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THE BUSKER: A Short Story
The Busker: True merit always shines through.
I heard him play total magic on that old worn out violin in that jam-packed suburban local heading towards Victoria Terminus (VT) from Matunga. The year was 1986 and I had just finished my Batchelor’s degree and had decided to take some time off before I charted a course for my future. In that unyielding heat of June with its heavy overcast monsoon skies, ‘Ek pyaar ka nagmaa hai’ was so ethereal and stirred the soul of this music fanatic. And more mellifluous tunes flowed that afternoon: Jaane kahaan gaye woh din, Chahoonga main tumhe saanj savere, Kahin door jab dil dhal jaaye and the whole compartment was transported to another world. Did not even know how those 30 minutes of travel time on that slow suburban evaporated. I could not get a proper look at the face of the performer due to the clog of the intervening bodies. But I was determined that I will have a word with him at the destination.
The jingling of the coins was pretty heavy as the way faring audience showered their appreciation on the busker. I finally could get a good look at him as the crowd around him thinned. He looked like he was in his late 20s or early 30s. He had streaks of grey hair on his scalp that kind of added to his persona. His dark face was pitted with pox marks and sweat flowed down his forehead like rivulets. His dhoti kurta (traditional Indian dress for men) were tattered and torn in many places and he looked as much worn out as his violin.
‘Bahut accha bajaaya. Naam kya hai tera (Fantastic performance mate, what is your name),’ I offered him a torn tenner, which was the only spare cash that I had in my pocket. The busker took it very gratefully. Ten Rupees was not small change those days.
‘Hira,’ his lips broke into a slight smile revealing his tambakoo (tobacco) stained teeth.
‘Kab aayaa yahaan. Pehla to dekha nai kabhi (When did you come here? I have never seen you before),’ I reciprocated his smile.
‘Do din pehle Gwaaliar se aaya seth. Gareeb kisan ka beta hun (Came two days ago from Gwalior. I’m son of a poor farmer).’
I could now make out that Hira was partially blind. I volunteered to help him alight.
‘Nahi seth. Ab to yehi gaadi mein gaana bajana hai shaam tak. Pet paalna hai seth (No sir. Now I have to spend time on this same train for today. Got to take care of my livelihood).’
‘Accha phir mai jaata hai. Lekin tum to asli kalaakaar ho (I’ll see you some other time mate, but you are indeed a true artist),’ I bid goodbye to him.
It was another three days before I met him at the Dadar station. He was sitting on the station bench and looked forlorn.
‘Kya hua (What happened?)?’ I sat by his side. Hira recognized me immediately and I was impressed considering the fact that he met thousands of people daily.
‘Kuch paakit-maar mere kamai uda li. Lagta hai aaj roti naseeb nahi hai seth (I got my pockets picked. Looks like I have to go starving today).’
I felt sorry for him and fumbled my pockets for some change. I handed him a twenty leaving Hira totally overwhelmed.
‘Kuch nahi Hira. Mere ko apna fan samaj. Gaane ka inaam. (It’s nothing Hira, just a token of appreciation from a true fan).’
‘Lekin seth, aaj aap ne ek gaana bhi nahi suna (But you did not hear even a single song today).’
‘To phir abhi jaldi se ek tune bhaja de mere liye (Then quickly play one tune for me now).’
Hira happily obliged me with a soul stirring Mukesh hit: Zubaan pe dard bhari daastaan.
A crowd had slowly begun to form around us drawn in by his melody and they showered him with their loose change on the completion of the song. I asked Hira as to where he learnt to play the violin like this. He told me that he worked as a cleaner at a violin ustaad’s (maestro’s) place and used to closely observe him when students who came there to learn. During those days his eyesight had not yet deteriorated. And one day he impressed the ustaad by reproducing a complex composition that he was teaching to his students at that time. The ustaad was duly impressed and immediately took him under his wing. But, unfortunately the ustaad very soon became a victim of throat cancer. The old violin that Hira had was the ustaad’s dying gift to him. I concluded that Hira was nothing but a knot of natural talent.
‘Yahaan se to nikal ne ka man nahi Hira (I don’t feel like leaving),’ I reluctantly got up to leave.
‘Kisi din mera khutiya mein aao seth. Main aapke liye jee bhar gaana bajaavunga (Please come to my hut one of these days and I will gladly play as many songs as you want to hear).’
I enthusiastically accepted his rain check. ‘Bilkul Hira bilkul. Tera gaana sunne ke liye mai kabhi bhi ready hai. Phir milta hai dost (Surely my friend. For listening to your music, I’m ever ready).’
Two weeks down the line, I went over to Hira’s run-down rat-infested shack at Kurla. He showered me with his hospitality and his chaai (tea) was one of the best that I had ever tasted. Of course, he topped this with his tunes on the violin. Hira was an encyclopaedia of tunes and he even performed some Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam tunes to my total and pleasant surprise. And since I was a South Indian myself and very familiar with these tunes, I was amazed at the painstaking accuracy that Hira brought out in these tunes.
‘Tu kahaan aur kaisa yeh sab Madraasi gaana sikha (From where and how did you learn these South India beats),’ I was totally floored.
‘Nahi seth, Gwaaliar mein hamaara pados ek Madraasi Ramnath rehta tha. Uska ghar mein Madraasi gaana bahut bajta tha. Maine dun sikh to lee, par akshar nahi. Lekin mujic kaa to zubaan nahi hota, hai na seth (There was a South Indian called Ramnath next-door in Gwalior. He used to play a lot of South Indian songs all the time. I learnt the tunes but not the words. But, music does not have any particular language, isn’t it)?’
‘Bilkul sahi Hira. Bilkul sahi (Absolutely correct, absolutely).’
‘Ramnath ne hi mujhe Bumbai jaane ki salaah di. Bole ki mai yahaan par apna kala ki tarakki kar sakta hun. Ab nazar kamzor ho gaya na seth to yeh hi ek kaam mai accha kar sakta hun (It was Ramnath who advised me to go to Mumbai. He said that I would be able to get good exposure for my music. Because of my poor eyesight now, this is the only thing that I can do really well).’ I nodded in agreement. But the best part of the visit was yet to come. Hira played some of his own original compositions on the violin leaving me totally agape. Not only could he play, but he could also create. And those tunes seemed out of this world. Hira’s talents certainly needed more exposure and I decided that I should do something about this. I rewarded him with 25 Rupees for his efforts that day.
But life got in the way and it was another month before I finally made the time to go over to Hira’s place. Moreover, my ears were aching to hear some old Hindi melodies from his violin. But Hira was not to be seen. One of his neighbours told me in Marathi: ‘Yaala ek mota seth geun thyaancha ghar gela (A fat rich man took him away).’ Later I came to know that the big seth was none other than the ace Bollywood music director Pratap Palik, my personal favourite. I was very happy for Hira and was sure that he would get a big break in the music industry for his abundant talents. Moreover, Hira had the blessings of Pratap Palik now and he could not have asked for a better person to work for.
Within a month, I was shocked to meet a haggard Hira in a crowded Thane bound local. He did not have his violin with him.
‘Arey Hira, tu yahaan. Mai to suna tha ki tu Palik-saheb ka saath hai (What happened Hira, I heard that you are now with Palik).’
‘Sab ghadbad ho gaya seth (Everything has unravelled sir).’
‘Kaisa (How come)?’
‘Bataaunga seth. Agla satation mein utarke baath karte hain. Aap ke pas time hai (I will tell you at the next station if you have the time).’
‘Zaroor Hira. Toda chaai bhi piyenge (Definitely Hira. We could talk over a cup of tea).’
We sat together with two hot cups of tea and Hira told me his story. In short, he was over the moon to be chosen by Pratap Palik. But he was to be disappointed soon. Palik-saheb did not encourage any independence of creativity amongst his fellow musicians and subordinates. This was proving stifling for an artist of Hira’s calibre. Things took a turn for the worse when Hira had approached Palik with his original compositions. Palik had dismissed them callously after listening to them and told Hira sarcastically to leave the creativity part to better qualified people. And things finally came to a head when Palik began taking pot-shots at Hira’s tunes in a drunken bout at a party. This upset Hira profoundly and he walked away irately without even collecting his final pay. On the way out, Palik’s security men had frisked Hira and then had deliberately broken the strings and bridge of his old violin. I felt really sorry for Hira, but at the same time I told him that he had acted rashly and thrown away a golden opportunity.
‘Nahi seth, accha hi hua (No sir, it all happened for the good),’ he disagreed. ‘Kalaakar ko swatantra paison se badkar hai. Jidar hai khush hai seth. Guzar lenge upparwaala ki daya se. Museebaton ki to aadat si ho gayi apni life mein(For an artist, independence takes greater precedence than money. I’m happy wherever I’m now. By the grace of Almighty, I’ll plod on. I'm accustomed to setbacks in my life).’ I reluctantly agreed with Hira even though I was not convinced internally. I could not digest that a gifted artist like him had to taste the cruel defeats that fate consistently inflicted on the poor and downtrodden. As far as I was concerned, he was a winner albeit an unlucky one. I made arrangements for Hira to get his violin repaired at a musical store in Dadar.
A few weeks passed and it was the annual Ganesh-Utsav (Festival for Ganesha the elephant headed God). Mumbai came alive in a riot of celebrations and songs blasting through the loud-speakers at most street corners where the Utsav was celebrated. It was during this time that I saw an interview of Pratap Palik on the TV. In this interview he was extolling the tunes of an upcoming movie, Lehar and played a few of the tunes for the benefit of the viewers. The tunes sounded very familiar to me but I could not place them exactly. And then it struck me like a thunderbolt the next day. Yes, they were very similar and in fact identical to Hira’s original tunes that he had played for me at his shack. I went to his shack later that evening and told him about these new songs of Palik and how they were very identical to Hira’s own compositions. I wanted Hira to clarify this matter with Palik immediately.
‘Saala badmaash nikla (Turned out to be a cheat),’ Hira was nonchalant. ‘Chalo kam se kam hamaara dunon ka aadar kiya hai bhale hi humse baimaani kiya ho (At least he has paid homage to my tunes in this indirect way even though he has cheated).’ But I was livid as I had not expected my favourite music director to plagiarize so blatantly. I exhorted Hira to take some action.
‘Nadi mein rah ke kaun magar-mach se dushmani kare. Gareeb ki hamesha haar hoti hai aur use haar ke saath hamesha jeena padta hai seth. (I can’t afford enmity with the big sharks and crocodiles if I have to survive in these seas. The poor always get defeated and they have to learn to forever live with defeat),’ he replied.
‘Lekin Palik-saheb inhee dunon se karodon kamaayega aur tere ko ek kodi be nahi dega (But Palik will make millions out of these plagiarized tunes, but you would not even get a cent in return), I interjected.
‘Rehne do seth. Apni tamanna to bas do waqt roti aur do haath kapada. Yeh mil gaya to gareeb Hira bahut khush (Let it go sir. My ambitions are limited to my daily bread and my survival. If assured of this, then poor Hira is very happy).’
But I was unrelenting. I decided to confront Palik on Hira’s behalf in spite of Hira’s extreme reluctance. With lots of pleading and grovelling, I somehow managed to secure an appointment with Palik’s agent and explained to him the situation. The agent took my contact details and promised me that he will convey the matter to Palik. Two days later five thugs stormed into my flat almost breaking the front door. The biggest of them pulled a huge knife out of his pants and threatened me using the vilest of language in front of my mother who became hysterical with fear, ‘Abhi Palik sahib ko aur pareshaan kiya, to tere ko aur tera akka khandaan ko hum kaat ke phek denge. Samja baccha (If you pester Palik-sir anymore in this regard, we’ll slaughter you and your entire family. Did you understand little child)?’ After the thugs left, I became extremely concerned for Hira. I immediately rushed to his shack, ignoring my mother’s pleas. ‘Pogaadhe pogadhe. Antha mawaaligal onna kolli gutter-la veeshi eriyuva (Don’t go, don’t go. Those goons will kill you and toss you in the gutter),’ she screamed after me in Tamil. When I reached the shack, I found a big and rusted padlock on the door. I enquired with his Marathi neighbour and was told: ‘Set, aaj sakaaL paach gunde ikade aale aNi Hira-la khub maarla. Hira-chi violin thodli aNi thila geun ghele. Pude kai zaala mala maait nai. Mala beethi vaathe seth (Sir, today five thugs came here early in the morning and beat up Hira badly. They then broke his violin and dragged him away. What happened after that, I do not know. I’m really afraid sir).’ As I turned back to head dejectedly back to my flat, I was once again accosted by those five thugs and this time their fists did the speaking. I was in bed for the next few days, laid down with extreme pain all over my badly bruised body. I was also extremely worried for Hira's safety and that prevented me from going to the police. Moreover, I knew that no action would be taken against Palik and his men; they were really very powerful people with deep political and mafia connections.
Later, I heard that Hira had gone back to Gwalior to my profound relief. At least he was alive by God’s grace.
I never heard about Hira after that, much to my sadness. As for Palik, the tunes that he had stolen from Hira became smash hits and broke all records. They also appeared as remixed versions on MTV and secured international acclaim for the music director. He went on to win the national Filmfare award for those tunes that year. But for me the real winner was Hira. I always cheered his name whenever I heard these tunes and made sure I explained this to everyone within earshot regardless of whether they believed me or not. And yes, I destroyed all my personal casette tape and CD collections of Pratap Palik. As far as I was concerned, Pratap Palik had lost one of his best and loyal fans. But Hira had a fan for life.
I was watching the recently concluded annual Microsoft International Film and Music Awards held at Singapore on the FOX Cable TV recently from my home in Sydney. (It’s a wonder how time flies. The years had blurred and I had moved to Australia in 1995.) Sur-Shakti, a meteorically rising new music group from India, won the award for the best music album for its innovative and internationally appealing tunes. The album was breaking all previous records in international sales and was a chart topper in many countries all over the globe. Such was the universal appeal of the group’s music that future projections indicated that Sur-Shakti was very well on the road to becoming a mighty group along the likes of the Beatles, Dire-Straits, Pink-Floyd, Rolling-Stones etc, etc. When the two music directors of the group took the stage to receive the awards, my heart virtually stopped. One of the music directors was none other than good old Hira. Tears flowed from my eyes like a river.
'Tu jeet gaya zindagi mein hira aur aisa lagta hai jaisia ki mai bhi jeet gaya. Sabse jyaada sangeeth jeet gaya. (You won Hira, you have won in life, I feel like I have won too, and above all music has won),' I screamed at the top of my voice in front of my bewildered wife. I was in sheer ecstacy and I danced with unbridled joy for the rest of the evening. True talent, my friends, can never be suppressed forever.
(Excerpted from the novel BEES: A hive of Short Stories by Dr. Sivaram Hariharan)
Copyright © 2005: No part of this short story shall be reproduced in any form without the consent of the author Dr. Sivaram Hariharan.