Translated from the Assamese by Anindita Kar
In the beginning, was the music, and the music was with God, and the music was God.
Among the handful of people who managed to arrive at this barren desert located in the far West, slipping through the clutches of bullets and gunpowder, the fire and the smoke of the Civil War on one hand, and the deadly viral epidemic on the other, was his grandfather Jogendranarayan Raichoudhury. Nobody could have ever imagined that Jogendranarayan, who in his zamidari [i]days spent his hours reclined on an easy chair getting hot massages of oil extracted from the skin of monitor lizards while drawing on his hookah, or playing dice, or deer-hunting, and who barely spent a night with his wife, would ever bring himself to perform any task other than the ones mentioned. But this same man, when driven by the urge to survive, covered seven hundred and seventy miles on foot, exhibiting abnormal superhuman strength. While fighting his way through hunger and thirst, the scorching heat of the sun, dust storms, and the attacks of thugs and miscreants, he never allowed himself to be beaten down by his asthma. During his journey, what he lost beyond house and property, sons and daughters, honor and influence, were the senses of taste, smell, and sight. This blindness and the accompanying loss of taste and smell, however, was not a tragedy that befell him alone. This was inevitably the fate of everyone who, in quest of the future, arrived at that desert alive. Their desire for individual survival was so intense that when one of their very own people, with whom they had embarked on this journey, and who had walked alongside them this far, suddenly fell on the blazing bed of sand, hit by hunger and exhaustion, foaming at the mouth, stretched out an arm and moved their lips inaudibly, asking for help, no one looked back even for once. As if unmoved by the drama, they left these people behind and marched forward with all their might.
How the myriad jokes life cracks on us can permanently alter a person – Jogendranarayan Raichoudhury was the best case in point, although unfortunately, no one remembered him enough as to cite his case. There was only one exception. That was Jogendranarayan’s aide, Madan tepra[ii]. Three and a half feet tall, Jogendranarayan trusted him more than he did his wife and loved him more than he did his kids. He was the only one who survived the arduous desert march, in the same manner, that he had survived every death-by-poisoning conspiracy in the zamidar’s hauli[iii], and remained the sole companion to the zamidar. This brought the two of them closer, and it was Madan tepra’s extreme care that saved his master’s life. Until the last drop of the monitor lizard oil extracts ran out, tepra kept giving massages to him. This magic potion revived the zamidar’s failing health.
In very little time, it became evident that the backbreaking desert march made people mightier than fate and luckier than God. Each person who made it to the end earned a rare ability, the gift of insight. Despite their blindness, ageusia, and anosmia, they learned to identify the existence, nature, and contours of every object around them. With new hope and lust for life, these survivors set up a colony there. And this man – the zamidar – who knew nothing other than drawing on the hookah and playing dice, who under the weight of his own gigantic body was too lazy to even fornicate, and who derived pleasure by shooting down deer pre-hunted by his own men, started his own business in this desert land in partnership with Madan tepra, a business where they would deal in music. One fine day he was seen putting up a shamiyana[iv]for his shop in the Friday haat, or village market. With a dugdugi[v] in his hand to draw attention, he declared he was the only living being in the whole world with the gift to cure diseases with musical notes. He put his entire range of merchandise on display – numerous tiny glass vials filled with colored vapor. To prove his claim, he offered his services for free for the day. He uncorked the glass bottles and poured the tinted mixture of vapor and music down the patients’ ears. The first to be cured was an old man suffering from amnesia. The next was a child who dreamt of mermaids every night, and just half of the potion from a glass vial was enough to cure him. A woman who was barren for many years conceived just three days after taking the dose of music. Towards the end of the day, a retired brigadier of the border security force turned up in disguise to treat his persistently tumescent penis. In return for pacifying his giant-sized organ, the former army official was willing to forfeit all the medals he had earned during his years of service. Showing no signs of greed for those medals the zamidar, true to his word, charged nothing for the treatment. After this incident, the zamidar’s fame spread far and wide. His chamber came to be thronged by patients with queer, unheard of diseases. He charged one copper coin to cure the pain of separation, two copper coins for hydrophobia, three copper coins for aversion towards sweet dishes. Patients from far-off regions waited in long queues. In fact, there was no dearth of people willing to pay ten copper coins to make someone fall in love with them. He guaranteed complete refund of the money in case the medicines did not work. Two vials of mood-boosting medicines were given in gratis to everyone. In fact, he even guaranteed that in exchange for a gold coin he could restore smell and taste, but no one there felt the need for such medicines. In that desert, if anything worthy of tourists’ attraction lasted till the end, it was the zamidar and his medicines. A lot of myths were created about him, and foreigners used to visit his village just to catch a glimpse of him. Traveling through the mouths of a group of gypsies who briefly sojourned there, his name too got savagely altered. Towards the end of his life when the old zamidar, his face now covered in thick white beard and his glass vials filled with potent music, was at the peak of fame, he suddenly lost his gift. He had fallen in love with a gypsy woman whom he married, but despite giving her enough proof of his virility, she eloped with Madan tepra, leaving behind her husband and a little son. This incident left the zamidar devastated, so much so that the skills that took him so long to master, the secrets behind the preparation of the magic potions, were all forgotten in no time. Cobwebs took over the storehouse where his glass vials were shelved. The glass vials filled with symphonies, ragas, flute song, beats of dhol[vi], jaltaranga[vii], sounds of the wind, birdsong, buzz of flies, voice of the rain and clouds, the breath of the forests, the murmur of fallen leaves, and the clinking laughter of women, lay thick with grime. It became impossible for the old man to divine which bottles contained which notes. And thus, every imperceptible wave of music got buried under the silent intonations of pain and grief uttered by life.
After many years since that day, when the protagonist of this story surrendered himself completely to the task of rescuing the glass vials filled with divine music from the abandoned storehouse, and shaking them back to life, the stories of his grandfather, the zamidar, had long been erased from the mnemonic landscape of the villagers. He realized that his life’s purpose was to resuscitate the musical notes that lay dead in his grandfather’s glass vials. He also knew that in this infertile land, this was the only thing close to a livelihood. There was no alternative. He groped and frisked through the dark and found the glass vials, carefully uncorked them, and when, from the slender neck of the bottles, the ethereal notes of music emerged and filled the entire room, he realized – what was missing from these notes was love. When he came to realize that in the absence of the note of love, the medicines lost all their properties, he could not but wait for love.
Days passed. Due to the lack of rain, the water bodies were drying out. The trees shed their leaves and stood bare-bodied. The insects and the last bird stopped calling. All the blind inhabitants of the region too fell silent eventually. Many of them untethered the domestic animals, freed birds from their cages, and left the village forever. In the end, the barren desertscape became so desolate and so filled with quietude that one could only hear death desperately blowing above the sands like hot vapor. This death note, traveling above the carcasses of dead deer, dug its nails into human hearts and reached the land of their ancestors whence these people had come many years ago, when no other place offered any hope, and everything was about to end. But one evening, there was a knock at his door. It was her. Her coming felt like the dampness of rain touching him like a breath of fresh air. She cooked sundried mithun[viii] meat into a thick gravy for dinner. She already knew about the unavailability of food here, so she carried with her some meat, some wild herbs to add to the meat, and some canned fish. She cleaned the insides of the fridge, and the kitchen too. While ladling out the meat stew to his plate, she narrated with a hint of annoyance the pains that she had to take all this while traveling all over in search of natural notes of music. She told him how at the end of each of these ventures she almost decided that she would end her search, that she would go no more after it, that she’d settle down, rest in the arms of a beloved, and spend the rest of her life in a place like this where there was nothing except silence.
He simply listened, attentively, and with a shy smile. He said nothing. He felt a sense of gratitude towards her for cooking meat for him because he had never tasted it before. He knew that she was mistaken, that there was nothing fully silent, that silence was densely worded, and could be heard even more intensely. He wanted to gift her that musical note which she had never come across. Whether he was guiding her along the dry, dusty paths, or they were sitting under the shadow of a stony hill to rest, or he was showing her the barren trees and the empty wells, or when she turned on the tape recorder to capture every floating note from the surroundings, even in his deep silence, he kept searching his soul for that music that was never heard anywhere else. And then, when the time of her departure approached, he walked her towards the spot in the desert where, many years ago, there flowed a river. Once upon a time, on the banks of this river as big as the sea, Arab merchants moored their ships. She listened in astonishment as he narrated this.
He said it had been long since the last drop of water dried away from the bosom of the river. He had never seen the river, nor had his father. No one had. The story of the river traveled down through generations by word of mouth.
When the last ship of an Arab merchant floating down the gushing waters of this river, was anchored here, the riverbank was flooded with incredible musical notes. Music undulated like golden-green crops swaying in the wind. The river currents looked like the strings of a violin, which the wind worked into filigree motifs that seemed would last an eternity. Before she left this place, he wanted to bring her to this place so that she could hear that piece of music. She could see no trace of any river there; all she could see were the rusty masts of the Arab merchants’ ships half-buried in the sand as if they were metallic sprouts sprung from the soil. The wind whizzed past. A divine oceanic melody rose from there. The two of them stood silent and motionless for a long time. The sun halted for some time in the western sky. He wanted her to experience a sea where there was nothing but dry sands. If only you listened, you could hear the lapping of the sea. It was as if the waves would stumble and fall at your feet. Initially, he was hesitant to speak a word. His only intention was to introduce her to the music that the wind played against the river’s breast.
“Do you hear it?” he finally asked.
“I do. It’s like a sound emanating from a conch shell. Just like you said. It’s amazing. Why is it so?”
He did not answer. He knew that if it were him asking this same question to her, she would have teasingly replied, “Love makes it so.”
She said, “Love is like the sea.”
After a moment of silence, he asked, “And what is the sea like?”
“The sea is like the desert.”
To him, she sounded like the wind playing against the river. He was possessed by an overwhelming urge to touch her. Before she was gone, he wanted to emboss her being into his soul through the memory of a touch, so that he could later translate this touch into a musical note and revive the dead medicines left behind by his grandfather. He shed all inhibition and surrendered to this urge.
“I want to touch you once.”
During the silence that followed, he could sense that she must have been looking in his direction with astonishment in her eyes. Just as he was thinking of repeating what he had already said, she spoke out.
“You wish to?”
“I wish to translate your presence in this arid land into love. Because I believe love is the primary component of music.”
She fell back into silence. He could hear another note in the distance, listened to it intently, and telepathically tried to plant that eternal music in the soil of her soul.
“Then go ahead and fulfill your wish. I’m right here in front of you.”
He slowly lifted his hand upward. Then guessing her position, softly touched her face. With extreme tenderness, his fingers glided down every soft fold of her facial skin. Hair, forehead, eyes, brows, cheeks, nose, chin, and the soft hairy outline of her lips. He was touching a woman’s lips for the first time, and it drew him to the conclusion that lips are the very site where love resides.
She grabbed his hand, grabbed it with both her hands just as tight as can make one feel love’s tightening grip on the heart, and kissed it.
“Let’s go back now,” she said.
“Do you know all the ways here?”
“When I was a kid, Pitai[ix]used to often bring me here. He taught me how to study the contours of everything that comes my way. I used to run my hands over every material object. I even learned to touch the sun. Even the sky.”
“And the birds?”
“Umm, them too, even the flying ones. The wind, the sound of the moving wind, everything.”
“And… nothing. Life is beautiful.”
She let go of his hand. He walked a few steps ahead of her. From where he now stood, the sea lay before him, the horizon spread endlessly. Once again, he felt its divinity, the gushing sound of waves, the damp, frosty wind, and the lapping waves. She took a few steps closer to him and placed the tape recorder in the palm of his hands. And he, in his turn, placed his most favorite tunes in hers.
They say that a long time ago, kingfishers thronged this place, he told her on the way back. She looked up towards the now-empty sky and nodded.
“Sometimes, migratory birds traveling homeward from far-off places take this route. I know it from the sound of their beating wings. I used to accompany my father to this place, and since his death, I come alone. By that time, I had grown familiar to all the ways. Every bend of the road, every bulge, and hole in the ground became familiar to me. I know where there are cactuses and where the broken mollusk shells are.”
She was quiet, allowing only his words to be captured by the tape recorder.
“The sun that you see in the far west, and the slowly rising moon in the east, this earth where we stand, and all the stars and planets not visible to us ring out notes of vibration resulting from their position in the universe, their distance to each other, and their movement in their orbits. Everything is held together by that universal note of music, the music of the spheres.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Not me. Pythagoras said so. Greek philosophers and mathematicians worked out a script of that universal music.”
“Do you believe in it?”
“I can hear it. You too can.”
“This music cannot be perceived through the auditory senses. Its existence can be validated by mathematical exposition. This is a matter of philosophy. One can possibly perceive it only by being part of a universal consciousness.”
She could not grasp it. And he lacked the means to explain further. It was not easy, after all, to explain to her that music, in all its manifestations, traverses through the medium of silence and is contained by it. To hear that music, the only precondition is blindness.
In his world, the most pronounced word was marubhumi, desert. Something that he had never actually seen. He only knew that a desert was not what she thought it was – a void. The entire world is a void if one may say so. Whenever he touches this dusty terrain, grabs a handful of the grains of sand that slip through the gaps between his fingers, what remains is a void. There is something in that void, something sweet, pleasant. It gives a sense of one’s existence. An existence where he belongs, an existence that gently clings on to him. Perhaps it is this void that completes all existence. It is like love. It cannot be seen or touched, only felt.
Next morning, as she packed her things, he went and stood near her. He wanted to ask her to stay back for a few more days. He wanted the music inside him to spring to life, to solidify so that he could complete his grandfather’s notes. He hoped that someday she would come back looking for him; that day he would pour sweet love into the spiritless music stored in glass vials. The two of them would walk through the sand once again. Wherever they would go, they would uncork the vials and free the notes of music like one sets a caged bird free. Together, they would make life beautiful and fill that place with new notes of music, so that the loaded silence of music would lure her into staying in this place forever.
As he was engrossed in these thoughts, she moved closer to him and taking his face tenderly in both her hands, she planted a kiss each on his eyes. A glaring light cut through the eternal dark. The mist cleared and things became visible. He saw the music of the world take forms, saw it embodied, right before his eyes. For the first time, he saw the shape of a woman. She had beautifully dressed herself and was ready to leave. Very carefully, walking on her tiptoes, she gathered the glass vials one by one in her bag, vials containing ancient notes collected over long years in the pursuit of an inimitable art. He was stunned, he wanted to stop her but could not. He did not want to hurt her by stopping her from doing what she secretly desired. He knew that without these musical notes his barren world would be left more barren.
“Can you walk me a little towards the station?” she asked.
The two of them started walking. While walking down the dusty path meandering through the barren desert, emptied by the desolate afternoon, none of them spoke a word. She led the way. He followed. For the first time, his eyes saw the barren lands. Wearing a yellowish hue, the fields looked like the carcass of a deer coiled in notes of emptiness.
She looked at her watch every now and then, restless. He could see a strange two-wheeler come and halt at the crossroads in the distance. The rider waved at her. She waved back and gestured at him to wait there. She then stopped and turned back towards him. She came closer to him and grabbed both his hands.
“You should come to the city once and visit an eye specialist. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
He did not reply.
“I better leave now. Don’t worry. I know the way to the station. I can cover the rest of the distance alone. You go back now.”
Saying these words, she let go of his hands and hastily walked away. He stood there motionless until she mounted the vehicle until the vehicle moved until it vanished in the far distance, and until he turned blind once again.
[i] Days of being a zamidar, or landowner, especially one who leases out land to tenant farmers
[ii]Slang for dwarf.
[iii]A variant of haveli, a traditional mansion with historical or architectural significance.
[iv]Awning; a sheet of fabric spread out on a frame to prevent shops etc. from the sun and rain.
[v] A small two-headed drum shaped like an hourglass that fits in one’s hand; a handy instrument for traders to draw attention to their wares.
[vi] A larg barrel-shaped or cylindrical wooden drum, typically two-headed, used in South Asia.
[vii] A melodic percussion instrument originating from the Indian subcontinent consisting of a set of ceramic or metal bowls filled with water which are played by striking the edge with beaters, one in each hand.
[viii] The gayal, a large domestic bovine distributed across Northeast India, Bangladesh, Myanmar.
[ix] A word of address for one’s father.