Saturday, 15 August 2020

Anila Mathew, ShortStory 2020 Longlist

 Music


Amita trudged home frustrated. She was preparing herself for inevitable disappointment. Her voice had been appreciated yet again. Her melodious voice surely deserved that. But her grandmother…

‘Oh great! Here is the virago…’ she thought uncharitably, as she pushed open the gate. Deep black eyes peered at her from behind imperious gold rimmed glasses. Unmistakable authority silently gave her permission to enter before returning to scanning the newspaper. “Your mother has not returned yet. God alone knows who she is gallivanting with! My son anyway will never be a burden - Hmph!”

Amita was furious yet unable to speak a word. She threw her bag and sobbed into her pillow as she tried to cool her rage over her grandmother’s uncharitable remarks about her mother. Her dearest mother – the sweetest and most patient human being she had ever seen. Her mother was her anchor. Her father had died when she was a baby. Soon her tears dried and she got down to her chores before her grandmother could find fault with her mother’s upbringing and parenting skills.

Her mother was a teacher who also took tuitions after school. All her life, Amita had seen her mother behave like a personal slave to her exacting mother-in-law who spared no effort in insulting and putting down her daughter-in-law. Her grandmother took great pleasure in cutting people to size. She was infamous for her sharp tongue that mostly hurt her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter. The matriarch managed to induce shame and embarrassment in almost anyone and everyone with just a gaze. Her sarcasm and anger was reserved for her daughter-in-law, Amita’s mother.

As soon as her mother returned, Amita told her about the wonderful chance she had got to sing. Her mother merely shook her head. “Amu, you know your why you can’t sing… There can never be music in this house. Why do you bother me with the same question again?”



“But why Ma…? Everyone says I sing so well…And I love music…” Amita’s eyes filled up as she saw the firm ‘no’ in her mother’s eyes…



“I hate her…the bitch….She has ruined my life…And yours!” spat the teenager. “Amu…no…you must never say that…”



But Amita had reached the end of her tether. She screamed “I hate that woman…” Before she could complete, Amita felt her mother’s hand across her lips. “No Amu…no…never say that…” her mother whispered.



“You have no idea my dear little one…” she continued. Amita defiantly pushed her mother’s hands and marched back to her room without a word. Amita could never understand why her mother could never stand up to her mother-in-law. Music was such a divine gift. How could anyone ever hate music? All her life, Amita and her mother had lived by conditions set by her grandmother. The only one rule Amita could never obey was to shun music. Amita had always been enamoured by ragas. Even without studying music, she could identify them and sing too.



The first time Amita sang, she was suddenly shocked into silence with a slap across her face. “No music or singing in this house…Do you hear me? “, her grandmother’s angry face loomed before her eyes even after so many years.



Her mother didn’t say a word in protest and instead repeated the same thing to her, albeit lovingly. Amita was forbidden to sing in school or at home. However, as she grew older, Amita heard more music and fell in love with the rhythms and melody. Her natural talent did not go unnoticed and she was selected to sing in school. Despite her pleas and entreaties from her teachers, Amita was not allowed to sing. The first time a teacher came home to request on Amita’s behalf, her grandmother silenced the lady with an ice-cold glare.



Once again, Amita had been selected for the school choir and she desperately wanted to sing. She had even begun writing songs, channeling all her loneliness and sadness into music. But even her mother who adored her unconditionally refused permission.



Amita sobbed uncontrollably and refused food. Amita’s mother walked in with a tray of dinner. “Amu…I know you are furious…maybe it is time I told you the reason behind your grandmother’s life and mine too…”



Amita was surprised. She had never expected to hear that. Amita watched her mother wide-eyed as her mother toyed with a sapphire ring that was always on her left hand. Whenever her mother touched the ring, Amita knew that her mother was extremely tense and upset.



“Amu…do you know why you sing so well? It is in your genes my dear daughter…You have inherited it…from your grandmother…”



Amita gasped in shock. She shook her head in disbelief.



Amita’s mother continued:



“Your grandmother was an exceptional singer. Seeing her talent, a music teacher was hired to teach her music. Your grandmother was not only an accomplished singer, but a very attractive girl. Unfortunately for her, she fell headlong in love with her music teacher. Being an impressionable young girl, she gave in to his advances too. It was only later that his true colours were revealed. The man had been married already. He ditched her and made a clean escape.



Your grandmother was hastily married off to a rich landlord’s only son. Within hours of her wedding, she realized that she had been married to a mentally deranged sadist. Till the day he was shot dead by his enemies, your grandmother was tortured emotionally and sometimes physically too. After his gruesome end, your grandmother discovered that she was pregnant with the son of a man she hated. Though she tried to love her only child, your father had inherited most of your grandfather’s cruel traits.



Music brought back painful memories of her infatuation that had landed her in a terrible marriage. Your grandmother became a bitter woman who shunned music and almost any expression of happiness.”



Amita’s mother shut her eyes and clenched her fists. “I was eighteen years when I got married to your father. Being an unwanted orphan, my aunt was glad to be rid of me….that too without spending money on dowry. Soon after I discovered that my spoilt husband was not only selfish but also enjoyed seeing the misery of his wife. One day, after one scream too many, your grandmother rushed into our room…”



Her mother’s eyes glazed over as she recollected. “There was a gramophone playing a song…Your grandmother rushed in and hit her son with her stick. Somehow, the blow was ill-timed. It proved to be fatal. Though the death was hushed up as an accidental fall, your grandmother lives each day knowing she murdered her own son.



All of us have to live with our past. But some of us refuse it to shape our future. That is the difference between your grandmom and me Amu… I was also pregnant when my husband died. But I refused to hold that bad relationship against you. Your grandmother faced misery at a tender age and grew angrier with her fate and the world. But I had you my child – my anchor. Your birth somehow liberated me from this society in a strange way. A young, wealthy widow with a daughter is easy prey. Your grandmother, who seems cruel, is in fact the person who sent me to college to earn a degree and enabled me to stand on my own feet. She hates me for being able to love you but she also feels guilty for having gotten her son married to me.”



Amita sat stunned in silence. The reasons for not talking about her dead father now became clearer. She saw her grandmother in new light.



“This ring was given to me when I was first brought here as a bride. It belongs to your grandmother’s family. When it was first slid onto my finger, I was an innocent bride in awe of her sudden fortune and rich husband. Within a few weeks of my marriage, I realized what I had gotten into. You father would alternate between an ardent lover and a ruthless villain. Your grandmother hated me for not standing up to him or recognizing what he was doing to me.



When you were born, your grandmother was not upset because you were a girl, like the rest of the world believes. All the men she ever knew had broken her trust and faith. I remember her words Amu, ‘Do not show weakness or you will be prey to all the predators. Be strong and make sure your girl is strong. Don’t teach her music and art. Teach her resilience, strength and pain…so that no one can break her ever…’



But Amu, I wanted you to grow knowing love. Your grandmother is so tough on both of us because she feels I am too soft and weak. But my child, strength does not come from being stubborn or hating the world. It is about understanding yourself. I know you want to sing for the world. Some day you can and you will, no matter who stops you. But now, sing for your own self. Don’t carry hate for your grandmother or your own past. Soothe yourself with music first. When it is time, you will be ready for the world armed with music and serenity in your soul…”



Amita was sitting still, quite in shock. It took her days to process the information.


A year passed without the mention of music. One day, Amita’s grandmother had a stroke. The ruthless lady who had reigned over her family and servants was left paralysed and bed-ridden. It only made her more bitter and unbearable.

After a month of emotional torture, Amita decided to take matter into her hands. She bravely walked into the majestic room, where her grandmother lay imperiously.

“Ajji…”she began tremulously. Though she got a cold glare in return, she persisted. She revealed a violin in her hands even as her grandmother’s glare turned murderous.

“Ajji, I wrote and composed this song for you… for your heart that once loved and was broken… for your mind that was torn apart… and for your body that was abused…”Amita said softly.

She slowly began singing in a soothing voice...a song so innocent set to the haunting Hindolam raga. Her grandmother who had despised music for years, was unable to protest. Hindolam had once been her favourite too.

Despite anger rising within her, Amita’s voice and words broke through layers of barriers. Amita’s mother came running to the room, shocked by the audacity of her daughter. But seeing a strange look on her mother-in-law’s face, she stood silently, listening to the melody flowing from her child.

After the song, Amita left the room immediately. Her grandmother did not say a word. It became a daily routine as Amita would play the violin to new ragas each day. A month passed in this strange way without anyone acknowledging the presence of music in their lives.

One day, Amita’s grandmother beckoned to her and bade her to sit beside her. She said; “Your voice is bearable. But ragas are not perfectly rounded.” Amita froze as her grandmother sang a line from her song. She had never heard her grandmother sing and the deft way she handled the raga amazed her.

Her grandmother placed a hand on Amita’s head. It was the first sign of affection Amita had received from the old woman. She was moved but still hesitant to reciprocate.

The next morning Amita woke up to the news that her grandmother had passed away during the night.

Few years later

“Ms. Amita, this is the third counselling centre you have set up in the state. Why do you dedicate your time and money to domestic abuse victims?”, asked a reporter.

The award-winning singer and composer smiled as she replied; “Victims of abuse just need a chance to return to life. I know I can help women come out of trauma through music and therapy. I want them to discover the power of music and heal themselves. I want them to become whole again. As usual, this centre is named after my grandmother – a strong woman who bore a lot of pain with fortitude.”


Amita smiled at her mother as she walked down from the dais and guided her down the aisle.


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