“The Accompanist” by Anita Desai

By Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Featured Art: Female performer with tanpura by Unknown

For a short story to linger in the mind as long and as tenaciously as “The Accompanist” has in mine, it must hit a sensitive nerve. So in revisiting the story, which I first came upon years ago in Anita Desai’s early collection, Games at Twilight, I looked for what had struck me so keenly in this first-person account of an Indian musician from a poor background who dedicates his life to the most humble of accompanying instruments, the tanpura.

The narrator’s father makes musical instruments and music is “the chief household deity.” Soon after Bhaiyya’s lessons begin at the age of four, his talent is obvious: “My father could see it clearly—I was a musician . . ., a performer of music, that is what he saw. He taught me all the ragas, the raginis, and tested my knowledge with rapid, persistent questioning in his unmusical, grating voice.” The father is stern and rough, never offering praise or encouragement, only calling his son a “stupid, backward boy.”

His life—divided between the rigorous lessons and the lures of the world outside—changes at the age of fifteen, when he delivers a tanpura to the great Ustad, a renowned sitar player. Bhaiyya is awestruck by the man’s regal demeanor and superhuman gift: “His fingers were the fingers of a god, absolutely in control of his instrument and I knew nothing but perfection could come of such a relationship between a musician and his instrument.” Then and there, the boy discovers his calling. He becomes the Ustad’s accompanist, living in a mist of hero worship, utter devotion and barely rewarded service.

The role of the tanpura player may be self-effacing, but to Bhaiyya, it’s crucial. He sits in back, hardly noticed by the audience: “Throughout the playing of the raga I run my fingers over the three strings of my tanpura, again and again, merely producing a kind of drone to fill up any interval in sound, to form a kind of road, or track, for my Ustad to keep to so he may not stray from the basic notes of the raga by which I hold him.”

Bhaiyya declares himself contented with his fate, a life dedicated to art, to serving a great artist. With an irony of which he is quite unaware, he feels he’s engaged in tacit communion with “his true friend. He may never smile and nod in approval of me. But he cannot do without me. That is all the reward I need to keep me with him like a shadow.” To the reader, meanwhile, it appears that the Ustad, rather than valuing this devotion, exploits it.

The climax of the story—its thwarted epiphany—comes when some old friends attend a performance and afterwards mock Bhaiyya for his negligible role, urging him to strike out on his own as a sitar player. “Your father was so proud of you. . . . He used to tell us what a great musician you would be one day. What are you doing, sitting at the back of the stage and playing the tanpura? . . . It is nothing. Anyone could play it. Just three notes, over and over again.” At last Bhaiyya’s suppressed doubts rise agonizingly to the surface: “Were they right? Was this true? Had I wasted my life?” But he quickly stifles his doubts and returns to what he considers the destiny for which he has been chosen.

“Had I wasted my life?” It was Bhaiyya’s words that had resonated so deeply for me. For anyone engaged in the arts, indeed, for anyone trying to live the examined life, there is nothing sadder than wasted potential. Desai handles the question with provocative ambiguity, never quite venturing an answer. Instead, she offers a pungent study of humility—its virtues and its dangers. Self-abnegation may bring satisfaction, as the tanpura player claims; it may equally be a trap, a way to avoid shaping one’s own life.

It’s easy, and not inaccurate, to think, What a waste! To view the narrator as painfully self-deluded, in thrall to a more powerful personality. Many writers have explored the perils of hero worship in the arena of politics; Desai examines its perils in art. Yet we shouldn’t dismiss Bhaiyya’s loyalty so readily. The beauty of the story rests in its ambivalence. True, the young man has renounced his own potential, even sacrificed his life. But his dedication is so thorough and genuine, his voice so convincing as to suggest that serving art in his lowly capacity may in fact be the worthy calling he believes it to be.

Without ever making commonplace generalizations about East and West, “The Accompanist” sets before us the contrasting paths of acceptance and ambition, self-abnegation and individualism, and keeps them in perfect, unresolved balance.

“The Accompanist” appears in the collection Games at Twilight, Harper & Row, London: 1978.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz‘s most recent book is Truthtelling, her fourth collection of stories. Three of her eight novels include Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn (nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award), and Rough Strife (nominated for a National Book Award and PEN/Hemingway First Novel Award). She is also the author of essay and poetry collections. She has received grants from the NEA, the Guggenheim Foundation and the NY State Foundation for the Arts, and teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars.

Originally published in NOR 6

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