When Arundhati was 17 years old, she found three puppies outside her house. They looked lost.
Arundhati knew nothing about dogs. She stared at them doubtfully. They stared back, six pairs of eyes, three times as suspiciously. Like siblings holding out grimly, after being caught doing something wrong.
But they mostly looked lost.
She wondered if they had landed up suddenly in Chennai like she did a month earlier, straight from Coimbatore. Arundhati didn’t like Chennai.
Chennai isn’t even really a city. Chennai is a collection of neighbourhoods next to each other. You don’t live in Chennai, you live in your neighbourhood. That’s where you make friends. That’s where your parents make friends. That’s where you do all your activities. Slowly, over time, you don’t live in your locality, instead, your locality lives in you.
Teenaged girls don’t need to move cities to feel adrift like a lost puppy. And here in front of her, were three of them. She weighed her options. Her mother was terrified of dogs. So she did what most kids do who want to get their way at home. She rounded up the rest of her family. She didn’t have to try too hard. Her father and her brother enthusiastically, impulsively, declared they were in.
Her mother was a strong woman, but how does one argue against three people, when all of whom promise that they would foster a pup each? Game of Thrones has lessons for all of us.
Still, she tried her best.
Who was going to take care of them?
We are, said the three of them.
Who was going to take them for walks and make sure they were healthy?
We are, said the three of them.
So her mother tried the oldest tactic that most parents resort to when all else fails. Guilt.
Who was going to take care of all the other things? Vets. Shots. Food. All these were unnecessary expenses. Kids these days don’t understand the value of money. Think about it.
So Arundhati thought about it.
And she figured out a solution. She was going to teach music part-time. At home. To the neighbourhood kids. Carnatic music was the only thing that Arundhati knew well. She had studied it for years as a child. Above all, Arundhati loved music. It was what she loved most in the world, with the exception of curd rice.
But before that, they had to name the dogs. Arundhati’s entire family pitched in. Her father wanted to give them regal names. Like Cleopatra, he said grandly.
Her brother went in the other direction. The dogs were unique, he reasoned. One was black, the other white and the third had red specks. He imaginatively suggested why not just name them Red, Black and White.
God. Families can be so painful sometimes.
In the end, Arundhati decided to name the dogs after what she loved best. Curd rice. Every great Indian dish has a great accompaniment. A memorable sidekick. After all, what is chole without bhatura? Or butter chicken without parantha? And is there any point to beef fry without some lynching?
Of course, some would argue that the best accompaniment to curd rice is more curd rice. Arundhati thought those people were fools. According to her, it was obvious that curd rice had three great accompaniments. And that’s exactly what she named her dogs.
(Yes, Arundhati likes ginger with her curd-rice. She also wants to know if you have a problem with that?)
But now, a scarier task awaited her. Teaching music. And not just any form of music. She was going to teach Carnatic music.
Any musician will tell you that all forms of music have their own unique set of challenges. They will tell you that mastering music, any form of music, demands discipline, hard work and commitment. Any musician will tell you this.
However, Carnatic music pushes the envelope slightly more. All music is a system of rules taught ground up, but only the Carnatic form teaches those rules by throwing you into the deep end straightaway. Ask anyone who has learnt Carnatic music, and they will tell you how they spent years learning srutis, talas and swaras without the faintest understanding of why they were doing it. Learning Carnatic music is like walking blindfolded into the darkness, where you stride on slowly, getting rapped on your knuckles for stumbling, while not knowing where you are headed. It takes years of training before the rules start to make sense, and you start feeling like you are contributing to the art.
There’s a reason why 18-year-old girls do not usually teach Carnatic music.
But Arundhati didn’t care. She needed to do this. She told everybody she knew that she was starting classes next week. And the Chennai maami network got to work. Inquiries started trickling in and parents slowly started signing up their kids.
And that’s how it began. Every day, after college, she would rush home, and instruct children, barely a few years younger than her, how to form the right notes and correct their pallavis and anupallavis.
She did this for four years. All through college. All when most kids her age were doing the typical Chennai stuff like sneaking off to Sathyam theatre, going on clandestine dates on Nungambakkam High Road, or calling friends in Bangalore to find out what alcohol tasted like.
She never considered herself an expert at music. She struggled at first, and she wasn’t too confident. But the more she taught, the more she learned. Kids in Chennai usually respect you if you sound menacing and pretend like you know everything.
Just like her curd rice, Arundhati was worried that Pepper, Chilli and Ginger would want to join in as accompaniments as well during her classes. But that never happened. The three dogs were silent throughout all the sessions, probably aware that she was doing it for them. Or perhaps the music put them in a trance. Or they were just lazy. Who knows? Dogs are dogs. It’s hard to tell.
There’s a lot of debate about this, but there’s another aspect of Carnatic music that sets it apart from say, Western classical music. It’s about how much room you have for improvisation within the rules of the music itself. Western classical music is described as being more collectivistic, and its beauty lies in having a hundred performers sticking to a set of rules in an orchestra while faithfully performing a rendition. Carnatic music, on the other hand, is about a single performer giving a rendition of a raag in his or her unique way, taking the accompaniments like the mrigandam player and the violinist along the journey, while reverently sticking to the rules and the aesthetic structure of the raag itself.
This places the vocalist at the centre of the performance. And everything rises or falls with him. Or her. This is why Carnatic vocalists spend years understanding the rules. Rules that have remained unchanged for centuries. When people complain that Carnatic music is too rigid, or tight, or boring, this is what they are talking about.
Arundhati was neither that experienced nor was she some kind of musical prodigy. But she spent years, formative years, when people usually drop out of learning music, teaching those rules to children. Like Chennai’s neighbourhoods, if you live in there long enough, it becomes a part of you. She had dozens of students, some of whom went on to perform at live shows later.
Four years later, she moved to Bangalore where she went on to become a journalist. She started tentatively, unsure about narrative structure, and how to tell a story effectively, but she learnt quickly. And her stories got better. And better.
I would like to believe that Chilli, Pepper and Ginger were disappointed and spent a lot of time moping around after she moved to Bangalore, but they really didn’t.
Or maybe they did. Dogs are dogs. It’s hard to tell.
There’s a concept in Carnatic music called Manodharma. Manodharma is the ability to improvise music elegantly without compromising the aesthetic integrity of the piece itself. More than anything else, the expertise to do this is what separates the good musicians from the great ones.
It takes years to figure out how to do this. Sometimes decades. Especially if you want to do it well. Else you will sound like that fool doing a second-rate remix of Humma Humma in a third-rate remake of a perfectly good Tamil movie.
This is what makes Carnatic music a strange paradox. Your training is spent learning rules that are rigid and haven’t changed in centuries, and your skill is measured in how much you bend them.
It’s almost like learning how to tell a story.
At The Ken, Arundhati writes stories on India’s nascent financial landscape. Keeping track of changing rules and regulations in this space, she has written about wallets and the implications for credit cards, deeply researched pieces about BHIM and Phone Pe and beautiful explainers about niche payment players like Instamojo and Chillr. Most memorably, she was the first person to break the story of WhatsApp entering the payment market in India through UPI, a story that took her weeks to crack, got her international acclaim and makes for a compelling, tight read.
You should try reading some of them. They are really, really good.
Almost as good as Pepper, Chilli and Ginger, who by all accounts are quite well-behaved, and are patiently lounging around at home in Chennai right now, waiting for her occasional visit.