The Songbird

- Kabita Sen

Jan 13, 2019-

After my Aabai, my grandma’s mother, died, I have been tending the plants of her mini-garden on the terrace. Aabai traded guavas, plums, and pomegranates with the nearby construction workers in return of empty cement bags. In those bags, she planted cucumbers, tomatoes, cauliflowers, and spinaches. My neighbors, part jealous and part eager of her gardening skills, would ask her about gardening in the terrace. The most enthusiastic of them all, Nirmala auntie, our next-door neighbor, had brought her first home-grown cabbage as a gift to Aabai. Often, my neighbors would get confused over Aabai’s pure western dialect. It had been a decade since she came to the city, but there was no way she would think of picking up Kathmandu’s local language.

Aabai would shelter me in her cozy arms and watch wrestling matches on the television for hours. She couldn’t pronounce her favorite wrestlers’ real names, so she had special names assigned to each of them. She called one ‘Jagaltey’ for his shoulder-length hair and the other ‘Jhilke’ for his glittery outfits. A self-made critic for wrestling matches, she could earn a nickname of being an entertaining presenter only if she would have gotten a chance of being on televison. She would be concerned whenever Jagaltey lost his match and expressed her irritation when Jhilke gave up easily in his matches. I’d giggle when she would shout, “Thok teslai, thok. Jhilke ko kaam chaina. Aba dekhi yesko game heredina ma!”

I remember my Aabai telling me about her friendship with the plants, “We can be their friends. I am their friend for a lifetime.” In the pursuit of making friends with her lifetime pals, I have started to become a regular on the terrace nowadays in the evenings. I even made friends with Nirmala auntie. She is not that annoying, loud, and envious next-door-neighbor for me anymore.

In my Aabai’s memory, I have been lighting a diyo, an oil lamp, on the terrace every year. Last month marked the third year of her death. I lighted a diyo for her near her mini-garden. As I sat on the sofa, behind the water tank, glancing at Swayambhunath’s flickering light and Narayansthan’s shimmering houses, I looked up to the sky in search of a shining star because according to Aabai, she would be the brightest of all the stars if she could ever become one. My eyes were wandering the sky in search of the brightest star, when I heard a cry emanating from Nirmala auntie’s terrace. Not wanting to alarm the one who was crying, I stayed at the terrace,

waiting and hoping the person would stop crying, and if it went on for too long, I decided to go and check. After a while, the crying stopped, and then the person started singing, just like that. I realised that the singer was Nirmala auntie. That was the very first time I had heard her sing, and since then I found a new reason to stay at the terrace after dark.

She mostly hums indie pop and folk songs. But all her songs have one thing in common—they are all melancholic and are about losing people close to your heart. After several nights sitting at the terrace and listening to her sing,  I have noticed a pattern in whenever she sings very melancholic songs, a voice quivers softly in the chorus. This little quirk, solely of hers, is the yearning that sends me drifting to a serene place.

At times she sings a particular song several times, back-to-back. I guess it must be her favourite song. Sometimes, she sings songs that I guess are her original songs. How do I know this? Well, they all have the same melody and tone, just different words.

Nowadays, she frequently reprises a song that affects me a lot. The lyrics go something like this, “The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy, till all of the tricks don’t work anymore. Then they are bored of me.”  Once, I heard her giggle when she couldn’t pull off a run on in a song, and then she muttered, “This is not my thing.”

With each passing night, she sings and unravels a new side of her despair that leaves me wondering what is it that causes her to sing such songs—every single night. May be she too must have lost a loved one or loved ones, and the sad songs are her way of keeping those people close to her heart, and maybe to remind herself of the hurt—old and new. Or she is singing to the person she used to be, a person she separated from in this dreary world. Maybe, she tries to revive her memories from the past, and now she rues about them. Even after many guesses about her, I only fear that she would not be someone I have possibly not wanted her to be. I could never bear the thought that she sings just for singing.

I have an image of her in my thought, which I would never risk ruining.  She might be escaping from her scars in the dark, but even if she isn’t, I would still want her to as she is now, carved by rues of longing and loss. Her aching voice and the tranquility of the dusk are a part of me now. I dare say I will fall underneath the abyss of ruins if someone takes them away from me.

Published: 13-01-2019 08:27

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