It was another bad day at work.
After all these years, I couldn’t understand whether it was the work that was bad, or was it I who was bad at work. Nevertheless, the pay was good, and that had kept me going.
My mind was a scramble since morning in my cubicle and I couldn’t wait for that hallowed half-hour of repose – lunch-time.
After a hurried lunch, I walked up to the chai shop across the street for the sake of maintaining at least one habit unfailingly.
It was a cloudy day and the usual clamour of the street was a bit subdued. As I sat under the Neem tree, rationing miserly sips of hot chai, a faint, evocative melody fell upon my ear.
Happy to have heard some music on the street, I looked around to find its source. Soon, I saw an elderly flute-seller walk up the street with a playful air.
He wore a black turban, a faded yellow kurta and flowing black pyjamas. A stick that leaned on his left shoulder was festooned with a bunch of flutes of different sizes. His traditional leather footwear curled back in at the front, much like his sinuous moustache.
With an easy, graceful gait, he approached the chai-shop. He played a familiar filmy tune that most of the generation on the street had grown up listening to. We measured our age with the breadth of the smile that the prized piece of nostalgia brought forth on us.
He slowed down his advance near the chai-shop and with that timeless melody, he slowed down the pace of the street.
Once he finished playing the tune, the hum of the traffic resumed, as a poignant, practical applause.
He gave himself the reward of a content smile.
Having subconsciously judged his petty life at first glance, I felt perplexed by the quiet complacency in his demeanour. Or should I say, a bit envious.
I waved at him and asked,
‘Aye, bansuri-wallah, chai?’
He nodded as if he saw the invitation coming.
As I offered him a cup of chai, I asked,
‘What’s your name?’
He gently swayed his head, like the topmost branch of a young tree, as if in no hurry whatsoever.
After a sip of chai, with a nod of approval, he said…
‘Kanha…My name is Kanha…’
‘Kanha, tell me, why is it that you keep playing this old filmy tune? Is that the only song you know?’ I asked with a hint of disparagement.
‘I can only play what people are ready to hear, Babuji.’
I felt I heard a part of me in his answer. How I had learned to sell what people were willing to buy, thinking that was the only way.
But what separated him from me? I couldn’t remember even a fleeting instant from my life when I was as content as this flute-selling fakir.
‘Why don’t you play something new, something original for me? If you do so, I might buy a flute,’ I said.
‘I have been waiting for a pair of ears that pine to hear a new message through music.
Do you think you are ready?’ he asked in his throaty voice.
‘Yes, I am,’ I said on the behalf of the street.
They say that the value of any thing is in the way it alters your perception of time and space. Whoever has been in love, has lived this truth first hand.
As he began to play, perhaps it was love that he weaved in those ennobled breaths.
The whole street stood entranced. All involuntary work suddenly lost its relevance. Hawkers, pedestrians, spent cows, orphans on the street; felt magnetically drawn to the caress of that tune. The wind flowed with a gentler hiss and the sun peeped ever so little to shine a spotlight where it was due. Just as lost as the street was in the music, so was Kanha, the seraphic source of those mellifluous moments.
The thousands of questions people had in their mind were answered, all the pain in their hearts was soothed, and everyone, for that hallowed span of time, learned to smile again without longing for a lasting reason.
As he held the final note on his bansuri, the clock began to slowly tick again.
He opened his opal eyes and invited me to lose all my guards. I looked into his eyes, those fabled tunnels with a blinding light at the other end.
I submitted to a hypnotic spell, and let him read the maze of my mind.
He blinked twice, and I began to sense my surroundings again.
‘Did you enjoy the music?’ he asked humbly.
‘Yes…Yes…It was… the truth…’
‘To answer the question on your mind, Babuji…
That’s the value of my breath.’
He had read my mind like a book. And I was glad he could read the script that I’d begun to forget.
He reached his hand to one of the other flutes in his collection and pulled out one with a pink thread at its end.
He handed me the flute and lovingly said,
‘Go find the value of your breath.’
I took the flute in my hand and looked at it with a hope that I’d thought I had given up on long ago.
Slowly, I looked up. Kanha was already walking away with his easy, nonchalant stride.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask him,
How much I owed him.