“One vive star, brother!” Murlidhar’s voice is slurry when he speaks to the shopkeeper. The latter, a lean tall young man in a brown crumpled shirt and yellow pants was in the process of shutting down the bakery for the day. He looked tired, the entire weight of the day and the expectant weight of the one to come clearly evident on the wrinkles on the forehead.
Despite Murlidhar’s slur, he understood perfectly well that he meant a bar of five start chocolate. It wasn’t the first time that Murlidhar was buying one from his shop.
“Today you seem to be in a better mood than usual!” exclaimed the shopkeeper, handing the late-night customer a bar of chocolate that comes in a golden wrapper which would be torn out as soon as Murli’s son gets his hand on it.
“Yes, my livvle one has been down with a fever for two weeks now. Both I and his mother were worried sick. Thought it would never end..finally, it has come down! That’s why we went out and drank tonight!” Murlidhar patted Raghavan on the shoulder, as though the latter had something to do to bring about the child’s recovery.
Raghavan who was smoking a cigarette said in a laconic manner, “As if we need an excuse to drink!”
Murlidhar laughed. The shopkeeper joined him. After paying him, Murli walked away, an arm thrown around the shoulder of his friend, both of them swaying a little and laughing a lot. At what exactly, neither was sure.
One usually don’t get to see too many stars in Kormangala. That’s probably true for most of Bangalore. The sky appears to be a rough black stone on which was smeared some sort of grease- grease which takes away the sheen of the cosmos and also blocks the view of the stars, reducing them to tiny pinprick lights which shimmer from behind a veil.
But tonight, it looked to Murli as though the sky was overflowing with stars, so much so that Murli thought that a few might overspill and fall to the earth.
He made this observation while he was standing in front of a wall, urinating. The wall had the letters ‘Stick no bills’ stenciled on it, under the stark light of the yellow street light, the black letters glistened like a snake’s skin.
“There are so many stars out tonight! Isn’t that so, Raghava?”
Raghavan stood by the roadside, lighting another cigarette from the one that’s almost over. At Murli’s question, he merely grunted.
“You are not that interested in the stars, are you?” said Murli, zipping up after obeying the call of nature, walking on his shaky legs towards Raghav.
“Whenever have I given you such an impression?”
At this Murli began to laugh again. They started walking.
“Say, like that shopkeeper said, you do look extremely happy tonight! What’s happening?” said Raghav, taking another drag from his cigarette, looking a bit reflective, as is the case sometimes when he got drunk.
“Nothing da!” said Murli, asking him for a drag of smoke. “It’s what I told the guy. Saurav is much better now. And it was such a huge relief to arrive home and see him running to me.. The entire tension of the day sort of drains away. It’s the only way it goes away.” He sighed, took another drag before passing the cigarette back to Raghav.
From his friend’s suddenly deepened voice, Raghav could tell that he was thinking of his job.
Murli worked as a floor manager at the dyeing unit for a fabric factory. Just the other day, he told Raghav how new bigger players in the field are causing a lot of problems for the company, about the company’s stocks going down, about the rumours that the management is contemplating downsizing, about how the rumour could be more than just a rumour.
Raghav thought it would be a good idea to steer him away from such thoughts.
“Why don’t you sing a song, macha?” he said. “You are so much happier tonight anyway! And as you said, there are many stars out tonight. A perfect night for singing!” Raghav had to shout to make himself heard over the sound of a passing truck.
“Okay, what shall I sing?” said Murli, intrigued by the idea. He seemed to have forgotten, at least for the time being how the last time he sang while the both of them were drunk, Raghav had likened the endeavor to a pig snorting.
“What about the one about the man who got arrested for peeking into the wrong woman’s room?” suggested Raghav.
“No, not here!” exclaimed Murli suddenly. “What if someone who knows me passes by! My reputation will be affected! For an unmarried person like you, reputation isn’t that important. But for me, it’s a different matter..”
It was nearly midnight. It seemed highly unlikely that anyone from the neighbourhood would be passing them by at this hour, thought Raghav. But he decided not to point that out to his friend. If he said something like that, Murli would just get into an argument.
Instead, he said, “Then what about the one about the man who climbed the hill to find the pearl! You said it’s an old Kannada poem! So even if someone heard you, you will be considered erudite. Also, it has a good rhythm, I can help you keep it by snapping fingers.”
“Yes, it is a good one to sing,” said Murli, “but I feel like sivving an English song da!”
“Then, sing one machaa!” said Raghav, who knew that Murli was most fun when he sang English songs-not least because Murli’s fluency in English was equivalent to the moon’s ability to appear during the daytime.
“I feel like I should sing this one song!”
“Which song, machaa?”
“You know the one in that film!” said Murli, squinting hard with the effort to think.
“Which film, machaa?”
“That one, da!”
“You will need to be a bit more specific,” said Raghav, already enjoying the way in which the conversation was proceeding.
“Ah, I mean the one with the ship sinking!” uttered Murli irritated,
“Titanic!?” said Raghav, more an exclamation than a question.
“Yes, that’s the one!” Murli snapped his fingers, a smug grin appeared on his face as if satisfied by his friend’s powers of memory.
“But that’s a really old movie,da!” Raghav said, even as he laughed.
“So what, it’s a great song!”Even as he said it, Murli was straining to remember. “How did it go though?”
“Don’t look at me,” said Raghav, “I didn’t like the film to begin with. And I do recall seeing the video for the song once -the one in which a thin tall white woman sings as if the only thing wrong with the world is that bloody ship going down!”
“But it is a beautiful song! I used to play it at home a lot, even after Saurav was born. It was only when the CD went bust that I stopped,” said Murli, half-amused at whatever good memories that Dion’s voice brought him. “But I still cannot remember the words!”
Of course, a bust CD is no reason to stop listening, you can download it off the net. But Raghav knew well that Murli wasn’t in that earnest to get the song.
“Am a Barbie girl?” suggested Raghav
“No, that’s aother one.”
“We are going to Ibiza?” came the next suggestion.
Murli shook his head. “No, that’s another song..came long before the Titanic one, if I remember correctly.”
“Then I give up!” said Raghav, taking another drag from the cigarette and throwing the butt on the ground, crushing it underfoot casually as part of his drunken stroll.
“Evert night in my dreams, I see you, I hear you…” the voice was so crisp and high that it easily rose above the noise of the passing vehicles.
Murli and Raghav looked at each other in surprise. From the quality of the voice, and more importantly that it belonged to a woman had alerted both to the fact that it wasn’t the other who was singing. Plus, the enunciations were pitch perfect-neither of the friend’s English was that refined.
And the singing continued, the words falling in place one after the other with nary a doubtful hesitation. The only pauses in the song came where they were called for.
Listening to the song compounded the drink-induced dizziness that was swirling inside Murli’s brain. There was a certain intoxicating quality to the voice.
However on Raghav, it had the opposite effect-for he felt himself sobering up, little by little with every word of the song.
“That is how I know you, I see you…” the voice now sang. Murli imagined the words to be luminescent like the stars, indeed, in his mind’s eye he saw the words break down into a million sparkles that rose to the sky and joined the plentiful stars which illuminated the Kormangala sky on this night.
“Who is it, machaa?” Raghav’s question was more a rhetoric than a question. He didn’t expect an answer. In fact seeing the rather dazed look on his friend’s face(dazed even than before, that is), he felt fairly certain that at this point even a simple question posed to Murli like what’s the capital of India? Would be greeted with a ridiculous answer. Something like Khurdistan or something.
But curiosity made him raise the question nonetheless.
Almost helplessly, Raghav driven by curiosity and Murli guided by an allure of the voice which he took to be divine-a goddess singing maybe, both of them followed in the direction from which came the voice.
On the way, they passed a police jeep though they were barely perceptive of it-their minds were a swirl of white, strange voice and a ship going down and the faces that their imagination threw up-belong to a goddess in Murli’s mind and to an enchantress in Raghav’s, so that anything pedestrian like a police jeep parked by the roadside with a couple of cops leaning against it didn’t make much of an impression on their minds.
But the cops did see them, looked at them and then smiled at each other. “Silly drunks!” muttered one of them. They couldn’t figure out what made these silly drunks walk faster-faster than their inebriated brains could actually support. What made these two appear so comical, slamming into each other as they tread a wavy path and yet not seeming to be aware of the fact, their eyes wide with curiosity, expectantly looking forward, stretching their necks, eager to see whatever they wanted to see, even though ahead of them stretched a steep downhill path- a small bylane in which all the commercial establishments and houses were fast asleep.
No, they couldn’t see what it was all about at all.
Neither could they hear anything, except for the rumble of the vehicles on the road, the occasional high-throated laughter of a man or a woman, going home with friends after a night of drinking-the kind of sounds which are the background track of the night reels of any night patrolman’s life.
But Raghav and Murli could still hear the voice. “My heart will go on!” the voice rose to a crescendo. “Yes, yes, that’s the song!” Murli exclaimed, unable to contain the sudden burst of joy which the song brought on.
It was not Celine Dion who was singing it, that he was sure.
For one thing, the sound was too mellow, unlike Dion’s rather open voice. Also, there was a softness to it which indicated a much younger person-perhaps a teen.
“But whoever it is, she’s singing great!” exclaimed Murli.
“What?” said Raghav, brought out of his fixation on the singing voice by Murli’s exclamation.
Murli, of course didn’t answer. He hasn’t even heard what was asked, for that matter.
They walked down the small lane each step along which took them closer to the voice. In fact, now the voice was so clear and loud in their ears that it was all that they could hear.
There were crickets chirping, a dog barked at them from behind the closed gate of a house, the sound of gunshots arose from a second floor window where someone was watching the television, the changing colours of the screen reflected on the glass panes of the window.
But neither Murli nor Raghav had eyes or ears for such things. This was the lane that they usually took on nights like this- a little way further ahead and a right turn and then the first right, the second house on the left is where Murli lived with his mother, wife and son. Instead of taking the right, if you just kept on the road you would eventually come to a restaurant called ‘Neat chomp!”. It was on the top floor of the restaurant that Raghav lived, a studio apartment which had the provisions to cook-a separate area with a cooktop and everything but in which Raghav rarely cooked because he rarely feel like it.
But their respective homes were not on their minds. And on this night when the stars were brighter than ever and the cool wind perfectly complemented the heat of spirit within, they felt as though the path they were walking on, complete with dog turds which is something of a mainstay in Bangalore, belonged to some other realm-one where the merits and demerits of time are not applicable and where exists just one thing alone-this voice, so soft and yet commanding, unlike any voice one may assume belongs to the planet earth.
They soon came to the source of that voice.
It was a two storeyed building on the left, standing under the canopy of a huge tree which neither of the friends could identify-inebriated or not. On the exterior walls of the building and on the compound wall were painted multiple figures of cartoon characters- mostly belonging to Disney but there were also Chotta Bheem and Hanuman. The dominating picture-the largest among them as well as the one which took up the central portion on the beam above the main entrance was that of Tom and Jerry.
All the images were starkly lit in the glow of the light from the street lamp that stood just beside the gate of the building. The gate itself was locked, with multiple windings of a chain and a padlock. However, there didn’t seem to be any security guard posted at the building.
Now that they were standing in front of the building on a deserted lane at this time of the night-past midnight, actually, when he checked his watch Raghav willfully detached himself from the charm of the voice and looked all around -to see if there was anyone watching them, perhaps an insomniac on a balcony or a wife who couldn’t sleep after a heated row with her husband.
But no, there didn’t appear to be anyone up. And peering above the lane, he could see the back edge of a police jeep but none of the cops. And he doubted if they would look this way, unless they made some noise.
Nonetheless, he didn’t think it a good idea for them to be just standing around like this for long. Before he could mention this though, Murli said, “Come, let’s climb the gate!”
The last time they did something like this-trespassing into a private property was when they were 10. That was to pick guava off a tree that belonged to a neighbor, not to examine a strange voice that was coming from a playschool building.
“Are you sure?” he said. “What if it is just a mad woman?”
Murli, still not taking his eyes away from the building, his mind still struck with the beauty of the voice, said, “But this particular song at just the right time…I think it’s calling out to us!”
A few questions did rise in Raghav’s mind. Like, what exactly is calling out to us? And also, maybe it’s just a coincidence that a mad woman thought of singing this song at that exact moment? But such questions were moot when faced with the fact which was now dawning on Raghav-it appeared that they were the only ones who could hear it. Otherwise, he was sure that someone in the neighborhood would have come awake to inspect. The compelling nature of the voice wouldn’t have it any other way.
Curiosity got the better of him. He nodded to Murli.
Murli climbed the gate immediately. What with the ornate design on it, there were plenty of footholds for an easy climb. But the padlock beat against the gate under the motion caused by Murli climbing over it.
Raghav winced, looked around for any sudden lights. Thankfully, the only other commercial establishment in the lane seemed to be a small café on the opposite side, and all the rest of the buildings were independent houses, none of them bungalows. Bungalows and larger commercial establishments meant security guards.
“Aren’t you coming?” Murli called out from the other side of the gate. Presently, he bowed down to collect the Five-Star chocolate bar which fell off his pocket while jumping the gate.
Raghav followed his friend in, making as little noise as possible. Now he could hear the crickets chirping alongside the sound of the song. Now he was more alert.
Murli, on the other hand was still behaving as if the world consisted of nothing but the voice.
“The front door is closed!” he said in a hushed tone after trying the handle.
“Of course it is, it’s 12:35 AM!” said Raghav, having second thoughts as to whether they were doing the right thing. Nonetheless, he was amused by the fact that Murli, who wouldn’t even sing a particular song citing the possibility of bad reputation displaying no qualms in breaking and entering an unknown building.
“I think the voice is coming from that side!” Murli said, and without waiting for Raghav proceeded towards the back of the building, pushing aside a branch of a rose bush that partially inhibited the way. Raghav closely followed him.
Upon reaching the backyard-where a few figures of gnomes looked lonely under the moonlight, Murli saw that the backdoor was open. The building was in fact a house that was repurposed into a playschool.
As Murli stepped towards the yawning darkness within the door, Raghav placed a hand on his arm, and said, “Murli, are you sure? We are entering a place we shouldn’t be?” Raghav only realized what he said after he said it. Something about all this now struck him as strange- a little too strange.
Even Murli, now that he was so close to the source of the voice, seemed to have come out of the quasi-hypnosis he was under-his eyes glazed a little lesser now and his pupils constricted. He looked at Raghav and said, “I came here two days ago, with my wife. To enroll Saurav. He will start his playschool from next week.”
Raghav remembered Murli telling him something about enrolling Saurav in a playschool-being not all that interested in family matters(a relationship that lasted for 4 months made him come to the conclusion that women are just too ignorant and high-minded at the same time to be considered real, except for the flesh of course), he has forgotten all about it.
“So, this is the place?” he said.
Murli nodded. “As I said, I have a feeling it’s calling out to us, that this isn’t a coincidence.”
This time, the question of what exactly it was that was calling out to them didn’t even occur to Raghav.
For the voice now abruptly stopped singing and spoke to them. “Don’t just stand at the doorway, come on in!” There was a certain quality to the voice which fell between slyness and coquettishness which both the men noticed.
They stepped in, cautiously, putting one step in front of the other as though this were a tightrope walk.
Soon as they got in they were greeted with a cold as though someone has let a freezer door open. A pretty big freezer at that.
There was a window on the wall to their right. Curtainless, a hazy blue light shimmered against the windowpane.
In the dim light that was thus afforded Raghav could make out a few details- a small wooden horse that stood a few feet in front of them beside a broken castle made of lego blocks. On the wall was an alphabet poster with the English alphabets and a picture of a word which begins with each of them.
An image of Tom with his arms raised above the fleeing Jerry was pasted above this. In the partial light of the night, Raghav felt the image had an ominous quality.
Something stirred in the dark.
The duo peered into the space in front of them. At a distance, beyond the short corridor in front of them another window, this one also curtainless, the light spilling on the floor illuminated a few toys-trains, building blocks and an open boardgame.
Whoever ran this place didn’t believe in ‘everything in its right place,’ thought Raghav.
Something stirred again.
And this time, they got a sight of it- a spectral being passing across the window of the living room. Without being aware of it, they both moved closer to each other.
“What was that, macha?” whispered Murli, his voice hoarse.
As if in answer, a woman floated into view. Her entire being a white luminescence which however didn’t illuminate her surroundings-it was as though she wanted her audience’s attention at herself and herself alone.
At the sight of the woman, Murli once again felt his mind succumbing to the throes of another hypnosis. As best as he could, he tried to fight the impulse. However, it couldn’t be said that he was too successful in the endeavor. Women who floated around wasn’t exactly something that made for a daily event, and whatever charm that such a vision brings in its wake has to be savoured, for who knows when it will happen next? So whispered a part of Murli’s mind.
The petite woman had the blackest hair that Murkli had ever seen. Her face a near-perfect oval, and notwithstanding the luminous skin, it was all too easy to imagine how beautiful she would have looked when alive.
The thought didn’t disturb Murli at all, the fact that she was dead was a conviction he accepted with the easiness of someone acknowledging the fact that tapioca grew under ground while jack fruit was to be found above it.
“I cannot express how glad I am to see you both. It’s been so long since my eyes have fallen on mortals!” she said with evident cheer, a smile creasing her light-like cheeks.
Murli was imagining how extraordinarily she looked when she smiled. Supple though her voice was, she was no child nor teen, she was a woman who must have been in her late twenties when she passed away.
As for Raghav, he only had eyes only for her feet, or rather the space beneath her feet, thin air separating them from the ground. A sight which captivated him like a magician’s trick would a small boy.
“What-who are you?” said Murli once he could find his voice.
“Oh, how silly of me not to have introduced myself,” said the woman or the woman’s ghost, rather. “My name is Sicilia. I used to work here, in this playschool, as an aaya. You know taking care of the children, seeing to it that they ate their food and didn’t fight with each other while the teachers would be busy teaching them, or rather chatting amongst themselves, to tell you the truth.”
She looked at either of them, eyelashes fluttering, her arms clasped together in front of her bellybutton- a gesture so like that of a child’s when it would want to impress a teacher with homework done earlier than usual.
Realizing that she expected to be appreciated for this, Murli said, “How nice!” He nudged Raghav with his elbow. Raghav lookep up and said, “Yes, that’s right!” without really know what it was they were talking about.
“But what happened to you?” Murli said.
Sicilia floated closer to them and the chill intensified, so much so that to Murli, it felt like a thousand icy pin pricks bloomed on his skin.
Sicilia’s face fell. Murli was alarmed to see it, wondering if it was his question that caused such sadness in so beautiful a being. Her pearl like eyes became slits under the pressure of that sadness. If he could he would have taken the question back.
“I died,” she said, “Or rather I had to kill myself.”
She looked up to see what effect this statement had on the two. They looked eager to know more about her than ever before.
“You see, I…I will be candid with you when I say that I used to love the children who come here.”
The tone in which she said this implied that she should be ashamed of this. Eager to bring the happiness back on that face and to see it radiant in a smile again, Murli said, “What’s to be sad about it?” He looked at Raghav as if for acknowledgement. Never in the habit of failing his friend, Raghav nodded.
But when Sicilia spoke again, it was in that same melancholy tone: “No, it’s not how you think…I loved them in a special way..” and when the two didn’t appear to have a clue about what she’s talking about, “In a physical way. I liked boys, not girls, and whenever I could get some time alone with any of them-and such instances, though not frequently happened did arise, I would get intimate with them, if you know what I mean.”
Her eyes fluttered again though neither of the men thought it cute this time.
“And this song, my heart will go on-my favourite-I would hum it to them when I was loving them the way I did.”
Raghav was by now thinking whether he should be shocked more by the fact that she was a ghost or of what she did to those kids. Murli, on the other hand was thinking of his son.
“The teachers caught me at it one day,” Sicilia continued. “They informed the management but due to the bad rep that it would cause, they kept mum about it. They fired me, of course, after which I joined another play school. There also they caught me. But this time, they handed me to the cops. Once I was out of prison I went home to my parents. It’s the hometown where I grew up in. Everyone knows me. The shame was too much for me and I killed myself.”
She looked at them both, saw their eyes observing her in a more detached manner. They didn’t look charmed anymore.
Murli felt like puking, he was sure it wasn’t all the drink that was resurfacing.
Raghav felt revolted with the cold which has now enveloped them both like a sheath. He imagined the cold to be part of this woman
Seeing their cold stares she frowned and said, “Don’t you feel sympathy for me?”
She said it as casually as one might ask a garment seller, Do you have this piece in so and so a colour?
It was all Murli could do to keep himself from puking.
She looked hurt. A ripple of dark crossed her luminous face, the shadow of deep seated sadness, of ego, of failure to be understood.
“At what times I could materialize like this to mortals, I am not in control of,” she said in a wistful tone. “But one of the times it happens is when someone close by thinks about that song strongly enough.” She laughed, a sad sound if ever there was one, like the wail of a dying man from within a cave, carried across the wide expanse of a desert. “The way in which the metaphysical world works, sometimes, you think it has a humour sense.”
And she began to laugh, a full-throated sound that reverberated within the house, and inside the two men’s minds.
“So, you still..hang around in this playschool?” Murli asked, just to be sure.
The laughter stopped abruptly, she looked down at him.
Fluttering her eyes she said, “Yes. All my favourite pupils were from here.” And she smiled.
But neither Murli nor Raghav stuck around to see that smile. They were out of the back door, hastening towards the gate, not caring if the rose’s thorn hurt them or not, hearing the voice calling after them, “But wouldn’t you stay a while and listen to my exploits! It’s been so long since I have spoken to anyone.” And in a slightly louder voice, “And there’s nothing I like more than talking about my dear little ones.” And while they were climbing the gate out of the compound, “Don’t you have any compassion for the dead?”
Soon after she began singing again.
Both Murli and Raghav were now running, not caring if they woke anyone up with the clamour or not.
Not until they both reached Murli’s home did they stop. While bringing out the key from his pocket he saw that some time during the running, he had lost the five star bar again.
“Maybe you can stay here tonight,” he said, “Leave in the morning?”
Raghav didn’t oppose the idea. All of a sudden, the idea of walking the rest of the way home on his own didn’t seem like a good idea.
Murli went in to the bedroom, saw his son lying asleep beside his wife, safe and sound. After planting a kiss on his forehead, he walked back to the living room where Raghav was curling himself up on the sofa, a thoughtful look on his face.
“What do you make of it, what we saw today?” he asked Murli when he appeared.
Murli looked at him, an expression equal parts confusion and relief on his face. “The cue to not let my son join there,” said Murli in the most neutral of tones.
And that was it. They never spoke of it again, not among themselves, neither to anyone else though whenever they passed by ‘La La Good Land’ playschool, they would find their feet quickening, especially if the sky was brighter than usual that night.
And Murli didn’t hesitate to dump the Celine Dion greatest hits CD in the garbage.