I started crying, fearing my father would
somehow blame me for the nymph’s death.
He only smiled at my distress and continued
his story. “As the musician was staring in hor-
ror at the dead woman in front of him, a holy
man passed by and asked if he could borrow
the instrument. He played on it so sweetly he
brought the note-nymph back to life. That is
how you must try to play.”
And then at last my father allowed me to
pluck the primary scale from the strings of my
vina. For half an hour he listened to me play
as closely as if he were listening to a great mu-
sician before stopping me. “The first sound of
creation was Om. Each vibration of Om cre-
ated new sounds that led to the primary scale.
Think of these seven notes as the Om of mu-
sic. If you cannot play them correctly, you will
never be able to master a raga.”
I was only a child, but my father wanted me
to understand that music was the mathematics
by which the universe could be comprehended.
Morning after morning, month after month he
made me play the sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni over
and over again, one hand moving up and down
the frets, the other plucking at the vina’s strings,
until my fingers bled. He ignored my tears and
forced me to continue practicing until the cush-
ions of my fingertips developed calluses. But still
he was not satisfied with the clarity of my notes.
If my mother had been more sympathetic, I
would have asked her then to end my music lessons. Unfortunately, my mother seldom spoke
to me. My ugliness upset her. When other children stared at me, sniggering at my ugliness,
my mother’s eyes filled with tears, but she never
comforted me or told me they were wrong.
Shamed by mother’s tears, I hid in the
bathroom, examining myself in the mirror to
see if my face was losing any of its coarseness.
Each time I looked, I saw only two features in
the mushy flesh, this nose growing bigger as if
trying to join this chin that drives forward like
a fighter’s, tempting an opponent’s attack.
My father was oblivious to my ugliness.
After listening to me practice on my vina, he
would play himself, making me learn the scales
that formed the ragas. For two years these skeletons of melody were all I learned. My father
would play some notes and ask me what he was
playing. When I identified the raga he would
recite a sacred saying peculiar to it.
“A goddess presides over each of the ragas. If
you truly meditate on a raga’s sacred teaching, its
goddess will give you mastery over its melodies.”
I stared at him resentfully as he spoke, hating his nose and chin because they were exaggerated so cruelly on my own face. He was not
a handsome man, but at least his features were
in proportion to his face, and his naturally austere expression lent them distinction. I wanted
him to give me a sacred saying, a goddess who
would grant me beauty.
Perhaps I did my father an injustice. Through
music he tried to free me of my own image so I
could love beauty wherever it was to be found,
even if it was not present in my mirror.
Then one day when I was eleven years old,
my father gave me a picture of a man with matted hair and snakes clasping his forehead above
his three eyes.
“This is the raga you will learn. The Bhai-
rav. Bhairav is another name for Shiva, mean-
ing the Fire of Time.”
My hands trembled as I held the picture of
the god, his body smeared with ashes, a drum
and a trident in his hands. I had been under my
father’s instruction for five years by now. At last
my father felt I was capable of commencing the
performance of a raga.
At that very moment my mother began to
sit outside the music room as a jailer waits for a
prisoner. I was not gifted enough for my mother
to feel secure about my future. She had lived
so long with genius that she could recognize it
like a bazaar fruit seller recognizes a fine mango
from a merely good one even though he has not
When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am
invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the
earliest times, and to the latest.
—Henry David Thoreau, 1857