January 2000. Delhi
The turn of the century and the chilly draft notwithstanding, the corner most building in the narrow lane in the National capital’s infamous G B Road ruffled with activity. The only brothel in the dingy bylane that took pride in adhering to the rituals of a fascinating culture marked by luxury and oppression had stood the test of times. It was like the oasis in the desert of flesh trade.
In there, the glittery tawaifs* gyrated to the musical vacillations, the beats produced by the impeccable percussionists as they prepared for the upcoming evening. Their unblemished tatkars perfectly timed to the musical rhythms and tempos could give hardcore Kathak professionals a run for their money. The dancing kept them on their toes, not to mention the scintillating moves that drove patrons to them like bees to honey—the younger the woman, the richer the patron.
One of the dancers, Ayesha famous for her stunning brown orbs, screamed in the inner sanctums of the bordello in the throes of parturition. A progeny unwanted was soon to arrive. Grim lady abbess, Salimabi furiously paced the narrow passage keeping a watchful eye on the riyaaz as well as the mid-wife, calculating the blasphemously fortuitous expenditure incurred due to a contraception failure. She had to take that nefarious Hakim to the task. These slips weren’t acceptable for her business. If not for Nawabsaab, she would have gotten rid of ‘it’ sooner.
The shrill cry of a newborn pierced the environment even as the tabla beats reached a crescendo and the music system settled to the slow rendition of a popular number.
‘Ye…. Kyaa jagah hai doston
Ye kounsa dayaar hai…
The miles her curious eyes swarm
Cover nothing beyond the ubiquitous dust storm’.
Suddenly everything quietened, and the next moment Ayesha screamed louder than ever. Salimabi watched in horror as the midwife held up a baby girl born with only tiny stumps for legs below the thighs.
Ayesha indignantly looked away, cringing while Salimabi sighed, hitting her forehead.
“Ya Allah… Why did it have to be a girl? Now, what do we do with this cripple? If she were normal, I would have trained her here. But this is a biqaar zinmadaari. But, Ayesha, do you want her? You will have to bear her expenses.” Salimabi spewed in a single breath.
Ayesha had hoped to cash in from the child’s father, a blue-eyed Nawab descendant, who had promised to relieve her from the lifetime of ignominy.
“Salima aapa…” Ayesha wailed. “…Nawabsaab had promised Jannat if it were a boy and lots of money to last a lifetime even if it were a girl. He would have eventually taken the child for his barren wife. But why would he take this… thing?” She pointed towards the flailing infant.
“Ayesha, Khuda se dar. She is your baby, your flesh and blood.” Raziyaa, the attendant who often doubled up as a midwife, tried to reason.
“Ok, the decision’s made….” Salimabi declared, trying hard to contain her rage at Ayesha’s indiscretion that resulted in nothing productive. “… Raziyaa, bundle her up and hand her over to that broker. Koun hai woh? Aaah… Ramcharan….” Ruminating on the elaichi pan she spoke as crimson spittle sprayed its remnants all over. “…the girl will do good in the begging business. Allah reham kare.”
She then walked out of the darkroom leaving behind a scowling Ayesha, who began to think of the next try at ‘failing’ contraception.
The following day at the break of the dawn Raziyaa crossed the main road. Kissing the tiny bundle, she handed it over to the burly man in black kurta-pajama.
“You left this line, right? Please… take care of her.” That was all she could say as she watched him walk into the freezing nebula.
Five years later. Haji Ali, Mumbai
The wooden boards of the forty-year-old GuruNanak Saheb chawl creaked in agony and neglect as the children ran across the three stories. Some of the parts of the ancient structure had wooden scaffolding to hold up the dilapidation. The prevailing state of shabbiness, blinking corridor tube lights and wet wall corners covered with fungus were a common sight all along. The ceilings harbored the arachnoidal abodes that gave nightmares to any new resident or visitor. Rodents had a leeway near the common latrine blocks with leaking taps during the hour-long water supply if there was a respite from the bickering residents. Regardless, this was more affordable than much of the housing in Mumbai.
However, Sunday mornings meant freedom from studies and reprimands for children as the lazy households began a late day. The queue outside the common washrooms, too, was contained. The single-room homes queued up on one side had their doors open all the time. The other side had railings that, besides serving as the needed barricade, also doubled up as the convenient prop for using the clothesline or a personal flower bed. Occasionally some elderly gentleman would sit on the easy chair and rest his legs up the railing digging into the daily dose of the newspaper sipping a cup of tea long gone cold.
Almost every house or kholi, as they called them, had a little rangoli at the thresholds that included a Swastika or the Aum. Some of the houses emanated the fragrance of freshly lit incense sticks accompanied by the jingling of the sacred bells as the woman or the man of the house prayed to the presiding deity. Housed in a tiny wooden pedestal usually hung on the wall, the little place of worship was revered and free of the usual litter in a corner.
Practically all families belonged to the lower-middle-class, most of whom arrived in the city with larger-than-life dreams. However, the cramped housing design forced social interactions, and religious festivals were celebrated communally!
By afternoon, the cacophony of raised voices, discordant noises, and assorted culinary redolences filled the floor. Little Rani, with the most beautiful brown eyes, looked around in fascination. She loved this time of the day.
Strapped to a wooden roller board, she used a couple of tiny wooden blocks to push the ground and maneuver her way around. But today, children didn’t interest her. Her neighbor Shushila kaki played old melodies on her prized DVD, a splurge by her newly bank-employed son. Rani particularly waited for an Umrao-Jaan number that always enthralled her, churning something deep within.
Even today Rani moved out of the board and settled on the plastic carpet spread to hide the chipped floor tiles in kaki’s home. She sang along.
‘Ye kis makaam par hayaat
Mujhko leke aa gayi…
While she had no control over her happiness
Realms of sorrow left her with no choice.’
Strong hands lifted her as Rani squealed happily, hugging her baba, who got back from his duty as a security guard at the nearby Government Rehabilitation Center. He often did the overtime on Saturday nights while Sunanda kaki let Rani stay with her. He handed half a liter of the milk pouch to kaki as he always did, returning the favor in kind.
“Arre Ramcharan….” Kaki smiled, her broken incisors lisping her labiodentals. “…Why do you struggle in this job. Kuch nahi isme. You can get a job easily as a bank clerk. My Rahul can help. You are educated. You can send Rani to a good school instead of teaching her at home, though how she learns from you is beyond me….”
This was a regular banter, and baba would only smile and move on. But even at five, Rani knew why her baba went through the grind of physical labor. Her rehabilitation took place free of cost because of his current employment status.
Another important reason was, ‘Riddhi-Siddhi Academy of Music’ closeby, where baba had enrolled her for vocal music classes when she was three. He would sit through her classes whenever possible or somehow drop and pick her up, making time for it.
Rani was the happiest when she sang. ‘Prodigy’ they called her. She sang during different occasions in the chawl. She had also given a couple of performances through the academy, but baba didn’t allow too many, given her arduous rehabilitation schedules.
‘Ramcharan, your daughter has a melodious voice.’
‘Saraswati Mata resides in her vocal cords.’
‘She shall make us all proud.’
‘The accompanying gestures and mudras are fabulous… as if she were a dancer.’
The praises filled her baba with pride but, more importantly, because no one treated her differently.
Despite everything, Rani derived her fortitude from her baba, who wasn’t her biological father, but his role extended beyond the firmaments of parenthood. She didn’t miss going to school at all. She didn’t miss having a mother…
Ten years later.
The slight breeze blowing from the Arabian sea backwaters failed to provide the slightest respite from the scorching afternoon heat.
“It gives us immense pleasure to felicitate Rani Ramcharan Sinha for her meritorious performance in the NIOS exams. The latest feather in her cap is the win in the state-level talent search contest, where she has made us proud by securing the gold in the classical music category….” The man’s voice boomed outrageously through the low-fidelity speakers on the dais built in the quadrangle of their chawl. His voice was camouflaged by the babel of the drummers specially invited to perform at the event.
The stage was decorated with marigold and rose garlands specially procured in contribution from the chawl residents. The hired plastic chairs were placed in a pattern but now remained vacant, some haphazardly upturned as everyone was busy dancing to the beats.
The drummers played in sync amidst whistles and hoots as Rani walked with the special crutches, carefully treading on the prosthetic limbs. The local corporator, the guest of honor for the day, stood with the bouquet and beamed at the attention from the innumerable scribes gathered to cover the event. But, of course, not every day did a specially-abled girl from a humble background make it big. The pot-bellied politician didn’t fail to mention; the prosthesis was a donation from his fund. It didn’t affect Rani at all.
But what got the mood of the residents upbeat was the demolition of the dilapidated-declared chawl was tentatively stalled. Developers had flooded with better goodies and offers in tow, and the residents now had the upper hand, being spoilt for choice. Being in the eye of the media frenzy, all the needed permissions came in with rapid succession. They were grateful to Rani, who in some way had contributed towards helping them inch slowly towards their dream of an independent home in Mumbai.
Sunanda kaki, despite her arthritis, stomped awkwardly at the drumbeats along with the other residents even as some of them lifted a shy Rani and traversed the entire area. However, the ambiance of fun and frolic didn’t mean much to Rani, who missed her baba.
Baba never attended any such events, even if he was not working. Now that she made some money doubling up as the assistant to the teacher in the academy and the prize money coming in often, she wanted her baba to take it easy. Also, since they traveled a lot for her competitions, it wasn’t easy to retain his job. But her success had allowed it, and despite leaves, he now held a permanent position. He didn’t want to give up the perks. Her rehabilitation still held prominence for him.
Later as Rani strutted into their modest home, she looked at the wall units dominating the room, filled with her trophies. Medals hung from the hooks piercing the walls at different levels as per the availability of space. Just like every Sunday, her baba painstakingly cleaned each guerdon before placing them back in the predesignated slots on her wall of fame. Next, he rearranged the sheaf of her innumerable certificates chronicling her musical journey.
Rani blinked back tears as she hummed,
‘Tamaamra umr ka hisaab
Maangti hai zindagi…
Her heart woeful without an elucidation
Abhorrently wallowing in hesitation.’
Five years later
“The new National Champion and the winner of the Gaan Saraswati trophy 2020 is… RANI RAMCHARAN SINHA…” The anchor bellowed on the podium of the enormous Shanmukhananda hall in Sion, Mumbai.
The limited audience roared while the shutterbugs clicked to glory. The entire event was telecasted live on major Indian TV channels across the globe.
The judges flanked a teary Rani as the pops burst from nowhere, sending pieces of colored paper raining all over. Her fellow contestants shook hands with her. She had an electronic wheelchair, a rare model that she used, to travel independently and for stage performances where she needed to hold the mic. It was sponsored by a music connoisseur from Germany who loved her singing.
Her prosthesis didn’t suit her well, and she rarely used it. But for once in her life, she enjoyed the sense of ambulation in the true sense of the word. It gave her free reign to move without worrying about catastrophic accidents, especially on stage.
The stage had an assembly marked by the bigwigs of the Bollywood music industry, sponsors of the event, and other participants, all in their dazzling wear and matching masks, maintaining the mandatory social distance.
The pandemic hadn’t dampened the musical fervor. The contest had taken an indefinite break during the lockdown sending Rani into despair, but baba had propelled her back to the groove. She had kept up her riyaaz under his watchful eyes and had come back with the bang when the contest and the participants regrouped. After that, there was no looking back for Rani as, week after week, she improvised across genres, even singing item numbers, leaving the audience spellbound. Her vocals, accompanied by her graceful hand movements as she sang, mesmerized the viewers causing the TRPs to skyrocket.
The internet was bursting at the seams deliberating about the wonder girl who stole hearts with her unique melodic singing style. Several celebrities, too, came in her support whenever she needed it. There were numerous offers for online shows and tutorials, panel discussions, etc., pouring in from different quarters.
A few weeks ago, a woman from Delhi, who claimed to be Rani’s biological mother, gave bytes on the camera, which went viral for a while. There were speculations about the wonder girl’s background, mainly when viral videos on some shady-looking people speaking about Ramcharan’s iniquitous past made rounds. However, Rani maintained a dignified silence. The old chawl residents who arranged online voting campaigns for her spoke volumes about the little girl who ruled their hearts, who was their lucky charm. Ramcharan only came across as a doting father. The ‘birth mother’ incident was long forgotten.
The anchor’s voice brought Rani back into the moment.
“Our newly crowned singing champion gets a winner’s cheque of rupees ten lakhs and an exclusive three-year singing contract from HMV music label. Besides this, she has been offered a playback singing opportunity from one of our judges, Veteran music director Premji Nath; a copy of the contract remains to be signed as we speak….”
The anchor drawled on, but Rani’s eyes roved in search of her baba. On her insistence, he had been here, but she couldn’t see him in the dark.
“…We now request our champion to sing a few lines from the iconic number that clinched the deal in her favor and say a few words as well. Over to you, Rani.” The anchor announced, and the staff rushed in with a Mic stand for her.
Staring into the mic, she blinked back tears and swallowed her emotions. She needed her hands free today.
“First of all, I want to thank the organizers, sponsors and the audience, and listeners all over the world who are watching this event. Thank you, everyone, for your invaluable votes and support….” There was a huge round of applause as she gestured in her trademark style and continued. “…My life is no less than a Sonata. So let me explain my journey in the same language.
My beginnings were slow till the vehicle called life picked up the measure. As you can see, my ‘exposition’ of the primary thematic material was contradictory. I had dreams with loads of limitations. Later ‘development’ happened along with the needed ‘recapitulations’ to complete the musical argument.
Dear people, tomorrow I start a new life, and this is the final cadence, the crescendo of this old journey that ends today. I call upon the stage, the music conductor of this Sonata, my rock, my hero, my baba.” She gestured each word further.
The spotlight fell on Ramcharan, who stood in a corner shedding tears of joy. The buoyant staff prodded him gently, and he walked hesitantly towards the stairs leading to the dais.
As the wholly greyed Ramcharan in his simple black kurta-pajama walked amidst the dignitaries gathered, Rani sang.
‘Bulaa raha hai koun, mujhko
Chilman ke uss taraf…
There is only one who is restless for me
In happiness and sorrow, he is forever dainty’.
She signed, looking at her baba even as the world watched the live telecast in wonder.
‘Ye…. Kyaa jagah hai doston
Ye kounsa dayaar hai…
The miles her curious eyes swarm
Cover nothing beyond the ubiquitous dust storm’.
“This is my baba… who has taught me everything I know, who polished this rock to shine like a diamond. In this world where people abandon baby girls….” She kept signing each word. “…my baba not only adopted a disabled girl child but brought her up in a way my biological parents probably wouldn’t have. He enjoys my singing thoroughly through his heart.
My baba is profoundly Hearing Impaired.”
Tawaif: was a highly successful entertainer who catered to the nobility of the Indian subcontinent, particularly during the Mughal era. The tawaifs excelled in and contributed to music, dance (mujra), theatre, and the Urdu literary tradition and were considered an authority on etiquette.
Tatkars: Kathak foot work.
Riyaaz: the systematic practice of music, dance, or any other art form, usually under the guidance of a teacher or preceptor.
Hakim: A physician using traditional remedies
NIOS: National Institute of Open Schooling
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2 thoughts on “The Sonatina Girl”
Awesome story… very well penned 👏👏👏