The fog is clearing, perhaps. There appears to be a growing sense of clarity, of things coming together. At least that’s the way it feels on most days. I feel like a more resolved version of myself. The struggling being within, who was afraid of the world, shrank from the world, is gone. Some days this feeling is pronounced.

These are the days when I feel I could whistle as I walk, if I only knew how to whistle. I look around taking in all assorted sights and sounds, pleasured by everything I see, relishing each sensation. I call it elation, euphoria.

Euphoria, however, isn’t normal. It’s an aberration a disorder of sorts. Medical dictionaries define it as a sense of elation that is disproportionate to its cause. It’s ephemeral, it rarely lasts, or perhaps it simply wilts under extreme scrutiny; an unexamined life having been condemned, rather boldly, as not worth living. So I take each nuance and tear it apart, split each hair, peel away each layer until I convince myself it’s all a mirage.

Mirages terrify, the familiar grayness of everyday existence is so much more comforting and easier to accept. The gray room is safe, no disappointments here, no dashed expectations, the sleep-wake-eat cycle keeps things moving like clockwork for four score or more years. Why would we ever leave? And yet we leave, comfort and contentment weren’t meant to travel hand in hand. Contentment lies elsewhere, out in the distance where the images shimmer and dissolve in the burning sun.


Edgar, the piano tuner specializing in Erards, in Daniel Mason’s novel – The Piano Tuner – could have stayed in England doing what he did best: tuning pianos with consummate skill and loving his devoted wife Katherine as best he could. But the jungles of Burma beckoned irresistibly. He believed what he was told about Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll: that the good doctor’s unconventional methods were indispensable to British interests in the Shan states of Eastern Burma. The doctor, much to the chagrin of British military, had successfully petitioned for an Erard piano which was shipped to the jungles of Burma at considerable expense and hardship. Its difficult travel under extreme humidity had, however, rendered the piano unplayable. The doctor was now requesting the services of a skilled tuner of Erard pianos. That’s where Edgar came in. He was briefed about Dr Carroll. He was convinced that the doctor intended to use music to peaceably unite the warring factions fighting for autonomy from the British, or fighting each other. His initial skepticism was superficial, his mind was made up before he knew it was. His wife Katherine also believed that this was something Edgar needed to do, that it was a personal quest without which he would remain unfulfilled. So he sets off for the long journey to Burma enthralled by the sights and especially the sounds along the way.

There are ill-portents along the way. He meets a poet on the train who wants to tell him about the Leip-Bya and a passenger on the boat who tells him how he followed a mirage, an elusive woman behind a veil, into the desert, only to learn that the woman had the face of a deer and sang a song that only he could hear, then the mirage ended and he was left drained, helpless and deaf, unable to hear anything else, ever.

He finally reaches the doctor after many delays, attacks, injuries and illness. He spends many hours in the great man’s company, absorbing his views, marveling at his discourses on art, literature, poetry and even botany. He meets and is entranced by Khin Myo, a Burmese woman who accompanies him and looks after him during most of his stay there. He seeks her company, he is attracted to her, even as he writes letters to the one love of his life, his sweet Katherine.

He works on tuning the piano, reveling in the sounds, the notes, in getting them just right. He spends his days in Khin Myo’s sensuous company, never exceeding propriety. Although he comes close one night when Khin Myo expresses a desire to learn how to play the piano. He asks her to put her hands on his as his fingers fly across the keyboard. Strands of her hair brush his face, a moment full of possibilities, when it ends just as soon as it has started.

He finally becomes a part of the doctor’s larger plan. He is asked to play for the Shan Saubwas. His protests that he is simply a tuner and not a pianist fall on deaf ears. The doctor insists and he plays.

All this is a preamble to my favorite part of Mason’s book. The part that describes Edgar’s choice of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier when he’s asked to play, and the thoughts that went into his selection of the piece.


I have talked about the elation I’ve felt on certain days. I’ve tried to delve deeper into the cause, as is my nature. There are scattered events that seem to shine, like characteristic notes in a raag, that define it and set the tone for a larger context. And my raag analogy here, is itself a part of this larger context, as I try to understand, to feed my pattern-seeking brain, bits of information to piece together the rudiments of musical understanding. I have the invaluable guidance of a friend during this process, where each time I think about what he says, a key seems to fit a lock within, opening doors to a beautiful world, thrilling every sense. This tends to happen in every field of interest; if I am wondering about poetry, friends come and light the path with gems about assonance, consonance, enjambment, caesura and thoughts on structure and rhythm, conversations lead to book recommendations that are almost always a soul-satisfying experience.

One talks about floodgates opening up, often in the sense of catharsis, of things rushing out, I wonder if there is a similar metaphor for the richness of experience rushing in, irrigating every single parched corner of the soul. There’s beauty around me that I never noticed before.

In the book, Edgar put his ear to some stones in the river and heard notes he had never heard before. He arrived at Burma, his very own land of lotus-eaters. He wanted to return home to Katherine but accepted every opportunity to stay in on in this languid land of beauty, of music, of haunting sensuality. His senses were filled, the search of which he hadn’t been aware, his eternal quest, was over.

A synergy of sorts happens when a random discussion leads to a book recommendation and a character within the book is eerily similar to a dear friend. Things this friend has been saying, the concerns he has been expressing are identical to those of the protagonist in the book. It makes me wonder what it all means, what is this larger sense and why does it feel as if I am being drawn, inexorably, toward a definite conclusion, a final resolution, the nature of which remains hidden but palpable.


His words imply he has hit some turbulence in life, several things have gone awry. I suggest his music will see him through, restore order for awhile where discord and disorder seem to have taken hold. He agrees but only partially. His passion for music, how he senses and feels each note, each arrangement is enviable and a joy to watch and hear. He says he is luckier than most to have his music but even so there are moments of discontent when a certain arrangement of notes, occurs to him in sleep, he wakes up wanting to capture it, immortalize it, but is limited by an adequate means of transcribing his epiphany. Even now I am not certain I adequately grasp the sense of what he is trying to convey; intuitively I do. I sense the frustration. We have conversations about the order and symmetry, the mathematical nature of music. I question him in wonderment about how it becomes possible to hear each note in isolation. I understand Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa but my ears can never recognize the Re or the Ma in isolation. He mentions “equally spaced notes”, the mathematical beauty of it, where I can try making each individual note the base, one at a time and eventually, with practice, get to hear each one in isolation. I am ecstatic as I convince myself I understood what he was saying. These discussions are enlightening to a musical illiterate like me, more knowledge rushing in with every word, greater joy. A joy that radiates through other aspects of life, rendering many other concerns meaningless and petty.


And that takes us to Edgar’s selection of the Well-Tempered Clavier for playing to the Shan Saubwas, in his firm belief that he is campaigning for peace, order and well-being. I will let you read this excerpt from Daniel Mason’s book, for yourself:

He began with Bach’s prelude and fugue in C sharp minor, the fourth piece of Bach’s collections of preludes and fugues known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, or as simply The Forty-Eight after the number of prelude variations, which are arranged into two books, each of twenty four chapters. It was a tuner’s piece, an exploration of the possibilities of sound, and a series that Edgar knew from testing the tuning of professional pianos. He had always called it a testament to the art of tuning. Before the development of equal temperament, the even spacing of notes, it was impossible to play the entire piece on the same instrument. But with equally spaced notes, the possibilities suddenly seemed endless.

He played through the prelude, the sound rose and fell, and he felt himself sway as he played. There is much I could tell the doctor, he thought, about why I have chosen it. That it is a piece bound by strict rules of counterpoint, as all fugues are, the song is but an elaboration of one simple melody, the remainder of the piece destined to follow the rules established in the first few lines. To me this means beauty is found in order, in rules – he may make what he wishes from this in terms of law and treaty signing. I could tell him that it is a piece without a commanding melody, that in England many people dismiss it as too mathematical, as lacking a tune that can be held or hummed. Perhaps he knows this already…Something mathematical, for this reason, is universal, all can appreciate complexity, the trance found in patterns of sound.

There are other things he could say, of why he began with the fourth prelude and not the first, for the fourth is a song of ambiguity and the first a song of accomplishment, and it is best to begin courtships with modesty. Or that he chose it simply because he often felt deeply moved when he heard it. There is emotion in the notes, if it is less accessible than other pieces, perhaps this is why it is so much stronger.

The piece began low, in the bass strings, and as it increased in complexity, soprano voices entered, and Edgar felt his whole body move toward the right and remain there, a journey across the keyboard, I am like the puppets moving on their stage in Mandalay. More confident now, he played and the song slowed, and when at last he finished he had almost forgotten that others were watching.
….And so he began again, now D major, now D minor, and forward through each scale, moving up, each tune a variation on its beginnings, structure giving rise to possibilities. He played into the remoter scales, as his old master had called them, and Edgar thought how fitting a name this was for a piece played into the night of the jungle.

I marvel at the coincidences once again. The protagonist in this novel is exactly like my friend in how he thinks, how he relates to sound. I am quite baffled. These discoveries add to the feeling of elation.


In the book things now take a turn for the worse. Doctor Carroll and Khin Myo make plans to leave the Mae Lwin valley encampment. Dr Carroll asks Edgar to make preparations to leave. Edgar is puzzled, disoriented. He sets off on a raft with the Erard and three boyish companions. He continues to enjoy the sounds of the hammers hitting the strings within the piano, discovering sounds he has never before heard, but conditions start rapidly deteriorating. He is told the legend of Leip-Bya again. He remembers it being mentioned by a train carriage poet earlier in his travels. He is told that the soul of every man lives within a butterfly – the Leip-Bya. It wanders while the man sleeps, visiting strange lands, wandering exploring. He is told that this is the reason a sleeping man isn’t disturbed mid sleep, his sleep needs to last as long as it takes for the Leip-Bya to return and re-enter the body. If it doesn’t death follows. Edgar also remembers the story he was told by the deaf sailor and the things his master said to him. His companions are then shot and Edgar is arrested. He is accused of being a spy. He is debriefed in a manner that leaves no doubt that Doctor Carroll was a traitor to Her Majesty’s interests. Edgar is accused of similar treason for playing for a band of traitors.

The axis of his whole world shifts, his beliefs are shaken, he sees a mirage…


And so I am afraid of this sense of elation, this euphoric feeling that assails each sense, allows me to walk on air enjoying each contact, each sensation, a sensory overload of well-being. Is it a mirage as well? The fear that it is, is strong enough, convincing enough, that there is no option but to let it wilt under the glare of extreme scrutiny. I can’t take it for granted. It is ephemeral, it could well be a mirage.

1 Comment

  1. This is like finely woven tapestry Pragya! A magnificent piece of personal introspection counterpointed with Daniel Mason's book – it's almost like one of those examples of self-referential systems: the counterpoint of Well-Tempered Clavier contained within the larger one of your piece, the one mirroring the other. Very beautiful writing!

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