This story was originally published in TheBanyanTrees in their issue themed Music May 2011.
My parents always favored my sister more. There, I said it and I have no issues saying it. She was the more prettier one, she was better with studies, she was the obedient one, she was their perfect little daughter who would do everything they wanted of her. Ask them about world peace, they would not put it past her. And on top of it she sang, and she sang like a nightingale. Like every other dutiful tambrahm* household, our parents too sent us off to learn carnatic* music at the age of 5. When I showed more interest in playing with dolls or kids my age my mother was heartbroken.
“Why cant you be like your sister,” she would say. When I responded to that by trying to give my barbie a bath, she would take the doll away from me and ask me to follow my sister’s footsteps, who for some reason took to singing like oil to fire. After a few weeks in to music class, the teacher and I came to the same conclusion. I sucked and had no sense of shruthi* whatsoever. We had both made our peace. It was my parents who were beyond consolation.
“But how?” they kept asking me and the instructor. In an attempt to save the poor instructor from more torment, I immediately started in to the latest taatu varisai* that we had learnt. The abaswaram* finally got to my parents and they took pity on the instructor and the rest of the class. Taking me out of the class would be a great favor to bestow upon them. My parents did that much to the relief of everyone in the class. Alas for me, if I had any hopes of going back to what normal kids my age tend to do, play, I did not know my parents fully well. There can be no tambrahm* household without music and dance. When my parents realized I had no talent for music, they took me straight to a dance school. So all my weekends and a good portion of my weekdays were now spent in dance practice.
I don’t know if it was the intention to please my parents or to not feel absolutely lacking in the arts department, I somehow started faring better in dance than in music. Now my parents were relieved because they had been dreading another call from the dance teacher. But they were nowhere close to being as elated as they were for my sister. It was more of a saving grace. When we had relatives or guests over and they asked pointing to us,
“So, what do these kids do?”
“Med school!” or so, I would have loved to say. Really what sort of a question was that, kids aged 5-6 dont do anything, they wake up, eat, talk, play, sleep, eat, play more and sleep. That is all that is really required from them. But no, not us, the super babies that we were. My parents would very proudly showcase my sister first and ask her to sing a song.
Her songs became better and better with age. She sang geethams* with ease, varnams* with grace and kirthis* with aplomb. She was very good . So once she gave this magnificent performance, all eyes would turn to me and they would have this “How are you going to top that, you poor poor thing?” look in them. As luck would have it, I had really thick skin. However my parents, in order to not lose face and follow up a super talented daughter with an also ran, would talk proudly albeit a little fake about my dancing prowess.
Now see, I really was good at dancing. But there is a very practical problem when it comes to dancing in our Indian MIG households. We all had small living rooms made smaller by the scores of absolutely unwanted furniture. Now by the time I could do the namaskaram* in my dance I would have potentially hit the table fan in the corner, the coffee mug in the uncle’s hand and probably stomped on the aunty’s feet. So me displaying my dancing prowess did not often happen and our guests had to take my parents word that I was good. Most of them eyed me very suspiciously.
Anyways years quickly passed us by with each of us excelling in our chosen field of art, making our parents head’s bloat up in pride. I was really worried for them. They took the whole thing so seriously that it was actually scary looking at their furious enthusiasm during my sister’s mini concerts and at my dances in school. So the biggest day arrived, my sister was going to sing solo at the local temple. She had a whole hour to herself and was going to do a mini concert . She had it all prepared. Her music instructor had already drawn out all the songs. The varnam* to begin with, two small songs to follow that, a big kirthi* with kalpana swaram* and all. It was like a super big deal at my house.
The days leading up to it was chaotic to say the least. I am not sure if my parents would have even noticed if I had gone missing those few days.The eternal optimist that I am, I tried to look at the bright side of everything. I used this time to get my report card signed by my dad, escape house duties and play with friends as much as I could.
Now I am not a mean person by any stretch, you got to take my word for it. However all this attention bestowed on my sister ever since she was born was getting to me. Really. So I thought – why not play a silly little prank to sort of dampen the spirits a little bit. I mean, after all, some good fun never hurt anyone, right? Especially if its a lot of fun for you and not much for others. So I did the thing that every less talented little sister tired of seeing her elder sister get all the attention would do. I turned up the “shruthi” a notch on the shruthi box and tiptoed out of the room with no one noticing. With satisfaction painted all over my face, I walked out, with a sense of accomplishment.
What happened afterwards, I did not expect. I really thought that once she heard the shruthi, she would realize it was higher than her usual range and turn it down. But she did not. I blame the situation. She was probably nervous. It was her first time in the stage after all. The result was sort of a disaster. I mean, when your voice breaks at the higher Ri and Ga notes, you know you have lost the battle. I know very well, that being a battle I have lost many times. Luckily for her, my mom ran over and turned down the shruthi to her level and all was fine.
The rest of the concert was a huge hit. Everyone loved it and you could hear everyone say “She sang so well, except the first song. Wonder what happened, poor thing.” Unfortunately my sister, unlike me saw only the negative in these comments and refused to speak to me for days. I kept telling her that she should really focus on looking at the brighter side of things. She eyed me differently. Something told me, she knew.
Well, as months went by, I was preparing for the most important day of my life. No, not my exams, this was my first dance recital on stage. My parents had invited a bunch of people and I had to prove myself. All those uncles and aunties whose hands and feet I had stomped claiming to showcase my dance were going to be there to see my dance without any fear of physical pain. I had practiced my routine over and over and was fairly confident of doing a good job.
My sister was going to sing for my dance. Now when my parents told me this, I was shocked. I mean she was the last person I wanted to sing for me. The reasons were manifold and fairly complicated. But they were mostly because I did not want to share my thunder and I pretty much sabotaged her first music recital. So this would be the proverbial sweet revenge for her. I tried reasoning with my parents and then after realizing that they paid less attention to me than squashing the mosquito that was hovering around them, I gave up.
This was it. The moment of truth. It all came down to this. After years of being the underdog, this was my time to prove my detractors wrong. I was going to dance like a peacock and nothing could stop me. AFter all this and more pep talk from myself, I walked straight to my sister who was preparing for the songs herself and told her
“About you first concert…”
“I know you know. You always do. Now listen, about today….”
“Dont Worry. We are not the same….”
A huge relief came over my face. She was after all my elder sister, how much love and affection I had for her. She was adorable. Wait, the muscles around her lips were changing shape, those eyes resembled mine more than hers. Before I could say anything she said.
“I could be worse. You will never know what will happen today.” She said.
And then she smiled.
What a diabolical smile that was.
TamBrahm : A popular short form for Tamil Brahmins. A sect of people in Tamil Nadu.
Carnatic Music : Classical south indian music
Shruthi : Pitch
Geethams/Varnams/Kirthis : Different types of songs in carnatic music. Each one generally reperesents a certain level. You move up from geethams to varnams to kirthi’s
Taathu Varisai: One of the many initial parts to cover before graduating to the higher levels.
Kalpana Swaram: Composing ones own swarams based on the raaga
Namaskaram: Traditional Indian way of saying hello by scooping the two hands together.