The day had started on a bright note, as I left my flat in Gurgaon and headed off to my office. It was not far in distance, a mere 7 miles, in a nearby glass and steel office tower. It was the traffic cacophony, I was trying to beat, which had always bothered me. Soon as I crawled in my car to the end of our lane, I beheld the same daily mayhem; at the merge point, with the feeder road. The sound of all variety of honking, of truck and car horns, was constantly blaring I quickly put up my window and turned on my AC, even though it was a relatively cooler day. When I had moved to my apartment, it had been a deceptively serene lane, with minimal traffic about 7 years ago. I had just graduated from my college, got my current job, at the multinational IT firm, as software security trainee.
Since then Gurgaon had exploded in traffic as more and more people, moved in. The empty plots started to fill along with the new towers that were only tall cranes, when I moved in. Now I am surrounded, by huge residential towers, which had led to the explosion in traffic, at all the crossroads, during rush hour. I found nothing on the morning news on the radio, as I waited. I switched to the disc player. The music that Sudha loves so much, filled my car, and I closed my eyes, thinking of her, as I waited for the light to change. Ours had been an arranged marriage, which had blossomed into love. She has introduced me to the classical Indian music gharana, that she had been tutored at, as a young girl, growing up in Lucknow in UP.
We were of the same caste but our upbringing could not have been more different. She had been brought up, in an orthodox Hindu household. Her father was a professor at the University, and her mother a teacher at the local school. They celebrated all the festivals with regularity and she was encouraged to study music and the arts. Her mother would tie her saree around her waist; she would tuck it tightly into her petticoat to avoid any flames. She would then proceed to show her daughter, the fundamentals of vegetarian cooking. Being the girl in the family, she had to provide steady help to her mother in the kitchen, to learn the traditional dishes for family meals. It was her Guru Ji, who mesmerized me, as his rendering of the traditional Ragas while playing a Harmonium, accompanied by his table players and ensemble, was truly uplifting.
Despite my lack of knowledge of this ancient tradition, I also soon also discovered, that I had no ear for music. I could not follow the nuances of the tones, or the flow and beats of the melodies. I missed all the changes in tempos and beats, and could just hum the most basic of melodies, in the shower. I had listened more to western bands and foreign artists, singing in English, in School and Engineering College. I had led an isolated life from general society, as the hostel and the college, was an intense place. We worked very hard just to stay up with the courses we are attending, each year. Each year the courses became more intense and I escaped into Western modern music and listened with my headphones and cheap device for endless hours, sometimes even while I studied. I completed my Masters from IIT Delhi and had started working right away.
Sudha came into my life after I had settled into my job and saved some money, to rent my own two-bedroom apartment with two bathrooms. Somebody from my family was always visiting and one room was for my parents or other visitors. More and more young professionals had moved in, and there was a lot of gossip on where to eat, and where to hang out after work. New restaurants had opened catering to a wide variety of Indian food, and some Italian and Chinese and Thai. Sometimes when we could get away, we would even meet for lunch, in the various cafes and new gourmet chef’s offerings.
When my father decided that I had a steady job and sufficient savings, he had my mother show me the picture of Sudha amongst other girls, which my Mom liked. She was the daughter of his best friend from his college days and of our caste also. I had gone through the photos on a whim, not expecting to find anyone I would find attractive. Suddenly the picture of Sudha passed before the front of my face, and my eyes seemed to catch a glimpse of something.
“This is the one, your father likes.” Said in my mother’s usual stern tone, when she did not approve of something, her husband wanted. I stared at a lovely young woman, clad in a traditional Indian Saree, in bright Red color. The traditional Banarsi Sari had a gold embroidered border that framed her face and was draped smartly, across her body. She sat erect, strumming at her Veena with one hand and singing intensely. Her hand had henna and her long fingers extended out in the gesture of a mudra, which seemed very mysterious to me. I was intrigued, as she seemed to be lost in her performance. She probably had no idea, that this photograph, was even taken. She reminded me of the Goddess Sarasvati, I had seen in Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s painting, which my great grandfather had framed, from a calendar in our old home. It had always intrigued me and I couldn’t believe my eyes, that a real women could exist like her, as I thought she was just a fable.
I looked up inquiringly at my mother, who was already pulling the photo of another more suitable girl, having fulfilled her marital duty.
“Who is she Maa Ji?” I asked pointing at the disappearing Sudha, knowing she didn’t like the formal title, but preferred, the modern mummy.
“It is Sudha” said Mom flipping the photo over and checking some details, “she is the daughter of his friend Bipin in Lucknow.”
“Tell me more,” I said reaching out, and taking the phot from her retreating hand. I looked closely and started admiring her thin lips, angular nose and wide fair forehead. Large eyes gazed away, looking at the mudra that her long fingers were making. A small gold ornament ran along the parted flat dark hair, peeking out from under her Sari’s Pallu. Around her neck above her young breasts, peeking above her silk blouse was a Sarasvati goddess pendant. My head spun, at the sight, of my thoughts personified. I was even more attracted to this strange mythical creature, my father wanted to become my life companion.
“Oh nothing he is Professor Sahib’s college friend. They were very close even though Bipin was from Lucknow. We have seen Shobha grow up from our visits between our homes, over the years.” as she would refer to my father. “She is too traditional for you and from a small town. You need a vibrant and modern young girl, to suite your multinational lifestyle.” My mother continued.
She handed me the photo of another girl and said, “This one is more suited to being your wife. She graduated from Ladies Sri Ram College here in Delhi, and is becoming a lawyer. You should marry a professional working women, as now both of you have to work, to live a good lifestyle.” Mom advised me with a smile.
I vaguely remembered a large home in Lucknow from my childhood visits, listening to a girl learning singing, in the home somewhere. My father was happy there, and I had enjoyed the visits, though my mother had kept me close. I looked at an innocent face staring of the stranger, my mother handed to me. The girl was smiling, but it did not do anything for me, and I handed it back to mummy, and continued to stare at Shobha’s photo. There was something in her intensity of expression, which seemed to say, that she truly loved her life.
Much to my mother’s disappointment and my father’s delight, I was married off to Sudha within six months. It was a regular middle class marriage with all the ceremonies and Sudha and her friends entertained us one evening, at the Sangeet, to my father’s joy. I was mesmerized at her rendering and my mother was still getting over the shock, but was warming up to their kind hospitality. Our barat had gone to Lucknow and their arrangements were well suited, to our caste’s expectations, of food and places to stay. My father and Bipin my new Father in law got along fabulously, and catered to all the demands of our various relatives and friends, who attended the functions. After the marriage, we came back from the gracious city of Lucknow, and my parents held a reception to welcome the new bride in Gurgaon.
Sudha and I set off to Nanital for our honeymoon and over the next week I discovered, that she was full of life and a joy to be with. We took walks, sat by the lake, and talked about our friends and our families. She was much more interesting and I soon ran out of the tales of my hostel life, and college pranks. She seemed uninterested in the world of cyber security, to which I had devoted my life, since leaving college. I started to enjoy her telling of life from a very human perspective, while I seemed tied up, in my digital world. She was beautiful, and I became enchanted with her common sense and quick responses. She always seemed ready to explore, new ideas and experiences, and I felt faded in my experiences.
A completely new world seemed to open up for me, which I had lost in my insular life. Our nights were fun and she showed me how to laugh again. I slowly lost my seriousness, with which I had approached every endeavor, in my young life, so far. We settled into a routine, as I would set off for work early, and she would pull out her harmonium and get ready to do her music riaz and Alap in the mornings. Sometimes I would even sneak back at lunch, if I could get away from work, to enjoy her company. Evenings I usually worked late at work, and would return to a fresh and enthusiastic Sudha, who would tell me about the new friends she had made, or the places and stores she had visited. I enjoyed the delicious dinner she would make and on weekends, I would take her out and hang out with my coworkers at the local hangouts. Sudha enthralled them all as she brought a completely new world of experience into our lives, from her traditional but cultured upbringing.
In a years’ time Sudha bought our first 3-bedroom apartment, in a close by residential tower. We were helped by my Father and Father-in-Law, to put down the deposit, and I used up my savings and started to pay the monthly payments, from my rising salary. Sudha did not mind the frugality we had to live with now, as I had also bought a better car. She went about making our new apartment, into our home, by decorating it with the artistic collection of paintings of the artists she liked. Each piece of furniture and decoration were chosen for their esthetic value, and I was delighted at her sense of tradition and knowledge of historical and cultural refinement. Our apartment became the gathering place for our new friends that she had cultivated. We enjoyed long evenings of discussions and music becoming the norm on our weekends, along with Sudha’s delicious food.
Sudha the homemaker was ordained in her nature. Unlike me who often got caught up, in the latest fashion sneakers and other nice to have things, she planned ahead. She knew what she wanted in her carpets, curtains, sofas, beds and even chairs (old wooden carved designs, with comfortable cushions, straight back). She waited patiently for our savings to grow, until she could buy each item. Over the years, I saw her dream home take shape. Her one constant was her music space, where she continued her morning practice on weekdays, when I was in the office. She became socially popular with her outgoing easy personality. She got invitations to sing at various social gatherings, and became very popular singing our folk songs, with great gusto, at weddings. Aunts invited her for other suitable occasions, with other women and her popularity increased. Even Mummy would beam lovingly, at her beautiful and accomplished daughter in law, in front of her friends and relatives.
We would take a trip each year to a hill station, or down south, to places; we had not visited in India. Sudha was always interested in the local musicians, and looked for other musician’s performances, wherever we went. I attended more music concerts and festivals, than I could follow, but oftentimes we just visited the local sights, and returned with many photos. She was invited to sing in some of these concerts, as a proponent of her Guru Ji’s, Lucknow Gharana. She would get carried away in her live performances, always performing with a deep understanding of the music, she was singing devotionally. Her love for her Guru Ji, and his style, flowed in her melodious voice, filling the hall. Along with the raga, her voice’s tempo, kept rising and falling, as people listened swaying, in pin drop silence. She had a way with her fans and they loved her natural rhythms, coming down from ancient times. It was a primordial sound, coming down in a vocal tradition, since humanity’s existence started.
I rose in my MNC and started travelling abroad on assignments. Sudha didn’t mind my travels, as she loved her home and her music. Then I got an extended assignment in USA and I was ecstatic. It was a great opportunity and my boss told me, I should leave immediately. Sudha helped me pack two suitcases and with quick basic cooking lessons to survive, in a non-vegetarian country. Half a suitcase was packed with beans and daals with instructions on how long to cook them. They came with recipes, and suggested spices, for various dishes. It all came along with a small pressure cooker. Packed in plastic bags was a small masala box with coriander, garam masala, haldi, kali mirch and many oher spices and dried leaves and seeds, in various compartments, with see through lids. It was meticulously planned as I had learned was the norm, with my beautiful and gifted wife.
So began my two-year stint in Huston, looking after the cyber security of a major Oil and Gas Conglomerate. It was followed by a two-year stint, in a Bank in the Carolinas. Then came a 3-year stint, at a Health Care company, in Indianapolis. Sudha would visit over the summer months and we would travel across America, to the usual places; like the trip to the Niagara Falls and New York City. We loved the night in Niagara with the falls lit up at night, and the rainbows in the daytime. It was a magical evening, as we walked along the sound of the falls in the mist, rising around us. We had never been more in love, than when we walked in our hooded parkas, holding hands; and Sudha hummed a song, from the monsoon season. We found protection in a covered Octangular shaped space, and she sat down on the wooden floor, and started to sing. I sat mesmerized, as the sound of the falls seemed to rise and fall with her music, or she had become, one with the falls. When she finished we realized that many couples has joined us and they clapped softly in appreciation.
We were used to our separate lives, and we never thought of having kids, despite the social pressures; from both, our families. We were both busy with our careers and life was giving us; whatever we could desire, from it. She now had her own songs, on All India Radio. Sudha had produced an album, which had been well received, in critical music circles. Now she was busy, on her second album, where she was trying to fuse the ancient ragas; into a more modern interpretation. She wanted to add her extensive touring experiences, and add her current experiences, from the cultural bylines’ of a resurgent New Delhi
She was touring with another famous singer from Delhi, who specialized in Sufi music. It was a strange mixture of Hindustani Classical, with Sufi mystic, but the combination seemed to work for their eclectic fans. They became very popular, as the word spread of their wonderful live performances. The producers had released a live album last year, and their popularity grew. I would watch her performances on You Tube, and we would talk on skype, for hours. Most days we were too busy, so time became a river, and we met on the islands in the Caribbean, or in the Maldives, or Indonesia, as her tastes became more exotic. She took me to the Greek islands and we danced the night away, with the local musicians, in a town center. She had become very good at finding exotic locations, and somehow I started to feel that I was just was along for the ride. I loved every moment with my exotic wife, who was as comfortable in a bikini, or in a sari, or a sarong.
Sudha had purchased a 2 acre plot of land in a “farmhouse” in New Delhi. She went about hiring a famous architect, to make her future home. I had got my Green Card for living permanently in the US and had moved to another better position in San Francisco, with one of the FANGS. I started funneling my excess income, to help Sudha, with our new future home. I trusted Sudha, as she now moved in some of the most exclusive circles in India, as many of the rich and famous were not only her fans; but had become friends. During my visits I saw Sudha blossom into a woman of stature, due to her social standing in the music world. She had taken up the cause of girl’s education, and become very active in an NGO, and was its new spokesperson. I saw her on You Tube performing in fundraisers, for catering to the needs, of the underprivileged and poor families.
My parents came and visited me in my new apartment in San Francisco and my mother lamented the absence of her grandchildren. She argued with my father, that if I had just selected the lawyer she liked, for my marriage (as she now had 2 boys, and 2 older girls, and we had none). Luckily, Sudha was not there but I was sure, that she had heard my mother’s demands in India, when they met. My father was fascinated by the city, and we took long walks along its busy streets, or the beaches, and talked about life. His friend Bipin had passed away, and Sudha had got a full time maid to live with her mother. I was unable to go for the funeral and my father had represented me.
Another 5 years passed and Sudha’s new Farmhouse was now complete and she named it Alap in memory of her music training, with her Guru. The home itself was not large and had barely 3 bedrooms like our old apartment. Yet it had its own unique style, which was reminiscent of the ancient pleasure homes of the Maharaja’s and blended in, with its surroundings. The large music room with its excellent acoustics, with large glass rising to the ceilings, seemed to blend in with the greenery and the old trees that she had preserved. The rooms, kitchen and bathrooms were huge and luxurious to my mind, but she had apparently spent a lot of time, in imagining what an Indian home, should be. She had acquired two German Shepard’s and they were her constant companions now. I had become a footnote it seemed in her life, as all her friends seemed to absorb all her attention.
Our trips together have come down and I missed her laughter and companionship. We have drifted apart now and seldom meet. On my drive to my office in my Tesla, it remembers the songs I like. The recording of Sudha singing the songs of our early days, come on. Sometimes a tear slips down my cheek and I become melancholic. I shake off my melancholy, and re-immerse myself, in my current and hectically busy, American life.
A new American friend asked me once, as we were driving to a Lady Gaga concert, “What is this beautiful music?” as the car played Sudha’s songs again, out of my favorites.
I replied haltingly, as so many memories, came flooding back, “It is from a past era, from someone I knew, in India.”
She replied, “Wow, you are lucky to know someone, who is such an accomplished music singer.”
I turned and looked at her honey brown eyes, red hair, and intelligent and inquisitive look, but it did nothing for me. Lost in my thoughts, she felt my mood change, and patted my hand, in reassurance and compassion. I pulled into the parking lot, and mumbled, “Yes I also feel lucky, to have known her, as she taught me, how real music, and wisdom coexist. She was my goddess of wisdom, and she loved her music, more than anything, in our life. Somehow I lost her, and now all I have are her memories…”