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Thadhiginathom - Part 20
- Zakir Hussain
English translation: Dushy Gnanapragasam

July 31, 2020

(Reproduced with permission)

Vanishing bloom, Fading music

Friendship, 'natpu' - It is the invisible force that moves the earth. Friendship is the abundance of love. Love is the abundance of friendship. Love and friendship are like seeds and sprouts. A friendship may form between any two people on this wide earth. A friendship rooted in love transcends parsing and practices. Those who form a friendship are called friends. This is common for plants and animals as well. However, it is hard to provide apt meaning to the Tamil word 'natpu'. Valluvar has written an entire chapter on 'natpu' in an attempt to define it. According to him, friendships are hard to form. In a world that has turned materialistic, the characteristics of 'a friend' have also changed. In this day and age no one is going to sit facing north and fast unto death like Pisiranthaiyar did for king Koperuncholan. The kings today know this as well. Therefore, no one reserves a seat next to them on their deathbed. As the humorous adage says, when the king's dog died the entire country mourned. When the king himself died, no dog mourned it. Those who find good friends in life are blessed like the Devas of the heavens.

Behind every one of Chitra akka's achievements, there was one name that resonated - "Visweswaran." It's common for a man to dance to his wife's tune. But here, the wife danced to the husband's song. They were an inseparable pair. He was the first to bless me with the words, "You were born to dance." Whenever I made mistakes and got into trouble with Chitra akka, he intervened to rescue me.

Initially, I called him 'uncle' as everyone else did. Then one day, I said, "Visweswaran uncle! We call Chitra akka's father as uncle. So, it does not sound right to call you uncle as well. Shall I call you Athimber?"
"Call me to your heart's content. In fact, that's how all of Chitra's cousins call me."
"Alright, Athimber!"

From that day on I called him by the term Brahmins use to call their elder sister's husband. I was the only one who called him that in that school. Athimber was the son of Carnatic vocalist and actor G. N. Balasubramaniam's sister Mrs. Rajeswari Ranganathan. He was proficient on the famous North Indian string instrument Santoor. He was a disciple of music maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. He was initially part of film composer M.S. Vishwanathan's troupe. Later, since he was proficient in South Indian classical music as well, he started singing for Chitra akka. Before him, Madurai Sethuraman and Rajasekar sang for her.
His uniqueness lay in his ability to observe others intently and imitate them impeccably. He was his own peer when it came to his ability to laugh and make others laugh with him. He readily connected with people regardless of any differences in status, age, or gender. He was a foodie. He loved anything made of potatoes. If the owner at Mylapore's Karpagambal Mess had asked for his entire estate as ransom, he would have readily given it. Such was his love for their badam halwa, potato bonda, ghee dosa, adai… the list goes on; he loved everything they served. If Chitra akka had a show in Mylapore, the moment her show ended, he and I would arrive at Karpagambal Mess. It was he who taught me how to enjoy food.

Once a woman named Mani who worked at Chitra Akka's house told him, "Sir, I don't wash the plate you eat in. It is so clean I just put it away!" He took it as a compliment.
"Look at the way she's talking!" he would laugh while recanting this story to his mother.


Once, his Santoor concert was to take place at the Pondicherry Aurobindo ashram. I was to be his aide. The previous night, he gifted around a hundred rupees and a blanket each to about eighty homeless people sleeping on the streets. They were overjoyed with surprise. He would give veshtis whenever I asked. On my arangetram, I danced with the silk veshti with the golden border that he gave me. He loved taking photographs. But those who were picked to assist him were quite unfortunate. They were expected to know everything from lighting to reflectors. If not, his yelling would drive them to madness. He would lovingly call me 'madapayal' - idiot. But he never scolded me. I was his favorite idiot!

If Chitra akka got into a tiff with athimber before the show, better watch out. He would keep repeating the same line of the song over and over again getting her tensed up. It was up to his generous self to move onto the next line. This has happened many times. But Chitra akka was not one to be intimidated by this and stayed calm. Those were fleeting quarrels. He would spend generously without any sense of limit. Mr. Perfectionist Padmanabhan would be disgruntled about it. Minor disputes would break out from time to time. But they compromised with each other and lived happily. No matter what the quarrel, I have never seen Chitra akka not speak to Visweswaran athimber, or go out anywhere without him.

A few years ago, when athimber died of a heart failure, I felt like I had lost my own father, and I wept. I carried him to the crematorium and stood apprehensively a bit away from the funeral pyre.
"Zakir, come forward. You too put the Samagri (special offering of herbs) on the pyre. Viswesh liked you a lot," called Chitra akka. Without considering me as of a different religion or not of that family, the gracious Chitra Visweswaran allowed me to do it.
There is no religion for friendship.

(July 31, 2020)

To be continued...

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