If it was not for the wooden ladder, the old tabla set wouldn’t have been discovered for another generation. The layers of dust over it stood testimony to the time it settled there without any human intervention. When Suni’s groping hands accidentally thumped on the somewhat sagging leather, it cried out a dull thud, and gave out a cloud of smoke. She sneezed a couple of times that threatened to set the ladder off-balance, set precariously on the edge of the shelf above. It touched slightly on the edge of the cemented slab, and with every move, grated a bit of the cement off the surface compromising the grip. Dusting her hand disdainfully against her flowing skirt, she stretched her hands as far as it could and began to feel the tabla set. Her hand moved gingerly against the rotund surface, feeling the strips of leather that ran across as it disappear under the surface. The hand then stumbled upon the two ringed cushion padding underneath, where the two tablas perched upon all these years, like two fat men.
“Baba, look what I found. It’s a …?” A sneeze muffled her words.
“Whatever it’s, don’t bring it down. As it’s it, you have given me a generous washing with dust.” Baba on the other hand was drowned in a book that fell from one of the shelf above, another discovery of Suni. It was in tatters, with bookworms making a meal of most of the pages. Baba;s wrinkled fingers flipped through the pages, the footnotes on the pages in faded ink reminded him that the book demanded his attention at some point in the past. The underlines under some of the passages tried to pull him back to the time and to the purpose of it all. Suni’s excited voice came in the way of his drifting voice again.
“Baba! Will you please leave your book aside. I need a hand here.”
The two sneezed in copious amounts, with the dust that unsettled as they focussed on bringing the tablas down from hibernation.
“Who played these? Didn’t know it existed in our house.” She drummed it instrument a couple of times rather clumsily, more to shake off the dust than to play it. It resulted in more sneezing.
“Stop that Suni, will you? Wipe it with a wet cloth if you have to or keep it aside. Don’t fool around with it.”
Suni eyes fell on the name scribbled over the side of the bigger one. ‘Pulin’ it read with a date that had smudged to just show the century. Further scrutiny didn’t reveal any more information.
“That’s grandfathers. He played the thing?” Suni asked her baba, thumping the tabla again to bring him back from his own thoughts.
“Yes!” He paused. “Then I inherited it from him. Got it as a gift on my 10 birthday. Or was it 15. I don’t remember. The date on it was the day he gave it to me.” He smiled faintly at that.
“So do you know how to play it?” Suni’s excitement was going up a notch higher. She was beginning to take pride of the musical background of her family, however tenacious it may have been. She learnt from someone that music runs in the blood and by that logic, it flowed in her blood too, to what degree she didn’t know and was curious to find out.
“I wasn’t as good as my father. What did you think accounts for my spread out fingers.”
Wiping the instrument clean, she thrust it towards her father, filling her eyes with expectation and the air with anticipation. He stiffened at the sudden responsibility thrust on him. Unwittingly, he clutched tightly to the book he was holding for support, to preoccupy them in other things. Suni noticed the shake of his hands. She waited, pleading with her eyes, knowing that he would eventually relent. He looked around nervously, as if making sure no one was there to witness his performance. Then those eager faces came floating into in memory.
Seated in rows and rows of chairs going back to as far as his eyes could see. The dimmed light in the audience section, somewhat restricted the view while the lights that fell on the stage made him stand out starkly. How he wished it was the other way round. The faces, he felt pressed against him, breathing right into him in unison, choking him into nervousness. After a while he couldn’t see anyone but only felt the heat creeping up his body. His ears, felt like burning charcoal and his hands stiffened like they were cast in plaster. It was his first solo performance on the stage; amongst the audience was his father and other great maestros of music, well known figures in the town and outside. His father’s face jumping, staring at him from the front row with anticipation only managed to make matters worse for him. He still remember how pale it looked when the curtains had drawn, bringing an end to his ordeal. As the light fell on him, it seemed to sear his body and soul, tormenting him with more with time. Hours and hours of rehearsal, grinding, toiling hard till his fingers felt numb and seemed detached from his body, just didn’t come to his rescue that day. They stood there muted, abandoning him at the critical time, laughing at his poor state. Not that he didn’t make an attempt, for he had heard his father repeatedly talk about allowing muscle memory, and instinct take over. He did leave it to those two but no one came to his rescue. The hand didn’t move, the muscle remembered none, the brain stopped working, it was only his heart that seemed to working overtime, reminding him that he was still alive. From the din of voices in his head he heard his father’s from the audience,
“C’mon Bhutu, remember the lessons. Breathe easy, I am there for you.” The voice appeared to come from a distance, and bounced off his head, echoing. Obviously his father didn’t realise that his presence there, judging his move, scrutinising his hands was the problem. He remembered giving up the struggle after a while let time decide what it wants to do. The curtain that fell in front of him after a while, hid the tormentors from his view in stages, until he was left alone. The lights had dimmed too at his end while it had illuminated the audience’s side. He was grateful for the thick curtain, and the length that covered him from head to toe. He remembered the hand landing of his shoulder, knew it to be his father’s from the sheer weight. It bowed him down a notch lower, when words that came out of his father saved him from drowning that day.
“It’s over Bhutu. Now you may relax. Let’s go home and we will practice harder this time. I failed you, you didn’t.” Those words shifted the blame but it did nothing to un-burden the sense of shame and guilt from his shoulder. He carried it all the time and thought he had managed to push it deep into the shelf where no one would find it. Had managed that until now when his daughter found it and placed it in front of him. The onrush of old memories made him freeze again. His hands felt heavy again, paralysed.
“It’s ok baba. If you don’t feel like playing now, I can keep it aside. I understand it’s a little too dusty to touch now.” Those words from his daughter reminded him of what his father had said more than a decade back. He felt a gentle breeze sweep in from the window and blow away the heat. Those same words, when his father spoke it had come down to him like a hammer of shame but this time it comforted him. This time, he was failing none.
“That won’t be necessary Suni. If you clean it any further, I am afraid the leather would wear off. Get me a hammer…the wooden one. I’ll have to tune it before it makes any sensible sound.” Looking at it, he remembered it was the same set of tabla that was teasing him to play that day. This time, withered with age, it seemed to lie assumingly, but inviting still. He did a little ‘ta ta dhai dhai’ on the tabla, his hand a little incongruous on the instrument, tried to familiarise itself with the leathery texture. The rhythmic sound delighter Sumi, making her tab her foot instinctively on the floor. Her naked feet slapping on the floor complimented the dull thud of the table.
“Oh why did you stop so soon Baba! It sounded great.” Encourage, he played a longer phrase, he learnt for that fateful performance. Sumi couldn’t seem to supress her excitement as he stopped again to catch her reaction.
“Uff..dont’ stop na baba. Let your hands dance on the table.” She sounded uncannily like his father did during rehearsals.
“Do one thing sumi.” He gave a simple beat to sumi to tap with her feet. “And don’t miss the tempo. Tempo maney, the speed of your tapping. Got it.”
Sumi nodding her head enthusiastically, wasted no time in following the instructions. Taking cue form the beat, he started belting out rhythms, first slowly, then gaining confidence, he increased the pace and the complexity of the beats. The hands started to dance again, and opened up with every strike, remembering what it had forgotten that day. His heard his father words echo in his head, “It’s all about muscle memory son. Don’t think. Thinking is stopping. Feel it, get lost in it and express yourself fully. There’s nothing to hold back, nothing to remember and nothing to forget.”
His father’s words were ringing true in his head now. As the hand increased pace, the fingers began to disappear, only to reappear again. It was like a magician performing a trick. He could see himself on the stage again, facing the audience. The curtains drawn, the audience in rapt attention, and the lights falling on him. He saw his father amidst them, tapping his feet and following the rhythm with his dancing eyebrows. Though he was seated, he felt like he was dancing, the rhythm taking over his body and soul. He was again taking the stage for the first time.
When he stopped, Sumi couldn’t stop clapping.
“Baba, I want to play like you do. You have to teach me.” Sumi started jumping up and down as if the beat of the tabla was still playing. It was in her mind.
“It takes years and years of practice. Are you…”
She cut him short. “I know all that. I’ll practice it everyday.”
“Your hands will also have to take a lot of beating, probably more than the tabla would. I will lose its softness.” He knew it wouldn’t deter her one bit. He already felt the genes of a musician flowing in her.
She only stared back at him with a mock-temper.
“Ok. In that case, we will need to find a new place to keep it.” He smiled and bowed ever so slightly.