Tag Archives: Mridungum

Lost in Translation

A traditional mridungum drum.

-Neethu Ramchandar

The soggy Portland leaves squish beneath my Converse as I make my way to the looming brown house. My personal cloud of doom senses my anxiety and splashes beads of rain to rest upon my cheeks in jest. Today I have my first private class with Subash Chandra, a globally renowned drummer, and I have been warned of what is expected of me – perfection.

My hand rests on the doorknob for a moment. I breathe slowly trying to exhale my jitters. In a dim hallway, I wipe at moist cheeks, no longer able to distinguish the sweat from the rain as the drops trickle down my neck.  I walk to the classroom – the only door with any light peeking from the cracks. I knock and nudge the door open. When the famous man sees me, he greets me in our shared mother tongue, Tamil. Great, I think to myself. No one mentioned to this percussion genius that, although I am bilingual, my fluency level is still infant in comparison.

The previously feeble jitters have now transformed into a distinct tremor in my hands. I let my thumb run over the calluses of my other fingers wondering if I am ready for this experience. His hands are much rougher with drumming experience than mine. They are thick and a dark brown with only the underside remaining a lighter white, stained with years of calluses. As my session begins I try not to look up. I focus on my hands and the quick circles they make as my fingers flutter across the drums. I force my mind to be a metronome, using the ominous tapping of the rain on the window to count so viciously that no other anxious thoughts may be entertained. One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two—and suddenly he says something.

Sabash,” he repeats and then adds in Tamil, “Why did you stop? Keep playing.”

Continuing the song, I wrack my brain for meaning. “Sabash” he had said. If only I could remember what that word meant. I knew his name was Subash, but he wasn’t nearly old enough to be dealing with Alzheimer’s and the need to repeat who and where he was. And then, it slowly dawned on me, hovering like a nimbus cloud. Criticism. I was a bit surprised that I had failed to meet his expectations of me so quickly. Within the first ten minutes of my tutorial I had let down all the people who had helped me reach this point; that’s quite an achievement on my part. As I wallowed in my pool of pity the word slipped out again.

Sabash” he says with closed eyes, either enjoying the song or hiding from the next attack of a melody. As I stop he opens his eyes and repeated in Tamil, “Sabash, Sabash, no matter what don’t stop.”

“No matter what?”  What was going to happen? Would he banish me from his classes? Would I be made the example of what a bad student was? Even worse, would he tell my dad?

And then, as quickly as the pool of pity had come, a high tide of determination washed it away. I straightened my back and focused on my fingers, striking so fiercely that each beat bounced off the walls and returned to invigorate the next beat. The next time the word slipped out, I ignored it. I was not going to let him so easily crush my efforts.

And yet, the harder I played and the purer the notes sang into the air, the more often he said “Sabash.”

I had been ignoring it for a while now and I wondered how many times I missed it. With my lesson coming to an end I try to study his face.

The skin sits loosely and he looks breakable with age. Only his hands looked steady, a reminder that as long as he lives, he will be a drummer. I know that after today’s lesson, no one would look at me and think the same. My drumming career is officially over.

As I walk to the car with my dad I hang my head in shame. My father glances down at me and asks what was wrong. Concentrating on the imprint my shoes leave in the sodden earth, I choke out “Dad, what does ‘sabash’ mean?”

He hesitates. I look up to see that every muscle in his face is fighting a smile. “Neethu,” he replies. “Sabash means ‘very good’.”