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'Be discerning about who you choose to be guided by'

Last updated on: November 20, 2012 13:37 IST

We bring you an exclusive excerpt from A Song for I by Chandrima Pal.

A Song for I by Chandrima Pal tells the story about Ira, an amateur sitar player and freelance journalist born to a mother, who chose to die rather than live under her husbands shadow and her desire to make peace with her past. As she invites herself into the life of her estranged father, Himadri, an ambitious and successful sitar player Ira finds herself being sucked into his world of aspiration, as he makes desperate attempts to preserve his musical legacy through his daughter.

When she isn't being a journalist, Chandrima Pal loves to spend time in her kitchen or even better, travelling with her guitar-playing husband deep and high in the Himalayas and Europe. A Song for I is her debut novel.


Every one at Nishi Ranjan Laha's jalsa went home humming a different sur. For days, the samajhdars talked about the 'young lad' who impressed with his self-taught skills. In the gilt-edged mirror Himadri laid his eyes on Kamalini, the woman he was destined to marry.

Bhutibhushan's daughters met the man they would grow to love and loathe. Pandit-ji, whose only child had been adamant about not pursuing a career in music, discovered his true musical heir.

And on an auspicious spring day, when the streets had just been washed clean with the waters of the Hooghly, and the first wisps of smoke curled up from the chulhas of the corner chai-kachori stalls, the world's most famous Indian musician formally accepted Himadri as his disciple. He tied a red and yellow sacred thread around Himadri's sturdy wrist, in the presence of numerous gods, goddesses and sadhus on his travelling altar, and anointed him as his rightful shishya, who was born again with the sacred word, taalim.

'Paani piyo chhan ke, guru banao jaan ke,' Pandit-ji said gently as Himadri touched his feet with deep deference.

'Himadri, be discerning about who you choose to be guided by in your life. Always.'

'Guru-ji,' Himadri began slowly, after he had placed a white silk dhoti, a garland of tube roses, a coconut and a bunch of incense sticks at his guru's feet.

'I am an illiterate man. A refugee. Who am I to test you, let alone try and measure your greatness? All I can say is, from today, there is only one truth in my life, and that is you, my param bhrahma.'

Pandit-ji nodded approvingly.

The morning rituals over, Himadri was granted the privilege of sharing a meal with his guru for the very first time.

'You see Himadri, being a successful artiste is not only about learning how to play good music on your sitar,' Pandit-ji said, picking up a fork and knife, and motioning his young shaagird to do the same.

'It is also about embracing a certain way of life. Presentation is very, very important.'

Himadri watched with admiration as Pandit-ji deftly worked the cutlery, making bite-sized pieces of his batter-fried fish.

'Knowing how to handle these,' he continued, holding up the fork. 'Is as important as knowing how to wrap a dhoti smartly. And all of this Himadri, is about how you present yourself on stage, in public.'

Himadri's fingers, always confident around the sitar, struggled with the fork as it slipped out of his grasp.

In the days, weeks following the initiation, just as Himadri stormed through the rigours of taalim, the hours spent matching notes with his Guru, playing for him, with him, he also visited Kim Lee's Chinese Unisex Salon for a haircut, picked up a smattering of English and Hindi, and invested in an English perfume bought from New Market, the colonial era shopping arcade.

Somewhere along the way, Himadri dropped his thick Bangladeshi accent, and his surname, Samaddar.

It was too old fashioned and his Guru did not like it anyway, he explained to his pained father.

Bibhutibhushan Sarkar -- who spoke little but smiled a lot, living comfortably on his government job and love for music -- was delighted with the developments. He recognised talent when he came across it. And his heart told him Himadri was destined to grow, flourish and shine.

And it was after accosting Kamalini eight times on her way to college and offering to walk her back, meeting her at three sangeet chakra evenings and dining at the Sarkar home every alternate Sunday for three weeks, while taking care to avoid the firebrand elder sister, Himadri decided to get married.

They were sailing down the Hooghly in a row boat. The majhi had charged them a steep rupees five to ferry them as far as it would take Himadri to say all that he had to, while the majhi pretended to be disinterested in the amorous couple. It was an acceptable arrangement for privacy-starved lovers.

'Marry me!' Himadri said, clasping Kamalini's warm hands with his cold ones, looking at the top of her head and the twin tuberoses stuck in her braid, while she looked at the river whose gentle waters seemed to sigh happily every now and then.

The facades of the promenade were far away, the boat was bobbing quietly. The bare-chested boatman was humming a Bhatiali, a fisher folk tune, to himself, looking wistfully at the other muddy bank and the orange sun.

'Marry me, and you will have a queen's life.' Himadri continued, pulling her closer.

'What use do I have for your wealth?' Kamalini rested her head on his chest, hoping to hear his heart beat for her.

'All I want is to be the music that comes from your sitar,' she whispered, Himadri's Charukeshi mukhra playing in her head over and over and over again. Himadri did not quite understand what she meant, but gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze.

Kamalini trembled at his touch. In an instant she was transported to an intimate performance, with Himadri cradling the sitar meditatively.

She was right next to him playing the tanpura as if bound to him by some ancient spell.

Reproduced with kind permission of Amaryllis. A Song For I by Chandrima Pal

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