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Musings of a Copywriter

Strumming Me Softly with His Guitar…

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Strumming a guitar promises a note of success and a rush of adrenalin. Otherwise, there is no reason for young men with brawny biceps attired in sleeveless vests to sit beside the grilled window with creeping money plants on the balcony to invest their time and energy to impress the girl next door. Instead of handsome returns, the well-orchestrated operation often draws the unwarranted attention of the girl’s bifocal father who sniffs an ulterior motive while speed-reading the nasty headlines of the newspaper in hand and patrolling the antiskid balcony space in visible anxiety to crack a strategy to foil the covert takeover bid before his innocent girl slips for the nerd rock star.

Despite the long-drawn, dedicated mission of playing popular romantic numbers to woo the girl, my dear friend did not have any stroke of luck. But the girl’s father did suffer an unexpected stroke, leading to the untimely demise of the romantic misadventure. Assailed by the remorse of having stressed out the old fogey with his musical renditions and clandestine romantic intentions, he decided to punish himself by hanging the guitar on the wall. 

Years later, the girl’s mother visited my friend’s house one evening. That she was up to some mischief became evident when she disclosed to my friend’s bride how he played music for her teenage daughter every morning before she left for school. All hell broke loose when he returned home from the tailoring shop to face an angry spouse who picked up the guitar from the wall as if it were a royal sword and presented it to him with a solemn request to strum it and croon something for her. He tried to duck it by saying he had made a vow, a gentleman’s promise to abstain from playing music again. But she spilt the beans, charging him with how desperately and unsuccessfully he once tried to lure the neighbour’s daughter with his musical foray.   

Shocked by this disclosure, he found no escape route from the mess. He had to either recapitulate the long story long forgotten from his point of view or play the instrument and let his wife be instrumental in reviving his defunct musical career. Instead of denying what his wife accused him of doing many moons ago, he added a divine dimension as he decided that musical pursuit could be  another way of attaining God. The fact that he chose the wrong instrument for that purpose was not pointed out by his wife. She was eager to see him perform live and exclusively for her – in front of her smouldering kohl-lined eyes dying to blink in symphony with his heartbeat. She sat on the cushioned swing suspended from the balcony ceiling, with her long, lustrous hair thrown open, with a blooming pink rose plucked from the painted pot kept nearby and tucked neatly in her straightened tresses. He dithered and fine-tuned the guitar and then decided to select a few lilting numbers from his vast repertoire to play for her in the incandescent light of the paper lantern bulbs setting the romantic mood for the musical soiree.  

The story of this guitar began in Delhi when my friend accompanied me on what is called a business cum pleasure trip. Reaching the capital from Kolkata was a historic visit for my friend who was keen to pose in front of the Red Fort and go on a shopping spree in Connaught Place (CP). While walking on the CP pavement, similar to the Grand Hotel Arcade in design, my friend suddenly entered a music instruments store and quoted an incredible budget for an imported guitar. The bewildered shop owner remained quiet and scanned him for a while before asking him the difference between boiled rice and basmati rice. Taking it as an affront to his dignity and knowledge about the price of musical instruments, he shot back in accented Hindi with a quick reply to salvage his self-respect by claiming that his Ustad had taught many Indian classical legends and he knew several of them personally in Kolkata. 

Many other customers inside the store began to label us as pretentious ignoramuses from another planet. The smart-alecky shopkeeper asked us to identify the portraits on the upper portion of the wall right behind his counter. They were the leading lights who patronised his shop to buy instruments and agreed to get clicked with the owners of the music store that had been in existence for more than a century. My friend cast a quick look but failed to recognise any of them. So, the shopkeeper schooled us further by conducting a master class.

We had to either buy the guitar we had asked for or disappear from the store. I took small steps and reached the exit when I heard my friend holler in a stentorian voice: “Pack this guitar for me. Here — take the money.”

The price was well beyond his budget, but he saved our image and came out of the store with the guitar and a cash memo in hand. It was evident from the facial expression he had picked up a costly instrument he was not ready to buy. But the joy of silencing the shopkeeper and mellowing his tenor was a resounding victory, and he claimed he did not argue much regarding music since he respected elders. But an hour later, when he again felt pricked by this expenditure, he exploded in a language devoid of an iota of respect and issued threats of teaching that bald, grinning shopkeeper a proper lesson had this incident occurred in Bengal. The remarkable story of saving dignity became the dominant aspect of purchasing this guitar. I felt he had risen to the occasion though he had to cancel plans for his shopping spree as his money had gone into this guitar. 

He sat with the guitar and posed with fake smiles for my camera to capture. He did not appear comfortable holding it in his hands and passed it to me after a while. I found it a huge responsibility and took extra care of the guitar as we were proudly taking home something pricey. It was nothing less than a trophy won in a tough competition.

This imported guitar regaled many local listeners – including my friend’s wife at present. She had no idea that how her husband had acquired the prized beauty, saved our self-respect, and preserved the prestige of our state known for culture and music by shelling out an enormous amount to grab something rare that few people in our country can afford even today. Although his father never cut anything other than a piece of cloth, he had big dreams of cutting a music album someday, of inviting the Delhi-based shopkeeper to his launch event as the chief guest for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. This would prove that those from a non-privileged background also had the right to contribute to the enrichment of music was music to his ears.     

After returning home, my friend toyed with the idea of forming a music band, got his ears pierced to wear rings to connect with trendy youth, and offered to engage my services as a lyricist. Within the year, even before I could take a call on this offer, the band he had formed with much fanfare was disbanded due to the sudden exit of the lead vocalist poached by a more resourceful rival music band. He soon realized though he was getting offers to perform in local community functions with a limited budget, it was impossible to sustain this ambitious musical venture. Soon, he joined his father’s tailoring unit and restricted his role as a musician to woo the girl he loved. But some people, like my dear friend, are perhaps naturally attracted to failures and their dreams suffer from a chronic motivational deficiency syndrome that leads them to quit at the earliest pretext.

When his mother pressurised him to settle down as he pushed into his mid-thirties, her history of myocardial infarction made him agree to her proposal. And that is how the lady who was now making him sing live for her breezed into his life. In one of her disclosures after marriage, she revealed to my friend that she had agreed to marry him only because she had seen his photograph where he was strumming a guitar. The direct benefit she expected would be the opportunity to listen to his music after a tiring day in the kitchen. But she hesitated to make it explicit so long as her father-in-law was alive. The arrival of the mother of his lost love simplified the matter for her. 

After listening to his live performance for half an hour, she gave her verdict and a standing ovation with thunderous applause. She regretted such a talent could not deliver anything substantial. Even if half of her praise was a pure exaggeration for her doting husband, there were traces of truth in her observation. When she threatened to leave him forever if he did not resume his journey as a guitarist, he agreed to reconsider his earlier decision to give up music for the sake of his lost love. While this was her loving way to resurrect the failed artist and get him back on track, music had the power to make him a divorcee. The prospect of stitching together his life once again looked remote. So, he succumbed to her demands by resuming his practice sessions on the balcony. Unlike the earlier occasion when he sat on the windowsill and performed for the girl outside the house, this musical foray was for the kitchen queen regaling herself with Bollywood numbers and soothing her frayed nerves with the fragrance of tuberoses he brought home for the bedroom vase every evening.  

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


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