Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Invitation

Sangeetha stood behind the mike and matched the scale given by the orchestra. The music director waved his hand and the orchestra began. Getting her cue, Sangeetha closed her eyes and began singing, her concentration only on the tune, the beat and the pitch.

When the song ended, there was total silence - she was used to it. She opened her eyes, and the applause from the director and the other assistants began. She smiled a half smile, inclined her head and stepped out of the studio.

The music director hugged her and led her out. She paused near the lead violinist on her way out and congratulated him for getting the raga well. He blushed and lowered his head shyly. She did a thumbs up to the orchestra and waited at the gate for the car to pick her up. Waving a bye to the director, she headed home where her mother waited for her with steaming hot dinner. After a fulfilling meal, she went to her room with the intention of curling in the bed with a book. But she saw the canvas with a half done painting and she paused. She was tired, but felt heavy after the dinner. She would anyway have to stay up for the food to be digested...

The steep hills, the temple atop it, the pilgrims, the setting sun... They beckoned her. Unable to resist the urge, she picked up the brush and examined it awhile, wondering which part needed her attention first.

When she put the brush down, she was astounded to see the time was 2 am! She had been up three hours, at least two hours longer than intended. But the painting was done and she felt fulfilled.

The book, the crime thriller that had her hooked, had to wait.

She woke up late, but refreshed and ready to tackle the world. She helped her mother in the kitchen, as they interspersed the companionable silence with tit-bits about their day. And then, after a heavy breakfast, she left for the design studio where she worked. A trained singer and designer, she had pursued a career in design before a singing opportunity fell in her lap unexpectedly. Though it was sporadic, she had a few loyal music directors who called her to sing at least one song for them. That kept her happy while allowing her to focus on her career. Painting was a hobby that she had nurtured on her own.

As Facebook usage became popular, she posted her works  - be it a good design, a to-be-released song or her own brushwork - periodically there and was gratified to hear the positive feedback - as if anyone ever says negative there, she thought ruefully, aware that her painting could improve and that maybe she should get a formal training.

That evening, she got slightly delayed at work, but that was not enough to stop her from taking her ritual jog-walk around her gated apartment complex. Though she liked to listen to music at that time, it was also the only time she connected with her friendly neighbours. She would maintain her brisk pace, outpace most other walkers, but spare a moment to smile and exchange a greeting.

She spotted many of the regular walkers and the irregular one too - Ravindra Bakshi. A smile played on her lips that she quickly suppressed. The man was with his wife - a middle aged but well-preserved couple. Bindiya, his wife, jogged regularly but because of his travels, he was often missing. Despite that, he must have been working out regularly for he looked trim and fit. The two also were passably good singers, who regaled the apartment residents during cultural events with well-chosen duets.

As she crossed them, the two greeted her and the three paused briefly for a chat. In the next round, the wife was missing, but the husband strolled more leisurely. A naughty smile sprang up on Sangeetha's lips again. And as she expected, Ravi hailed her and said, "Hey, I must congratulate you on the latest upload." He extended his hand and she took it graciously. All the while, she was trying hard to suppress the laughter. He inevitably did this - when there was company, he kept his hands to himself, but the moment they were alone, he would come up with some excuse to shake her hand.

It was just a handshake and Sangeetha didn't let it bother her much. The slyness amused her, and the fact that their paths seldom crossed and he never crossed the line reassured her.

As she checked her phone that evening, she was surprised to see her name added to a music group in the building. Ravi had added her. She had vaguely heard about there being a group that met periodically to sing, but did not know how often or when. She was in two minds about whether to exit or wait and watch. Her weekends were precious, and often saw her touring for music shows or on work.

Seeing no harm, though, she let herself be part of the group. She couldn't attend the first two music sessions due to prior commitments. There were several requests asking her to participate. "I will, the next time, surely," she replied politely. They asked her for a convenient date, and though a couple said they could not make it on that date, most decided to go ahead and keep it on that date. There was no escape option now.

She was surprised at how much she enjoyed herself. Though amateur, many sang pretty well. When Ravi and Bindiya took the mike to sing a duet, there was much clapping. They were quite popular, clearly, and looked very much the loving couple even though they seemed to be in their 40s and had grown up children. Requests for romantic duets were piled on them.

Next all eyes turned to Sangeetha. She tried to resist singing, but realising she was probably sounding pricey, she picked up the mike to sing one of the old songs. "One of yours please," the neighbours demanded when she was done. For the next 30 minutes, she sang the songs they requested and the ones that she could remember. She had not expected to enjoy herself so much as familiarity and admiration intermingled to give the evening a unique touch. She warmly thanked everyone for the wonderful evening.

The next morning, she saw a personal message from Ravi, complimenting her on her singing the previous evening. "I am still floating on the sublime quality of your voice..." he said.

"Thank you," she responded and posted a smiley.

"I am also your follower on Facebook. What lovely paintings and designs you create...!"


"Not many people are multi-talented like you... Really admirable..."

She thought ruefully of her ex-husband who had found her talents overwhelming. "Can't you cut down on something? You are packing your schedule too tight," he had complained. "Women, even men, in my family do not associate themselves with the film world," he had tried to raise objection on that too. "The hours you keep... How can we run a family like this?" he had demanded. "When can we raise the family?" he had tackled. "You are only doing this to win admirers," he finally expressed the deepest of his fears.

Once those words were out, it became a no-holds bar between them. Every admiring comment on Facebook, in the media, in Whatsapp became scrutinised for mal-intentions. "How is it my fault if they appreciate me?" she asked defensively. "Stop playback singing. That's not what you wanted to do, in any case..."

Ping... She looked at her phone, tearing her thoughts away from her past which she had left behind. Each had been dragging the other down and losing happiness in the process. Though her decision to leave him shocked him, still, finally, he bowed to her logic and they separated - as friends, but had not kept in touch since then.

She blinked as she reread the message more closely. "We can discuss over a cup of coffee..."

She scrolled up and saw what he wanted to discuss, "Your paintings should be exhibited. I have some friends..."

"That would be lovely," she responded noncommittally.

"We could even travel and spend some time understanding your style and preferences."

Sangeetha felt numb. "I will coordinate with Bindiya on the dates" she replied coolly.

"Hahaha, she has no understanding of art. The two of us can take this forward..."

"There is no forward! You are a family man and I have other commitments. Kindly do not make such suggestions henceforth."

"I am sorry! I thought you and I shared a wavelength! Please do not dismiss this lightly. You are so talented and beautiful! I cannot forget you. Please don't refuse my offer... All expenses, paid for. I can tell you, I will make the experience unforgettable."

Sangeetha stared at the chat, shocked and disbelieving. She was offended at being clubbed with him as regards the wavelength. The compliment seemed insincere. And the offer to pay, cheap. Even misplaced love would have soothed her hurt emotions. But to have been taken for a loose woman...!

"Already I would like to forget this," she said and blocked his chat.

That evening, she saw the couple ahead of her. She flushed and looked about. She spotted a group of ladies walking towards her, paused and waved. She hoped to merge with the crowd when they overtook the Bakshi couple.

As the group reached them, one of the ladies called out to Bindiya. "Happy wedding anniversary, Bindiya. What's special?"

Bindiya blushed and looked at Ravi, who laughed sheepishly.

"Oooh, what a cute couple," one of the ladies cooed enthusiastically and the others applauded spontaneously.

"You are an example to others... Really, it's a delight to see the two of you together," an elderly lady commended them.

Sangeetha's eyes involuntarily went to Ravi as her lips curled into a smirk. She caught his pleading look and looked away, contempt etched all over her face. When they turned to leave the couple to continue their walk, she thought she heard him say a thanks specially to her.

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