Still Water – by Akhilesh

by TBLM

We made the mountains shake with laughter as we played
Hiding in our corner of the world
Then we did the demon dance and rushed to nevermore
Threw away the key and locked the door

— Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell

*

“One more line, boss?”

“Two more, motherfucker. And how many times do I have to ask for ice dammit?”

“On it boss, five minutes,” said Venu, scampering to the bar.

Uday took a drag of the hookah, passed it to Kiran, sighed. “The assistants I have to put up with… shitheads. The only time this fat idiot ever shows a glimmer of interest is when there’s snow around.”

Kiran laughed and slapped Uday on the back “Arre. When will you learn to blow off some steam, Uday sir? Let it go, it’s a launch party for crying out loud. Plus the music is already a hit, it’s trending nation-fucking-wide! So it’s basically your success party, your thing, this, hahah!”

To his entourage seated around the table (of course, all hotshot young actors in Tollywood had to have an entourage): “Cheers to the man, the maestro – Uday!”

“Cheers. Where the fuck is Venu with my goddamn ice?” grumbled Uday.

He really hated the parties, the schmoozing, all the glitz and fakery of showbiz. But parties like these were where he scored the best looking women. Tons of desperate starlets strutting their stuff about, eager for their time in the big leagues. And Uday was now a big deal indeed, major music director about town, a streak of over ten superhit movies and a stash of some of the best cocaine that this city had to offer.
He’d spent his time waiting in the wings and paying his dues, and now it was his turn in the sun.

Shit was going well indeed.

*

Almost a decade ago, during the reading of his father’s will a week before he passed away, the old man had grabbed Uday by the collar, pulled him close, and whispered: “Never sell the house in Nuyyada. Never. And never let the well run dry – it is the source of the Dasari musical lineage, it … it is our lifeblood, the spring from which our creativity flows.”

By then, Uday hadn’t been home in years and hadn’t spoken much to his Dad since his Mum died during his second semester of college. Let the old dickhead blabber on, he had thought. Who would even go to that fuck-all house in the middle of nowhere, leave alone sell? Clearly not Uday, as far as he was concerned.

Uday had had some success, he’d scored music for two movies, both flops but the music was…well, getting noticed. No longer just classical music legend T. Dasari’s son, no sir. He had just signed for a major motion picture (starring Chiranjeevi, no less – it sucked that he’d had to use the Dasari family name to nab this but still) and this something that everyone in the industry knew. It was make-or-break time for him.

Go big or go home, as they say, and going home was never an option.

A month later and he barely had anything, just a basic background score and a few disposable melodies, nothing that he could picture blaring across cinema screens in Dolby digital surround sound, nothing that would be a staple of autos and interstate buses for months to come, nothing worthy of the Megastar. And he was panicking. He had a deadline looming, and nothing seemed to work – not the 80s synthpop he listened to for ideas, nor the drugs, nor the endless hours spent with his Roland VR09 on the terrace of his house in Hyderabad.

On a whim, he packed a suitcase and bundled that and the VR into his Maruti 800. He called Naidu and set off on a drive to the old family home in Nuyyada. He figured the eight-hour drive would do him some good. It might clear his head, and it wouldn’t hurt to spend the weekend over there.

Maybe even the well, he thought and laughed to himself.

It was twilight when he got to the house. It was exactly as he remembered it from childhood summers: the narrow dirt road flanked by trees, mango and guava and date palms; the outhouse at the far end of a fork to the right; and then the road opening up to the house, a tall sloping tiled roof over timber beams and peeling whitewashed mud walls, two paneled flaking green doors and slowly rusting iron window grills.

And Naidu as usual, dressed in a vest and a lungi, standing near the entrance lit by a single overhead yellow bulb. Pushing sixty, Naidu was stick-thin yet radiated the vitality of a life spent outdoors, a man carved out of obsidian.

“Uday? How have you been? So long since you’ve been here, you were last here as a kid of barely fifteen I think?”

“All good, Naidu. Just figured I’d spend a day or two here, clear my head and all. See how the old place is doing.”

“I’ll get the bedroom ready and some dinner too? I have some sambar and bottle-gourd curry.”

“Wouldn’t mind some later. Will get some drinking done in the courtyard in the meantime.”

He went around the house, a low crescent moon now beginning to form along with a few stabs of stars. The last of the orange in the sky giving way to midnight blue and black, in front of him the courtyard with a wooden charpoy and beyond that an expanse of paddy fields, and far to his right, the well: at the corner of the intersection of cracked Kota stone and the bund of the field.

He walked toward the well. Black withered rock and no visible joints of mortar, the coping four feet over the surrounding courtyard, a dark monolith watching over the house. There were markings carved on the stone, definitely not Telugu or any script he recognised, old and eroded. He peered into the well, childhood memories of doing so firing in rapid succession, around twenty feet in diameter, easily a sixty feet drop through inky blackness to the water below.

And the fields drew water from a bore well, and the house had a smaller well on the left (now with a motor for day to day use) but this well – it just was. No sign of the usual insects and lizards and even moss or scum, just a black abyss that went down and down.

Uday whistled into that emptiness and was surprised to hear no echo, no answer to his questing note.

The house always used to make him feel uneasy as a kid. He’d hate the few days spent there each summer with the mosquitoes, centipedes, power cuts, the searing heat, scorpions, snakes (wear slippers, his Mum would yell after him), and of course, the well, that looming shape, a thing of shadow even in broad daylight.

The well, devoid of life, a hungry mouth swallowing all sound.

That night he slept in the courtyard on the charpoy (passed out, actually) and woke up feeling tired and irritable, with a wicked hangover and an aching need for a smoke. Farmhands at work in the fields looked like ragged specks dotting a sea of green. The sun was a raging ball of fire and the heat was scorching, even on this December morning.

“Borrow a bidi, Naidu?”

“Sure, here, take the whole packet. I was going to head to town for some supplies, do you want me to pick up some cigarettes and anything else?”

“Ah. Three bottles of dark rum and five packs of Gold Flake? Here’s some cash,” said Uday, digging into his wallet. “Should I come along, we can take the car?”

“Better let it be, I’ll take the moped. Should be back in an hour. There are idlis and chutney in the kitchen,” said Naidu, heading through the house to the moped parked in the driveway.

A shower and a few idlis later, he still felt exhausted, with a rhythmic pounding in his temples that would not stop, and eyes stinging like needles. He set up his VR and a digital 8-track recorder anyway, lit a bidi, and started his basic workflow.

An early memory came to him. “The act of creation is first and foremost an act of discipline, an imposition of order on chaos,” his Dad would say as Uday would zone out.

First, a basic 4×4 kick and snare, looped over 8 bars, then the hats, his head pounding, tiny stars exploding in his field of vision, then a bassline he’d tweaked from a Parliament track that he’d filed away in his mind, fuck his eyes were on fire even within the gloom of the house, tiny twitches and tremors in his hands, his throat parched and feeling like sandpaper, then the main melody, transposed and reworked from a Depeche Mode b-side, another bidi, add some toms and snare rolls, a weird vision of his Dad, clad in karategi and long-haired, sitting by a harmonium and throwing the horns and asking “but does it rock or roll?”, a high-pitched giggle forming in his throat, the bridge now in halftime, and add a suspended chord in between, his Dad again “the key to the universe is definitely not pentatonic…”, more manic laughter and another bidi…

He suddenly realised that it was too dark to make out the keys, late evening, in fact, and that he’d been smoking gold flake after gold flake for a while. The cigarette butts in the stainless-steel glass he used as an ashtray told him so. He turned on the light, lit another cigarette and played back the ideas he’d recorded. He was blown away.

It was rough and needed a few more edits, and vocals, of course, but he’d laid out the skin of at least four tracks here. The flow was tight. There were some inspired chord changes, and tribal drum beats side by side, and funky basslines, and huge chunky hooks. It was easily the best stuff he’d done in, well, ever.

He was just getting started with his first drink when Naidu turned up. “All ok, Uday? I’ll be in the outhouse if you need anything.”

“Eh Naidu, sit and have a drink or two? Is rum okay with you?”

Naidu grinned. “Anything is.”

“… so what you’re saying is, the village was named for the well? This well?”

Naidu lit a bidi, puffed on it until one end glowed bright red and continued. “That’s what is said. My grandpa used to say the well was there long before the village existed. The stone is not local, there is nothing like it nearby or even in the state. Some say the markings are Buddhist, from the time of the Satvahana kings who ruled over this province from Amravati, but most locals claim the stone and the well is older, way older than the dynasty.”

“That ancient, huh?” Uday reached for the bottle, poured himself some more rum, and lit a cigarette. “So you say the well existed way before anyone was here?”

“So it is said.”

“But why don’t we use the water from the well, say for our fields or the house?”

Naidu puffed on his bidi thoughtfully, glanced at the well. “Because plants die, Uday. If you’ve noticed, nothing grows near the well. Insects, birds, they all avoid it. Best to listen to nature and let some things be. ”

A sip of rum, and Naidu continued.

“There are darker stories too, tales of strange visions and fleeting yet hauntingly beautiful melodies driving the old zamindars who lived here insane. Legends of a Gandharva who fell, and was sealed in by the water and these markings in a ritual ages ago, stories of human sacrifice during the lunar solstice, of newborns thrown into the well by the zamindars, whispers of unexplained disappearances and unnatural deaths, tales of blood and tales of caution.”

Uday perked at this. “Gandharva? You mean the heavenly musicians from the epics and all those stories my grandma used to tell? Apsaras and Gandharvas, cavorting in the court of Indra and all?”

“Yes. But heavenly or earthbound and very real, who’s to say? Some of these stories are drunken rambles, some are local legends passed on from generations ago, some might very well be made up. Who’s to say what’s real and what is to believe? I for one, just trust in what I know, what I can sense and feel. And what I do know is – it’s best to stay away from the well, it is hard to get a good night’s sleep even in the house. ”

Another sip, a match struck and the glow of another bidi as Uday lit another cigarette, the climbing and falling drone of a car passing by on the main road, a couple of bats swooping low over the house.

“I’ve seen the world around me change since I was a boy, new wonders take root and become as commonplace as the sun and sky. Forests trampled, mountains moved, the earth itself scarred and molded in a race against memory, against time itself. But as they say, time isn’t a river, but a wheel. And the more we try and outrun our past, the closer we come to it. The shadows cast by the past are long and dark. There are things in those shadows that remember.”

A long swig of rum now.

“And that’s why I feel that it’s best to leave that well alone. It is from a time that was forgotten, but still whispered about, a thing from half-remembered dreams and made-up nightmares.”

“And that’s why you sleep in the outhouse, eh?” Uday grinned. “Some deep stuff this, huh Naidu? You should write some lyrics for me sometime, haha!”

Naidu smiled at that, deep creases lining his face. “But take my advice, Uday. Your grandfather was barely here, and your father – while he would come by frequently, he would spend only a few nights at most here. Our family has been tied to the zamindars of this land and this house since the time of my great-great-grandfather, and we have always tried to avoid being here in the courtyard or in the house after dusk. As much as possible.”

“I get that, and I’ll keep that in mind Naidu. More rum?”

*

So it was since then. Once in a while, Uday would come over for a day or two, lose himself in that hyper-wired and draining burst of inspiration, come up with a profusion of impossibly weird melodies and rhythms that he would later water down and peddle for mass consumption.

But overall, he’d never stay more than a weekend, three days tops, as the mere presence of the well unnerved him, and his state of mind would always be off-balance for a while after each visit.

But his career took off, his music hitting all the right notes, so to say, and even as he found that he really did not need to visit the house often (maybe the music was always inside him, he thought sometimes, the ego of success now firm), he found himself still craving that initial push before each new album, a junkie looking for the ultimate fix, a moth to a roaring inferno.

So it went, and he had a new movie project coming up, and even though he didn’t need to, he figured he might as well get Venu to drive him down to the house, spend a weekend with some snow, drink a little (or a lot) with Naidu. And of course, bang some tunes out from that strange place somewhere on the Mobius strip that connected logic and insanity.

They arrived by late afternoon, partly thanks to the new four-lane highway and partly thanks to the few lines that Venu insisted they do before the drive (“it helps me focus, I drive like an arrow, whoosh, in the zone, boss, in the zoneyah”) and they settled down to drink in the evening, all hunger drained by snow, Venu and his pocket decongestant spray whizzing constantly, Naidu joining them after his dinner.

“The heat is impossible huh, boss? Maybe you should get an AC or two put up in the house, huh? It’s almost dark and I’m sweating like a pig,” rambled Venu, pouring Naidu a drink.

“Learn to adapt, Venu? And lose that stupid hoodie if you’re so hot? Idiot.”

“I get the chills on a comedown, boss, you know that. But you might have a point there,” said Venu, peeling off his hoodie to reveal a Sylvester and Tweety t-shirt.

“So Naidu, how are things around?” asked Uday.

Naidu struck a match and lit a bidi, shadows like crevasses on his weathered face “As usual, Uday. We’ve had to get the tractor repaired a lot this year. Might need to buy another new one later on. We’ve hired a few extra hands for the upcoming harvest, some of them migrants from Orissa. The PWD has just finished dredging a new canal from the river to Kakinada and beyond, and as a result, the water table has fallen lower this year. We might need to call Murali and his rig to increase our bore depth.”

“Water table’s fallen, but that would mean…?” Uday glanced at the well and saw Naidu nod in understanding.

“Yes. Around eighty feet to water now.”

A beep in the courtyard from the portable Bluetooth speaker Venu carried along with him everywhere. “Aha, finally. Boss, Naidu, check this out!” Deep house music filled the air, with its repetitive pounding rhythms, the one-two punch of kick and off-beat hat, and simple half-formed melodies.

A solitary hawk flew above, silhouetted against a waxing moon in an ocean of indigo blue, the mechanical buzz of crickets all around. Venu moving to the music, fat and graceless.

Naidu stubbed his bidi on the floor of the courtyard, sipped his rum while staring at the well.

“We’ve had one migrant worker, Pradhan, go missing last month. Some say he wandered away, the cops do not care much and say the same. Since then, most of the migrants camp out at the far end of the fields, closer to the highway. They will not come near the house and claim that it is cursed.

“I don’t think any of them will return next season,” said Naidu, finishing his rum in a gulp.

“Strange stuff as usual then, eh?” mused Uday.

Naidu smiled, thin-lipped and contemplative. “As usual, indeed.”

“Boss, you want some of this X I scored the other day? It’ll really take the edge off the comedown, mellow you down tons. Help you sleep eventually too,” said Venu, thrusting a sweaty palm with a blue pill in its center.

“Why not, I guess. Tomorrow we work, no more of the drugs and all, eh, Venu? Definitely not snow for a while at least,” said Uday, washing down the pill with rum.

The night rolled on in a haze, Naidu leaving after a few more drinks, Venu shuffling around the courtyard to the music, Uday in a strange buzz bought on by drugs, booze and exhaustion. The music was really fucking great actually, thought Uday, or was it the drugs, who knew, his Dad’s voice in his head “aren’t they the same thing?”, the ecstasy playing with his field of vision, the edge of everything zipping and darting about, shimmering together into one back again, the music now a thumping roar,
multiple voices converging, then splitting into far-flung corners. Impossible depth of the stereo field from such a tiny speaker, he thought as the edges of the well moved up and down in waves, the moon a throbbing ball of cold fire. A splash and then a sound like nails on stone, and suddenly Uday felt a chill wind blow, realized that the red led light of the speaker was off and Venu was still shuffling, punching the air now, and the music was in all places at once, coming at him from everywhere.

“Venu! Venu!” yelled Uday, and Venu turned, but not in response to his voice, for Uday saw his face, saw the slack-jawed expression on it, drool dribbling down the corners of his mouth, his eyelids half-closed, head hung low. And his feet never ceased to shuffle in time to the music, a thumping strange beat with ethereally beautiful melodies that nothing he’d ever heard could reproduce, alien bossa nova smoothness and bursts of harsh noise, both as different and yet melding into each other like the earth and the sky.

And he heard a skittering like giant claws on stone, saw a dark shape glisten into being at the edge of the well, saw something huge and monstrous clamber out of the edge, a thing of dark water and yet solid, light glinting in multiple hues of the rainbow at its edges, a thing at once visible and not, six legs and razor-sharp claws, eyes of moonlight and a forked tongue of fire.

Every nerve in his body pounded, the fight or flee response to fear kicking in, definitely flee. Run, you idiot, he urged his body. But he remained rooted to the edge of the charpoy.

Venu was still shuffling, the whisper of sneakers on stone, Sylvester and Tweety going up and down.

It hit him then, the realization that the well was there to keep this thing locked in as much as it was to keep the rest of the world locked out, that the markings were the key, and that at night when the markings were barely discernible the barrier weakened.

“By the act of seeing is the world made real,” he heard his Dad say somewhere in his mind, and this was a real memory.

“Venu! Venu, wake up! Naidu, fucking hell, Naidu!” Uday was shouting. Or was it in his mind? It was hard to tell.

He wanted to move, to shake or drag Venu by his unruly mop of hair if he had to and run, far away from this fucking thing, but found that he was still unable to move, his breath coming in short gasps, the siren song of the thing taking hold over his entire being.

It leaped into the courtyard now, antlers of stone like a deer, twin fangs lining a snout like a boar, six-legged with giant claws and the body of a spider, eyes of baleful yellow. And it roared, an ugly and dissonant sound, yet part of the music still, the music so impossibly strange yet haunting that he was weeping now, tears of terror and tears of joy.

As Venu was shambling around the courtyard like a zombie, the thing, the Gandharva, reared its head and stood poised on three hind legs in front of him. Then Uday saw both razor-edged fangs go wide and, in a fraction of a heartbeat, smack into the sides of Venu’s head with a crunch, piercing through his skull. There was a sickening slurping sound and Venu collapsed in a heap that the Gandharva flung with a savage flick of its head into the well.

“For we can only know through our senses, and we can only sense with our mind,” his Dad again, and the Gandharva drew closer and he realized it was as much a thing of water as it was stone, as much a being of music as it was its creator. Like the wind through trees and a shadow over stone, it was formless, yet it was there, a thing of water, fire, stone, and sound.

The well was a thing to protect us, never meant to contain it, he realized. A thing of caution, a monolithic warning. The music was the very cry of souls it sucked dry, all the longing and sadness of being and unbeing.

If only I could plug it into my 8 track, he thought and began laughing.

It was over him now, fangs wide open, the sickly sweet stench of rot and decay wafting from its gaping mouth, its tongue of fire darting outward.

“When music touches the depths of human emotion and then goes deeper still, then one feels the touch of the divine,” and this was a real memory of his Dad, again, that flashed in his head for the last time.

A crunch, and the slurping began.

***