The scheduled meeting on 23rd February 2018 didn't take place because our convenor was ill in hospital. She was still very sick for the meeting after that as well, so we had an informal gathering in the house of one of the attendees where we presented and discussed our homework from the 9th February. During the chat that followed, the subject turned to music and after we'd discussed it for a while, I suggested that we assign ourselves "music" as our next homework task. Everybody thought that was a good idea, so that's what we did.
The idea behind the story that follows came from several sources -- my sister in law is the second flautist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A year or so ago, her orchestra did a world tour. I don't think they played in India (where my story is set) but they certainly played in China. I used those two ideas, though I changed the sex of my protagonist so that my sister in law would not recognise herself (Hi Wendy!!) and I changed the country to India because I needed an Indian musical instrument to make the story work properly. I also changed the orchestra from an Australian one to a New Zealand one, for reasons that are explained in the text...
The last leg of the orchestra's world tour took them across the Indian sub-continent where they played to packed houses. Peter, the second flautist, was particularly excited by this part of the tour. He'd never been to India before and he found the exotic sights, sounds and smells of the country indescribably thrilling. But most of all, he relished the chance to see and hear and possibly even play new wind instruments which had a tonal quality utterly different from the flutes and woodwinds that he was used to.
In a market place in Mumbai he came across a snake charmer who was playing a curiously shaped instrument that seemed to be made from a gourd attached to two reed pipes. One pipe had half a dozen holes in it which the snake charmer fingered in complex patterns to change the pitch of the notes. The other pipe had no finger holes and acted as a drone. The thin, arrhythmic sound that the instrument made never stopped as the piper waved his instrument in slow circles over the head of a cobra which faithfully followed his movements around and around. It seemed clear to Peter that the gourd was acting as a reservoir, blowing air constantly over the reeds. The player kept the gourd filled using very disciplined breathing techniques so that there were no gaps or pauses in the music at all.
Peter watched in fascination as the snake bobbed and weaved in time to the music. He'd never seen or heard anything like it before. The tonal scale was unfamiliar and the rhythms were strange. Nevertheless the overall effect was undeniably hypnotic. The snake seemed to agree with him. Peter didn't know what the instrument was, but he knew that he absolutely had to have one.
Eventually, the snake charmer stopped playing and the snake went off to wherever snakes go when their turn on the stage is over. Peter walked over to the man. "Excuse me," he said, "but that is an absolutely fascinating instrument you are playing. What is it? How does it work? Where can I get one?"
The man looked surprised at Peter's enthusiasm. "This is a pungi sahib," he said. "Very traditional, very magical. No snake can resist its charms."
"A pungi," said Peter. "I've never heard of a pungi before."
The man held the instrument out for Peter to examine. It was beautifully made. The gourd and the pipes were polished to a high gloss and intricate decorations were inlaid in spirals along each pipe. The pungi was an artistic triumph in its own right as well being a magnificent musical instrument. "I need to buy one," said Peter. "Where can I get one?"
"I am a maker of pungis, sahib," said the snake charmer and I have a new one at home which I finished just yesterday. Come back to the market tomorrow and I will have it for you and you will buy it from me for 500 rupees."
"400 rupees," said Peter automatically. He hadn't been in India long, but already he'd learned never to pay the asking price for anything. Everybody expected prices to be negotiable.
"450 rupees," said the snake charmer.
"Alright," agreed Peter, "450 rupees. But you must give me a lesson in how to play it properly."
"Certainly sahib," said the snake charmer.
And so it was agreed.
The next day Peter arrived at the market bright and early. There was no sign of the snake charmer yet, so he wandered around absorbing the atmosphere. He ate an onion bhaji and drank a cup of tea. He was just draining the last of the tea from the cup when the snake charmer arrived. He was carrying a parcel and a raffia-work basket. Peter hurried over to him immediately.
"Good morning, sahib," said the snake charmer. "I have your pungi ready for you." He gave Peter the parcel. It was elegantly wrapped in silk and fastened with ribbons. Peter undid the ribbons and took out his new pungi. It was just as beautiful as the snake charmer's own instrument. Peter handed the man his money. "Now," he said eagerly, "you must give me a lesson."
The snake charmer showed Peter how to keep the gourd full of air and how to adjust the tone and scale by fingering the holes in rhythmic patterns. Peter was an apt pupil and soon the snake charmer professed himself satisfied. "Now you will be able to charm all the snakes in your country, sahib," he said.
"No I won't," said Peter. "I'm from New Zealand. There aren't any snakes in New Zealand. It's against the law to bring snakes into the country. Even the zoos aren't allowed to keep snakes, and there are serious punishments for anyone caught with a snake."
"Oh dear," said the snake charmer. "That is indeed a great pity. But never mind. While you are here in India you can still do the needful. Please to play your pungi and charm my snake with it." He opened the lid on his basket and a curious cobra reared up, tongue flickering in and out as it explored its environment. Peter played his pungi and the snake swayed along with him, responding to the rhythms of the music and following the back and forth movements of his pungi.
Eventually Peter stopped playing and the snake dropped back into its basket. "Wow!" said Peter. "That was amazing. I've never charmed a snake before. What a wonderful feeling."
"Good luck with your new pungi, sahib," said the snake charmer. "Remember to practice every day so that your breathing stays constant and your fingers stay supple."
"I will," promised Peter.
That night, after the orchestra had played the last concert of the tour, Peter went for a walk in the grounds of the hotel. He settled himself down by a magnificent banyan tree and began to play his pungi. It wasn't long before he had a retinue of curious snakes drawn from who knows where by the irresistible music. He amused himself for an hour or so playing with the snakes, making them dance and sway for him. They spread their hoods, displaying iridescent colours and they flicked their tongues in and out, tasting the air. Eventually he grew tired and he stopped playing. He had a suitcase to pack and he had to get up very early to catch the flight home to New Zealand. He went back to his room and the snakes slithered off into the darkness, seeking out their nests in the undergrowth.
Peter slept throughout the flight. He staggered bleary-eyed through New Zealand customs and immigration, reclaimed his suitcase and took a taxi home. It was good to be back. He started some coffee brewing and unpacked his suitcase while it trickled through the machine. Then he took a mug of coffee and his pungi into the lounge. He sat down, took a sip of coffee and blew a few experimental notes on his pungi. It seemed to have survived the trip and it sounded just as sweet in New Zealand as it had in India.
He played a longer piece, practising the difficult breathing the snake charmer had taught him and running his fingers up and down the holes in the pipe in the proper complex patterns. He was just settling nicely into the rhythm when, to his horror, he saw half a dozen snakes crawl into the room and wrap the tip of their tails around the legs of his coffee table. Then, having firmly anchored themselves, they reared up and began to sway in time to the music, hissing in reproof when Peter played an occasional wrong note.
Peter realised immediately what had happened and he cursed his stupidity for not having thought of it in the first place. The pungi was an instrument for charming snakes. If there werent any snakes to charm, clearly the pungi would just have to summon them from somewhere so that it could do its job properly. "Very traditional," the snake charmer had said. "Very magical," and he had been speaking the literal truth.
And so now Peter was stuck in his lounge in New Zealand, a country where snakes were illegal and where possession of them merited severe punishments. If he stopped playing his pungi the snakes would leave and head off into the unknown. Probably theyd slither down the road in full view of every policeman in New Zealand. It didnt bear thinking about. So he had to keep playing. He had to keep the snakes under control. If he kept playing long enough, maybe he would think of a way to get rid of them safely before anyone discovered them.
Peter didnt know what the world record was for non-stop pungi playing. But whatever it was, he was sure he was going to break that record today...