Amma.”

For the fifth time Vittal woke up like a fully keyed pop-up doll. Immediately, his eyes went to the empty spot next to him on the bed.

“Appa has not returned yet,” he repeated. Her heart broke to see the disappointment in the child’s face. Simultaneously, it triggered the angst and feeling of loss she had long fought to bury. She knew where her husband, the famous Katha exponent, was spending the night.

“He must have been caught up with something.” She tried giving her son the lamest of reasons.

“How come, Amma? His concert ended yesterday. Back on the five o clock train, he should have reached home in the evening.” His flawless account of her husband’s touring programme and precise calculation of travel time amazed her.

“How do you know all this?” She asked, smiling.

“When Raghav picks me up from school, he updates me.” Vittal did not hide the truth. Yamini was taken aback. But she knew that there was no use blaming the sidekick. Though his tipping of Vittal was unwarranted, it had been Raghav’s nosy intrusions that had brought Narendra’s aberration to Yamini’s attention. Yamini let out a deep sigh. What an adulation Vittal had for his father! Was Narendra behaving well to keep himself up in his eight year old son’s eyes?

“So you are aware that the tours have increased more now than before.”

“Yes,” Vittal conceded.

“And you know that Appa has never travelled prior to Janmashtami puja?” Janmashtami puja was one of the much-awaited annual events at Krishna Mahima, the Katha School Narendra ran.

Vittal gave a negative in response to her question.

“So there indeed should be something that has held him back. You can ask him when he returns.”

Taking her cue, hesitantly, Vittal lay back and rested his head on the pillow. Turning him on his side, Yamini started to gently pat him to sleep.

“Raghav! What else does he update you about?” If she knew, she felt she would be better prepared.

“Yes, Amma. I know about your concerts too. Tomorrow you will be completing a year in the profession,” he turned to point out cheerfully.

Yes, a year and her calendar had been full throughout. At least, her son was there to share her sense of achievement. “Do you know? I haven’t even prepared for tomorrow’s concert.” With the goings on, her creativity was running dry. As unusual as it appeared even to her, she hadn’t chosen the theme for the next day’s concert.

“I am sure you will do well, Amma. You are the best; Appa’s star student. And even more popular than Appa.” Vittal’s face brightened with pride.  “I like it when you keep your promises. You have always returned from tours when you promised you would.” Vittal’s young mind did not fail to compare.

“I am just a beginner, Vittal,” she said. But she knew she wanted to go a long way in the profession. She wanted to use the art to propagate a lot of values, particularly to the young.

“The profession demands a lot more than popularity, kanna. Steady commitment and devotion are the necessary tenets for a Katha exponent. After all, it is the great ones’ stories that we retell,” she said, hoping the words would be imprinted in his young mind.

“Amma!” Vittal got up again. “Had there been many things that had come up in the last six months whenever Appa had come home later than expected?”

So he knew. Was this a result of observation? Or had he been fed the info? What else had he picked up? “No kanna,” she felt dutiful to reassure him. Vittal comprised her world.

“He sure had something when we were at Thatha’s house for Deepavali. Right? But Raghav had told me there were no programmes at that time.”

How children perceive the slightest discordance in family, she thought sadly. “There need not always be programmes, kanna. There are other affairs Appa must attend to.” She hoped the explanation kept the young one’s sprouting doubts at bay.

“But…”

“Vittal,” she hated to see how her son shrank back at her admonishing tone. What was the use in battering the innocent one? He knew what he knew.

“Don’t you want to be at tomorrow’s Janmashtami puja?” she asked, tempering down and changing the subject.

“Very much. I am worried Appa is going to miss it and your concert.” Tears gathered in Vittal’s eyes as he came clear with one more thing that haunted him then.

Yamini held her son close. “No, kanna. No, he won’t.” She smoothed his back until his sobs stopped. Then she made him face her.

“People always talk what they want to talk, Vittal. Aren’t you aware? Appa is a prodigy. He started his Katha concerts when he was way young and long before Krishna Mahima was founded. Raghav and the other boys form the youngest batch of students. They don’t know about him. Appa cannot go wrong. Even if he does, Krishna, whose devotee he is and whose stories he narrates will show him his way back.” She explained in a way Vittal would understand and relate to—without breaking his father’s tall image.

With that explanation, Vittal wiped his tears and lay down for the sixth time, a tight ball with his back to her. When she was convinced that she had at last put his doubts to rest, there he was, up again.

“So tell me, Amma. People are right to fall at his feet, shower him with flowers and even kiss and hug him. Appa is not the bad person Vittal claims to be. He is Krishna; he is God, right?”

Yamini was dumbstruck. She was not sure her wordy response would alter his understanding in just one night. Still she couldn’t give up, not just yet.

“Tell me, Vittal, what do you know about Krishna?”

“Hmm… he has a blue-colour skin, a flute and wears a peacock feather on his head,” Vittal replied earnestly in his own, childish way.

Yamini decided to sow the first seed of reasoning right then.

*

Katha or story-telling is an ancient art that involves re-telling stories from the past. For centuries, reminiscing and reflecting on the acts of those heroes, heroines and villains encouraged the listeners to emulate the good and learn from the not so good.

Yamini believed in bringing out the timeless relevance in these stories. Her concerts highlighted the ideals practiced by those heroes, how important and easy it was to stay close to them, without losing out on who we are and what we do—the reason youngsters found a strong relatability and turned up in droves to her concerts.

To recall that Narendra was the one who had identified the talent in her seemed somewhat mismatched. He had been the source of her inspiration. He was unrivaled and an icon in the field of Katha. Yet today Narendra was lost in the mire of fame and fan following. How could he fool himself into thinking he was the One he was not?

The question kept plaguing her until the day broke and sun came up behind the glass windows.

*

He returned not the next morning, but late afternoon before Vittal had returned from school and they were getting ready for the puja.

“Sorry, I got held up.”

She flinched at the sound of his voice, ashamed to be in the same room with him. Every inch of her body curled in fresh throes of anger and embarrassment. “Krishna,” she groaned helplessly.

“Vittal is back?” He came out of the bathroom, freshly showered.

“Not yet,” she replied nonchalantly. When he passed her, she felt a gentle spray from the loose strands of his hair as he toweled it vigorously. Instinctively her hand wiped her face.

“Yamini!” He stopped where she was sitting on the floor. “How many times have I told you not to get into such nitty-gritties, especially when you have a programme in the evening?”

Throwing the towel, he took her hands in his, brought her up from the floor where she was stringing a garland for the deity and brought her close to him. He looked like a different person from the night before—not the erring middle-aged man, but a caring husband, a doting father and a responsible chief of KM. To her, the wife of the illustrious Guru, this felt like a reminder to abide by him.

“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t touch me with those dirty hands of yours.” Without even raising her voice, she shook his hands off.

He put his hands palms up and stepped back, dramatically.

“Diya is my devotee; she needed some guidance,” he said.

“A devotee? Of who? She is just one among many of KM’s students.” She considered it beneath her dignity to get into the abhorred details. But she could not let his act tarnish the school and the art that had made him popular. “You delude yourself acting as if you are Krishna, the God Almighty, when you are not even the man you imagine yourself to be. And she is foolish enough to fall for your tricks.”

“You are the only one who conflicts here, Yamini. Scores of people think I am Him,” he went on, the thick skinned man he was.

“What makes you Him, Narendra? The most basic difference between Him and you is in principle and thought. His followers—the Gopikas—were inspired by pure Bhakthi. You are merely capitalizing on misguided lust.”

“You are twisting the facts, Yamini. Remember, once, you were one among the smitten.”

“Yes and I regret to have shown a wrong path for posterity. I have avowed to wipe my misstep too—by way of preaching the good and living by what I preach,” she said, blotting her mind of the brief episode of courtship she had shared with Narendra. In bitter retrospect, she knew that he was the one who had pushed the admiration towards marriage. But that was not important now. Was it?

“I need a favour from you.”

His uncaring attitude was proof enough to how trivial her resistance was to him.

“A favour?” Yamini tried to identify the bait he was going to lay for her.

“Yes, a favour; not to me. To KM.” He paused to counter her denial but when she remained quiet he continued, “Diya will also accompany you on the dais today. You will share today’s concert time with her. “

“That is ridiculous. First of all, it is my programme—something I have been signed into doing.”

“Second of all?” he plucked at her annoyance.

“She does not have the experience or expertise that I do.” She knew exactly how he would convince her.

“Oh look who is deluded now. You started off as she is going to—a debutante sharing the dais with me. I am sure she will be the next star from KM. I have trained her personally and I know she has the talent to make it big. If you reject the opportunity it will make you look selfish and your ingratitude will show. Just imagine how emulating you will be in the eyes of all your listeners. I won’t be surprised if they stop turning out to your concerts when word gets out about your proud deed.”

So this was not a last-minute plan; Narendra had worked hard to make her anniversary concert a launch-pad for one of his… no, she had no way to exit the situation.

“Excellent; perfect planning, I must say. So am I going to be sharing the concert dais with all your w**** or just this one? Because I am sure you are so amused with yourself that you are not going to stop with this one little fling.” She could not stop probing. After all he was the Guru, the third icon in the pedestal of reverence.

Having got what he wanted, Narendra moved on without a response.

“Look forward to today’s evening Yamini. Let us see who deserves…”

“No, no, Narendra. Don’t spoil the suspense. Let us have something to look forward to. I don’t know what is fuelling your imagination right now. But one day you will be sorry to find that your son has grown up to hate you. ”

She knew she had touched Narendra’s weak spot. “Why? What did you do to muddle his judgment?”

She could see his mantle of confidence breaking. She hoped it would sow seeds of doubt about his behaviour.

“Nothing and I don’t have to. But I am sure he is learning on his own.” She saw nothing wrong with exaggerating the little one’s reaction if it served to set this disillusioned man back on track.

“Then I am sure time and my fame will undo his learning.”

Here is a man blinded by whims of his own exaltation, Yamini thought. He had charted his undoing and everyone, including her, had no role to play in the big scheme. She let go of the responsibility she had entrusted herself with and surrendered herself at the feet of Krishna, where she truly belonged.

*

The evening was loaded with expectations.  The small auditorium in campus KM was packed to capacity—a curious multitude gathered as word about the duet performance had gotten out.  There he was—dressed in a pure white Jarigai Vetti, worn in a traditional Panchakacham—sitting in a flower-decked chair in the first row. His upper body was bare but ornaments of all kinds compensated for the lack of clothing.  A Naamam and a peacock feather completed his Krishna-look-alike dress-up.

That evening’s argument sent a pinprick through Yamini as she touched his feet—a custom she had followed since her first concert. Vittal let go of her little finger and rushed to take a seat by his father, his young face exuberant with pride. An idol of Krishna bedecked with flowers from the evening puja formed the centerpiece of the dais.

Newbie jitters threatened to take Yamini in its hold as she climbed the dais. This day—this concert—was dear to her. Originally, she had planned it to be a tribute to Narendra, the Krishna Bhaktha that he used to be. But now things seemed to have taken an about turn. The talent match he had twisted the concert to be, Yamini had no choice but to play.

The crowd that jostled to worship Narendra, threw flowers at his feet and got the crumble of Prashad from his hands did turn to her and fold their hands in reverence. The usual feel-goods gushed boundlessly. And the resultant internal calm nudged the wellspring in her heart—at last she knew what that day’s Katha was going to be about.

Yamini felt the speculation in the air as Diya entered in an exact replica of costume, replete with the nose ring, a mark of tradition and dignity that has evolved something of a trademark for Yamini. To her, external appearance was just an identity, something her fans and foes were free to replicate. She smiled at Diya, letting her know that her contempt was on the specific situation, not on Diya or Narendra.

With the invocation of Narendra’s slokha, the two were left to each other. Yamini’s eyes were fixed on Narendra.

“Divinity is as much a perception as it is cogitation. The peacock feather on Krishna’s head symbolizes the totality of the experience. It signifies that human beings, by the process of creation, embody divinity itself.” Yamini was awe-struck by her own words, words that seemed to tumble out of her mouth.

“Have you examined a peacock feather up close?” she continued. “If you have, you will see a blue dot in the centre with circles surrounding it. That blue dot, my dear listeners, is the blue pearl of wisdom embedded in our subconscious…”

She stopped, letting the wonder-struck listeners absorb the extraordinary blended with the mundane. Aha! They exclaimed in unison. The free-wheeling break in the flow was a well-meant cue to Diya. Yamini hoped she would pick it up and continue where she had left off.

“The blue coloured skin is a testament to what he is—the Brahman, the greater consciousness…” Diya continued. A brief rehearsal session to work out their individual styles had been helpful. Since Krishna had been the focal point of all of KM students’ concerts, the compatibility was always easy to match.

Between the two, the concert went on. Yamini thought how easy it was when she saw Diya as only a co-concertist.  Only the talent and other good things stood out as the bad things blurred beyond recognition. The audiences were enamored by what they heard. If she had as rapt an audience as this, she could do wonders.

When the concert was over, Yamini was happy.

“Thank you, that went well,” she said, more than a platitude with the respect of one Katha exponent to another. The girl had a bright future in the field.

“It was a delight to share the dais—I must say. Thank you for agreeing to do it.”

How smart and mature she had sounded. How could she have had such a slip-up, Yamini thought, as both made their way down the dais? The entire crowd was mobbing Narendra, vying for his blessings and Prashad. Narendra was sitting, his neck all garlands, his feet buried in a sea of flowers. Offerings of Thalis full of fruits and nuts lay at his feet. “Krishna, our Swami!” She heard lusty cheers.

She knew she still had a long way to go in influencing these people. And yes, she knew this was coming. Yet should today be counted as a failure? Did they understand even a nugget of what she was trying to deliver? Even one person? All her enthusiasm drained out.

A gentle tugging at her sari made her snap out of her despair. Vittal was by her side.

“Amma, I want to put this on Krishna’s neck.” He had picked a garland from the bunch lying around his father. When she was not sure what he had meant, he pointed to the idol. “That Krishna,” he clarified with surety.

She didn’t know if he said that just to please her. But it was all Yamini wanted to hear right then. With the giddy rapture of a hard-won victory, she picked him up and walked back to the dais.

“Is Krishna the idol, Amma? Why is He not as alive as Appa is?” he said.

“If you want to know, you have to wait for Amma’s next concert,” she said, hoping to keep his newfound curiosity alive.

*

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Since young, stories have been part of Vijayalakshmi Sridhar’'s world——both telling and listening to. Her day job as a freelance feature writer for the mainstream dailies and monthlies is the platform through which she meets people, many of whom have found their way into her stories’' characters——either as they are or in disguised forms. She believes that human relationships and their dynamics are the most interesting things to write about. She is keen to continue her journey as a story writer in non- specific genre. A mother of two girls, Vijayalakshmi is also interested and involved in many other creative pursuits. 

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