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Strange music December 4, 2017

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
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meera_musicI have known all three of them for quite a long time. Then again, I wonder if I actually ever knew them.

I have known the Doctor the longest. He was already a well established cardiologist when I got to know him. I met him for the first time when I was assigned to follow our late Chief Minister. When the CM suffered a heart attack in ’97, through odd circumstances, I was the one who picked up the doctor and brought him to the CM’s home. It was my first scoop as a young journalist.

The doctor was soft spoken, and very respectful even though I was several years his junior. We met many more times, especially after the Chief Minister’s health deteriorated. Towards the end, during the months before the CM finally passed away, we spent many hours together travelling in the convoy with the CM, and backstage during the long political rallies which the CM insisted on leading despite severe health issues.

The doctor was initially quite reticent. I think he thought I was the CM’s grandson or something, given that the CM was always real nice to me, and hence kept his distance. But once he found out that I was a rookie journalist who had just been at the right place at the right time to help the CM when he got his chest pain, he became friendlier and even a little protective.

It was during those times of enforced companionship that we got to know each other well. Surprisingly, we shared many common interests not the least of which was music. We both liked an eclectic mix of music ranging from Carnatic, Hindustani and western classical to jazz and rock. We spent our idle hours endlessly dissecting various artists and bands and exchanging notes on the up-and-coming singers in the Carnatic circuit.

Those endless days must have been a real pain for him. For me, it was part of my job and my newspaper was actually happy that I was close to the CM, because that gave us access to a lot of news first. But for the doctor, it meant not being able to take care of his practice, or be available for his other patients as regularly as he would have liked. Sitting around idly hoping the CM wouldn’t have a heart attack must have been frustrating for him. However, he seemed to take it all with equanimity and I did not hear him complain, even once. He was so zen. When you looked at him, you would think there was nothing else he would rather be doing nor anywhere else he would rather be. When talking to someone, he would be in the moment, all his attention on that person and on the topic at hand, enveloping them in his cocoon of calmness. I have very fond memories from those few months.

After the CM passed away, we did not get many more opportunities to meet and talk. On rare occasions, we bumped into each other at some sabha or the other in Chennai during the December music season, where we would chat briefly. He would be with his friends or sometimes his parents and I would just politely enquire about his well-being before moving on. I know he read my articles regularly because he always sent in his compliments and comments. So, we were never really out of touch, I guess, if you think about it.

One day, I was pleasantly surprised to receive his wedding invitation by post. And even more surprised to see that the bride was the well know carnatic singer M____. By my calculation, at that time, the doctor must have been in his late 30s or early 40s and M____ would have been no more than 21 or 22, a considerable age difference. “Invitation is for our friend, and not the journalist”, said the postscript on the wedding card, with a smiley at the end. Given that they were both well-known and I had only gotten to know them through my work as a journalist, I had not taken the liberty of slotting them as friends, though I was fond of them both, to say the least. So to get an invitation and to be called a friend felt very nice.

I was a big fan of M_____, having covered her meteoric rise through the years since she burst on to the music scene at the tender age of 12. Even at that early age, her talent was unmistakable. I still remember house-full concerts where the child (at that time) would enthrall her audience, comprising people of all ages, with renditions of Meera bhajans. She would invest in them so much love and devotion that it was easy to imagine that she was actually in love with Lord Krishna. If the original Meera’s feelings for the lord are considered the purest form of love, to hear the music flow from this young girl only made it even more so.

By the time she was 18, she was a well-established and highly respected Carnatic singer invited to perform all over the world. I followed her career with keen interest and made it a point to attend her concerts whenever possible. Over the course of her career, I interviewed her quite a few times, and it was always a very pleasant and joyful task.

If she had been only a great singer, maybe her trajectory would not have been so spectacular. Combined with the prodigious talent was her ethereal beauty. She was not just cute, or pretty. Even gorgeous wouldn’t quite cut it. She was beautiful, in the fullest sense of the term. I know, the word beauty is overused and has become cliched, but it would be difficult to find a more suitable substitute to describe her. There was an other-worldly aura around her. I could tell you that she had a flawless complexion the colour of honey, that she had large expressive eyes that were black as the night and yet blindingly bright, that she had a irrepressible smile that lit up the world, or that her long tresses bounced like gently coiled springs made of silk, but it would not do justice to her appearance. Even a poet far more capable than I would be hard-pressed to convey in words what could only be perceived with our eyes and hearts. It was an all-encompassing beauty that made everyone around her feel beautiful too.

To top it all, despite all the adulation and a burgeoning fan base, she came across as a normal person in all other respects. Her expressions, attitudes and answers to the various questions I posed during the interviews were always age appropriate and yet mature for her age. If I sound as though I was in love with her, you would not be too far off the mark.

I was happy for them both when I heard that they were getting married. Despite minor misgivings of their age difference, I couldn’t think of any reason why it would not be the best thing that happened to them. I attended their wedding. I had assumed that it would be a large gala affair with a thousand invitees, but was surprised to find that the wedding was a small private affair with hardly 100 people. When I entered the wedding hall, the doctor was sitting on the stage half-way through some ceremony and the bride was running around bubbly as usual. The demure bride she was not. The doctor caught my eye, nodded his head, smiled and gave me a thumbs up. M____ bounded up to me, grabbed me by the elbow and hugged me like I was a long lost, much loved cousin. “So good you could make it”, she said and then added, “the doctor has asked me a thousand times if I was sure I had sent the invite to you”. “Of course, I am also thrilled that one of my favourite people is here to share in my happiness”, she continued, giving my elbow another tight squeeze, oblivious of the effect she was having on me. She could have never been mine, but the finality of her being well and truly somebody else’s now was inescapable. My heart lurched a bit, I confess. Thankfully somebody else caught her attention then and she bustled away possibly to break some other heart with a dose of her boundless love and affection.

I wondered if life would change for either of them after marriage, especially whether she would cut down on her performances or travels, but thankfully for the fans, life went on as before. While the doctor continued to grow in stature as the preeminent cardiac surgeon drawing patients from all over India and other countries, M___ continued to travel around the world performing to rave reviews.

A decade or so later, I introduced M____ to my friend, an accomplished jazz violinist. He was an old friend of mine, from the time he had first visited India to perform at the Alliance Francaise as a youngster. We had been introduced to each other by my French teacher and I had become his tour guide and translator for the duration of his stay. We hit it off well as we travelled together to Pondicherry and Auroville and then to Mahe in Kerala which was another erstwhile French colony. He toured India almost every year after that, and we used to plan at least one long weekend together travelling to some nearby place with a European connection.

On one such trip to Tranquebar, a Danish post on the east coast of India, we happened to meet M____ and the doctor who were also staying at the same resort. As fusion music was all a rage then, I suggested that they could maybe have a concert together. To my surprise, both of them thought it was a great idea and one thing led to another and within a month, they had a programme which turned out to be a big hit. The next year, she travelled to France and they had a few performances together there which were also very well received.

From that time, their concerts together became a standard fixture during the annual music season in Chennai and in various jazz and world music stages across the world. Over the next decade or so, she not only became known for her own reputation, but also as one half of the jazz–carnatic duo.

During that period, I moved to New Delhi to cover the national political scene. So, I lost touch with all of them and heard nothing much beyond what was reported in the media, which was not much. Then, one day, I heard they were having a concert in Delhi and so I called my friend to reconnect and possibly bum a backstage pass. After the concert I went backstage and we chit-chatted for a few minutes. He then invited me to join them for dinner. M___ hesitated a bit, took him aside and spoke to him for a while after which he came back and said that she had other plans and would be unable to join us. So, it was just the two of us who went for dinner.

After we sat down at our table, without preamble, he said “I should have told you about this sooner. M___ and I are an item now. We have been together for about 5 years now”. I was totally taken aback. “How could you?”, I exclaimed. “What? You’re still carrying a torch for her?”, he countered jocularly. “Yes. That”, I replied in similar vein, “but I was thinking more about the doctor!”. “Of course, the doctor is aware”, he said in reply. “Oh! That poor man. He must be devastated”, I said feeling sorry for the gentle doctor. “Not really. We are all quite civilized about it you know. Its a fairly open relationship between the three of us. M____ is a treasure. Only your society will not accept it and hence the secrecy”, he replied appearing quite blasé. It all sounded altogether Bohemian for me. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine the dignified doctor in a love triangle.

Over dinner he brought me up to speed on all that had transpired since we had last met. Apparently, soon after they started performing together, he had fallen madly in love with her. I wasn’t surprised. It was inevitable given M___’s beauty and the fact that they were traveling together regularly as part of their concert tours. However, since he had also developed an abiding respect for the doctor, he had not acted on his urges, he said. To complicate matters, M____ being her usual ebullient self, he had been unable to figure out if his feelings were being reciprocated or not. Anyway, the absence of any pushback had raised his hopes and so his love for her had grown unhampered. This state of affairs, he said, had gone on for quite some time, making life difficult for him.

Then, during a moment of weakness, he had gone and confessed his feelings, not to M____ as one might logically expect, but to the doctor. Whether this was to assuage his own guilt or he was looking for approval, I do not know. Matters would have ended there if the doctor had asked him to cut off all relationships and move away, he said, as that was something he had already contemplated on doing.

Unfortunately for the kindly doctor, M___ had also, in private, confessed to him her growing feelings for her co-artist. I don’t know what went on in the doctor’s mind at that time. I can only guess that maybe he harboured guilt relating to their huge age difference, or was looking to do the right thing by her, for instead of getting angry, he had offered to get a divorce and set her free. Characteristically, M____ had been in no mood to accept such an outcome as she believed sincerely that she was still as much in love with the doctor as she ever had been, and she had no intention of annulling the marriage. Again, I guess, if the doctor had then told her to break off all relations with the violinist, she would have agreed and matters would have ended there. The decent human being that he was, he did not do that either.

What had eventually happened was that the doctor, whether he wanted to or not, had given their relationship his tacit approval. The doctor had however, cautioned them that society, especially the Indian one, would not take kindly to any extra-marital dalliances, which always reflected badly on the woman, and hence asked them to be as discreet as possible. I am not sure he actually said it in so many words, but that appears to be the essence that my friend, the violinist, took away after their conversation, based on his words.

A period of blissful coexistence followed, if my friend is to be believed. On tours out of the country, the two enjoyed a guilt-free and loving relationship and on return kept their distance, giving M____ and the doctor their space and time. After hearing all this, I didn’t know what to say. What was there to say anyway?  In my heart of hearts, I knew I would have also gladly shared M____ with another man, if only she had loved me. So, I couldn’t fault my friend for this weakness. I would have considered anybody else behaving as M___ did selfish, but was incapable of finding fault with her. The doctor, he was a grown man too. By all accounts he had had enough opportunities not to have allowed this to go on.

I paid the bill, and just as we were leaving, he told me that M____ had really wanted to join us, but was worried that things might get awkward after our conversation and hence had chickened out. I called her from the restaurant and spoke to her and wished them all happiness. She sounded guilty and happy at the same time. I felt guilty mainly on account of the doctor, maybe for having brought them all together.

A year later, I read in the papers that the Doctor and M____ had divorced and she had married my friend. I was surprised. And a little guilty for I know not what. I thought of calling the doctor or the two of them, but was not sure what I would say to them. I could neither congratulate the couple, nor commiserate with the doctor. In the end, I mustered up the courage to call my friend. “Now what?”, I demanded. He laughed sheepishly. It’s a long story. I am coming to Delhi next week. Let’s catch up over a drink. We met the next week and he appeared even happier than before if that was possible. “I am here only for another couple of hours. Back to Chennai by the last flight. Can’t keep away from my lovely bride”, he gushed all in one breath. His exuberance was infectious and I could not help but grin at him. “Start your story. I can’t wait”, I said as I waved to the waiter to take our order. “What can I say? I am the happiest man alive”, he declared. “Two of your finest single malts, spare no expense”, he demanded from the waiter when he came, “for the luckiest man alive and his best friend”. Once the waiter had left, I asked him to get on with it.

“Well, actually nothing has really changed…”, he began, sobering down a bit, “The doctor’s still in love with M____ and as you can see, so am I. She is also just as much in love with both of us as before. So, in that sense nothing is different”. I guess he could see the confusion on my face and that cracked him up. After his laughter at my expense subsided, he continued, “What has changed is that I can now be open about my relationship with M____. No more, this clandestine crap. I didn’t realise it at first, but having to hide my love and act like I was doing something illicit was weighing down on me. So, one day I sat both of them down and shared my feelings”.

“And I guess, the dear doctor agreed readily to this also”, I sighed. “Actually, he was not for it and held out for quite a while, but eventually I prevailed”. “Now, I can tell the whole world how much I love this wonderful creature. What a fantastic feeling that is, you know?”, he said after a pause.

I was happy for him and as usual a little bit guilty thinking of the doctor. “Poor doctor”, I mumbled, but my friend was quite sure things were the same. “You know us. We are all civilized about it. Sophisticated as ever. We are also a bit older now and even more mature. Everything’s going to be fine”, he said. After having seen their unlikely relationship survive for so many years, I wasn’t going to start doubting it now. So, I again wished him all the best. We had another drink, to their health and continued togetherness, before he left to catch his flight.

Six months later I read in the papers that my friend and M____ had filed for divorce. This was all getting too much. I picked up the phone and called him. He answered on the second ring and asked, “So, you heard?”, sounding surprisingly upbeat. “What’s wrong with you all?”, I exclaimed. “Well”, he said, “I have realised that I was not as civilized and sophisticated as I thought I was”. Then with a laugh he continued, “The truth is it took a marriage for me to figure out that I can gladly share the woman I love with another man, but only as long as she is the other man’s wife!”

“So, you guys have broken up?”, I asked, still trying to come to grips with their affairs.

He said, “No, no. Don’t worry. Nothing’s changed”.

“Bite me”, I said, and hung up.

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