She Stoops to Kill: Stories of Crime and Passion, Edited by Preeti Gill
POISON IN THE PAAN by Mitra Phukan
The audience, every last man and woman, was engrossed in the recital. All eyes were on the stage. Heads were nodding in appreciation, hands and feet were beating in time to the rhythm. Every now and again, a simultaneous “wah wah” would escape their lips, more like a prayer than an exclamation. “Kya baat!’ somebody would breathe as the singer would execute a particularly intricate swoop, from one note to another.
Prabeena looked sideways at Himangshu. He was gazing raptly at Shraddha Devi, she of the luscious curves, quite apparent even through the folds of her magenta and parrot green Benarasi sari. Her kohl-lined eyes, glistening mouth and ample bosom, which, at the moment, was heaving mesmerizingly, synchronized beautifully with the taans and murkis that she executed. But Prabeena didn’t mind. She knew that it was the aural beauty all around them Himangshu was so immersed in. He probably didn’t even notice the singer’s physical charms. Whereas she, Prabeena herself, was very much attuned to the visual. She had to be, in her profession.
But I shouldn’t be looking around like this, she admonished herself. I paid vast sums of money to get these second row seats. Of course it’s all worth it to see Himangshu enjoying himself so much. Now if only I could do the same…. Shraddha Devi was, after all, one of the topmost exponents of her gharana, perhaps the topmost exponent of thumris and dadras. It had been difficult to get tickets, for she performed in her hometown only rarely, but she had managed it.
Balamwa Pardesiya, Mora, Shraddha Devi was crooning. Certainly it sounded very nice, and Prabeena hoped that the Balamwa, the Beloved who had gone off leaving her alone, would return soon. Prabeena couldn’t quite bring herself to say ‘wah,wah’ though.
She had to admit, however, that the whole ensemble had taken a great deal of trouble to present a picture of visual attractiveness, too. Shraddha Devi, with her shimmering clothes, glittering jewellery and flashing nosepin was very much at the centre, the focus to which the eye of the audience would inevitably be drawn. There were two mikes before her, strategically placed so that the radiance of her face would not be blocked. Before her, an intricately worked silver casket contained, she supposed, the mandatory paan which so many traditional musicians still consumed, ignoring all health warnings. A tumbler of water, from which she sipped occasionally. To her side, a large handbag, from which she had, just a while ago, taken out a book containing the lyrics of the thumri that she was now singing.
Given the visual brilliance of the star performer, the others paled into insignificance on that stage despite their sartorial efforts. Prabeena’s gaze travelled from one to the other. They were all wearing colour coordinated outfits, she realized. Sukumar Bose was tossing his head around even as his hands beat out a complicated laggi on the tablas. His whirling curls were as dramatic as his magenta kurta. Iqbal Khan on the sarangi had white hair which shone mutedly under the lights, but his green kurta was incandescent in its brightness. Rishabh Das on the harmonium was in a splendid kurta, cream but with magenta and green stripes.
Behind the dazzle of the front row were the two taanpura players. Young women, they too were dressed in the same colours of magenta and green, one in a sari, the other in a churidar kurta. They leaned forward at their Guru’s command on occasion, to provide vocal support, while Shraddha Devi sipped on water, or smiled at the audience, or adjusted the folds of her sari across her ample chest. . Both the students, Prabeena thought, were quite good. But they were hardly noticed, even though they carried out the vital task of playing the two taanpuras, the drone instruments without which the whole concert would be a discordant mess.
The hall was filled with connoisseurs, including Himangshu. She was the exception. She had almost sent him off alone, for if the truth be told, music was not her forte. But this was his birthday, and this her gift to him. She wanted to be near him this evening, away from the usual demands of her life. And sitting through these hours was a small price to pay for the delight on his face when she had told him that they would be going to Shraddha Devi’s concert on his birthday. “You’re coming too, aren’t you?” he had asked, and she had been glad to assure him that yes, she would drop everything to be near him throughout that evening, even though they both knew that this was not her scene at all.
On the stage, Shradddha Devi looked back and nodded to the student on the left. This was a signal that she was to continue, while Shraddha herself took a break. As the girl, no, Prabeena realized, the woman, began to sing, Shraddha smiled at the audience, then, took a sip of water. She leaned forward and, ignoring the efforts of the student behind her, said, “So, Choudhury Saheb, you are liking this recital?”
The, chief guest, Ranjit Choudhury, sitting in the front row, raised his hand in response. Prabeena, sitting diagonally behind him, noticed his smile, his strong profile, his greying head of hair. Shraddha had been addressing him off and on throughout the recital, but it seemed to Prabeena that her body language was getting more intimate, more coquettish. It was as though she was oblivious to the rest of them, sitting in the auditorium. In Shraddha Devi’s mind, this was a baithak, and Choudhury, an honoured client. It was her duty to seduce him, through the bewitchery of her music, her beauty, her smiles, her talk.
The woman at the back, the student, continued to sing, though nobody was paying any attention to her. Surely this was bad manners on the part of the Guru, thought Prabeena. But the student, a thin woman with sharp features, continued, oblivious to the fact that the audience’s attention was now focussed on the little byplay between the man and the artiste. Even Himangshu, dear man, seemed a little distracted. The other student, Prabeena noticed, was a beauty. Her Guru wasn’t giving her much of a chance to put in her bit, though. She seemed not to mind, serenely continuing to play the tanpura, looking occasionally at the audience.
Though the student was in full flow, Shraddha cut her off mid-way now, to sing
Kaisey katey din ratiya, Balam bin,
Neend na aiye more ratiya, Balam bin
How can I get through this day, this night,
Without my beloved,Sleep eludes me at night,
Without my beloved.
Excerpted with permission from She Stoops to Kill: Stories of Crime and Passion, edited by Preeti Gill. Publisher: Speaking Tiger