Upasana Datta

The Ukulele Teacher

The young man makes music like an angel; his fingers murmur on the strings to create a single note of ethereal beauty. Leela finds the music flowing through her, riverlike.

***

He said his name was Farishta, when he arrived at her house asking to rent the rooms downstairs that had been lying empty since the death of her husband. He was a ukulele teacher. He liked to live in many places. He told her that his last stint had been at Jaipur, but the dry desert weather wasn’t kind to his eczema. His skin was a very pale shade, and she wondered if he might be Kashmiri. Such raw, almost burnt-red skin, she thought. He didn’t volunteer his age, and she considered it too tasteless to ask. A pale stranger named for the Persian word for angel. No last name, but it didn’t matter.

The truth was, she liked him from the get go. He had that quiet unassuming air that she’d been hoping for in a tenant. He said he spent most of his time with his music, teaching classes wherever he could find  a gig, or sometimes just sitting at street corners strumming to entertain passersby.

He moved in with little luggage. A suitcase, four ukuleles, and what looked like a box of records. As the weeks go on her routine remains undisturbed, their lives independent and mundane. Sometimes as she would be leaving for her teaching job at the college she would see Farishta drinking tea sitting on the steps of the ground-floor courtyard. He would smile at her. She would wave at him. They would not see each other for the rest of the day. Sometimes on the weekends she would stand on the second-floor balcony combing her long dark hair, counting the leaves of the betel tree, letting the balmy Kolkata air seep through her warm brown skin, and listen to him playing some tune she never heard before.

On days like these, Leela thought of her dead husband. Her marriage had been pleasant, quiet; it had lasted more or less uneventfully till his sudden cardiac arrest not long after their thirteenth anniversary. Their expectations from each other had always been simple. As it should be. As it was for all of her friends, settled by their families into comfortable arranged marriages. The sex hadn’t been bad, but she hadn’t known much desire.

So when Leela has the first dream, it’s as if she is struck by lightning.

***

It happens four months after the new tenant moves in. He could do with a bit of a discount on the rent, he says with an embarrassed grin on the first day of the month—the ukulele teaching gigs in the city have been sparser than he had hoped. She agrees to take ukulele lessons from him in return for a lower rent. She would rather have him stay than leave.

It’s the first lesson. He moves his fingers lithely on the neck of his ukulele and strums so airily, so lightly, that she believes he is not even touching the strings. She gazes at him while he plays, looking closely at the movement of his hands, the caress of his fingers, listening to the air vibrate around her and turn into liquid music. She is vaguely perturbed by his presence, the faint smell of ittar that emanates from him, his enticing smile, the way he looks up at her… but she cannot be sure if she imagined the last part.

She drifts dreamily through her classes that day, that week. On Saturday, after the plumber leaves, he plays a new tune and she traces the movement of his fingers with her soul. Today, the music is even more melodious; it stretches long and tumultuous, and she imagines herself as a string on the instrument he’s playing.

As if a thread strung

Between alive

And madness.

At night she dreams of running through a large white field that stretches into infinity. The sky above her is an impossible gold. A bright bluish sapling sprouts up every time one of her feet touches the ground, leaving long trails of blue behind her. A music plant, her dream-brain whispers. From a great distance, a muted strain of Farishta’s melody calls out her name. Leela feels a tug deep within her, as if an invisible thread pulls her towards the sound.

The ache is so strong that she wakes up in bed, breathing heavily through sweat-drenched brows. Her thighs are warm and damp. A strange compulsion makes her want to rush down to Farishta’s room. Instead she tosses among her sheets, dazed in that placid bed she had shared with her husband less than a couple years ago. Leela doesn’t recall feeling sexual desire in a very long time, and never with any intensity. She has always believed herself to be somewhat asexual. Or brutally practical, if that suited everyone’s convenience. Her marriage had not produced any children, and after the first few years the relatives had stopped asking. It had all lain forgotten. A matter of no consequence.

She forces herself to go back to sleep.

***

Downstairs, in the darkness of his room, Farishta whispers secrets to his birchwood ukulele, the one he has crafted with his own hands, polished with a mixture of his blood and Berger Woodpecker Leather Finish wood paint. The strings are made from old, old metal, melted and drawn from the bronze idol of a forgotten deity. Not forgotten by me, he thinks. Tomorrow, he’s going to present this to his new student.

***

When he hands her the gift next afternoon, Leela feels a rush of unfamiliar pleasure. “So that you get more practice,” he says, his gray eyes alight. For the first time she has invited him upstairs, to her part of the house. It almost feels like something illicit.

She sits still on her bed for a long time after he leaves. They had only gone through the usual motions of the lesson, but it feels as if something momentous had transpired, like her whole world had shifted from its usual orbit into some unknown trajectory. As if in entering her space and strumming the strings of the ukulele within that space this strange man—this stranger she barely knew anything about—has stirred something more than the air that inhabited the room.

Nothing has happened, Leela reprimands herself. Nothing but sitting and listening to him play. Such a small, insignificant thing, she thinks, trying to dismiss the cloud of desire and uncertainty swirling within her, but she is left shaken and unspooled. At least this time she’s certain she didn’t imagine it—his delight at her accepting the ukulele had been undisguised.

***

Every night she returns to the same dream—white field, gold sky, blue saplings bursting at the touch of her feet. These days, Leela no longer runs. She has started to feel at home here, listening to the air whisper in an ancient tongue she doesn’t understand; not caring to resist the music, plants twirling around her ankles, shooting tendrils up her legs and belly and chest, wrapping her entire body in blue.

Between the ukulele lessons and the dream, every day Leela feels less and less human, more and more like water and wind. She has not yet given in to the urge to leave her room at night and go to him. Not yet.

 ***

Farishta waits. He is used to waiting. He smiles in the dark as he feels her stir upstairs in her bed. He feels her not really fighting as the music slowly encroaches on her, possesses her, little by little. 

***

Leela makes it through seventeen interminably long nights before she cannot bear one minute more. Whatever was that had been taking over her seems to have completed its process. There’s no need to fight, she hears herself whispering, rousing from yet another dream.

The moon is like a pale smear high above, the rest of the neighborhood slumped in sleep, as she drifts downstairs to his room. She is not surprised to find his door ajar. She steps in as the feather-snow-skin of his neck is just beginning to sprout—blue, the color of periwinkle, beautiful. Leela realizes with a start that the plants in her dreams were not plants, but this. Feathers. Not like that of birds but like leaves of a plant, clustered and unfurling in concentric circles from the centre.    

Slowly, in front of her eyes, the man called Farishta grows huge periwinkle blue wings. This feels right. As if she had been expecting it all along. What skin she can still see is now a translucent bluish sheen, as if everything inside him is made of blue. His fingers complete their transformation into talons. The loose white kurta and pajama fall off like snakeskin; he’s covered in feathers, except for his face. He raises his head, brushing aside hair that is now a single long leaf-like mane. His opaque eyes are gray opals.

“I am one of seven angels of music,” he says, though she doesn’t see his mouth move. “The purpose of my existence is to permeate voids where nothing sprouts with music, to create life from barren souls.”

Leela hears his words and knows them to be true. She also understands that she’s doomed. Myths all over the world tell tales of angelic possession, disguised differently under a range of names. And music is always their strongest means of control.

There is nothing for her to do now but to accept it. Not that acceptance implies consent, a small part of her brain screams. But what is consent? She has come to him on her own; entered his space at her free will. If it can still be considered free under the influence of his magic. By stepping into his room has she not already consented to give up any hope for rescue?

Their union would be short-lived but electric—one pure moment of thunder, of every cell of her being coming alive. And then, after he has consumed everything she has to offer, he will lovingly craft her bones into new instruments, her blood into polish, her guts into strings.

After that, for the rest of eternity, she’ll make music for him.

~~~


Upasana Datta writes fiction and poetry that blur the line between the real and the surreal. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she does statistics for a living and eats books and stories for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.