. He launched into a speech about ‘dialectic’. I heard mostly fascinated by him rather than his argument.
At some point, we realised we had come quite far away from our teacher’s house to an area we did not know at all. We were in an old, leafy neighbourhood bathed in dull grey moonlight. Dull grey bungalows inside dull grey compound walls. Dull grey leaves on dull grey trees. The only colour was from our conversation; intimate, warm but somewhat reserved. My friend was still confident when he said, “I’ve been here before. There’s a lovely park towards the East.” I had no idea which way East was, but I let him lead.
After a few turns in the direction he claimed was Eastward, he declared, “This must be the wall of the park.” I considered the wall. It was rather high for it to belong to a park. Who would want to keep people out of a park so desperately? “I’m quite sure it’s the park,” he said, looking at the proliferation of trees. I nodded in agreement even though I had my doubts. “Want to go in?” he asked, “We can jump over.” It seemed adventurous. I said, “Okay!”
He jumped over rather easily, and then helped me over. “See, I told you it’s the park,” he said, when we had both landed on the other side. It sure looked like it. The foliage was rather dense and there was no real path. He led me through the darkness and I followed. When we came to a clearing, I saw the first signs of it not being a park.
In the distance, the moonlight revealed a dull grey line of gravestones. Behind it were more lines of more graves.
“Nice park,” I said. He said nothing. I laughed first and he joined in. We laughed until we were breathless, paused, caught our breaths and laughed some more.
In the mid-distance, I saw a bench. I dragged him by his hand to it. Now, my mind told me that I liked this boy. He was younger, he was boyish, but he was very likeable. I looked at him adoringly, but he looked elsewhere. I wanted to kiss him. I was looking for the smallest hint that he he wanted to kiss me too. But he said nothing, he did nothing.
“So, are we just going to sit around?” I asked.
He said, “Yeah. Why not?”
After a while, I said, “We’ll go back?”
He said, “Ok.”
Things changed very fast after that night, like they tended to do for women of a certain age in those days. My father found me a nice young boy — Christian, rich, qualified, good-looking and stable. I married him and moved to a city I had barely heard of. By the time I found my bearings in this new city, the piano became a distant hobby that came way behind running a household that involved an infant.
My classmate moved away from classical music to jazz. I hear him on the radio, on the internet. I see him on CD covers. I read news reports about him playing to audiences all over the world. In one interview, he said, “I wanted to be only a classical pianist. But I heard a friend play one evening and knew I had no future in it.”
After watching that interview, on my daughter’s piano, after years, I played the Sonata in C Minor. I embarrassed myself. For fifteen days, I played the piece over and over again. I was still not happy with where I got. I never touched the piece after that.
I never even heard the piece until last night, when it wafted towards me with the sea breeze.
I stood at the gate of that cottage and heard the Sonata till it ended. It was followed by a piece I didn’t recognise. I threw open the gate, walked to the front door and rang the bell. The music went on in the background, but a startled man came to the door. About a decade younger than me, he sported a middle-aged paunch, had a round figure, a round face, wore round spectacles and flaunted an unruly mop of greying hair. “Yes, ma’am?” he said.
“Can you play that Schubert piece again?” I asked.
Still bemused, he said, “Of course. Come in.” I was impressed that he asked me nothing about who I was or what I was doing outdoors at that hour.
The main door of the house led to the first of its two shoe-box rooms. It had a worn out double-seater sofa, an easy chair and an old table on which a half-eaten dinner rested. A glass of wine sat next to it, almost untouched. The music came from the second room, from a music system that looked like equipment that controlled a spaceship. The room was all open suitcases. There were clothes overflowing from the suitcases. There were books. There were paintings and small art objects. There was one huge caricature of the man himself, ensconced in a silver frame. Even though there was no space for him to even freely maneuver around, the room didn’t look messy.
“I’m unpacking,” he announced, as if speaking to an audience much larger than one person. He pulled the easy chair from the other room into this one and laid it in a corner for me. I sank into it.
He made himself comfortable on the floor amidst his suitcases. He reached for a remote control and changed the music back to Schubert.
“I got here a few hours ago. I’m jet-lagged. I’m not sleepy at all. Back home, it’s three in the afternoon. So, I thought I’d set up the house,” he said, in that same declaratory tone.
I thought it must be his stentorian voice that gave his speech that declamatory quality. I smiled in response. My mind wandered soon towards the Schubert. The man told me his name, and that he was a writer. A rather famous one, I discovered in the morning. He was working on bringing out some of his earliest short stories as a book.
He sensed that I wasn’t concentrating and stopped telling me more about himself. He continued quietly setting his belongings in order. His unpacking had a heroic majesty that went well with Schubert. He was not obsessively orderly, but he was still in control of what he was doing. Watching him soothed me.
“Some wine?” he asked me when Schubert ended.
I said, “No. I’d just like to hear that Sonata again.”
“Sure,” he said.
He unpacked till about 3 am, draining four glasses of wine in the process. I heard Schubert over and over again as he went about this business. The first couple of times, he repeated it for me. After that, I took control of the remote.
“All done!” he announced, when the fourth or fifth run of the Sonata ended.
“I should get going then,” I said.
“Okay! Come over any time you want to listen to music,” he said. I nodded.
My husband starts watching TV about fifteen minutes after dinner. He sits on the sofa, holding the remote control in his right hand and a glass of buttermilk in his left. Then, the incessant channel surfing begins. He jogs through channels in a tearing hurry, giving each one just a few fleeting moments to impress him. When he finds something vaguely interesting, he stares at it blankly until it breaks for advertisements. Then, the jogging begins again until a new channel is found. He never returns to what he was watching earlier. After all, we have four hundred channels on our dreaded TV.
Once he finishes the buttermilk in three or four gulps, he puts his legs on the teapoy and sinks deeper into the sofa. After about forty-five minutes, he’s stretched out fully on the sofa, his head on a cushion against one arm and his feet on the other arm, his neck turned in the direction of the TV. Around this time, he settles down on one channel, mostly out of laziness. This unique combination of the position and the channel lulls him to sleep.
During this time, I clean up the kitchen. I put away the dishes that need to be washed, finish washing a few small ones, do some odds and ends to make sure my breakfast-making tomorrow morning is not an ordeal, check on supplies, and close the kitchen for the night. I go up to my room and drown myself in a novel I cannot really concentrate on.
When I’m sure my husband is asleep, I get out of my bed, go down the stairs, across the hall, and into the street. Again, the moon is dull grey, the street is dull grey. The only light still on is the one at the end. That same warm, sunny yellow from the house in the corner, inviting me to walk towards it. I walk much faster today, past the bungalows, past the comatose watchmen, until the sea breeze brings, again, some music.
Tonight, he’s listening to jazz, and the volume is louder than yesterday. He’s settling into the neighbourhood fast. I ring the bell and wait. There is no response. I ring it again. This time, the music gets softer. I hear footsteps on the wooden floor. I hear the door click open, and I see the round face, round spectacles and the grey hair. Like yesterday, he has a glass of wine in his hand.
“I was expecting you!” he says, brightly. “Come in!”
“Schubert?” he asks.
“No,” I say.
The house is fully set up now. The suitcases have disappeared. I wonder where they’ve gone. The small table in the first room has two chairs on either side of it. He has put mattresses in one corner — perhaps for his guests. The second room is cheery and charming. Light yellow and green bed sheets, red curtains, photographs, art objects.
A bottle of wine and an empty glass lie on a stool.
He points to it and says, “See, I told you I was expecting you!”
I laugh this time.
“Wine?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
He pours me a generous glass.
I say, “I googled you this morning. You’re famous!”
“You don’t read much?” he asked.
I was offended, but I didn’t mind. “I read a few pages of one of your books online. I don’t think I’d enjoy your writing.”
“See. I read in the mornings, between making breakfast and lunch. I read in the afternoons, between making lunch and tea, I read in the evenings, between making tea and dinner. I read at night, after dinner. I read three novels a week like this. My eyes glaze over the words absent-mindedly, my hands turn pages even before I read them fully, my mind hardly processes the story. So, I usually pick novels that lend themselves to this kind of reading — formulaic fluff. Yours seem too meaningful.”
He laughed. “When I was around twenty-five, still translating documents for a living, a big filmmaker made a movie based on one of my short stories. Only one review of the movie mentioned my name. He said something like, ‘A shallow movie premised on an even shallower short story…’ That story is part of this collection I’m working on now. Maybe you’ll like it.”
“Being shallow and being cliched are two different things.”
The oddest of smiles came across his face, “You’re hard to argue with.”
“To nights of arguing,” he says, holding up his glass. We clink, we sip.
After a moment’s pause, I ask him, “Let’s go for a walk?”
“Yeah, okay. Shall I bring the wine along?”
“Of course,” I say.
Quickly, he collects what he needs, leads me to the door, clicks it open and locks it behind us as we merrily step out into the dull grey moonlight.
Swaroop is a lawyer, flautist and writer from Madras.