Swan Song

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Prologue:

O readers, I know that some of you are avid travelers. If any of you ever visit the Holy City of Benaras, just spend another ₹50 in a bus and visit the backwater village of Sukhapur, which is around two hours from Varanasi railway station. There’s nothing much to see in that sleepy hamlet. They still don’t have electricity and use bullocks to plough their fields. The food is good and the people are better, not that you are going to eat either. At the outskirts of the village, there is a Sufi Dargah. That Dargah is of a saint called Khwaza Niyamat Shah Darvesh.

I wouldn’t recommend you to spend a night there, O stranger, if you have a weak heart. But, if you are a music lover, you should spend one. If you do spend a night and live to tell a tale, please do write to me so that even I may venture.

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80 years old Niyamat Ali was sitting with his head on his knees in the corner of his darkened hut. It had happened again today. The shrieks of those two ladies were still reverberating through his stunned mind. He picked up his tanpura to console his agitated heart and started to sing Raag Yaman with an active F# note. The wretched hut was filled with a heavenly voice. Niyamat had the soulful voice of an angel. Unfortunately, the creator lost interest in him after bestowing an ethereal voice and ended the job haphazardly. Niyamat was blessed with a golden voice and cursed with the looks of a gargoyle, which usually made people jump back a step when suddenly confronted by him. He was short in stature and had a hunchback. His face was pockmarked and he had a very dark complexion. Furthermore, he also had a horrible squint and limped. Niyamat was aware of his drawbacks. He had spent his life wandering from one village to another. He was abhorred by everyone. He had moved to this village last year and was unable to leave it, due to his failing health.

He lived at the outskirts of the village Sukhapur and considered darkness his friend. As he knew his effect on people, he always avoided venturing out of his hut during day time. But, today was unavoidable. He had to go out to the community tap, where two women were already present. Usually he always went there before dawn, but as he was down with fever, he couldn’t get up early. He initially hid for some time, then ventured in the afternoon. The women were chattering amongst themselves like so many colorful birds, till one suddenly saw Niyamat lurking and both screamed in horror. It was a startled scream and not an intended abhorrence. Movies and novels highly dramatize human emotions. People don’t really react as depicted. It’s just our hyper-sensitive conscience, which thinks that people are over-critical. The Women were immediately apologetic when they saw a fellow human being so poorly blessed and tried to alleviate the insult by smiling. The smile came out as painful grimace and Niyamat was already in his cocoon. He rushed away from the community tap and shut his door firmly. He decided to stay without water that day. He had heard somewhere that a person can survive for ten days without water. He got another attack of fever and was delirious. The fever broke around midnight. He felt very thirsty. He checked the pots and couldn’t find any water. He looked out at the Opal Moon. Now, there was an  ugly looking fellow, whom the world worshipped for its beauty! How lucky to be appreciated, in spite of one’s weaknesses! How lucky to be loved for what one is! He picked up the aluminum pot and went to the tap.

The distant village was deserted, bar an occasional dog, who was trying to mark its attendance by barking vociferously for reasons best known to it. He walked to the community tap and started to fill his pot, and was startled by a sniffling sound. He looked around and saw a beautiful girl of six sitting under a tree, her head on her folded arms and sniffling. Niyamat was surprised to see a lone child in the wilderness. He stepped into deep shadows and called out, “Who’s there?”

The kid looked up and smiled like million moons. Her large eyes were staring at his ugly face. Her hair fell on her face in lovely curls and framed it as if the beautiful moon is protected by the dark clouds. She stood up and walked towards him, “I’m sorry, but can you spare a piece of bread to me? I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday.”

“Of course, girl. What’s your name and where do you stay?”

“My name is Shree.”, the kid  came near him. “My parents are in heaven. I’m alone here. I used to live with my relatives, but they are too busy to care for me. So, I left their home. I’m hungry!”, she said plaintively.

There’s nothing in the world, which questions the humanity as a hungry and stray child or an aged person, which has to beg for food. All our affluence and richness are brought to the alter and judged in the presence of these damning exhibits. We don’t only lose our credibility as a human being, we also lose our face as a person. We do forget that, that helplessness, which is their lot, and which isn’t ours, is just because of an accident of birth! We are abashed, if we still have retained the grace.

Niyamat forgot about his own ugliness and rushed out to the kid. “Ah! Shree! You know, child? You are named after the wife of Mahadev! There’s a very beautiful raag called Shree, which is known to resurrect the dead.” Niyamat smiled at the kid, “Come, my child! I’ll give you food.”

Suddenly he froze. waiting for her reaction. She stared at him for a long second and suddenly laughed happily. “Wow! You are so good! Do you have mutton curry? My mom loved it, when she was with me!”

Niyamat was bathed in white. The bright, beautiful and lustrous moon enhanced all his ugly features.

The girl caught him by his finger and said, “Come! Why are you waiting?”

He was astonished! No one in his hitherto life had ever touched him! He caught those leaf like fingers and asked her anxiously, “You aren’t scared of me?”

The girl laughed jovially, “No. You are the best man I know!” She touched his flowing beards and said, “My father had such beautiful beards! He also used to sing and dance. Can you sing?”

There’s nothing in the world as beautiful as a lovely little girl child commanding you to dance to her tunes. The desolate trees saw an ugly dwarf humming and dancing to the claps of a tiny girl and swayed with happiness. They clapped their leafy limbs and the wind tickled the beautiful girl, who giggled happily. Dripping from the sweat of his exertions, Niyamat bade the girl to come to his home, so that he can feed her. His heart was beating like huge drums of those dark clouds. No one had ever considered him a human. She didn’t actually mind his ugliness. He picked up his pot and asked the girl to follow him and walked ahead.

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The village of Sukhapur was like any other village in rural India. The people were superstitious and simple. They knew about Niyamat but rarely saw him. They considered him a cursed Sufi saint, who was counting his mortal days and awaiting his release from his mortal carcass to deification. Few of the villagers had seen him and were shocked by his ugliness. This confirmed their notion that he was a saint, who was cursed for some infamy. They always left something eatable as offering at his doorsteps. It was well known that the offerings brought good luck to the giver and Niyamat never slept hungry. During evenings, nights and early mornings an incredibly sweet sound of singing emanated from that hut. The villagers huddled in their huts and didn’t venture out, because they knew that Niyamat Ali was summoning those Jinn and spirits, who always are slaves of a darvesh. Nowadays a new soprano voice joined that heavenly singing. The songs were always devotional and very melodious. The villagers shivered.

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Niyamat was happy with his honorary daughter who had the voice of a nymph. She was a prodigy and understood the intricacies of the Indian Classical Ragas as if they were nursery rhymes. Within a few days, she started accompanying him in his riyaz. Shree had the power to enact the liquid grace of smiling Bholenath when she sung Raag Malkauns and the grave visage of frowning Mahakal with his inherent gravity, when she sang Bhairav. It seemed that she was a form of the female counterpart of the raag-maalika herself. Indian Classical Ragas are time and season bound and reflect our mood at certain times. For example, we are somber and grave in the wee hours of dawn, so raag Lalit and Asawari reflect that somber tone. The romance of midnight is reflected in Basant and Bageshwari. Shree was able to bring out the mood and at times even surpassed Niyamat, to his eternal pleasure.

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Niyamat was bedridden since last four days. He was unable to move. He knew that he was going to die and was worried about this sweet  little girl after his death. She was like a shadow to him.

It was four am. The tired night was changing guards and handing over the baton to the sleepy sun, who was trying to comb his hair, so that he may look presentable. The horizon was still dark with those confused stars blinking their tired tiny eyes. The yawning moon was grumbling like a playful child, who has been called to bed. His eyes were crying for sleep, but he wanted to romp around more with the stars and was upset to go under the blanket. The world was at peace. Dawn was imminent. Raag Bibhash ruled this sensitive mood. The birds were stretching their tiny legs and wings, like a beautiful lady stretching her shapely arms sinously. Like an army before a battle, the world was priming up to face another day. What’s another day, if not a battle, where we fight, win, lose, concede, or… die.

Shree was sitting by his bed, her pretty curls dancing around her face. Her beautiful eyes were on his ugly face. Initially they used to unnerve him, but when he didn’t see any loathing in them, they ceased to disturb. Niyamat sat up with difficulty and asked Shree to bring his tanpura.

The wretched hut was filled with a baritone alap, accompanied by an angelic soprano voice. Words are considered very powerful by us human beings, who rely on mere words for knowledge. We forgo our other natural senses and rely exclusively on our eyes and ears, and consider ourselves the most advanced race amongst the fauna. Words may be good, but they aren’t enough. They may give you an idea about how a rosogulla tastes, but they can never compete the power of the sense of taste, which makes you actually realize how it tastes. Words will never make you understand the beauty of a beautifully renditioned raag. You need to hear them to understand. Lalit is the romantic form of Mahadev and his wife. The only romantic raag, which can be sung just before dawn. Rest of the romance is reserved for the midnight and the hours after that. Considering the time of raag, it’s presiding deity and the notes, the raag begins in a very somber way, then like an angry husband cajoled and mollified by a pretty wife, it smiles and becomes romantic. The old man and the little child sang lustily. Lalit resonated in the miserable hut and the charming notes escaped through the crevices, which rats and other vermin always used.

They sang till the sun peered out in agitation. Niyamat coughed desperately, his breath giving out on him. Shree continued the taan in the upper octave. Like a fiery phoenix, her melodious voice soared in the semi darkness, emblazoning the morning sky with her burning notes. She began from the Kharaj or base C, flew across three octaves, touched the high C and by the time she returned to her base, Niyamat was dead. The girl smiled and kissed his ugly face. Then she flickered and vanished.

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The villagers spent a restless night. They could hear an unearthly voice, which made their hearts scream. They wanted to walk out of their huts to rever the singers but the fear of jinn tethered them. The sun is considered to wash away all the nightly fears. As soon as the freshly washed sun showed its shiny and scrubbed face, the village leader started towards the hut of Niyamat. He took few strong men, armed with sticks and swords. They all were reciting Hanuman Chalisa as a precaution against those dreaded jinns.

The hut was silent. They stood outside and called out Niyamat Ali respectfully. Jinn or not, a saint is a saint! Nothing emanated from inside, not even a cough or a curse as usual. One of the brash young men ventured near the hut and pushed the rickety door, and gasped. Like fear and laughter, bravado is contagious too, with certain terms and conditions. Everyone rushed.

Niyamat was sitting on the bed with his tanpura. His ugly face split in a beatific smile. His unseeing eyes had peace in them. There was no one else in the hut.

The headman looked around and went to the corner, where a couple of pots and a stove were kept. He suddenly felt a small hand touch his wrist like an icy feather and then he heard a little girl laugh. A musical laughter, which was like a mountain stream gurgling its way down. It was the sound of distant silver bells. He froze with his mouth open and then shot out of the hut in terror, with his entire cortège following him in a pelmel.

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Epilogue:

The villagers burned down the hut and enacted a shrine. They called it the Dargah of the Sufi saint Khwaza Niyamat Shah Darvesh. They say that all the wishes are fulfilled there, if one sings a snatch of any song. The dargah has a festive atmosphere with people singing a variety of melody from kajri to rap.

No one is aware of a girl called Shree. They say, they can still hear an ethereal soprano voice singing in nights, but nothing that could match the Swan Song of the Saint!

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Music is my passion and what better excuse to show it off than a story titled Swan Song? According to ‘Sangeet Ratnakar’, a famous Sanskrit treatise on music, there are six Adi or original Ragas, out of which five are forms of  Nataraj and one is of Parvati. Bhairav, Megh, Hindol, Malkauns and Deepak are originated from Mahadev and Shree from his wife. The girl Shree in the story is the human form of Raag Shree and she never existed, yet she is omnipresent in everything beautiful in the world. Shree in the story was an intangible figment of imagination of a poor and distressed artist, yet she was tangible enough to be heard by others. She’s the immortal and eternal woman! My pretty daughter is named after that lovely and soulful raga.

This is my fourth story, which is inspired by Maniparna. This story is inspired by a very beautiful tanka by the same name: Swan Song, which she wrote around last year.

The village of Sukhapur doesn’t exist and as far as I know, there’s no such dargah anywhere. Well, I don’t know much to be honest. 😀

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32 responses to “Swan Song

  1. When the little girl stepped into the story, I somehow felt that she was your daughter and Niyamat was a manifestation of a father who believes he is not good enough but is surprised by the warmth he receives from her…..Having said that, she is a symbol of that unconditional love we all seek but not everyone is lucky to have. Niyamat, and the opal moon – and your blog is named the opal moon too…! Niyamat means blessing, right? Opal symbolizes water energy, fluid, inspirational and creative. Niyamat’s ugliness is just a fascade that hides the other ugliness lurking outside his hut in the form of false religions, superstitions, biases. When inside the hut, the man can feel the presence of the girl but is scared and flees – there is no hope for him…..And the ode to music through the story is stupendous. I have known some of the ragas through my mom who used to sing and was a Masters in Hindustani Vocal.(sharing this story with her and thank you so much for letting me read this…..)….So many strands Rakesh…..I could keep on writing on this….You said the story is long, and I wished it could go on for some more time….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! What an analysis! I’m honored, ma’am! 🙂

      You are right on all counts. Niyamat indeed means blessings and Shree is based on my daughter… or, vice versa. 😀 My name means the opal moon, hence the name of the blog. 🙂

      Thank you so much, Sunaina, for the brilliant analysis! 🙂

      Like

  2. My fingers are unable to type there are movies that keep you thinking of them even after they are over but this is different it is superlative… I still am not getting the right words… I could feel his pain when he spoke of facing people , I could feel his happiness and bliss on meeting Shree. I felt every emotion live and blossom in me. I loved it and I’m going to keep a copy for myself to read it again 🙂 loved it Rakesh you are class!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s very nice of you to say that, Shweta! And, the last lines made me read it multiple times! Keep a copy! Thanks indeed! 🙂

      Sometimes I think that it’s the appreciation of friends like you, that keeps me going. I have my own share of misfortunes in life, but always was lucky about teachers. I got the best in every field I ventured, be it music, boxing or photography. I can say that about friends too, I guess. It’s really touching, Shweta! 🙂

      Thank you so much!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I was awestruck reading this Rakesh ji. This is yet another of your masterpiece written about music. Your narration skill infused with raag-raginis becomes soul-piercing as always. No doubt Raag Shree is an extremely beautiful raag, but it’s personification as a fragile little girl with curly hair, bright face having a diaphanous yet powerful voice, is indeed more than beautiful.
    I was completely spellbound while reading this. Reading about music through such an enthralling story is surely a bliss. My words fail to appreciate. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your words never fail to make me happy! 🙂 It’s really awesome to be appreciated by someone, who knows the art intimately.

      Thanks a lot, Sangeetaji! Really glad that you liked it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot, Purba! Music has always been a safety valve for me. And, it always pays to know one’s friends better, so I learned it. 😀

      Thanks for reading and liking it! 🙂

      Like

  4. Everytime I read your stories, it takes me back to childhood days. I would wait for my monthly magazine in Bengali – “Shuktara” to read short stories and long stories that continued over months and years. I love the way you introduce your characters. Beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so nice of you, Abhijit da! Really happy that you liked it! Sometimes I really wish I could read Bangla! There are so many writers and books I’d love to read! I did learn the alphabet, but it’s a looong way to reading any kind of literature.

      Like

  5. I am not able to decide about what I am stunned more: the story or the story narration!!!
    About the story I would like to believe Sree was Goddess herself who came to ease his pain. Excellent work Rakesh!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for liking it, Indrani! That was a praise indeed!

      Actually, even I’ve sketched Shree as a celestial being. The carnation of Raag Shree herself, which is known to resurrect the dead, which did indeed came to alleviate the misery of the poor artist.

      Thanks again! 🙂

      Like

  6. Taking a bow at your brilliant narration, knowledge of music and the title!!!
    These words..”Unfortunately, the creator lost interest in him after bestowing an ethereal voice and ended the job haphazardly…” are stupendous and I am reminded of what my son tells me always…”the creator forgot to install the brain and proceeded to the next in the assembly line!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahahah! My mom used to say the same about me, and can’t say that she was much wrong. 😀

      Thanks a lot for liking it, Sunita! Music is indeed the language of gods. That’s how we are able to communicate with Him. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Kudos to your imagination and skillful narration. It was a beautiful read…beautiful in the sense that it creates a soft, delicate, sensation in my mind while I was reading. Much like the mellifluous effect of good music.
    Wonderful is the word from my side… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Maniparna! It all began when I read that tanka. It was as soulful as it could get! Initially I tried to write a fairytale, involving the swans as you mentioned, but later on changed it. Thanks to you! 🙂

      Like

  8. I’m speechless What a beautiful, wonderfully illustrated story that honours your culture/traditions and roots. It was a true pleasure to read the words of a talented writer such as yourself 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot, Daisy! 🙂 I’ve always found that music is a panacea. It’s better than any drug to settle the restive soul and mind.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

      Like

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