I read the frame above Guru Ji's head. I have read it many times before, but every time I come to Guru Ji, my eyes read it again:
- Never give up on your Sargums.
- One can never truly master the art of Singing without Sargums.
- One can never truly master the art of Sargums without Practice.
- One can never truly master the art of Practice without Discipline.
- One can never truly master the art of Discipline without Respect.
- One can never truly master the art of Respect without Structure.
- One can never truly master the art of Structure without Sargums.
- One can never truly master the art of Sargums…
—Gurcharan Singh Dhaliwal
"Urray! Hema stop reading and start singing, you want to be a professional philosopher or a singer? Hmm?" Guru Ji is not smiling. Her fingers flutter on the labia skin in anger. She plays a heavy build up in teen tal, sixteen beats, to show me up for not coming in on the tal that I was supposed to.
"But I've never done teen tal before." I panic.
The incense smoke curls around the tablas and is quickly fanned away by Guru Ji's fluttering hands. The smoke breaks and scents the entire living room. Sandalwood. My fingers subtly tap my inner thigh in four beats of four. I can't miss. I just can't miss—thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen—"SA RE GA, RE GA MA, GA MA PA, MA PA DHA, PA DHA NI, DHA NI SA." I smile at my success.
"And down again." Guru Ji is still frowning. She doesn't even compliment me on my scale. My heart races as the beat draws near— sixteen and "SA NI DHA, NI DHA PA, DHA PA MA, PA MA GA, GA RE—"
Guru Ji stops and the room tenses. "MA GA RE, MA GA RE, MA GA RE!!" Guru Ji rests her hands on the tablas and fixes her eyes on me. I'm hurt.
"But.. .it was my first time. I've never done teen tal before."
"First times are the best times to get it right."
"That's not fair, Guru Ji. You know I've been practising."
"So you've practised teen tal before then?"
"Then you haven't been practising."
"I practised all the other tals."
"Of course. That's because you know them already and they're easy for you."
"So I should have practised a tal I don't even know?"
"How?!?" I frown hard at her.
I hate these conversations. They always travel in circles. Starting at the beginning and ending exactly where they started in the first place. Guru Ji believes that "...the best journey the mind can travel is in a full circle. Minds that think in circles are always open and changing. Minds that think in lines always have a point of beginning and a definite end. This means that no thought came before the first thought, and no thought will ever come after the last thought. These minds are as dead as a flat note that can never reach the Heavens. Everything in life is a circle. We come from God to return to God. We come from a mother's womb to return to the earth's womb. We start bald and toothless and end the same way. We go in entrances only to come out of exits. We learn to work and then we find that we have to work to learn. We start from SA and end with SA." She always brings it back to sargums.
Without taking her disappointed eyes off of me, Guru Ji traces her necklace with her fingers until they reach the ornamented gold ball pendant that sits nestled in her cleavage. She never lets it hang outside her sari blouse. It is her secret treasure. Her bajar.
"Hema, humans are scared but proud by nature. This is their flaw. This is what gets them into trouble all the time." Whenever Guru Ji talks about the nature of man, it always sounds as if she is exempt from the category. As if maybe she is a stage or two above us. Closer to God somehow.
"Man will try and retry the things he already knows in order to be successful. As for the new things, he will wait until he is taught, or wait until he is alone before he attempts something he might fail at. Once he masters it, he will continue to master it instead of moving on to something new. He will master it in public places. Man loves applause and praise."
Guru Ji tunes the tablas. She spins the tabla using the rawhide bands that stretch the skin so that it can reach higher pitches. With the hathori she hits the wooden tuning spools without even looking to see where they are. Spin, hit, spin, hit, spin. DHA, DHIN, DHA, DHIN, DHA. "Mistakes are taboo in Canada—something to be avoided. How did the master become a master? His failures were his footsteps to success. So why erase these footsteps and pretend they never happened. It takes the path to success look so unreal, fantastical even. As if the man just arrived at success. No map, no struggle, nothing to show for it. Just arrived. What do they call it? Hmm? A night time success?" She checks to see if I am listening. I nod.
"Yes. Well there is no such thing!" She rolls the gold ball in between her fingers. It looks like it might be the earth because of all the raised gold ornamenting on it, except that the designs are shaped like unfamiliar continents. Within the continents are fine etched paisley designs which, from a distance, look like mountain ridges. She let me hold it once, but only for a second.
Guru Ji always works herself up when she starts speaking in circles. It is an exciting and dangerous passion of hers. A time to fear and learn. She's never really given me reason to fear her really. It's more intimidation. Like the time she just left a lesson. She said, "I would have rather you cancelled the lesson and gone to wherever your mind is right now, because it would probably do more good there than it is doing here." She was right. In the middle of the lesson she just got up and left. I remember sitting there waiting for her to come back. But after about half an hour, I finally felt the draft and turned to find that she had left the basement door open for me.
"So?" The question was not meant to be answered. It was just thrown into the air like a once captured butterfly that would flutter about, regaining its senses, and make it's way to the nearest draft and out to freedom again. Guru Ji carefully cracks the ball open in her palm. The ritual begins. From the left cup of her bra she pulls out a yellow-stained hanky. She lays the hanky on her lap to protect her white sari from tobacco dust. Reaching in with her thin bony fingers, she pinches a small amount of bajar. With her other hand she closes the ball and tucks it back into her cleavage. She looks at me sternly. "Never ever let me catch you doing this." And with that, she pushes her thumb and finger in to her stretched nostrils, snuffs, plugs her nose to prevent any snuff from escaping, and sneezes.
Guru Ji shakes the hanky in the air causing the incense ashes to spray, and wipes her nose.
"So? Are you going to do it or not?"
"No, never." I hope she never catches me with Players in my purse.
"Not smoke, Hema, sing."
Man will try and retry the things he already knows in order to be successful...Once he masters it, he will continue to master it instead of moving on to something new. He will master it in public places. Man loves applause and praise.
"Well?" She starts playing as if she's already heard my answer. The tablas thunder under her powerful fingers. She plays as well as the strong men with big hands, but hers are so fragile. Her fingers flutter in a blur and the tempo builds and matches my heartbeat. She watches me—half encouraging, half hesitating. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and—
"SA RE GA, RE GA MA, GA MA PA, MA PA DHA, PA DHA NI, DHA NI SA," My voice is in time with her hands. I have no time to smile; Guru Ji's playing for the down scale. My fingers tap twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and—
"SA NI DHA, NI DHA PA, DHA PA MA, PA MA GA, MA GA RE, GA RE SAAAAA!"
I hold the last note for as long as I can. Guru Ji matches me, smiling.
"Good." She closes her eyes and with her hands folded together in prayer, she starts her prayer of thanks to Bhagwan for the gift that He has given her and her students. She always does this at the end of a lesson.
Just 'good'? I wanted her to hug me, to be proud of me. Like my mother used to—sometimes. But I know she won't. I pack my books and wait for her to finish. I watch her while she prays. I wonder what she says, or if she sees things like Maa does. I wonder if her prayers lose some of their value because of the bajar.
She always looks the same. She is attractive for a fifty-two year old woman. Her black dyed hair pulled gently in a braided bun. She always wears the same white silk sari while teaching. "White is the symbol for purity and humility, the things man has forgotten since he left his origins of holiness." All her students must come in a white shalwar-kamiz, wear no make-up or jewellery, have their hair neatly tied, and be in the proper state of mind required for singing. There are no exceptions to these rules.
When I walked into Guru ji's, she just beckoned me to sit. She said that it would be best if we just stayed silent for a little while. I wasn't sure what was going on, but I knew better than to question Guru Ji, especially when she said something that began with, "It would be best if..."
She sat in front of me with her eyes closed. She seemed to almost smile at times. A gradual and almost unnoticeable smile. Her eyeballs moved frantically underneath her eyelids. I had never noticed the black circles under her eyes before. I opened my sargum book to study the last week's variations but Guru Ji, without opening her eyes, flicked her hands and motioned me to put it away. I wouldn't dare question her. I sat obediently, watched her face, and waited for some sign.
After about twenty minutes of this, I began to get fidgety. Guru Ji sensed this. Again her eyes remained closed. "Is there some difficulty, Hema?"
"No, sorry. No, nothing at all. Sorry." I felt the heat rise in my face.
"Then what seems to be the problem?" She persisted.
I looked at her closed eyes and wondered if she could see me. I wasn't about to take any chances. I kept my best earnest and obedient look on my face.
"Nothing, Guru Ji. I'm sorry. I just thought that maybe I should study last week's notes to prepare for this week's lesson so that..."
"This is this week's lesson." Guru Ji's face did not change.
After about another ten or fifteen minutes, I began to feel uneasy. I felt the sweat on my forehead drip down the sides of my face. I swallowed hard, hoping that Guru Ji's eyes would open and the lesson would continue as usual, but this didn't happen. Instead, she advised me to stop thinking about the lesson and focus on the presence.
The presence. What presence? The present? Presents? I looked around the room just to make sure, but there were no wrapped boxes to be found.
"Hema, you mustn't always be thinking about gifts and such. Focus on the energy in the room and tell me what you feel. Now don't think too hard, just let it come to you."
I stared at Guru Ji, who still had her eyes closed. She could read my mind!
"Of course I can." Guru Ji raised her voice sternly. "Now stop your mind from all of these useless thoughts and focus. There is a very special presence here today. Let her come to you."
What?!? The room was too quiet for me to handle. It was that eerie silence that almost begs to be broken. I wished for anything. Leaky faucet, toilet flushing, airplane overhead, garbage truck. I tried to force my thoughts to stop so that Guru Ji couldn't read them but this, of course, proved senseless.
"Hema!" Guru Ji opened her eyes. "Stop worrying about if I can or can not think what you are thinking. If you want the answer, it is simple. I can. I know you smoke cigarettes, I know you were not pure before you got married, and I know many other things that you think you've kept hidden."
She knew everything.
"Now, breathe in deep and whatever you do, don't get scared."
Why is it that when someone tells you not to do something, it is the one and only thing you do? Like the time my dad set out to teach me to ride. The bike would wobble back and forth now and again, and my runners would trail the ground.
"Lift those feet!" Dad would yell after me. "Lift your feet and keep the bike balanced."
After what seemed like forever, I had finally managed to peddle smoothly on an open stretch of street in our neighbourhood. I heard Dad hooting from far behind me, but I wouldn't dare look back for fear of falling. On either side of the street was cobble paving. I imagined the gritty stones cutting my knees and elbows if I fell. While looking at the houses, I managed to steer the bike towards the pavement, the one place I didn't want to go.
"Don't hit the pole!" Dad yelled from what seemed like miles behind me.
The street was so wide. I could have steered anywhere. I could have let my foot drag on one side and gradually come to a halt in the middle of the abandoned road. I could have turned into Mr. Conte's driveway, it was sloped upwards, and that would have brought me to a quick stop, I could have steered left at the end of the T-junction and made my way back to where Dad was, but no. There was only one pole and I hit it. Like hitting the bull's eye, what are the chances?
I was scared.
Now, Guru Ji's eyes opened. She looked right at me, or through me actually, to a spot directly behind me. I wouldn't dare follow her stare. Her chest heaved, ever so slowly, in long heavy breaths that I tried to copy. It was useless. My breathing was short and choppy and my heart was running for distance. I felt a surging in my chest and then a sharp bolt. My whole body shook. Guru Ji was now looking directly into my eyes.
"Good, Hema. Very good." Guru Ji gave me a smile of approval that was better than any smile she had ever given me for my sargums. She looked extremely impressed, though I didn't know what for. She started talking in Hindi, which made it a bit more difficult for me to understand. "You are a good catcher. The spirits will let you catch them for as long as you want to, but you must not call on them, they will come to you."
"Who will come to me?" My Hindi was rusty.
Guru Ji smiled.
"Who?" I demanded. I was getting a little bit frustrated with all of this waiting.
"Don't be impatient. The spirits are with us, and they don't stay for long. When the light runs out, they are gone until next time." Guru Ji beckoned me to hold her hands. I reached out to her.
It was then that I saw the hands. A transparent set of hands superimposed upon mine. Older hands. I tried to pull away, but Guru Ji had a firm hold of mine. I stared at our hands locked together, horrified.
"What is this?" I started to cry. "What is this? Make it go away, Guru Ji."
By the smile on her face, I knew it couldn't have been very bad, but I knew she was swearing just the same.
"I'm not comfortable." Comfortable? I couldn't think of a better word in Hindi. I stared dumbly at the almost transparent trembling hands on mine.
"You're not supposed to be." Guru Ji squeezed my hands tightly. "Next time will be easier. Like the second time you were with Rafiq. It was easier, Ji?"
My face went flush, but Guru Ji was not angry.
"I don't want a next time. Please let go." I was crying harder now. Just the look of the hands almost in the exact same position as mine. So close. "Please."
"Trust me, Hema, or for the rest of your life you will be pustava. Don't make this kind of a mistake. Other mistakes can be forgiven, but not these ones. These ones will sit like flashing bright Christmas lights on your shoulder for everyone to see when you enter the life Hereafter. Everyone will know and you will think back to this moment wishing you weren't so pagli!" Guru Ji began to loosen her grip on my hands. "Now breathe deeply and let her speak to you. Can you feel her body?"
Body? The question appalled me. It was the first time that I had actually thought about the body. I kept seeing the hands and not thinking about the rest of the body that would logically accompany the hands. I turned slowly to look at my feet, as if trying not to upset a jug of water balancing on my head.
"You don't have to be so careful. You take care of your body and she'll take care of hers. Just move like you would all the time." Guru Ji let go of my hands and waved her arms about. "It doesn't hurt them. See?"
Just then I saw the long dress hanging thinly in front of my jeans like a sheer curtain in front of an open window. I recognized the fabric pattern—dark brown embroidered tulips on a beige embossed background of vines and leaves. A familiar pang in my heart and then the voice in my head.
"Can you hear her?" Guru Ji's eyes lit up. "She is speaking to both of us. Can you hear it?"
Maa spoke clearly in my mind as if I was listening to a tape of her voice with stereophonic headphones. It wasn't like the sounds we pickup normally. It was as if it was playing on a special cassette player in my head. In my mind. It was loud and heavy. Heavy and clear.
I couldn't answer Guru Ji, but she knew by the look on my face. Maa thanked Guru Ji in Hindi and then addressed me in perfect English.
"Don't be scared of me, Hema. I won't hurt you. If you are scared, I cannot stay."
"I'm not scared." My voice came out shaky. A contradiction.
Guru Ji bent over and whispered, "You don't have to speak out loud when you give the reply. Just say it inside your mind as if you are talking in your head. Like if you are angry at someone and you don't say it out loud. Like the way you spoke in your head when you thought that I couldn't read your head." She winked at me.
I thought back to all the times I must have sworn at her during lessons.
"It's okay, it's okay. Don't worry, Hema. I've heard worse from some of my other students. Now, talk to your Maa. She's waiting. She has stopped talking to me anymore." Guru Ji closed her eyes and left me alone with Maa.
Suddenly, I felt a pulling on my skin. Like stretching. I felt like my skin was being ripped off me like the skin off of a chicken drumstick. It wasn't painful as much as it was awkward. It felt a flash of sensation that my body wasn't able to register. Like my mind was experiencing one thing while my body was registering another. It was like the time I was in England for my cousin's wedding. They had the sink taps backwards and on either side of the basin. The only way you could get warm was by mixing the two in the basin, otherwise it came out freezing or boiling. For me, this meant that cold was hot and hot was cold. So when I ran what I thought was the cold water, my hands were under the tap for a good five seconds before they registered that it was scorching hot. My arms were all goose-pimpled. I heard Maa in my ears telling me to breathe slowly. Then, I saw her transparent figure pulling away from me.
"No!" I yelled out loud. "Don't go! I'm not scared. I'm not scared." I hoped that if I said it enough, I would convince my voice to stop giving me away. But it was too late. She was gone.
Guru Ji kept her eyes closed. She knew that Maa had left. She felt her.
"It's okay, Hema. Keep your eyes closed and try to keep your body to stay open." She added, "She might come back."
All I could think of was the word 'Open.' I kept seeing it flash on the insides of my eyelids. 'Open' in every font and style imaginable.
Guru Ji opened her eyes and motioned me to come close. It was the first time I had ever hugged her. Her old body seemed so much stronger than mine. I cried.
"Why did she have to go?" I asked. "I tried not to be scared."
"She was not trying to go, Hema. She had enough shakti from your soul. Enough so she could sit in front of you instead of in you. She just wanted to sit in front of you so you can talk better. More easy, you see?" Guru Ji motioned with her hands, eye to eye.
I propped myself up again and closed my eyes. "Okay. Tell her I'm open."
Guruji laughed and pulled me close to her. I smelled the bajar from the gold ball pendant that hung around her neck. "Don't worry, beti. She will be back. Once you have caught her, she can come as much as she likes to. Don't worry. You did good. Very good."
I felt uneasy about entering this part of her world. Everything had changed. Nothing would ever be the same. Guru Ji and I had suddenly shared many secrets, all at once.
I love her.
"I love you too, beti." Guru Ji cradled me in her arms.
Maa didn't come to me often, and never when I called her. Only when I was open. Well, that's what she called it. I tried to be open all the time.
I wanted to be open every moment, every second. Like the first time my fingers discovered my spot. I wanted to touch it all the time—like a horny dog. I was finding all kinds of ways to rub it in public without people noticing.
I know when I am open like I know when I have to pee. You just know. Getting there is the hard part. Guru Ji said that the more you try the less chance you have of catching them. She said that the spirits are like the balls in the Lotto 6/49 machine. They bounce around at such a speed in the airtight container until, finally, a vent is opened. Only then can the ball breakfree from the cycle with such a force that it gets trapped in the metal cage; on the outside. The spirits are more comfortable in the air tight container. It is the world of Spirits. Their world. Once they are trapped on the outside they can only stay for so long. I think of it like they're scuba divers and they've got a limited supply of oxygen—or whatever the equivalent is in the Spirit world.
Sometimes Maa can stay for hours. Sometimes she only lasts a few seconds.
"There are two factors that can prevent us from connecting: one is the willingness of the Receiver, you, and the other is the willingness of the Sender, me." Maa was very good with terms. "The Sender may send a signal that gets denied by the Receiver, kind of like an operator interrupted call that gets refused. The charge is still $1.25 on your phone bill whether you get through or not. Basically, I still lose some of my shakti whether I make it to you or not. Now, the other possibility is that the Receiver may send a signal to the Sender that acts as a warning. This is kind of like putting a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on your doorknob. You're warning me that it is probably best not to visit at that time."
"But," I argued, "I would never put a sign up to you." Maa laughed and her stomach shook. She was heavier than I remembered.
"Hema, there are times that you yourself aren't even aware of. You can't help it. It is the way you have been programmed. Everyone needs a certain amount of personal time everyday. This is the law of all humans and animals. Sometimes, you may be just waiting in a Doctor's office and using this time, other times you may be cleaning the bathroom. But the most important thing is that you get this time somewhere in the day. Allah takes care of that part. You use this time naturally without even knowing that you are using it. Like breathing." Maa smiles at me. "The 'Do Not Disturb' sign goes up without you knowing it."
This was all extremely new and complicated to me, but the more meetings we had the less absurd it all became. I began to understand the laws of the Spiritual world almost as well as I knew the ones that governed my own realm.
One day I got enough courage to ask her, "But why did you make yourself known to me now?" This was the first and only question Maa didn't answer. She knew that I knew the answer better than anyone.
The author wishes to thank Keith Maillard and "Maa" (Shirin Dhanani).