‘Umaaa, zara coffee toh lana.’
Uma ferociously beat the coffee in the cup, hassled by the pressure of her work. Now, this coffee was such a strange beverage to make. If Memsahib would have asked for chai, Uma would have prepared a steaming hot cup of cutting chai for her.
She set the cup of coffee on the neatly laid out tray, aesthetically kept beside a plate of McVities Digestive biscuits and a newspaper.
She placed the tray in front of Memsahib, waiting for her next order.
‘Jao jhadoo laga do.’
Uma scurried away, glad to be on her own. Her long and graceful sweeps were accompanied by her tuneful rendition of Lata ji’s and Kishore ji’s duet ‘Is mod se jaate hain.’ Unknown to her, Memsahib was right behind her, inspecting all nooks and crooks with her hawk eye. A rather high note emitted by Uma made Memsahib jump.
‘Gaana hain toh apne ghar main yeh sab karna, mere ghar main bilkul nahin chalega.’
Uma was stopped even before she had reached that mod.
Uma walked hurriedly while her sandals slapped the heated road, berating it for scorching the innocent streetwalker’s feet. Meanwhile, Uma looked for trees to walk under. Her sari blouse was already drenched with her sweat. The thought of washing Memsahib’s clothes in the open verandah just filled her with dread.
As soon as she reached Memsahib’s house, she was astonished to see two gigantic trucks filled with cartons parked outside.
Just then Memsahib rushed towards Uma and said,’ Yeh lo tumhari pagaar, ab se aane ki zaroorat nahi.’
Memsahib sat in her taxi before Uma could react, and went away without glancing at her.
If she would have, she would have seen a mix of loathing, disgust and hurt on Uma’s face. The money in her hand was not even half of her monthly salary.
Uma had no schedule these days. She would do any odd job which paid her, but it wasn’t enough.
Uma was trudging while the sun sucked her energy, humming ‘Musafir hoon yaro’ along the way.
She was astonished to see a fleet of trucks outside the runaway Memsahib’s house.
An elegant lady, dressed in a wrinkled sari climbed out of a car, a general look of frenzy on her face.
Uma just spotted a job opportunity and went to the elegant lady, offering her to unpack.
‘Madamji, new here?’
‘Yes. My name is Reeta Sengupta’
‘1000 for unpacking and 5000 per month. Washing, cleaning, cooking.’
‘Too much. 800 for unpacking and 4000 per month along with a weekly massage.’
After haggling, bargaining and coaxing, they reached a common acceptable rate. The poor drivers waited till then, hesitant to come between these sari-clad, fire-spitting ladies.
Uma got a strange sensation as she entered the house. She had entered this house so many times before, but not when it was empty. The house which used to brim with the energy of a living being now seemed still yet restless, as if a person who has been holding his breath for too long, desperate to give in to his existential needs. The imperfections of the house were now on display, the peeling wallpaper which used to be covered by paintings and the scratch on the floor hidden by a rug was now visible for critical eyes.
Once the cartons were opened and the furniture was set with the help of Uma, the packers and movers and Mrs. Sengupta, the house seemed to have gained momentum, breathing in its regular pace again.
While unpacking, Uma came across one unusually big and heavy carton. She opened it cautiously, expecting to find precious crockery. Instead, she found something more valuable. The box was filled with various instruments she had only seen in movies - harmonium, sitar, and a flute.
Maybe she won’t be scoffed for her singing anymore.
‘Umaaa, zara chai toh lana.’
Uma smiled to herself, the kettle already heating on the stove.
Mrs. Sengupta seemed like a reserved lady, not too taciturn. Maybe it was the strangeness of the new place, or maybe that’s how she was. Whatever might be said, she had a knack for picking the best saris which along with her salt and pepper hair, gave her a very regal look.
One particular evening, when Uma was preparing for the dinner beforehand, Mrs. Sengupta got her two packets of Oreos and simply said, ‘Some children are coming today, make sure you serve them these.’
Uma nodded, though she was confused. Mrs. Sengupta did not at all seem like a person who would entertain children.
Within an hour, the children were there, sitting in the room Mrs. Sengupta had kept all of her instruments in. That’s the first time Uma heard those instruments come to life. Every particle in the air was filled with melody, the bold voice of her new Memsahib’s booming across the corridor.
Uma obediently kept the plate of cookies inside the room and then waited outside, learning along with the children, unknown to her new guru.
A week had passed, and Mrs. Sengupta was well settled in her new house and Uma was now well-adjusted to Mrs.Sengupta’s schedule.
After the first music lesson, Uma practiced and practiced Raag Bhopali at home, enraptured by the beauty and specifications of classical music.
Uma was washing utensils when she started humming Raag Bhopali. A musician’s ears are one of their most alert body parts, and her humming did not go unnoticed by Mrs. Sengupta.
‘Sing louder. I want to hear it.’
Uma was taken aback and started fumbling.
‘Ddd-Didi, I had heard it, that’s why. I can’t sing it properly.’
‘Ohho, don’t worry. Try at least.’
Uma started with the aaroh nervously, descending into the avroh and then the pakkad. Her voice was shaky.
She paused to take a deep breath. Mrs. Sengupta gave her an encouraging look and Uma commenced the bandish, starting with the mukhda. With every note she sang, she gained confidence. Her voice was strong and clear, with patches of nervousness.
‘We’ll start with your training from 5 tomorrow.’
Two years later, their classes were still on full swing and Uma was at her melodious best. Her voice was now stronger and bolder, emanating power yet simplicity, just like her.
One particular day, Mrs. Sengupta decided to teach Uma her favourite Raag- Raag Malhaar.
‘Today, I’ll teach you my favourite Raag. There are many fables; one of them says that Tansen was once singing Raag Deepak in Akbar’s court. The darbar started burning up and thus he had to sing Raag Malhaar, which brings rain. That is how the fire was put out.’
‘Didi, so what will you teach me today, Raag Deepak or Raag Malhaar?’ asked Uma innocently.
Mrs. Sengupta laughed her tinkling laughter and exclaimed, ‘Raag Malhaar of course! Not a lot of people sing Raag Deepak nowadays.’
‘Didi, has it ever rained while you were singing Raag Malhaar?’
Mrs. Sengupta did not answer for a minute; instead her facial features rearranged themselves in a faraway and melancholic expression.
‘Yes, just once. It was beautiful. I felt as if the sound of the rain hitting the earth was my applause, as if the thunder was clapping my back with incomprehensible words of encouragement.’
That’s when Uma knew what she had to achieve.
Mrs. Sengupta was an acclaimed singer in the society and frequently performed in Mandi House.
One of her big performances, ‘Bulleh Shah Special’ was approaching and she had to search for a new voice for the opening performance.
‘Uma, have you performed on stage before?’
‘Naa Didi, before you taught me, I had never sung in front of anyone.’
‘Will you sing in front of a thousand people?’
‘Haye haye Didi, kaisi baat kar rahe ho?’
And just like that, Uma stubbornly refused.
It took days and days for Mrs. Sengupta to coax her, and by using this ultimatum:
‘I’ll stop teaching you if you don’t perform.’
By now Uma was aware that Mrs. Sengupta could be ridiculously adamant when she wanted to be, and this was one of those situations.
Uma sighed and said, ‘What do I sing?’
Mrs. Sengupta squealed with joy and hugged Uma.
Uma did not hug her back, knowing that it was not acceptable for her to do so. No one ever hugs their house help. It is wrong, completely wrong.
However, pushing these awful thoughts away, she reluctantly hugged Mrs. Sengupta back.
Uma had made up her mind to perform Raag Malhaar but she knew that she would have to practice day and night, considering that it was a beloved and acclaimed Raag and also that it was her first stage performance.
So she threw herself into rigorous practice, attempting to perfect each note and memorizing all the aalaaps and taans by heart.
Mrs. Sengupta did not leave her either. She said that Uma’s piece should be so perfect that she should be able to sing it in her sleep too.
Uma hoped to see at least a few droplets of rain during her practice sessions, but nothing of that sort happened. She would try putting variations, sing with emotion, sing with power, but the sun would just beam proudly, mocking her.
Just a day before the performance, grey clouds pregnant with the possibility of rain hung overhead. In no time, the first rain shower was there. Uma’s heart leapt and instinctively she started singing Raag Malhaar.
The rain abruptly came to a halt and instead Uma’s eyes poured water.
It was the big day, and Uma had already reached the hall, rehearsing with the instrumentalists and doing the essential microphone tests. She was wearing a shiny new green sari with a silver border. Her eyes were highlighted with kohl and she wore her gold earrings and nose pin kept aside for special occasions.
People had already started coming and Mrs. Sengupta was nowhere to seen. With each passing minute, Uma’s anxiety was multiplying tenfold.
The organiser approached her and said, ‘Madam, please take your position on the stage. You are going first.’
Uma swallowed the sourness of the rising bile she could feel in her throat. She touched the stage with her hand before entering, paying it her respect. She sat down on the white cloth, surrounded by the instrumentalists.
The bright white light on the stage blinded her eyes. This was good for her because the audience just seemed to have dissolved in the blackness ahead. She took a deep breath and sang.
‘Sa Ma Re Ma Pa Ni Ni Sa’
She hit the teevra note of the aaroh perfectly and this gave her confidence.
Before she knew it, she was already there on the mukhda.
‘Garjat barsat bheejat aailo, tumhari milan ko apne prem piyarva.....’
Her aalaaps were mellifluous, flowing into the fast pace of the taans effortlessly. If one were sitting close to her, they could see that she was reaching closer to herself, every muscle in her body was coordinating with each other to fulfill her dream. Her eyes were filling with realization and her skin was developing a glow she never had before.
She ended the tihaai and the auditorium was as quiet as the silence before the storm.
Every head turned as the heavy auditorium door opened with a thunderous sound. Mrs. Sengupta was standing there, drenched from head to toe, her sari pallu clinging to her. Her elaborate hairdo and makeup had been spoilt but her eyes were shining.
Uma’s vision started blurring as the audience stood up, applauding her.
Uma could hear the nature applauding for her.
EDITED BY DIYA MATHEW