Music That Transcends Everything But His Circumstance

"Prodigal Son" from A SMALL SACRIFICE FOR AN ENORMOUS HAPPINESS by Jai Chakrabarti, recommended by Electric Literature

wooden flute and hands

Introduction by Halimah Marcus

Jai Chakrabarti’s “Prodigal Son” begins as Jonah arrives in Kolkata on his way to visit his guru. Jonah is an American, a white man, and like most American tourists, he is obsessed with proving he isn’t one. When he suspects the taxi driver will take advantage of him, he uses Bengali slang to “convince the driver of his adopted roots.” The possible oxymoron of the statement is lost on him—can roots be adopted? 

For fifteen years, Jonah has been visiting Guruji and his family—his wife Suparna and his son Karna. Jonah considers himself Guruji’s most devoted student and believes Guruji thinks of him as a second son. Which, maybe he does.

Guruji is a skilled flutist, and Karna—now an adolescent boy, or in some lights, a young man—is developing a skill to match his father’s. Jonah is technically proficient but not a natural; the transference Jonah hopes to achieve is not complete. The plan for this trip, which Jonah promised his wife would be his last, is to record Guruji’s first album. 

Whether Jonah will act in the best interest of Guruji and his family, of Karna in particular, provides the central tension of the story. In other words: is Jonah a tourist? There’s also the driving question of how Guruji, Suparna, and Karna actually see Jonah, but their true impressions are something readers must look around Jonah to perceive. 

Jonah likely did not convince the taxi driver in the opening paragraph of anything; Chakrabarti understands Jonah’s posturing from the first sentence, which means he sees the humanity beneath it, too. Chakrabarti deftly, skillfully, compassionately, writes into the space between who Jonah is—how he comes across to others—and who he perceives himself to be. It’s a gap that exists for everyone, wider for some than for others.

But self-delusion can be dangerous. Advantages are taken. Betrayals are committed. This is not a visit that Guruji’s family will forget. But when Jonah returns back to his life in America, everything exactly as he left it, one has the feeling he could forget this last trip easily. Readers are left to ask themselves if it would have been better if Jonah admitted to being a tourist in the first place, the kind that stays for two weeks and then leaves for good, without anyone ever learning their name. 

– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading

Music That Transcends Everything But His Circumstance

Prodigal Son by Jai Chakrabarti

Fourteen hours on the plane to Kolkata gave Jonah ample time to feel superior to the other travelers, especially those parents who were bringing along their hapless toddlers. He was traveling to visit his guru in a village that no one knew of. Predictably, the cabdriver tried to cheat him, even though he’d taken this route many times over the past fifteen years. He was still disappointed by the inflated rate, his whiteness announcing itself long before he could switch to a Bengali slang, convince the driver of his adopted roots. His wasn’t a perfect vernacular but should’ve been good enough to avoid the tourist’s fare.

Guruji lived near a sweet shop in a house whose electricity Jonah paid for. With his meager earnings in America, he paid for the gardening as well—a bed of azaleas bright in the sun—and for diabetes pills for Guruji and the education of Guruji’s son. It was his guru’s son who came to greet him.

“Oh, Uncle,” Karna said, touching Jonah’s face as if he were blind. It had been two years since they’d seen each other, and now Guruji’s son seemed more urbane, his face strikingly angular, a fine moustache having found its way onto his upper lip.

Suparna, Karna’s mother, emerged. She was fussing about his suitcase, though it was mostly empty, and fussing about his weight, too. Since his boy had been born, Jonah had been so busy he’d skipped meals more often than he cared to admit.

“You’ve come back to us a ghost,” Suparna said. “But no worries, we’ll fatten you up again.”

Guruji came out, leaning on his cane. “What a ruckus,” he said, though it was clear that he was happy to see his second son.

Jonah had found Guruji at that time in his life when nothing seemed permanent. Twenty-three years old and grasping to call something his own. He used to play folk music at the Bitter End on Bleecker, money out of a hat enough to tide him over from couch to couch, a drink and a lover to boot. He could always play the life out of his guitar, but he never had the voice to attract a label.

Guruji said as much when they first met in Kolkata, all those years ago. “Your voice has a demon in it,” he’d said. “But there is still music in you.”

The flute calmed him. He found he could play for an hour and escape his anxieties for the day. He became Guruji’s first international student and eventually his most devoted, practicing in the mornings and late into the evenings. Year after year while he freelanced in America and pursued a degree in music theory, he’d return to Kolkata to show what he’d learned and to learn the next difficult thing, and every year Guruji would say, “Almost, beta. You are almost there.”

He remembered those words as Suparna poured him tea and asked about Samuel, who’d just turned two.

“It was hard to leave the little guy,” he said, though that was not entirely true. He loved his boy, but once he’d set foot on the plane, he hardly paused to think about him. What he’d thought of instead was sitting with his guru again—one last time, he’d promised his wife. To learn not only from Guruji but also from Karna. “Play something,” he said, smiling at Guruji’s son.

Karna’s lips found their way onto a melody they’d once learned together, an afternoon raga that cut through his jet lag, his sense of city self. When Karna played it sounded like a younger version of Guruji, the plainly hopeful notes breaking through Guruji’s more skeptical, sparse turns.

“Splendid,” Jonah said, his eyes shut, the music leaving the taste of honey in his mouth. When they’d first learned this raga together, Karna had been a five-year-old boy. Now he was months shy of becoming an adult, though even in the early years he’d been serious enough to sit by his father’s feet, for the little boy had no demon in him—he had only song.

“Too sentimental, beta,” Guruji interrupted. He was always harder on his biological son, but Jonah knew what perfection sounded like—the boy wasn’t far off, not at all.

“When do we record the album?” Guruji asked.

“Soon, Baba,” Jonah said. He’d brought along recording equipment to produce an album of Guruji’s best compositions. Though he was surely a gem of his generation, his guru had never made the headlines. He’d never toured the big cities in America or Europe. Instead, he’d worked his whole life as a tax collector, playing music on the evenings or weekends. That hadn’t mattered to Jonah when he’d first heard his guru play a concert in Kolkata. A maestro, Jonah thought, though Guruji’s style, even then, was antiquated, a throwback to a time of courts and minstrels. Jonah would make the album for Guruji, but he doubted that it would bring fame. A few years into his apprenticeship he’d accepted the hard truth that Americans didn’t care for flutes or ragas; the music they played required a commitment to do nothing but listen, and listening was in dying supply, even in Jonah’s own house, where sometimes he’d catch his wife’s eye, her love for him and her doubt of his art; oh, she’d never discouraged his flute playing, but sometimes in the early mornings when she’d mosey into the living room where he practiced, he could sense her bewilderment: Why keep on?

As Karna stopped playing, the weariness of Jonah’s long travel returned. He was shown to the guest room, where Karna had arranged hyacinth petals on the pillow. “For beauty sleep,” Karna said expectantly. From the beginning, Karna had needed acknowledgment for the smallest acts, hanging onto his father’s dhoti for scraps of praise, and now Jonah obliged, stroking the fine hairs on the back of Karna’s neck, before he slipped under the sheets. Karna sat by him on the floor, playing another melody, nothing serious, just whatever came to his lips. There were a few raw notes in the composition, but Jonah didn’t mind. “Play until I fall asleep,” he said, not intending to sound like he was giving a command.

When he awoke from his nap, night had fallen on the village. The house was quiet, and someone had slung a mosquito net over his bed, which he felt grateful for. Guruji’s family might have made a stop at the village temple; they were always throwing flowers into fires, hoping for rain. He needed to call Melanie, so he headed to the phone booth in the village center, with its pay meter that clicked every few seconds.

“Hello,” she said, her voice caught between layers of static.

“I made it,” he said, trying to subdue the elation that he felt. She was three months pregnant with their second child and wouldn’t appreciate the joy he’d felt leaving home. “How is baby?”

“Which one?” she asked.

She was not happy with him, though she’d agreed to give him this week between a toddler and a newborn for himself. One last trip to your motherland, she’d said. The only time she’d joined him in Kolkata she’d caught a case of dysentery so severe she’d spent two days in the hospital; ever since, India had been his motherland, not hers.

“I love you,” he said, watching the pay meter jump with every word he spoke. If only there were such a meter for life itself, you would feel how little time was left in this world; you would say the things that mattered.

“Goodbye,” she said. “I know it’s a fortune to call.”

After she hung up, he imagined her in their railroad apartment in Brooklyn, a coffee in one hand and a cloth diaper in the other. It was much too small now that they had a child and another on the way, but that was true for most anyone in New York. The day before he’d left they’d been trenched in all morning, the branches outside snapping from the wind and the weight of the falling snow. He had strapped his son to his chest to walk into the blizzard. When they returned, Melanie started a bath, and he lay in it with her and with Samuel, who curled close and sucked his thumb. There was still sweetness there, though not as often, not nearly as often as when they’d first called each other beloved.

“Two hundred forty rupees,” someone called, knocking on the booth.

Heading back to Guruji’s, he could see that the family had returned, and they’d put Bollywood songs on the antique turntable. Through the window, he could see Suparna dancing, which was mostly a stationary business with a coquettish flutter of the hands.

“There you are,” said Guruji.

Inside the house, everyone was wearing festive clothes. Someone had put eyeliner under Karna’s eyes, dressed him in a red kurta that was too big for him. It was a party in his honor, Jonah guessed, a welcoming home. Sweet that they’d taken the trouble, though he could’ve done without the music, the lilting high-pitched voice of the playback singer too tawdry for his taste.

“Well, tell him the good news,” Suparna said.

“We were waiting till you returned to us,” Guruji said. “This is engagement party. We are marrying our little boy.”

The sentence confused him. He imagined Guruji marrying his own son, though that was not it, for Suparna was smiling. Now he realized why Karna was dressed for the occasion and why the sweets were finer than any he’d ever been offered.

“She’s just passed her exams,” Suparna said. “The family is well established, living in Howrah. They own two rickshaw repair shops and one shoe store.”

“Karna’s way too young,” Jonah said, unable to control himself.

“Why? He is the age I was married,” Guruji said, the smile on his lips beginning to waver.

“Karna should become a musician who tours the world. He has the talent, Guruji.”

“He will play the music that is in his heart after he finishes his job. I will find a civil service post for him, do not worry.”

“He’s not even twenty-one. Don’t sell him out.”

Guruji lowered his voice. “You are my second son, but not even you can disrespect me in my own house.”

The blood rushed to Jonah’s face, then left it; he worked his jaw from side to side to bring the feeling back. This was a different rebuke than the ones he’d received trying to master the flute. This time Guruji had spoken quietly, as if no one else should hear him being shamed.

“I apologize,” he forced himself to say. He couldn’t make himself meet Guruji’s eyes. He packed his things and left for the village hotel.

He hated the hotel, having stayed there the first few times he’d come to the village, before he and Guruji’s family grew close. At night the roaches would leave their hiding places to crawl over his bedsheets, and in the early mornings the hotel staff would knock and then immediately burst through his door to deliver tea, the enthusiasm of seeing a white man enough to throw propriety out the window. He tried to fall asleep, but the clock in his body was still on the other side of the ocean. Instead, he watched old videos he had filmed of Karna. Whenever Guruji napped, he and Karna would roam the village. Sometimes, Jonah would teach him English. He’d do this by having Karna sing old folk covers.

To everything turn, turn, turn, Karna crooned on the video. At least, when it came to folk songs, Jonah had the upper hand. He’d always wanted to be his guru’s finest student, but from the moment that Karna played the scales, he knew he’d never measure up. There was something Karna had that ten thousand hours of practice hadn’t given him. Sometimes, he blamed his whiteness. Sometimes, he blamed his city life. These days, he mostly blamed the duties of fatherhood, which he’d begrudgingly embraced with body and soul, unlike Guruji, who’d never changed a diaper. It was not in his stars to become a musician, he’d decided with Melanie, so she’d allowed him to visit India a final time. This trip was to be a goodbye to that life. But it needn’t be for Karna, who, from the beginning, quickly progressed from repeating a melody to transforming it into his own language, imbuing feelings he was too young to name.

Someone knocked on his door. “Go away,” he said.

“It’s only me,” Karna said.

It was not so late to consider a visit out of the ordinary. After all, he’d come from a whole continent away. He let Karna in.

For years afterward, he would search for the smell of Karna on the other side of the door, that sliver of life, that musk, and he would remember the aluminum taste in his mouth, his knees frozen. Now he looked for a place to sit. Only the bed was suitable. Jonah fixed the rumpled sheets, searched his bag for snacks, and offered Karna a granola bar.

For years afterward, he would search for the smell of Karna on the other side of the door, that sliver of life, that musk, and he would remember the aluminum taste in his mouth, his knees frozen.

“I’m totally full,” Karna said. “But why did you leave so quickly?”

Now that he was out of the blankets he could feel a chill in the air, not cold, what in his world counted as the first sign of autumn, though back home he knew it was snowing; he knew Melanie had been out that morning with her shovel while Samuel watched from the window. He shivered a little, tore into the granola bar himself. The gesture felt rude, but he was already halfway through. It was chocolate peanut butter, which stuck to his teeth.

“I don’t care for the idea of marriage for you,” Jonah said. “You can be one of the great musicians of our, I mean your, generation.”

“You are too kind, Uncle. The problem is that the girl’s family is very rich, and dowry is very good,” Karna said.

They were forever lampooning their lack of wealth. Along with perfect pitch, Guruji had passed on his miserly attitude to his son, his belief that they were to always live in lack, though over the years Jonah had done his very best to scrape away money for them, delivering a monthly check to Western Union as if it were a piece of his heart.

“I understand money is hard. I just don’t want you to throw your life away.” He had almost said: I just don’t want you to end up like your father. A tax collector with few fans and a single, poor, devoted student.

“Do you remember when you played yaman? Like, when you really understood it? It made me remember the one time I was in Greece, swimming in the ocean at night with the fish glowing greenish blue in the water. The only person who can transport me like that is your father.”

Jonah grabbed one of his flutes and tried to draw out the notes the way Karna had, and though he was capable of a technical fluency he still lacked the fortitude of Karna’s turns. Within the notes were the many microtones, too many to write down; you’d have to remember them in your body. Jonah tried, but it came out a simulacrum.

“Yes, yes, it’s like you’re floating in the ocean a day before the storm,” Karna said. He took Jonah’s flute to his lips and began to play. Yaman was the evening song, and it was meant to be played in the twilight, in that ambiguous hour where dogs appeared like wolves. Karna played slow and fast, bringing in melodies Jonah had never heard. He teased the rhythm structure, which was in twelve beats, and it seemed for moments that there was no ending, no beginning. When he hit a particular low note, it felt to Jonah like the music had changed the work of his heart so that it was beating in time with the music.

Afterward, Jonah sat in silence while Karna cleaned the flutes, but he still heard the music. No one had ever played yaman as Karna just had, Jonah thought. And he had been the one to witness it.

“So, what are my options, Uncle?” Karna said. “We are not people who can change our lives so easily.”

“You must come live in America with us,” Jonah said. He hadn’t meant to speak these words, but as soon as they’d come out he recoiled at how familiar they were. It was no more than a fantasy he’d played in his mind for many years, the prodigy coming to live in their house, Melanie accepting Karna completely. In that moment, he didn’t think of his burgeoning family, their lack of space or funds, or even Melanie’s hardening heart, he thought only of how Karna played the scales, how those refrains traveled up his spine.

“Oh, Uncle,” Karna said. “I feel you’ve unburied me.” Jonah used fingers that still smelled of chocolate to wipe away Karna’s tears. As he did so, he found that Karna’s eyes looked more beautiful with a smudge of black.

Someone lumbered down the hallway and entered the adjacent room. He held his breath. When he laid his hand on Karna’s chest, he could hear Karna’s heart as clearly as when they’d bathed in the village stream together, let the current play on their bare legs. Next door someone tuned the television to what sounded like a Bollywood movie. He breathed again, thankful for the cover, and let his mouth find the boy’s.

Next door, it sounded like a car chase musical: an automatic rifle announced itself, and then a woman began to sing a throaty conniption. He kept his hand by Karna’s heart until its rhythm matched his own. “Don’t call me Uncle,” he said, laying the boy on his bed.

The next morning, he awoke alone with a note on his pillow. Thank you for everything, Jonah, the note said in a fine cursive. He blamed his jet lag for his transgression. His lack of sleep from being a new parent plus the sleeplessness of the plane—he was always wearing dark circles under his eyes—which had meant that once again his lips and hands had roamed where they shouldn’t. It was not only that. For a few hours they’d basked in the possibility of their America. He would take Karna to his stomping grounds, introduce him to the regulars. One of his old contacts might launch the boy on an illustrious career. He imagined Karna at Carnegie Hall as he and Melanie beamed like proud parents from the front row.

But in the morning, he saw the filth of the room, the old stains on the sheets, the desk chip-toothed, the floors cracked. The thin walls between the rooms did little to dampen the snoring that came in stereo. A used condom lay on the floor. Now, he would have to undo that which he’d promised. In the shared hotel bathroom, he dumped a bucket of cold water on his head. A moment of passion—when he’d been with Karna, it had felt as if he were in the center of that glorious, sweet music—was all it had been.

He headed to Guruji’s to triage the situation. He found Suparna in the living room, cleaning the wicker mats where he’d once sat for lessons. “Oh, beta,” she said. “I am so sorry for the disturbance last night.”

What did she know of their tryst? Even those afternoons in the village stream when ankle had grazed ankle, when he’d dried Karna’s back with his towel, his affections hadn’t been more than avuncular. What he’d known of Karna was through the family life, the evenings spent listening to classics on the turntable. But now Karna was older; his music had been like an enchantment. The dogs at dusk had turned into wolves, and the muscles of Karna’s shoulders had been strong enough to sink his teeth into. They’d proceeded through the ritual slowly, for he believed in so doing he might remember the particulars years later. “I had no right to challenge what will surely be a beautiful union, auntie,” he now said. “It’s not my place.”

“Of course, it’s your place,” Suparna said, looking at him as if he were slow. “You are family to us. Do not wonder about that. Anyway, all this morning Karna has been dancing something happy. Now he’s gone to tell Guruji the good news. Guruji had an errand at the post office, but Karna simply could not wait.”

“The good news—you mean about the wedding?”

“Oh, no, the wedding’s been canceled,” Suparna said. “Who needs a little dowry when your boy’s going to America?” She yelped in delight and kissed his cheeks.

“Oh, America,” he said, as something vile caught in his throat. Of course, Karna would already have told his parents about Jonah’s offer. Now Jonah would have to explain how America was mostly a distant possibility, not only to Karna, but also to Guruji and his wife.

“Why don’t we all go celebrate?” she said.

“Celebrate?” he winced.

She took his head onto her bosom, stroked his thinning hair, and cooed into his ear: Thank you, thank you, beta.

The post office was the grandest of buildings. Long ago, in the lore of the village, the British had imagined that this spot of land was to become their capital in India, only to change their mind once they saw how the post office sunk a centimeter into the mossy swamp the village had always been known for. Still, it remained as the last act of gallantry—a stroke of accidental beauty, with Greek balustrades and verandas of marble, and an old mahogany door that could’ve protected a medieval castle.

Given that the locals didn’t receive enough mail to warrant such a building, they’d turned the institution into a mall of sorts. Vendors from nearby villages set up their wares on foldout tables. One could purchase a samosa, try on a faux-silk scarf, or even arrange a marriage with the local matchmaker. They found Guruji and his son at a table that offered thermal underwear and coats.

“Oh, beta,” Guruji said, giving him a great hug. “All my life I wondered why one would buy such a great big coat. Now I know the reason. It is for America.” He held up an ugly green winter coat that looked to have been salvaged from consignment. “Karna will need such a thing, no?”

“It does get cold in New York,” Jonah said.

That afternoon he returned to the phone booth and metered a call to Melanie. “How is everything at home?” he asked.

“Why are you calling again?” she asked. “Your son puked three times last night, and I had to clean the mess three times. Anyway, he’s better now, if you’re one to care.”

“I am one to care. I am definitely one to care,” he said. He tried to imagine how he could broach the subject of bringing someone home with him. “So, Karna’s doing really well.”

“Yes, and?”

“Well, I thought it would be a good time for him to launch his career in New York.”

“Oh no you don’t,” she said. “No way am I spending another dime on that carnivorous family.”

“They’re all vegetarians,” he said.

“Your son’s smearing poop on the walls,” Melanie said, hanging up the phone.

“Very expensive call. Two hundred seventy rupees,” the attendant said, and Jonah fished out of his wallet the exact amount.

He could’ve guessed what Melanie would say. Now, when he returned to America, it would mark an end to his amphibious nature: he would be known not as flautist, nor even as lover, but merely as dad. He would be expected to earn a suitable income. There was a preschool back home that needed a music teacher, and he had a degree for that, if not the desire.

He walked to the river and dipped his toes into the shallows. All around him the birds that had migrated south for the winter flattered themselves and those that remained yearlong carried their own cacophony. A few feet away an old, rotten jackfruit too heavy for its host fell to the earth with a piece of branch. Here, the trees grew heavy with offspring but hardly shed their leaves, a country of perennial sun; even in the so-called winters, there was a significance of bloom.

Here, the trees grew heavy with offspring but hardly shed their leaves, a country of perennial sun; even in the so-called winters, there was a significance of bloom.

That night, he arranged his recording equipment in Guruji’s living room, and though there was no video involved, Guruji emerged in his wedding finery with his oldest instrument in hand. He played an evening raga that soon left Jonah in tears. Before Samuel and before this other baby to come, they’d had a miscarriage. He did not know why the way Guruji played, which that night was perhaps the finest he’d heard, made him think of that crawl of life in his wife’s body, the work of the pregnancy he’d been jealous to inhabit, that being so easily scratched from the world. That was why they hadn’t arrived at a name for Samuel till days after he was born. As Guruji caressed the low notes, Jonah longed for his child and wife and their small apartment. Somewhere in the song Karna joined in, providing harmony, though that was not their usual way. Even Suparna lent her song to the chorus.

“Do you think it will be well received in America?” Guruji asked when they were finished with the cuts.

“Very much,” Jonah said.

In the early morning, he awoke to find everyone else still asleep, Karna’s head on his father’s lap, a trio of snores interrupting birdsong. He felt miserable but clear in what he needed to do: he should have known he was ruined the moment he’d stepped on the plane to Kolkata. A quick peck on Karna’s lips before he repacked his things; Jonah left behind his granola bars and his recording equipment, which he imagined would sell for half the cost of a ticket to the States. It wouldn’t be enough, but perhaps it would count for something.

Soon after he returned home, they moved upstate. It was so much cheaper, and there would be a yard and deer to glimpse through the trees. While Melanie worked five days a week, Jonah cut his teaching load to take care of Samuel and Gandharva, their second son, whose name meant “music.” When Gandharva was still small enough to be carried in a sling, Jonah took the boys into the woods, and one day his second son matched the call of a passing loon with his own sweet voice, note for perfect note. Jonah thought then: Here is the one, though over the years that memory faded into confusion. Even with tutelage from two maestros, Gandharva exhibited no further musical talent. Instead, he became known for writing limericks that made his teachers blush and in second grade changed his name to Gary. Jonah’s boys loved him with a fierceness he found frightening. Sometimes, he’d pretend to be deeply asleep just to feel their anxious hands on his face, cajoling him back to life.

Jonah never responded to Guruji’s letters, or Suparna’s postcards, or even Karna’s emails, which shifted over the years from bewilderment to an imperious rage. Karna had believed that their night together had meant something more than it had. I put my hopes on you, Karna wrote in his last email. Only to find you lack a heart. Jonah had touched his chest when he read the line to confirm the anatomical truth.

A decade later, he found their last recording in his garage, which by then was filled with strollers, bicycles, and the detritus of children growing older. It was the thick of winter, with snowmen arranged on their property like sentries. Only deer walked the woods, though he yearned to hear the forest music that meant the season was finally set to change. As sleet knocked against the garage door, he played Guruji’s tracks, and his heart began to race. Oh, those old familiar notes: evening’s song. For a moment he struggled to breathe as a terror coursed through his chest—what had he done?

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