“It’s okay to cry sometimes, you know. It’s just not okay to hold it all in.”
Kriti patted his head gently, trying to get her tearful brother under control. Fifteen-year-old Suketu trembled like a leaf, clutching to his music notes like a life-line. He was thin and pale with thick black-rimmed glasses framing his huge grey eyes, his face almost as delicate as a girl’s. Clad in a blue shirt, navy blue blazer and dress pants along with black loafers, he still felt cold.
And it was not the pre-performance jitters.
His twenty-year-old sister sighed, settling herself next to him. She was taller and healthier with a mop of wavy black hair that bounced on her shoulders, a cheerfully chubby face, sparkly topaz eyes and a strong, confident bearing. Next to her, he often felt younger than his actual age.
“Listen, Sukku. I know that you have something of an issue with the piano. But you cannot let it rule your life! I mean, look at you!”
She gave him a violent shake, forcing his grey eyes to meet her topaz ones.
“Suketu Mehra, the youngest ever finalist of the National Piano Competition is afraid of the damned instrument. Don’t let anything force you to do something you don’t want to do. Man up, bro!”
Suketu sighed, shaking his head in despair.
“It is not that sis…it’s…I don’t know! I am just going crazy…”
He gave a slight gasp when he felt his sister’s warmth envelope him.
“The world is not a monotone, dear brother. It is really a colourful place,” she said softly.
“The finalists for the National Piano Competition are…”
Thirteen-year-old Suketu sat on his seat with his fingers crossed, praying to all the gods he knew to get him on the list. He could see his sister from his peripheral vision, bouncing on her seat.
“Don’t you worry, Sukku. You have got this,” she whispered. Suketu grinned nervously, eager for the anchor to begin his announcement.
After a longer-than-necessary dramatic pause, the anchor drew out the list from his pocket with a flourish, not unlike the magician making a rabbit appear from his hat.
“Five people have qualified for the finals of this prestigious competition. First finalist…Rohan Mishra!”
“Second finalist…Akriti Narain!”
“The third finalist…hold your breath…Tarunima Singh!”
Kriti gripped her brother’s hand tightly, praying with all her might.
“The fourth…this one’s a surprise…Suketu Mehra!”
“Whoopie!!! You made the cut, bro!” Kriti yelled, ignoring the disgruntled looks of the other members of the audience.
Suketu couldn’t help but grin widely.
He made it…he’s through to the finals!
“And the fifth finalist, Karan Roy. All the finalists are requested to assemble in the backstage area post this programme to get the details regarding the finals. Thank you everyone for being such a lovely audience and have a good day.”
“Okay,” Kriti said, patting her brother on his back.
“You go and do your stuff, I will wait for you in the lobby.”
It was almost evening when the duo began to walk back home.
“So, what did the people say?” Kriti asked curiously.
“Nothing out of the ordinary though. Finals are on the Sunday this week and you can pick up any piece of your choice. The performance cannot be longer than fifteen minutes…the usual thing. But they say that some scouts from the Oxford University’s music department might be visiting and they might offer a scholarship to their college for further studies if they like what they hear.”
“Hmm…” she contemplated, involuntarily kicking a pebbled on the footpath.
“Then make sure you play the best music ever, eh?”
They walked home in companionable silence, occasionally coming up with quips to only burst out laughing.
“Hey sis…did you call mom and dad?” he asked softly as she proceeded to unlock the door of their apartment.
She froze before replying as gently as she could.
“You know mom and dad would have loved to see your performance live, instead of hearing it from me. But the work they do is really, really important. They love you, they love your talent. And they are insanely proud of you…but it’s just…”
He looked away so that Kriti couldn’t see the tears in his eyes.
“Yeah…I know. But I would have loved it if they could turn up even once, you know. Just one time…is it that hard?”
Kriti looked lost for words. She knew it would be futile to explain their parents’ predicament, because the sad fact was, he knew. He knew how they missed their children…missed him and Kriti. But that couldn’t dampen the feeling of jealousy that surfaced every time he saw a mother hug her child or a father pat the back.
He knew he was being selfish and childish…and making Kriti worry. He loved his sister—she was always by his side all the time. He felt grateful for her…he knew she often sacrificed her plans to be with him, be it his performances, his practice or just a shoulder to cry on when he was frustrated. He often told her off for this…but he might as well been talking to the wall.
Kriti took her job as the older sister seriously. Very seriously.
Suketu sat on the living room sofa, looking slightly sad. The certificate lay innocently on his lap, as if enjoying his depression.
“Oi! Stop being mopey…we have just three days to pick out a music piece, practice it so that you make a serious impression on Sunday,” said Kriti, slapping his shoulder lightly as she handed him a glass of iced lemonade.
“And remember, mom and dad are really proud of you…and they support you like anything.”
The next day, after Kriti left for college, Suketu sifted through the piles of sheet music, searching for something he could play on Sunday.
“Mozart…Bach…Beethoven…hmmm…man, this is crazy,” he muttered to himself as he lay on the floor surrounded by loose sheets, staring up at the ceiling.
The AC whirred on quietly in the background, the only sound in the otherwise quiet apartment. His school had already broken up for summer last week, though his sister still had two weeks of college left. As far as he could remember, Kriti filled the void of his parents—she was his support system.
He still remembered his first competition. He was just an eight-year-old kid in front of a piano three times taller than him. It was his worst performance he could remember…but Kriti patted him and took him out for ice-cream. Though she was just twelve, she had a mind of an adult. He now realized how much he owed her.
Their parents worked for the Secret Service, often being on classified missions—most of the time, they never knew where on earth they were. Talking to them became a rarity on occasions, contact ceasing over months at a stretch. He knew their work was important.
But that didn’t mean he was happy about it.
Late afternoon when Kriti returned, she found Suketu on the floor fast asleep amidst a sea of sheet music.
Idiot, she whispered to herself as she picked up the stray bits of paper, arranging them on stacks before waking up her brother.
“Oh crap! I fell asleep!” he almost yelled, sitting bolt upright after she poked his arm lightly.
“Chill, it’s just five…pick out something from the bunch while I make us some sandwiches,” she said, pointing at the paper tower.
“That’s what I have been doing all morning…but I can’t figure out what to play,” he said, running his fingers through his hair in frustration.
“Sorry bud…but I just cannot help you with that…you are the music whiz-kid, not me,” she replied, raising her hands in defeat.
“Exactly! I am just a kid whereas the others are adult pros! How can I win this thing?” he said, burying his face in his hands.
Kriti ruffled his hair before standing up.
“Idiot. Who said it is compulsory to win? Just play the way you do…give your best shot and let fate take it’s course.”
“I wanna win, sis,” he said softly through his hands.
“I wanna win many trophies so that when mom and dad come back, they are proud of me like crazy.”
After eating the sandwiches, Suketu decided to begin his practice.
“Picked up your piece?” Kriti asked as she cleared away the plates.
“Chopin…Etude Op 25 Number 5…should be enough for me to sail through,” he replied, walking towards his practice room.
“Work hard, bro.”
After clearing up the table, working through the homework and putting up the rice to cook, she peeked into the practice room. It has been almost three hours since he had begun his practice and from the few snippets she could hear, she could say that the piece was insanely difficult.
It wouldn’t be wrong to classify it as inconceivable.
“You could pick up another piece…a slightly simpler one…what say?” she suggested.
“I understand what you want to say sis, but no…I just know I have got to win this,” he muttered as his fingers jumped lightly over the keys.
It was Sunday morning and Suketu was satisfied with his playing. As the siblings ate their breakfast, the phone rang.
“I am taking it!” Kriti said, running towards the phone.
“Hello! Mehra residence, may I know who’s speaking?” she said, jamming the phone into her ear.
Suketu ran through the notes in his mind as he spooned down his cereal, almost falling off his chair at Kriti’s horrified shriek.
“What’s the matter, sis?” he asked, getting to her side in a trice, trying to hold her steady. He took the receiver and put it on his ear.
“I am very sorry,” said the voice on the other end.
“Why?” he asked slowly.
“Your parents were killed in action in North Russia. And since it was an explosion, we could not find any mortal remains…”
Suketu dropped the phone, sliding on to the floor. His sister held him in her arms as both of them cried, alone in a large apartment.
“I will play.”
Kriti stared up at her brother, his slight frame shaking as he tried to hold in his tears.
“I will win…I wanted to win it for my mom and dad…I will win it for mom and dad.”
“A..a…are y-you s-sure??” she stuttered, wiping her tears.
He trembled, clutching his arms for support.
“I don’t know sis…I don’t know anything anymore.”
He stared at the keys.
The piano looked innocuous.
The audience muttered in disgruntlement.
“What is he doing?”
“Young kid…stage fright maybe…”
“Aah! One less competitor…wish the others did the same!”
His fingers froze.
He just couldn’t play.
Mom…Dad…I am sorry…I am so sorry…
The piano seemed to mock him.
Tears splashed over the keys as he shook.
I am so sorry…
Kriti shook her brother out of reverie.
“Hey hey! Are you okay?”
The last two years had been tough, with Kriti working part-time after college to add up to the government monthly allowance. But their bond had become stronger. After that incident, he had become quieter, lonelier. He no longer could play the piano…the very sight sent him into hysterics. But slowly, Kriti made him overcome it…he slowly began to play.
“You are born to play the piano…don’t break your future into pieces,” she had said.
And today, after two years, he was entering his first competition since that incident.
He wore a look of grim determination as he squared his shoulders.
“Let’s do it, sis!”
After giving him a thumbs up, she exited the backstage to enter the audience section.
Half-an-hour later, the anchor came up to him.
“Suketu Mehra, you are up next.”
He nodded and began his ascent.
The world had been a monotone for him ever since that phone call. He had no one to prove his mettle to. No longer could he write his parents’ names in the school’s guardians’ name.
The world had lost its colour that very day.
The stage was all lit up, the big black piano waiting for him.
Twinkle twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are…
“Mama, can you play it on the piano?”
“Of course. Your big sister loved to listen to it…”
“I wanna hear you play mama…”
“Then you have to sing with me…I won’t prompt!”
“Twinkle Twinkle little star…”
“How I wonder what you are,” he muttered softly as he seated himself on the seat as his most cherished memory floated in front of his eyes.
His fingers sat lightly over the keys as he took in a deep breath.
Back in the audience, Kriti listened to her brother with her eyes’ closed.
“Mozart…Twinkle twinkle little star…”
“Mom would be really happy…she is really happy…”
As the tunes melded with her memories, she couldn’t help but let the tears run down her cheeks.