The Lost Note by Sathya Saran

The shrill, sharp voice of the flute finally woke him. He had been listening to it for a while – it seemed to come from the far distance, through the hills, past the mists – a plaintive note that carried a bit of chill with it. Or so it seemed to him. Then, it pierced through his consciousness and he awoke.


He realised with a start that he had been sleeping. And they must be all ready. Waiting. Waiting for him.


He jumped up from the black backed chair with white lettering on it that said, DIRECTOR, and pulled on his jacket. He would never have dared to sit on that chair before, let alone sleep in it – but he had over the years begun to belong. And once in a while was allowed a liberty or two. Sleeping while they waited was not one of them.


He opened the door, and walked quickly past the empty studio, through the long, cold corridors. Hurrying, hurrying.


Long years of hard work, of endless dedication, of faithfulness to the Muse and her masters had finally found for him a permanent place with the group. His flute had wrought its magic on them, woven itself into every tune they created. Krishna, they called him in jest. ‘We cannot think of a hit without our little Krishna.’ He bowed, as much to their collective love as to the fact that he was so much younger – and accepted their nickname. Since his flute had joined its music to theirs, the hits had come fast and hard on each other’s heels. Unwinding like a spiral of smoke, rising from a wood fire. Unending as the road that leads a weary traveller homewards.


The music director loved him. ‘My Krishna,’ he’d say, ‘come take your place and let me hear how this piece sounds on your flute.’ If the others felt any envy or rancour, they never showed it. He was part of them; part of their music. Their success. The line-up of Filmfare and music company awards proved it. Though none was his or bore his name, all the awards belonged to him. As much as to the director. They agreed on it, without ever talking about it even once. He was their lucky charm.


He came up short against the recording studio. The red light was on – the heavy door, cushioned on the inside, was shut tight. The usual piles of footwear stood deferentially outside, unworthy of the hallowed air within.


His heart missed a beat! Had they started without him! He stood hesitant at the door, one hand on the handle. But not pulling at it. He couldn’t disturb a recording. He willed the recording to stop. He put his entire mind against the door and willed it to open; to his surprise, the red glow that had lit his face vanished. He looked up, the light was off. Quick as a bird, he lifted his arm and tugged at the door. It yielded. He wasn’t locked out anymore.


Inside, the lights blazed in tiny spots from the ceiling. He stood for a minute – a long second – taking in a picture he’d never really seen clearly before, because he’d always been a part of it. They sat there, the musicians, at their appointed places. The light focused like points on the instruments, making brass look like gold, steel look like molten silver. He could feel the cold of the metal in his throat. He could feel his skin stretching taut, as his eyes took in the squat drums their tops tight against the edges, awaiting the feel of the drummer’s fingers.


His hand tightened around his flute, the cold steel of it warm under his touch. Soon, it would moan under his breath, then, sing in ecstasy. Taking a deep breath, he stepped in.


The music director looked up from his notes. ‘You’re late,’ he said, a faint rebuke curling at the edge of his voice. His heart sank again. He hated being rebuked. Hated being late.


‘I’m sorry, I … fell asleep,’ he stammered and hurried to his vacant seat. The mike over his chair hung loose and disused; were they going on without him after all! He shut the thought, and the panic it brought to his stomach, firmly away, and pulled the mike up and fixed it in position. The flute throbbed against his palm; it was time for its magic to unfurl.


He watched the other instrumentalists warily, covertly, eyes cast down as if examining his flute; they were looking towards him, but not at him. That was their way of showing their disapproval.


He knew he was guilty. He had absconded from rehearsals one whole day on a whim. Then, when he had snapped out of it, it was too late to catch up. They had moved studios and no one knew where they had gone. It had taken him all week to locate them – and then, he’d sent a written apology and begged to be forgiven. He knew the whim was but his pride, trying to prove to himself his power over the group. His power to make or break a song. To create or mar a hit.


They had been generous. There were no rebukes, no refusal to let him come back. He had been given the time of the rehearsals; and the recording that would follow immediately. Studio No 3, four pm sharp.


And yet, perversely or perhaps, half afraid, he had lounged around through the afternoon watching the shooting in the studio shed next door, till he’d fallen fast asleep! And now, he’d come bumbling in, as if he had not a worry. No wonder they were angry!


He sent out a smile of apology. Abject apology. The eyes, one by one, looked away. Wrapped up, lost in their respective instruments, they seemed not to notice him, his dove of reconciliation fluttered and died at his feet.


As a last resort, he picked up his flute. As if to test it, he put it to his lips and blew gently. Even before he could move his fingers, the note uncurled itself and spread like a mist. The musicians looked up. He could see he had won them over; their anger melting like snow in the warmth of his notes. Their backs relaxed, their throats permitted a swallow of emotion; and then the smiles lit the room. ‘You rascal,’ the violinist said peering with moist eyes from behind his instrument. ‘Where the devil were you all this while?’

‘Doesn’t matter – now that he’s back, let’s start,’ said the tabla player, but he knew from the gruffness that the man was moved.


‘Next time, we won’t be so ready to forgive.’ It was the music director’s voice and he snapped to attention. He never risked rousing his temper – there was too much at stake.


‘Let’s start,’ the music director said. The static in the air almost hit him again; the moment of waiting, of knowing that in two seconds, in one, now … it would be time to begin. And take off on yet another journey with the Muse.


‘One, two – go,’ and he glanced quickly at his notes to see that he went on at the end of the first movement. His body tense as a violin string, he waited. The music flowed like a dream around him. It became a river, beating against his skin, permeating it, filling his senses. He floated with it, almost drowning in the joy of its rise and fall. Only his mind remained alert, crouched, waiting to pounce on the moment when he must put his breath into this flute and join in. He lifted the flute to his mouth and … now – he let out his breath, blowing gently, as the composition demanded.


The silence filled the room as the music stopped. He had played it wrong. Instead of the flowing lilt that was expected of him, he had managed only a shrill, sharp note. Plaintive, even sickly. And it had ruined the music completely.


He looked at the rest of the musicians, aghast. He never made mistakes. Why then...


‘Let’s try again,’ the music director said. ‘Once more.’ He waited, tense and angry, this time hardly hearing the music around him. His eyes were glued to his cue; his mind played the note he had to play, again and again. And then, he lifted the flute to his lips and played it. Again the disarrayed note filled his heart with despair.


The musicians looked at him, and played on; as if they had not heard. But the music director signalled to them to stop. The silence filled his senses, smashing against his heart and stretching the muscles of his throat!


‘Play it again,’ the music director said, still gentle; he was amazed that the man hadn’t got angry yet. He had been known to throw batons at players who could not pin down a tune the very first time! ‘Solo,’ the music director continued as the others picked up their instruments. The light caught the steel and brass and slid across the room, as the instruments were lowered again.


He lifted his flute to his lips, listened to the note the music director hummed, read the notations on the page in front of him, and played.


The note curled out in a wail. Gripping his throat with fear, filling his eyes with nameless dread.


‘You’ve missed out on too much,’ the music director noted wryly. His voice was soft, too soft; as if he were musing to himself. Yet, there was no admonishment in it, so he felt heartened.


‘Maybe you need to listen to the rest of the music, to find your place in it,’ the music director suggested. He nodded, relieved not to have to play that plaintive note again. The musicians lifted their instruments and began to play. He listened, and in the magic of the music, he could hear quite, quite clearly, the wail of his flute. Loud, insistent, sharp and very discordant.


‘Stop it,’ he cried, his voice shrieking with the pain of it. ‘Stop it, whatever it is. Can’t you hear it?’


The music director signalled for a stop – the music ceased – turned to him and smiled. ‘We heard it the moment you walked in. It was you who wouldn’t hear it. So I had to make you listen; to show you that you didn’t belong.’


‘What is it,’ he asked. ‘What is it that I have done? Why can’t I play it right? Please, please help me…’ he was a little boy again, in front of his mother, who lay dying – and he was trying to revive her as she drooped heavy in his arms, too tiny, too weak to support her, too scared to drop her and let his legs run for help. ‘Please help me,’ the helplessness engulfed him. ‘I want to play along with you again.’


The abyss of abandonment seemed to swallow him. He found himself crying, his arms stretched out, for support.



‘Grandpa – wake up, you’re crying your sleep…’ the voice went on and on, shaking him awake. He opened his eyes, still wet with his despair and looked around. He saw the years in between stretch like a desert – dividing what had been from what was now. The musicians had long since left him, fading out one by one from life. The music had been dead for an aeon. It lived only in the records that played occasionally over the radio. Even his mind had stopped playing it for so long. He wondered what had made him remember – and whether the ache in his chest had anything to do with the memory.


He lifted himself painfully, slowly from his bed. Moving across the room, he walked to the old curio case that stood against the wall. His grandchild watched while he opened the glass door and lifted the flute out from inside its dusty interior. The steel still shone silver, though specks of black seemed to have mottled it over the years. His hands trembled as he lifted the instrument and placed it against his lips. His chest tightened as he blew gently.


The note curled out pure and clean – beating with passion and in perfect sync to the music he had heard in his sleep.


He went back to the bed, his flute clutched tight in his palm, its steel warming to his touch, its magic melting into his skin and as he laid himself down, he placed the flute on his chest.


And, like the smoke rising from a fire – a smile engulfed him, the smile of perfect understanding. Now all he had to do was wait.



Sathya Saran is a writer, who is also a journalist. She spent twenty-six years with Femina during twelve of she edited the magazine. She has also launched and edited a weekly magazine for women, called ME, for DNA. The short story and poetry were strong features in both magazines while she edited them.

Her work has appeared in Out of Print. Her publications include a collection of short stories, The Dark Side, Manjul Publishers, 2007, the biography, Ten Years with Guru Dutt, Penguin India, 2008, and the collection, From Me to You, Westland, 2009. She is currently working on a biography of the composer S D Burman for Harper Collins, India.

Sathya also dabbles in theatre and loves travelling (luxury style or backpacking as the occasion dictates).