He cleared his throat knowing she’d be annoyed with the intrusion. But it couldn’t wait.
She opened her eyes, still in a daze…the riyaaz always took her to another zone. Then her brows crinkled with annoyance. She hated being interrupted during the practice.
“You need to take the call. It’s him.” The name was never uttered between them. That was how it had been decided and agreed.
The tanpura slipped from her hand, a blasphemy which had never occurred.
Gripping the mobile tight, her knuckles turned white, she whispered, “I’ll be there. I..I’ll be there. Please don’t… take care…please.” She couldn’t bring herself to utter the words. She shut her eyes tight but only for a second. Time was of essence and she couldn’t waste any. Turning around hurriedly, she faced him. Their eyes met. His were calm but a storm lurked somewhere deep within. One that he had trained to control. She didn’t try to stop the tears.
“He…he is dyin…”
“Go. Don’t waste time. Go.” His voice was barely a whisper. He turned around and walked away quickly before anything else could be said.
“Go. Go away. I don’t want to see you. Ever.” Those were his last words. Was that 15 years ago? Anuradha reminisced, resting her chin on her palm, staring out of the window as the car sped towards Shimla airport. The sweeping view of the majestic Himalayas, the pine covered winding roads; that she loved to gaze at, breathing in deep gulps of the fresh mountain air… she didn’t notice anything. She was far away. 15 years back into the past. Her past. She had won the contest; the much coveted title of the singing sensation; a nationwide competition that picked the best talent. Her dream had come true. In a matter of weeks from singing at colony functions, Anuradha began singing for leading music directors of Bollywood. Sometimes it felt like a wild dream and she feared she’d wake up.
Little did she know that everything comes at a price. Even happiness. Especially happiness. To make her dream come true, Anuradha had to forgo another dream. Ashutosh. Her Ashu.
“I know you’ll win. I believe in you. I do.” His words echoed in her heart and mind every time she stepped on the stage. That night when she closed her eyes and sang her favourite song aaj kal payon zameen par nahin padte mere…she was thinking of Ashu. When they announced the winner’s name, her name; all she could think of was him. Ashu, hold me. Just hold me. The lights, music and thunderous applause blinded her senses. He was there in the audience, somewhere. She knew it.
Anuradha had no recollection of boarding the flight. Before switching off the mobile, she made the call again.
“How is he? I’m on my way. Please …just…I’m on my way.”
I’ve paid a heavy price for my dream. Anuradha touched the huge rock on her ring finger. She agreed to marry Ranjit, the famous music director. He had the right connections to help her get where she wanted. The very top.
“The world will be at your feet, Anuradha. I will make it happen. I can make it happen. But for that you have to marry me. Also no one will dare take advantage of you if you’re my wife.”
The incident with the lecherous director … she felt nauseated thinking about it. Ranjit had barged in and cuffed the man threatening him.
“Marry me Anu. You’ll be safe. And I can take you where you dream of going.” He had said, wrapping her with his jacket handing her a steaming cup of tea.
He hadn’t been sleazy about it. Very clear and upfront. It wasn’t a one night’s invitation to warm his bed. He wanted the singing sensation of the country to be his legally wedded wife. The director and the singer duo.
In the tussle between ambition and love; the latter paled. Love wasn’t enough, it never is. And Ashu had such lofty dreams which never materialized.
“You are such a romantic. You romanticize even poverty and failure.” She had spat out viciously one evening when he was spewing gyan on how brilliance is born only out of struggle. He refused to be dictated by corporates on what he should paint.
“How does it matter?? Just do it Ashu. It’s a huge offer and the money is so good.”
“I’m not like you. I will not bludgeon my craft for money.” He retorted. She had wanted to slap him for saying that.
“Of course. Your pride allows you to take money from your girlfriend to make rent but compromise with your hallowed art…that’s unthinkable.” She regretted it the moment she said it.
The crack deepened and Ranjit slowly eased himself in widening the rift. He knew Ashu and also knew it was only a matter of time before Anu would get fed up of the idealistic simple man. And he would be there. For her. He knew love could never hold fort against ambition. But what he didn’t know was lost love is a deeply embedded thorn that makes the heart bleed slowly. Every time Anuradha sang, in the studio, on the stage, in the house…he knew she was singing for him. He loved her and kept his end of the bargain and more. He composed songs for her, which catapulted her to great heights and even greater honour. He composed for her but Anuradha sang for the love she left behind. The love that she crushed to get ahead.
Anu jumped out of the car even before it had stopped. She almost stumbled but it didn’t matter.
“Madam! This way.” The doctor had been waiting for her. He had cleared the lobby off all visitors and ensured she could have complete privacy. But today, Anu didn’t care or bother about anything. She ran, the doctor ran behind trying to keep up, directing her towards the room.
“Ashu!” she ran towards the small heap on the bed. She stood near the bed and touched the shoulder. How bony and fragile it feels?
Their eyes met. 15 years had gone by since she had looked at the whiskey brown eyes. Today they were glassy, glazed…trying to focus on the face that sat near him. She touched his calvous head, which once had long silken hair. She loved running her fingers through them. A shadow of a smile appeared on her lips as the memory of afternoons, nights spent wrapped in each other’s arms flashed by. The smile gave way to tears.
“Ashu, it’s me. Koel.” It was his moniker for her. No one knew or called her by that name. Not even Ranjit.
His lips moved slightly as his fingers tried to find her hand. She held his hand, knowing what he wanted. There was so much she wanted to tell him. I love you, Ashu. I never stopped loving you…so many things. But there wasn’t any time for that. And she knew that he knew. He always did.
She got closer to him and began singing. All his favourites. Her favourites. The melodious golden classics. This time she didn’t close her eyes. Her eyes never left him. She sang in her clear full throated voice. As her voice floated through the open window and the door, people stopped to listen. It was mesmerizing. But like always anu wasn’t singing for anyone else. She was singing for the only man she ever loved. The man whose frail hands trembled in her palms. She could feel his breath ebb and when his eyes became still, she placed his hand on the chest, kissed him for the last time.
Then she opened a small vial which hung under her locket and emptied the contents in her mouth and swallowed it. She barely felt the burning sensation in her throat. She wouldn’t die, she had no intention to. She just made sure the Koel would never be able to sing again. After all the Koel only sings for her love.