Geography is a science. It is also a sentiment. Anyone who has migrated either for work or education will relate to this feeling. The sense that the next right turn will lead them home. Or that this lane or chowk looks like the one near their house. In Brahmbhatt’s story, the narrator is in Chennai for work, but aches for home and cannot afford frequent visits. It is natural for the homesick to be intrigued by songs which connect to their lost places. Music is a form of teleportation. The narrator is reading Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, when he meets Bailey, the real hero of his narration. And despite his reservations about Bailey’s speculative-fiction-like obsessions with the world of the Australian Aborigines, the narrator gets drawn into its fringes. Bailey is in search of a song, a place, a certain kind of connection. But anyone who has migrated knows that though songs can help recreate and evoke the sense of home, they don’t necessarily take you there.
— Kinjal Sethia
The Bombay Literary Magazine
It happened many years ago during one of my return journeys to Chennai. I had forgotten about the encounter until I chanced upon an email sent to me by Tom Bailey back in 2007. I was looking through old emails for a story idea I had sent to a friend, and Tom’s email was a surprise discovery. He had mentioned making slow but steady progress in his project, promising that in good time he will tell me more. It was in fact the last I had heard of him. I also found two subsequent emails, written within a gap of two weeks, in my “sent” folder, mostly a follow-up on what he had asked of me. They remained unanswered.
I used to work in a small firm in the southern city, and was able to visit my hometown in Gujarat only twice a year. One of the reasons was that the train journey back and forth in the good old Navjeevan express consumed four working days, so I always required an eyebrow-raising ten days’ leave! Not many companies could be generous enough to provide more than two such extravagances per year, and I couldn’t afford to bear flight expenses to make frequent shorter trips. There were days when homesickness would get the better of me, making the everyday anxieties all the more unbearable. Even the simple act of catching a crowded bus would become an ordeal. I dreamt of my sleepy hometown where there was hardly any need to catch a local bus. And I dealt with the blues by walking, by using the slow movement to see better.
What I had at my disposal was the luxury of being in my early twenties. Try as I might, I am unable to recall the detached carelessness about things that I could so effortlessly carry then. The way I survived the city was by calling forth a constant state of denial. Here was the job that I had to go to daily, but it was not a final job. Here was a city that I was a part of, with its hustle and bustle and its quietly majestic moments of beauty, but it was not a final city. Nothing was final and the heart could daringly yearn, and in that yearning, in that notion of somehow looking at my present circumstance with an eschewed vision of a romantic that I could stay unattached and unaffected. Chennai was there all around me and it minded its business, while I minded mine. There were no flats to be bought, no loans to be paid off, and no conclusions to be drawn.
There were moments when, while taking my usual walk through a quiet by-lane near Luz church, I would forget, even if for a moment, that I was in Chennai. It would appear as if a right turn would take me straight to a similar lane in my hometown, as if through some strange alchemy of space Chennai and my hometown in Gujarat were adjacent neighborhoods, as if the answer to all my anxious miseries was only a stupid right turn. Such moments would genuinely startle me; make me ponder over the nature of space itself, and its relation to one’s wellbeing. And that is why, whenever I boarded the 9:00 AM train from Chennai Central, having acquired a pre-ordered parcel of fried potatoes and sangri curry along with ten parathas from Agarwal Bhojnalay early in the morning, my heart excited about the thirty-six hour journey home, I knew that the train, apart from helping me cross that spatially impossible lane, carried me also from the uncertainty of newness to the familiar comfort of the old.
Having lived with my people for six days, having reacquainted myself with the sorry fact that home also has its fair share of boredom and frustration, the return journeys found me in a kind of mental no man’s land. On one hand, I would miss parting with a place where confidently feeling one’s way to a light switch in the dark was so life-affirming, and on the other hand, I had to reinforce my beliefs in the unavoidable pursuit of newness, no matter how painful departures are. I would never board Navjeeven Express without a book, which would become my home for the length of the journey. Delighting in food and more food prepared by my mother, some of the most cherished reads of my life happened on that train, while its windows sampled the world that raced alongside.
This time though, the time I met Tom Bailey, I was reading The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. I did not know much about Australian aboriginal rituals, but was intrigued by the concept of songlines, or dreaming tracks, as they were referred to by anthropologists. The most accessible reference about the subject I had found on google was Chatwin’s book and I luckily found a copy at the British Council Library, where I was a member. Though the book hardly explained much about the aboriginal belief system, it turned out to be an arresting travel narrative. Moreover, it was this book that got Tom and me talking. During the first day of the journey, as I was standing near the coach entrance watching the scenery go by, a tall white man in khaki shorts and a white tee stood at the opposite door taking a few puffs, and we shared brief pleasantries out of courtesy. Sometime later, the same guy, walking past the side-upper birth on which I sat reading, made a passing remark, “quite something this book.”
His round face was bald and shaven, a pouch was buckled around his waist and he wore big Woodland boots. Appeared more like a wanderer to me – though I will admit I don’t have a general theory about when to mark someone as one. It is just a gut feeling you get by looking at someone, flavored by your own assumptions, not only because he recognized a travel book in a jiffy or the way he carried himself.
His berth was only a few blocks away from mine, and when I self-invited myself to a conversation he and a Bohri gentleman were having, I did not know that Tom was to eventually make an intriguing request of me. Well in his fifties, but sturdy due to all the wandering perhaps, he introduced himself and mentioned that he was from Australia. “And he has officially not passed his semen further,” the Bohri gentleman added, which was a curious thing to say but I took it as a remnant of their ongoing conversation, maybe a friendly jibe the opportunity of which my sudden addition into the conversation allowed. Tom laughed and nodded, and the other fellow smiled. I am not able to recall the other’s name, a cleanly dressed old man with a grizzled beard and a typical Bohri hat. I saw Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond on his berth, and perhaps it was a blow to my assumption that because religious belief and evolution don’t go hand in hand, and because people who wear their religion on their person must be practicing followers, ideas that take evolution into account may not go down well with them. I found out that they were talking about just that.
“My question remains the same,” the old man said, “if we are descendants of apes, why are some apes still roaming around? Didn’t they feel a need to evolve?”
Tom started laughing. He was sitting upright with his hands on his lap, while the old man reclined on his berth. I had found a place to sit beside Tom. “There were different human groups… you will get there as you read more.” Tom referred to Diamond’s book, which I was right to assume had sparked their conversation.
“I know that, but I feel it is an unprovable fiction created by science… anyway, it is interesting to think that mere living with mammals brought about the onset of germ-based diseases. Who would have thunk, haan?”
Whether it was the garden of Eden, the no-space on which Prajapati appeared before the beginning, or the aboriginal ancestors who first created themselves out of clay and then sang the world into existence, some creation stories have remained obscure, waiting to be re-discovered, while others have dominated and shaped the world as we know it. The train compartment was not a place to settle the argument for evolution once and for all and there was an easygoingness to the conversation they were having.
The old man was more interested in progeny, especially the idea that one must leave something behind as a sign that they existed. He had spent his life raising a family like any regular Indian, completely at home in the fact that when he was gone, his grandchildren, who had something of him in them, will carry his gene further. He was curious about the world only to the extent that his filial and religious duties allowed him and read books to tame some of that curiosity, for whom Tom, unmarried and without a relatable plan in life, had “officially not passed his semen further”.
So what was Tom going to leave behind? It was not just casual chit-chat. It mattered to the old man that Tom give a thought about it. Tom’s was a meandering response that could not be transmitted, these many years later, into a neat monologue, interjected as it was by many silences and “errs…” as if it was something he had never really pondered over. He tried to suggest that raising a family was a social norm he never felt like submitting to. Like some people draw strength from having kids to rely on, he did from his curiosities that were taking him places, “and that should suffice.”
“Why don’t you write about your experiences?” I heard myself asking.
This made Tom break into a surprised smile, “I am up to something.”
“Not bad,” the old man said, “if your book turns out to be good, you need not worry about having children… unless you write a bad one, like my great grandfather did, in which case nobody will remember you.” This made us laugh, then he said reflectively, “it was about funding, hardly anyone was interested in the subject, but I think it was a handy book.”
“It’s not a book…” Tom tried to explain, then gave up.
By the time the old man brought out a box of Aflatoon, a sweet he had purchased a few days back in Mumbai, to treat us for the late afternoon snack, we had touched upon Hugh Everett’s theory that parallel universes can exist, jointly agreed that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was the best science show ever made, wondered how early civilizations could measure time before clocks were invented, and the old man mused about computers and cybernetics. It was a kind of conversation that did not take us anywhere, just thrilled us with a possibility that there are layers upon layers through which the world presents itself, like an infinite onion, and that if we learn to look in a certain way we could get a glimpse of the sublime.
I tried to explain that the sense of space itself is slippery; explained how it had happened more than once that while taking a walk in Chennai I’d confuse the streets with the ones in my hometown. I added that it happened only when I was in a certain mood. Tom joked whether there was any “deja” expression explaining this fleeting sensory knot in the mind. He went on to mention the songlines, a spatial construct that did not just pertain to an individual’s mood but was an agreed-upon “touchstone of reality” for the aboriginal people, whereas to most of us it would appear humbug.
Being an Australian, did he ever visit any of those sacred sites, or talk to any community elder? “Every aboriginal group will explain differently, if at all they agreed to talk to you. Think of songlines as a vast invisible fishnet laid over a land… a savannah, for example,” he said. “You and I can walk over it and it’s just plain land. But for the aboriginals, the lines exist.”
“But what do the lines do?” I asked.
“They are an ancient navigation system I’d say. A long time back the ancestors moved along those lands and they sang about everything, the stones, the lizard, the pond, the vegetation. The stories say that while the ancestors sang, the things they sang about were brought into existence…”
“So existence started with a song?”
“For the aboriginals, yes.”
“So these songlines help them navigate? That sounds more reasonable than bringing things into existence by singing, which is kind of trippy!” I said.
“I know. But these are sacred sites. Because the ancestors have sung about everything while walking on a certain path, each song has a path, and all the songs combined form an interconnected web called songlines… so every community has their own songs, their songlines, and therefore the lands the songs sing of. You have only as much land as the songs mark.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Think like this. You are in a vast land, you take a step and encounter a stone, so you sing it, mark it with a word sort of, you take another step and find a small cactus and you mark it with a word, then you find a desert snake and mark it too, and you keep walking and the song grows. You walk all over the land, hunt, eat, marry, make babies and die, and leave behind a trail of songs. Every ancestor has left behind songs this way…”
“So if I am from a different tribe, my songs are different because the land my ancestors walked on is different?”
“Exactly, and if I have to give some of my land to you, I have to also give the songs of that land otherwise you won’t be able to claim the land.”
“So when a boy comes of age, he has to walk the songline to re-connect with ancient wisdom. That’s their rite of passage. Not as simple as I make it sound, of course.”
“He has to know the songs?”
“He has to know the songs.”
When the orange of the receding sun is smeared across the sky as if through a child’s thumb over a grey canvas, when the wind is just right and vast uninhabited lands are passing before your eyes, a constantly jiggling train does something to your brain chemicals – it appears as though the train is moving towards a place that does not exist anywhere other than in your yearnings. That’s how it felt then. Tom and I had moved to stand near the train entrance, and he kept telling me more about the songlines.
I was connecting what little I knew by reading the few chapters of Chatwin’s book with Tom’s explanations, and I remembered an interesting remark made by Chatwin: if you carry an aboriginal in a car and if the car is travelling over a songline, then the aboriginal will start singing faster, because the land is moving faster than it would during a walk. So maybe the songs are a way to navigate from one place to another. If you remember the song, you could find your path in the wilderness. It made some sense after talking to Tom, despite the concept not being immediately intuitive to a rational mind.
“But it’s still just plain land, right?” I asked.
“Yep, plain old space. Like your streets in Chennai that sometime remind you of your hometown streets. Space made meaningful by a people.”
“Do you buy that thought?” “Not so much the entire songlines system. But this particular idea: a song is a map. And it can take you somewhere.”
Just because gravity was discovered by Newton at a certain time and place doesn’t mean it continued to be a local idea. In the same way, the aboriginals did unearth the secret of the songs and what they found could apply anywhere as per Tom. I found gradually what he meant when he said sometime earlier that he was up to something. Carried away by too much talk, he had lowered his guard and made me listen to some of the songs he had collected during his travels – from the more popular songs of Mali musician Boubacar Traore and the Hungarian Marta Sebestyen (which I took some liking to), to the native songs of Solomon Islands, pygmy songs of Zambia, a melody of the monks of Leh, ritual drumming of the Tamu Shamans of Nepal, hymns of the Dear Leader of Korea, irrigation songs of Shimla, even songs from the Dayra culture of Gujarat (which was the only type of music in his iPod I was aware of). The old man was sleeping by this time and only the aisle lights in the coach were switched on. Exhilarated by the range of music I had heard, I removed the earphones and remained speechless for some time. “What are you up to?” I asked finally.
“I may not be able to explain right now,” he said. “But the songs I collect are a part of my project.”
“Which is to reach somewhere…”
There was a loud and sudden whistle of the train. Askew red lights started hitting the coach windows, announcing the arrival of a small station. Thinking that he might just be having some fun at my expense, but intrigued nonetheless, I raised my voice to ask, “where are these songs going to take you?”
“I will find out,” he shouted back, with a hint of a smile in the dark.
Few weeks later I received his first and only email. He was writing from Sri Lanka, mentioning that his project was coming along fine, but slowly, as projects of such nature usually do. He did not give more details, but promised that he will soon. “It will require a longish email. Or if at all I happen to visit Chennai, we’ll talk about it over beer.” He wanted me to give his regards to the old man who did not have an email address. Tom had travelled with us only till Vijaywada, and before parting with me on Chennai Central the old man had shared his business card, “come visit me sometime”. I remember clearly that the old man had an automobile accessories shop on Broadway, but I can no longer find that card.
The email also contained an unusual request. Could I send him a live recording of Tirukkural? “Few minutes of recitation should do”. Tirukkural, or Kural for short, is a set of classic Tamil couplets written by the saint Thiruvalluvar, highlighting social, ethical, and psychological values and conducts, much like saint Kabir’s work in the North. It had come up in our conversation that my office was located in Mylapore, one of the oldest areas of the city where Kapaleeshwarar temple and Ramakrishna math are located, along with beautiful tree-lined avenues where it is a pleasure to take an afternoon walk. Thiruvalluvar’s shrine is in the neighborhood, the kind of site that has an old-world charm to it. Tom must have assumed that it was easy for anyone to catch a live recitation of the couplets in and around the shrine.
That wasn’t the case because, for one, the shrine was nothing more than a temple with a handful of visitors at a time, and I learned after checking that they never performed any couplets in front of an audience; the idea itself was amusing to the priest I posed this inquiry to. Another limitation was my inability with the Tamil language, otherwise, I would have recorded some couplets myself. I already had a copy of the Kural along with English translation and commentary on each couplet, which is easily available across Chennai. So I got hold of N. Raja for help, my eager office colleague. “Is it for radio or something?” he asked.
“If it clicks, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t, you are going to be the next big thing,” I said.
“But my voice no good, machi!” he said.
“Doesn’t matter. The people we are going to send this to hardly care about that.”
“So I sing then…”
“Don’t even try! Just recite. Like you used to read a poem in school when the teacher asked you to.”
I recorded Raja’s neat recitations of a few couplets on my Nokia 6630, transferred the audio files to my system, and emailed those to Tom. Two weeks later, I sent a follow-up email: “Hope the files are to your liking. What use did you put them through?” While I was at it, I threw in another audio file of an evening ritual I had gone out of my way to record at the Kapaleeshwarar temple, just in case. But I never heard back from him.
And that was that.
Time had conveniently made me forget about Tom Bailey’s project, and it would have remained forgotten if not for the chance discovery of his email thirteen years later. My craving to know renewed, the first and most natural thing I did was send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I wrote about how we had met on a train and gave him a non-boring reminder of some of the things that had transpired in our previous emails. Then I wondered: was it really “google mail” before it became “Gmail”? And resisted a bad urge to google about it. In no time, I received a failed notification stating that the email address was no longer in use. Of course! It was ancient. I tried to search for him on Facebook and Instagram without any luck. Google kept showing the singer-songwriter Tom Bailey who was of no use to me. So almost mindlessly, I searched the full email address and found a blog tied to his email address.
There were only five posts on his blog, two of them comprised of pictures taken during his travels – black and white shots of landscapes, open roads, and people engaged in work (sweeping, making tea, grinding, binding flour, watering plants, a man sitting on a road roller and smoking, an orthodox priest with lit candles in his hands, beggars, farmers, pottery in progress, policemen smiling at the camera) – images of chores that keep the planet in motion. One post, however, contained his own pictures, taken with some friends perhaps – arm in arm wearing hats, in a very open desert-like area behind which was a small shop named “The Fountainhead”. The shop had open glass windows and looked quite earthy. There was only one comment in that post: “when did you return to Alice?” Tom hadn’t replied, but I assumed the place was Alice Springs. The post was from 2009, and Tom looked not very different from how I remembered.
The other two posts were “rant in prose form” to put it very crudely, which did not make much sense, and talked about fancy stuff like the language of the world and knowledge gained through listening – music as the source of it all. As I read along with some difficulty, trying to take the deep symbolist suggestions of his write-up at face value, I encountered a sentence that had echoes of the project he had promised to tell me about: There is a point in space that connects all the points, which erases the artificial boundaries of past and present and future, which becomes the focal-point of all experience, a point that can be reached only by following the song.
This was followed by a sketch that must have meant something to Tom, but had no accompanying explanation.
Vaguely amused but not terribly moved by the blog, I thought about telling this to Madhuri. Back when Orkut was the thing, it offered virtual communities where you could discuss nearly everything, and we had become friends while commenting on many such threads – “what is the meaning behind the mysterious ending of Coppola’s Youth Without Youth?”, “Isn’t a list of postmodern novels an insult to post-modernism!?”, “Is Ronald Macdonald preparing a secret army to take over the world?” Despite having met only a couple of times in person, the real glue that binds us is the long emails we write to one another.
So what do you think? I asked over Whatsapp, after I had sent her the blog address and a voice note providing a summary of my find.
Madhuri: the write-ups obviously read like a hodgepodge of fancy spiritualism
Me: hmm, possible that the shop is still there in Alice Springs?
Madhuri: the one in the picture?
Me: yeah, looks like a bookshop
Madhuri: want me to take a look?
Me: you read my mind!
Madhuri: and do what?
Me: If you happen to find anyone who knows Tom, just drop a hi from me
Madhuri: matters that much to you?
Me: I don’t know… but we don’t like half-finished stories, do we?
There was no rush. She lived in Melbourne and travelled to Alice Springs sometimes due to her work. The opportunity to go there did not arise until two months after we had talked. But once it did, she got back to me with interesting news. She had searched for “The Fountainhead” and found out that the place was functioning. More so, on visiting the shop and asking around, she learned that the owner was none other than Tom Bailey. Now, there were ample chances that he would not remember who I was, and I did not want Madhuri to undergo more trouble than she had already taken on my behalf. We assumed that anyone, when visited by someone they had met in the past, would be generally kind enough to comply, even if memory failed them. And to make things easy, I had sent a note to Madhuri of which she had taken a printout. All she had to do was hand it over to Tom or anyone who knew him, convey my thanks, and go back to her usual routine. While there, she could also browse through the books if she liked – and I’d be surprised if she didn’t.
The shop was run by Tom’s cousin, a courteous middle-aged guy who was only happy to talk to Madhuri. There was a neat lineup of aboriginal dream paintings behind the counter, and the book collection was decent. The cousin accepted my note from Madhuri and without wasting a beat told her that Tom was listed as a missing person since 2009. Even though the shop originally belonged to Tom, he had handed over the reins to his uncle’s son, who was his only blood relative. When in town, Tom liked to spend time in the darkroom at the rear of the shop: developing photographs or mixing songs, and would catch up with the cousin and some friends over a pint now and then, but he seemed cut off from the day-to-day happenings in the town and people around him. “He lived in his own world,” as per the cousin.
The cousin had often found photographs left to dry in the darkroom that seemed absurd – images over images of a plain land at night. But it was futile to ask Tom. He was happy to talk about his excesses when not occupied by an immediate obsession, which was generally not the case. There was always something that kept him busy. “If he was not at the shop, he had probably driven out somewhere,” the cousin said. “Sometimes he wouldn’t show up for days”.
“And then one day he never returned?” Madhuri asked, a bit dramatically perhaps, but self-parodying the kind of detective-fiction talk she had walked herself into.
“It wasn’t that sudden. Days before he went missing, he was trying to capture this light.”
“In the photographs you mean?”
“He was visiting the outback beyond Boulia it seems. When I finally got him to talk about the pictures in the dark room, he said he could chase the light for long but could never capture it, as if it were some ghost.”
“With chase, did he mean that this light was moving and he followed it?” Madhuri asked.
“I believe so. Pointed light, like a blazing round object, it kept moving but wouldn’t show up in film when he tried to capture it. That’s why all the pictures look the same… plain land with rocks and bushes at night.”
“What kind of light was it?”
His jeep was found near an abandoned café called Min Min, which burned down a century ago (the land near the cafe is empty for miles ahead and is often used for grazing on the native vegetation). A stockman the investigators talked to, who lived on a solitary farm in the vicinity, reported that he had seen a tall man near the café that night. He was either skimpily clad or fully nude, but the only light in the area being the faint moonlight it was difficult for the stockman to tell. He had seen the tall man glide about in strange motion, his hands wide apart, as if dancing. But he wasn’t really dancing, the stockman later corrected, it was as if he was lured by something. This was no common sight so the stockman decided to stick around; ducked near a large vegetation to watch. A gust of wind, whenever it happened to pass by the stockman, brought along notes of mild music from the direction in which the tall man was moving. The tall man, who we know was Tom, kept moving farther into the land. The stockman stood up from behind the vegetation and noticed that the tall man had gradually started running. But nothing was chasing him, the stockman wondered, and there was nothing apparent in sight that was being chased by him. Early next morning, when the stockman returned with his herd, the jeep was still there.
A few hours’ walk deeper into the outback leads one to what looks like a mountain from some distance, but closer inspection would reveal a mass of granite boulders piled one over the other, some small and some the size of a large house. “The absence of soil between the boulders creates a maze of gaps and passages, which can be used to penetrate inside the mountain.” The cousin must have recounted this so many times that he sounded indifferent. One of the theories that did rounds around the time was that maybe Tom ran all the way towards this inhuman place and fell through one such gap, never to be found again. Though it is still a theory, the cousin told Madhuri that there is no other way to explain why he hasn’t returned yet. His clothes and shoes were found near the jeep, but his iPod was not in his rucksack, which explains the mild music the stockman could hear that night. Maybe Tom stuck the iPod in his underwear as he danced along in a self-induced reverie towards his death.
“What about the light?” Madhuri asked.
“No idea… whatever it was went along with good old Tom.”
The store also sold something else, displayed solemnly on one side of the counter. The DVD cover was a modest black, over which The Song was written in white; no other verbiage describing who the artist was or who recorded it. This was apparently the only music available in the store. “Hardly anyone buys it,” the cousin told Madhuri, “but I keep copies of it nonetheless. In his honor.” Self-recorded by Tom, it was a result of all those hours he spent mixing music. And it was, I am compelled to say, a map – as the title of the DVD declared. It was the song for Tom, and for all we know it was this same piece that played on his iPod the night he disappeared.
“I’d be happy to do something like this myself,” Madhuri told me over a Whatsapp call, “make a record of all the sounds I have liked in my life, for posterity.” She was kind enough to have purchased the DVD, and had sent the whole thing over WeTransfer to me.
“Doesn’t the possibility occur to you,” I said, “that he was looking for a way to navigate to some place, using this piece of music, which he conveniently referred to as the song?”
“What place?” “Don’t know. The light that he saw was constantly moving, which only he could see and not the stockman… maybe following the song meant following this light.” I was using Tom’s last blog as my source here, trying to level the loud metaphors of his write-up with his supposed destiny. He had mentioned a trance induced by listening to the song, a trance that can invoke the light. The light, for him, was a metaphor for a guiding principle that one follows, seen only in a trace-induced state. That he could actually see “a blazed round object” and tried to photograph it is beyond my understanding. But it was not difficult for me to guess that the naked dance-like movements he was making that night could be a way to induce this very trance he talked about in the blog.
“So following this light led him to a gap in the boulders through which he fell!? So much for reaching somewhere!” Madhuri was heartless and I could tell that she was enjoying this.
“We don’t know that for sure. Maybe, he found a point which connects all other points, a wrinkle in space through which he slipped into another…” Madhuri started laughing.
“That’s as much adventure as I can take in a day.” Before hanging up, she added, “some music he left behind though!”
It’s been almost a decade since I left Chennai, but there is one memory that comes to mind. It was a usual hot summer afternoon. It must have been a Saturday. I was at the British Council library, and after reading for an hour or so I was feeling restless. So I walked up and down the Mount road to let off some steam – from the LIC building on the far left to the mosque of the Thousand Lights (a name straight out of a Borges story) on the far right. I took turns as I pleased, went into streets I did not know how to walk out of, circled back on the spot from where I had begun only to repeat the whole thing. There was no place I had to reach, but an unreasonable joy took hold of me, a kind of ecstatic feeling I couldn’t understand. It could very well be the promise of youth that made it look like I was being led somewhere – my own “somewhere”.
And when I listened to Tom’s song just before writing these lines, it suddenly occurred to me that, maybe, one has to fight very hard, fight not to let forgetfulness take over these epiphanies that are only too few in one’s life, the occasional signposts that carve a path, a map that has to be remembered, if only via a song, a map that can take you somewhere if you are hard-pressed to follow. The sound of water hits you first, water in its many forms, dripping from rocks over wet leaves, rolling waves, a school of fishes moving swiftly through coral reefs, then muffled sounds of water like fetuses delicately moving inside wombs, followed by wind passing through dried seashells, more wind whistling through trees and dried landscapes, an animal howling somewhere, more animals joining in, a bird singing, frogs croaking, the sound of two stone plates rubbing, the sound of fire, the sound of new arrivals – hundreds of feet marching, boot-less first, then in boots, cries of babies, everyday sounds, wood being struck to another wood, drums, more drums, unintelligible talking, laughter, a string of instruments one after the other, merging together to resound as a single organ, more laughter, industrial sounds, traffic noises, chimes and bells, alaps going off, laments and hymns, singing and reciting, but no decipherable words, languages and native sounds from all over the world burst all at once, as if overlapping one another in an interwoven language no one can speak.
And through it all, I was straining hard, straining so much that my ears started hurting, to hear the Kural recital I had emailed to Tom. I was sure it was in there somewhere, because I had heard it rush by.
When not busy with his software development job, Jigar says he can be found thinking about stories. Everything that happens to him is fodder. So nothing in life is good or bad, but yet another opportunity for a workable story. He feels he has found his zen thus.