A Song for I is about Ira, born to an ambitious and successful musician and a mother who would prefer for her to be dead rather than live under her father’s shadow. Ira grows up in an emotional hothouse, meant to make her feel loved and cherished in the absence of her parents - her mother dies, and she is abandoned by her father at birth. Driven by the desire to move towards the greatness she believes is her destiny, Ira invites herself into her father’s life and is sucked into his world of searing aspiration, as he makes a desperate attempt to preserve his musical legacy through his daughter.
But Ira has also met Vishnu, an aspiring rocker, and has spontaneously embraced his dark universe.
With a veritable duel between Indian classical and rock music as the background, A Song for I is about love lost and found, spiritual music and sensual experiences, of epiphanies in the Himalayas, and relationships.
This is Ira’s journey to find her song.
Here are two excerpts from the book:
Chapter - Jalsa
For hours at night Himadri Shekhar Samaddar kept to the roof of the one-and-a-half rooms rented by his six-member family in a sun-less alley, where both egg crates and shabby tenements were piled high with startling nonchalance.
During the day, you could smell shaved wood and varnish – when one-half of the alley people were busy carving, scraping and polishing cheap furniture. Early in the morning, when the other half woke up, you could smell the eggs, the runny yolks from the cracked shells, as the crates arrived by Tempo-loads to be distributed across the city.
Himadri never stopped to look at the crates, or smell the shaved wood and the polish. He was always in a hurry when he left home with his umbrella and stock of handkerchiefs and headed for the Sealdah station complex. There, between noon and seven in the evening, he would unfurl the rusty black umbrella, tie the handkerchiefs to the spokes and hawk them for rupees two a piece....
For two generations, the Samaddar family were much sought after by wandering keertania and jatra ensembles. They were known to make the finest harmoniums and khols.
But that was in East Bengal. Well before the country was split and blood was spilt on the once-lush paddy fields.
The Samaddars could not live in denial any longer; it was dawning on them that the air they were breathing, the land they had built their home on, the rivers that were teeming with their favourite hilsa-pabda-chitol fish, none of it was theirs any more.
To add to their misery, the troupes of tonsured keertanias, who played the Samaddar khols as they sang themselves to a trance, had disappeared. Even the jatra artistes had stopped performing. There were whispers that they had all fled to the other side.
And though ten years had passed since the Samaddars had arrived at the edge of the capital of West Bengal, they could never get in.
They were refugees after all.
And the genteel Calcutta babu found the refugees to be a strange lot.
The Bangla they spoke was different. It was not the language of writers and poets, romancing the moon or embracing a revolution. But of a never-ending battle with rising tides in mangrove swamps, a hunger in their bellies, and an aspiration to rise above their petty lives, aided by the hot fish curries.
The cantankerous refugee woman used expletives freely when the community tap ran dry and was always raring to pick a fight with the neighbours. The refugee father or mother was the one with the whooping cough. Large refugee families lived in shanties with tiled or asbestos roofs. Unwed refugee daughters worked long hours to support their families. And the refugee man was desperate enough to do anything for that extra five paisa – including squatting along the pavements, hawking dubious quality wares at throwaway prices.
In the once-grand city crumbling under the burden of its battered ego, a refugee always stood out. Like the fungus that grew on old walls, like the purple blooms of Terror of Bengal which choked community lakes and killed all fish.
And at night, when the Samaddar family squeezed into the one-and-a-half rooms to catch some sleep, they longed to go back to their yellow and red house on one of the busiest streets of Dhaka. The faces of the conch carvers, gold and silver smiths and the cloth sellers, who were their neighbours, flashed before their eyes. On some nights, a passing breeze would bring with it the aroma of fried hilsa and sun-dried shrimp from their bustling kitchen, now hundreds of miles and many rivers away. They pined for the dignity they had left behind along with their pet mongrel Kalu, who had followed them till the end of their lane, wondering what it had done to be abandoned this way.
Even as his family took succour in their memories, Himadri climbed up the ladder to the terrace, tied a handkerchief around the strings of his sitar to muffle the sound, and began his riyaaz.
The sleepless neighbours, the alcoholics, the petty crooks, the alley cats, the half-awake milkman out to relieve himself, and the other creatures of the night were familiar with his silhouette. Himadri chipped away at his craft silently, shaping it, perfecting it under the blue tarpaulin sheet his father had so thoughtfully put up to keep away a sudden downpour.
It was only at dawn, when his father stepped out for his morning ablutions, that Himadri came in quietly and lay down next to his mother. Her fingers, by habit, rose to his head, running through his thick, curly hair, lulling him to sleep at last.
Chapter: Rithabhara Singh Rajpur
Nobody knew much about her until she landed up in the city with an ailing husband and a fortune that could outlast generations.
Rithambhara Singh Rajpur’s past was as much a mystery as the source of her seemingly endless collection of the finest sarees. As Ranvir Singh, the royal Rajpur family’s estranged and disgraced scion lay dying, Rithambhara quickly set about familiarising herself with the ways of the city, the sprawling villa and the fortune the couple had been left with, after the family disowned them completely.
Rithambhara put on a brave and pretty face for the world. She knew she had no friends, and wished to have none. The city was alien to her, and she missed the warmth and chaos of her hometown by the Ganga up north, the morning ragas and the afternoon thumris, the hot puris and spicy bhajis after the long taalim sessions with her guruji. She missed Ranvir Singh’s flamboyance, their early days of orchestrated but passionate courtship, the flying sessions in his private two-seater. She missed their quiet evenings, as Rithambhara sat practising long, unhurried alaaps and lively thumris, with Ranvir Singh sitting next to her, nodding appreciatively. Rithambhara was happy, as happy as a woman married to a crown prince twice her age, and who was fond of young boys, could be.
Bombay was hostile to Rithambhara at first. Twisted versions of the circumstances that led to their fleeing from the estate had reached the city’s elite even before they landed. All thanks to the half-page official statement issued by the grand lady of Rajpur, the Queen Mother. The city’s most notorious gossip columnist Devika wrote about the episode in the Shine magazine:
‘On their wedding night it is said, the princess Rithambhara Singh walked into the million-rupee nuptial suite to find her husband in a completely inebriated state. And not alone. It is said, the royal bedchamber is always teeming with men, young, strapping lads, for reasons best known to the Rajpurs. Meanwhile, SoBo women are still gawking green-eyed at Rithambhara’s stunning collection of sarees and that perfect nose. Too bad, all the elegance and beauty is wasted.’
Rithambhara never shed a tear. Ranvir Singh never got to know about any of this. The Rajpur house continued to receive guests and ‘well-wishers’, some of whom went back to their friends and gossip writers with juicy tidbits about the house and its inmates. Rithambhara smiled and greeted them, hosted charming tea parties with Darjeeling first blush and cupcakes. Sometimes, for dinner parties, there would be single malt and fine wines with kebabs and saffron-spiced curries. Ranvir Singh joined in his special wheel chair or reclined in his Turkish Chaise Lounge.
Eventually, he could not even do that. And Rithambhara stopped entertaining people altogether.
A year after the Rajpurs had moved to Bombay, at their Breach Candy villa, Ranvir Singh died. Strangely, with his death, the hostility ended. Doors opened as did hearts. The malicious columns stopped appearing though men at the Gymkhana club still longed to grab her bottom every time she passed by.
At 29, widowed, disowned by her in laws and far away from her family, Rithambhara Singh Rajpur started her life afresh in the city that had stopped short of calling her husband a paedophile.
The first thing Rithambhara did was bring out her old tanpura, the tabla set and the sur mandal. Thanks to long periods of quiet demanded by Ranvir Singh’s illness, the house had been stripped of music. A state-of-the-art music system was installed, all the old LPs of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Aamir Khan and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi were given a befitting display. Tabaliyas in the city were invited to riyaaz sessions that would commence at the Rajpur house. Rithambhara found her voice again.
She was a reasonably good singer, thumris were her speciality. And neighbours and morning walkers soon discovered that the house that stank of death and dark conspiracies, was now resonating with music and life.
And as the monsoons approached, and clouds in a dozen shades of grey sailed in from the farthest reaches of the Arabian Sea, Rajpur House hosted its first-ever musical evening, dedicated to the rain gods.
In attendance, were the city’s finest musicians, hard-nosed critics, a handful of gatecrashers, a few film stars, music directors, diamond traders and a man who had just arrived in the city.
Rithambhara, dressed in a grasshopper-green, sheer, organza saree with silver jewellery and white tuberoses in her sumptuous hairdo, was introduced to the guest by a friend.
He was classically good looking, dressed in a starched white kurta and a stylishly creased dhoti. A long gold chain with polished kurta buttons added to his charm, Rithambhara noted appreciatively.
‘This is Himadri Shekhar,’ said the friend. Himadri folded his hands humbly in greeting. ‘Rithambhara, you must have heard about him. His sitar can bring tears to your eyes!’
Book: A Song for I; Author: Chandrima Pal; Published by Amaryllis; Pages: 282; Price: Rs 495