Murli wore his finest dhotar and jhabba that morning, still mouthing dialogues from popular Kirloskar Naatak Mandali productions. He had practised all the songs from Sangeet Saubhadra and Ram Rajya Viyog as well as some from the musicals of Deval and Kolhatkar. He whistled nervously, from excitement rather than self-doubt and calming down once his mother brought out the aarti reserved for auspicious occasions and new beginnings.

As she turned the ornate silver plate with its flickering oil lamp clockwise in the air and around his face in blessing, she said, ‘You’re sure to get a part. Your father’s spirit is watching over you.’ Thus Murli set out, joining Keshavrao who had been patiently waiting for him downstairs.

They walked in silence but for the tunes that each hummed softly under his breath. Murli was hopeful and confident that his worries would soon be over. Always one to think ahead, his mind was already racing with possibilities. It conjured images of meeting with the great playwright Deval, of impressing him with his knowledge and passion for theatre. Not knowing what to expect, Murli had even revised his Shakespeare and Moliere.

Fame, adulation, money (and he knew that there was plenty of each) were secondary; he would, by god, be the finest actor that there ever was.

It had been a while since he had last appeared on the stage in Khed, and even then it had been a bit part in some obscure play for he had begun preparations for his matric exams well before the others.

Unmindful, Murli dreamed grand dreams of being the male counterpart to the young Bal Gandharva, rising in time, even higher in stature. He would be the great Dushyant, the noble king Harishchandra, the ill-fated Zunjarrao and the villain Manajirao in Paranjape’s adaptation of Macbeth by the same name.

But Murli’s ambition to play the hero extended to the grand arena of life. His determined face softened at the thought of his love – his leading lady in real life. Not once doubting her reciprocal affections – she had, after all, exchanged coy stolen glances with him – he boldly envisaged their impending union as only a play away.

‘Have you read up on Romeo and Juliet? And the latest issue of Natyakala magazine?’ Keshavrao said, startling him out of his reverie.

When he nodded in the affirmative, he was quizzed about the techniques of Khadilkar, the songs of Sangeet Saubhadra, of Sant Damaji, of the dramatic delivery of the Maharashtra Mandali actors, the political message underlying the sensational new play Keechaka Vadha and about his own innovations and value additions. He demonstrated his eyebrow raise, gestures, various rasas, expressions of surprise and grief. He drew these from his observation of actors such as Deval and Kolhatkar themselves, from Bhaskarrao Bakhale, Moroba Wagholikar, Balkoba Natekar, Shankarrao Mujumdar, Ganpatrao Bhagwat and Keshav Bhosale. He practised the few ragas he had learned, startling fellow passersby and eliciting the sympathy of a man gone mad. In short, he was beginning to resemble Keshavrao.

And it was in this unfortunate avatar that he was intercepted in the goldsmiths’ gully by none other than the father of the object of his affection who was accompanying him.

‘Aren’t you the boy staying with Dadasaheb Pednekar?’ he asked Murli, and Laxmi smiled at him before she was distracted by a friend who called out to her from across the street.

‘Yes,’ he said shyly, although he was never one for shyness.

‘Where are he and Kakubai? Are they away? The house is padlocked. We’ve only just returned from Nasik ourselves but I thought I saw movement in the house the other day as we got in. The door has the mark of the plague . . .’ he trailed off even as Murli’s thoughts accelerated and heart pounded madly. He considered this some sort of divine intervention – at last, at long last, a sign.

Keshavrao engaged in conversation, updating the man about the many tragedies of Girgaum during the plague, eliciting sighs and much clicking of the tongue at the news of Gajanan’s death.

Even as Murli drew stares of sympathy from her father, he could not take his eyes off Laxmi who now stood chattering with her friend as the latter’s escort, an impatient younger brother, tried to hurry his sister so he could get home and play sagar gotya.

‘So have you taken your father’s place in the Pednekar business, my boy?’ Laxmi’s father asked Murli kindly. But Murli felt as if in a dream. His movements were slow, power of speech incapacitated and look, faraway. Keshavrao, in order to make haste for they were late for their appointment, spoke on behalf of the boy by divulging his theatrical ambitions.

This helped cut short the conversation for Kothare knew little about theatre, the family being too poor to be able to indulge in the arts. But then Kothare brought up the topic of the matric results and although Murli’s chest puffed up when Keshavrao mentioned his stellar performance, it deflated soon enough when it emerged that Laxmi had fared even better. Now, she rose even higher in his esteem.

It was only when Keshavrao excused himself and began to lead Murli by the shoulder that Kothare asked the boy for a favour.

‘Son, I borrowed some money from Dadasaheb before we left the city and would like to return it to him. Let me hand you the money so that you can give it to him when you visit him next. And one last thing ...’ He paused awkwardly before fishing out a red envelope from his bag. ‘I know that you are all in mourning this year but do give this to Dadasaheb, along with my regards. Tell him that I am forever indebted to him. But for his large heart, I could never have arranged my Laxmi’s marriage. This is her lagna patrika, her wedding invitation.’ 

Murli maintained his composure. Like the sheikh at the centre of a Sama ceremony, he stood still, his thoughts turning into a blur of whirling dervishes and the sounds of the street, a fitting chorus. The euphoria that had filled him earlier that day, after a month of emotional upheaval, was replaced by that familiar feeling again. After having held up so commendably, his world finally collapsed into a heap of incomprehensible fragments, like musical notes crashing to their death from a magnificent crescendo. His heightened awareness of his beloved standing so close to him, the simple pleasure that her laughter filled him with, were all gone in an instant. It dissolved into the pain of loss, of loss that was becoming all too familiar.

Murli did not know when he bid goodbye to Kothare and Laxmi, or when Keshavrao led him away. He would never be able to retrace his steps to the Kirloskar Naatak Mandali for his numbed mind did not register the twists and turns of the lanes that he was guided through.

He did not even see the prodigy Bal Gandharva walk past them as he finished with his rehearsal or the musicians and actors partake of their meal together in the open courtyard.

He did not know if he met Deval or Kolhatkar or indeed anyone at all.

He could not recall if he sang from Sangeet Saubhadra or if he delivered dialogues from Hamlet.

He wasn’t sure if he had, indeed, auditioned at all or if it had all been just a surreal dream.

Later, Murli could recall only a daze akin to an alcoholic stupor except that his hazy recollection of the day was weighed down by sadness rather than uplifted with the high associated with alcohol. He could vaguely remember the afternoon in vignettes, like the synopsis of a play – a series of images and scenes.

Keshavrao asked if he was feeling all right, being somewhat concerned that he looked ill. Someone saying that Deval was in Pune while someone else asking him to demonstrate his Hindustani and Carnatic music skills, asking if he could sing the khayal and thumri like Bal Gandharva, or the dadra and ghazal. Could he play the role of Radha like Vishnu Pagnis? Or, if he, like Gandharva, had trained under Bhaskarrao Bakhle?

Of stuttering like a criminal before a judge, like a lover proposing to the object of his affection. Of himself, such a loquacious speaker and reader, acting like an illiterate, being unable to decipher the dialogues on the sheet of paper handed to him. Of wanting to scream – ‘I am Matric Pass, you ignorant fools! I know as much about theatre as you do!’

His mind was blank after these memories and then, all he could remember was coming home to his mother, of Keshavrao shaking his head as if to tell her that the meeting had been a disappointment and a disaster.

Excerpted with permission from Wanderers, All, Janhavi Acharekar, HarperCollins India.