Harmonica On The Hill
(Posted on March 16, 2016 by Aabeer Choudhury)
It was a mid February morning, a time of change in the Deccan Plateau. It is the time when winter grows gentler, knowing that the phase of hard work has passed, and now it’s time to unwind. As I rode my bike up the zig zag road that clings to the hillock of Taljai, at Pune’s outskirts I could feel the gentle breeze on my face, a breeze that got me the affection of surrounding leaves. Yet I could see the soft boiled egg yolk resembling sun indicating a warning of upcoming hot months. I halted at a spot where the road took a wide turn. In front there was a vast expanse of a gentle slope that contained undefined maidaans and shrubs; that eventually descended and merged with the rising skyscrapers.
I placed the camera in front of my eyes and tried to capture what I just described, but before I could click I heard an unfamiliar sound. It was soothing yet playful, alive yet not natural. I looked behind and saw an elderly figure in bright red and blue dress, a contrast to the surroundings. When he was sure that he had caught my attention he waved at me and said, “Hello, Good Morning! How are you?”. I crossed the road and took a few steps towards him.
“This is a Mouth Organ, made in Germany; it’s German name is Harmonica”. He introduced the instrument first and then himself. “I am Shubash Khernar and you?”
“I am Aabeer” I said, “Can I record you playing?”
“Oh yes, why not?” His voice carried the affection of a Grandparent and the sweetness of a child. I filmed him playing 2-3 of his favourite numbers. Before each number he would announce the one that he would play and once he was done with his performance, like a pro he looked straight into the camera and said “Hellooo, thank youuu, Gudbyeee”. His speech was musical as well.
We sat on a black granite bench under a tree, he was curious about my camera. From a bright red bag that matched his attire he removed a photo album.
“See, even I like to click pictures. But mine is a simple point and shoot camera!”
I responded, “It’s more about the person holding the camera than the camera itself” and thought I must’ve made a fool of myself holding the DSLR and making a contradictory statement. The album contained pictures of him in Pondicherry (if I can remember) and other places where he had travelled to, with the friends he had made during the journeys. Most of them were non Indians and were less than half his age. Like a child exhibiting his sketches, he briefly explained each image, where it was clicked, with whom it was clicked and on what occasions. He seemed to prefer the sea more than the mountain, that’s what the images indicated. In the midst of our conversation whenever he saw people approach, he would start playing, waving at them and repeating the same happy greeting “Hello, Good Morning !” Most would smile and wave back as they continued their walks. Some with headphones planted in their ears, remained indifferent.
“Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni and so on, the seven sounds of music are universal and applicable even to nature! No one surely knows where they came from, but the beauty is that it is uniform throughout! Sometimes when I sit under a tree alone and play, I see birds gather on the branches and listen to me playing”. That would be every child’s dream I thought.
He spoke of the instruments as if they were his closest friends and how lucky he was to have them; even monetarily. “This one costed 50 rupees when I was young, now it comes for 15 thousand!”. I wondered why did my parents invest in gold? They should’ve invested in Harmonicas instead!
He told me that he taught the instrument as well but only to students who seriously wanted to learn. He is seventy five as I write this, having undertaken all his responsibilities towards his family, now he likes to live as he pleases. “Most people around don’t understand or appreciate.” I did not understand what he was hinting towards. “You have a positive vibe, I don’t like people with negative minds, I would love to talk more, but I need to go downhill, I am expecting to meet a friend.”, he declared.
People on foot and on vehicles of different sizes waved at him as they passed by, some stopped over briefly to ask him how he had been and if he had been working on a new album. He had no finite answers, he was in no hurry. After all he had lived his life, specifically the part of life that demanded hard work, and that demanded expectations to be met. Like the receding winter, he could now afford to exist without a defined purpose, smile without a defined reason, walk without a defined destination and perform without a defined audience.