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Discovering Beauty

When I joined a new school, the two smartest boys in my class had similar names, Amar and Amit. Amit was tall, Amar was relatively short.

MANISH NANDY | NEW DELHI |

When I joined a new school, the two smartest boys in my class had similar names, Amar and Amit. Amit was tall, Amar was relatively short.

Amar was cerebral; he later became a knowledgeable geologist. Amit was outgoing; an engineer, he became an executive and later an entrepreneur. We became good friends. Amar and I acted in the school play. Amit and I played cricket. It is principally to their credit that, despite my travels, we remained friends over fifty years.

Coincidentally, three years ago I met them both, though separately. I was visiting India and I needed a sloka from the eighth-century playwright Bhababhuti, a poet in the royal court of Kanauj. Sure enough, Amar found it, wrote the sloka in his neat lettering and offered it to me. Later that year, Amit came to Washington as an advisor to the US patent office and came to my home for dinner. Something happened after dinner that is worth recalling. Amit was looking through my record collection and came up with a DVD and exclaimed,

“This is my favorite. Let’s play it.” I looked at the record. It was a gift from a musician friend whose taste in Rachmaninoff I did not share. The record had remained in my hoard unheard and neglected for a long time. Gingerly I picked up the record and put it on the machine, preparing mentally for a period of indifferent listening. I wasn’t reluctant but I wasn’t expectant either.

Then I looked at Amit’s face. It was glistening with excitement. Clearly the music meant a lot to him. He was eagerly waiting for the music to start. As I looked at his face, my own attitude relaxed to a mood of anticipation. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number Two in C minor, opus 18, started playing. It has a quiet start and I listened intently.

The concerto began with tolls of a bell on the piano while the violins, violas and clarinets picked up the theme, a Russian sounding melody. Then the piano took the lead, while wind instruments accompanied lightly. The orchestra took over afterward with horns, trombones, timpani, drums and cymbals.

After a gentle second movement in Adagio, the last movement in Allegro began with the piano restating the theme, followed by an energetic section where various instruments took turns playing the motif. It ended triumphantly. I was stunned. How could I have missed all this when I heard it by myself? But missed it I did. And, now, rediscovered it I had. I looked at Amit’s shining face, as if he had been rejuvenated by the music, and told him how touched I had been. I was telling him the truth: the music had moved and uplifted me.

By a mysterious process, Amit’s love for a piece of music had been transmitted to me. I had become a Rachmaninoff admirer. On second thought, maybe the process was not so mysterious after all. I suddenly remembered another instance when I had made a remarkable discovery through a friend’s love for literature.

On a lazy afternoon, a colleague had whimsically suggested that we read some modern poetry. His idea was that I should read a couple of poems from my favorite poet, and he would then follow by reading some poems from his favorite poet.

After we had made our choices from his large library, we found we both had picked the same poet by sheer coincidence. But my heart sank when I noticed he had chosen the poet’s early poems which I thought were hopelessly maudlin. I chose and read from the poet’s later work that I thought was mature and meaningful.

Yet, to my surprise, when he read his chosen poems with great enthusiasm, I began to see the sparkling romanticism of the early poems. I had to confess I liked them, in fact immensely. Equally surprisingly, he told me that he had always thought the later poems – the ones I read – to be wooden and pedantic, but when I read them he had loved them.

We had both discovered a new aspect of beauty through a friend’s adoring eyes. It is perhaps no surprise that the world goes gaga over a charmer like Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor.

Once a Hollywood producer discovers gem like that, a director admires her and displays her in his film lovingly, we too begin to see her beauty and breathlessly wait to see more of her.

The whole world looks at her with adoring eyes and falls in love with her. Probably loving beauty is more infectious than the Ebola or Corona virus.

(The writer is a US-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])