2 June 2009

A Voice

A mellifluous voice, singing a Sanskrit sloka, filtered through with the morning sunshine as Ravi was shaving. It was a full voice, in shruti lent to a lyrics with devotional love; an alluring voice. Who was she? He had never risen this early in his new apartment before and may be that's why he hadn't heard her before.

But Ravi had no time to investigate this further; he had a plane to catch. As he touched down in Mumbai, the humidity first assaulted his senses and then his shirt. He was soaked even before his meeting and his body odour was not going to win first place in a perfumery contest. In a gleaming back and yellow cab he worked his way through the morning traffic to Nariman point, the heart of India's financial business. South Delhi to South Mumbai: that was his life's journey. Born into a wealthy family that had all the right connections, Ravi was afforded the best education and as a consequence, a job he liked, or so he thought! The salary also offered him an opportunity to set himself up independently, much to the chagrin of his mother who thought her dearest should stay home clasped to her bosom till of course, she found a suitable replacement for it. Ravi had other ideas, always.

Before his meeting he changed quickly into the ironed extra shirt he always carried with him and sprayed on some more cologne. At the meeting he was supposed to negotiate a deal between the two companies to discuss on merger details. The road transport business was booming and if the two companies came together, they could monopolize the northern India market. He was young to have been sent out for this important deal but Mr Khanna, his boss, felt he has the right mix of education and class to pull it off. Once again, the family he was born into had landed him places. During the talks Ravi could hold his ground and arrived successfully at a framework for sharing the business, without huge compromises to either side. Mr Khanna would be pleased. Ravi just smiled; he could still smell his cologne in the lift that brought him back to the street.

The excitement of his office was still palpable in his private space that night. Mr Khanna has organized a small meeting of the top executives and congratulated Ravi on a job well done. He couldn't have asked for a better place to be. The phone rang intrusively into this introspection.

"Mama here" the voice bellowed, " Why didn't you call yesterday? Daddy was upset that you forgot his birthday."

Ravi scrambled for words, his mother always had him tongue tied on family matters. He mumbled on the phone, " Busy... forgot...you know I care for you..." His mother was pacified as usual and he tended his pranams to Daddy followed by belated birthday wishes. Ah, everything set just right, he felt. After a few more pleasant but routine exchanges he heard a satisfied click on the other end.

Next morning, he heard the singing again. This time the voice was plaintive, emotional and filled with sadness. Today, he was determined to locate the singer. After all, if he could hear it without amplification she couldn't be far away. He had already started picturing this girl: beautiful, slightly plump, puffy red lips, eyes like black coal, long hair held in a plait and a graceful gait. He reasoned that she must live in one of the adjoining apartments and so, he stood out on the balcony, scanning his surroundings. There didn't seem to be anyone in plain sight. This beauty must be singing inside her house, he thought; that required advanced investigation techniques. He fetched his binoculars. Somewhere, at the back of his mind, he did think he might look like a pervert, standing as he was: in stripped boxer shorts, bare chested and with binoculars trained into his neighbours' homes. Nevertheless, he scanned, willing for the nymph to show herself. Alas, the search came to nothing and the singing had stopped.

Ravi had an idea: he would advertise in his building that he was looking for a singer. That should smoke her out. It would also give him a reason to randomly quiz his neighbours about any singers they might have in their apartments. Mr Sharma from the flat below met him while he was putting up the sign and spotting a good occasion to collect gossip, asked with casual curiosity, 'Beta, are you looking for a singer to teach you singing?" Oh, blast! This was not something he had thought about. Who would offer a young woman as a teacher for him? He politely smiled, his teeth perfected by years of visiting the best dentist in town, " Oh, Sharma-ji, it's for my niece" He hoped Sharma-ji would not remember he was an only child. Sharma-ji simply bobbed his head and said, "Very good, very good. I'll keep my eyes open".

A whole week passed. He heard the singing every morning now, waking to catch it before it began and staying with it till the end. The songs were in Sanskirt or Hindi or a dialect there off. They were stories, morals or prayers. They lived in his head all day long. Still there was no sign he would ever find this woman as no one had answered his advertisement. Exasperated, irritated and completely mesmerized Ravi decided that he needed an accomplice. He begged Hema, his best friend for years, to help him. Hema was ready to help but with a deep sigh, she tried to tell her best friend that he can't ascribe a shape and form to the singer because if those expectations would not be met, he would be upset. Ravi didn't listen. He asked her help to find the woman, not rationalize his obsession.

The stayed up the night and as dawn broke they heard the singing. It was a relief to Ravi because Hema was beginning to think that he needed a professional mental help. But they both heard the music: fresh, light like dew falling off a leaf on to the wet earth. They set off to trace it. Hema seemed to have better luck in locating the set of apartments the music came from. They trained the binoculars. Nothing. The music continued so the singer had not spotted them. Besides knocking on each apartment door they had no other way to find out. Hema had an idea - why not organize a singing competition for the neighbourhood? Sure, they would have to listen to the cacophony of aunties, young girls and uncles but, this way they'll hear the girl and see her. Ravi had to admit the idea was good but the logistics were daunting. But, he was desperate and Hema volunteered to help.

So they set about trying to involve the Building Society. It felt like a business campaign which was right up Ravi's alley. The only inexplicable matter to the Society was Ravi's interest - why did a young wealthy brat want to be active in the community? But they acquiesced to his wishes because they all had or knew off, unmarried daughters who could meet Ravi as a result of this. Young Ravi therefore had Hema and a bevy of young lasses ready to cater to his wishes. His mother moaned that if he was so interested in finding a spouse: why didn't he just talk to her? Suddenly, the singing competition was affecting everyone!

On the morning of the competition He heard the singer in the morning and thought, tonight my darling, we will meet. The whole building was excited; a shamiyana was erected on the terrace of the apartment and a sound system hired. Everyone appeared to have dressed in their wedding best. Three older and loved members of the complex were selected as judges. The competition began. Ravi focused with an intensity Hema didn't think he had. After all, it was their generation which had enabled the clinical diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. One by one the women came, bedecked and dazzling, with voices like sandpaper, or at least, that's what Ravi felt. His Voice was no where. The competition concluded, prizes were distributed and a jolly time had by all. The young girls discussed whom Ravi may have liked more and what he was looking for in a wife. No one saw Ravi withdraw into a spiraling depression. Hema lent him a shoulder and suggested they take a walk.

In the quiet of the night they walked in solemn togetherness. Ravi with a heavy heart and Hema mitigating his sadness. Neither spoke. The streetlights glowed softly. And then as though their really was God, they heard the voice. Softly, yet clearly. It was coming from the park. It was an unusual time and place to hear it. They treaded softly, lest they scare it away. Under the streetlight sat the girl, singing with her eyes closed, oblivious to the world around her. She wore a simple salwar kurta. Her nose was pierced, her hair short. Her skin was like brown clay and her clothes were too big for her slender figure. Hema approached her when she stopped singing and spoke in English. She shyly replied in haltering Hindi. Her name was Lata. She was a house help and stayed with her employers. She took care of the children, cooked meals and today, she had the night off because the family had gone to attend a building function. She hoped her singing had not bothered Hema, those songs were the only memories she has been able to bring back from her village and then, with a cursory nod she melted into the night. Ravi had been in love with an uncommon maid.

My comment: There is something funny about the tense in the story. I don't think I got it right and that, distracts from the narration. Please let me know if you can spot it.


  1. ah. what happens next? how does ravi express his love for her voice?

    tense? i am awful in the grammar lingo, so don't know the tense you refer to.

    well, the mood of the story went -- dejected -- spark of hope -- passionate -- confusion.

    yay!i know a budding booker prize winner :) :) :)

  2. Thanks EM. You have been a wonderful supporter of my expressions! Hope you are having a restful vacation.