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‘Sita. Stay inside no matter what happens!’ Arjun said in the manner his teacher expected.
‘But… Can’t you take Lakshmana with…?’ Sandhya halted seeing Anu Mam’s hand go up beside.
‘What’s with your hair honey? Why does it need your attention at this crucial juncture?’ Ms Anu said as politely as she usually did and hand-combed Sandhya’s hair and clipped it.
Ms Anu looked at Dileep, ‘And Dileep, after Sandhya finishes and before Keshav begins his dialogue, you’ll play something that should bring in the fears’.
Dileep nodded from below the stage from where he watched the proceedings.
‘Does anyone know why our Lakshmana has been absenting himself quite often this month? Any leads?’ Anu Mam enquired. She got suspicious exchanges of glances on stage and silence from below it; nothing else.
And they began rehearsing again. All went well this time.
‘Well done!’ Anu Mam said smiling broadly at Dileep after he’d played a tune at the place specified.
Ms Anu looked at Dileep, ‘Now Dileep play me that Mozart thing. That’s been running in my mind for…’
‘Mam! Time’s 2.30!’ Sandhya informed in a perfectly thrilling voice and apt articulation. She was a much better dramatist off-stage.
Ms Anu checked her watch reflexively and went through her schedule mentally: Once, twice, and thrice.
‘My God! Friday! I have classes’, she said and ran for the door behind the stage shouting ‘Keep rehearsing!’ twice before disappearing behind the big red screen.
The two on stage had absolutely nothing to do for the next hour and even the mere thought of rehearsing didn’t cross their minds from then. They sat on the edge of the stage, legs hanging, and spoke on things they usually did.
‘I’ll meet Prabha and be back in five minutes’, Sandhya told Arjun sometime later, jumped down and rushed out. Arjun heard her shout ‘Keep rehearsing!’ just before closing the door behind her. Arjun smiled involuntarily.
Only when he got down did he remember Dileep’s presence in the auditorium. Dileep had been with the keyboard’s manual all this time. The sight maddened Arjun because he knew Dileep had just managed to pass in the previous cycle test. ‘How could he waste time like this?’
‘What do you want to become Dileep?’ Arjun asked in his diplomatic voice trying to arrive at what he really intended to ask.
‘Musician of some sort’, Dileep replied undoubtingly.
‘Do you think you can support your family with that Dileep?’ he said removing Dileep’s hands from the keyboard and started playing the ‘Happy Birthday’ tune.
Dileep waited until Arjun played it till the last measure to reply but Arjun continued, ‘You’ve got a wonderful brain Dileep! I still remember that relative motion problem you solved. I never thought you would… I mean… I never expected you’d shout an answer anyway’, Arjun said, now placing his hands on Dileep’s shoulders.
‘I do like Science. But, that answer was some random luck. I’m no Genius like you’
‘Never mind. Coming to the point, you can shape a better future for yourself and your family if you spend some time studying! Keyboard all the way? Come out of that. That’s a tough career Man. It’s not even a career option yet. Even if you make a career out of it, you won’t make enough money to support your family unless you’re extremely lucky or a Mozart or a Bash. Be sensible… Practical. I do know you have the necessary influence…’ Arjun stopped seeing discomfort on Dileep’s face and cursed his choice of words.
‘Sorry! I meant no offence Dileep’ Arjun added hoping Dileep would reply. The silence aggravated the development. Arjun wished he had left with Sandhya.
A few seconds later, Dileep broke the silence, ‘I know studies won’t work for me. I don’t have it in me. I will definitely value what you said and take that as good advice from a good friend’.
‘Think about it. Trust me. You are intelligent and you don’t know that! Time’s on your side now. You shouldn’t regret not taking academics seriously later’.
‘Well yes’, Dileep said. Arjun smiled bluntly.
‘And… You’re an exceptional actor da. I can see that’, Dileep lightened the argument.
‘Maybe. But I’m not here for the Oscar’, Arjun winked.
The both of them smiled.
‘Sandhya! Ya! Gem of a girl!’ Dileep said looking straight at Arjun’s blushing face.
The same, clichéd “Eight years later”:
‘You guys find a way into our country like how ants find sugar in my house’, Yusuf told Arjun, leaning on the cabin door.
‘Who is it now?’ Arjun with a grown face, eyeglasses and a tint of tiredness replied.
‘Some MOTIVATIONAL speaker is coming all the way from your India this Saturday! To make us believe the company can run for another year, to make us believe we can walk to the moon! He’ll probably make me believe I’m a genius too! Blah Blah!’
‘This Saturday? God! I had plans!’
‘Everyone had plans! I had to take Amir to the Museum for his assignment. He’s gonna go mad now’
‘Hey! At least you can send him with Aisha. I had to book my ticket!’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll ask her to get tickets for you while she takes Amir to the Museum’
‘On any other day I’d have refused and you know that. Decency can wait now! Tell Aisha I need the ticket badly and I’ll buy Amir as many cupcakes he wants’
‘How much these Sandhyas and Aishas change the personalities of men!’
Arjun chuckled, ‘True’
The Sunday finally showed up.
‘I told you! Our Office is nuts’, Yusuf said after the two had just entered the addressing hall, late by 5 minutes, to see 50 odd people moving here and there, rather awkwardly, to the counts of a young fellow they hadn’t seen before. After a good few seconds, Yusuf discovered what they were doing, ‘Oh Boy! They’re exercising!’
Arjun thought the young guy was some apprentice of the Motivator who was getting people ready for the Motivator‘s session. Arjun later understood that the young guy was indeed the Motivator. The long haired, saffron dressed, polite sounding and slow-moving image he had of the Motivator vaporised. The Motivator looked like a college student and wore a bright t-shirt and a huge wrist watch.
The session was completely unlike anything anyone had seen or heard. The Motivator joked, danced, laughed and even enacted how their boss had invited him here when he met him at a bar in America.
‘You Indians do more than what is expected!’ Yusuf whispered from beside, eyes glued to the stage.
‘Even I’m amazed! The exact opposite of what I’ve seen back there.’
Arjun was starting to like this guy. He volunteered a few times and asked him a few questions. There was something that felt good about meeting a smart headed young Indian in the Gulf.
In the middle of ‘The philosophy of success’, the Motivator increased his pitch, ‘Does anyone here have a true story that has something to do with the right decisions, growing up in life, braving the usual and tasting success in the end?’
Arjun was on stage with the Motivator in no time.
‘Is it the story of ‘your’ life Arjun?’ The Motivator asked Arjun.
‘Yes it is’
‘Ok. What made you think you are a success?’, the Motivator asked casually.
‘I feel I’m successful because… I earn more than 10 times what my father earns.. I have gifted my dad a car that he dreamed about and that too, just with a portion of my first two years’ salary’.
The audience clapped and cheered. This was partly because, going by Arjun’s definition, they were a bunch of highly successful people.
‘That’s a very good level of confidence. I basically hate modest people’, the Motivator said and waited till the chuckles subsided, ‘Now about the decisions?’
‘After Higher Secondary school, the only decent course that I had available at IIT was an Earth Sciences one and that too was available only at IIT Bombay. People asked me to consider other alternatives and opt for some other course that was much more common and recognised even if that meant abandoning the IIT seat. They also discouraged me from going out of town. They told me things like ‘Study some well-known course here and you can do your higher studies abroad’, ‘A good student can study anywhere’, ‘What about your theatre acting? Stay here and continue acting’ and stuff like that’
‘Cool! So you were an actor?’
Finally, the day for which Arjun, Sandhya, Dileep, Keshav and Ms Anu had worked for arrived. A day of Glitz and Grandeur, like never before: The Annual Day.
Ms Anu often feared the failure of her show. She had been quite brave with the screenplay. She had wanted the Ramayana told with a contemporary setting. She spiced the challenge further by casting only 3 people in it and employing an amateur to score the background music. She prayed one last time before she came down and took a seat farthest from the stage. Her play was the last of the day.
The play started with the necessary cheer and anticipation and Ms Anu wished that continued till the end. There was this good looking Ram, the charming Lakshmana and the angelic Sita. The Raavana looked like the one from the deadliest nightmare. He walked peculiarly with a swag and dragged Sita out of the stage when both Ram and Lakshmana were gone. People no longer made any noise. They could actually feel evil. Raavana was defining what ‘horror’ was. The scenes broke and fast forwarded to the battle. Then there was this charming Ram again in the battle but this time with a burning rage. For the climax scene, a white screen had been placed on the stage. The screen showed two silhouettes. One was clearly Arjun’s and the other was assumed to be Raavana’s. Then the silhouette of Ram killed Raavana’s with a sword and Raavana’s head fell on the ground. The crowd erupted.
Arjun came out from behind the white screen. Sandhya and Keshav joined him from each side of the stage.
Keshav started on his mic, ‘Would you believe me if I said Arjun played both Ram and Raavana?’.
There was silence for a complete second. Then the crowd erupted.
The after-play time belonged entirely to Arjun. Parents came praising him, shaking hands with him and suggesting he become an actor. An occasional one or two praised Sandhya and no one even noticed both Keshav and Dileep. Keshav had only 2 minutes of screen time and that was partly acceptable. In half an hour or so the whole gathering had reduced to a handful. Dileep was packing up by then.
Dileep zipped his keyboard into its bag and checked if he had missed something. He put his keyboard bag to his shoulder and turned to leave, ‘Good Job man! Really good! Guess no one appreciated you this evening. Behind the scenes people are often ignored eh?’ Arjun said panting.
‘Yeah… And you acted very well! Congrats! You deserve all the applause’, Dileep offered his hand.
‘Thanks Man! You scored the complete twenty minutes and I get all the applause for the 10 minutes! Weird, isn’t it? Ok! My parents are waiting at the parking. I came back only to appreciate your music. Great work man! Bye!’ Arjun said shaking Dileep’s hand fast and ran to the door. By then, Dileep was the last person left in the auditorium.
‘Cool! So you were an actor?’
‘Yes! A Theatre actor! Now coming back to what I was saying, had I not taken that decision of picking up a not-so-famous course, I wouldn’t be here now’
‘Ok! But then, you left your theatre acting. So you consider letting go a part of yourself and just earning a success?’
‘I did try a bit of acting in college too. It wasn’t serious and eventually it started taking my study time. That’s when I stopped it. You know… Sometimes we need to sacrifice lovely things for the sake of a better future’
Arjun looked at the Motivator. He gave Arjun an assuring nod.
Arjun continued, ‘I had a friend… name… I cannot give… who was a better talent than me. His family was finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet. I advised him to take academics seriously and spend some time studying. But he still did not take my advice or anyone else’s… I told him a keyboard can take him or his family nowhere’
The Motivator’s eyes shone like a diamond, ‘Wait a second! He was a keyboardist?’. He then walked for some time scratching his head implying his confusion, ‘What’s wrong in being a keyboard player? By the way, didn’t he make it big?’
‘No. Not even enough to sustain his family. That’s what I was about to tell you’
‘Oh poor! But this guy’s interesting! Can you describe him?’
‘He was… stubborn… irrational… and didn’t care what good things people told him. He’d say ‘Yes I’ll take your advice’ but the next day he’d do what he’d been doing all the while’
‘Heavy headed, arrogant guy, I guess!’
‘On the inside… Maybe… On the outside,’ Arjun chuckled ‘he had dropped out of school at the beginning of my eleventh standard and I came to know of this only at the end of the year’. The audience laughed.
‘Ah! My God! My God!’ the Motivator said rubbing his hands, ‘So you mean he was an introvert, all-with-himself, prefers-privacy-to-people-guy?’
‘How old was he when he left school?’
Arjun thought for a second, ‘15!’
The Motivator turned towards Arjun, ‘From what hard lessons history has taught me and the ‘educated’ world, I bet my fortune Arjun, your keyboard guy will achieve things we cannot even imagine!’
Arjun spent all the time in the flight thinking entirely of Sandhya. He was done with the recap mid-way in the journey and from then he started imagining the future. By the time he was debating whether he should let his son go abroad to study, the announcement was made. The flight had reached his hometown.
He rushed in security checks, bag collecting and every other airport formality. He was the first to come out and he wasn’t disappointed.
The moment he stepped out of the immigration building, he saw whom he’d come for. Sandhya stood leaning on the visitor’s railing and as soon as she saw him, she waved her hand enthusiastically. Since decency was on pause since last Thursday he went straight towards her without having the patience to meet her at the end of the lane. He stopped within a few inches of her. He wished he hadn’t. That smell of Sandhya! That same smile which broke his heart 15 years ago! They were intact! In those 500 milliseconds he fought a thousand battles trying to prevent tears from rushing out. How he missed her these two years. He knew it there. ‘There’s won’t be life without her!’
‘Welcome back!’ Sandhya said smiling her signature heart-melter. He forced his mind into thinking something for a reply, ‘How do you do?’
In ten minutes, Arjun was in her car, driving to some undisclosed location. Sandhya could sense something abnormal in Arjun. She tried asking him but Arjun did not reply.
‘Why didn’t uncle and aunty come to the airport?’
‘Because they didn’t know I was coming’
Arjun maintained his silence.
Arjun stopped the car at the roadside car parking.
‘Why are we stopping here?’ Sandhya asked.
‘I’ll tell you dear Sandhya!’
Sandhya’s confusion didn’t prevent her from following him.
Arjun stopped just ten feet from the edge of the sea. He could not wait any longer. He took the small shiny box from his pocket.
‘Well… Sandhya…’ , he said turning to her.
‘It took me these two years to understand’ Arjun paused.
‘That I had been head over heels in love with you for over a decade’ he said going down on his knee and opening the diamond box.
Sandhya went blank. Since the silence persisted for a few more seconds, Arjun continued.
‘I’m serious Sandhya, I love you!’
‘I’m sorry Arjun I’m in no mood for all these’
‘Don’t you love…’
‘Listen. I’m already fighting hard at home to prevent my getting married. I don’t wish to be in any kind of romantic relationship at the moment… no… for life!’
Arjun got up, ‘Don’t you love me?’
‘But I love you from the bottom of my heart!’
‘I’m surprised you’re doing this to me Arjun. I’m talking no more on this! I have other important things to do with my life!’
She drove him back to the hotel he wanted to check in. Arjun had never seen her face go this dull all his life. She dropped him at the entrance and refused his plea to have coffee with him.
She kept talking with him standing at the entrance for quite some time until someone told them her car was obstructing the way. She parked it and continued the conversation with him, this time, inside the hotel.
He was the undisputed genius of his class. But he didn’t need genius to guess Sandhya didn’t completely hate the idea of his love. She spoke as if nothing had happened the past hour. She asked him for time. Those hours had given Arjun enough memories for another two years that were going to be devoid of her presence. He decided he was leaving for Dubai the very next day. She told him she wouldn’t marry any time in the next five years. Arjun wanted to be financially sound by then. ‘Operation Love has just failed. Operation Dirham starts now!’
‘Do you know where Dileep’s house is?’ he asked Sandhya out of nowhere.
‘No. I never knew. I met him at Mount Road some time back. He told me he came there for some rare music magazine. He told me he is happy about his profession now as his family is running quite well and also thanked me for my advice.’
‘Hey Dileep!’, Sandhya called from behind, moments after the Annual Day play was over.
She shook his hands, ‘Great Job Dileep! You had a much better role to play than me and… even Arjun. Twenty minutes of music! I wonder how you even remember the notes!’. Dileep smiled, ‘Yeah! Thank you!’
‘The mic went off when I tried to lip my dialogues in the abduction scene. I went cold but then, you played something sad that wasn’t rehearsed. You saved the scene. I cannot even imagine the embarrassment. Thank you so much! We’re indebted ’, Sandhya said.
Dileep displayed a controlled smile.
‘Don’t worry because no one appreciated your music today. Good background music goes with the scene. Yours fit perfectly and people experienced it as part of the scene. That’s a success Dileep! I see amazing talent in you! Don’t follow formula and get into Engineering or Medicine! You are made for music. I’m quite sure people who know music will understand your talent’.
Dileep felt frozen. He started after a few seconds, ‘Music that goes with the scene! I’ll remember that for a very long time! I’ll try to stick to that as much as possible! And thank you Sandhya! Thank you so much!’
‘Long back when we did that Ramayana thing! See how many people I’ve inspired all my life’, Sandhya said smiling. She was bringing the tempo down.
Arjun smiled like he did every other time Sandhya said something like this. The day looked good again.
Three years passed like three hundred years. He had been trying to forget her. He had too many memories about her and it wasn’t easy.
Arjun tore the august 10 from his calendar.
That day, he received a parcel from a friend. He found in it a letter and a gift wrapped article. He read the letter first. He came to know from the letter that the other article inside the parcel was a music disc. His friend had written that it was the soundtrack of the movie which was about to release that week. He had mentioned that he had struck out the director’s name as it would create an unwanted bias and added that he sent this only to a small group comprising his closest friends as a gift and advised that he hear it at least ten times.
He heard the whole soundtrack a few times that day. The album was highly innovative in terms of the sound, no doubt. He only liked one song while the rest did not impress him. Arjun felt a lack of a soul in the soundtrack.
The day was August 15.
The first thing that he did after he woke was play the music disc. He loved every other song in the album. His latest addiction was the ‘separation song’ which was currently playing. That reminded him of Sandhya like nothing else he had ever heard. His eyes moistened every time he heard it. It felt like someone had composed the song only for him. Ever since he started liking the song, he had been fighting the urge to talk to her. Three years of running from himself was what he had been doing.
He paused the song and wiped his tears. He washed his face and jumped twice. It had been nearly a year since he last called Sandhya. He stopped near the telephone. ‘Come on Arjun! Control this thought for just a few more minutes and it’ll…’, He picked the receiver before his voice could convince him against it.
The phone rang for just a few seconds. Arjun must have felt nervous, if not, how else could his heart be beating 3 times a seconds.
‘Oh Arjun! How are you?’
‘Fine. Happy Independence Day!’
‘Well I’m still fighting for it at home so I’m not greeting you back’
Arjun laughed from the heart after a very long time.
‘So still resisting marriage at home?’
‘Ya… India is a bad country for women. While the world is waking up to women power, my mother wants me married off to some stupid guy in the US’
‘So… Do you still remember…’
‘Yeah. Your application is still in the contest’. Sandhya said laughing.
‘Well… I still need some time. Thanks for being a gentleman and not taking this to my parents. They’d have got me married to you immediately.’ she said laughing.
‘Oh! That would have been so bad!’
‘Ha Ha. I didn’t mean it that way’. Sandhya laughed again. Arjun wished he could record all these sounds but immediately decided against it. ‘It’ll only aggravate the situation’ he thought as per his new set of rules he’d framed in a bid to forget Sandhya.
Three minutes into the conversation, he had broken every rule he had set to forget Sandhya. His love for Sandhya was beyond him, beyond her. He often got lost in thought when she spoke. ‘Nostalgia!’. Sandhya meant India for Arjun. Forgetting her would mean forgetting his childhood, his school and, most importantly, India. That’s what made it impossible to forget her.
The talking went on for another twenty minutes.
‘Ok! Arjun! Mom has been asking me to help her with the chappatis. We’ll talk later! Bye!’
‘Bye…’, Arjun said feeling like a child whose toy had just been snatched.
‘Oh wait! Now I’ve got to something interesting about Dileep’
‘Yes’ he said but he thought ‘What is it now?’
‘Firstly, Dileep has changed his name and secondly, he is the music director for your favourite director’s next movie that is releasing someday this’
Arjun hung the phone. He was the undisputed genius of his class. He knew what she’d have told him. A dead-cold chill ran through his spine. He could see a ghostly white image on the mirror to the right.
He dropped to the floor. No other thought crossed his mind for the next few minutes. ‘I’ve lost’. He sat on the floor for 10 minutes not knowing what next to do. ‘From what hard lessons History has taught me, your keyboard guy will achieve things that we can’t even imagine! How true!’
He mustered the courage to stand up against the feeling of being haunted.
He walked to the music player. He had a long thought-battle while his hand was still suspended in the air near the play button. He changed the track to the song that he loved from the very day he got the disc. He had heard a voice in the middle of that song but he couldn’t place whose voice it was back then. Now he knew whose it was. He tapped the play button and sat on the floor.
The prelude was as lovely as a sun rise.
—————————————————–Dileep’s story ends here——————————————–
Rahman lost his father when he was just nine years old (Arjun: ‘Do you think you can support your family with that Dileep?’)
Rahman is an introvert. Yay!! (The Motivator said rubbing his hands, ‘So you mean he was an introvert, all-with-himself, prefers-privacy-to-people-guy?’)
Rahman would cycle to Mount Road to get a rarely available music magazine, by name, Music Makers. (Sandhya: I met him at Mount Road some time back. He told me he came there for some rare music magazine)
“Rahman’s name wasn’t mentioned in (probably) the very first edition of Roja’s music disc”
–singer Srinivas in NVOK
The whole of this story is fictional and is not even faintly related to Rahman’s life.
Arjun was named after Arjun Shiva, a close friend of mine. However Arjun Shiva is far more intelligent and gentlemanly than the Arjun of this story.
Ms Anu was named after Anushka Sharma, my favourite actress. (No. I haven’t seen one single film of her :P)
Keshav was named after another close friend of mine: Keshav Kaanth.
‘Yusuf’, ‘Prabha’ were accidental names. ‘Amir’ and ‘Aisha’ were products of a Google search.
Sandhya… Well… Keep guessing!