<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 129 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 7, 2003

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Practicing Scales

Neeman A Sobhan

It is a lonely and silent job, the work of a writer or a poet. Unlike the singer next door doing her daily sa-re-ga-ma as a necessary preliminary to the actual act of singing, which helps tune and strengthen her vocal muscles, edging her closer to that moment when her voice releases a full-fledged songbird to soar into the ether of perfection, the writer has no do-re-mi-fa rituals to help his flight into his art, as wingless and earth-bound, he merely tinkers with his pens, with the music-less keyboard of his computer, or the discordant notes of his inner Harmonium.

Listen to her now: my singing neighbour has already gone up and down the arroh and avrroh notes of some off-shoot of an Asawari Raga, I think, and is into the lilting bistar; and the ni-sa-ma-ga, re-ni-sa, re-ma-pa-ga, re-ni-sa is already shaping up into a melodious poem that sprouts the luminescent feathers of a preening, swaying Raga Jaunpuri, recognizable even to the writer's untrained and eavesdropping ears. Well, he should know by now, he has been hearing the wretched but undeniably well-sung raga over and over in the last few days. There it is again, the asthai about the jangling anklets: Jhana-nana-bajey-payal-mori…

Meanwhile, what does the sanguine singer think the poor writer is doing at his desk, if she at all knows that he exists, and if she has any idea about how he suffers for his art? If only she knew that while she is skipping and dancing her soul into a peacock of a song, he happens to be warming up to his art too, except that he does so quietly, invisibly. What she need not know is that his stretching exercises consist of nothing more confidence-building or 'note'-worthy than his ascending and descending the A-B-C's of some elusive string of words that hum in his mind, which when set down into written sentences transform into page after page of utter nonsense that he scrunches up and flings out, emitting only a tone-deaf expletive or two. All he has managed so far is a throat-clearing first line, It-is-a-lonely-and-silent-job… while the neighbouring virtuoso, in her toned-up voice, is resoundingly into the concluding paragraphs of her well articulated, properly punctuated raga.

I don't care that the singer next door doesn't really exist; because the writer certainly does, as does the dilemma of all writers, which consists in their not having any self-affirming rituals or training exercises to help them further their craft. The blithely singing virtuoso may be an exaggeration and not quite true, but the act of writing, being so abstract, is truly a lonely and silent job.

Of late, I feel that the full-throated writer warbling deep inside me has spent most of her writing life just doing the scales. Year after year, day after day, I seem to be going up and down the octaves of language, trilling awhile on a sketch for a column here, exercising the high notes of dialogue and character in a story there; dipping to the lowest sa of the soul to emerge with a minor poem in C major, or blaring forth with an angular opinion essayed in B flat, all within the alphabet of frustrated literary harmonics.

But what else is there for a writer to do? How else is one to hone one's craft, tune-up, and tone the muscles? So, most days I continue to practice my literary scales and hum around the larger work I really want to write. One day, it will come, my elusive verbal raga sitting, flighty and fleeting, at the nib-point of a distant branch. Today, I can only gesture towards it, scatter crumbs of words and bits of poetry at it, offer pieces of prose to it, all to beckon and lure the songster out of the leaves. I am willing to wait, chewing my pen as I gaze at that blank square window on my page where the wind sings in empty trees.

Maybe, one day as I work at my desk, practicing my scales on an article, a story or a poem, I will hear the blue-green wings of my muse come beating out of an unexpected sky, landing on my windowsill, and who knows, the song that seeps its colours onto my page could be the distantly heard peacock-feathered, anklet- tinkling Raga Jaunpuri of my mind, and it would not be coming from my neighbour's garden. This time, the resounding antra would emerge from the throat of my pen…

And now, back to the sargam: It is a lonely and silent job, the work of a writer or a poet.


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