THE GRAMOPHONE: A ROMANTIC SHORT STORY
There it was in the corner, gleaming golden; and the funnel-piece like an exotic flower’s petals. It had always fascinated me. My grandfather had been the first on the entire street to own a gramophone. It was a symbol of pride in the family, a reminder of past glory. So the maid cleaned it every morning and I cleaned it carefully at night. Me and my cousins had not even been allowed to touch it as children and over time, the fascination faded for them, but for me, it was always something special. We never played it. But it still reserved a prime place in the room, placed in such a way that it could not fail to attract notice, even after all these years.
But I knew that when people were actually using it, my grandfather’s favourite song was played a lot on it. He was a man of habits and at exactly nine, he would play an old black and white number on the gramophone. After my grandmother, Soundarya’s death, he had never played it again. I listen to the song sometimes on my headphone and knew why he could never play it. It is an old Gemini Ganesan song called Nilavum Malarum Paduthu. It’s astoundingly touching and beautiful and paints a lovely story before your eyes.
Life in Periyakulam does not offer much in the way of modern amenities, and nor are we village-folks all too open to change but I was incredibly thankful for my laptop. On Sunday mornings, I could not stay in bed beyond 6 ‘o’ clock. If I woke, I would catch my mother just brewing morning coffee. She would grudgingly hand me a cup, she did everything grudgingly unless it was to have a bit of fun at our expense. And I would sit on the porch with my laptop and listen to songs. And on evenings, I would take solitary walks by the roadway with the setting sun's rays upon me. And I felt this was enough, in fact, I had never wanted much. And it was true that I was the odd one out according to my relatives. Though our family had once been based in the village, they had all left one by one and they all had packed, busy lives but neither me nor my younger sister ever showed any inclination to leave home so there we lived. I did not have much but I never wanted much either. I was happy with everything that life here had to offer. But that was until I met Soundarya. Soundarya is my aunt's daughter, my cousin and she was named after my grandmother. We had never met much or even talked with each other but something must have gone wrong somewhere or I wouldn’t have ended up marrying her.
I don’t know if she was pretty, I still don’t. But she had quiet, superior ways and would dismiss me with a single, cold look if I chanced to glance her way. But despite it, I suppose I liked her. When Amma(mother) asked me one day if I would like to marry Soundarya, I said ‘yes’ as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And things became more stupid on my part when she sat me down and told me that Soundarya had planned to disgrace the family. She was in love with some colleague of hers. She had tried to elope with him but she was caught in the act and the family had decided to marry her within a fortnight’s time.
“Do you still want to marry her?” I remember mother asking.
“Yes” I said again, wondering why on earth I’d said that.
I still remember the way Amma looked at me. She gave a glib, knowing look and there was the hint of a smile on her lips.
"Are you sure, Vishwas?" she asked again.
"I..." I stuttered embarrassed.
"It is not like she is going to start to like you straightaway. You'll have a tough time. It will be a different life. But if you still want it, then I will second you. Besides, you can call me old-fashioned, I still care about the family and better you than a random stranger. She will get married, her parents have no second thoughts on that. But if it is you, I think it will be better for her".
“Yes, of course. She is m-my cousin too, you know” I went on uncertainly. But Amma couldn’t hold her laugh in longer. She burst out laughing and left the room.
But now that she’s here, I feel like banging my head on the wall everyday. What was I thinking? She was still the same though with her long, graceful neck, her rather contemptuous but exquisitely shaped eyes and maddeningly wavy hair. Thick, luscious, locks hanging about her ears and neck till her waist. I suppose I had expected her to make a scene. She would cry, sob and hurl insults at me and I would remain quiet and stoic and gradually win her over with my immovable equanimity and dignity but she excelled me even in that. The day she arrived, she looked so beautiful that I almost forgot her story. Bedecked in gold, her thick hair worn in an elegant hair-bun and her eyes, so clear and brilliant, she took my breath away. Even Amma was surprised. She talked to her, Soundarya answered very politely and the very next day, Amma announced that she intended to visit my sister in Chennai for a while. She smiled at me before leaving and told me,“She is a sensible girl. Don’t push her, she’ll come around and besides, everyone knows that you always worshipped the ground she walked on”, to my great surprise. Of course, I denied as incoherently as I could but I knew it to be quite true.
She was the perfect wife. She handed me a cup of steaming, hot coffee in the morning, left me alone while I read the newspaper which was a luxury my father never attained from my mother and answered me as politely as she could whenever I asked her something. My wife received relatives well when they came to visit the newly-weds and tried to make things very comfortable for both of us.
But when I tried to ask her what she liked, how she was feeling and how she would like things to be, she cut me off.
“That’s neither here nor there” she told me. And I realized how far she was from me. I could only love her from a distance like I always had. I soon made up my mind to settle down to my old bachelor days. I knew the icy barrier between us could never be broken. Even when I thought I loved her the most, like on mornings, when she would wear a dripping, wet towel around her head and sit listlessly on the porch where I was used to sitting, when I saw her brush her hair and even when she called me by my name, even then, I could only feel but never make her feel how much I loved her. But that was alright, I told myself. Nothing has changed, I could at least be glad of that. And they did not change until...
Until that evening. I was cleaning the gramophone as usual and I was reminded of my grandfather. I knew where the records were, there were only two and they remained still wrapped in the soft, cotton cloth my mother used to wrap it in. I knew it would probably not work. But I took it down, wiped it carefully and put down the needle. And the song came on again. I sat down and listened, I don’t know how long but I felt so immediately relieved and hopeful all at once that I could not get up. And then, I saw her. She was sitting right beside me.
“That’s the song grandpa used to play” she said laughing for the first time since she’d moved in.
“It’s beautiful. Play it again” she told me...
Note: Readers may find some things a little strange, like the practice of marrying cousins but this is too common in India and was so in many parts of the world some time back, like in Gone with the Wind.