The desert is calling!
It is a plaintive sound that comes from the depths of the lonely desert and is felt in the depths of an aching heart… like a song of mourning sung by a young Indian widow in a semi-deserted village in the middle of the huge rolling desert.
He heard the call coming over the heaving dunes as if an ancient bard was playing a wind instrument in the open to an invisible audience.
It is powerful and stirring. Only the desert folk can hear the eternal voice booming across the expanse of pure sand. The profile changes here, so does the call. The sunrise call is dulcet and invigorating. The one at sunset is sombre and melancholy. It is the sound of somebody playing the violin and the amplified notes hovering and remaining suspended in the still air, creating a haunting melody.
Once he had listened to the music of Yehudi Menuhin in New York and he remembered he felt uplifted. This music is different, it is exalted music emanating from the bosom of the desert – a sound ethereal that takes one to the very origins of time and space, to the big bang and the exploding universe with its brilliant collisions, cooling hot matter and slow creation of galaxies – all that cosmic experience packed in a moment and felt in the solitude of the heart. The call deeply affects his mood and the material earth-centred being. It makes him feel airborne, becoming an astral traveller, leaving the dross and feeling lighter and buoyant. The elemental music is working on his overworked sensibilities. He sits straight and listens.
It is coming in waves now.
The surging call lights up the dark congested interior of blood vessels, arteries, capillaries, nerve-endings and tissues. A deep, primitive call heard by the blessed nomads across the long centuries and now heard again by a fresh visitor to their hardy land. For a moment, the physicality of form is shed and weightlessness of soul achieved. Paulo Coelho knows this state intimately.
He is in the middle of a theatre. Live theatre. Colours are raining down, music is being played out by an orchestra, al fresco. The sun is rising. Light and dark are perfectly balanced in this moment. Night is ending; day is beginning. It is marvellous!
The colossal is waking up. The cool crimson dawn is breaking slowly. The entire place is awash in pure gold. Wavy sand is aglow in soft yellows. The tender disc of the sun carves out a fascinating region of fluid shadow and light in the ancient unyielding land.
It is wonderful therapy for an over-satiated soul.
The slightly ajar window of the hospital ward lets in a framed view of the vast majestic mass of sculpted sand. The primeval music is haunting. He can hear the whisperings of the wind in his ears. The restless sand dunes move in a subtle way, aligning and realigning, half-crested dunes and deep sunken voids creating patterns profound.
It is a rare symphony that can be truly understood only by the wanderers of the tough terrain.
It revives his clogged arteries and benumbed mind suffering from a surfeit of sensations. The beauty of the rugged scene refreshes dark subterranean depths of his mind and quickly cleanses him of all the piled up poisonous waste circulating in his body.
The desert turns crimson, a burnt gold eternal land of the dead, the marusthal, in the prismic morning light. The lengthy shadows move on. The lingering light follows in this interesting heavenly chase of darkness and light.
It is the sunrise, the moment that changes the shape of a dynamic land as the light plays on the smooth polished surfaces.
Light, dark, light, dark, light, dark – they fall into rhythmic sequences on the mobile land. They are concentric circles moving fast, creating optical illusions of fleeing giants and chasing gods across the soft sandscape.
A divine chiaroscuro materializes. Only a talented Diego Velazquez could create such delightful masterpieces of vivid visual contrasts.
And then comes the clarion call. A loud and clear call, rolling across the surging miles of pure sand, reaches him in nanosecond. He feels the vibrations that leave him shaken to the core.
A deep whistling sound stirs memories dead and dried. Apertures open up fast. The sudden jolting call unlocks some secret tiny windows.
In a happy simple childhood, travelling with a nomadic tribe, Omkara Singh had first heard the high-pitched whistling sound. It had startled the young thin boy wearing long pants and a yellow shirt and cheap black goggles. It is the song of the desert, they told the curious young boy who had a squint in the left eye. The sound was frightening, like the rumblings of the earth before it erupts into violent molten lava. Or the distant thunder heard on hot afternoons when days crack up and a hot sky gets more heated, becoming a dancing arena for lightning and sound. The boy had felt enthralled by the tonal varieties heard that day in the middle of the burning desert where sandstorms come unbidden and bury the living in hot sand. Only the nomads adapt enough to survive. Or the prickly trees.
Then, in USA, relocated and revived, that boy from the great desert had found another strange desert spreading inside the pores and arteries of his well-toned dark body which had ceased experiencing every human emotion. Everything except success. That was a great turn-on. Atrophied self. Only the greenbacks, the colour of a new SUV and the smell of a Blackberry or teak furniture excited his deadened mind. Nothing else mattered in that small enclosed world.
And then, after the disturbing effects of the recession, the desert started calling… at first, silently, and then loudly like a well-meaning concerned parent.
The call of the desert is hypnotic. The tonal variations are spellbinding. The wind whipped up a unique range of tenor, alto and soprano in the brown emptiness and that desert sonata stayed on.
In his wandering adult life, he had forgotten that mystical experience of early childhood. But Omkara Singh – PhD in Rocket Science and employed at NASA – had heard the same enchanting sound again, and his memories took a trip into his childhood spent in a poor Indian village.
It was the same desert.
In the last couple of years, the desert had called him persistently and distinctly on the long nights. Often, outside the closed and the curtained windows of his home, he could hear that irresistible call. Like a friend tapping delicately on the frosty window. Every time, he got up and parted the curtains, and saw the Thar Desert of his childhood spread out clearly in the neon-lit American cityscape!
“Longings for lost home! Pure subconscious,” rationalised an amused Susan, his jovial American wife, who loved playing Freud to her reticent Indian hubby.
But he was not convinced. The desert was there waiting outside his home. He could feel its presence acutely. In his bones. In his aching heart. In his benumbed mind dulled by sensations new.
On nights when he tossed in his bed, awake and restive beside his wife who lay snoring peacefully, Omkara Singh would hear the call, tiptoe to the window, open the curtains a bit and find the desert beckoning, under the alien stars.
The village, off the Jodhpur-Delhi highway, nestling in the Thar Desert, was staring at its prodigal son living in the postmodern Western world. The entire village glowing in the bright moonlight – serene and pure in the cold desert, an enchanting period set in a different age and context. The peace radiated outwards and touched his heart, filling him with strange tranquillity, calming his mind trapped in number-crunching and office rivalries and family breakups and alienation with a teenaged rebellious Indian-American daughter and the spectre of downsizing…
“You belong to America. An Indian with an American spirit,” Susan had psychoanalysed her quiet brown husband. “You could never fit in that feudal village.”
He knew she was right. America was his destiny. India was his past. He had forgotten his past in India for more than two action-filled decades. But the past did not forget him.
It came calling one cold night, after the dinner and some petty argument with his daughter and Susan.
Ma is critical. Come soon.
He did not wait.
He flew back to his land of hardy ancestors, without wasting time or doing calculations of roundtrip costs of the sudden journey to a country that he had managed to erase from his mind. Ma was admitted into the army hospital. He had arrived late in the night and went straight to the hospital ward early in the morning, catching the sun and the wind and the riot of colours on his walk to the neat and silent hospital in the military area. He saw a frail woman lying on the bed, sleeping fitfully, tubes attached to various body parts, battling whatever threatened to consume her. He saw the deeply-lined forehead, the sunken face, the white hair and shriveled hands after an eternity.
An icy shelf cracked inside him… for the first time. Eyes moistened. He was back. To his biological mother and the poor country that had been home, many years ago; to a land that had nourished him.
He felt vulnerable, moved. Life was ebbing out of a frail illiterate woman whose blood and milk had once nourished his tiny helpless body. A woman who had made immense sacrifices for her three children. Being the eldest, he was her favourite. She was strapped to a life-support system on the bed in the clean hospital ward of on this cool morning. Centuries moved inside his bloated body. Something collided and snapped, some long-submerged ice-shelf in the regions of a dulled mind. And an Indian-American son, a top scientist with NASA, cried silently, tears flowing freely down his cheeks, unnoticed in that special room.
And then, at that precise personal moment, the desert called out to him loud and clear. He held his Ma’s hand and looked out of the window. In the middle of the sandy expanse, he saw his house in the small dust-covered poor village. Then it disappeared.
“Is the wind up?” asked Ma in a weak voice.
“Yes,” Omkara said.
“Has Omkara come?” she asked. She was delirious.
“Yes, Ma,” said a sobbing fifty-three year-old to his dying mother. A mother who had not seen extended happiness in a long life of full of struggles.
She moved slightly. Then, she returned to her land of oblivion, breathing laboriously. Twenty-four hours, the doctors told him. They said it was all the time she had between life and death. He looked outside, ready for the day-long vigil for a mother for whom he was beyond recognition. Desperately, he wanted to talk to his Ma but she could not respond to his soft pleading voice on this day.
Come here, he had said.
No. I want to die here in my land only.
Stay with me for some time here in America.
This land is my America. Your Baba is here, his ashes scattered here.
Leave that village. I have got a big house, all the comforts.
I am happy in my poor Indian village. It is a community here. They take care of me. The breeze wakes me up. The desert sings a song to me. I am contented. I will not leave it for anything.
Over a long-distance call, he could hear her enthusiasm, her happiness and her tears of joy listening to her eldest’s voice. That was five years ago. Off and on, Omkara Singh had tried to persuade her to come, failing miserably each time. In fact, her attitude had puzzled him.
Why was she so determined to remain in that small village that had no modern facilities? Water was a big problem. No roads. No uninterrupted power supply. No theatre or coffee shop. Nothing. Only perpetual poverty, strong hot winds and dancing sand dunes in a desert dotted with few trees and shrubs and insects. Mud houses. Bare and empty. A few folk songs throatily sung by village women. Some hand-painted scenes from everyday life. That is all.
But Ma never gave in. After Baba died, far earlier than he should have, she never left the village. She remained there, praying and meditating, alone in the house, amid the screaming wind and a singing barren desert. Such a sense of rootedness and belongingness was alien for him. A postmodern Ulysses like Dr Omkara Singh could move to any part of the world for a few thousand dollars. Loyalties to the homeland were passé. He lived for the present, for the moment, for the now only. His culture was defined by bars and shopping and pornos and living for the body. This was a rigidity he could no longer understand. Mobility was a key word for him. Static life was anathema. Postmodern man is a gypsy. He wanders from place to place for new exciting things. He is never tied down to a place forever. He is rootless, chasing money and success, newer conquests, newer successes. Being this man gave him a high. Being stuck up in a place was like being shipwrecked and marooned in a primitive island for good, among swaying palms and a whispering blue ocean.
I am the new Columbus and the whole world is my unclaimed kingdom. I have to explore unchartered countries in my life. I do not want to be a potted plant. I want to spread like a rain forest or an ocean – everywhere. Not an inert being confined to a tiny dot on the earth. I want to grow and be mighty.
The epiphany is interrupted by the wind that he can feel on his face. He leans out of the window and finds the old gypsy playing his sarangi in the expanding desert. Bewitched, Omkara Singh leaves his perch and goes out to find the gypsy sitting under the kherji tree, on a raised mud platform. The gypsy welcomes him with a smile that lights up his entire grieving being in an instant.
“Come here son,” says the turbaned old gypsy with penetrating deep coal-black eyes, long grey whiskers, a twirling moustache and furrowed forehead. Then, in the surrounding solitude of virgin morning, the wizened old man, starts playing the sarangi. Divine notes start floating from that stringed instrument. Notes that stir his soul, expand it and make it float in the still air of the early morning. Honeyed notes drench his thirsty soul like the first showers on a parched earth, filling him with an ecstasy rare. He closes his eyes and sees universe exploding in vertical columns of laser light…
They found him unconscious under the tree, a kilometre away from the hospital. Passed out but unmolested. When he woke up, he spoke of the old man, and they told him of the mystical gypsy and his love.
Centuries ago, they claimed, a fair princess from a proud neighbouring Rajput kingdom noticed the wandering dark gypsy. He had come to perform in the court of the Raja along with other gypsies, on personal invitation of the king. He was tall, lean and muscular, with hypnotic coal-black eyes that penetrated your soul and a voice that left you mesmerised. The fair young princess fell in love with the dark gypsy and secretly met him in the gypsy camp outside the castle on the hill. They eloped, followed by the guards of the mad Raja who caught the couple and brought them back. The music-loving Raja asked the gypsy to change his wandering ways and settle down in his kingdom as the king’s courtier, chief musician and singer, son-in-law and the future king, because the princess was the only heir to the rich kingdom.
But the nomad refused the royal offer. He did not want to leave his own land.
“You are a fool,” the angry Raja said. “Ignorant foolish homeless nomad.”
The proud gypsy said he would not change his ancestral ways of living for the conferred titles and transient wealth. “Music is a daily prayer to the Gods of the harsh desert. Stars are my home. We gypsies live in nature. We never destroy or kill. We lead simple lives and move about in the sandy desert, our parent and a living God to us. It is in our blood and bones. Wealth is never a temptation. Nor the glittering sinful cities of deceit. I am happy leading this life and will not trade it for gold. Kill me but I will not yield to royal decrees.”
The passion in the gypsy for his land of gleaming sand was so real that the Raja released him from the prison and allowed him to leave for his temporary desert camp, miles away outside the Jaisalmer fort, promising to send the princess after a fortnight in a train of guards and palanquins and maids. The happy, simpleton left for his distant home, playing the sarangi on his way back. He never reached his camp. He was murdered on the way.
What happened to the princess, nobody knows.
The village man who told Omkara Singh the story added, “He is often sighted, but by persons chosen by him only. His apparition never hurts anyone, but plays the sarangi for the troubled or tired persons. Many such sightings have been reported by strangers in the last few centuries. They all call him a gentle gypsy who makes them relaxed and serene.”
Almost in a trance, Dr Omkara Singh of NASA listened and recalled the marvellous notes produced by this mystical artist of the desert and indelibly stored in his soul. He suddenly understood why some folks, including his terminally-ill illiterate mother, and homeless wandering poor gypsies, never want to leave their precious desert for a nearby rich kingdom. I heard the calling desert and listened to its ethereal music, thought the scientist, closing his eyes again and listening to the singing sarangi, savouring every second of the meeting with the spirit of the desert.
Sunil Sharma is a Principal at Bharat College in Badlapur, Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), India. He is a bilingual critic, poet, literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist and fiction writer. Some of his short stories and poems have already appeared, among others, in journals like Hudson View, Munyori, The Plebian Rag, The Bicycle Review, Asia Writes, New Woman, Creative Saplings, Brown Critique, Muse India, Thanali, Kritya, the Seva Bharati Journal of English Studies, Indian Literature (published by the Sahitya Akademy, New Delhi), Labyrinth, Poets International, Contemporary Vibes, Indian Journal of Post-colonial Literatures, Prosopisia , and Seven Sisters. Some of his poems and shorts have been anthologized in national and international collections, published from India, Canada and USA. He is also a freelance journalist and blogger, specialising in Marxism, Literary Theory and Cultural Studies. His book Philosophy of the Novel – a Marxist Critique has generated a good critical response. His debut novel The Minotaur, published in 2009, deals with dominant ideologies and sociopolitical realities of the 20th century. His poems are also featured prominently on the websites Boloji.Com and Destiny Poets, UK.