Soumen Sinha

Unknown | 5/09/2014 |
The Violin Classes

One of the greatest pains of growing up is the knowledge that people whom we love and adore may not be perfect

Pulu and his family lived in Dover Terrace, a posh suburb of South Calcutta. Theirs was a big family – other than his parents there were his uncles, aunts as well as other relatives, near and distant, living in that house. In addition, there were several guests who often stayed for months at a stretch. There was a separate servant’s quarter overlooking the lawn where the six helping hands of this extended family lived. 

Pulu’s late grandfather, who bought this property twenty years back, loved his garden. At the break of the dawn he would stroll alone in his compound chewing on neemsticks to clean his teeth and murmur “be a gardener and you’d be happy in life”. Traces of his good taste were still visible: the dark green grass imported from Austria many years back looked neatly trimmed even today .The mild Calcutta winter also brought with it a generous share of dahlias, marigolds, roses and chrysanthemums.

The mornings in Dover Terrace reverberated with the usual hubbub of school and office goers - heated exchanges as to why the food wasn’t ready, why the drivers did not duly fill up the petrol tanks, why the clock in the living room never gave the correct time and why the old gardener did not sweep the dry leaves and garbage away. By eleven a.m, when the last of the office goers had left, the house was left to ladies and servants. Though the mornings had their share of chaos, debates and high pitched arguments between Pulu’s uncles -aunts on one side and his father and mother on the other, the call of the afternoon united the ladies and they all played carom and cards, with the radio in the background . Around two p.m. when Pulu and the other children returned from school, fresh with memories of a cacophonous morning at home, they would watch with wonder their mothers finish their afternoon meals in perfect harmony and get ready for the carom session.

When Pulu completed six years, he was gifted with a violin. His father did not consider it necessary to find out whether his son had an ear for music or would even like the instrument. He was the only son of his ambitious Bengali parents and was pampered with the best things in life. Living in a joint family made matters even better. Pulu was chubby and healthy and being the youngest child in Dover Terrace, was everyone’s pet. 

He had three cousins -Bulu, Tuktuk and Rana. Bulu was three years elder to Pulu whilst Tuktuk and Rana were both around five years elder to him. A budding painter, Bulu was fascinated with water colours and pencil sketches and he never really cared for earthly possessions other than canvas, palettes and sketch pens. Tuktuk and Rana, the two elder children always thought it best to leave Pulu pampered the way he was. He was their darling too. 

It was not clear as to why Pulu’s father chose to give him a violin and not a guitar or a piano. Some said that his parents believed that this was the best string instrument and that their son should only learn the best of everything. Others thought that it was because this violin came handy, was of a smaller size than instruments for adults and would help Pulu learn the musical fundamentals easily.

That a violin had arrived in the joint family was for some unknown reasons a guarded secret. This was strange as any new arrival was usually greeted with great fanfare. Finally, after a month, Pulu’s father made it public that the petite instrument was bought and that Pulu would be taught how to play it. When Pulu glimpsed the box for the first time, he impulsively opened it like any other present, took the violin in hand and started stroking it aggressively with his fingers. Sensing imminent danger and destruction, his mother thought it best to put way the instrument on the top of her almairah, out of reach of her six year old son.

Pulu was furious that the brand new present was taken away from him. He prayed for justice and ran for refuge. The elder boys sympathized with their little cousin and they had more reasons to do this. The children in this house had grown up in this way, with the understanding that anything which came home belonged to all. There was obvious disappointment that the two elder lads had yet to see the violin. In fact they had never seen a violin before .The only one they knew was a clay one sold by Pheriwallas (itinerant hawkers) .The last time they had bought one such toy it had lasted only for a day. The wound was worse when they learnt that the new violin has been in Dover Terrace for more than a month now. 

Peace was restored when Pulu’s father announced that all three boys were already admitted to a violin school and that they would go for lessons every Wednesday evening. The music school was a good twenty minutes’ walk from their house and Khoka, Pulu’s uncle, was assigned the weekly responsibility of taking the children to their violin classes. At seven p.m. sharp on Wednesdays, the children reached their awaited destination. 

Geetodhara, the music school was a one room institution overlooking the street .It had a carpet, partly torn, for students to sit on, a wooden chair for the teacher and a violin stand to keep the notation book. The wall was painted light green and there were pictures of tabla, guitar as well as of some famous vocalists and musicians whom the children had earlier seen elsewhere but failed to identify. On one side of the room was a large show case with a harmonium, a Hawaian guitar and two sets of tabla. On top of this showcase was a taanpura covered with old cloth. 

Mastermosai (the teacher) was a middle-aged, clean shaven dark gentleman. He had thick black hair neatly brushed back and bright black eyes. He had a striking black patch on his lower left chin, the portion of the left jaw with which Mastermosai held the violin in place. The other students in the class greeted the new arrivals with some apprehension, saying nothing but their eyes writ with an expression that these three were wasting their time and their parents were wasting their money and that the violin was too difficult an instrument to master at a tender age. 

On the first Wednesday evening in Geetodhara, there were five other students, all much older, perhaps in their mid-thirties and forties. One of them, Pradiptokaku, seemed to be Mastermosai’s favorite. He was a very serious disciple and as the three kids eagerly waited for their turn to come, Mastermosai continued unabated with Pradiptakaku for almost an hour. He watched keenly as Pradiptokaku played - scanning through twenty three pages, tapping his left foot to keep the beat, bowing up and down, as his whole body moved with equal enthusiasm. The overall effect of this effort, however, was very ordinary. 

The first few weeks in Geetodhara were spent learning about how to hold the instrument and how they should bow without each string touching the other. They were then given the violin book to learn the western notes. It was during this time that the children first noticed that their violin was significantly smaller and that the quality not as good as the one played by others. Pradiptakaku, the favored student, was proud of his violin because it was of German make. The kids soon discovered that Mastermosai too was very fond of Prodiptakaku’s instrument and he often examined it from all sides. He even caressed and kissed Pradiptakaku’s violin whilst he played heavenly music with it when everyone’s lessons were over.

One of the fellow students in the violin class was Niharjethu. He was in his late fifties, always wore a dark brown shirt, high powered glasses, a white dhoti and had long hair. Being a musician by profession he had in fact taught Pulu’s mother to play the guitar a couple of years ago. Niharjethu always greeted the children with chocolates taken out from his side bag. Often he reminded the children that their Mastermosai was no ordinary violinist and that they all were extremely lucky to learn under him. 

To Mastermosai’s credit, the kids gradually developed a genuine liking for their violin lessons and they began to adore their Mastermosai as well. Notes and lessons were picked up with remarkable ease and practiced to perfection. A year and half rolled by. During the summer vacation Pulu left Calcutta for a long holiday with his parents. When he returned home his interest for violin was suddenly gone for ever.  

Rana and Tuktuk, the two elder lads, continued their weekly lessons without Pulu, but with time began to find their small violin more and more inappropriate. Others in the class who now began to admire the children’s musical talent also felt that they needed a new violin. However, even as the desire for a new instrument grew stronger, the Dover Terrace guardians turned a deaf ear to their demands. This was primarily because Pulu’s father was heartbroken after Pulu’s unceremonious exit from the violin class and did not think it necessary to invest in another instrument. He was understandably skeptical that the two elder boys would soon toe their younger cousin’s line. Other guardians in that house never really much cared for their kids’ cultural pursuits. 

It was at this point of time that Saraswati Puja arrived. Saraswati Puja was the time when many guests and neighbors came to spend the whole day in their bungalow and every year concerts were organized to demonstrate the inner talents of budding musicians. This year Rana and Tuktuk were assigned to play the violin and Niharjethu had agreed to lend his instrument to enable the two lads perform jointly. The kids had never played to an audience before. That evening, Tuktuk and Rana did not disappoint anyone, not even Parsehkaku, who was otherwise always very difficult to please. 

Pareshkaku was a classical vocalist who knew the Calcutta music world well. It was primarily with his advice that Pulu’s father had admitted the kids to Geetodhara. Pareshkaku lived a bachelor’s life and his house had a musical ambience. He sang well, played the Esraj and could also play the violin. However, Tuktuk and Rana had earlier found that when Pareshkaku played, he held the violin in a sitting posture and with the other end touching the ground. But that was not important. What was interesting was that Pareshkaku had a German violin which many years back had fallen from a height and had broken in to four pieces.

Impressed by their performance, Pareshkaku felt an urgency to fix the old broken German violin and contacted his favorite music store. Two months later, the broken instrument was successfully repaired and Pareshkaku honored his commitment - he gifted the instrument to Rana and Tuktuk. The violin was polished to give it a new look and when played, sounded far better than Pradiptokaku’s new German make. Pareshkaku smiled with a remarkable glitter in his eyes as he mouthed- ‘a violin is like wine - the older it gets the better it is’. 

The two kids were so excited that they could not wait till Wednesday to take their new violin to Geetodhara. Although Pradiptokaku sometimes helped them with mathematics, they never really liked him as they thought that Mastermosai was a little too partial to him. During their last lesson they had overheard that Mastermosai was to perform in a special concert on the Calcutta B radio station and had wanted to borrow Pradiptakaku’s viloin. Pradiptokaku was only too pleased to oblige Mastermosai- as if this was his personal triumph over the rest of the students.

Wednesday evening arrived, but it was raining cats and dogs. The road to Geetodhara looked like a river and the lights went off as well. .Rana’s father, who never liked the children to venture out after dark, announced that the children should stay indoors that day. In the end this was the best option as Rana and Tuktuk were sure that their Mastermosai would not be able to reach school under such inclement weather. Besides, there was the fear that the torrential rain would damage the German violin.

The year 1971 in Calcutta was well known for slogans, bombs and Maoists. Something terrible happened on Monday afternoon in Burdwan near Kolkata and a general strike was called the following Wednesday which paralyzed the whole city. Unfortunately, Mastermosai did not have a phone contact and no one in Geetadhara would tell them where he lived. The children were getting impatient. Armed with their new violin, they were confident of taking on Pradiptokaku now on equal terms, and they had geared themselves well to challenge him. Every evening after school, football matches were skipped as the kids practiced violin together.

In mid-July, the sun had set on another Wednesday evening. For the children of Dover Terrace, the two earlier Wednesday evenings had already gone to waste. Fortunately, the weather gods did not intervene that evening as Rana and Tuktuk hurried to Geetodhara with their new violin. When they reached Geetodhara, they found Pradiptokaku a little subdued compared to his general exuberant self. He was sitting with his hand on his head. Niharjethu too did not say a word. He briefly glanced at the new violin box as Rana quickly opened the case, took up the bow and started rubbing resin on it - a prelude to his weekly performance. “Nihajethu, this is our new German violin” remarked Tuktuk. Pradiptokaku too eyed the violin with a sad look in his face.

It was after three long weeks that the students were meeting  each other  But Mastermosai was not there. He was to return Prodiptokaku’s violin after his Radio Concert. But he didn’t. Pradiptokaku made daily trips to Mastermosai’s residence but he was missing from his home! This was a crisis which even the adults in Geetodhara were not prepared for. Rana and Tuktuk were inconsolable. This was to be their first class with a real violin after such a long wait. The children returned home after two hours wait but could not eat that evening. 

With every passing Wednesday, hopes of tracing Mastermosai receded and so did Pradiptokaku’s chance of getting back his beloved possession. The class, in spite of such wide age difference, was united in sorrow and grief. And they continued coming every Wednesday as if to perform their weekly mourning sessions. 

Eight months later, the kids began to lead normal life again. Interest in football dominated the children’s co-curricular activities now. In between, however, they had done badly in the school examinations and the whole household blamed it on their “violin tragedy”. Geetodhara, meanwhile, was desperately searching for a new violin teacher.

The violins in Dover Terrace did not occupy the shelf anymore. They were now carelessly stored under the bed amidst dust and cockroaches. Months had passed since they were last taken out .The dense greenery of a long wet monsoon had given way to the white kaash flowers by the end of October. The days had become shorter and the sultry humid weather had become a thing of the past. 

Around this time , when the festival of lights was over and when football had given way to roadside cricket, Pulu, Rana and Tuktuk saw a bearded man in a dirty attire and with a violin in his hand. This strange man sported the look of a bohemian who cared only for his violin and his evening country liquor. He had a marked and powerful personality writ all over him in spite of his haggard look. This man reminded them of the Pied Piper of Hamelin as they saw street urchins following him whilst he walked by playing in very short spells. The three Dover Terrace children were spellbound listening to him. They had never heard anyone play the violin so well. 
No one knew him and the man never smiled. His violin played some tunes from popular Hindi films but he never played them to the end. Tuktuk called the vagabond loudly from his verandah and asked him to play a whole song, promising him a handsome tip for this service. Rana could see that his violin was of the size of Pulu’s and they marveled that he could bring out such beautiful notes with it. His white beard stuck to his left jaw as he played without a resin enriched bow. “Don’t give me money” he said, “give me a shirt”. 

The children noticed that the dirty white shirt was torn on the right arm and his bare right shoulder peeped out as his bow went down. Tuktuk came back running with his brand new football jersey and promised to part with it. Then the violinist played for an hour, his violin producing some magical melodies. Unlike most other violinists whom they had met after the Geetodhara tragedy, this white bearded man played in the same posture as they did- with the violin straight and parallel to the ground, held in western style. After the performance, he accepted the new shirt which Tuktuk had given him with a simple nod. Both Rana and Tuktuk agreed that this was a good deal for them and an hour well spent.

A month later, Rana, Tuktuk and Pulu were invited to a birthday party. This was in Landsdowne Road, quite far from Dover Terrace. As their car was being parked, they were pleasantly surprised to see the same bearded bohemian with his violin. This time he wasn’t just using the bow but plucking chords with his fingers as well. The effect was elevating. He was a gift of God the children exclaimed. And yet he was wearing the same torn shirt which they saw on him the day when he played for them. After performing in front of a different crowd, this time too he did not ask for money but pleaded for a shirt! Where was the shirt Tuktuk had given him? Why did he wear the same torn shirt again? 

The children were in no mood to attend the party anymore. At that moment, their minds were replete with abstract thoughts - thoughts of Mastermosai and this bohemian violinist playing in a concert together. Blue lights and white smoke crisscrossed the stage as the sublime sound from the two violins slowly faded away. Their car, meanwhile, was speeding back to Dover Terrace….


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