Metempsychosis: India

This is the eleventh story in my Metempsychosis series. Please do not be fooled by the use of foreign terminology: I have only a marginal understanding of classical Indian music, and basically no understanding of India in general. I hope that does not spoil the story. See the comments for a helpful glossary. Also, see if you can guess which character is “Mr. Lawrence”.

Jodhpur, India 1751


In the city of Jodhpur there was once a great rivalry between two musicians. Ustad Azhar Sharan and Ustad Baasim-e Sharif were gurubhaisaheb — that is, disciples of the same guru. They grew up together, ate together, swam together in the Luni and learned together at their master’s feet. With great affection he called them both his sons. But only Azhar was the master’s son by blood.

Since Ustad Allauddin Sharan (historically the most esteemed musician in Rajasthan) only slept three hours a night he would sometimes walk, against his wife’s better judgment, through the winding night-time streets. One night, when an early cool wind was cutting across the desert and into the streets, stirring the debris in squares and alleys, Allauddin was knocked violently to the ground. The moon was luminous that night and just as the assailant was about to drag him into the shadows to slit his throat and strip his corpse of any value, he saw his face. “I know you,” he growled at Allauddin, pressing a blade against his neck, “come with me.” Forcing him to his feet, he ripped a length from his kutri and blindfolded him. Then with his knife to Allauddin’s back he forced the famous musician through the city. After a circuitous hour they both stood in the center of a room with heavy plastered walls and a packed dirt floor. Moist moonlight flooded through a single high window illuminating a boy of eight or nine standing before them. “This is my son,” the assailant said. Then after a pause he pushed the knife deeper into Allauddin’s back. “I am merciless, like a crocodile or a disease,” he said. “That I did not kill you tonight is the same as if I had saved your life, and therefore you are in my debt. To repay me I want you to teach my son music. If you do not, I will not be there to save your life a second time.”

Between a Dalit and a Brahmin it was a heavy price to ask. Outraged, Allauddin found the prospect absurd and he burned to say a few things, such as beasts cannot appreciate real music and only the pure of spirit could ever learn music — but he glanced at the wide blade glinting in the moonlight and the huge hand holding it, and, wisely, he kept his mouth shut. The boy looked up at him, blinking. “I will teach your son,” he sighed. That was how Baasim became his student.

At first Azhar was thrilled to have not only a new (only) friend, but someone to help divide his father’s meticulous and implacable attention. For the first several months together Allauddin made Azhar tutor Baasim in the rudiments, because he was too disgusted at the idea of instructing such a cur. Then in the mean time he called upon every favor owed him in order to seek out his insidious assailant, force him before the courts, string him up, and rid himself of his intolerable charge. But it was not to be. Though the man eluded all detection, Allauddin nevertheless feared his malignant omnipresence. Too terrified to kick Baasim into the street, he retreated into an idle depression, dwelt in his dim study, toyed with a violin a British admirer had given him, and plagued his pride with morbid thoughts about a legacy unjustly soiled.

Yet Azhar had never been happier. Free for the first time of his father’s tutelage, he and Baasim got up long after the sun, ate heavily, napped on the river banks and played with slum children (Baasim’s kind) in the city squares. Only when his mother could catch him would he give Baasim his lessons. Then for maybe an hour they would sing together a scale and its attendant exercises.

Baasim proved a capable student. He had a strong, honeyed voice and a sharp mind. Almost instantly he learned how to modulate notes and build microtones into the swaras. And though Azhar would warn him against bad habits, Baasim liked to take the old established inviolable melodies (Yaman, for example, or Behag) and build out of them strange and unconventional tunes. Clearly he would be a great musician. And this of course was where the trouble began.

Initially Azhar did not notice his friend’s talent, for he was gifted himself — and most importantly it shortened the time devoted to practice. Then one evening, remembering that if he did not at least continue training his son his legacy would indeed be in ruins, Allauddin searched from him throughout the house. He found Azhar in the courtyard. He sitting in the blue shade of the mango tree listening to Baasim practice a red white silver bandish in Bhairavi. Quickly he ducked behind a trestle overgrown with yellow jasmines and strained to listen. Though curious, he listened through the murk of his anger and irritation, through the mists of months of accumulated self-sorrow. But the rough beauty of that unshaped voice was undeniable. How is this possible? he wondered, astonished and almost offended. But when Baasim unexpectedly colored the bandish red white gold with a borrowed note, Allauddin dissolved. “Oh Lord,” he babbled to himself in bliss, “thy love expresses itself through the multiplicity of all things; Thou art all pervasive!” Thus praying he burst from behind the jasmines with a shout, lifted the startled child from the ground and cried, “touch my feet, Baasim; I am now your master.”

However, it was not childish envy or resentment that hardened Azhar and Baasim against each other (which is explosive and brief, and usually ignited by simple things like possessions and insults). It was their infinitely more insidious adult counterparts: honor and a good name. Isolated during their long years of training, they knew nothing of the world except discipline, music and friendship. Even at fifteen, when Allauddin began to teach them separately — claiming that he had to shape them according to their talents and that therefore their styles must diverge — not the slightest haze of suspicion crept between them. But when they became masters themselves and began giving public performances they suddenly became aware of public opinion. Comparisons were made and compromising rumors spread. Not even the intelligent and exalted nature of their art — actually of any art, for that matter — could forestall the bad behavior of its admirers. And amongst the nobles as in the streets there was gossip about who was the greater musician, about who sang the sweeter dhuns and the more solemn gats, and about who, ultimately, would be considered the leading proponent of the master’s gharana. Baasim’s mysterious origins helped make the gossip painfully personal.

Now in their twenties, past the initial hermetic period of rigorous study which consumed their childhood, they were free to pursue their own careers in the world — and also thoroughly prone to the world’s impurities. The rumors reached their ears. Somehow people knew that after a certain point they had been trained separately, which became a source of speculation — and the public doubts about their musicianship became intensely private. Azhar and Baasim wondered whether the other knew something: something more than mere stylistic differences, but an essential piece of knowledge. And each wondered if perhaps their master loved them less. When they met in the market place or at their father’s home formality began to replace their former warmth. Neither could quite understand his own sentiments and therefore both failed to say anything to the other. In this way, without one bit of unpleasantness having ever been exchanged, their friendship ended. A painful awkwardness replaced their formality, and eventually a blunt hostility reigned. They did not know that one word, any word, or even a grunt, so long as it addressed, however inarticulate, their true affection, would have immediately resolved the discord. But that word was never spoken, and love, as often happens, festered into irreversible hate.

Then Ustad Allauddin Sharan died, quietly in his bed; and was cremated, quietly on the Luni’s banks. He had never been aware of the hardened enmity between his beloved sons, but with him ended any possibility of a reconciliation. And without him also ended every reason for restraint. Like a damn had given way, Azhar and Baasim rushed to help feed the conflagrations of mystery, tension and scandal that surrounded their names. They criticized each other among colleagues and friends. And each claimed to be the sole possessor of the master’s genuine talim — the only real heir of his gharana. Swelling to fill the public images of themselves they began to declare openly how in private the great Ustad had given to them alone certain secrets without which one could not breath proper life into the notes.

Over the years the rivalry grew into legend. Without being able to deny the two stalwart’s talents, other musicians despised their bringing such petty divisiveness into their hallowed art. Azhar and Baasim lost many friends. But the spat captivated the people. No public performance given by either musician went without crowds spilling into the streets. And no matter how large the audience, the moment the first note was intoned the thousands would hush into an unreal silence. If both musicians were to perform on the same day the crowds would calmly move, in a mass, as though on pilgrimage, from one to the other. Then that evening in the bazaars and public houses the conversations would analyze the dual performances, searching for the rumored gaps in musicianship, deciding which gamaks and meends made the notes induce the blissful shivers, and which fell flat. People would take sides; disagreements would flare; fist fights would erupt.

Neither Azhar nor Baasim intended any subterfuge or showmanship in all of this. They were simple men, totally devoted to their art and therefore proud — and they honestly despised one another.


Once, in preparation for his important trade conference for the princes of Rajasthan, the British ambassador and heads of the Honourable East India Company, it was suggested to the Maharaja of Jodhpur that he could lend prestige to his gathering were he to persuade Azhar and Baasim to perform together. It seemed a good idea. That evening the envoys were separately dispatched with written requests and lavish gifts — and each had the door slammed peremptorily in his face. Not one to countenance such effrontery, the Maharaja made the requests again. The following morning when Azhar and Baasim left their respective homes they found the previously rejected missives stabbed unceremoniously into their front doors with fierce-looking daggers. So they made an arrangement to meet. In the bazaar — the tallow candles in the hanging censers not yet snubbed out, Mehrangarh Fort tinged fire-bright by the dawn looming distantly behind them — Azhar and Baasim sat to tea for the first time in almost two decades. They found the experience bitter. Neither could comprehend how he had ever felt love for the man opposite him. All the same, they decided it would be in their best interests to ignore their differences, for an evening.

The night of the conference, in the gardens and palace halls of Mehrangarh Fort, the mood was electric. For that reason as a business and policy maneuver the concert was a mistake. Men who typically savored the subdued war or negotiations found the proceedings that evening mortally tedious, in the face of what was awaiting them. In the end, the princes of Rajasthan made more concessions to the British than was prudent (reducing the price of chilies by several cents a pound, for example, and surrendering half the northern copper mines, breaking a contract with the French) in order to hasten the closing of business. — More than one historian has conjectured that that conference was a major factor leading to the Seven Years War.

A banquet was served in the Moti Mahal (pearl palace) where afterwards the Indians sipped at coffee and tea while the British took clandestine sips of cognac from flasks hidden in their coat pockets. Everyone smoked. The air grew hazy with incense and tobacco. Conversation, satisfied earlier with mercantile and political affairs, dwelt on the spiritual and the aesthetic. Azhar and Baasim were seated at opposite ends of a subordinate table. They had eaten and drank very little, and said nothing. They merely glared at each other across clatter of dishes. Finally, the Maharaja addressed them:

“Gentlemen,” the Maharaja began, “had we been speaking of prices, exchange rates, policies or war, I could understand your unwillingness to give an opinion. But while the men here undertake the earthbound business of maintaining society, we leave it to you to study the more transcendent matters of Beauty and God; and we happily give you our praise when you express to us what you have learned. So why are you quiet now, when what we discuss are the subjects of which you are the acknowledged masters?”

Those nearby hushed to listen. Those more distant hushed because the others had hushed, until the only thing audible in the wide hall was the rustle of the bored British squirming in their seats.

Finally Baasim spoke.

“I apologize for our reticence, sir. Azhar and I, in order to give a supreme performance tonight, have been conserving our voices. All we have had to eat or drink tonight was some weak green tea. Please pardon us for not participating in the conversation. But if you would like to address a certain question to either of us, we would be honored to give our opinion.”

The Maharaja was pleased with Baasim’s courtesy and took a moment to consider.

“Alright, here is something I have wanted to know for some time,” he said, having suddenly remembered. “I have heard other great artists — dancers, poets, even craftsmen — say that at their moments of greatest creativity they felt not themselves to be in control, but some higher power, God if you like, transmitting something beyond themselves. Has this been your experience?”

Azhar hastened to answer.

“Absolutely, sir,” he said, “speaking for myself, at least. At times it has been no more than me taking dictation — all praise be to God. I have sung melodies which I could never have conceived.”

Then Azhar grew thoughtful, dwelling cloyingly on each word like a man imparting some bit of controversial information. He continued. “The experience is painful, like being unable to draw a satisfying breath and fill some secret recess in your chest with air. Suddenly you feel yourself tiny against this broad beautiful expanse and you want nothing more than to dissolve into it, and yet you cannot, bound and limited by an inscrutable knot. Then a conviction grows within, you feel as if the solution is merely a matter of the correct combination of notes. As if salvation and moksha hinged upon hidden musical phrase. Ideas are fed to you from somewhere — you are too desperate to investigate their origin — and in a great anxiety you try them out, one by one, probing from all directions, searching for the essence of each raga, striving to sing that elusive phrase which will unbind you. Yet that combination can never be found. Even in the happiest ragas a sadness presides, a dissatisfaction distends. This as I understand it is the essence of invention.”

Azhar relaxed into his seat, folding his hands serenely, enjoying the effect his words had obviously had on his murmuring, ruminating audience.

“How about you, Baasim?” the Maharaja finally asked.

“I guess it is something like that,” he said, shrugging.

“Very good,” said the Maharaja. Joining his palms and smiling, he continued, “this might be a bitter question, but I ask it out of curiosity and respect. You both claim to have received a special talim from Ustad Allauddin — some particular secret that distinguishes the Jodhpur gharana. Is that correct?”

Again, Azhar was quick to respond.

“That is correct, sir. No doubt you know that it has always been the custom of every gharana to reserve the real gems and musical treasures of the lineage for blood relatives.”

“Do you agree, Baasim? Does the key to Sri Allauddin’s music lie in this secret talim?” asked the Maharaja.

“Sure,” said Baasim and took another sip of watery tea. “I you have to know which way to turn the notes.”

“And that is knowledge,” added Azhar, “which either takes several lifetimes to acquire, or the guidance of a real guru.”

“Thank you, gentlemen, for your generosity in answering my questions,” said the Maharaja. “I hope you will allow this one final question, which required the preceding answers in order to be asked.”

Baasim nodded and Azhar, with elaborate courtesy, said, “Please your Excellency, go ahead.”

“If your greatest performances — as you both admit — happen when you lose all sense of yourselves and fall, as it were, under the jurisdiction and control of God, or inspiration, or whatever, then how can you claim that the key to your musical greatness is some secret, particular piece of knowledge given to you, not by the God who inspires you, but by another human being?”

At first a murmur spread through the Moti Mahal, for the guests were shocked at the boldness and incisiveness of the question — but then laughter took its place, for they were delighted at how the Maharaja had skewered the musicians’ pretensions (which until that moment they themselves had somehow not noticed). The British looked up from their flasks and boredom to see what was happening, the returned to their private conversations. Azhar flushed, his dark skin darkening and his lips paling as he bit them. Baasim took another sip if tea, then casually wiped his mouth with the table cloth.

Azhar was not quick to respond.

“Ustad Allauddin was an enlightened guru,” Baasim finally said. “He taught his students to the level of their talents, even his son. But one cannot really go beyond that.” He looked at Azhar who was looking at his hands, and smiled. “Even God cannot make an inferior instrument sing beyond its abilities.”

A bit of muffled, derisive laughter was heard.

That pretty much marked the end of dinner. As servants cleared the tables and guests went to walk in the twilight gardens, Baasim took Azhar’s rigid arm. Together they went to wait in the Phool Mahal (palace of flowers) where in an hour they were to perform.

That evening and into the morning, those fortunate enough to attend — some of whom were great warriors — witnessed a battle such as they had never seen. Cigarettes burned out unsmoked in hands so still that the ash did not crumble; tea and coffee went cold in the cups; some, at times, even forgot to breath. No one even realized that they had sat for hours and hours in stiff chairs or on the hard floor, for in listening their minds had grown hypnotized and their bodies numb with bliss.

Common opinion suggests that only humility, goodness and compassion can convey one to artistic heights — that to be a great musician one must possess a pure soul (this was Sri Allauddin’s conviction, anyhow). But that is a poor reduction of human life. Love, sadness, devotion and peace do not complete the range of human emotions; there are also, fear, fury, envy and disgust. Although no one likes to believe that evil men can create beauty, everyone forgets how awe (that is, the sublime, the most intense aesthetic experience one may have) is both terrible and vertiginous. One must forget it as quickly as one forgets the particulars of a tremendous pain once ceased, in order to continue living.

They sang the raga Darbari Kanada that evening. Before that performance no one would have suspected how such a dignified melody could express such undertones of menace and dread. Each musician sang as if his swaras were swords and men could be slain with sound. Tears sprang to the listeners’ eyes, as much out of joy as out of terror. Everyone had the impression that before it was over one of them would surely shatter and be carried away in shame.

And yet, when the breeze which each morning comes across the desert began pushing dry cool air through the colonnades, when birdsongs and light broke through the open windows, when Azhar and Baasim stood and bowed and in a simulacrum of sincerity touched each other’s feet, when the audience began breathing again and whispering to their neighbors — nothing had been decided. No one could say who the greater artist was.

Azhar and Baasim accepted their praise, permitted garlands of orchids to be hung around their necks, allowed the Maharaja and other princes to kiss their cheeks (the British had by then taken their leave), received a few gifts and declined an offer to have the royal carriages carry them home. Then they departed. Still dazed, their bodies still burning with music, they descended arm in arm from Mehrangarh Fort, down its steep slope and through its seven gates into the bright blue city below. There they strolled aimlessly, wordlessly, through Jodhpur’s awakening streets.

Baasim eventually broke the silence.

“We should probably put an end to this,” he said. “I am growing too old and hatred is beginning to taste more bitter than sweet.”

“I agree,” said Azhar. “We should put an end to the dispute; declare once and for all who is the true successor. But that is all. I have no interest in being your friend.”

“Of course,” Baasim sighed. “It is too late for that anyhow.”

“Alright, then how do you suggest we end this thing? Twenty years of public opinion as well as last night have failed to conclude anything. Obviously we cannot rely on the judgment of others.”

“We resolve this simply and rationally. Tell me what Sri Allauddin taught you which you insist I do not know. If it is something he has not taught me, I will admit your legitimacy and leave Jodhpur.”

“Yes, very good,” snorted Azhar. “Then you will know everything I know. That would put an end to the dispute, but not to my dissatisfaction. Why don’t you offer your bit of knowledge first?”

“Not if you’re going to remain suspicious. It speaks badly of your intentions.”

They continued in silence through the narrow ways, between the white and blue walls. Vendors were opening their shops or unrolling their wares on thick blankets on the streets. The sharp morning freshness (part dew, damp stone and sand, part absence) was being replaced with cooking smells and incense. The uncollected piles of cow dung were beginning to warm. Walking past a certain vendor Baasim detached his arm from Azhar and walked over to him. He took a few coins out of a knot tied in the hem of his kutri and handed them to the vendor in exchange for a small gold chain with a jeweled pendant.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Baasim said. “Look how it sparkles in the light.”

“Yes, it’s very nice.”

“But we both know it won’t stay this way forever, since it is only a skillful impostor. The gold will ware off and turn green; the diamond will scratch, because it is glass.”

“What a pity,” said Azhar. “I have never turned green or scratched, and you would make a terrible poet.”

“Probably,” Baasim shrugged. “No, you are a universally esteemed master and will no doubt die in good repute. But your students will be disasters, and your music will disappear.”

Baasim tossed the chain into a puddle. They turned a corner into a wide square filling with people and light. Off to the left was the way home, but just before he could bid him goodbye Azhar grabbed Baasim excitedly by the shoulders, turning him face to face.

“Then we shall decide thus,” he said. “As my father took you — an anonymous cur — from the streets and trained you, so shall I take any child from the street. When I am done with him he will be far greater than your greatest student. Even you will admit it. This is the only way.”

Permitting the unintended implication of the statement to pass, Baasim nodded and grinned.

“Then I will choose the child?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Azhar.

Baasim looked around. Men in silk kutris and thick woolen vests strolled past, arms folded squarishly behind their backs; groups of women in saris of rare colors (turquoise, tyrian, sapphire, saffron) crossed the bright square and paused like reflections before stands of fruits; half naked slum children as brown as kola nuts harassed the pigeons sipping from pools in the mellowed flagstones. These he surveyed carefully, but without satisfaction. Spite made him overlook the energetic boys running in and out of alleys; pride made him overlook the few miserable ones with soars and scabies swathed in greenish rags. He was about to suggest they move on, search the city some more, when a scrawny child near the steps of a small temple caught his eye.

It was a beggar child. Baasim studied him. His black hair was piled in enormous knots upon his head. Dozens of dingy beads hung around his neck (the only article of clothing on his naked torso) while a loose, torn, soiled robe of cotton was draped about his waist. He kept on running in front of men, hugging at their knees and moaning pathetically for money. When they inevitably walked on he would clutch at the hem of their garments until kicked away. One man, youthful and haughty, delivered the child such a smart kick to the face that he toppled backwards. The furious child jumped up cursing and, when the man walked away paying him no mind, he spat venomously at him. Then in a gesture of obscure derision he lifted his tattered robe up over his head. It was then that Baasim realized the child was a girl.

“Take that one,” he said.

“What!,” cried Azhar, his face twisted between two expressions (he had just been laughing at the child). “Do you want to make a mockery of my father’s music?”

“Why? Do you mean because the child is female? So is the goddess Saraswati — go ahead and accuse her of ruining the Saregam. Anyhow, you made the wager; now make it work.” So saying, Baasim folded his hands respectfully to breast-bone and brow, bowed and calmly went away.

Azhar was not happy. But what could he do? His own arrogance had ensnared him. He went to a vendor at the edge of the square; then, whistling and catching the girlchild’s attention, he flourished like a bouquet the bit of rose candy he had just purchased. She came running and snatched it from his hand. Azhar looked around. No one seemed at all interested in the dark girl, so he took her hand and led her home. She did not protest, lost in her red translucent sweetness.


Like his father, Azhar suffered an instantaneous onset of debilitating depression. (This was the synchronicity of vertical fate, dear reader, and not the lassitude of my horizontal narrative.) He came home that morning still clasping the girl’s grubby hand in his and called to his wife and son. Khawlah (wife) and Zohoor (son) appeared dutifully before him. They gaped in horror (wife) and curiosity (son) at the massive knots of ratty hair, piles of cracked bone and wooden beads, dirt, rags, red mouth and staring wide white eyes which composed the child.

“Do not ask how it has happened,” sighed Azhar, “but this child is now in our charge and I must train her. Please take her and make her a little less repulsive.” Then he retired to his study to rest.

Khawlah bent down to her. “What is your name?” she asked. The girl stopped sucking on her fingers for a moment. “Annapurna,” she chirped. Khawlah winced. “She is not Muslim,” she said.

Zohoor was fourteen. Although Khawlah asked several times she could not get Annapurna’s age, but Zohoor hoped she was not too many years younger than him. His mother took her into the courtyard, shedding rags and strings of beads as they went which Zohoor, trailing behind, collected. As Khawlah wrung out a cloth and wiped down the child Zohoor hid and watched, inly fluttering, inly perceiving through her skinny arms and legs, her visible ribs and pelvis, her dark dripping skin, some invisible, ineffable magic. He went and stashed Annapurna’s discarded things in a box in his room. He told his mother he had thrown them away.

A week passed before Azhar acknowledged Annapurna’s presence. Unsure of how to deal with the child — who spent all her time eating and playing with pebbles in the courtyard — Khawlah finally demanded her husband do something with her.

“Put her to work,” he said. “If she is serious about taking our music she must earn our respect and trust.”

So Khawlah handed her a broom.

“Do you like to eat? Do you like to sleep in a dry bed beneath a roof?” she asked when Annapurna gave the instrument a funny look.

At first Annapurna performed her chores with alacrity, for she did in fact appreciate the comfort and luck of her new situation. She swept the courtyard and walks, scrubbed laundry and hung it to dry, carried food from the markets, water from the well, helped to cook, and so on. She even did certain small things without being asked, like straightening furniture or smoothing out beds. But this did not last, for she had no talent for scrubbing or sweeping and generally left things filthier than when she began. And as if she had contrived it, every meal she helped to cook would somehow fail. Khawlah had patience, and Zohoor would often conceal her mistakes; but whenever Azhar observed her haphazard work he would beat her. And if she ruined a meal she would go the next day without food.

Despite that she grew healthier. After a month Khawlah had managed to comb the knots out of her thick bluish hair; her arms and legs grew shapely; a salutary rose-pink hue blushed beneath the nut-brown of her skin; and particularly conspicuous — to Zohoor, at least, when she brought him his meals; the food and company affording a brief respite between his arduous hours of musical study — were the budding hints of roundness beneath her loose linen frocks. Both Khawlah and Zohoor were becoming attached.

Azhar, however, was becoming more and more surly. After almost six months he had yet to teach Annapurna, had yet to even speak to her outside of curses and comminations. He had declined all major engagements to perform and had spent those months applying an exacting and meticulous tutelage to his son, waking him before sunrise with a cup of coffee which would then sit untouched as Zohoor sang scale after scale, or dwelt for hours perfecting a single passage. Azhar’s aim was obvious: he would not teach the girl, but instead would make his son so great that Baasim could not deny it. But Zohoor had no love for music. What he had learned he had imbibed through duress. An intelligent child, he grasped easily enough the concepts of raga and tala and could perceive and remember the shapes of compositions. The subtleties, however, escaped him. Rather, he lacked the basic interest necessary to discover the little emphases and tiny tonalities without which each raga is a dead collection of notes, instead of a distinct and vibrating thing. Previously Azhar had ignored this, expecting that as the child grew so would his appreciation — so long as his knowledge was sound. But that period of leniency had passed. Afflicted now with an insane urgency to prove himself, to make his son great, these absences in his son’s devotion frustrated him beyond measure. Yet since it was neither knowledge nor diligence that Zohoor lacked, but passion, Azhar had no idea how to remedy the situation. Terrified of driving his son even further from music, he never hit him. He would yell at him, accuse him, plead with him — but he would not touch him. Instead, he would stalk from his study into the courtyard or kitchen where Annapurna would be sweeping — her piles of dust being scattered again by a breeze before she remembered to collect them — and he would thrash her without mercy, relenting only when she was a tearful heap at his feet. Then Azhar would vanish for hours into the city while Zohoor would bring her flowers from the garden or bits of dried fruit to comfort her, and sit next to her on the floor, and burn to put his arm around her shoulders.

Annapurna’s whole life had been misery, but not an accumulation of miseries — for miseries are a phenomenon of the present. Strangely, once enough time has lapsed between us and a certain epoch its unhappinesses fade from memory while the joys (rare as they may be, and couched like weeds in the crevices of mountains) remain. For this reason we are often puzzled not only at what we remember, but that from a distance we look more fondly on the past. But it could not be otherwise — else how could we bear life? Thus this psychological curiosity, coupled with a sudden stimulus of memory, finally precipitated her running away. After a particular beating, when Zohoor had not immediately come to comfort her, Annapurna sought him out. Quietly peeking through his parted doorway she watched as Zohoor, on his knees before his bed, his back to her, spread out with his left hand her old rags and beads while his vigorous right hand was hidden awkwardly from her view. My things, she thought. With this abrupt, palpable reminder of her life of vagrancy and begging an odd bubble of warmth burst within her. Just as it had never occurred to her while homeless that there was any other way, so had she accepted Azhar’s abuse. But images were coming back to her of Jodhpur’s labyrinthine streets, the crowds of children with whom she ran, the folksongs at twilight, the pigeons in morning squares, the filched foods, the cold waters and warm sands of the Luni, the sunlit naps and open air — all with a charm transfigured by memory. She watched Zohoor replace everything carefully in a wooden box which he set on a shelf. That night she took back her things and left.

“Let her go,” Azhar said coldly when Zohoor brought him the news of her departure. “There are thousands like her. We will get another one.”

He said the same thing to Baasim a week later when they met by chance in the street.

“What happened?” he asked.

“She ran away. It has only been six months, friend. Pick a new child and we will start again. I will walk with you this moment while you find one.”

“No,” Baasim said gravely. “Get the same one, I insist. Get the same one or this thing will never be over.” As an enraged Azhar walked off he called after him, “The same one, mind you. I remember what she looks like. I saw that she was a darling beneath her rags!”

It was hard for Zohoor to mask his joy as his father ordered him to go find Annapurna. He asked first for money; then tying the coins into his sleeve he left. At the first opportunity he bought candy, silver bangles, a string of new beads, a patterned shawl and a ring with a little violet stone. He wandered the city all day, from the Siwanchi Gate to the Nagauri then to the Sojati and back again. But he did not find her. Nevertheless he was cheerful. Towards evening he passed the city walls in order to enjoy the river at sunset. The banks were crowded. Hundreds sat along the ghats or dangled their feet from the high walls or splashed and prayed in the brown water. Zohoor walked along the foot of the wall in the sand, taking his time, happy to be out of the house and away from his father — happy to be searching for Annapurna.

As it got late the crowds dispersed and one by one the lamps of the public houses above the wall were lit. He was beginning to get hungry. Up ahead he saw a huge tree growing sideways from the wall whose leaves, in the darkness, seemed long and droopy like a willow but not nearly half as slender. He decided to walk to that point then go home. Slowly as he approached it he noticed two things: that the tree was dead and what he thought were leaves were strips of cloth, or shawls, or tattered saris and other articles of clothing tied in abundance to its branches; and that there was a circle of children sitting on the sand beneath it playing. The lamps at the top of the wall cast a feeble light, but he had no trouble spotting Annapurna amongst them in her rags and beads. He was afraid she would flee and restrained the urge to rush to her. Slowly he removed his sandals and crept towards them pressing himself into the shadows along wall.

The game they played was a strange one. Someone would toss a small stone straight up in the air which would land either with a mute thud in the sand or with a sharp crack on a flat stone in the center of a ring of pebbles. If the small stone landed on the flat one without bouncing off (which it always did) every one would cheer and then a laughing Annapurna would remove a string of beads (once again they were all that adorned her torso), hand it to the boy next to her who would then hang it from a low branch of the tree. Observing this, stunned, Zohoor noticed with a sort of inward flutter of tender wings how in the diffused light an iridescence swam across her dark downy skin. — Then he noticed with horror that every one of her companions were boys, and that she had very few beads left. That was a new feeling. For the first time in his life his fists and teeth were not clenched in fear, but in unquenchable rage. So he flew at them. He kicked the boy closest to him in the back, and when a second turned to see he smashed his fist into his mouth. They all scattered, scampering in every direction like insects while one confused child even dove into the Luni and swam off. Somehow, between kicks and blows, Zohoor had managed to grab the screaming Annapurna by the wrist.

“It is me, dear Anna, it is me Zohoor” he said, trying to calm her. But she would not cease struggling. “Stop. Please do not run,” he begged. “I have been looking for you since this morning. Please stop. I brought you these.” He produced from his loose sleeve the packaged candy. She stopped struggling.

As she sat beneath the strange tree eating the singori from its leafy cone Zohoor collected her beads from the branches and hung them again around her neck; then he put the bangles on her wrists, the ring on her finger and tied the shawl around her chest. She accompanied him home.

“You cannot treat her as you have been,” he said to his father that night, “or she will leave again.”

“That girl will ruin me,” Azhar said detachedly, reclining in his study smoking — he rarely smoked.

“Give her to me,” Zohoor said. “Let me teach her, and when I am done with her you will be happy to accept her as your disciple.”

Azhar exhaled a dusky plume, tacitly resigned. The next morning Zohoor gave Annapurna her first lesson.

She was a terrible student. She would not practice any of the scales, modes or intervals. She found the technical exercises abhorrent. “Teach me Gorbandh,” she demanded, “teach me Lawarji.” She began to sing them but Zohoor stopped her.

“That is all wrong,” he said. “Anyhow, I cannot teach you the folksongs now. They encourage bad habits. First you do things the right way, and then you are free to do them the wrong way. Your voice must be supple before it can be rough. Learn these first things and then I can give you some melodies.”

But she would not learn. After many hours of pleadings and promises he persuaded her to sing at least the Saregam, then he called it a day. He felt relieved to retreat to his room and plunge into his own study, for at the minimum there was the satisfaction of control. He had expected to enjoy teaching her, even if she proved a bad student, simply because he would have an excuse to sit with her. Perhaps she would stumble through things (he imagined), but her eyes would be upon him as he demonstrated the right way. She would inquire and seek to please — he would encourage, and scold — and ultimately grateful, she would touch his feet in respect, or kiss his cheek. These fantasies thrilled him the night before. However, it did not transpire thus. She was totally implacable. Her eyes were not at all upon him but lingered on every other object in the room. She expressed almost less interest in him than the music. He was chagrined to discover he had to give her things before she would cooperate. He did not try to teach her the next day.

Annapurna did, however, like the tanpura. She fiddled with it a little during her lesson, but when no one else was around she took the instrument into the courtyard and sat beneath the mango tree (same tree, same house) plucking the open strings one at a time, following the hum of each from clamor to death. She had done this secretly before and secretly pursued the habit. The long, slow metaphysical ringing of the strings — half harsh, half sweet — soothed her.

For the next lesson Zohoor conceded and gave her some wordless phrases to sing: not yet a composition, but more than a tedious technique. She still ignored him. He had brought out a basket of dried figs and one of rose candy meant as rewards — but she took without asking and he was a worthless disciplinarian. When she had finally finished stuffing herself he sighed and gave her a phrase with words, hoping that one more component for her imagination to grasp would make the difference. He expected nothing. She repeated the passage back to him in a full feminine echo. “What was that?” he said. “Do it again.” She sang the passage again. He did not hear a single flaw. Her voice was clear and sweet as if transfigured by the crystalline rose petals she had just devoured. He gave her another passage, a simple, meaningless tarana — and she yawned. So he sang a complex thumri. She said, “oh, that one is nice,” and sang it exactly. Zohoor was on the brink of incredulity. She seemed lost in the almost visible drone of the tanpura, repeating from deep within the wilderness of a catatonia or a sudden autism down to the smallest fioriture the intricate thumri he had just given her. It did not lack for beauty. When she finished she opened her eyes and laughed, then crammed a handful of figs into her mouth.

In this way she learned. Although a marvel, Zohoor feared the method was mere mimesis and he tried to impose order upon her studies, to give her only compositions within a certain raga, or ones that conformed to a certain technical theme — and all in increasing difficulty. He wanted to build slowly within her mind the proper images of Kafi, Khammaj, Malhar, Bilawal, Chhaya, Desh and so on. But she would only sing what she wanted. He would intone something while she would pluck idly at the tanpura and stare out the window, silently rejecting one piece after another, until she heard something she liked. Then she would absorb it, repeat it and it would never leave her inscrutable mind. She retained everything.

“Music is like language,” he counseled her one day. “It is a useless thing if all you can do is repeat repeat repeat. You must be able to invent and respond to your listeners, you must be able to surprise them. You can learn everything and still have no understanding. After all we are not parrots. . . Please, are you paying attention to me?”

But Annapurna was not listening.

What Zohoor did not know was that the knowledge was already present within her mind, like the outline of an image where whether colored in from top to bottom, left to right, or at random all amounts to the same state of completion. Or like a photograph where the chemical bath reveals the already latent portrait. — As in the Platonic sense, where all learning is but a cosmic remembering. So it did not matter in what confused way Annapurna exposed herself to the music — in her head all was order and form.

Zohoor was eventually made to understand this.


Almost a year passed. It was not the happiest of years, but Zohoor still savored its minutia. He divided his days between teaching Annapurna and studying with Azhar — and in maintaining the divide between the two. He slept and ate when he could. Since Zohoor had brought her back Azhar had expressed very little interest in Annapurna, and Zohoor was eager to keep it that way. Domestic life for him was a tenuous dance on tightrope, finding ways to try and erase Annapurna’s presence from the house. He would guide her from room to room to avoid Azhar when he was home, or try to somehow keep her in her own room; and when Azhar was gone, and he let her run free, he would then clean up the inevitable messes in her wake. He was afraid Azhar would grow enraged at the haphazard state of her study and beat him, or her, or both — and that Annapurna would run away. Annapurna was growing daily more sightly, and Azhar forever more sullen.

It was true that Azhar had ceased to perform. Obsessed with his legacy he focused instead on teaching. Zohoor, of course, remained his principle student. But no matter how Zohoor perfected his craft Azhar remained frustrated by the sense of hollowness in his mastery, and was suspicious that perhaps music was not the whole of his life. So he looked for new disciples. Buoyed by his sonorous reputation, there was no lack of ardent applicants. However not one survived his severe tutelage for more than a month, and every one departed quietly, secretly, through a window in the dead of night. All the while his nemesis Baasim traveled, attended festivals, was honored at universities, performed for Maharajas in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Gujurat, and was even celebrated in England.

Azhar stalked everywhere like a thundercloud. He became impossible to live with. But things were rapidly coming to a close.

One sweltering night past midnight Zohoor awoke with a start. He looked towards the open window where the thin moondrenched curtains billowed, and then looked the other way and was surprised to find Annapurna standing there in her thin sweatdrenched pajamas.

“Watch what I can do,” she said.

She held a spent candle in her hand. Without hesitation she climbed onto the foot of his bed. Through a haze he glimpsed the loose neck of her garment yawn, and he remembered in an altogether different way that he still did not know her age, and he wondered what had happened to her beads. She sat there cross-legged. Keeping the sheets over him, he sat up too. Carefully she placed the unlit candle on a dish between them. She took a few long, slow breaths. Then she closed her eyes and began to sing.

Lowing at first, wordlessly, like a comfortable cow, her voice seemed to fill every crevice in the room, and fondle more thickly than the darkness the sparse furniture, and lap against the heavy walls. It was only a drone: the tonic note intoned deeply and fully. But after a minute she added another note, and waited another minute before she built a melody out of three. Only after many minutes had passed in the slow accumulation of notes did Zohoor finally recognize the raga. It was Deepak — the fire raga. He looked down at the squat candle and a shiver ran through him, and then a dawning sense of absurdity, but he did not laugh. There is no way, he thought, they are only stories. Then abruptly, without any transition, Annapurna broke from somnolent alap into bright bandish. She did so with such violence that Zohoor was shocked.

A grinning flame lept upon the candle’s dull wick and both their faces were throbbing in the shadows of the firelight. Annapurna stopped singing, smiled, licked her fingertips and snubbed out the flame. Only then did Zohoor realize he had ceased breathing, and that the two of them were dripping in sweat.

“I discovered you must start the bandish suddenly,” she said, flicking her hand, “like you are striking a match. Otherwise there will be no flame.”

“What?” was all he could manage to say. A single startled word in a sea of incomprehension.

He kept her there until dawn. He had her sing Malhar. First he began to cry, then things began shimmering under a fine layer of dew, and finally an impossible rain lightly drummed the banyan leaves outside the window. She sang Hansadhwani and the walls swayed, the legs of furniture tapped and before he realized it he was dancing in circles, truly dancing, shouting Vah! Vah! She sang Zilla Kafi and a balmy breeze pushed through the curtains like a bubble, scattering prismatic petals across the floor, some of which turned out to be dazed butterflies that recovered and fluttered around the room.

Zohoor thought of his own music and felt humiliated; he thought of his pretensions in trying to teach and was ashamed. He felt like a child; like a boy who tries to play with his father’s heavy sword; like a fool who blusters through a beautiful world. And yet, with childlike wonder, he felt like a thousand doors had just been unlocked and were ready to be thrown wide. What would happen if she sang Medhavi or Jhinjhoti or Hameer? Would dark vines cover the walls? Would flocks of pigeons thunder their wings like in a procession? Would enemies pass whole days peacefully in the gold-red garden of a perpetual sunset? It was ecstasy just to think.

He looked closely at Annapurna. He studied her unrestrainedly. He watched her sing, how she was sunk deeply in an inviolable catatonia, how her gazelle eyes were closed, how her dark hair poured over her shoulders like the rivers of Himavant — and finally, finally, that drop of poison which had been growing in him since the first day he saw her began to burn in his underbelly and drip unquenchable fire into his abyss. There was only one thing he wanted to hear now. He put his hand on her knee. She parted her matted lashes. Almost yelling, so anxious was he to get the words out before the thousand reasons not to gathered strength and good sense held his tongue, he cried, “Sing Khammaj!”

The spring things she had conjured with Zilla Kafi dissolved and a lotus on the writing desk drooped in its vase. He held his breath in expectation as she prepared to begin Khammaj — but it was not himself he hoped the raga would enthrall, for he already loved her. But as she began singing he could not ignore the sonorous morning chatter of birds outside, and hateful light was streaming through the gaping window. Deep within the house somewhere he heard his father calling to his mother. It was irrevocably day. Any moment his father would come through the door with the useless cup of coffee. Horrified, he imagined his father’s reaction finding the two of them, in their night gowns, wrecked and sweaty upon his disheveled bed.

“Annapurna, stop,” he said. “Quickly, you have to leave.” He pushed her towards the window and helped her climb into the courtyard. With her feet in the wildflowers he grabbed her before she could run off. “Say nothing nothing nothing,” he pleaded. Then he pressed his hopeless mouth against her indifferent mouth and tasted jasmines and ash and he felt invisible architecture crumbling all around him.

Zohoor did not have time to feel crushed as she departed, for Azhar was opening the door. He entered stooping over the steaming cup and looked up.

“Why are you standing at the window?” he asked.

Mornings were a good time for Azhar. The freshness of things impressed him with a sense of timelessness and relief before everything hardened into the old habits and he was obliged to remember who he was. So despite the fierceness of his features, Zohoor saw a softness in his father’s eyes and felt a sudden affection for him.

“It is a good morning, that’s all,” Zohoor said tenderly.

“I was thinking,” Azhar said as he handed him the cup, “I have been happy with you music these past months and I would like to know if you have a talent for teaching as well. Bring Annapurna to me today so I can judge her progress.”

“Why today?” Zohoor said. “You have not been very interested in her for the past year.”

Azhar’s eyes darkened. “I don’t have to explain myself to you,” he said, and left the room.

There would be no way to forestall it, but an ominous, awful spine ache convinced Zohoor that the interview would be a disaster.

That afternoon he found Annapurna sitting in the corner of the courtyard near the ash pile, chewing on jasmines. She had ripped completely apart a strange emerald beetle and was reassembling the pieces in relative order upon a flat stone on her lap — the legs were star-like, the wings crossed, the head in reverse.

“Come on,” he said, taking her hand, “Babuji wants to hear you sing.”

For half an hour (dilated by apprehension into a dim eternity) Zohoor sat outside his father’s study. The walls were heavy and the door was a solid plank, so he heard nothing. He had never felt such an unexplainable agony before. He did not fear his father’s judgment, for the beauty of the music and the miracles wrought the night before remained with him, to the smallest detail, unthreatened by doubt, uninfected by dream. Perhaps he had heard things which went beyond his learning, but the bliss was genuine. He should have been preparing himself for his father’s joy and congratulations. Instead, he was wringing his hands in nameless fear. Then the door swung wide and his father appeared before him. He was glaring, an invincible fury in his eyes.

“You are a fool!” Azhar bellowed. “You have taught her all wrong. What have you done? She sings like a fakir, walking on her hands, eating with her feet. It is all wrong. It cannot be fixed. She is ruined!” he cried, hurrying down the hall. “I am ruined!”

“Where are you going, father?” Zohoor cried, rushing after him.

Azhar paused awkwardly in mid step. He looked around, a confused expression on his face.

“What was I just saying?” he asked, a strange nervousness replacing his rage. “What did I forget?”

Zohoor did not care to remind him, but before he could say a word his father hitched up the hem of his kutri and ran down the hall and out of the house. That was not what Zohoor had expected. Tentatively he went to find Annapurna.

She was still in the study, plucking the strings of various instruments and humming.

“What did you sing?” he asked her.

“Marwa,” she replied without turning to him.

There it was. He listened to her pronounce the name of that chimerical raga with crippling remorse. He knew instantly why he had been afraid. Of all the ragas, he thought, she had to sing Marwa. I would have never guessed.

“Did — did anything happen, like what happened last night?” he stammered.

“You mean, did he kiss me?” she said tonelessly, plucking a tuneful veena. She skip-stepped to Azhar’s divan and stretched herself out, then looked at him over her shoulder. “I don’t know what he saw,” she said, “but with my eyes closed I saw a thousand stone rooms without windows, and each door led into a new room, and each room was nowhere. I think it was a labyrinth.”

Zohoor groaned.

“Do you realize what you have done?” he shouted. “You have driven my father insane!”

She continued to look at him aslant, lying on her back, one foot swaying off the side of the divan, her loose frock above her knees, her incredible hair splashing everywhere. It was too much. He knelt next to her and buried his face into the cushions and her hair.

“Come to my room tonight,” he begged, “and sing me Khammaj.”

He made her agree, then he went to look for his father. Whatever route he took was nightmarishly similar to one he had taken before (horizontal narrative or vertical fate, it does not matter anymore — both at this point are rushing towards the end).

He finally found his father at the Luni. He was where the sand was blackened with ash, the water frothed with suds, faded blossoms were scattered about and where on pyres of unsplit wood they burned the peaceful dead. Everyone stood or sat serenly. But azhar was on his hands and knees digging in the sand.

“Father, what are you doing?” Zohoor called. Azhar turned to him. His face was streaked with mud and tears.

“I want my Babu!” he wept. His voice was suddenly frail. “I broke what he gave to me and I need to be forgiven.”

With sobs shuddering his body, he resumed clawing at the river bank. Zohoor was overcome with grief and affection and fell to his father’s side. Together they dug furiously, vainly in the damp sand. The Luni kept washing into the holes and collapsing them, and they continued digging them out. Until panting, they had to finally cease for exhaustion. Azhar looked at his son with almost lucid eyes.

“Take me home,” he said.

Zohoor explained to his mother that his father had been smoking opium. She was livid, but that was preferable to the alternative. She did not need to know yet that her husband had lost his mind. Together they helped him into his pajamas and tucked him in, pulling the covers up to his bearded chin. He muttered sedately through the whole process, resigned but uncooperative. Then he fell asleep the moment he was in bed. Zohoor kissed his brow and left. Whatever might be done about his father could be done tomorrow. He would think no more about it tonight. With a happy heart — but nevertheless a heart aggrieved at its own happiness — he went to his room to await Annapurna. My god what feelings he had in the few hours before she arrived — the whole of the rasa does not express even a fraction of them.

A little past midnight he heard her say “Zohoor, I am here,” and he helped her in through the window. She wore the same frail, sweat stained pajamas. When they sat down on the bed she smiled without looking at him, without looking at anything in particular, and laughed.

“Khammaj?” she said. Zohoor nodded and she began singing.

He almost bid her stop, for he wanted some sort of ceremony or prelude to lead into what he hoped would be a great moment of joy, or maybe to delay what he suspected might not happen. But it was too late. It was clear to him that the music was already taking an effect.

Nothing marvelous or hallucinatory happened, like the night before. Objects were not transfigured. No new things were manifest. Zohoor did not feel the sense of miraculousness and possibility as before. He was neither giddy nor peaceful. Instead — it was strange, he could not explain it — there began growing within him the sudden realization of how much was at stake. Despite the powerful music issuing from her, Annapurna seemed to him to be vulnerable and weak, and infinitely adorable. He felt he had a responsibility towards her. It was true that, if nothing else was being brightened by the music, Annapurna was at least growing more and more beautiful. But he preceived this change in an odd way. For however much his happiness grew, so grew his fear of losing it — and he could only understood her beauty in terms of loss. His heart was hurting.

However he felt not the slightest speck of ambiguity. He wanted her to keep singing, he wanted her. It was simply a matter of resolving not to lose her. He did not have to lose her. Not ever.

“I knew it!” cried Azhar from the doorway. “I knew she would come into this house and corrupt everything. Say goodbye you filthy beggar. You will not pollute what is mine for a moment longer.”

Azhar grabbed a handful of hair and pulled her off the bed. Screaming, she sprawled onto the floor taking all the bedsheets with her. As she struggled to free herself he beat her and kicked her frantically, yelling, “Get up, Kali! You won’t fool me!” She wrapped herself in the sheets to hide from the blows.

“Wait!” Zohoor cried, trying to block his father’s attack with his body. “Please just listen to her sing Deepak. You will see. She is great.”

But he threw Zohoor aside. Then he dragged the whole tumultuous mess (white sheets, dark girl) into the courtyard while Zohoor went after him trying to shout reason, trying to loosen his grip on Annapurna — but not daring to hit him.

“What is going on? Zohoor, what is your father doing?” said Khawlah appearing behind them in the hall. She had wrapped herself in a blanket and hurried out to see what was happening.

“Go get help!” Zohoor said, “father has lost his mind.”

“Do not speak disrespectfully of your father!” she snapped. “What have you done?”

But it took her only a moment longer to perceive the manic aspect of the scene in front of her. Azhars face was twisted in rage and exertion, Zohoor’s in terror and helplessness. Annapurna’s face was concealed by the many sheets wrapped all around her. Without another word Khawlah rushed out of the house to find help.

In the courtyard they moved in a clamorous, writhing mass towards the mango tree. Zohoor was hanging on his fathers arm, still trying to make him release Annapurna. “Let go!” Azhar cried and with a closed fist smashed his son in the jaw. Zohoor reeled and fell to the ground. Then Azhar seized Annapurna by the neck and slammed her against the trunk of the tree. He used his free hand to tie her to the tree with the bedsheets, hitting her periodically to keep her still. Once she was bound tight he rushed back into the house into his study and began digging through a trunk in the corner of the room.

The moment Zohoor could shake the fog from his head he began untying the whimpering Annapurna. “We will run away,” he whispered to her soothingly, “I will go with you.” But before he could untie the first knot Azhar returned. He stepped purposefully from the house into the patches of moonlight, no more frenzy in his movements. He held a small, double barreled British pistol in his hand. Both flintlocks were cocked. He carefully leveled it at Annapurna as he approached.

“I am sorry I hit you, Zohoor,” he said. “But you do not yet understand. I am trying to secure our family’s future, your future. There is no special talim or secret teaching like everyone thinks. There is nothing but deception and rumor. Who will want to hear our music anymore if they know that? Move away from her.”

Inescapably faced with the prosect of irreparable loss, of his beloved crumbling into dead matter and finally ash, Zohoor no longer cared about anything else. The whole of the world, everything in it he had ever seen, heard, smelled, his family, his music, Jodhpur, the Luni, the sky and trees, tradition and God, were mere trivialities. He would gladly torch the universe to save Annapurna. He did not even care to wonder if what he felt was love or hatred, or if they were somehow the same thing. But it was a passion nonetheless, and he liked it. He flew at his father, fists clenched, neither one less mad than the other.

“You don’t understand, father,” he shouted as they struggled. “She sings miracles and will save us all.”

“Rubbish!” Azhar said between grunts and blows. “I have heard her sing. Her music merely clarifies what is already there. That is not art.”

Then the pistol went off. It did not matter what improbable dance, what impractical contortions had to take place in order for it to occur, but Azhar was shot. He fell to the ground with a groan, lifted his bloody hand from his belly to inspect, then collapsed. There were no last words. He dissipated in a puddle of gore, half in shadows, half in light.

Zohoor finished untying Annapurna. He pressed his mouth to her’s with enough force to ignore her indifference, to ignore the fact that she was squirming to get away. Then he picked up the pistol.

“That was one barrel,” he sighed, looking at the pistol. “This is the second.”

Then he placed the barrel in his mouth and fired.

For a long while Annapurna observed the dismal scene. Azhar had fallen with one leg folded behind him. Zohoor fell straight on his back, staring at the sky, the hole in the back of his skull hidden. Their pools of blood spread. They would eventually meet. She did not know what to do, but did not trouble herself too much about it. It was clear, however, that she would no longer be living in that house.

She went inside and spread a blanket in the hallway. For many minutes she went through the house taking things and placing them on the blanket. There was some money, a silver statue of a god, a few saris, strings of beads, and so on. She wrapped the blanket up and made for the street.

Khawlah was rushing in with two men behind her. Hugging the blanket to her chest, Annapurna stepped out of their way.

“Where is Azharji?” Khawlah demanded.

“In the courtyard, with Zohoor,” Annapurna said.

They pushed past her into the house. Annapurna looked after them for a moment, then turned into the street and was gone.

~ by Peter on July 6, 2008.

8 Responses to “Metempsychosis: India”


    alap: the slow, rhythmless, opening section of a classical performance

    Babu: term of endearment/respect for father

    bandish: a type of musical composition

    bangle: loose bracelets

    Brahmin: the highest scholarly, priest class in Indian society

    Dalit: the lowest, untouchable class in Indian society

    : a type of musical composition

    fakir: a holy man, usually performs strange feats like the “rope trick” and walking on water.

    gamak: a type of quick ornamentation in musical performance

    : a type of musical composition

    gharana: a school or style of music, usually with a lineage

    Gorbandh: a Rajasthani folk song

    guru: teacher, or master

    Himavant: a mountain in the Himalayas

    Kali: goddess of death and destruction

    kutri: a garment for men, like a long flowing shirt

    Lawarji: a Rahasthani folk song

    Maharaja: a great or a high king

    meend: a musical ornamentation where one note slowly bends into another

    moksha: enlightenment, liberation, salvation

    raga: the system of melody in classical Indian music

    Saregam: the notes “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni Sa” corresponding exactly to the western “Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Di Do”.

    sari: a garment for women, wrapped intricately and always of bright colors

    singori: a type of coconut and milk candy wrapped in a leaf cone

    tala: the system of rhythm in classical Indian music

    talim: teaching, knowledge

    tanpura: an instrument that establishes the ground of sound over which the other instrument plays. It creates a drone by intoning continuously the tonic, perfect fourth and fifth.

    tarana: a heavily rhythmic musical composition with nonsense words

    thumri: a complex type of musical composition

    veena: a very old type of stringed musical instrument

    : “Notes”, but notes in classical Indian music are more complex, for they imply the use of micro-tones

  2. I have raced through it the reader, Peter and starred and bookmarked it. You already know what I think. But I am gonna read it carefully when I have the mindset before I tell you are a genius again. The first pieces in this series were mindblowingly good and I have no reason to doubt that this will be too.

  3. It is a long read, Paul, and I apologize for that. I got a bit carried away. If you do read the whole thing you have my appreciation. — I will say, however, that I think the story gets better as it goes along.

    But as always, any criticism is welcome welcome welcome.

    Happy reading. Thanks!

  4. I like it when I’m right, like most people and I was right this is fantastic but it I am reading it slowly. I have put it in my library widget in site and it’s gonna stay there til I’ve finished it. It blows my mind so frequently that I have to stop and go wow. “You owe me your life cos I didn’t kill you and I might not be there to save you next time.” You are amazing, because that is a beautiful thought that I have never experienced before and it is expressed so perfectly in your writing. I am not gonna comment again til I have finished it, but I wanted you to know that that is the effect the first bit had, hooked me.

  5. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I have finished reading this. It is infinite and you are a genius. I have no idea who Mr Lawrence is.

  6. How do you do it? This reminds me of Franz Kafka’a first book “America.” He wrote it all with his imagination as I assume you are doing. Splendid. I will have to return again and finish “the book”. My eyes start to ache if I read to long from a screen. But I agree with Paul- you are a genius in the lineage of Nabokov or W.G Sebald. When will this be published as a book?

  7. Hi Randall, it has been a while and I am glad to see you here. Thanks so much for reading! Someday I would like to finish this series of stories and get it in print. But will probably be a while. All the same, the will be posted here as I finish them.

  8. Hey Peter. I’m currently working on a showcase of modern sonnets, and I was wondering if you’d give me permission to include your sonnet “Hope Deferred Maketh Something Sick” (which you posted a few weeks ago) in the showcase. More details about the showcase and a form to submit other sonnets, if you wish, are at Thanks, and it would be great if you could reply by July 2. Regards šŸ™‚

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