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A thumri singer on the love of her life.
[Text by Vidya Rao, pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
She comes to greet me, limping a little.
As she grows older, her bad leg, injured in her childhood, gives her trouble. Yet when she was young you wouldn’t have thought she had a bad leg, she was so limber!
She stands on tiptoe and she tells me how much she has missed me. I hug and tell her I’ve missed her dreadfully, too. I tell her how happy I am to be back, home again, home to her.
We’ve shared this house for so many years now. We were both young when she came to live with me. We had met, quite by chance one rainy afternoon. She was dodging the traffic at a busy intersection. She had no umbrella and she was soaking wet. I’d stopped at the traffic lights. And I saw her. I had offered her a ride in my car. She had jumped in, settled herself comfortably — and before I knew it I was inviting her home. And she had accepted that invitation. She was looking for a place to live, and I was happy to have someone like her to share my home. How trusting she is, I’d thought then. But perhaps we were both trusting. I’m glad we were. Or where would I be now without her.
That was many years ago. She was young then, and as I said, limber. I was younger too. Now we are both getting on — I have an assortment of aches and pains, and I tire easily; she has trouble with her liver, and has to be on a diet which she hates. Now we are two old people. We stumble along, glad to have each other.
A few days ago, travelling in the mountains, I had awoken to a bright cold morning. Spring in the mountains , I had thought as I watched the sun’s rays glimmering on the still snow-clad Dhauladhars. In the still clean air I could hear so many birds. Further down the mountain, children calling to each other, the bleating of a goat. And temple bells chiming. I’d thanked my life for this gift of work that takes me all over the world, has shown me mountains and oceans, snow and burning sand, and given me friends from a hundred countries. And also for the gift of my home, and for her presence in my life.
I’d reached for my shawl - sunshine notwithstanding, the air was cold. Then I saw it on my shawl, a single hair, variegated, two-toned, as mine is too. But this wasn’t my hair. Mine is softer, wavy, longer. This straight, short, slightly wiry hair could only be hers. I plucked the hair off my shawl and held it up to the light.
In that instant, she is very close. This one small hair brings her into this room that’s so far away from the home we’ve made together.
I miss her, her body’s warmth, her cool affection.
Now I am back. And she is here with me. Contentment seeps into my bones.
I wash my face and hands, getting some of the train’s grime off myself. I brush my teeth. Then I switch on the geyser. Soon the water will be hot and I can take a shower.
She watches me intently as I unpack, tossing soiled clothes into a bucket full of soapsuds. Lots of clothes to wash, I tell her grimacing a little. It is always so after a trip. She doesn’t help me. She never does. I don’t expect her to either. It is enough that she sits by me as I work, that she looks at me, that she smiles.
She follows me to the kitchen where I fill the kettle with water, switch it on, and make myself a cup of herb tea. I don’t make any for her. She doesn’t share my passion for tea. Or in fact for fruit, salads, or soups…. none of this soppy herb tea- heath food stuff for her!
I ask her if she’d like some warm milk. Its good for you I tell her. She agrees to have a little. Just to keep me company.
I take my cup and sit by the window that looks out over our tiny garden-in-pots, and she comes to sit by me, quiet as always. I offer her a biscuit and she takes it straight from my hand. Her mouth nuzzles my fingers.
A squirrel scampers up and down the garden wall, chittering cheekily at us. She looks at the squirrel, so focused, she might be meditating on the form of her ishta devata. I remember when she was young and could move so swiftly, so lightly, despite her limp. She’d run races with the squirrels. I used to think she’d leave her shadow behind. She was so swift.
I hold her close. Are you thinking of how it was when you were young? I ask her. There is a small pause. Then she turns to look at me with her large beautiful eyes. Is that reproach? Have I upset her by reminding her of those days?
She turns back to look at the squirrel. A parrot joins the squirrel. It perches on the railing of the balcony, green and gaudy against the grey of the cement railing. Two pigeons waddle up to the water- bowl. Beyond the garden, in the forest, I hear a koel. The first koel of this year. I tell her I want to celebrate that. She smiles benignly and accepts another biscuit.
I finish my tea, but this time that we spend together is so precious that I don’t want to get up and start the usual rush-rush-rush. Time enough for that I think. Now is a pool, quiet, still, deep as her eyes. We sit in silence for a while, a golden full silence that is as nourishing as a bowl of hot soup.
It is so good to be back, I tell her.
She jumps off the table by the window. She jumps into my lap. She reaches out and touches my face with a little velvet paw. She licks my cheek with her pink sandpaper tongue. Then she curls up in my lap, moulding her body to mine, and she begins to purr.
[The author is a thumri singer. She lives in Mehrauli, very close to Qutub Minar.]
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