“I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument, while the song I came to sing remains unsung.” – GURUDEV VANI
The baby girl, Kokila, curious about the activity in front of her, crawled on her stomach and halted before the items displayed, for her to touch.
It was as though the infant was lost in deep thought on which item to touch. For a minute, she sucked at her thumb instead and took out from her pink lips the saliva-dripping chubby hand. She stretched her plump arm and stopped short of a textbook, an English alphabet book, actually.
The parents, Janarthanan and Vaishnavi, instantly soared to cloud nine.
“Did you see? Goddess Saraswati, Goddess Saraswati!”
“She’s going to be a doctor!”
However, they gave out a collective sigh of disappointment as the bubble of their vicarious sanguine aspirations were punctured abruptly.
The baby withdrew her hand, returned the thumb to its rightful place between her lips, rolled over to her side, and dozed. Disappointment writ large on their countenances, her parents made to wake her.
The purohit stopped them.
Kokila stretched her arm, the other arm, and placed it on the book.
Cheering and clapping erupted in that small Durga temple.
While the parents were patting their backs for their perceived wisdom, a truly wise old relative, the paternal grandfather, spoke.
“Goddess Saraswati doesn’t mean only knowledge or education. She is the Goddess of music, too!”
Everyone stared at him.
“Karnatic Music,” said the wise old savant.
“She is only five!” cried the parents, “She is picking up words, rhymes, and numbers quickly. She’ll be going to Standard I after school reopens.”
“That’s why I said music, Karnatic music. She is good at other subjects and will excel in them, eventually, but fine arts, one must start learning at a very young age.”
Ultimately, the parents bowed, not to the power vested in seniority but to the wisdom of the words of experience.
Kokila, the subject of discussion was watching a Karnatic music performance on the TV silently while her mouth and thumb continued their seemingly eternal cosmic collaboration.
Couple of years later …
The loud speakers were crackling their hearts out in an attempt to douse the din of students and their parents in the school auditorium. The smiling Principal took the first-prize cup from the class teacher’s hand and waited. Kokila, in her school uniform, briskly ran up the few steps to the podium and stood reverentially in front of the Principal.
“And now the singing competition for the middle school girls. The first prize goes to Kokila Janarthanan. Give her a big hand, ladies and gentlemen.”
The auditorium erupted in instant clapping and cheering.
The Principal shook hands with Kokila and handed the cup to her. Kokila thanked the principal, turned around, and bowed to the audience.
She was beaming to see her grandfather amid the gathering.
‘Was that an appreciative nod of his?’
“Grandpa, grandpa, ice cream cone, please,” Kokila pleaded.
Grandfather and granddaughter were out in the park enjoying the evening walk and the cool sea breeze gently brushing the thick green manes of the Ashoka trees.
“Are you sure? You are having exams in a week and a singing competition later, not to mention that your mummy will kill me if I buy ice cream for you.”
Kokila went and sat on a distant bench, moping. Grandfather sighed and walked towards the ice-cream cart.
Moments later, Kokila smiled and bit into butterscotch heaped on a cone.
Kokila was crying uncontrollably.
“This is why I don’t give her ice-creams or spicy chaat items. Doctor said it is severe Tonsilitis. Poor thing is not able to swallow even water.”
Vashnavi left her daughter’s room sniffling. Shutting the door after her, the grandfather sat on a bedside chair and caressed Kokila’s tresses.
“Sorry, grandpa, you had to hear all this because of me. Had I not eaten the ice…”
Grandfather gently laughed it away.
“She is a mother. I know how she must be feeling. Your grandma used to do the same thing.”
Kokila nodded. “I can’t resist ice-creams and chaat, grandpa,” she explained imploringly.
“Listen to me, Kokila, I may not get another chance to say this.”
“Are you angry, grandpa?” Kokila asked nervously.
“No, sweetheart, quite the contrary; you spoke the truth.” He paused. “Everyone has a dream but not everyone has the will to realise it. It takes enormous perseverance to achieve one’s dreams. It doesn’t come without sacrifices. Take your case. What is your dream in life?”
“Becoming a rock star … is … is there anything wrong with that, grandpa?”
“No, but that’s general, a long-term one; anything short-term?”
She hesitated for a few moments. “First, win Indian Idol and second, sing in the presence of … Lata Mangeshkar.”
“Wow! Any idea how to go about it?”
“No, not yet … “
“As I see it, it takes tremendous dedication and practice.”
“I know, but what has Karnatic music got to do with it?”
“Good question, dear.” He paused to think of an easily understood example. “Can you cook festival lunch for, say, ten people?”
“Grandpaaa … How can I? I don’t even know the basics of cooking.”
“You can learn.”
“Takes long time, grandpa. Dad tells me granny was a very good cook.”
“Yes, she was. To become good at anything you choose you must be very good at the basics. Look at Amitabh, Lata Mangeshkar, Gavaskar, Kapil. They excel in their chosen fields because they have strong basics. Classical music, gives you the basic platform for singing. Merely having a good voice isn’t enough; it must be trained, too. It comes with years of dedicated and sincere practice. You must allow nothing to effect it.” He paused. “See, now you have missed your exams and the singing competition, too.”
Kokila was in tears.
“I made a mess for myself, grandpa. I didn’t listen to you and mummy and missed important things in my life.”
Grandfather did not cajole her. ‘Let her cry it out. She needs this catharsis to realise the seriousness of the issue.’
Several minutes later …
“What you’ve lost now is small in comparison to what you may lose in future. Singers, movie artistes, and athletes give up so much to achieve their dreams; things, which others consider essential and fun, just as you did. I read somewhere that the singing legend, Lata Mangeshkar, never ate an ice cream or chaat in several decades so that her throat was healthy and her voice mellifluous and divine. See where she has reached! You must be prepared to make great sacrifices to fulfil your dream.”
He patted her head and stood up to leave. Kokila held his hand and kissed it gently. She looked at him and smiled. Her smile said a million thanks.
A few months later …
Grandfather slowly lifted the oxygen mask off his smiling face and whispered in a feeble broken voice.
“Om Shri Venkateshaya Namaha. God bless you all.”
The mask slipped from his feeble hand and fell gently on the face.
The smile lingered.
‘You must be prepared to make great sacrifices to fulfil your dream.’ Grandfather’s voice reverberated in the room.
A few years later …
“Kokila, let’s be friends.”
“We are, Virat!”
“I mean … I love you, Koks.”
“Now, that’s different …”
“Don’t brush it away, Koks, I am serious.”
“Me, too, Viru … about my studies and my dream.”
“You are studying well and what dream are you talking about?”
“You don’t know that and you say you love me!”
“Oh, your music …”
“Yeah, my music, my life, I cannot allow anything to affect it, Viru. I must realise my dream.”
“I know; you are practising to compete in Indian Idol this year.”
“I want to sing in the presence of Lataji.”
“English lecturer Lata madam?”
“No, you dolt, Lata Mangeshkar, my Goddess of music.”
Mouth agape, Virat fell into incredulous silence.
“Think I am crazy, Viru?”
“One day, I will achieve it and you will see.”
“So, what has it to do with …”
“Everything, Virat; nothing comes in the way of my dream. Sorry.”
“Are you crazy?”
Kokila’s parents could not believe what they just heard.
“Yes, sabbatical from studies.”
“To do what?” Her parents were aghast.
“Concentrate on learning music,” Kokila said, “and compete in Indian Idol.”
“You can continue learning music alongside of studies. What’s this Indian Idle?” Janarthanan asked.
“Idol, not Idle. Indian Idol an all-India singing competition conducted annually. It is highly competitive and is a wonderful platform for singers. Win or lose, they achieve national recognition.” She paused. “I want to compete this year.”
“Recognition? No prizes, shields? And what good is it for your career? You have taken up BCA. Talk of MCA, I’ll understand. But this … Idle business?”
“Idol, dad, Indian Idol. Yes, there is lot of prize money and gifts. No, it will not help in Computer Application field. A degree and a run-of-the-mill job I can get anytime; I’m confident, but this opportunity comes but once. It is my dream …”
“Dreams don’t feed you or clothe you and your family.”
“If Edison hadn’t dreamt we would still be lighting candles or oil lamps at night. If Bell hadn’t dreamt we would still be sending pigeon-post. Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Pasteur, Curies, Babbage were dreamers. If it hadn’t been for them we would still be living in dark ages …”
Phut … a resounding slap.
“Stop lecturing me …”
Tears welled in Kokila’s eyes instantly. Holding a palm to her cheek, she ran into her room, and bolted the door.
“Kokila … Kokila, darling, please open the door …”
Her mother’s fervent pleas could not penetrate the unyielding door.
The mood in the chambers of the Principal of the college was one of sombreness. The Principal and the Head of Department were looking at Kokila and her parents in silent expectation. Finally, the Principal broke the silence.
“Is that your final decision?”
“We have no option, madam,” Janarthanan said, “she’s adamant.”
“Kokila, what do you have to say?”
“Madam, I shall continue after … this, if you permit …”
“It is not up to me, child; I must bring the matter to the board. I’ll recommend that you be permitted to go on long leave and resume once again from where you left, subject to availability of vacancies, of course. This year’s fees will be forfeited, though.”
Janarthanan and Vaishnavi nodded gravely.
“All right, will you give us a minute, please?” The Principal looked at Kokila’s parents and the Head of Department.
After they left, the Principal looked at Kokila for a minute and spoke.
“Are you serious, Kokila?”
Without hesitation, Kokila replied, “Yes, madam, absolutely.”
“No regrets later, whatever the outcome of your efforts might be.”
“There won’t be any, madam.”
The Principal was lost in thought for a couple of minutes.
“I appreciate your determination, child. You know, I faced a similar situation myself. My parents wanted me to take up MBBS, whereas I was hell-bent on a career in teaching. It was my dream, you see.” She chuckled. “Go into the world and strive. Do not rest until you realise your dream. God bless you and my blessings, too.”
From that moment, classical music and practicing for Indian Idol became life-breath to Kokila. Entertainment for her was spending a few hours a week on the beach or in a park with a couple of like-minded friends. She strictly followed a diet and yoga regimen. Every evening she would visit the nearby temple and pray.
Finally, the Indian Idol competition began …
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, this year’s finals of the one and only Indian Idol. We have the two finalists on the stage, Mr. Gaurav Patnaik from Bhubaneshwar, Orissa …” the compére’s voice was lost in the din.
The audience exploded in unison, “Gaurav, Gaurav …”
“… and Miss Kokila Janarthanan, from Chennai, Tamil Nadu …”
“Kokila, Kokila …” the audience went berserk.
“These two singers went through the earlier rounds in style, against some very tough competition, but here they are, testing their mettle against each other.” He paused. “Wait, the judges want to say something.”
A judge, a renowned music director from Mumbai, spoke.
“I’ve been observing these two children from day one; both are extremely talented. It’ll be difficult to choose between them. Children, give the best unmindful of the result. My blessings to both of you and …” he paused for dramatic effect, “… Bollywood beckons you.”
“Gaurav Patnaik from Bhubaneshwar …”
“भगवान् … भगवान् … भगवान्
ओ दुनिया के रखवाले
सुन दर्द भरे मेरे नाले
आशा निराशा के दो रंगों से दुनिया तू ने बनायी
नैया संग तूफ़ान बनाया, मिलन के साथ जुदाई
जा देख लिया हरजाई
लुट गयी मेरे प्यार की नगरी, अब तो नीर बहाले …”
The audience were mesmerised into a silence that persisted even after Gaurav concluded his final rendition and stood smiling expectantly.
And then …
… absolute cacophony, clapping, and cheering that took several minutes to ebb.
“That was soul-stirring, Gaurav. Please take your seat. The final song of this year’s competition will be rendered by Miss Kokila.”
“आआ…ये ज़िन्दगी उसीकी है, जो किसी का हो गया, प्यार ही में खो गया…”
ये बहार, ये समा, कह रहा है प्यार कर
किसी की आरज़ू में अपने दिल को बेक़रार कर
ज़िंदगी है बेवफ़ा … ज़िंदगी है बेवफ़ा, लूट प्यार का मज़ा …”
Minutes after rendering the immortal verse, Kokila was still in a trance, tears flowing unstoppably from her eyes. She scaled the pinnacle of emotions where victory and defeat seemed imposters and did not matter to her any longer. It took the non-stop din of the audience to jolt her out of the trance.
The atmosphere reverberated with the voice of her grandfather, ‘You must be prepared to make great sacrifices to fulfil your dream.’
She knew she did it. ‘Thanks, grandpa.’
“Wow, what a night, ladies and gentlemen, absolutely awesome. Pssst … I pity the judges, for they have to make the decision. Over to the judges …”
“… and the winner is … Kokila Janarthanan from Chennai …”
“Dad, mom …”
“Don’t say a word, dear. We were wrong to have tried to …”
“No, dad, mom … don’t say ‘sorry’. Like all parents, you were concerned about me, my future. I am glad you threw a challenge in front of me, and grandfather … how can I ever forget his advice! Bless me for a fulfilling career.”
“Yeah, now, I have a new career, too … as your secretary, in Mumbai.”
“Daaaad … I promise, I will finish my graduation.”
DREAM COME TRUE
“Lovers of music, adorers of the one and only Lata Mangeshkar, this night’s show is our humble tribute to the nightingale of Hindi film music, Lataji. I now present the last item of today’s show for which you have been eagerly waiting.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I present the youth icon, the new singing sensation Miss Kokila Janarthanan. She will present one of the most famous and popular renderings of Lataji. Please come onto the stage, Miss Kokila.”
Kokila walked slowly from the left wing to the centre of the stage. The audience erupted into a standing ovation.
“Kokila, Kokila, Kokila …”
Kokila received the microphone, gently cleared her throat and looked with reverence at the living legend, Lata Mangeshkar.
“From my childhood, I had but one dream, which was to make my name in music and sing in the presence of my Goddess, Lata Mangeshkarji. That dream has come true today.”
Kokila walked to Lata Mangeshkar, who was sitting in a sofa in the first row of audience along with some other members. She genuflected and placed her forehead on the feet of the legendary singer, who placed her hand on Kokilali’s head and blessed her.
Kokila briskly walked back to the stage and received the microphone from the compére, who discreetly withdrew from the stage. The lights went off even as the audience began chanting “Kokila…Kokila…”
A spotlight slowly brightened to illuminate one spot on the centre-stage. The audience went crazy seeing their icon, Kokila in the spotlight.
“The song I came to sing is …”
Kokila placed the head of the microphone close to her lips and closed her eyes as if she were in a trance.
In a few moments …
“आआ…ये ज़िन्दगी उसीकी है, जो किसी का हो गया, प्यार ही में खो गया…”
The immortal verse reverberated in the auditorium to a spellbound audience. Lost in her trance, Kokila did not see Lata Mangeshkar wipe tears from her eyes.
“Grandma, grandma, ice cream cone please,” five-year-old Abhay pleaded, tugging at the pallu of his grandmother’s sari.
‘Grandpa, help me …’ Kokila looked to the skies.
It is needless to say that all characters and situations portrayed in this story are fictitious and that any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. However, Lata Mangeshkar and Indian Idol are real.
Indian Idol is a singing competition that has catapulted into limelight hitherto unknown and unspotted singing talent from nooks and corners of our country. During the last decade, it has enriched the film industry by contributing several fresh and talented singers.
Lata Mangeshkar, the living legend of Hindi film music, needs no introduction. Dedicating her entire life to music, she stands out as an eternal inspiration to all aspiring singers.
This short story is a tribute to Lataji and Indian Idol for their service to music in general and film music in particular.
… Shyam Sundar Bulusu