BRODIE – A SHORT STORY BY LEELA SOMA

It happened in Chennai in 2015. What was a young lad, Alan Brodie, from Elgin doing in Chennai, India? You might well ask!

My journey began months earlier, with a dream of a drowning or nearly drowning, holding onto someone or something very precious to me. It was strange – I’m a very good swimmer, a ‘wee fish in water’, as my grandma used to say. I had read late into the night, tossing and turning. My course at The Royal Conservatoire had a three-month placement in the final year, and I was so excited about my success in getting a place in an Indian music college. I was going to experience a completely new genre of music, Carnatic music, a classical South Indian ancient music that intrigued me from the first tune I had heard.

A girl, Kavita, from Chennai, had arrived at the Royal Conservatoire earlier in the year. She played a few Keerthanais, which were like an aria on the violin, and I was hooked. These Keerthanais were composed over a few hundred years ago but never heard of before in Glasgow. Truth be told, I had a crush on her and I wanted to be with her. Well, more than a crush; during the three months when she was in Glasgow for her placement, we had become close. I was the young man from faraway Elgin and she was the young woman from even further away Chennai. Two young people in a strange city – we had so much in common. The long-distance relationship had continued and made us stronger.

Maybe that dream was just something that I had imagined, yet that river, the feeling of drowning, made me sit up in fright and wonder.

So here I was, in January, the supposed cooler month, still sweating in the subtropical heat of Chennai. I walked along a tiny lane, Bradis Kesil Road. I asked people around what that meant. I was informed that the name of the lane seemingly made no sense in Tamil and none, of course, in English. Later I found out it was a mutated form of the name Brodie Castle; through the centuries it had changed to this convoluted word. The lane led to the big T.T.K. Road and on to the River Adyar.

This was where my new college, my place of learning for the next three months, was. Thendral or Breeze, as the building was named, was an imposing structure built literally on the edge of the river. The cool breeze gave me some respite from the humid heat that did nothing for my pale Scottish skin. Being with Kavita, learning more about her city and classical music, was a big compensation and very exciting.

Just two weeks in and I wanted her more than ever. Things were strange here. It was such a segregated society in many ways. I felt I could not be with Kavita, not the way we were in Glasgow. Holding hands, kissing in public were taboo in Chennai.

Our secret rendezvous were on the banks of the river, often after classes in the cool of the evening, the tropical skies changing from a blistering white heat to darkness in a few hours. The star-spangled sky was spectacular, the waxing and waning of the moon, so clear in this city. A far cry from the cloudy skies of my hometown.

The first assignment was a good enough excuse to seek her help. Kavita looked ravishing in her pale primrose sari; her brown eyes sparkled in the fading twilight.

‘You look amazing,’ I said.

She blushed.

‘So what was the raga again? Ham… sad… vani,’ I asked, changing the subject quickly. Now I, too, was blushing. She smiled. I felt a strange thump in my heart.

She tossed some dried flowers in the river, the browning jasmine strand that she had removed from her plait. The river gurgled as she picked at the flowers and threw them in, and there were no words from her, just a big sigh.

‘Penny for your thoughts,’ I said leaning towards Kavita.

‘Alan.’

She moved closer, I could feel her breath on my face, I bent down to kiss her gently, on her cheek first, and then I held her chin and kissed her on the lips. There was no need for words. She felt the same. I proposed to her; the starlit night was our witness as she accepted me.

That night, the strange dream again, the one I had had in Glasgow. No, it was not a pleasant feeling. When I woke up in the morning, I just brushed it aside.

The meeting with her parents went more smoothly than I had imagined. The iPad announcement to my mum and dad was received equally well. After all, they had met Kavita when she was in Glasgow and had liked her. We were an item.

Pongal in Chennai was like Christmas at home. Pongal is a harvest festival and people were draped in silks, the children enjoying the time off school and the shops bursting with flashy saris, jewels and gifts. This was an exciting time to be here, witnessing the colours and beauty of a rural festival celebrated in the bustling city. Kolams, the intricate designs in rice flour on the pavements, the smells of jasmine, roses, marigold, all intermingled with the aroma of foodstuffs, vegetables that I had never seen in Scotland. Houses and shops were lit up; the hustle and bustle of this festival was an experience that I’ll never forget. Kavita looked radiant in her red silk sari as we walked into a show at the college that evening.

What a surprise! The play was about the history of the college. I didn’t know that the college was originally Brodie’s Castle, built by a Scotsman, James Brodie, from Elgin, my own city. Chennai often thrust these little gems on me, the enmeshed history of our two countries, in the most unexpected of places.

The play dramatised James Brodie’s life in what was then Madras, now Chennai. Working for the East India Company, he had amassed the wealth that bought him the estate in Elgin. He also built this castle here on the banks of the River Adyar. The castellated turrets were added to remind him of home. The building I was in, Thendral, was the actual castle, renovated and transformed to a college.

A bit of Scotland buried in its walls. I felt elated. I looked around me, feeling a new sense of pride and patriotism. I surreptitiously squeezed Kavita’s hand, hidden under her sari. She gave me a smile that set my whole being aflame. I loved her and she had brought me to a place that had a new meaning for me.

The play, however, revealed the tragic end that befell the Brodie family. The Chiefs of the Brodie Clan had been cursed, “to the effect that no son born within the Castle of Brodie should ever become heir to the property.”

That curse came true. James Brodie and his family were drowned in a boating accident in the River Adyar. I felt a chill descending on me as the curtains fell at the close of the play.

The evening concluded on a happier note, with young dancers performing the classical dance Bharatanatyam to the famous composer’s music that we had learnt. The dance and the music transported me to another world of grace and beauty.

Happiness is transitory? No, not at all, we thought. We were blessed, laughing, giggling our way through the days, as all young lovers do. So why did Kavita get so upset about a street vendor of prophecies who relied on a stupid parrot to pick cards?

‘Let’s have a laugh, come on, those birds could predict our future,’ she said. I protested. But Kavita dragged me along to the little stall in the shade of a banyan tree. A little man with a fierce moustache and a huge red dot and ashes on his forehead did a Namaste, prayed to Lord Shiva’s photo and pocketed our hundred-rupee note.

Beside him in a tiny cage he had two green parrots. He shuffled a huge stack of colourful cards, a bit like tarot cards. After asking for our names and mumbling some mantra, he opened the cage and one of the parrots came out. It eyed us gingerly and strutted along for a few moments. As the man said Kavita’s name, the parrot picked three or four cards from the pack, one after another, and laid them down. The parrot walked back into its cage, leaving the man to deliver his prophecies based on the cards. He hesitated, and then said a string of sentences in a soft voice, in Tamil, to Kavita. She thanked him with a Namaste and we left.

‘What did he say? I thought you were going to ask him to read my cards after?’

‘Forget it, nothing we didn’t know. It was all the usual general stuff like the horoscopes in the newspapers. Not worth it.’ She struggled to smile, her lips creased into a grin that did not quite reach her eyes.

The joy in her voice had left. She hurried us to a restaurant. While we were sitting there she said, ‘I got the death card. What an awful thing to get. I just decided I don’t want you to get anything as unpleasant as that.’

‘You don’t believe in such nonsense, do you?’ I asked as I sipped my ice-cold drink.

‘No. Of course not!’ She smiled and my heart melted.

The next few days we were busy with our coursework. Life was good. Having Kavita by my side made me content.

A week later we went to the Madras Boat Club, thrilled to be invited by Kavita’s friends for a lazy Sunday afternoon trip down the river. That boat ride was special. It was dusk; the breeze from the river was cool. We snuggled close and talked about our future together. Should we settle in Elgin, Glasgow or Chennai?

Then it happened.

The sudden current took us by surprise. Kavita fell overboard. She could not swim. Nothing I did could save her.

‘They fished the body of a young student from the River Adyar,’ read the headline in The Hindu, the local newspaper.

I came back to Glasgow, and then travelled up to Elgin to stay with my parents. There was a huge void in my life. I felt like nothing, empty without her.

Thendral and Brodie Castle came to mind when I sought comfort in Carnatic music.

Tragic history had repeated itself. James Brodie had died in a similar boating accident, after all. A witch’s curse on his family had come true – a fact that was even used by Shakespeare in Macbeth.

Now Bradis Kesil Road made sense. A name crumbled and pieced together in a language that had transformed like no other. That tiny lane was a forlorn reminder of the wretched history of the Scottish Brodie Clan and their curse.

Was it my connection with Elgin that brought this tragedy? I’ll never know.

That dream of drowning, losing something precious, became a reality that I will have to live with all my life.

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