Radha had a strange aversion towards music. She had had it for as long as she could remember. She believed that it controlled her and made her enjoy herself against her will. It made her heart thump to its rhythm, and she didn’t like the sense of a loss of control. Eventually, she started disliking anybody who even hummed a tune. Could this be the result of what she considered a stranglehold that music had on her father? Maybe.
When he was in the middle of composing a tune for one of his film projects, Radha and her mother wouldn’t get to see him for months. And even when he came home, his eyes had a faraway look. Sometimes she would have to repeat herself several times before he responded. In some corner of her mind, perhaps she saw music as the enemy that took her father away from her.
Funnily, the music room in school was the place she would go when she was angry. She would wait until the music periods for the day were over, and the cover drawn on the keyboard. Then the place was perfect for her to fume and be alone with her thoughts.
One day, the eighth grade was all abuzz when a new girl, Isha, arrived in class. The teacher seated her next to Radha, and they got talking. Fantasy novels and cricket were just two of the many interests they found they had in common. Most importantly, Radha didn’t see any signs that Isha liked music. They soon became best friends. But one day, Radha was crushed when Isha volunteered for the school choir. Radha felt deeply betrayed and told Isha that they weren’t friends anymore. Isha didn’t understand what she had done wrong. She finally told Radha she would be there if Radha needed anything.
Radha replied abruptly that she wouldn’t need anything from her, and stormed away.
The next week, the music teacher announced auditions for the choir. All students had to try out. Radha tried to sing as badly as possible. But when she got the results, she was devastated. She had been selected! She started crying and ran to her sanctuary, the music room. Isha ran after her. Unable to do much else, Radha told Isha what was wrong. Isha’s jaw dropped. “You are wrong, Rads,” she said. “Music doesn’t control anybody.”
Isha suddenly looked alarmed and whipped her head around. Following her glance, Radha saw that they were being enveloped by a dense whiteness, like an opaque cloud. All at once, she heard a shriek, and saw a gaping hole where Isha had stood a moment earlier. Then Radha felt the ground open beneath her and let out a scream as she fell. She landed sprawled, on what appeared to be a cavern floor. She looked around for Isha, but couldn’t find her. Then there she was! Isha was sinking in something like quicksand. She was panicking, flailing to grab onto something.
Standing at the edge of the quicksand, Radha held out her hand. “Grab my hand, Isha,” she cried urgently. Isha stretched desperately, but Radha couldn’t reach it.
“That won’t work,” came a voice from behind them. Radha whirled around to see a hooded figure. She couldn’t see a face, but waves of malevolence radiated towards her.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Radha asked.
“Who we are is not important. What we want – that is easy,” the voice, deep and somehow non-human said. “We want to destroy music forever in the world. Same as you.” Radha felt sweat rolling down her face.
“You cannot help your friend,” the hooded figure went on. “The sand is under my control. My dear, you hate music. Join us. Like-minded spirits like you, human and demi-human from the netherworld, are joining us all over the world to destroy the control that music has on the mind. Imagine the heights the human race could reach but for distractions like tunes and ragas.”
Radha could still hear the sliding of the sand behind her. She turned around to see Isha’s face frozen in horror as she struggled to keep her head above the sand. She could feel her own face twisted into the same expression.
“And art and cinema,” the horrifying, robotic voice continued. “But first, music. Together, we can destroy all the music in the world. I will even spare your friend if you promise to join us.”
“No!” Isha cried. “Radha! Music! Music is its weak..” she was abruptly stopped when her mouth sank beneath the sand. But Radha knew what she was going to say. Music would have to be their weapon. But music was also Radha’s enemy. She gathered her strength and straightened.
“I will just have to overcome this,” she thought, and started searching for the right song. Only one song hit her – one she had learnt in nursery school, before the aversion had taken hold of her. But it only had ten verses. She would have to modify it. She started singing.
“100 green bottles, standing on the wall. 100 green bottles, standing on the wall. If one green bottle should accidentally fall, there’d be 99 green bottles, standing on the wall.”
“No!” the figure cried, clutching the sides of its head. “Stop!”
Radha desperately went on. Fear and the nagging rustle of the sand behind her gave an edge to her singing. Her rusty voice slowly seemed to warm up and grow louder. She could see the creature shaking its head violently as if in pain. Gradually, she felt the years of resentment towards music fall away, and she felt complete freedom as she sang the simple song with gusto.
Suddenly, the hooded figure began dissolving, whirling, and finally turning to fine dust. Isha stopped sinking as the creature could no longer control the sand.
“There are 90 more verses?” Isha cried as she grabbed the hand that Radha had stretched out, and climbed out of the sand. But Radha did not stop singing. She realised that she was actually enjoying herself.
Isha said, “Radha, look, we’re back in the music room.” It was only then that Radha stopped. Isha looked at Radha’s expression and smiled. “Liking the music?” she asked.
Radha shrugged. “It’s not that bad.” Isha suddenly pulled her into a tight hug.
“You just saved my life,” she said. Then she pulled back, a teasing smile on her features. “Though ‘Ten Green Bottles’ wasn’t what I was expecting.”
Radha blushed. “It was the first thing that came to mind.” Isha laughed and hooked her arm through Radha’s. “Staying for music practice?” she asked.
“Of course,” Radha replied. Both of them laughed and walked through the school grounds, happy to be back.
In the end, Radha decided that music was her best friend.