Just down the street from the apartment I had rented for my stay in London, a concert hall in King’s Cross was running an Indian classical music festival. I spotted a slanted poster taped to the front doors, printed with black-and-white pictures of musicians and singers, a few of whom I recognized, in various stages of performative intensity, some cradling their instruments, others with mouths open and eyes closed in concentration, hands gesturing in the air. I stopped at the booth, velvet curtains drawn open, and bought a ticket for a Carnatic concert that same evening. I picked up a pasta dish and a salad at a restaurant on the way back to my rental, then ate an early dinner on my bed as I looked through my suitcase to see if I had brought any Indian clothes. Underneath a stack of jeans, I had packed one of my favorite kurtas, made of black chiffon, densely embroidered and flecked with tiny pieces of thin, folded metal squares, sewn into the front as if pieces of stardust were trapped in the fabric. In the soft light of the room, it glittered like a clear night sky. I spread the kurta out on the comforter, along with a pair of silk salwar bottoms and a black Pashmina shawl, then placed a pair of silver kitten heels on the floor below. Before getting dressed, I lay back on the pillows and stared at the ceiling. Full and happy, I suddenly felt the weight of who I was and where I was, that I had somehow been able to get here. Like any new place might sometimes do, even if for a fleeting moment, one that usually isn’t real, I wondered whether what I had back at home was enough, whether I was enough there, whether I could try to make a life somewhere else.
When I arrived, the small concert hall was packed. My mother had raised me on Indian classical concerts, usually held in dusty high school auditoriums rented out on weekends, one of the few places in Los Angeles where I could be surrounded by an audience full of Desi people. I remember these evenings as times I spent with her, just the pair of us, as my father never came with us, and she seemed quite thrilled by that fact. She often existed by herself on these nights, even though I was sitting right next to her. This is where I learned how music can overcome someone, that there are ways you could be overwhelmed with the joyous perfection displayed by a person of great talent. On occasion, she might be deeply dissatisfied by an artist’s decision, alaaps that ran far too long, or taans that did not land, but I always imagined that my mother experienced a deeper connection to India than I can ever have. At the intermission, we always shared a samosa and sat in the lobby, admiring the outfits of the women around us.
Here in London, they wore their finest, most richly colored saris – magenta, burnt orange, emerald green, sea blue. Hair pulled back and pinned with jasmine flowers. Some reached into their bags for snacks they handed to their children and husbands and friends, while others pored through their programs for the ragas that would be played that night. People rustled and talked in abandon, filling the room with their presence. To be able to see an artist like this was a rare treat, and I wondered how many others longed for it, like I did. I caught snippets of Telugu and Tamil – little bits of gossip or the simple goings-on of a day. The smell of chai, already brewing, drifted in from the foyer.
I rummaged in my bag for a tissue because I had started crying. My body knew before I did, how adrift I felt. At times this happens unexpectedly, the sudden ache for a homeland. I stood at the back of the auditorium, listening to the sounds of my childhood summers in Hyderabad that I didn’t expect to find here, equally unsure of which version of India I could trust myself with, having lived in the diaspora for so long.
I moved to find my seat. As I walked down the aisle of the theater, holding my ticket up against each row, I stopped to stare at the backs of chairs, searching for my number. An elderly man was already in his seat in my row. He looked up at me and smiled. He pointed at a tiny placard I couldn’t make out and whispered, 42, I believe this seat number is 42. I peered at my ticket, then smiled back at him. I nodded and said that it was my assigned seat. He graciously moved his coat, tucking it over the armrest to his left, the one we did not share.
I’m so sorry about that, I wasn’t sure if anyone else would come, he said. He was also alone.
He cleared his throat a few times, then turned away from me to cough into a handkerchief, adjustments that reminded me of my father. He excused himself to the bathroom, and when he returned, he had brought two steaming cups of chai, offering me one. Touched by his kindness, I thanked him and picked up my purse to search for the few pounds I had on me.
Nonsense, please. It’s nice to have some company. I hope a spoon of sugar is enough, trying to keep us both healthy, he joked.
We started to talk. He recognized my accent and asked if I was from California. He told me his daughter lived in Atlanta, a single woman who had never married. She’s quite happy, I don’t think she’ll come back to England, he said. He asked me why I was visiting London. I told him that I had come on a break from a grueling graduate school program, and shared some of the places I had marked in my guidebook. He recommended a number of local restaurants to visit, along with his favorite bookstores, not in the guidebooks, he winked. I learned that he and his wife were married in Calcutta in the early 1960s. He came to Birmingham on a visa to work as an engineer, then obtained a visa for his wife to join him, which took a couple of years. Eventually, they moved to London, where they had lived ever since.
Was she not able to come tonight?
He looked away.
My wife is not with us anymore. She died two years back, from breast cancer.
I’m so sorry, I said to him. I didn’t call him Uncle, because I didn’t want to offend him.
Nothing for you to be sorry for, he replied, turning toward me. She was very, very brave, suffering too much. At the beginning of our marriage, she used to have to drag me to these concerts. Now I’ve fallen in love with this music because of her.
I smiled at him, looked at his profile for a few moments, but couldn’t find anything else to say. I leaned into the armrest between us, tried to be as close to him as I could without touching him. We both sat, quietly sipping our chai.
The artist that night was Kadri Gopalnath, a saxophone player from Karnataka. I had never seen him in concert myself, only heard the cassette tapes my mother played at home. The accompanists, a violin player to the left and a mridangam player to the right, wore muted greens, and tuned their instruments, waiting to begin. Gopalnathji walked on stage in pranam and the audience burst into applause. He settled himself onto a pillow. He was aglow, his marigold-colored kurta shot through with gold thread, bordered with thick, metallic embroidery at his sleeves that glinted as his hands moved. Each of his fingers glimmered with heavy gold rings, set with large rubies and emeralds. A mala fell from his neck to his stomach, its closure a red tassel that matched the sindoor that had been stroked across his forehead. It was unusual to see a Carnatic musician who took so much pleasure in sartorial exuberance.
It was even more unusual for a Carnatic musician to be playing the saxophone.
Gopalnathji first experienced a calling for the instrument after hearing the Mysore Palace Band play in his hometown of Mangalore. His father was able to procure a used instrument for him and eagerly brought it to him, to help him in learning Western music. Gopalnathji was already studying the nadhaswaram, which I knew as a high-pitched, sonorous reed instrument that sounded quite mournful, although it was played at all of the weddings I attended when I visited my family in Hyderabad. Gopalnathji began to adapt the ragas he had learned to the saxophone, but throughout his career, was forced to accept the limitations of its range. Glissando, or the swift playing of consecutive notes up or down a scale in Western music, which brings about the effect of a joining between notes, even though one can still hear distinct notes on the saxophone, always sat apart from the particular pathos of meend, the continuous slide between notes that is the heart of Indian music, and is central to its expression of emotion and the human experience. I imagine Gopalnathji understood that there were aspects of Carnatic ornamentation and decoration of sound, a form of music that theorizes many more than simply twelve notes, he would simply have to give up on the saxophone. He traded one form of beauty for another that he invented and shaped. As I listened to him, I was moved by the beauty of the sound he had created.
The raag Gopalnathji had selected, Hamsadhwani, translated as “the voice of the swan,” is meant to be played at the onset of night, and is full of natural notes that are sweet to the ear. The audience clapped out the mridangam’s taal as he played, some quietly in their laps, others with their hands held out where Gopalnathji could see their rigorous attention to the beat cycle, as a direct offering to him, a message of their pure delight and exhilaration. Palms together on the closed beat, the back of the hand lifted and turned over in the air, like a lotus, on an open beat. There were moments where he hit such a beautiful string of notes on a rhythmic high, that on the tihais, the third repetition that lands on the first beat of a complex cycle, we all resounded with joy as the room became a single, defining clap. Shabash! and Kya Baath? or Vah re Vaah! people shouted as an ever so slight smile played at the corners of Gopalnathji’s mouth. The man sitting next to me and I both looked at each other in astonishment, the wonder of having witnessed something so profound. Years later, I found an online recording of a performance he gave of that very raag, and felt something of that night well up as I watched. There was a quality of emotion that caught me, just as universal, and ancient, as it was that night.
After the concert was over, we both made sure to check each other’s seats so that we didn’t leave any of our belongings behind. We accompanied each other out of the hall.
Which way are you going? I asked him. He pointed in the direction of King’s Cross station.
And you? he asked. I pointed in the opposite direction, up York Way.
If you have some time, please meet me for a coffee. I can take you to a very nice bookstore in the city, not too far away from a cafe that is a favorite of mine.
I thought it would be lovely to meet him, and asked him to write his number in the book I had with me. He hesitated to mar the page, then carefully wrote his number across it. He explained how London phone numbers worked, and how I should dial him from the hotel.
It was so nice to meet you, thank you for the tea, I said.
I hope to see you again, he replied, then waved as he turned away. I watched his back recede as he stuffed his hands in his pockets and slowly made his way down the very edge of the sidewalk. The doors of the pubs had been swung open, spilling tables and chairs onto the street. Young people smoked cigarettes and chatted with urgency, while balancing massive, frothy pints, eventually pushing him off the curb and into the street.
I spent the rest of my days in London wandering the city, going to a few of the places he had mentioned, my favorite being a Punjabi restaurant near Whitechapel station, where I had a delicious kadu sabzi and methi murgh chicken, the two dishes he had recommended, with a pile of buttery kulcha naan. I sat under Christmas lights that had been strung across the entire ceiling of the dining room, watching a group of young people celebrating the engagement of two of their friends. In the years since I was last in the city, I’ve thought about the man who sat next to me in the concert hall often. He surely would have met me for a meal. During the final days of my trip, I tried to assuage my own guilt, he may have been a serial killer, and I had taken an unmonitored drink from a perfect stranger. Still, I remember the feeling of him – his frailty, his quiet, his spontaneous care, his mourning, an overwhelming feeling of being solitary in the world. The way he placed his hands in his lap, quietly taking in the music, sometimes closing his eyes. It wasn’t just that I was keeping him company, he was keeping me company too. The world was changing so quickly then, I don’t know that I would make the same choices now, to move through a city, by myself, with quite the same youthful freedom, yet he offered a small opening of trust and comfort, someone who might have been feeling as unmoored as me. I had plenty of time, it would have been easy for me to call him, to have met up with him at a cafe, to take a walk in a park, to talk for a few hours. I would have enjoyed it. But it was his simple, uncomplicated interest in me that led me to ignore his number every time I opened that book to read before bed, and in the end, I never called him at all. He never wrote his name down, and I’ve forgotten it since then.
Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash