When Mallika was seven months old she fell out of her mother’s sari-cradle by the side of the wet green fields where paddy was being sown. She fell into the little stream that sang its way through the fields all the way to- no one was quite sure where- for they were simple, content folk in that village. Simple, content- and not particularly adventurous (which mind you is no crime).
Mallika fell into the stream, and no one noticed. Not her mother whose strong brown arms worked so hard in the fields growing rice to feed her seven growing children at home. And not the other ladies bent over the wet earth in their bright saris looking like so many nodding poppies from afar.
Mallika fell into the stream, and the coolness of the water surprised her not a little, but she did not cry out. At seven months she was very philosophical, much more philosophical than her six older siblings, who it must be admitted, were sweet enough (when they weren’t quarreling,) but rather dull. Surprised by the sudden coolness of the water, Mallika reached out and caught hold of the strong stalk of a white lotus blooming beside her. The lotus took this as a signal and obediently pulled up its roots and set sail.
And so it happened that Mallika followed the singing stream all the way to– no one is still quite sure where- in a white lotus on a sparkling spring morning while the women planted paddy in bright saris looking like so many gay poppies from afar. [For those of you who are inclined to worry about How Things Will Turn Out – rest assured they turn out well. Nobody’s heart breaks in this story. And everyone finds their happy ending. And beginning.]
On the banks of the stream a few hours away there lived an unhappy flute-player. He was unhappy for no particular reason, it was just a habit he had fallen into as a boy and had somehow never managed to find the energy required to break it. But he played the flute like a dream come true and the music he played chased unhappiness out of every listening heart but his own. So beautiful was the sound that even the stream would break journey to listen while he played on her banks.
It so happened as she passed by his home bearing the white lotus and the child, the flute player raised his flute to his lips and released a magical combination of notes. The stream instantly slowed her soft steps and as the music continued to enchant the air and all around she came to a complete stop. The bewitching notes set free by the flute-maker wandered joyfully into the heart of the child, who had fallen asleep. And now she woke to their sound and a special sort of peace. As she blinked away the dreams crowding in her eyes, the flute-maker came into focus, and the thought came to her then that she had never heard anyone play quite as wonderfully nor had she seen anyone look quite as unhappy as this unknown flute-player playing his flute with such skilled fingers and such sad face on the banks of the still and listening stream.
When he finally lifted his lips from his flute the stream had so lost herself in the music that she had forgotten where it was she was on her way to, and as she sat still trying to recollect her destination, Mallika took the opportunity to speak to the unhappy flute-maker.
“Your music,” she said, “Is as beautiful as the sky is high. Now I am only seven months old and do not have much experience in these things but it seems to me that I have nowhere ever heard music quite as lovely, and it makes me wonder where on earth you learned to play so.”
“I do not know,” said the flute-maker sadly. “That is fair enough,” said Mallika, wrinkling her brow ever so slightly, “There are many things I do not know, and I think maybe that is what makes each day so interesting. But tell me, what are you thinking of when you play your flute?” There was a pause and this time it was the flute-maker’s brow that creased. And then:
“When I play my flute,” said the flute-maker softly, “I am not thinking.”
And there was another brief interval of silence. “Maybe,” said Mallika, “and remember I am only seven months old so I could be wrong, but maybe, the music you play is inside of you. And that is why you do not know where you learnt it. You do not know because it is not something you learned like a lesson in a schoolbook, it is something inside you that finds its way into your flute and out into the world.” “Maybe,” said the flute-maker looking sad but interested. “And,” continued Mallika, “Because the music you play is so beautiful, enchanted, so joyous and rare, there must be something inside of you which is all of those things.” For a split second the flute-maker forgot to look sad and looked startled instead. “Do you really think so?” he asked before quickly putting on his sad face again. “Yes,” said Mallika, “That is what I think. But what do you think?” “I think- said the flute-player, and hesitated slightly before continuing, “I think that even though you are only seven months old you may be right.”
“Not everyone,” said Mallika seriously, “has found a way of playing what is inside of them as beautifully as you have, you do know that do you not?” “Ye-es,” said the flute-player and the sadness was beginning to slip away from his face the way night makes room for dawn. “You have a wonderful gift,” said Mallika. “I like gifts,” said the flute-maker and he almost smiled, “If I had known I had a gift then I would not have been so unhappy all these years,” and for a moment his face grew sad and shadowed again just thinking of all the unhappy days he had spent on the banks of this stream not knowing he had a wonderful gift. “Yes,” said Mallika, “That is unfortunate but it does not matter. Now you do know, and that is what matters– see?” Upon hearing that last word uttered, the stream who had forgotten where she had been headed remembered in a joyous rush her destination.
As she made ready to start her journey again, the flute-maker asked one last question, “Would you mind telling me,” he asked shyly, “what gifts are for?” “Why that’s easy,” said Mallika laughing, “Gifts are for giving,” “In that case,” said the flute-maker, “I think I shall wander the world and travel far and wide, to give my gift to as many people as I can.” “Yes,” said Mallika, “That sounds like a good plan,” But do not forget to come home again once in awhile. Because the stream will miss you and so will the birds in the trees and the dragonflies in the reeds. So do not forget to come back because it is here you found your gift and coming here will remind you of what it is for if you are ever in danger of forgetting.” “I will not forget,” said the flute-maker, and he smiled for the first time in as far back as he could remember, a smile like sunburst on mountain peak.
He wanted to say something more to the little girl in the white lotus; he wanted to tell her that she too had a wonderful gift, a gift that– but the white lotus was already bobbing away. So he lifted his hand in farewell, and she waved back smiling widely. And he knew then that it didn’t matter whether he told her about her gift or not. He stood there watching the little white lotus until it was a mere speck in the distance and when the mere speck had disappeared, he picked up his flute and began to play as he walked, until he too was a mere speck in the distance that looked like this–