Three times I met her. And all three times, I put my foot in my mouth. I’m a size 11.

Right. I had to work up some courage to write this one. As someone who lives in Chennai, knowing or meeting with a Carnatic vocal exponent like Sudha Ragunathan is a matter of pride; a thing to be flaunted, a thing that makes name-dropping an irresistible exercise. True. Right.

The thing is, though, every so often, one does or says things that aren’t very funny even on hindsight. I am sure those readers trained in the school of unintentional embarrassment will have understood my reluctance, as well as my muddled sense of tense and grammatical person. Fair warning. This piece might read like Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Three times I met her. And all three times, I put my foot in my mouth. I’m a size 11.

Sudha Ragunathan and my father have a common friend – M. Murali, the Managing Director of the hugely popular Sri Krishna Sweets. Mr. Murali, apart from running a flourishing business in sweets and savouries, is a patron of sorts to a range of fine arts. He is particularly inclined towards Carnatic music and, like most of this city, enamoured by the refreshing repertoire and sparkling visage of Sudha Ragunathan. Yes, I’m stalling. Fine, I’ll move on now.

My father is a poet, author and speaker in Tamil. Mr. Murali decided he wanted his two favourite people, who are experts in his two favourite passions, to meet. Of an evening, not many years ago (I can’t even plead I was too young to know better), my father and I went to the singer’s home. Directionally severely challenged, the two of us drove around in circles before sheer luck took us to a dead end, where her house happened to be.

We went in. Past a waiting area, there was a warmly lit drawing room, with a slide door of wood that leads into, presumably, the dining room. We twiddled our thumbs a bit, chatted idly with a boisterous Mr. Ragunathan, when the wooden door slides open and in walks the lady herself. Dressed in a crisp salwar kameez. Obviously, I had never seen her in anything but the grandest silk saris on the planet. So when I saw her in that dress, I said quite loudly, “WHOA!” The room froze. My father froze mid stride. Her smile froze.

Thank God for adulthood. Everyone recovered in double-quick time, lapsed into incomprehensible chatter to scatter residual embarrassment and we walked inside, to the dining hall.

I couldn’t hide my beet-red ears, so I stuffed my hands into my pocket to prevent self-strangulation.

What was supposed to happen was that my father would share some of his poetry and some of the songs he composed, and Sudha would decide on whether it can be adapted for a Raga-conscious audience. That was the obvious point of the meeting. Obvious to everyone but me.

The poetry recitation was met with genuine awe and heartfelt applause. Mr. Murali was beside himself with pride. Then came song-time. The reason I was with my father that day was because I could drive and he believed I sing reasonably well. He then looked at me, nodded, and began singing, hoping I’d be his second.

I remembered then that my father had given me a small list of his songs for me to look up, so I could support him when he sang. He’d sing a line and I was supposed to repeat it, while he rested his voice and prepared for the next line. The list was in my pocket. I hadn’t looked at it. Right on cue, he sang the first line of a complicated Charanam and stopped, expecting me to follow. I didn’t know the words to what he was singing. So I did the only possible thing – I closed my eyes and pretended to be lost in the music. A horrible two seconds of silence, and my father snatches up the line again. I chip in with random words in between.

It was a good song, all things considered. And despite my efforts, Sudha liked it. She discussed the Raga and how it could be tweaked, sweetly apologised to my father for having to change the original tune. She is a wonderful conversationalist. She talks about music, about the delicious tea we just had, then back to the music. After 10 minutes of this, it was time to move on. So my father asked me to sing a song.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t. Not in front of Sudha Ragunathan!” I protested. Well done, a protest that doubles as a compliment. The boy was redeeming himself. Good for him. Let’s all help. Everybody goes, “Oh, but you must. There’s nothing to it. I’m sure you sing wonderfully.” To which I replied, honestly terrified, “No, no. No way. I can’t sing, really.” They were less enthusiastic this time, but still they rallied and ad-libbed encouraging lines. To which I responded with the uniquely original statement, “My throat is bad.”

My father narrowed his eyes. I knew the expression. It meant, “Dude, what are you doing?” What he said was, “Sing it…now.” So I did. I’m no Rafi, but I do pride myself on being able to hold a tune. At least I did, until that evening. Pitch was like a snitch in a Quidditch match. She winced, he cleared his throat, they clenched and unclenched their fists and after a seemingly interminable ordeal, which I extended by singing the refrain twice more than I usually do, it was over.

It was a good song, all things considered. I can’t say she liked it. That would seriously harm her credibility. However, she was willing to listen. I must iterate that the point of these songs is that she be able to reproduce them in some form. With a flourish, I revealed that the song I just sang, I had sung before, to a large audience. She pursed her lips and with a thin smile, said, “Mhmm. Good.” Mr. Murali looked at his hands, attempting no doubt to scope out the lines that might have foretold this evening. I had just wasted half an hour (including the song I botched for my father) of a leading artiste’s time, on a tiring concert evening, on a song she will never be able to use and probably find very hard to erase from memory.

My companions, by now jaded to my music and to the foot-in-the-mouth syndrome, prepared to call it in. They began to withdraw from the table, exhale smilingly, nod in preparation for the ‘thank you so much for having us’ and ‘bye’ that will follow, when I said, “Hahaha”. There was no context. I just let out an abrupt, hyena-like laugh.

I won’t begin to describe what was going on inside, but outside, the effect was the same as an hour ago. The room froze. My father froze mid stride. Her smile froze.

Three times I met her. And all three times, I put my foot in my mouth. I’m a size 11. I would change my name, tattoo my forehead and dance on hot coals before I told you about the other two meetings.

(Anand Venkateswaran is fascinated with people and with words. So he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. Fatten his ego or spit in his punch, at vi.ananda@gmail.com)