MEMORIES OF MASHTARMOSHAI
Mashtarmoshai was in his late seventies when I met him for the first time. An ardent Vaishnavite with a sandalwood tilak on his forehead and a great deal of love for Krishna, he would wake up at four in the morning to worship his pantheon of gods and then sit down for a practice session. He lived in the innards of Parnasree Pally in Behala and travelled miles to teach his students scattered over different corners of the metropolis. In his white dhoti-panjabi and the weather-beaten dusty palm shoes, a leather bag by his side containing his tiffin-box and notebooks, Mashtarmoshai would arrive at my home every Thursday afternoon with a smile on his face.
I was probably eight, back then. Sitar, to me, was a mystery. As a child, you are always anxious to learn things, to see things, to feel things and to embrace things. And playing the sitar was attractive enough. I mean, like most boys in India in the 90s, I harbored the dream about being the next Sachin Tendulkar and win cricket matches for India. But as luck would have it, my asthma attacks absolutely prevented me from being a cricketer. The futile afternoons spent wearing cricket gear presented to me on my birthday, peeking out through the balcony and into the road below, as the neighborhood children played their game of cricket gave me extreme frustrations. The memories still make me a little sad, though the 90s as I have realized now, have been mighty interesting a phase in my life. So, during this time, sitar was the perfect way out for me.
My first was a ‘baby sitar’ that Mashtarmoshai owned himself. I remember that scorching Sunday afternoon, as my father drove his second-hand Maruti 800 through the lanes and bylanes of Shyambazar to get that sitar from a student of Mashtarmoshai who had outgrown it. I can still feel the butterfly fluttering in my stomach as I sat in the backseat, holding the sitar carefully, dying to reach home. Mashtarmoshai arrived the next day to teach me the basics: Da-Ra, Da-Ra, Da-Dere-Da-Ra, Da-Di-Ri-Di-Ri-Di-Ri-Da-RaDa-RaDa. The Sargam followed. Weeks passed by, months passed by. Years passed by. Mashtarmoshai kept frequenting even more and more. Until a time came, when he spent most of his summer afternoons with me, in our humble drawing room: the two of us engrossed over the Alap of Raag Bhairavi which I loved playing the most.
In our home, everyone loved him. And Mashtarmoshai loved everyone too. When I started learning the sitar in 1997, my sister was only a year old, crawling all over the place. A little later, to Mashtarmoshai’s dismay, she was showing keen interest in his sitar that I played for years and posed as a threat to its well-being. Nothing happened, fortunately; by the time my sister was seven, she was also learning how to play the sitar and Mashtarmoshai would teach her with the greatest enthusiasm. Mashtarmoshai had a particularly sweet relationship with my grandmother. On afternoons when there weren’t any classes and Mashtarmoshai would come just to take a little bit of rest between classes, I would often find the two engrossed in long conversations: about old times, about families, about how Calcutta used to be a better place before and how to keep fit in these advanced years. Mashtarmoshai would talk about his younger daughter a lot and how much he worried about her. ‘She was seven years old. We were going out to attend a wedding. And like all children, she was very excited. The stairs were steep and she was unlucky. She fell, rolled down the stairs and hurt herself severely on the head. We rushed her to the hospital; the doctors said it was critical. When she was released, they said that she will not be the same again. And at this age, today, I cannot leave the world without finding her some security. My elder daughter and her husband look after her, yes. But how much can they help? She is forty, unmarried. And I won’t be at peace until I find her a husband.’
Mashtarmoshai talked about her often. And he lamented about all the marriage proposals that were turned down all the time. By the time it was 2002-03, he had found a man who showed hope. ‘A very rich widower in our neighborhood has shown interest in my daughter. If this one happens, I will be the happiest person in the whole wide world. My daughter will be safe and secure forever!’ My grandmother never lived to see Mashtarmoshai happy and relieved. But we saw his happiness, we saw his relief one monsoon afternoon, when he arrived at our residence with a red wedding card in hand. As it rained torrentially, Mashtarmoshai sat bare-bodied with the biggest smile on his face, talking about the finalization of his daughter’s wedding, as his wet kurta hung underneath the ceiling fan, waiting to be dry once more.
Mashtarmoshai’s visits started becoming more and more infrequent soon afterwards. Whenever he came, he complained about how he had hurt himself on the road, while traveling. And he complained about the rash bus-drivers, always overtaking each other and making his long bus journeys perilous. I really don’t remember that day when I saw Mashtarmoshai for the very last time. It was not meant to be. Sometime in 2004. We waited. But the wait became endless. Once in a while, we’d ring him up. He would promise to come soon. Except that he slowly faded away from our lives. Forever.
Today, I don’t have a cassette player at home. Most people don’t, I believe. But the battered plastic case containing Ravi Shankar’s rendition of Raag Manj Khamaj presented to me by Mashtarmoshai on my tenth birthday rests in the little glass showcase as a precious memento. As I woke up to the news of Ravi Shankar’s death, all that comes to me as I close my eyes are memories of Mashtarmoshai. Memories of an unsung sitarist in his last days, memories of a man whose memories are fading fast.