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The Magic Flute

2006-07-14 00:00

  The sun was setting as Sukumar walked up the dirt path and into the small village. He was a boy of about eleven or so. In the distance lay the majestic panorama of the Himalayas, the uppermost peaks still bathed in warm tones of red and gold. Sukumar was alone and knew no one in the village, but he hoped to find someone who would put him up for the night. In the distance a girl was calling her mother, and he was reminded of his own mother, who was dead. Filled with memories of her, he took out his flute and raised it to his lips. He felt that by playing a tune he was calling his mother, just as the girl in the distance was calling hers.

  As he stood there playing, a middle-aged woman carrying a heavy load of grass on her back came up the path behind him. She was the wife of the village headman. She stopped and listened silently to the boy's tune. Sensing her presence, Sukumar looked at her. When their eyes met, it seemed to both of them that they had always known each other.

  The woman asked: “My son, where are you going?”

  “I'm a stranger here, mother, looking for a place to spend the night,” he replied.

  Did they address each other as mother and son merely out of kindness, or was there some deeper meaning?

  The woman seemed surprised. Although the boy did not know anyone in the village and did not seem to have a definite destination, he stood there cheerfully playing his flute just as if he was any other carefree child.

  “Come with me, my son,” she said. “That's your sister calling me. When I heard your flute, I felt in my heart that you too were calling me with your tune. Come along, we must go home.”

  Tucking away his flute, the boy followed the woman to her house.

  At the age of five Sukumar had lost his own mother. All he could remember of her was a pair of shining eyes and the string of blue beads she always wore around her neck. He believed that she still lived within his heart.

  The flute he carried had been a gift from his father. After the death of his mother, his father would play his own flute every evening before going to bed, and it was to the sound of these melodies that the small boy would fall asleep. One night as his father sat playing, Sukumar asked him: “Where is Mama? Why can't we see her anymore?”

  Putting down the flute, the man's eyes became sad. “Your mother now lives in the house of the gods. Although she is far beyond the sky, she is with us in our hearts.”

  Sukumar then asked: “Are you ever able to meet her in your heart?”

  Gazing down at the boy, he answered: “Yes, my son, when I play the flute.”

  “Oh, how I want to see her! Please make me a flute too, so that I'll know she is with me when I play it.”

  Soon afterward, Sukumar's father carefully fashioned a flute for the boy and taught him how to play it. His father also taught him to appreciate the beauty of the moonlight and the song made by the falling rain. Often his father would say: “Be happy and play your flute cheerfully, for this in turn will make your mother happy when she hears your tunes.”

  Sukumar spent all his time practicing on his flute. One day when he was nine, his father said: “My son, now you are even better than your father at playing the flute. But I want to tell you something I've never told you before. In their hearts, all persons can feel the melody of the flute, no matter what kind of people they are. When you play your flute, you must always play it with much love in your own heart. Then everyone will recognize your love through the melody. And you'll be able to find your own true mother.”

  A few days after this, Sukumar's father died. Sad and alone, the boy put down his flute and did not touch it again for six months. He spent most of his time crying softly to himself. Because he was an orphan, he was eventually taken to live with his uncle. There, once again, he began to play his flute, not to get the attention of those around him but rather to show them his love and, in return, to receive theirs.

  But young Sukumar was restless. One day he took his flute and left his uncle's house, setting out on a journey that had no destination. As he walked, he would play, and the people he met along the road would surround him, enjoying his tunes and sometimes even dancing to the music. But still he was alone, for no one would love him as his dear parents had. Most people were more interested in themselves and their own problems and had no time for young Sukumar after he finished his tunes. No one had time for him, that is, until the evening he met the village headman's wife, who called him son. In her he felt he had found his own true mother once again.

  As the two of them entered the yard, he saw a young girl walking in the garden. This was the woman's small daughter, Sayapatri, who earlier had been calling her mother. The woman nodded toward Sukumar and said: “Daughter, I've brought home a nice boy to stay with us-no, I mean I've brought home your brother.”

  The two children stood there shyly, not saying a word. But both were happy. Sayapatri, who had no brothers, now had Sukumar, and he in turn now had a sister. Then they entered the house, and as Sukumar sat watching the woman prepare the evening meal by the warm glow of the lamplight, he felt a happiness that had long been missing from his life.

  Soon the village headman came home. Saying nothing, he gave Sukumar a curious glance that made the boy feel sad and uncomfortable. The woman said to her husband: “I met this boy on the road today. He plays the flute very well.”

  During supper the man said nothing to the boy. After the plates had been cleared away, Sukumar took out his flute and began to play softly. The family sat there silently, enraptured by the boy's music. The parents felt that his melody was touching something very familiar in their hearts. Sayapatri sensed that her new brother was trying to talk to the family through his tunes. When he finished and got up to go to bed, the woman gently took his face in her hands and kissed him on the cheek saying: “Good night, my son.”

  The next morning Sukumar arose early and prepared to leave. But the woman stopped him, saying: “We're mother and son. I won't let you leave your home.” And so Sukumar stayed with the family.

  Sayapatri loved Sukumar dearly, but found that there were many things about him that she could not understand. Mostly she wondered why he often looked so serious. During the day she would take him around the village, introducing him to her friends.

  One day the two children walked down to a nearby stream. Sukumar sat silently on a boulder, staring at the water. Unable to control her curiosity, Sayapatri asked: “What are you thinking about, my brother?”

  “Dear sister, you have your own mother, and she loves you because you're her daughter. But my mother's gone. And the only way I can ever meet her is by playing my flute.”

  Sayapatri was shocked by his answer. “But, my brother, isn't my mother also your mother? Am I not your sister?” she asked.

  Hesitating, he replied: “Yes, you're my sister, and she's my mother, but . . .”

  “But, what, my brother?”

  “You have the love of your father, but I've lost mine.”

  “But isn't my father also yours?”

  “No, for I haven't yet won his heart.”

  “Well, then, I'll tell him tonight that he must love you more.”

  “No, no, my sister, don't so that. It'll be all right. I'll win his heart by playing my flute.”

  That evening after the two children had gone to sleep, the father started talking quietly to his wife. “Orphans aren't very dependable. They never stay in one place for long. Sukumar will be like that, too. One day he'll up and leave. In the meantime he'll probably just sit around here loafing and living off our kindness. And he'll end up being a bad influence on our Sayapatri.”

  The woman was shocked by her husband's words. “But, my dear, of course he's an orphan, which is why we must become his parents. We'll be his mother and father. Oh, sometimes I can't believe the heartless things you say.”

  With that the conversation ended and the two fell asleep.

  Life in the household continued on as it had been. Spring came to the village, and the rhododendron trees burst into bloom. The young woman of the village gathered to do the dance of Ghatu, as was the custom in this season.

  One spring evening Sukumar sat by the window, gazing out at the full moon. The drifting clouds and the silver moonlight seemed to be asking him to play a very special tune for them. Picking up his flute, he was inspired to create just such a melody. But when he finished he was filled with sadness. Despite all his efforts, he was still unable to win the love of Sayapatri's father. It seemed an impossible task. Better, he thought, that I leave now rather than continue on like this.

  In the predawn hours of the next morning he quietly left the house while the rest of the family lay sleeping. Outside he stopped and turned, silently bidding farewell to Sayapatri and her mother. Then he started on his way.

  By dawn he had reached the pine-covered hills beyond the village. For a moment he imagined he heard Sayapatri calling his name. He wished, then, that he had waited to say goodbye to her. But there was no going back; so once again he started on his way. All day he climbed over hills and down through valleys, until at sunset he found himself at the summit of a mountain. A shrine to a goddess stood there, and he decided that he would take shelter in it for the night. Once inside, he felt very lonely and sad. There was a tune floating in his head, but it was a very sad one. He felt that by leaving Sayapatri and her mother he had once again lost his family. He wanted to create a melody for Sayapatri to tell her how much he loved her, but all that emerged from his heart was a cry of despair. He sat there, weeping softly to himself.

  When he awoke, the morning sunlight was streaming through the chinks in the windows of the shrine. Looking up, he saw the statue of the goddess, its hands spread to welcome him. The goddess's head was surrounded by a halo, and a garland of flowers hung from her neck. He felt the presence of Sayapatri and her mother in the statue. It seemed as if they were trying to embrace him through the statue's hands. Suddenly he was filled with doubt. Should he continue on his journey or should he return to Sayapatri and the family? He slowly walked out of the shrine and sat down under a large tree. All day long he sat there, trying to decide what to do.

  That night he again slept in the shrine, dreaming of Sayapatri. In his dream she was standing in front of him, beckoning him to follow her. He started to speak, but she raised her finger to her lips, indicating that he should be quite. When he awoke from his sleep, he knew that his decision had been made. He would return home.

  It had been a year since he had first come to the village and gone home with the headman's wife. His first glimpse of Sayapatri had been as the stood in front of the mound of the tulsi plant. At that time there had been a lamp burning on the mound. Tonight, when he returned, there was once again a lamp burning on the mound. But in the yard many of the villagers were milling around and all wore gloomy looks on their faces.

  Silently Sukumar entered the house. Inside, Sayapatri lay on her mother's lap. Looking up and seeing him, the woman cried out: “My son, look what's happened to your dear sister! People say she'll recover, but, oh, I don't know.”

  Sukumar approached them slowly, tears streaming down his face. Stretching out his hand, he softly stroked his sister's cheek.

  “On the night you left, she suddenly came down with a very high fever. Since yesterday she's been like this-in a coma. I think her spirit's left her body and gone off in search of you. Now you've returned. Please, my son, do something to revive her.”

  Sukumar sat there motionless, his hand on Sayapatri's cheek. Then he brought out his flute and began to play it very quietly. As the tune floated across the room, Sayapatri's eyelids began to flutter. Her father, who had come into the room, brought a cup of water and placed it to the girl's lips. Slowly her eyes opened. Seeing Sukumar, she murmured: “My brother, oh my brother! You've returned.”

  Putting down his flute, Sukumar replied: “Yes, me dear sister, I'm here. It's me, your brother.”

  Suddenly the father moved next to Sukumar and, with tears in his eyes, hugged the boy to his chest. “Truly you're my own dear son. Never, never will I let you go again.”

  The mother sat there, shedding tears of joy. Sayapatri and Sukumar looked at each other and smiled.

  This was, indeed, just as one of the villagers said, like the story of Ghatu, one of Nepal's famous sacred dances.

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