‘The Mystical Music’ by Sheila Samanta Mathai (India)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

The first time I heard it was in college in Pune, late one evening, many years ago. The campus was overgrown and the road was lined with Ashoka trees swishing in the evening breeze. The music was a high-pitched strain, melancholic yet uplifting. The notes seemed distant but pure. I remember thinking that it sounded like an alien flute. I thought it was coming from the staff quarters across the other end of the field. For some reason, the sound was disturbing. But I had things to do so I let it pass. I reached the hostel, met friends and forgot about it.

A couple of months later I was walking back from a matinee show at the cinema, discussing the movie with friends. We had almost reached the college campus when I heard the music again. This time there were no nearby houses from which it could possibly be coming from. Though the tune was the same, the instrument was different. I was almost sure it was a violin this time. There was a sense of familiarity in the sound and yet when I tried to hum the tune I could not recollect it. I clutched my friend’s arm and asked her to listen. She looked at me oddly. “What was I talking about?” she thought. The music stopped as suddenly as it had started and we moved on.

These episodes all were forgotten with other things dominating my life. I graduated from Medical School and started my internship. Life was progressing satisfactorily and I was taken unawares when I heard the music again. This time I was on Casualty Duty at the hospital. I had almost dozed off when the haunting strain jolted me back to wakefulness. The notes were so pure! The quality of the music was very different from anything I had ever heard! The melody was definitely the same. There was a background beat that accentuated the high, bell-like notes. I got up and walked around trying to identify the source. Finally, I plucked up enough courage to ask the staff on duty if they could hear it too. Just as I had expected, they shook their heads in surprise. The music had stopped but by then my heart was beating violently. Something was terribly wrong! There was no doubt about it. I was hearing things which didn’t exist!

My knowledge of neurology was enough to make me take a consultation. A senior neurologist heard me through and then pronounced the expected diagnosis: temporal lobe epilepsy. I was subjected to an EEG and a MRI scan. Everything was normal and I was advised to wait and see if the ‘symptoms’ recurred. Somehow I was not convinced that the explanation was so simple. Could it be an unconscious yearning, a deep-seated unfulfilled desire? I had always longed to learn music and play an instrument as a child but had never had the opportunity to do so. Maybe that was what was playing on my mind!

Still, I carried on with my life. I got married, had a daughter and progressed in my profession as a doctor. But I had a secret that I didn’t dare share with anybody – the mystical music of my mind. It came and went at unexpected times. It was so mesmerising that I almost began to look forward to it. Each time it was different, yet disturbingly familiar. It lifted my spirits and made me want to hear more. I learnt to let it engulf me and to enjoy it. But it was always very brief and before I could grasp it, it was gone. It was like the music of the Pied Piper or the sirens of the seas, luring the unsuspecting, into its embrace.

Ten years went by. Being in the military, I moved from one posting to another all over the country and was finally placed in Mumbai. We were allotted a house in a high-rise building next to an ancient, heritage church in Colaba. Soon after moving in I noticed an increase in the number of times I heard the music, again and again. I thought that maybe it was time to start medication as surely this was a case of worsening epilepsy! But I loved the music and, if this was an illness, I was not complaining! I knew that I should go for another consultation but I kept putting it off.

Then one late Sunday afternoon, as I was walking back home past the ancient church, the music hit me with a force that I had never experienced before. It was crystal clear and vibrant and the dancing notes drew me towards the church. I entered the compound and walked through the open archway into the dimly lit sanctuary. Someone was playing the grand piano at the far end. As I walked up the aisle I was surprised to see a small child standing on a stool and running her fingers up and down the keys. The ethereal sounds that she generated vibrated through the church – it was the same melodious music that I had been hearing for so many years! The girl wore the simple clothes of a domestic workers’ child.

As I moved towards her she jumped off the stool and ran out of the church. I rushed after her, shouting but she laughed and skipped off into a small cottage at the back. I reached panting and knocked at the door. An elderly man opened it. He said he was the caretaker of the church and asked me what I wanted. I told him that I wanted to meet the little girl who played the piano so beautifully. He looked at me and then called to his wife. They spoke in Tamil and after some discussion invited me in. I looked around their humble home but could find no trace of the child prodigy. The caretaker asked me to sit down as he had something to tell me.

“Many years ago my wife and I came from our village in Tamil Nadu to Mumbai where I found a job as the caretaker of this ancient church. We were very happy but had no children and for this we prayed to the Almighty day in and day out. One day, about fifteen years ago, we awoke to find two twin baby girls abandoned on the church doorstep. Taking it as a gift from God, we took the babies in and raised them as our own. Within a few years it was obvious that the children were musical prodigies. Whereas Lakshmi could sing like an angel, Padmini could play any musical instrument without training. Whether it was the flute, the mouth harmonica or even the church piano – she just had to touch it with her tiny fingers to generate the most heavenly music. So talented were they that people who came to the church would ask the children to perform for them. Tragically, when they were five years old, they both fell severely ill with a fever. After battling the disease for several weeks, little Padmini succumbed. Her twin survived but she was never the same. From that time onwards she never sang again…”

As I listened to this strange story a young girl in her mid teens came into the room. I smiled at her and she seemed to acknowledge me. Her parents told me that Lakshmi had just completed high school and would not be studying further as they could not afford it. I asked Lakshmi if she wanted to study music and learn to sing. She smiled and nodded. And suddenly I knew what I had to do. I told Lakshmi’s parents that I would sponsor her college education, including classes in music and singing. The couple were wary at first but after I told them my story they agreed with much gratitude.

Lakshmi was slowly reintroduced to music. Though she was indifferent academically, she was brilliant in singing, both in classical Hindustani and Western. Over the next few years she blossomed into a virtuoso and now gives public performances and sings regularly on TV. I’ve heard Lakshmi sing hundreds of times but never once have I heard her sing the melody that haunted me for over ten years – the mystical music that disappeared forever the day I found her…

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Sheila Samanta Mathai is a 49-year old Indian paediatrician and neonatologist in the Indian Navy and is presently posted as Professor and Head of Department (Pediatrics) at INHS Asvini, the Naval Hospital at Colaba, Mumbai, India. She enjoys writing short stories and poetry and has contributed articles to local magazines of the Indian Navy.

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