The sun emerged from within the clouds after a heavy downpour the previous night. Early mornings in Bangalore masterfully concealed the chaos of the night caused by unprecedented traffic jams. It brought in the much-needed harmony after an almost certain tumultuous night. A beam of sunlight pierced through the clouds at a 60-degree angle, closely resembling a focus light. It was miraculously aimed at an innocuous looking muddy puddle on the roadside just next to the garbage dump. Such puddles could be found all over the city because the local civic body suffered from “selective amnesia”. But this muddy puddle was special not because it hadn’t been repaired and managed to withstand the test of time but because Basant had been using the spot lately as a platform to showcase his talent every morning.
With his two legs submerged in the chocolaty water of the puddle, brimming with wriggly worms and dead insects, Basant quietly went about doing his business. His job was to pick whatever was essential from the heap of plastic, left-over food, soiled baby diapers, used syringes, medicine bottles, among other things that the affluent thought were of no use.
To the world, Basant was an inconsequential rag picker, born into a rag pickers family. What else could he have excelled in?
But he didn’t care to think what others thought of him. Truth was, that he loved his life and more importantly loved himself, immensely, which is all that mattered to him. He was a self-made man or so he thought and a free bird. He believed that freedom was the most precious gift he possessed, and it gave him something that the white-collared, rich, gluttonous and egoistic morning walkers who passed by him every day, with sympathy laden eyes did not have; “his lack of attachment”. For Basant these people were just victims of their own identities, nothing more and for all their sympathetic gazing he would simply return the favour by closing his eyes and singing his favourite Kishore Kumar song,
“Kiska rasta dekhe, (Whom are you awaiting?)
Ae dil, ae saudayi, (Oh heart, Oh Lunatic)
Meelon hain khamoshi, (For miles around, there is silence)
Barson hain tanhai” (and for ages, loneliness)
What Basant was oblivious to, was that these innocent passers-by were secretly marvelling at his genius, while he was engrossed in the song. But they never dared utter a word to him. These onlookers would simply glance and discuss about him among themselves in hushed whispers. However, there was no doubt, that within the colonies, societies and plush apartment complexes of that area, Basant was very famous. They called him, “The Lone Singer”, the singer who sang without inhibitions.
Every evening after meeting the demands of his profession and once the dust had settled, Basant would retire to his shack at the far east end of the local slum. Here, the sewer line oozed gelatinous scum, which accumulated into a stagnant pool of bubbly black froth at the entrance of his shack. A good percentage of Basant’s earnings went into purchasing repellents and ointments, to ward off those obstinate tiny flying creatures. But he did not care much. It was just a requirement for survival.
Once, his fellow rag-pickers were done with their drinking, eating and merry making, at around midnight the noise would subside. Only the sounds of the trickling sewer line would prevail. The sound had a certain rhythm to it, or so Basant perceived. For as soon as the other noises withered into oblivion and the sounds of the sewer emerged prominent, Basant would pull out a cassette and insert it into his tape recorder. The volume would be just right to hear the voice of the singer and all the background musical instruments while accommodating the rhythm created by the sewer. The rhythms of the sewer appealed to Basant’s musical sensibilities and such inclusions were important to him.
Basant would spend the next two hours of the night listening attentively to the nuances of the songs he played on the tape recorder. The devil is in the detail, he often reminded himself. Hence, every strum of the string, modulation in voice and change in scale was important. He would listen to these songs a hundred times over until he perfected it. The intention was not to copy the singer but to capture the emotion the song was trying to kindle.
The moment he got that right, he was happy. Achieving the same was like attaining nirvana and the joy would show on his face for the next few days, until he moved to the next song. Through this routine, Basant had mastered ten songs, which he believed nobody could sing better than him. These were Hindi songs from the 1950s, 60s and 70s sung by Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi, two of his favourites from that era. The song he was listening to that day was an old Mohammed Rafi classic:
“Dhin dhal jaaye haaye, (The day somehow goes by)
Raat na jaaye, (But the night does not end)
Tu tho na aaye, (You don’t come)
Teri Yaad Sataye” (But your memory torments me)
In a dimly lit study room just a few kilometres away from Basant’s shack, but in an upper-class colony, where everything seemed in order, sixty-year-old Vasu was also listening to the same song. He was taking slow and measured sips of whiskey while being completely engrossed in the tunes coming out of his music system. The unprecedented gestures with his hand, in appreciation of a sudden modulation in voice testified both his understanding of music as well as his love for the singer. Much like Basant, Vasu also wanted to be a singer, but had failed miserably in that endeavour. What he did succeed in though was to become a businessman, a very famous one at that.
Basant was unaware that Vasu was his secret admirer. Every morning at that designated hour when Basant would start singing, Vasu would furtively park his white ambassador car on the other side of the road and listen to him sing. He would never step out of the car and once Basant was done, he would quietly drive away. This had been happening for a few months now. Vasu knew that Basant had a rare talent which perhaps he didn’t possess. He was itching to speak to Basant, but never found the courage to do so. His vanity was coming in the way but the urge to let Basant know what he felt about his singing was also strong. Something had to give.
On that Sunday, Vasu decided that he would let go off his inhibitions and do what he truly wanted. To help him break the ice, he packed breakfast for Basant and himself from his favourite restaurant and then headed straight to meet him. By the time he reached the spot Basant was already in the middle of a performance. A few people had stopped by to hear him sing. Being a Sunday, everyone had a bit more time on their hands. Vasu joined them and waited patiently for Basant to finish. Once, he was done with the song the four men standing beside Vasu gave a light applause in appreciation and then dispersed. Vasu did not budge an inch and kept staring at Basant.
Now that the other spectators had left, the moment was right for Vasu.
“Have you had breakfast?”, asked Vasu.
This was not a question Basant was anticipating hence, he replied, “What?”.
“I asked, have you had breakfast?”, repeated Vasu.
“No, but why do you ask?”, asked Basant.
“There may not be a reason for everything. Come let us sit on that bench and have breakfast”, replied Vasu pulling at Basant’s sleeves.
Basant obliged but he looked a bit dazed, which was usually not the case with him.
Both sat on the bench, next to the biggest apartment complex of that area, specifically made for morning walkers. It was a bright and sunny morning that day.
“It’s Idly and Vada from Swami’s restaurant. His restaurant is very famous, and he happens to be a good friend of mine. Have it, I am sure you will like it”, said Vasu handing over a container to Basant, who was visibly bewildered by Vasu’s candid behaviour.
Basant grabbed the container, opened the lid and took a bite of the Idly. It was delicious. Although, he was apprehensive of Vasu’s intentions, the food was too luring to be ignored. He dug into the food and finished it within seconds. As he licked the last few drops of gravy off his fingers, Vasu said, “Your singing is good but with a little guidance it could be great”.
“Do you have some water? The gravy was very spicy”, replied Basant sucking air into his mouth to cool the tongue.
Vasu handed over the water bottle to Basant. Basant took a few gulps from the bottle, holding it at a good distance from his mouth, to ensure that it does not touch the bottle by accident.
“What is wrong with my singing?”, asked Basant.
“There is something missing. The devil is in the details”, replied Vasu.
Basant was visibly put off by Vasu’s remark. It was incumbent upon Vasu to salvage the situation.
“You are good. Just some minor corrections are required. That’s all!”, continued Vasu.
“Why don’t you sing and show me then”, replied Basant.
“I can. But not here. Can you come over to my house?”, said Vasu.
“This is precisely the problem with rich people like you. You have too many inhibitions. How can you teach me, if you have so many reservations?”, asked Basant with a wry smile on his face.
Basant’s argument did have a logic to it. Hence, Vasu chose to remain silent for a few seconds.
“Why don’t you try me once?”, asked Vasu almost pleading.
Basant picked up his sack and replied, “Let me think about it”. He did not wait for Vasu’s reply. Vasu let out a cheeky grin and headed towards his car.
Basant performed as usual in the coming days, while Vasu’s car halted at the other side of the road. The only difference was that Vasu now had no reason to remain within the confines of his car. He stood confidently outside on the pavement. Occasionally, he would make his usual hand gestures in appreciation. But these moments were rare. But all this was making Basant very anxious. The man who took great pride in the fact that he sang without any inhibitions was suddenly feeling that he was being watched. The free bird was in danger of being caught. It was showing in his singing.
The next couple of days, Basant took off from work. He sat in his shack the whole day pondering over the possibility of an old man trying to dominate and confine him. But he knew there was also the possibility that he might be able to learn something new, which he otherwise might not be able to, on his own, coming from the background he came from. Which of the two was true? This was the great dilemma in his mind. There was also another question troubling him. Why was this man trying to help him at the first place? There was only one way to find out. By confronting him.
The next day it had been drizzling since morning. The morning walkers were missing and so was Basant. Vasu parked his car at the usual place and looked around anxiously. He couldn’t find Basant.
“Have I scared him away by being too dominant”, whispered Vasu to himself.
He got down from the car and crossed the road to go to the spot where he usually found Basant every day. The rain got heavier. Vasu was drenched but unwilling to give up. But Basant was nowhere to be seen.
Just then, he heard a voice calling out to him. Vasu noticed a hand waving at him from inside an old abandoned van parked at the side of the road, 50 metres from where he was. He ran towards it and peeped inside. He found Basant comfortably sitting inside the van and eating a banana!