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A Night with a Black Spider

By Ambai

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From When Things Die

Whenever she was invited to speak at events where she had to stand behind a podium that let others see only her face, she was always reminded of her mother and her veena. Both her mother and her mother’s mother had been of short stature. Even as an adult, her mother had been under five feet. When her mother was six or seven years old, her grandfather had been transferred to Nellore. In fact, he had been transferred to several places. So the family had stories connected to each of those places. Some of the children were born in some of these towns. A girl child might have come of age in a certain other town. A little one might have crawled over the doorstep in one house, another might have had its ears pierced in a different city. In some other town, some of the kids might have had a combined head tonsuring ceremony and hair offering. In a family that had ten children, was there ever going to be a dearth for events?

As far as Nellore was concerned, the one memory that floated to the surface of her mother’s mind was her veena that was carved out of black wood. That was where her veena training had begun. Apparently, grandfather had invited the veena-maker over and, pointing to his daughter, had asked, “Can you have a veena made for her?” The veena-maker had called Amma to come closer, gently stroked her head, and said, “This girl looks like a doll.” The veena arrived in a month. When Amma sat down on the floor and took the veena on her lap, only her face was visible from above it. When grandfather said, “Looks like the veena is a little bigger than it should be,” the veena-maker had replied, “The girl is going to play on this veena for several years. She is going to live long, and it is this veena that is going to keep her company.” It was believed that he could tell someone’s future by just looking at their face. Amma never forgot what he said about her. There was even a picture from that time, showing Amma playing her veena, with only her face peeping out from behind.
From the time Amma was six years old, the veena went with her wherever grandfather was transferred on his job, to Sri Vaikuntam, Kovilpatti and Chennai. When she got married and went to father’s place at the age of fifteen, the veena too went with her, wrapped in a soft silk sari. Father’s mother raised her eyebrows when she looked at the veena. It had had the pride of place in Amma’s house, right in the foyer. Now, in her marital home, it went under the bed, to be rescued and played by her at night when everyone was asleep.

After that, the veena travelled wherever father had to move on his job. Amma had a way of calling each child’s name on the veena; they had been named after Carnatic ragas. “Hey….Kalyani,” she would call her older sister in Kalyani raga. For her, it was “Hey…. Lalitha!” in Lalitha. And “Hey…. Sankar…” in Sankarabharanam for her younger brother. She would even play nursery rhymes like “ABCDEFG…” and “Jack and Jill” on the veena. Everything was music for her.

Hey, Lallikutti and Kalyani

And Sankar too

Faster you must eat

My pampered ones!

She would make up these little ditties right on the spot. “Play that on the veena,” the kids would shout. And she would.

When she she was still a little girl, someone had asked her, “Which one of you does your amma like the most?” She had replied, with all the cuteness of baby-talk, “The black veena.” Amma laughed whenever she recounted that.

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