Salil returned one morning after a whole year. Rani led
him to the guest room where Nayan sat with her mother,
singing Bhairavi. Ratri sang and Nayan followed her notes. Salil
stood quietly at the door, listening. Their voices seemed to be
coming from the core of a conch shell. They resonated, tapping
the walls of their consciousness, searching perhaps for a shared
epiphany. He knew he would take these voices with him on his
journeys. They would come back to him and echo like sweet
memory in the hollow caves of his days where he would hide
away from the ratty world, writing his ghazals.
Nayan with her eyes closed looked… complete? Quiet?
Ethereal? No, he did not have the right word at hand in that
moment. Her hair fell loose down her back as always. Wavy,
brownish-black curls now shone red, now gold in the early
morning sun.
She looked mature. Salil realized she looked older than

the last time he had seen her. Her fi ngers were constantly

strumming the tanpura strings. The youthful restlessness of
her fi ngers was gone. He remembered going to Gandharv
Mahavidyalaya, where she performed once in a while with
her friends, to hear her sing. She would play distractedly for a
while and stop in between while singing; perhaps she was too
conscious of her surroundings then. Now, she looked complete,
and serene, singing after her mother. Her hobby was turning
into her vocation.
Suddenly, he felt an urge to leave. He would have slipped
away had Rani not appeared with a cup of tea.
Salil had never met Rani. In fact, this was the fi rst time he
had come to Nayan’s house. He got a little fl ustered and stood
where he was, tightening his hold on the freshly bound book he
had brought with him.
After leaving Delhi, Salil had not really made an effort to
keep in touch with her, except sending some letters but those
had also been erratic. He had missed her though. Missed her
voice, her disjointed, meaningless and meaningful chatter, the
sudden aloof silences in between sentences, and the rare but
uncontrollable laughter after which she would suddenly start
humming a song, closing into herself, shutting the doors of
her private universe, that invisible city inside her which no one
had a key to. She was his secret raga. She had played in his
thoughts on his aimless journeys. She had chased after him like
an apparition in his poetry. Lingered in the air around him, like
the scent of a woman whose perfume stays on in your room
long after she has left. He had often mistaken other girls in new
places for Nayan. They had all seemed like her at fi rst glance,
but totally alien the next moment. There were very few like
her. Maybe none.
Nayan meant so many things to him. She meant a world
of songs, one for each mood, for every season. She meant
reading together from a pocketbook edition of Divan-e-Ghalib.
She meant pink-skied and burnished evenings when she sang
some of those ghazals for him. She meant moments when he
thought all his moorings had dissolved, for meeting her had
freed him in more ways than one. Yet, she was the only one
who could make him return to herself again and again.
He had been with other women before. They had brought
him pleasure and trouble and all kinds of other things, and
he had moved away from their worlds, not wanting to drop
anchor. The thought of going back to see them always tired
him. They were all women of the world, demanding and forever
gushing. Nayan, he thought, was like the secret preserver
of mindmaps; she understood or could make allowances
for any kind of irrationality. She was like a gatekeeper to his
generation’s undecipherable melancholia. He liked her small,
inexplicable sorrows and her fetishes for little things like the
perfect bookmark, a certain tree on a certain street in central
Delhi, or a box of fi rst fl ush tea that her grandfather sent her
from Assam every birthday.


Making love to her was like reading in a new language, in a
new script each time. It annoyed him sometimes that she asked
him innumerable questions in bed; that she wanted to know
about all the places he had travelled to, down to every single
detail, that she planned imaginary trips with him to the hills,
forests, rivers, the seaside just when they were in the thick of
things. As their bodies moved in a newfound sync, they mapped
new territories of love and want.
He adored that her hair got caught in his watch each time
and there ensued a little struggle in the dark to extricate it from
his ‘time’ as she referred to it. Why couldn’t he just throw the
damn watch away? It had stopped years ago and he hadn’t had
it fi xed, but he wore it every single day, all the time, except in
the shower.
They read for hours from a new book each time after they
made love. They both read obsessively; their bodies were made
of books, Nayan said to him in jest sometimes. She would
move on to other ideas soon. She would like very much for
their bodies to be made of laughter. Feverish but sparkling,
sharp-edged laughter. That body of books or laughter, when
he entered, gave his hands the power to turn her skin around
in his hands as if she were clay. She could be a new woman, a
different body each time.
Their little obsessions and inadequacies had brought them
together. They could walk through life, holding hands, strolling
across innumerable seasons in time. But an irrepressible
urge to fl ee from a settled nest, an aching discontent with
familiarity caused him to escape every time. He needed grief
in his life to live it, to move on. He needed emptiness and
disorder around him, so that he could go on living, wading
through time, travelling away from those who knew him to
those who did not.
Rani came up then, dragging a cane chair and softly
whispered, ‘Bhaiya, sit down and listen. How long will you
stand?’ Salil sat near the door, making sure the two singers
would not see him if they happened to open their eyes.
Ratri led her on, lining the notes, adorning the imaginary
form of Bhairavi, the dark goddess, with jewels from her
voice. At some point, the goddess emerged in fl esh and blood
and held her hand. Ratri began walking with the goddess,
tracing back her feet in time, to her youth in Guwahati, to
Kamakhya, to Kalchini, to her school. In her mind’s eye, she
saw herself with many other girls her age, dancing the Bihu.
They all went in a half circle, then back, and then a full circle.
Very slowly, as if in a trance, dancing to songs that could not
be heard.
Then Nayan tripped on a note, as if she were uncertain,
not knowing whether there lay a ground beneath her feet. She
coughed, trying to clear her throat, groping for the right notes.
A deep inner emptiness surged upwards from her navel and
gurgled in her throat. Several shades of one note emerged in a
tangle and jostled each other. Then came a sequence of notes.
She tried to catch the end of that string of surs. It was trailing
like the tail of a torn kite in the agitated hollow within her.
She felt as though her voice was stretching its hands to grab
the string, but it kept slipping away. She tried humming in a
parched voice but choked again.
Like she had choked when she had tried smoking…? She
had lit up one of the stubs from her father’s ashtray, she had
told Salil once. She had always been curious about cigarettes.
Then she had choked again at Qutab complex, while she sat
with Salil near the second minar; that unfi nished Alai Minar.
Nayan fi nally regained her ground, retrieving her voice from
the cobwebs of her mind perhaps. She was singing smoothly
now, the rishabh, the gandhar, dhaivat and nishad fl owing in
sweet camaraderie. The songs of Bhairavi were parting from
their voices like fl owers and wafting in the house like perfume.
They were singing in unison now – mother and daughter. Two
souls in communion. The Guru and the disciple.

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