The Bandwala

Sundar Brass Band, most popularly called Sundar Band, had arrived in the city of Bangalore quite early in the morning. Their performance was set to begin in the evening of the same day.

The band was in the business of playing at wedding ceremonies for the last 26 years. Over the years, it grew to fame in Uttar Pradesh, where it was founded by a man named Bhushan Kumar in Sidhauli, a small town. The band had about 15 musicians in total, each professional playing clarinets, trombones, tubas, side drums, and trumpets and so on. Over the years, the band grew in popularity across the neighbouring states for the upbeat tracks they played during wedding processions. The band members would play the scores with such gusto and energy that such weddings soon became the talk of the town. But, with technology, spewing out newer instruments, the demand for traditional brass bands had fallen drastically in recent times. Wedding ceremonies increasingly began to use digital music players managed by DJs. These DJs could switch songs at a snap of a finger, just in case a particular song didn’t appeal to a certain class of invitees. Soon they were everywhere. The brass bands, which once represented the tradition and culture of the country, took a hit and lingered in the twilight.

At this cross over phase of cultural differences, there were but a few people in the country who preferred the traditional brass bands over DJs at their family weddings. The Kumars in Bangalore were one such family. They felt that brass bands somehow showcased their riches and in a way, set them apart. But the members of these bands could not solely depend on such infrequent contracts for their livelihood. It wasn’t a steady source of income. As a result, many heritage brass bands could not survive the onslaught of changing cultural winds and had disintegrated.

The members of Sundar Band were old and wise enough to see the advent of time. Most of them had managed to find other jobs which helped them with their earnings. And when the band was called for weddings from different parts of the country, not more than 4-5 times a year, they would get together and play for the sheer joy of it, to re-live their glory days like vanquished kings reminiscing in the ruins of their kingdom.

The members of the Sundar Band had rested well through the day after a tiring 36 hour travel by train. Their performance commenced from a lodge in Sadashivnagar where the baraat was put up. A grand procession, with the bridegroom on a horseback, left the lodge at 7PM and was led by Sundar Band playing their signature 90’s Bollywood songs which created an atmosphere of a grandiose wedding night. Songs like ‘Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna’, ‘Mere Yaar ki Shaadi hai’, ‘Mera Piya Ghar Ayaa’, and other such quintessential wedding songs emanated from the shiny brass instruments. Friends and relatives of the bridegroom indulged themselves in a rapturous dance as if to illustrate to the onlookers the euphoric future of the bridegroom. Behind the animated baraatis were the members of Sundar Band. The band was flanked on either side by an array of bright lights carried by daily wage labourers hired specifically for the task.

The exuberant wedding procession marched through Guttahalli road which connected the residential area of Sadashivnagar with Bellary road, and almost brought the evening traffic to a standstill. People stuck behind the wheel in the snarl could not help but sway to the music that overwhelmed their incessant honking.

Ishwar was on trumpet, his lips sealed tight around the mouthpiece, cheeks puffed. He was 56 years old and was one of the senior members of the band. He was short, stout, and half bald with grey, thinning hair at the back. He kept a well-groomed, thick moustache which tapered to a thin streak of beard running all the way down to his chin as if to bracket the mouthpiece of his trumpet. His appearance was generic, his gestures ordinary. He was a man with a face which could be easily forgotten.

But, Ishwar was a trumpet virtuoso who could play solo as adeptly as he could play in the orchestra. He was with the band since its inception and had seen the turn of tide and witnessed the rise and fall of their tradition. From being a star musician to being an anonymous figure in his own town in UP, he had lived through the different paths of his personal journey. The incursions of modern times had been mildly victorious in smothering his passion for the band he was part of. These days, he often sounded cynical when he spoke about his profession he was once so proud of. But he tried, at times like these, to hold onto his passion. It didn’t help much.

The wedding procession had now moved into Bellary road connecting Mekhri Circle, one of the busiest crossroads. The procession had to be temporarily muted on the orders of a traffic policeman. Right then, Ishwar thought he could sneak out for a quick smoke and a sip on the cheap booze he was carrying with him.

While they were walking on silently, to his left, Ishwar spotted a small paan shop by the side of a narrow street. Secretively, he escaped the group and headed towards it. Upon reaching the shop, he bought a half pack of beedi, lit one and stood smoking. He alternated it with sips of booze from his whiskey flask. He was visiting Bangalore for the first time. Excited and equally curious, he indulged in small talk with the paan shop owner. He was fascinated by the stories the paanwala had to share. He was particularly enchanted by the story of how an underground station for the Metro rail service was being built near Vidhana Soudha. ‘What are they digging it with?’ he asked the paanwala with the curiosity of an 8-year-old. He would soak in all the details, exaggerate them with some of his own fictional ones, and narrate to his wife and kids back home, he thought.

In this mutual exchange of stories, he narrated some of the adventures of his own youth. He told the paanwala how he had once come close to working in the film industry. But the music director, at the last moment, dropped the idea of using a local band member for a wedding track he was composing. Ishwar had a tough time understanding the paanwala’s broken Hindi. He also seemed to enjoy this in a humorous way. At one time, he thought of correcting the paanwala when he said ‘Baag gaya’ instead of ‘Bhaag gaya’, then decided against it. Meanwhile, the procession kept on with its march, noiselessly.

A good amount of time had passed before Ishwar realized that he had to get back to the festivity he was hired for. He bid goodbye to the paanwala and reached the main road where he had left his group only to find it replaced by a stream of automobiles honking ceaselessly at each other. His band and the baraat was nowhere to be seen or heard. It was as if it had vanished, devoured and gobbled up by the countless iron boxes on wheels.

Panic seized Ishwar. But wasting no time, Ishwar took the direction in which the Baraat was heading and kept on walking. He walked fast. Midway, he stopped a pedestrian to ask if the latter had seen a certain baraat heading somewhere. The pedestrian said that he did see one up ahead but wasn’t sure which direction it took at Mekhri Circle. Without a reply, Ishwar started running, hoping to catch up with the band. His trumpet dangled on his left shoulder as he ran.

After a short sprint, Ishwar reached Palace Grounds, outside which a large mob was vandalizing hoardings, banners, bamboo instalments, and so on. Shaken by the sheer commotion and violence on the street, he stopped and turned into an onlooker. There he saw a 4-feet high wall, a compound which surrounded an open ground and at the gates of which an angry mob hurled themselves at anything and everything they could get hold of, destroying everything in their path. He could not comprehend the English text on the banners but saw a large picture of a bald man wearing sunglasses with a high-tech instrument in front of him, his right hand firmly placed on it. He thought he had seen the guy in a poster somewhere before.

The mob, largely composed of youngsters, was hysterical. The anger, which he could sense among them, seemed like an outpouring of joy rather than the anguish of something gone wrong. People shouted incomprehensible slogans, encouraged others to tear down the posters and took pictures on their phones while they did it. Ishwar had never seen such a celebration of devastation, especially such large scale one, infused by a mob of youngsters. With wide eyes, caressing his moustache, Ishwar stood frozen. He could not quite figure out if it really was a protest of something that the mob didn’t agree with, or a festival that happens in a large metro city such as this. Unable to restrain his curiosity any longer, he walked towards the crowd.

“What is happening here?”, he asked a young boy who stood a few feet from the vexed crowd, taking pictures.

The boy looked at Ishwar from head to toe, quite intrigued at the sight of an old man dressed in a bandwala costume. Ishwar seemed to the young boy like a man who had slipped through a crack in time and so very out of his place.

“Uncle, the show got cancelled”, the boy said.

“Show?”, Ishwar asked, unable to comprehend and at the same time hearing a word that he could associate his whole life with.

“Music show, Uncle”, the boy replied, trying to keep it as simple as possible for the old man.

The word “music” hit Ishwar, shooting his curiosity a notch higher. “What music show? Who is performing and why did it get cancelled?”

“Ayyo, Maxwell’s show. He is a DJ”, the young boy was now busy recording a different kind of show outside the venue.

Ishwar had never heard of the name but he remembered coming across the word ‘DJ’ before. “Is the performer not well? Is that why it’s cancelled?”, he asked.

“Ayyo, no Uncle. Apparently, he lost his pen drive on his way to India”.

“Pen what?”, Ishwar was unable to relate pen with music or performance for that matter. ‘Why does he need a pen to write music?’ he wondered to himself. ‘Taking notes maybe. But, why cancel a show if he lost his pen?’

“Go home Uncle. Don’t stay here”, the boy warned Ishwar. ‘Macha, wait, wait’, he called out to someone and walked ahead to get a closer shot of a guy who was holding a plastic chair in mid-air.

Still mulling over the new-age possibility of creating music with a pen, Ishwar stood looking at the madness on the street. The whole scene reminded him of this one time when they came close to cancelling a show. The lead organizer had fallen sick and there was no else who could replace him. But, they had managed to figure out an alternative at the last minute. Ishwar sorted a set of songs they could play without an external guidance for the sync. To compensate for the change in plans, they had performed for more than their designated time as a form of goodwill. The band members, huddled over booze and beedis, would cherish such adventures for a long time. Such recollections often filled his heart with the most pure form of happiness.

Ishwar was lost in the under currents of his memories, when someone tapped him on the shoulder. Ishwar turned around to see a middle aged man with a camera hung on his right shoulder.

“Why are you dressed like that?”, the man asked Ishwar, shooting curious glances.

“I was part of a baraat which I missed”, Ishwar replied.

“Oh!”, the man with the camera took a pause of consideration. “OK, I need a favour. I will pay you for it.”

“What is it?”, Ishwar asked. He was making his own plans. His hope of joining back with his group seemed dimmer now. He just had to reach the City Railway Station by midnight. The train travelling back home was scheduled to leave at 4 in the morning.

“I am a journalist and I need a picture of this mob. I will pay you 100 Rupees if you can pick a stick and pose for me in front of that poster there”, the journalist said pointing towards a half torn picture of the bald man.

“Kya sahab? 100 rupees just for a picture of mine?”, Ishwar asked quite surprised.

“Yes. 100 rupees. Now, hurry before cops get here.” the journalist replied, shoving a hundred rupee note into Ishwar’s hand. ‘A local bandwala, dressed in such ludicrous uniform, tearing, smashing the poster of an internationally acclaimed DJ. What a fun picture it will be’, the journalist thought.

Ishwar looked at the 100 rupee note. ‘The money would be enough to travel to the railway station and also have a lavish dinner’ Ishwar decided. He picked a stick that was lying nearby and walked towards the poster.

The journalist guided Ishwar’s expression asking him to emote in a certain way that would help him compose the picture better. The emotion was, of course, anger. Ishwar, indifferently, clenched his teeth and drew his lips apart. ‘Such anger this bandwala was pent up with. What a picture to go on tomorrow’s cover page’, the journalist smiled ingeniously. After taking a few pictures of Ishwar, one specifically with his trumpet dangling on his shoulder in focus, the journalist showed a ‘thumbs up’ sign and walked away taking pictures of the mob in general. Ishwar threw the stick away and was tucking the note in his pocket when another hand grabbed him by his neck. Jolted by the sheer force with which the hand landed on him, he turned around to see a policeman pushing him towards a police van.

“Sahab, sahab, I didn’t do anything sahab. That man with the camera asked me to pose for him. I am just a Bandwala who is searching for his band.”, Ishwar pleaded.

“Bandwala huh? Causing nuisance here.”, the cop yelled, dragging him along furiously.

“Believe me, sahab. Here, see my trumpet. I am lost. Please help me”

To which, the cop stopped mid-way and looked at Ishwar critically. He instantly believed the bandwala’s story for he looked so completely lost and out of place. “Help you? Can’t you see around, we already have such mess to clear.”, the cop said.

“Just tell me which way is the Mantap where a certain Mr. Kumar’s wedding is taking place.”

“I don’t know all that. But, I will let you go this time. Here, what do you have?” the cop shoved his hand into Ishwar’s coat pocket, fishing out the all the money he was carrying.

“Sahab, sahab…”, Ishwar joined his hands, opening them slightly as if to beg for his money back.

“Now, be off or else I will have to arrest you for demolishing public property.” The cop let go of Ishwar’s coat. Without looking back, Ishwar broke into a run.

After running for quite a distance, Ishwar came to a halt, gasping for breath just the like way he would after playing his trumpet frantically at weddings. He checked for his trumpet to ensure it hadn’t fallen off. It was still with him. He looked around. He had left the mob and the cops behind. Ishwar was now standing at the crossroad the pedestrian had mentioned earlier. From here on, the Baraat would have taken any of the four routes. He had no clue. By now, he had lost all hopes of catching up with the baraat or band members. Spotting a pile of stones at a construction site nearby, he rested and lit a beedi. He watched, sitting on the side of the street, the city carry on with its mindless, monotonous journey.

As he exhaled the beedi smoke, Ishwar remembered how back in his glory days, he was revered as a master trumpet player; a true, soulful musician who breathed life into festivities. People, back in his home town, would stop him in the middle of the road and inquire about his next performance. Whichever street the baraat was led into by the Sundar Band, people would come out of their houses, involuntarily swaying to the rhythm. Strangers, those who were not even related to the wedding family, would join the baraat and engage in a feverish dance. He knew it had more do with their music than anything else. He then pictured the way he had posed for the cameraman and grimaced. ‘What if my friends from the band and those back home saw the picture,’ he worried. He felt embarrassed and exhausted. Everyone in the city, the young and the old seemed to mock him silently. Even those who didn’t even realize he existed amongst them. ‘Poor old man, you never knew when to quit’, the city seemed to whisper. The street in front of him stretched itself into a sly smile.

“It’s a labyrinth Ishwar sahab, this city. Don’t go wandering off like you did last time in Nasik”, Ishwar remembered Sharmaji, the band manager, telling him when they got off the train in the morning.

Still shaken by the turn of events, Ishwar looked around with worried eyes. The buildings seemed to rise taller, blocking a starless sky, the roads stretched wider and deeper, and the people grew stranger as if they belonged to another species and he felt he was shrinking in size like an ant drifting into outer space. Fallen from glory, he had never felt so insignificant. The very idea of a world, where creating an identity for self was the greatest struggle for a man, was terrifying.  How could he, a man who knew nothing but how to play a trumpet, even survive in a world where people created music with a pen? He couldn’t even write properly. It seemed to Ishwar that he had arrived into a future he was not supposed to be part of.

Sitting there on a heap of stones, Ishwar learnt the fear of a child lost in the woods. He grew conscious of this fear; he grew conscious of his age. He felt mortified.

Ishwar stubbed the beedi on one of the stones and at once decided to head to the station. Once reaching there, it wouldn’t be difficult to find the platform from which his train would start. He could wait there before his group joined him, he thought. He would go back home and forget all about it. He would even resign from his profession, he decided. But, the problem was obvious. A stranger to the city, he did not have the faintest idea where the station was, how far, and how to get there. He was penniless. The cop had taken all the money Ishwar was carrying with him. The longer he thought about the possibility of reaching the station on time, the more hopeless he felt. His thoughts carried him along and a new possibility arouse. ‘Could it happen that I may never be able to leave this city?’, he shuddered.

He rose to his feet and asked a pedestrian on how to reach the station. Upon hearing that he had to change at least two buses on his way to the destination, he knew it was highly unlikely he would be able to make the journey, broke as he was. Shaking his head in disappointment and indecision, he went back to the pile of stones.

Ishwar lit his last beedi and thought hard. After contemplating for a long time, he painfully arrived at a solution. Time was of essence and he had to decide. He caressed the trumpet resting on his lap and let out a sigh.

He had bought the trumpet about 15 years ago and had his name engraved on it. He touched the engravings ‘Ishwar Mistry’ and felt a whirlpool of sadness rise inside him. From the day he bought the trumpet, he had gradually breathed life into it. And one day, a soul whispered back to him from its depths. Both, Ishwar and his trumpet, shared a common language. It could speak to him, tell him the notes he missed and those he got right. They dreamt together in the night, creating music in their dreams keeping the harsh reality of future at bay. Whenever he felt the world weighing on him, crushing him, he could turn to his best friend and together they would escape into another world, their world. He felt that if he lost sight of his trumpet he would lose all the love for his life. But, as painful as it seemed, it had to be done. The strange city he was lost in was something he dreaded to be part of.

Ishwar realized that no public transport would accept his trumpet for fare but an autowala would. So, with an unbearable heartache, he rose and stopped the next auto-rickshaw passing by.

“City Railway Station?”, he asked the driver.

“It’s 11 PM, it’s one and a half on meter.”, the autowala replied.

“But, I have only one trumpet.”, Ishwar said.

To which, the autowala only glared at Ishwar. Judging him to be a madman, the autowala rode on. Ishwar tried his luck with few more autowalas. But, none were willing to accept his trumpet in exchange for fare. Finally, an autowala stopped and agreed to the bargain, thinking he could sell the trumpet at an antique store and probably get more money than the actual fare he would incur. When the autowala asked him to get in, Ishwar almost froze to the ground as the realization finally hit him – he indeed would have to part with his beloved trumpet.

“But, it’s just a trumpet”, a part of Ishwar spoke hoping the autowala would decline the offer and go away.

“It’s OK saab. I will manage. Get in.”

Hesitantly he got in and the driver turned the meter off.

Sitting inside the auto-rickshaw, Ishwar listened. The world around him had suddenly gone quiet. ‘Why has this world suddenly fallen so silent?’, Ishwar cried to himself and touched the trumpet lying still on his lap. It felt cold. While the auto-rickshaw moved through the long, wide empty roads of the city, Ishwar felt an insatiable urge to play his trumpet for one last time, a final kiss, a final goodbye, a cadenza of love.

“Bhaiyya, can I play the trumpet one last time?” he asked the autowala.

“Play saab, play. Let us have some fun tonight.”, the autowala smiled wide.

Ishwar picked the trumpet, sealed his lips around the mouthpiece and let his soul mix with the wind as he blew into it. The music flowed through him and emerged out of the bell. It was a culmination of memories and heartaches. It travelled across the space and shook the threads of time. The silence of the night outside, the buzzing sound of the engine and the sound of the trumpet, all mixed together, creating a symphony of melancholy. It seemed as if a wave of sadness swept through streets they moved and was carrying Ishwar on its tides to his home. Deep in his heart, Ishwar knew the ride to the railway station was their last journey together, one final procession. The trumpet had come alive and wept with him. The music seemed to sum up the stories they had lived together all these years; happy ones, sad ones. It was a wordless eulogy. Memories fused and transformed into notes. The souls of all the countless people who had swayed to their music all these years seemed to break into a stream of tears this time. The heartache of goodbyes filled the streets and left a trace of grief momentarily on each street they passed through. The music echoed and lingered in the cold air outside.

Ishwar had to be called out twice to bring him out of his trance.

“Saab, we are here”, the autowala said.

Ishwar stopped playing at once, opened his teary eyes and looked outside. The railway station was buzzing with people, few of them stealing curious, hesitant glances at him. He got off the auto, his fingers clenched tight around his trumpet. Both the autowala and Ishwar stood looking at each other. Ever so slowly he let go of the trumpet and passed it into the autowala’s hands. Unable to look at his trumpet anymore, he began walking at once, without turning back. But, something kept tugging at him, like an umbilical cord tying the mother and her child together. He had almost reached the entrance of the station when a familiar voice called him from behind.

“Saab, saab…”

He turned around and saw the autowala rushing up the stairs.

“Here, keep it saab”, the autowala handed the trumpet back to Ishwar.

“But, I don’t have money to pay you for the fare.”

“It’s ok saab. You have already paid me with that beautiful piece of music you played. It seemed like we covered the distance in a flash. I thought I could have some merry time when you said you wanted to play the trumpet. But, err… well, I can’t explain it to you. I am trying to understand it myself. I thought twice before I stopped you from playing to inform you that we had arrived. I see you are quite attached to this trumpet. Keep it saab. It is way more valuable in your hands than those of the scrapwalas”, the autowala said. Holding the trumpet in his hands, Ishwar only stared at the autowala in silence, his mouth hung open.

“Saab, I have never heard anyone play a trumpet like you before. I enjoyed it and that’s something. Hope you reach your home soon saab”, the autowala said, touching Ishwar’s shoulder. He smiled a warm smile, turned around and started descending the stairs toward his rickshaw. Once inside, he waved to Ishwar with a smile of regard and rode on.

Such warmth rose in Ishwar’s belly that he thought his body would catch fire any moment. He felt weak in the knees and blood rushed to his ears. A reunion with his trumpet he hadn’t expected and he thought of the years of musical dreams they would weave together again. Holding the trumpet firmly in his hands, Ishwar entered the station and made his way to the platform where a train would take him home.