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Masterji’s Melody

August 2003
Masterji’s Melody

"We came to America," Masterji said, "mainly because of my children."

Except for his hair ? which had turned completely gray ? and a noticeable paunch, he hadn't changed much since my school days in India. He had a daughter, now in her twenties, and a teenage son.

I was with Masterji at the Indian Tiffin House that afternoon, eating samosa chaat and drinking mango lassi. When the pungent but delicious flavors of the chaat burned my mouth, I gratefully sipped the cold and soothing lassi.

"This is a big change for you, Masterji," I said. "It takes time to adjust." "You're right, Prakash. But I'm old now. It's too late for me to start over in a new country. Change is for young people like you."

Earlier, on entering the supermarket, it had pained me to see him being reprimanded by his supervisor ? who was about half his age ? for not mopping up a spill immediately. Masterji's main difficulty was with English, which he couldn't speak fluently, and he admitted to me that he often had a hard time understanding the American accent. Now he was trying to rectify the problem by listening to language tapes, and occasionally, by watching television programs, which he confessed he didn't enjoy.

So far, in this country, Masterji's degree in Hindi literature and his long experience as a teacher in India hadn't helped him much. He seemed disappointed and a little sad, but I also sensed a steely determination to make the best of it. Since Masterji had to get back to work, we couldn't talk for long.


"Come with your family on Saturday," he said. "We can have dinner at my place and talk leisurely. Do you have any children, Prakash?" "Masterji . . ." I still found this topic painful and dreaded talking about it. "Masterji, I'm divorced. And I don't have children."


Shortly after my divorce, less than a year ago, I started a new life on my own. Leaving the big university and the big city behind, I began teaching at a small college in a distant suburb. I lived modestly, and apart from the occasional bout of loneliness, I was fairly content.

I had first met Masterji when I was a teenager, soon after our family moved to a town in northern India. His name was Mahesh Shrivastava, but all the students at my new school called him Masterji. He taught Hindi. Being a southerner who didn't speak the language at home, I struggled with it for a while; but slowly, with Masterji's help and some hard work on my part, I made good progress.

About a month ago, I found out by chance that Masterji was now living in the metro area. I was told that he and his family had immigrated to the U.S. very recently. We'd not been in touch for many years, but I managed to track him down after making some inquiries.



Masterji and his family lived on a dreary street in an unfamiliar section of town. His apartment building looked slightly decrepit and had graffiti on the walls. As I climbed the creaky stairs, various sounds emanated from the apartments: laughter, a baby's crying, raised voices, and the chatter on TV. As I approached their apartment, the rich aroma of Indian cooking permeated the air. Mrs. Shrivastava ? a petite, smiling woman with rather sad eyes ? opened the door. "Come in, come in," she said. "Masterji will be out in a minute."

The two-bedroom apartment was modestly furnished. As I was handing her a box of Bengali sweets, he emerged from the bedroom, buttoning his shirt. "What's this, Prakash?" he asked, accepting another small package from me. "You shouldn't have . . ." His surprise turned to delight when, on opening it, he saw that it was a novel by his beloved Premchand. The book was a brand-new edition of The Gift of a Cow, the English translation of Premchand's Godaan. He was smiling with pleasure.

"This is such a wonderful gift, Prakash. Do you remember how you struggled with Godaan in school?" "I still get nightmares, Masterji." He laughed. "You did fine in the end," he said, placing his hand on my shoulder. "Come, let's have dinner."


When we sat down to eat, Mrs. Shrivastava went to bring hot chapatis from the kitchen. It was then that I noticed a framed picture of their children on the refrigerator. The daughter, Sangeeta, clad in a bottle green salwaar-kameez, was an attractive young woman, with melting brown eyes and full lips that were curled in an enigmatic smile. The son, with his round and slightly plump face, resembled Masterji. Sangeeta was away at graduate school, and their son ? who wasn't around ? lived at home.

Mrs. Shrivastava served us gulab jamun for dessert. "Prakash," she said, "now that you're a professor in America, maybe you can help Masterji." Putting his glass down, Masterji glared at her. "What's this nonsense you're starting?" "Aray, why are you getting so upset? I'm just asking Prakash if he can help you find a better job. That's all. Maybe he knows . . ." "What's wrong with my job?" he demanded, trembling with anger. "You should learn not to embarrass our guests."


His wife burst into tears. "This isn't why we came to this country?" she said, perhaps referring to Masterji's menial job at the supermarket.

Later, when I stood up to leave, Masterji insisted on walking with me to my car. The deserted, poorly lit street ? with the shuttered stores and trash on the cracked pavement ? looked a little menacing. It was troubling to see him standing there alone, looking forlorn.



A few days later, while I was grading papers in my office, Bob ? a friend and former colleague ? called me. He was an Indophile, with a special affinity for Indian music and cuisine. We'd gravitated toward each other, and even after I left the university, we remained good friends. Sometimes, he jokingly called me "Praycash" or said, "Pray, where's my cash?"


When Bob said that the university was looking for an Indian musician to participate in a music festival, I suddenly remembered that Masterji used to sing in India. Although I'd never heard him perform, I was aware of his reputation at the soirees in his hometown. His forte, I'd been told, was Hindustani classical and light-classical music. Bob was excited to hear this and he wanted me to contact him immediately.


Masterji was shy and hesitant initially, saying that he had given up singing. But after a few more phone calls and a visit to the supermarket where he worked, he finally agreed to take part in the program. Bob, who was one of the coordinators, took care of all the arrangements. Unfortunately, I couldn't attend the performance because my night class had their final exam that day. The following morning, when I turned on my computer, there was an e-mail message from Bob:

Dear Prakash,

The program went off without a hitch yesterday. Mr. Shri was marvelous and the audience loved his singing. It's too bad that you couldn't come, but I'm sure there will be other opportunities. Did you see the review in today's paper? Thanks, again, for your help in finding him.

I grabbed the newspaper and rapidly flipped to the arts section. In a brief review of the program, there was a laudatory mention of Masterji, who was described as "a singing sensation from India." When I called to congratulate Masterji, a young male answered in a sleepy voice. Masterji came to the phone right away and, despite sounding a little hoarse and tired, chatted with me for a while. Much to my embarrassment, he thanked me profusely.


"Prakash," he said, "our roles have been reversed. Now you're the teacher." "How can you say that, Masterji?" "It's true. You're a professor, after all." He chuckled. "Listen, I'm going to ask you something. I got a call earlier today. The president of the Indian Association wants me to teach a music class. What do you think?" "You should definitely do it, Masterji," I said, flattered that he was asking me. "Please don't hesitate."



In November that year, an Indian Association of Atlanta was hosting their first cultural festival, in observance of Diwali. At first I was surprised to receive a gilt-edged invitation, which provided free entry to the program; then I realized it was from Masterji. It hadn't taken him long to establish himself as a music teacher. There was a pent-up demand for music lessons in the metro area, and students of all ages flocked to him.


When I entered the packed auditorium that day, it was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Feeling self-conscious in my new suit, I walked a little stiffly to the front row. Masterji and his wife greeted me warmly, with happy smiles and flushed faces, and introduced me to their children. The son was a rather sullen youth while the daughter ? just as I'd thought ? was a lovely young woman. Dressed in a glittering chiffon sari, she radiated poise and glamour.

Families, attired in brightly colored clothes, were chatting and laughing as they waited for the show to begin. I seemed to be the only one attending the program alone. Masterji now seemed assured and comfortable in his new role as a music teacher. Since there was no time to talk, I wished him good luck and took my seat in the second row. After the opening speeches, Masterji ? looking smart in his crisp white kurta ? got up and went backstage.


Raising my head, I saw Sangeeta smiling at me. My heart started racing. I smiled back at her, but almost immediately, I was mortified. Actually, she'd been looking past me at a young man sitting behind us. Turning a little, I could see him smiling back at her. Was he her boyfriend from college? I wondered if her parents knew about him. Not yet, probably, since he was not sitting next to her. Going back to my program booklet in embarrassment, I recalled a couple of lines from Jayadeva's Gitagovinda, which I'd been reading the previous night:

Sighing incessantly, he pours out his grief.

He endlessly searches the empty directions.


The curtain went up, revealing Masterji and his accompanists on the stage. As I already knew, they were his older and more advanced students. After the applause died down, an expectant hush fell over the audience. Appropriately, the first piece was an evening raag called Maru Bihag. It was thrilling to hear Masterji's deep and melodious voice. The acoustics in the auditorium were terrific, enhancing the clarity of the music. After a stately alap that set the mood, the raag quickly grew in complexity. With his carefully modulated singing, which enthralled us with its sonority and emotional power, Masterji was like an artful magician who'd managed to hypnotize the entire audience. As his voice soared, I could feel a sweet ache of regret and longing slowly rise within me, bringing tears to my eyes.

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