As she sat there, at the old Grand piano, fingering chords that she did not know, she stared out at the pristine garden outside. The French windows meant that she could see everything. Everything.
She was a writer, but not a real writer. Not an author. Perhaps ‘narrator’ would describe her well. At that precise moment two unlikely narratives that could hardly have met otherwise intersected inside her pretty head.
Black curls cascaded down her slender back and her mouth-so slight and moist-was pursed thoughtfully. The Raindrop Prelude! Yes, that was what she wanted to play. But she could not play it. She had known once, had she forgotten? How unlike her, for she had been a conscientious student at the Calcutta School of Music for ten long years. And now, now that she was twenty and attending university, she was in Surrey. Beautiful Surrey, so close to London, and yet so far.
Such a magnificent house, this. Dating back to- Anne? Caroline? What a ball room! It was quite intimidating at times, but never so much like when the ghosts came at night. That was when the house rang with sounds of revelry and champagne. The most wanton revelry and the best champagne.
At night, when her house-mates Kate and Zarine went to sleep, she would creep down to witness the ball. The waltz was the newest dance but the matrons frowned at it. She was infatuated with the elegance of the waltz, but she could not dance. Every time she came forward to dance the chandelier would come crashing down on her head and her head was left with this strange ache, even as the gallant ghosts would fade into the darkness of the night. The English nights were so cold and cruel. Shivering in her nightgown and carpet slippers she would creep up the long and winding staircase, meekly into bed, careful not to wake Kate and Zarine.
Staring into the garden she realized that she had forgotten. It would not come back. She struggled and struggled but could only play the Blue Danube. This made her even more disgusted and she defiantly stared at the nearest mantelpiece. A benign portrait stared back at her-the miniature of an 18 year old Regency belle-blonde, wide-eyed, eyes of a cornflower blue, and a red mouth. What laughter had emanated from those eyes and mouth, she thought, a tinkling laughter perhaps? Much like the champagne, the bubbles and the sparkles, gay wit and grandeur, grandeur and still an aching sadness….
It reminded her of her own house in Calcutta. Her richest and oldest family, the hundred year old house, the piano that her grandmother had bought. Her grandmother. Like an aching stab of physical pain. The old lady had been like champagne herself- sparkling, vivacious, charming, sophisticated. At 15 she had been a gauche girl from a family of declining wealth and prestige, whose waning star was located in a dilapidated but sublime mansion. At 21 she was a slender young woman who had borne her eldest son and whose laugh resounded in the best Calcutta houses. Her jewellery came from Paris, and her exquisite saris came from Fairyland.
The scene of the ball-room had now melted into another far more poignant scene. The old lady was dying muttering “Benares, Benares.” It had been more than sixty years. She went to see what the old lady talked about so heartrendingly in her final moments.
It was not impressive.
Cows and chaos. Or was it bulls and chaos? Okay, cattle and chaos. And, oh dear, there was a lot of religion. It was difficult for one who believed in higher education and the secular ideal. But then, then she found the house. Here a few of her grandmother’s impoverished cousins still lived in one wing. It was a ghost-house; reeking of past grandeur and forgotten music. Lost echoes of a most sublime music resonated through dusty corridors and fading footfalls. What secrets lay hidden behind these bolted doors? What tears? Whose tears? A terrified whisper told her- her very own. But she shut that whisper out and hurried on towards the terrace. It was evening.
The Ganges stared at her. Downstairs, girls were dancing. They had danced for a number of centuries and they were rather beautiful. They were girls who danced and danced until the music ended. But the music, strangely enough, never ended. These nautch girls, said a scholar, were proponents of culture. A dying culture. She had done her homework before coming. The best nautch girls, her grandmother had once told her mother, were not prostitutes. Her mother had looked slightly bored and slightly shocked but then started talking about the stock market. The Ganges stared at her. She closed her eyes. A pulsating music ran through her veins. The only one that she had heard really, of the genre. Jalsaghar or, The Music Room, by Satyajit Ray. At a film festival when she was fourteen. The smell of sweet incense weakened her senses…until she became the dancer…and she was the incense…and she would give pleasure…the night was brief…the light would die out…the fragrance was already gone….
Staring into the garden, the picturesqueness for once eluding her, the Carolingian mansion notwithstanding, she had a horrible urge to disown both the narratives criss-crossing her mind. Then came this sudden and cruel spurt of effort and she started playing the Raindrop Prelude like a dream. That was when Kate came into the room with her I-pod.
“You play the piano divinely, girl. Divinely! You’re fucking amazing at it. I was just wondering whether you’ve ever come across this sort of music back in India? Zarine just downloaded this off the net today. Let me plug in the speakers. Hey, you know what Zar was saying? That she’s fucking happy we’ve rented this place. Can you imagine that even a hundred years ago my family would be like, servants in this get-up. Like my mum’s grandmum would be an upper-housemaid or something…”
The speaker was plugged in. A haunting rich pulsating elusive melody rang across the erstwhile ballroom.
“It’s fucking beautiful! It’s called a jalsa.” Kate said.