Dilip was a great musician. He had been lucky. He had a great master who was feted in London, Paris, San Fransisco, Benares and Calcutta. In those days, for an Indian musician in particular, this was rare.
Dilip’s Guru-ji was a rare bird – a genius – both musically and as a show man. Guru-ji knew instinctively what the audience wanted; so much so that, years later, he knew exactly when to retire, when the game was up, when he could no longer play well enough to please the connoisseurs.
I didn’t know anything about the sitar, but Dilip made it sing so that even I could understand its beauty. People said that he was Guru-ji’s finest pupil, the most gifted. But Dilip had a taste for whiskey that matched his talent, and many years later he died of a wretched liver, having abandoned a wife and given up on family life. Guru-ji survived him, the great man. He can’t be blamed for Dilip’s end; he has so many disciples, and the others they thrive – most famously his own daughter, who was accepted back into the fold at about the time that Dilip started to fail. She’s had reasonable success as her father’s daughter, as a real bombshell, and a reasonably talented sitarist.
Dilip’s demise was written by his own hand, not in his master’s.
I remember the time, when once, twenty years before the end, he drunkenly fell and broke a lead crystal glass. It cut his right hand so that his severed thumb had to be carried in an ice pack with him to casualty. We wrapped his hand in blood-soaked cloth to prevent him from seeing the real damage. They sewed his thumb back on and he played for many years, appreciated by Calcutta audiences who know so much about music. But for that hour he was a sitarist without a right thumb, a man without a future. Maybe he saw what was coming. Better to end it now.
A father who didn’t provide. A distracted guru. Nothing could be fixed, everything that mattered: empty. Even the music couldn’t give him the love he had lost somewhere along the way. Didn’t he have faith in the music?
Maybe the music is fine, but the hours in between become the problem: how to make them go. The thrill of performance, followed by the crabbed silence of a dressing room, the linoleum corridors of an anonymous concert hall. The loneliness when you reluctantly stagger home at the end of the night; and then, the physical discomfort of a night’s drinking. A smallish man, he must have felt it – that and so much more.
When we were children, Dilip would read to us. He would read from Amar Chitra Katha comics, which he brought for us when he visited from Calcutta.
He told us the stories dutifully, pointing out pictures to illustrate his telling. They were stories from Indian history and about the exploits of the gods. The Ramayana was a favourite of ours. Hanuman, Rama, Sita and Laxman all came to life in his voice. We were always relieved at the end when, on second thought, Rama thought better of putting Sita’s fidelity through a trial by fire. Saved by that moment’s reprieve, they all lived happily ever after. It was only in my twenties that I was told the story’s real ending. Shattered by her husband’s faithlessness, on his insistence that she walk through fire to prove her virtue, Sita called on mother earth to swallow her up. And so she died, and Rama was penitent – like Henry II at Thomas’ tomb – and it was too late.
Dilip didn’t have the heart to tell us the real story.