I come from a musically talented family. My paternal uncle had had a brief stint with playback singing in the nascent stage of Malayalam cinema. Another uncle who died young was said to be a wizard with musical instruments. The story goes that he used to try all sorts of stunts with them - playing tunes on the harmonuium with his nose being the least difficult of them all!!!!!!!!!!!
All my siblings were comfortable in the world of music. So was/am I- to say we were comfortable, I guess, is an understatement. We love it – given the choice and encouragement, some at least would have taken up professions in it – but in our conservative Syrian catholic culture music , though encouraged, was always secondary to more important, serious pursuits.
Fortunately for us, our parents believed that proficiency in music was a desirable accomplishment. So some sort of music teacher would be in and out of our house all the time. Carnatic music was not our favourite ‘cos of the absence of glamour in our young doubly colonized world filled with western pop and hindi film music. So, when the Bhagavathar came to give lessons in Carnatic music to my two brothers immediately older and younger to me, the tendency was always to find reasons to get rid of him for the day. But getting rid of him, they never succeeded in - father would get into a fit of rage at the very suggestion. So they would sit thru it. I used to take the coffee up to the room where the classes were held. On one occasion, I saw my bothers making comical faces when the Bhagavathar, on their request, was rendering a piece, with his eyes rapturously closed. When he opened his eyes at the end of it, my brothers had appropriate expressions on their faces – soulful, ecstatic which seemed to me more comical than the faces they were making! But the Bhagavathar was immensely pleased by their response and went away a happy man that day. However, on another occasion, he opened his eyes midway and caught them red-handed. Needless to say, he reported the case to my mother. Guess that’s when mom decided the she would no longer be the cause for casting pearls - - - - - - -
But I was not as lucky as my brothers. It was at the beginning of my fifth standard that my mother got the bright idea that I should take piano lessons. I was not against the idea. I was given to a lot of day dreaming and I soon began to imagine myself at the piano before a large and distinguished audience and then the thunderous applause at the end of the performance. The idea really appealed to me. So it was that I was taken by my class teacher to Sister Redempta, one of the two music teachers we had in the convent school.
I saw Sister Redempta and my heart sank. I had just that morning finished reading an illustrated Sleeping Beauty, and sister reminded me of the picture of witch Malice kicking the cat out of her way!!!! Sister Redempta must have been six and a half feet long, or so she seemed to the diminutive person that I was. At least, she was the tallest person I had ever seen in my life. She was thin as thin can be. Her aged and lined face tapered down to a sharply pointed chin with a few long gray and black hair on it. She wore the dark brown habit of the nuns and wore stiletto heeled shoes. I had never seen a nun wearing stiletto heels and they fascinated me. So I stared at her shoes and she jumped up and down in a flurry thinking some reptile was heading towards her feet. Then she looked unpleasantly at me for making her do a violent tap dance.
Sr. Redempta was all that I was terrified of. She spoke no Malayalam. She was strict. She never, never, smiled!!!! And she had a temper. A terrible temper. She used to rap me on my knuckles when I repeatedly made the same mistakes. I was too scared to tell her I made them because I was terrified of her and so was extremely nervous. In fact, I had never conversed with her – couldn’t think of doing such a thing. In fact I couldn’t think of anyone having a normal conversation with her.
Things were ok in the initial days. Then as the lessons became tougher, and she got impatient and I got nervous and made mistakes and she got angry and angrier, life became a nightmare for me. I tried telling my mother that but she paid no heed to it – she thought I was acting up. The worst part was, the music lessons were from nine to ten. The students who came early to school would shout and yell and play orange salami, be quick, the king in the palace lost his ring etc etc, and there I would be sitting beside the scary Sister Redempta, being shouted at, rapped on the knuckles.
In my sixth standard it was worse. My music lessons were in the ante room of my class room and there was only a parapet high jhalf wall partition between these two rooms. My class mates would lean on the half-wall and watch my ordeal. This would make me even more nervous. And to make things worse, I was a being trained for the second grade Trinity College exam, and the pressure to perform was very high. So I would keep on making mistakes, Sister would keep gettig angry - and one day she grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me like they describe in the Enid Blyton books –shook me and shook me as if I were a rag doll and my friends laughed and laughed and Sister Redempta got more and more disgusted. Finally she let go and I collapsed on the key board with a loud jarring sound. She got up and went away in disgust. And I picked myself up and continued practice with whatever dignity I could muster. Left to myself, I didn’t make a single mistake! I pleaded with my mother to permit me to discontinue my piano lessons. She agreed but said I should appear for the exam and then only give it up. Unfortunately, I cleared the exam with Honours and my mother changed her mind. After all promises to children are meant to be broken ‘cos parents know best.