“I want to sleep,” Neela grimaced looking at the clock. It was 5.30 am. “I don’t even have school today!” complained the eleven-year-old as she made to lie down again.
“No, no, Neela baby!” her mother Kiran said, holding her daughter’s head before it touched the pillow. She pulled the child to her and made her get up. “You know what your new music teacher said? You must practice early in the morning for your voice to become sweeter.”
"I don't like the music teacher," grumbled Neela.
"She is so gentle and sweet," Kiran protested. "And, she is turning you into such a fine singer!"
"I don't want to be a fine singer. I just want to sleep," the girl said as she closed her eyes and yawned.
"No, no! You have so much to prepare!! Come, come, come!" Kiran picked up her daughter and headed for the bathroom. In the last six months, the intense music practice, lack of any play and bribing the child with chocolates and sweets had made even carrying her difficult. But Kiran was ready to do anything to see her darling daughter selected as the little champ in music. She had the voice. She had the talent. Just a little bit of fine tuning... Just a little bit.
"Just think," as she helped her daughter freshen up and gave her a glass of milk with turmeric and honey. "You will be the voice of India!"
Neela sulked as she let her mother cajole her into believing how good she was. "You can pick up any rag just like that... And you can play with it, tease it out... You have a bright future in music... You just have to approach it with devotion..."
Neela loved hearing this. Every morning, every evening. Every time her guru seemed unhappy, every time she herself was unhappy. Every time a new song seemed difficult to learn. Every time she wanted to play with her friends but couldn't. Every time she wanted to sleep more, but had to wake up early. Every time her voice and chest hurt from all the practice. These words of assurance kept her going.
Finally, the day of auditions arrived. The long cue, the hundreds of young aspirants, the sweat, the stinky toilets...
Neela shrank under the stress. She was tired by the time her turn came. But her mother stood by her, patting her, cajoling her, boosting her confidence. "This is it, now nothing can stop you..." she whispered as Neela went on stage.
She sang what came to her naturally. As she finished, she waited to look at the judges - leading musicians in the film industry. Their heads bent, they discussed intensely. One of them looked up. Neela's heart sank, but she calmed herself that this was a ploy they always used.
"You sang well, beta..." the first one started and paused.
"Very tuneful, soulful... I liked it... Let's see what the other two say," said the second noncommittally. Neela was sure of having bagged it. But still, her heart raced and her body trembled.
"We feel that you have potential... But, you need more practice. The standards are going up every year..." the third said, trying to sound encouraging.
Neela stood rooted to the spot. Tears flowed, but she felt nothing. She felt an arm around her and saw her mother. Her eyes accused her mother of lying to her.
Her mother's eyes blamed her for failure.
When they walked out, the mother whispered, "Next year."
The daughter replied vehemently, "Never."