How did the singer meet the prince? In all stories of love, we must know how the lovers met, how they met again, how they almost missed each other and, sometimes, how they never met.
The singer and the prince should have had a chorus in the background when they first met. At the very least, they should have had a fight. Her scooter hits his cycle. His cycle hits her horse cart. They don’t have misomeru (the feeling on first meeting that this is just the person you’ve been looking for), but eventually, in hindsight, they have koi no yokan (the feeling on first meeting that this is going to tumble into love). But how does one manage vehicular collision on the internet, and why would the prince and the singer have Japanese feelings? Since this is not my story, you don’t have to listen to me rambling on about what I want.
About the Singer
Small-town women who run away to the city are like the Powerpuff Girls with cute, overly feminine clothes and superpowers. The singer was a small-town girl who ambled cityward and stayed in Bangalore till no one knew that her past contained ten-kilometre walks to school.
The singer was a big woman with big eyes, wild hair and great mounds of soft flesh. She did not think of herself as fat, and hence funny. She rarely poked jokes at her own abundance and was startled when others, expecting her to be cool, did. When they saw her astonished expression they cringed and rarely ribbed her again. Men were ashamed of how badly they wanted to nuzzle her and how much they wanted to fuck her some afternoons. They plotted ways of enjoying her in secret, like a box of unfashionable sweets. Women who were not very perceptive said in admiring tones that the singer was very comfortable with her body.
The truth was that for many years, the singer had never thought of her body at all. Then one day, oh cursed day, rushing past a shiny surface she caught sight of her reflection and was frozen by the thought that this was what other people saw.
On her scooter she didn’t sing much that day. What if she’d been small and thin like other Kannadiga girls, with soft brown eyes and fragile shoulders? Or tall and thin? Or a man? Or had no body at all? Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if people were just minds? And voices, of course, voices. The singer’s own voice shook badly-built houses and well-protected hearts, but when small men saw where the voice came from, they quailed, shivered, smiled lopsided smiles and talked loudly. Small town girls have x-ray vision that makes the scaffolding of pretence visible. She did not sigh, but she did despair at ever falling in love.
How They Met
She took on very few students and found most of them tiresome. One of them, a girl who could sense light from dark but could see no more than that, also had the tendency to fall in love with someone new every few months. The blind girl met her lovers at her numerous musical lessons scattered across the city. A madrigal singer here, a cellist there, and a mridangam artiste in Malleswaram. One weekend she dragged the singer to show her the newest object of her affections, the lead singer of a rock band. After the gig at a small, noisy Brigade Road pub, he came by and said hello to the student. The singer watched with interest as her student arched towards his smoky Austin Town Tamil-accented voice. Unlike the teacher, the student could not see the kindly but slightly puzzled expression on the man’s face. The student was in love with him for some months before she moved to the scratchy timbre of a jazz pianist who had just moved to Cox Town.
One day the student announced that she was in love with a lovely man, a music engineer from the US, and that she was meeting-him-for-the-first-time this weekend. First-time? The singer was told that the student’s newest pool of kindly musical men had been found on the internet. The music engineer and she had met online and been chatting for weeks. He was coming home on holiday and was dying to meet her.
When was the last time the singer had had sex? She couldn’t remember. Meanwhile, little chits like her student who had strong feelings about guarding their virginity were meeting men all the time. The net, was it? The singer had left her small town and come to Bangalore with no worries about fitting in. She took to the internet without fear and without expectations.
The singer found lots of music chat rooms and was at first desperately bored. Offline, she had always behaved as if her classical training was only good for stories of folly and pretension. She had eschewed performing in the katcheri circuit altogether a long time ago, unwilling to genuflect that much every day. She went occasionally to a concert when she suspected the performer may not live to do another show. She professed a great love for old Bollywood instead. But the heart is not egalitarian. This was 2003 and most of the chatrooms had men whose “favorite singer” was AR Rahman. Rather swiftly, she fled looking for the classical music chatrooms, where she was puzzled to discover that everyone there was worried about Indian culture; and the men specifically wanted her photo with Indian culture or wanted her photo without Indian culture.
The singer told none of her friends about how she walked fast and guiltily through these rooms hoping for a kindred soul. Someone for whom the music in his head made the world less banal, as it did for her. Someone who had a body but would not see hers. After a while, she began picking fights with the men she met in these chatrooms and they either skittered away or stayed on to fight peevishly.
To all women in search of a story there eventually must come a prince. Across a crowded chatroom their eyes met.
prince_nakshatram: How can you say that my guru is terrible? He is wonderful.
thumri_girl: Pyare rasiya bihari, suniyo arz hamari.
prince_nakshatram: Lol. I’ve not heard that one for a long long time. Bade Ghulam Ali?
thumri_girl: Full marks but I insist that your guru’s voice is too nasal.
prince_nakshatram: Fellow!!! He is a gem of a person and a great musician.
thumri_girl: Gem-kyem, I don’t know. That nasal voice!
prince_nakshatram: In classical music, what is important, not how.
thumri_girl: Please saaar! I’ve heard those stories before. Don’t give me lecture and think that I won’t notice terrible voices.
For a few days they typed violently and musically at each other, paused and sat back, only to type some more. Then her mobile phone rang and the prince had a voice.
Voice to Voice, Lip to Lip
thumri_girl: God bless Skype.
prince_nakshatram: God bless Skype.
The prince and the singer blessed Skype many times over the next few months. The singer was newly capable of flirtation. She was Gargi, she was Maitreyi, but she had oomph. She continued to criticize his favorite musicians. He only laughed and stayed to argue and sing at her, addressing her as if she was a drawing room audience in Dharwad.
Eventually, she could not resist telling her friends about her nocturnal adventures between the Indian and Austrian time zones. Friends of lovers usually introduce unwelcome prosaic notes, but in this case the element I introduced was one that heightened the drama. I told the singer kindly that from the clues he’d been dropping in their chats and conversations, he most probably was a real prince, a crown prince from violently democratic south India.
Me: Have you Googled him?
thumri_girl: Shut up!
Me: Then I’ll do it for you.
Despite her protestations, the prince was Googled and unmasked. It hadn’t been much of a mask, anyway, just one of those that elegantly reveal the nose and manly jawline, leaving only silly girls in doubt of his identity.
thumri_girl: You didn’t tell me, da.
prince_nakshatram: I’m sorry. It’s nice to be here and talk music with someone not from the concert circuit, someone who doesn’t know me, my gurus, my uncles and my mother.
I reminded the singer that royalty had a reputation for wandering incognito, usually on quests to win a prize or gain wisdom from new experiences, but she didn’t really need such an explanation. The singer was kind and railed against neither fat nor fact.
How They Met Again
The singer cannot be imagined without her blue Kinetic Honda. On this scooter she ran errands for her mother, who sculpted gods out of granite. Her mother was just as likely to send her to argue with a pious client about the size of a statue as she was to send her to fetch vegetables.
On this scooter she rode to a katcheri organized by Hindu fundoos and sang thumris composed by her Muslim guru, her first guru, the one who she’d left as a teenager and whose own guru’s tomb in Gujarat was festooned with burning tires a few years ago. On this scooter she rode to the hospital early one morning to look at the corpse of a friend who’d hung herself while her two lovers quarrelled outside. On this scooter she rode to rescues and consolations, to cigarettes and coffee and upma.
Her scooter is what she missed the most when she went to the prince’s Kerala palace to study his music. Every time she wanted to pee he drove her to the nearest Taj hotel. It does not matter that you are Brahmin, he told her. To my family you are an outsider who should only use the servants’ bathrooms. She sat impassive and grand in the passenger seat of the old Mercedes and fantasised about riding up to the palace in her blue scooter, parking it in the driveway and walking in with her helmet in her left hand.
She had imagined that the palace would be on higher ground, with a driveway that began with lions on top of pillars. She had imagined there would be sentries in livery. Instead there had been three tall men in safari suits and quiet moustaches.
The prince had taught her three words to say to these men who guarded the palace from commoners and garlic. She should say, “Thampuran. Pattu. Padikyan.” “His Highness. Song. Study.” The guards had fallen about laughing and sent for someone to take her inside. The singer thought of the television show about Mrignayani, the Gujjar girl Maharaja Man Singh Tomar had met while out hunting. He’d fallen in love with her when he saw her separate two buffalo, horns locked in combat, with her bare hands. Walking through the palace the singer felt like Mrignayani must have felt when she thought it would be okay to appear in her traditional clothes in the royal court.
Did Man Singh and Mrignayani have a threesome with their guru Baiju Bawra, the singer thought distractedly as she was escorted into the presence of the prince. He was drinking tea.
Fleshmeet is the technical term, she thought as he stood up to greet her. Meat. There was no doubt that the prince was a substantial man, much bigger than his font size. A man who matched his voice, had no nervous tics or fluttering fingers. Her mind flew to her first guru, a tiny, skinny, grinning man from Dharwad who smoked cigarette after cigarette sitting cross-legged on any available flat surface. He had always looked less like a legendary ustad with diamond-hard standards than like the man who hands you bananas and milk at the corner shop.
The prince and the singer had a five-day musical interlude before she went back to Bangalore and he flew to Salzburg.
A month later, he sent her a tiny white gift.
Ride a cockhorse to this i-Pod cross
And see my fine lady ride on a white horse.
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes.
The singer was ecstatic. She couldn’t understand when she had stopped listening to music. She couldn’t understand how she had not had this before. She couldn’t understand how the universe had made it possible for all its musicians to sit lightly on her shoulder, hang nimbly from her earlobes and sing. She was sitting in Cubbon Park. One of the passing women begging for their vacant-eyed infants spat at her feet. Two men masturbated sporadically in front of her for two hours. The sun crossed the sky and policemen came to frighten decent women home. She didn’t move, didn’t shift, didn’t squirm on the concrete bench.
She rode home that night without the music playing in her ears. She smiled when bus horns shrieked and trumpeted. That night in her dreams the prince was a giant straddling continents. A week later, her friends were startled to hear that the singer had consented to sing, had herself organised a small concert in someone’s living room.
“Really? Really?” they asked each other and, more carefully, her. Perhaps she would finally give up the job where she told people from Millersville and Beavers Fall and Middlebury what their credit limits were. She didn’t, but several small living room congregations over the next year clutched their hearts when she sang.
Why she had left
A year passed. The prince returned and they met at the palace again to sing to each other. One evening at the Taj, post outcaste-tinkle, they drank bad coffee. Mid-conversation, he clapped her on the shoulder. The singer sighed. It was the death-knell of romance, she knew. So the conversation that followed didn’t surprise her as much as it should have.
“Why are you so crass, man?” the prince asked.
‘Crass? What is crass?’ Like many other people, the singer only knew as many words in English as she needed to know.
The prince waved his soft hands. “Crass means rude. Low-class.” Now the prince cringed as he heard the words coming out of his mouth. “You smoke all the time. You hardly sleep. You do these random performances for people who don’t know anything about Hindustani music. You don’t believe in morning riyaaz. It’s because you’ve left serious music behind and begun working among these uncultured BPO types.”
The singer laughed. “Even Gangubai needed to pay the bills and feed her children.”
“But Gangubai did it through music!” he protested.
Let me tell you a story, she said.
The singer told the prince many stories that day. But the first one was enough. When she was 22 and keenly studying music with her second guru, she attended concerts feverishly. Not a syllable was sung in Bangalore without her hearing it. For the bigger concerts she would beg ticket favors, sneak in, stand in the aisles, try to plaster herself to the walls. And as her face became better known, smaller organizers who needed bums on seats would call her and her best friend. Those days the singer liked being liked and broke no rules. She touched the feet of elders, washed her guru’s clothes, ran his errands and kept her mouth shut and smiling.
The story begins on an evening when the marquee event was a husband and wife duo— brilliant vocalists legendary for their joint performances. Marquee being a loose description when the event was unadvertised, organized at a time of day when only the truly unemployed could attend and held in a Malleswaram high school.
Ten minutes before the event came the news that the accompanist was stuck in a traffic jam. The singer was asked if she would accompany the couple on the tanpura. This turned out to be an unfortunate vantage position. The couple, seated close to each other and smiling at the genteel audience, was surreptitiously and violently pinching and clawing each other even as they sang the ragas newspapers always described as “mellifluous.” Each wanted the other one’s voice to halt so their own could fly out and wrap itself around the solid mass of attending Kanjeevaram sarees. Afterwards, watching the pair put on ethereal airs, she knew she could never listen to them again. It was the first of many incidents that led her to the safe, anaemic BPO where she worked.
Having told her stories and made the prince laugh, she also saw for the first time how embarrassed the prince was by any unpleasantness, by crassness. She was convinced she’d always be his “bold” and “unusual” friend, not an object of romance. Her terracotta heart now had a hairline crack. He didn’t love her. He didn’t want her. This was as clear to her as if he had typed it out for her.
Another year passed. The prince visited her many times in Bangalore coffee shops. She visited the palace again. On one visit she casually greeted a wraith in the corridor, but it glared at her and glided away. “That was my mother, the Maharani!” the shocked prince told her. “No one just says hello to her.” The singer was unimpressed. The previous weekend at home, she had heard loud laughter and gone out into the courtyard. Her old mother was sitting astride the granite shoulder of her new Vishwamitra and waving her chisel in the air. “Look kanna, I’ve done such a bad job. He looks like that chief minister after he had the stroke. The Saptarishi Ashram will never hire me again!” What is a mere queen after that?
The prince was as admiring of the singer as if she had separated fighting buffaloes. He told her of his fear and hate of the hard women of his household, who bullied him and decided what he should eat and how he should eat it. Only his music was left alone, entrusted in the hands of his soft-bellied gurus. He likes me because I’m too big to be a woman, she thought.
I dismissed this line of thought: King Cophetua was never interested in females, he was only interested in feeling good about himself. I said it to console her. King who? she asked. Famous fairy tale. There was a king. One day he saw a beggar-girl, fell in love with her, and raised her to be his queen. Cophetua: the singer rolled the name around in her mouth.
The drawing room concerts continued—sometimes shattering furniture to kindling and sometimes not. Sometime that year, on an off-day she looked about on Orkut for music lovers and found them still fixated on AR Rahman and Jagjit Singh. She was thinking of deleting her account when she discovered a fake Jagjit Singh having an uproarious fight with a fake Lata Mangeshkar. She stayed in the peanut gallery and enjoyed herself.
The singer smoked much more now, something she learnt to do stylishly among the hijras whose company she’d wandered into. She had met Soundarya at a dark bus stop where she was hustling languidly. The singer found her funny and sweet and took to hanging out with her friends, and on rare occasions, at the Ulsoor hamam where Soundarya and her guru lived in a constant state of negotiation. Could Soundarya wear pants? Occasionally, and far from the hamam, her guru relented after weeks of Soundarya’s teasing and arguing. “I think I’ll buy myself a denim mini-skirt,” Soundarya responded. The guru roared, “You’re so lucky I’m not chucking you out, as my guru would have!” Soundarya said the equivalent of whatev’s and merrily continued to scandalize her sari-wearing, flower-festooned sisters. Generation gap, the older hijra complained to the singer.
With Soundarya and in the hamaam the singer felt at home, both warmly accepted and a sexual object, as if this wasn’t like trying to pat your stomach and rub your head at the same time. When she took Soundarya to meet the prince it was a slightly malicious gesture. The prince had come to Bangalore to see her and, as usual, to persuade her that she must return to serious music before it was too late. And certainly she shouldn’t ride about in the night on her scooter, smoking cigarettes and killing her voice.
She secretly hoped that the prince would smell the street and dark corners and unpleasant evenings on Soundarya and be frightened by how much his friend had moved away from respectability and the starched katcheri circuit. Even her unflappable mother had been startled at the news of these recent friendships. But with the first few syllables of introduction, she knew she had cut off her nose to spite her face. She didn’t delude herself by thinking that he would run when he discovered that Soundarya was not a woman. The prince had fallen in love.
Over the next week the singer barely saw him, and always, with Soundarya. Room service, running water and thick towels gave Soundarya serenity last bestowed on Julia Roberts. Soundarya’s hoarse, gentle voice was barely audible as it whispered and rasped near the prince’s ears.
Both Soundarya and the prince had moved beyond her, leaving her in the land of the crass and unlovable.
Soon the prince made arrangements for Soundarya to go to Salzburg with him. With extreme reluctance she wore shirt-pants and cut her hair and was passport-photo’ed into sullen Santosh Siddalingiah.
The singer’s friends watched to see if she would fade away in heartbreak, but she stayed whole as the marble, founded as the rock. With the appalling insensitivity of new jubilant lovers, the prince had told her before he left, “If you don’t start practicing seriously, you’ll lose your voice. I’m not sure whether it hasn’t been damaged already from neglect.” The singer bit back her desire to hit him and to tell him that his mother would stew him in garlic when she found out about Soundarya.
Now the emails from Austria came with photos. They talked a lot on Skype since the couple wanted her to hear their happiness, not just see them in winterwear. Besides, Soundarya, her lovely, warm friend who would have been a more entertaining correspondent could barely write in English. The singer grimly replied to these emails with many smileys (as she did to the ones from her former student who had flown to the US with her music-engineer boyfriend. The girl had said that it was better to be blind in America than sighted in India).
In every email the prince urged the singer to perform more and to bigger audiences. Take on more students. They’ll pay your bills. Give up the bloody call centre. It’s ruining your voice.
The singer was on the verge of ending the annoying correspondence for good when the “Mother serious” mail arrived. This subject line was obviously Soundarya’s idea of humor, because the prince himself was devastated. The family had found out, arrived in Salzburg and ordered that he break all ties with this “freak.” They’d threatened her, bribed her, been cold to her, attempted to disrobe her, and tried all the other tactics known to angry royalty down the ages. Soundarya walked away, naked and amused, to sun herself on the small Viennese balcony. The family returned home and organized a ritual to declare the prince dead.
Later, on her webcam, the singer saw the prince clutch his soft, straight hair and say, “Padi adachu, pindam vacchu. They shut their doors and conducted my funeral. I’m not sure if even my gurus will talk to me.”
The singer gave up her initial schadenfreude and set about applying her fine common sense to the situation.
Small-town girls have superpowers. She convinced the prince that the family would die before telling anyone he was in love with a hijra. The funeral was to frighten him into returning home, and then they’d declare him undead. If he felt like going home he could go without taking Soundarya. It was not the end of the world. Or he could take her home with him and find out if it really was.
How would his half-blind 90-year-old guru in Chennai guess Soundarya was a hijra? And what about Bal Gandharva? What about him, the prince wanted to know. The singer had to admit here that she’d just thrown in Bal Gandharva without thinking it through, but the rest of the stuff she knew for sure. The prince had to be a grown-up now and stop shouting at his amma.
For weeks she wrote dozens of emails trying to cheer him up and stiffen his backbone. One of her subject lines was: To the artiste formerly known as Prince. I’d ventured this joke and it had amused the singer a great deal. Finally, her ceaseless emails seemed to work. He made a quick visit to the palace without Soundarya. His mother refused to see him but he threatened the rest of the family with dire things if they didn’t lay off the drama. Such as? Such as sending his wedding photos to the press. Such as getting married to Soundarya. It’s allowed in Austria, you know, sort of, he blustered to the blanched family. He flew back trembling.
The singer said as cheerily as she could on Skype, “I didn’t know you had it in you.” Soundarya guffawed peering into the screen, “Neither did I.”
The prince was slowly restored to his expansive self, urging her to do riyaaz more often. She was careful not to tell him that she had given notice at the BPO. She didn’t want him to have any more ammunition.
She bought a new scooter with her last full-time salary from the call center. What was a girl to do with this free time? She rarely had the old impulse now to ride wildly through the flower stalls, singing loudly, scattering Russell Market before her. She didn’t blame the scooter. Though she did periodically wish it was as dented and dusty as her old one. This new thing seemed alien to her shabby self.
Three months later the scooter was slightly less shiny. One night, the singer went into the bathroom for a shower. One of her mother’s chisels lay on the counter where her mother had abandoned it. She picked it up. She stood absentmindedly on the cold floor, flexing her arm and enjoying its weight. She held it over her right breast. Imagine cutting your flesh off. She contemplated the cool, horizontal line of the blade pressing into her skin. And suddenly her hand trembled with the effort of not cutting herself.
She might have wept, her once-a-year crying jag, when she heard her mother’s fat laughter from the dim courtyard. She looked out of the bathroom window and saw that her mother, in response to the urgent and prudish desires of her clients, was painting a pale pink loincloth over a plaster-of-paris sadhu’s crotch. Spotting her face at the window, her mother waved.
The singer giggled, ate two badams to improve her memory and went to bed. The next morning she woke at 5 AM and sang.