(A short story by Sidharth Vardhan
First written on January 28, 2018)
No one has noticed it yet, that is except for Shradha herself but soon they all will. People will only notice it over time – as she will get more choosy with her dresses, want to see more movies etc but those will only be more visible symptoms of the giant change in her values – a change that needed only six hours starting from the beginning of the movie show that caused it. The cause of change – a Bollywood movie, and a mediocre romance at that, is going to be more shocking for those who have known her at all.
It might be difficult for you to believe that someone born in twenty-first century India can remain untouched by mainstream Bollywood but Jagriti was. Circumstances made her that way. She lost her mother when she was mere two and has been bought up by her father for last thirteen and a half years. Her father is a temple priest and thus, she has spent most of her childhood at temple amid people (mostly women) enchanting religious prayers and songs. And even at her home, she doesn’t have that most cursed invention of consumer culture – telelvision.
She used the time not wasted on television on practicing singing. Given the environment in which she has been brought, it is natural that she should show a very religious frame of mind. And she loved prayers songs from her very first memories – she would keep singing them to herself long even after the prayer in her father’s temple would be over. Her father seeing her enthusiasm for religious music, had began giving her harmonium and singing classes. And so her evening and early nights were whiled away by her practicing singing – and through this hard-work and study, she managed to develop the enchanting magic in her voice which made up for lack of a naturally gifted voice.
Her voice earned her praise from visitors to temple where she has now been leading the prayer songs for a while now and she thrilled in this praise. But not only was she a good singer but she was also a good listener of music – for she knew how one must lose oneself to music to be able to enjoy it completely. Even as a child of eight, she couldn’t understand how can people sing and listen to music so distantly, so on-their-guard, so ever conscious of everything around them. Don’t they know how to pray? It is only Musical muse that brings god to one; but she (the muse) is envious, oh! so envious, that she won’t do anything for you unless you give yourself up completely to her dictates. You must lose yourself to her to get God – and when she was on her high with music, it was as if there was no Shradha in her, or if there was a ‘Shradha’ it wasn’t she, it wasn’t a person she knew, for she knew no person in those moments, nothing at all – nothing except feeling of being in presence of something higher. And that ‘something higher’ she called God.
One must let oneself be washed with the sentiment contained in the prayer-song; let it take over control of all one’s senses and submit one’s limbs to its wishes. She, herself, did it so well – would forget her harmoniums, come at the stage near the idol and dance – in a half-mad fashion, her eyes always closed when she did so (as if to shut out the world while she conversed with God). “Look at her! She is with God now” the visitors to temple would murmer among themselves and she would herself tell them how she felt in such moments – how a kind of esctasy would fill her and made her feel that – as she herself would tell you “There is a reason Why Lord Krishna (Whose temple it was) holds a flute. While He danced me” she would tell you (for ‘dance was something that happened to her or was done to her, not something she did consciously) “When I can feel the presence of God around me. I can’t see Him but there He is – smiling graciously.” She wasn’t able to explain her mystic experiences any better than that but, it was as if, music was a sixth sense for her. Just like sight, hearing, touch smell and taste. And it is through this musical sense, that she felt the presence of God. She didn’t think there was anything special about it – she thought they must surely occur to a lot of other people, perhaps everyone – and they were just not as enthusiastic about it as she was.
It is her Musical Muse that made her religious – its impact on her was far stronger than all the religious symbols idols etc – the religious books (other than those containing prayer songs) had almost no impact of all, despite the readings of the books carried out in temple every day. She was too nice a person to openly disagree – but the gods mentioned in all those Hindu scriptures seemed complete strangers to her. One need only look a the idol of Krishna in the temple with his face half smiling as he played his flute. Is that the God one is asked to fear? No, her God was different – more accessible, pleasant kind of fellow who could smile, play music and loved dancing. ‘She played Harmonium to assist others in their prayers;’ she sometimes felt, ‘Krishna himself played his flute when she danced.’
To less religious people, the kind that intellectual snobs would group as ‘masses’, God is some sort of convenience, a sort of Handyman remembered in time of need – to request something, to wish for forgiveness, to confess one’s crimes so as lighten one’s own conscience, to curse for one’s own failings. Since God is just a thing of use for them he is remembered when needed and fogotten soon afterwards, and not someone to constantly devote oneself to – they are less likely to lose their faith in it.
For Jagriti, God was someone who was always around her – I know a lot of people will say the same, but unlike most others who might forget the presence of God frequently, Jagriti has always been conscious of the presence of God – always, that is, till today. She believed that God somehow managed to see one and all – that one only need to invoke the music in oneself to feel his presence. Of course, one can’t do it all the time – yet it wouldn’t stop her from remembering the fact that God was around watching her every action. Just as much as she was extremely unconscious of herself when she danced; she was as extremely self-conscious at other times.
Everything which wasn’t worship of God was some sort of sub-prime method of spending time. And she was too careful to make sure she never did anything wrong or sinful – no, again not because she feared wrath of God or hell; just that God had grown to be a figure very much like her father; and she was afraid of dispapointing them both. Afraid of doing anything that felt malign in presnece of either, and God was present everywherre, watching over her all the time – whether she felt his presence or not.
It is because of this extreme self-consciouness that she grew reserved and rarely spoke unneccessarily, far lesser do something that isn’t expected of a good girl. Her friends respected her innnocence and didn’t talk of sex (which is such a sinful and dirty thing) in her presence. She didn’t even see telelvision and so was uncompletely unconsious of anything even remotely sex related or romantic. All such things were dirty – and actully filled her with a sense of guilt. And even though there was a sort of temptation and she couldn’t deny it; but that temptation was not her but something that she felt somewhere inside her.
Her friends thought she was never doing fun-stuff. And her best friend, A— in particular didn’t like it at all, She won’t even watch movies other than those based on mythological subjects. And so, A—- asked her to go to theatre with her to watch the latest Bollywood romantic drama with her – generally it won’t have helped but the “please, please, it is my birthday you know” from A— helped.
Jagriti’s request came as a shock to her conservative father and, when she told him that it is for her friend, he knew she was in bad company. But he couldn’t say no, especially as Jagriti herself didn’t seem much interested in the movie – his love made him overlook his values “for this one time”.
And thus we have fifteen-year-old Jagriti sitting in the 5 p.m. show and, though the movie wasn’t the horror she had expected from talks of her father, it was quite boring until the moment of that particular love-song. The song, though popular hit at the time didn’t have anything remarkable. But it managed to touch her at a part of her soul she wasn’t conscious of having. And before she realised it, she was conscious of the need of a presence of some other – some special person as yet unlabled with words like ‘prince’, ‘husband’, ‘lover’ etc and of holding interesting conversations with him. Though the movie had gone on, she was no longer able to pay attention to it, too busy day-dreaming. She was woken up from them only when it was time for them to leave the theatre.
After coming back, she took her father’s phone, downloaded the song, listened to it on her headphones and danced to it. “Look at her” people said again “she is with God again” – thinking it was a devotional song, it never was any other song. But today there was something strong in her moments and they were all enchanted by them. How often have saints – sufi or Bhakti been confused between metaphors of love an devotion? The only two emotions that make a person lose oneself to presence of some one else – resulting in extreme lack of self-consciousness, Bekhudi. Only drugs might be expected to be more effective.
And people were still talking about this ‘devotional’ dance when she finally took off the headphones (already having listened to the song on repeat for five times). Talking to God, Kid?” her father asked. She felt a momentary embarressment (something so entirely new to her) when she heard the word ‘God’ – afraid that even though her father and others didn’t, God surely must be aware of her secret. How could she have forgotten all about him (God) for so long? She had o figure this out for herself and she ran to her room still full of guilt.
No one had come after her as her father couldn’t leave the temple. Some of them called after her – and she knew she must come up with a reason to excuse her behavior. Once in the room, the first thing she did was asking for the forgiveness of God but God didn’t appear yet and she decided she must lose herself (when it came to music, she never used the word ‘listen’, only ‘lose herself’) to the prayer songs to get him back. But even if God did forgive her, would he be okay with her ontinuing to have her love song? And if she had to chose one – between the God and the imagined lover, which it would be? Oh! A– and other girls could carry such dreams as long as they wish, but not she. She must give it up, for something more valueable than the other girls can imagine.
And after all, what was this lover man but a dream, a piece of her imagination existing only because of that song. ( though music must be strong to create someone so handsome) …. but God, God was real ….real, real, real ….. real because…..
A shiver ran down her body as a new idea caught her. What if? …. but, no, it can’t be….. but wasn’t it?….. it took her a few moments to absorb the shock of idea. If it only it was a lie! But it all fitted and if it is true it would belie her whole belief system. Do others know? They possibly don’t – they didn’t evem felt the presence of god same way as she did and still believed in him. Perhaps they have other reasons to believe in him, but not for her. She believed in him only because she felt her presence when she heard those devotional songs and ….. (here, she braced herself to look that ‘idea’ in face – for till now she was avoiding thinking of it indirectly, looking at it so to say from corner of her eye) now she knew that the God who was such a strong presence in her life all these years was just like her imagined lover – a dream created by music, a musical mirage.
And it wasn’t because of presence of some higher being that she felt the ectasy from devotional music rather it was ectasy of the music itself which created the illusion of presence of a higher being. In fact, she was sure that the person who came up with the idea of God must have nee a musician.
Her belief system was thus shaked but it wasn’t broken. For like drugs, the other agents of bekhudi – love and devotion too are addictive. By the time, late in night, her father arrived and asked her if anything was wrong? why had she left temple like that? and she made some excuse; she had already learned to believe in God in a new way. The fact that he was just a musical mirage didn’t stop her from being devoted to him, just as knowing it was an imaginary lover, didn’t stop her from dreaming. In fact, it was now a more flexible god, that gave her esctasy of devotion but never judged her when she did anything dirty.