PodCastle 640: Mist Songs of Delhi
Mist Songs of Delhi
By Sid Jain
Rajaji had listened to three songs of the deceased that morning. He couldn’t help himself. Whenever he walked past a flickering portrait floating in the air — static, sanguine, and phosphorescent — the urge to reach out and touch the cloud with his fingers was more than he could resist. The cloud portrait would unspool itself into the departed’s soul song and fill the air around Rajaji with the lilting music of their lives.
The last of those three songs had left Rajaji in a heavy stupor. The voice of the departed sang but three lines in Urdu. The translation into Hindi seized some beauty as tax, but the words thundered in Rajaji’s heart in all the seven languages he knew:
I tolerated his passing as he had taken Hindustan as his second wife,
But my hummingbird had not yet learnt to fly when you clipped her wings.
O Tyrant, what sin did I commit that you saved me for last?
They rarely told the life’s story of the subject as if they were epic poems. No, most soulsongs captured a sliver of the lives, a representative snippet that encapsulated the life and times of those lucky enough to be turned into song by the Goddesses of Raagas.
And they were lucky. Seekers made pilgrimage from around the world to the temples of music in Delhi and Ajanta and even the little one in Calcutta. Germanic Persians, Frankish Egyptians, and some even traveling over ocean and continent from the Americas, hoping — praying — that they reach the temples still alive and with stories remarkable enough to be granted the gift of eternal music.
The Goddesses did not require rigid devotion, did not demand purity of belief and did not spurn those who bowed to other divinities — or no divinity at all. She only required a full life.
Which made it all the more frustrating when Rajaji’s own mother — now on the wrong side of seventy years strong — refused to accept the golden opportunity of musical enspooling that Rajaji had worked so hard to achieve. For today was the day he had become the junior caretaker of the Temple of Bhairavi, the arbiter of whose applications were processed to be enspooled by the Goddess.
Sighing, he pulled up the folds of his dhoti at his feet and walked through the windswept streets of Old Delhi to the bus stop.
He could never get the dust and soot of Delhi’s air off his exposed arms. He’d given up trying long ago. By the time he reached his mother’s house in Hauz-e-Khas, after taking the rickety coach bus from the narrow shopping streets of Chandni Chowk, he was ready for his second bath of the day.
He found Ma in the verandah, creaking noisily on the swinging chair and solving a word puzzle in the newspaper with a half-chewed pencil on her lips.
She regarded him with spectacle-covered eyes, sparkling like the sunlight filtering through the stained-glass windows in front of her. “Hungry, Raja beta?”
Rajaji sidestepped her swing’s pendulum arc and reached down to plant a kiss on her forehead. “Always.”
Ma nodded and put away her newspaper. “I’m glad you don’t rely on the alms to subsist.”
Rajaji smiled indulgently. Catching Mother while solving her word puzzles meant she’d use words like subsist in ordinary conversation. “The temple gives us enough, Ma.”
“Hmm.” She walked slowly, with deliberate, soft steps across the speckled stone floor.
Rajaji followed in the wake of her billowing sari, given wings by the furnace gale coming from behind him. A fly buzzed near his ear and he tried to swat it away, unsuccessfully. He slid the wire mesh screen door closed behind him as they went inside; doing little about the wind but enough about the flies.
Mother bent down to open the valve for the gas cylinder, oohing and hmming with a hand pressing on her aching spine. Rajaji cut in front of her, saying, “Let me do that, you worry about rolling the rotis,” and gently pushed her aside.
Gas stove lighted, he heated the pan up while his mother supplied freshly flattened bread. Pillowy soft rotis swiftly followed, served with pickled mangoes and the morning’s leftover cumin-spiced potatoes.
He savored the potatoes, each bite a lifetime. It was a delicacy twice-over: cumin worth more exported by the Sultanate to the Inca Nation, and Incan potatoes—rarely found in the markets of Delhi. A gift from a fawning patron, perhaps.
With the last bite swallowed, Rajaji delicately began the process of broaching the topic he had come here for. “Guess who the new caretaker of Bhairavi Mandir is.”
Ma’s shoulders tensed, loosening into a sigh. “Your father was here again,” she said while brewing the decoction of her post-meal coffee. “Want a tumbler?”
“Yes, please.” He winced, knowing the shape of the conversation to come. “And? Did you listen?”
She tapped her sugar spoon on the stone countertop and chastised, “Of course I listened! What kind of question is that? Hmm? Just because your father keeps appearing here in his stupid little puff of smoke every other week?”
Rajaji smiled and shook his head as he paraphrased Bhairavi-ma’s scriptures, “It’s not like he’s up there choosing where to materialize, Ma.” He didn’t have to tell her, again, that the songclouds appear wherever the deceased loved most.
Mother looked like she’d just smelled sour curd. She disliked being lectured. “Then why doesn’t he go to Bavaria and enchant those Persian mountain women with his damn flute?”
“Mother!” he admonished, face flushed. Ma never got this upset when she spoke about Pa’s song.
She poured a glass full of the milk-swirled coffee and placed it in front of him. She hovered next to him while he took his first hesitant sip of the hot drink and said, “How many times have you heard it?”
“Every time he appeared in front of me,” he promptly answered.
Rajaji stared, perplexed. “About a dozen times in the past two years.”
Mother nodded, as if he were her schoolboy again, learning arithmetic. “I have seen — and hence heard — him two hundred and fifty-eight times.” It wasn’t hyperbole; she had kept count.
She took two long sips of her coffee and studied a portrait of Father on the wall, looking away at the end. “He keeps coming back to me, Raja, and I keep touching his face, listening to his song, every time getting more and more exasperated by the music.”
How can anyone get irritated by a life’s song? It was the most divine way to pass! People died on their journeys from around the world for the honor. Moreover, Rajaji loved listening to others’ songs and could do so all day. His friends often teased him by saying how he would be stealing opportunities for others to enjoy the music by hoarding them for himself. But of course, he always replied by telling them that the clouds would reappear elsewhere by the whims of their soul’s yearning, always ready for another listener . . . so it wasn’t really hoarding, was it?
“Mother, why are you so enraged by the thought of enspoolment?”
Mother set aside the cup and clasped her hands as she did when she was about to expound on some great life truths to her children. “Where do we start? I was already skeptical of the practice — heavens, you knew that when you told me you had decided to become an attendant to a statue.”
“A caretaker of the entire shrine, from today,” he corrected softly, omitting the ‘actually.’ Scripture taught him that it was a show of superiority and shows of superiority were not pious. He still struggled to remove it from thought, though, but he was rightly annoyed by now.
She ignored him. “But after seeing your father turned into this pest-like cloud of flutes and violas I want no part of this. I’m enough of a nuisance in life — you know very well. I don’t want to inflict myself on the world for all eternity.”
Here, Rajaji smiled, comfortable in his overlapping positions as the proxy to the divine, advisor to the living, and a son. “Ma, I love listening to the music of our souls, everyone does. Your music . . . your life was so full! So wonderful, your song will be a symphony ten minutes long! It won’t be a nuisance, trust me.” So many awards, so many illustrious students taught, a building named Saroj Khanjhaji Hall, after her—
She narrowed her eyes, “Was? So eager to off me, are you, son?”
Rajaji’s smile faltered, but mother continued with a dismissive wave, “And what is this about everyone liking music-filled sacs floating in the air? Did you go and ask everyone? Did you take a survey with a representative sample?”
He knew Ma wasn’t the biggest fan of the practice, but the intensity of her response stunned him.
“Truth is, son, that you live in your own little cloud. You assume everyone likes to see dead people floating along sidewalks, at monuments, in their own homes. Even though the Goddesses only turn a few people into song every year, the numbers will only add up, and eventually we would not see past our own hands. I don’t want to form a part of this pollution.” A scholar mother, a scientist mother — she had always made sure to impart as much knowledge to Rajaji as she could. So why now did she feel like withholding this from him? Wasn’t music just knowledge set to a meter?
He tried appealing to her rational side: “But think of all the knowledge trapped within the songs. Instruments that we have forgotten to play, emotions and stories trapped in the amber of divinity. There’s culture, useful historical information trapped in those capsules for future generations.”
His pleasure at his rational argument was lovingly punctured by the mathematician. “Oh for heaven’s sakes, you don’t need divine intervention to record music in today’s world, Raja. Do you see that?” She pointed to a clunky wooden chest in the drawing-room. “We have phonographs for that now. No, given the visual pollution and unnecessity of this procedure in today’s world, I refuse to allow myself to be entombed by it. I’d rather give my body to science when I die.”
And like that, the lamplight shone at the dark corner of his mother’s argument and revealed the crux of the matter. “You don’t want to die. Or rather — you don’t want to choose when you want to die, prematurely.”
Mother’s lips tightened to a wispy line and she took a quick sip of her coffee.
Rajaji reached across the table to hold her hand. “I would never ask while there was still life in you, Ma, but if a time ever came where we were certain it was the end—”
“My arguments still stand.” Mother stared intently at her glass, swirling the remnants of the coffee. “Waste of time and energy, bad for the environment. Forget me, I don’t even think others should participate in this ritual anymore. We’re past this charlatanry.”
Enough. Rajaji had had enough of his mother’s taunts about his Goddess. He let go of her hand and stood, patting down the folds of his dhoti. “I wish you knew how much it hurts when you belittle my faith like that. It hurts almost as much as knowing that you care so little of how much I love you and want to remember you,” his voice broke, “when you’re gone — in any way I can.” That’s all I ask.
Rajaji left through the screen door, carefully closing it on his way out so that the flies could not get in. He never brought the topic up again.
The Arab merchant continued to fidget with his gold chain while Rajaji examined the case folder. In the folder was the application for enspoolment by Mother Bhairavi for the merchant’s late wife. An application accepted and executed last year, one of Rajaji’s first enspoolments as a freshly promoted junior caretaker. He remembered this one vividly; he’d performed the rites the day Ma refused to be enspooled.
Rajaji closed the file and steepled his fingers. “Sheikh Mahreb, I must confess, it appears as if everything was in order and the enspoolment was a success. You claim yourself that you saw your late wife’s portrait once and that you heard her soulsong. I’m afraid there isn’t much else we can do if she hasn’t reappeared.”
The merchant was unmoved, clearly assuming this novice had made a mistake. He protested with splayed hands, “Are you suggesting that my wife has a place that was dearer to her than my side?”
Rajaji could see that it was sheer strength of pride that held up the distraught merchant’s shoulders. He rummaged around his learnings to find a suitable anecdote, a viable aphorism that would help the poor man and his resuscitated bereavement.
He wanted to bring the man to his mother and show her Rajaji — See? Would you have preferred this? The pain of not knowing if your partner considered you the most prized anchor on Earth?
But the thought of his mother did elicit a suitable salve for the merchant. “Sheikh Sahib, do you remember your wife’s song? The cadence of its rhythm, the scales of its melody?”
The broken man closed his eyes and with a voice of the deepest longing replied, “She was a beautiful soul, you know? She gave to everyone around her, she would’ve given away all of my wealth to those in need. Her music was like that. The chords strummed on the guitar — and it was a deep mahogany body that guitar, I swear. The chords strummed so slowly, like she was fanning out her hands, furnishing gifts for everyone. The tinkle of a harpsichord, an ancient sound of an ancient soul.”
He had the twinkle in his eyes, glistening with the memory of the music that he was surely playing inside his head. “Hers was an ancient soul, I’m sure. Allah sent her back, again and again, to enrich the world the way only she could. And she would have, she–” He wiped his eyes and continued, “She would have changed so many lives, if only the disease had let her.”
Rajaji quietly closed the file and walked over to hold Mahreb’s shoulders. “She made the right decision to be enspooled, Sheikh Sahib. Her melody is out there – changing the world one symphony at a time, I am sure of it. Her life’s story in the notes of that song is inspiring others as we speak.”
Mahreb collapsed against Rajaji’s torso, choking back tears. Rajaji held the man as only a priest could and whispered, growing confident of his sermon. “Your wife was a gentle soul. She spread love wherever she went; might it be that in death she does the same? She had unfinished business, unsaved lives that needed charity. She might be there, with them. Changing the world, a song at a time. That is why she hasn’t come to you again. Yet.”
At that the man unleashed a wail and clutched at Rajaji’s white rough-spun cotton, dampening it.
Rajaji continued, “Which is not to say she will not come back to you. When she has had her fill of philanthropy, she will return to you.” A thought, and Rajaji added, “Have you any children?”
Mahreb let go of Rajaji’s dhoti and wiped away his tears with a kerchief. “Yes, seven. From five to twenty-five years old.”
“Did you check with them, if any of them have seen her? You do travel a fair bit.”
“They would have told me if they had, but alas she has not appeared to the younger ones yet.”
His sobs grew still and Rajaji knew when to be quiet and let the words fall. “I haven’t spoken to my eldest since she died. We never got along, me and him. He liked her more, far more than he liked me. Her death was the last snip in the frayed thread of our connection.”
“Maybe she visited him.” And with that, Rajaji began the gentle process of giving the man enough leads to feel — if not satisfied — then at the very least less unsure about the unjustness of the divine.
As he got ready to leave, the merchant turned to Rajaji once and said, “She had her doubts about the whole thing, you know.”
Rajaji looked up from his perusal of the next case file. “Doubt is the birthright of death.”
Death was the greatest uncertainty, but enspoolment removed so much of the mystery of the afterlife. When you can be song, why be nothing, at best, and something unknown, at worst?
That year, Rajaji accepted ten applications for enspoolment, from which five families returned with the same complaint as the sheikh. He consoled them in much the same way he had the sheikh, and they left, doubtful yet placated.
Although successfully handled, the number of complaints gnawed at Rajaji; an unfinished puzzle missing a letter or two. He approached the chief caretaker, all the way in Benares on the Ganga, for guidance.
The chief caretaker, a portly man, shorter than the wispy Rajaji, laughed at Rajaji’s query, his choti — the thin ponytail on his bald head — swinging with his bobbing chin. “Ah, young Raja, you have fallen prey to the most common mistake of junior caretakers. You chose your supplicants poorly.”
“Sir?” Rajaji’s voice quivered.
The chief bade him sit on the straw mat beneath the slow fan of the temple verandah. “What kind of life do we seek to make into song?”
“Sir, we seek full lives, lives with achievement, with piety and—”
The chief waved him quiet. “Not full.” He tapped the straw mat. “Complete.”
Rajaji tilted his head in question.
“We seek complete lives. People who leave with no regrets and no unfulfilled tasks. We scour their lives for loose threads and either bid the supplicants complete them first, or we turn them away. Moksha can only be achieved if you depart this Earth with no regrets, no unfinished business. If you leave anything unfinished, the songs will not take hold and the soul returns to the mortal world.”
Rajaji thought of the sheikh’s wife, taken from this world before her time. He thought of Father, a great man who never stopped having a good time and spreading cheer, provided well to his family, and departed having lived a long and fulfilling life. If anyone had any unfinished business, their soul returned, reincarnated.
“Understand?” The chief had a raised eyebrow. “Only take complete lives, or you’ll be fending off irate families forever.”
The year Rajaji’s wife swelled with their first child, his mother broke her hip while reaching for a book off the top shelf of her home library.
Rajaji sat next to his mother and recited hymns and parables of death and forgiveness. Mother pretended to rest to get him to stop.
In deference, he took up solving the word puzzles with her, him acting like her hand while she provided the brain. He prayed when she slept. She stroked his hair when his head drooped and rested by her side.
While recovering from the fracture in the hospital, she contracted an infection and fell ruinously ill. Over her comatose body, he recited powerful supplications to the Gods on her behalf, judiciously rubbing his prayer beads with trembling fingers.
One day, she awoke, sweaty and delirious. Rajaji, napping next to her on a wooden chair, leapt up to hold her hand.
“Raja,” she said, faintly.
“I’m here, mother.”
“No, it’s not what you wanted.” Rajaji never told her what he had learned, the secrets of who lives on as song, and who did not. It would only enrage her, realizing that the temple caretakers knowingly released only those souls as songs that persisted in the mortal world.
“I don’t want to die,” she whispered, shivering from the fever.
“I don’t want you to die, either.”
“But . . . you want the song.”
Rajaji kissed Ma’s forehead, taking care to not let his quivering voice scare her. “Rest now. Dream of a puzzle for me to solve.”
The night air of Delhi was heavy that evening, cooled by the monsoon rains of the afternoon. Petrichor greeted him rising from the wet ground and mingled with the greasy spices of the evening pop-up food carts on the streets of Chandni Chowk. Rajaji dragged himself through the market with his wife, passing songclouds without touching them, weighed down by his own pain to take on anyone else’s.
Clusters of eye-level cloud-portraits huddled in front of their favorite restaurants, or well-visited shops, or their family’s favored temples. Once, he saw a cook blow a paper fan over his large frying pan, and Rajaji assumed it was to cool the freshly fried bread, but instead he found the cook blowing songclouds away from his stall — fanning them away without listening to them as if they were flies spoiling his food.
Rajaji welled up with tears. His life’s work rendered pestilence, he fell to the muddy earth and let go. Mother was right, she had always been right. And now she was right again: his guilty heart wanted her song. He had to hear it, by the Goddesses, no matter the cost to the world.
His wife bent down and heaved him to his feet. Like the best of wives, Rajaji did not need to tell her: the arc of his tumult was writ clear on his tear-streaked face. “Should we go get her, then, Raja? Have you decided so?”
He nodded feebly and retreated into his safe place, with her arm locked in his and his hand gripping the fabric of her salwar. Just holding on.
Rajaji filled out the paperwork for her discharge from the hospital and submitted her supplication into enspoolment. A selfish act. One he could neither forgive himself for doing, nor undoing. When guilt is certain, he consoled himself, let there at least be music.
With the help of his sister, Sunehri, and their cousins, they placed the palanquin with mother at the center of the temple’s main hall, clutching at life as she did her pencil when writing equations.
One by one, the children, family, and well-wishers permitted inside the sacred space said their goodbyes and took their place along the gallery. Rajaji’s wife, in her eighth month of pregnancy stood with tears in her eyes and a protective hand on her belly as if to say I will never let you die, my little one.
In the end, Rajaji went to mother to say his last words. “You were right. You were always right. I’ve found a way.” He kissed her forehead. “You won’t become a nuisance.”
The last thing she told him was, “I’m afraid.”
Rajaji, with his heart splintering, broke away from their last embrace and lowered the gold-dusted palanquin. Had she heard his admission? It wouldn’t matter now.
His mother was a dark silhouette behind the pink silk curtains but soon, he reminded himself, she would be a shining, ethereal wisp encasing the momentous melody of her life. It was sure to be a grand symphony, an aria of mathematical exactitude with virtuoso musicianship, Rajaji was sure of it. None of the simple, lilting melodies of the others. Hers would resound and thunder with the multiplicity of a dynamic mind.
The priests of the Temple of Bhairavi encircled the palanquin, each with a clay oil lamp lit with the oil from his mother’s kitchen and the wick made from her prized cotton sheets.
Rajaji’s vision blurred. He almost screamed to the priests to stop, please stop. He wanted another moment, another day, however long she had left. The only thing that seized his lips was the ardent voice of his doctrine blocking every other thought and saying: What is one moment of a fading voice to an eternity of soaring melody?
But it wouldn’t be an eternity, would it? His mother was in the middle of writing two books. Rajaji had so much to learn from her still, and Ma still hadn’t made the trip to Mexica-Tenochitlan to see Sunehri’s college.
It would be how she’d wanted it, a single instance and then — poof. It broke his heart.
He would get just one song. Sunehri would get just one song.
He refused to pay attention to the ritual he had presided over more than a thousand times in the past eleven years. He did not follow, but he knew the words of the chants; the way the light of the oil lamps increased in girth and length; how they were carried by the polyphony of the priests’ guttural voices into arcing over the palanquin until they formed an umbrella of fiery immolation.
When the sounds of the monks began to recede, the flames descended onto the palanquin, setting it alight. When the divine flame burned out, when the sounds of stifled tears ceased around him, Rajaji knew that nothing remained — save for a hovering, shimmering cloud with his mother’s face. The face which she saw herself as. Her face — not her face at death, not when she was young, but the face that her mind constructed of her when she dreamed of herself in sleep.
When the chanting stopped, Rajaji looked up to see his mother’s face once again. A beautiful visage, his dear mother in a golden lion’s mane of eternal song.
He took his sister’s hand and walked to the cloud. Both of them reached up together and pressed their fingertips to the wool.
In the beginning, there was a violin playing a descending arpeggio of four notes, joined by more strings with every repetition. Then, a tabla played a polyrhythmic beat that could’ve been a representation of one of her theorems. The swell of the classical scat choir giving an emotional, rhythmic counterpoint to the table broke Sunehri. She fell into the folds of her white sari, burying her face within her shawl. Rajaji held on till the lone santoor twanged a haunting, hopeful melody, bringing him to his knees. The wry remark at the end of a lecture, said with Ma’s impish smile.
After the first time, he heard his mother’s song — every bit as lush as he always told her it’d be — her cloud did not reappear again.
Rajaji had expected as much. Nevertheless, he hoped he was wrong, so he stalked her favorite haunts: the clubhouse she spent her afternoons with other mathematicians and wordsmiths; the deer park where she sat and watched the foals stumbling and learning to walk; the library of Delhi University and the other libraries and dusty book shops of Old Delhi where she wrote and puzzled out trigonometric theorems.
Could she have decided to visit foreign lands in death that she had not in life?
He sent letters to his sister in Mexica-Tenochitlan monthly, hoping to hear that mother had finally made the transcontinental trip she had promised Sunehri for years.
Nothing — nothing at all. Rajaji and Sunehri had heard their mother’s song once — and that was it. Ma’s wish was fulfilled.
Months turned into years, and Rajaji allowed his hope to — not exactly wither away — but be shelved and forgotten like a childhood toy. It would still reappear, as nostalgia was wont to do, but he would not linger on the thought any more than he lingered over the faded Ebru water portrait that his mother had made of herself. When he thought of her, Rajaji headed to his daughter’s room.
Little five-year-old Bulbul ran up to him and gripped his legs until he pried her off and foisted her into his arms.
“Papa! I taught myself the abacus today!”
Rajaji consoled himself that in those brown-black eyes and bushy lashes his mother’s soul resided.
One day, Rajiji sat at his desk endorsing new incoming requests for enspoolment when he came across a name he hadn’t seen in sixteen years. He quickly signed off on the request and a month later, the Arab merchant Sheikh Mahreb Mustafa sat in front of Rajaji once again — in a different office, two changed men.
The sheikh looked worn down, like leather of a saddle that had been ridden across many thousands of miles. Folds of skin wrinkled under his eyes and lines creased his forehead like latitudes on a mercantile map.
“I am ready to join my wife, wherever she is.”
For the past twenty years, Rajaji had sought the incomplete lives, the songs who would play once. He had done his part to reduce the pollution. He had fought families who returned with complaint, preached the gospel of unfinished business. He did what Ma would’ve wanted. He did the exact opposite of what he proposed to do for the man in front of him.
The sheikh had lived a full and complete life, save one easily remedied deed. Rajaji shouldn’t do it if he were to honor Ma’s memory. He really shouldn’t, but . . .
“Sheikh Mahreb, I can only accept your application after you do this one thing.”
Rajaji stood beside a marble pillar in the sanctum santorum of the Temple of Bhairavi and mawkishly listened to the priests chant the final words of the enspoolment prayer for Sheikh Mahreb Mustafa of Turkistan.
The man’s oldest son, a grown man who had brought his entire family to attend the greatest ceremony of his father’s life, had collapsed into sobs when the arcs of oil-fire had descended upon the emerald-gold palanquin in the center of the hall. The sheikh finally met his son’s family and the son made tearful amends for the decades apart.
The palanquin turned to dust and ash, yet the son remained on the ground, moistening and condensing the flotsam in the air with his tears.
Mahreb’s three children walked to their father’s shimmering portrait together. Rajaji closed his eyes and gave the grieving children their moment alone with their father.
When he reopened them, the sheikh’s visage hung in the air before him, reformed and ready for another listener. Rajiji reached out and touched the cloud.