A Love Song of a Dance

Following Sowmya’s dance debut there were angry letters to the editor in The Indian Standard.  Bristling with outraged sensibility, the letters condemned the dance and the dancer for contributing to the degradation of the social fiber, the corruption of national character. Mallika banned the Standard from the house.

Amidst the harsh disparagement of the dance tradition, a few reviews appeared that spoke with a quiet clarity.  “A true protégé for Mallika,” one journal said, giving a thoughtful critique after a performance.  Sowmya brought the journal home and read it out to Mallika, but their measly praise only angered her.  

“Where do they think this dance comes from?” Mallika said.   

Rejection of the body was one thing Sowmya understood very well, but this felt like a rejection of her very self to Mallika.  She kept all writings about dance and against dancers from Mallika’s eyes.

Through the Music Academy’s support Sowmya performed at several more venues. Satya arranged for a few performances in the auditoriums where he was on the board or through people from whom he had chits to collect.  The money Sowmya made covered the expense of costumes, the accompanists, and paid the rent.

To avoid the picketing at the front gate after a performance, the hall’s secretary would hold a small door open for them that would lead into a back alley, his expression slightly abashed.  It wore out Mallika, a little more every time.

“Like thieves,” Mallika said. “We leave like thieves.”

The summer monsoon had failed to arrive.  Sowmya looked up at the ceiling fan that merely stirred down curls of hot air.  She pinched off a small amount of the moist paste of the marudani leaves, rolled it between her fingers, and pressed it into a border along the edge of Mallika’s foot.  It was the only cooling thing to do. When the paste dried in a few hours and was rinsed off it would leave a beautiful coral stained pattern.

“Look, your hand will get all stained this way, and the pattern will not show,” Mallika said.

Ignoring her, Sowmya lifted Mallika’s foot with one hand, and dabbed a small amount of the paste on her nails.  The foot was slight and small in her hand.  The old stain from months ago on the toenails had completely grown out but for a sliver of crescent at the tip.

Mallika did not know of the latest cancellation, and Sowmya did not have the heart to tell her yet.  The secretary of the theater company, Ragini Sabha, came by last week to announce his helplessness.  The sponsor had backed out, he explained.  The opposition to staging the dance was coming from some powerful members.  The man’s awkwardness was genuine.  “We go way back,” he had said, remembering Krishnaveni who had lived on the same street as his grandfather.  Mallika listened in silence.

Now Madras Fine Arts had asked for a return of the advance.  Earlier that morning they had sent a letter through a messenger, who was instructed to wait for a response.   

Mallika had always believed in settling her accompanists’ bills right after each performance.  “We all have bellies to fill.”  Now she found it difficult to look them in the eye when they came to visit, and was filled with shame when they left without mentioning what was due.  Their loyalty for old time’s sake would last only so long, soon they would desert her.

Sowmya patted a circle at the center of the sole.  Mallika’s toes curled.

“Enough, girl!  What do I need to doll up for?  Here, give it to me, I will put it on on for you,” she reached for the dish.

When Sowmya drew the paste away from her and lifted the other foot, Mallika surrendered and leaned back on the chair.  Sowmya carefully worked the paste into a pattern.

“There is a small javali,” Mallika said leaning forward to look at Sowmya.  “A short, sweet, love-song of a dance.  My grandmother taught me this.”

Sowmya paused and looked up.

“Radha accuses Krishna.  ‘You are flirting with the milkmaids’ she says, ‘and you ignore me.’ ” She mimed.  With eyes like daggers, the young woman slays the handsome Krishna with deadly scorn.  Heaving with desire, yet she sulks.  “She scolds the Blue-skinned God,” Mallika said, signaling the cloud-capped sky, the peacock feather in his cap, the flute-player, stealer of hearts.

Sowmya sat back on her heels.  Timeless emotions captured in Mallika’s aging face made them new.

“So what does Krishna do?  He offers to massage Radha’s foot.  Radha then instructs him on how to do it right!”  Mallika chortled at this pluckiness.  “You can add this as a small piece towards the end for the program next month.  A sweetener, a surprise—”

“Program got canceled.”  Sowmya stood up, wiped her hands on a wet towel, and picked up the marudani dish.

Mallika looked at her in silence.  

“The secretary came this morning.  We returned the advance. What was left of it.”  Sowmya folded a pillow and tucked it under Mallika’s feet so the paste didn’t smear before it dried.

The terrace was sunlit and smelled of white heat.  She rinsed her hands.  They had stained a bright orange already, these were excellent leaves.  She threw handfuls of water over her face, which was slick with sweat.  But even that did not offer relief in the heavy, still air that had even silenced the crows.

The bright shimmer that she had thought was dance, a life source, had become clouded, become something much more complicated.  The pickets at the gate did not frighten Sowmya anymore, but it was destroying Mallika.  She had lost the case to retrieve her property back in the village.  More than anything, it hurt when her own cousin bought the auctioned property.  Sowmya’s eyes prickled at the unfairness of it all.

Satya appeared regularly at the house, as though these visits would somehow erase his guilt in this whole venture that was turning painful and ugly.  The truth was when Satya came, even in his arrogance, a stance that came to him so naturally, it felt as though all things were possible.  But the sight of him only infuriated Mallika.  

“Send the man home to his wife,” she would say between gritted teeth when he left. “He looks stricken.  We are all done with that kind of thing here, somebody tell him.”  

Sowmya wondered if the message was a warning for her.  This must have been how they came to the doorstep at Mallika’s house on Nellyappan Street. Her dance, and no less her youth, drew admirers.  Mallika fell in love. “Give up your dance,” the man said, she once told Sowmya.  A wholesale trader of peanut oil, he had a wife and three children in Salem, and yet he came bearing gifts.  He would marry her, he said, make her his wife, give her respectability—and steal her soul.  What else could Mallika do but refuse?

“Dance has to please you first, Sowmya,” she said.  “If you dance for him,” gesturing with a tilt of her head, “what happens when he leaves?”  

Sowmya would tease her then, making a joke of her fears.  But later when Satya left their house in George Town, a cold stone would settle in her stomach.  She imagined his long legs clad in white garments striding up the stairs to their bedroom, his head bending over her, except it wasn’t Sowmya; it was Yamini’s face that was on the pillow. Yet his weight was on Sowmya’s hips, his breath on her eyelids.  The protest from her heart would make Sowmya toss in her bed.  She struggled with the burning and the melting, the quivering force that shook her as her fingers brought her to that sweet death.  The erotic verses she mimed for her dance mocked her in her solitude.

“Let’s go to the beach,” she called from the terrace.  Sunlight had dimmed from white-hot to yellow gold. “At least we can catch some sea breeze and cool off.”  

When Neelam came to visit a little later, the three of them set off with Kitappa towards the beach.

The fisher folks’ catamarans became visible as they approached the sea, and they smelled the salt and dead fish from the nets spread out to dry in the sun.  White-crested waves rolled in, air-soft and bubbly.  Sowmya hitched her sari up to her knees and waded into the water.  A big surf crashed close sending her scrambling backwards.  

“Wafers, sir?  Fresh and hot, madam.”  A man approached, scurrying impossibly in this heat, two large tins slung over his shoulders.  

They crunched on the thin, crispy rice wafers dotted with cumin and cracked black pepper, and made their way towards the lighthouse in the north, away from the crowd.  Kitappa and Neelam walked up front and Sowmya followed beside Mallika.

“Have you seen the poster?” Neelam asked, her voice picked at by the breeze.  

“For The Thief of Blue Mountain?”

“Satya designed the poster himself.”

Satya had set up a studio in Mylapore, where his wife owned some land, and was producing a film.  No need to go to Bombay anymore for sound recording.  Neelam was on the staff at Madras Broadcasting Company, and was recording two songs for the film.  An actress would lip-synch the song.  Talkies had made everything possible.

When they arrived home at dark, Satya’s Chevrolet was parked at the top of the narrow lane leading to the house.  A cigarette tip glowed inside.

Satya got out as they approached.  He was dressed in neatly pressed white veshti, which he always wore long and flowing, the zari edge sweeping the floor at his feet, and a loose open collared white shirt.  His hair was combed neatly to a shine.  He smiled directly at Sowmya and made the stars rise up bright.  He accepted with ease the invitation to eat with them.

The power went out just as they sat down for dinner.  Kitappa carried in a hurricane lamp in and lit it.  They ate in the moonlight that flooded in through the windows and doorways.

Later, after the women cleaned up, Sowmya closed up the kitchen door and plopped down next to Mallika on the sofa and rested her head on her shoulder.  She was glad for the power outage.  In its darkness she could observe Satya closely without being watched.

A young woman from Bombay, Devaki Bai, would lip-synch Neelam’s song in the film, Satya was saying.  He had arranged for her to come down for a screen test.

Shooting and screen test.  These were words so remote from the silent shadow images Sowmya had seen on a silver screen so long ago in Ponmalar.  The Seizure of Draupadi’s Robes at the tent cinema.  A projector ran noisily.  Lights streamed out of it and raised shadows on a luminous screen.  A man appeared before the screen and started narrating the story.  He read the text out from the screen, taking on different personas, using a squeaky voice for the women characters.  Every time there was a reel change, a troupe came in to sing.  It came as a surprise to recall now that it was a silent film.  It had seemed so full of sound and action.

“How much will you pay her?” Sowmya asked Satya.  

“We haven’t negotiated yet,” Satya said.  

“A Hindi-speaking woman from Bombay, cannot even speak Tamil properly,” Neelam said, clicking her tongue in disapproval.  “You can’t find someone to hire locally?”

“Find a Tamil speaking talented actress for me!  Someone who can dance.  They are all afraid of the cinema.  Devaki Bai was famous even before she came to cinema,” Satya said.  “She’s experienced.  She is very popular in Marathi dramas.  She sings.  And she will dance.”

“Here in Madras, they don’t take risks.  They stay with what they know,” Kitappa said.  “They know drama, a sure thing.”

“There is more money in cinema.”

“Drama or cinema, a woman always makes less than a man, a lot less,” Neelam said.  “Even the most talented ones.”

“Dance for the cinema?” Mallika bristled.  She waved a reed fan uselessly over her perspiring face. “What kind of talent do you need for that?”

Satya looked at the tip of his cigarette, tapping at the ash.  Kitappa rose to raise the wick in the lamp, his face illuminated in the glow.

“How much would you pay me?”  Sowmya asked, watching the way he played with the cigarette.

Satya turned and looked at her.  “For you?”  His voice was mellow, warm honey in the semi-darkness.  He tapped at the tip of his cigarette again. “You can––”

“Sowmya!  If you go into the cinema——”  Mallika turned and looked at her.  “Why would you want to do that?  That’s all for those foreigners and their, their–debauchery.  It’s not our way.  You will lose your authority, you will––”

“Authority?  Tell me.  How much advance did we get this month?  How many bookings?” Satya asked.  He knew every engagement they got.

Still, it was a cruel question. Sowmya’s face grew hot.

Mallika looked at Kitappa for an answer.  He looked at the dusty designs on the floor.  The Chettiar’s agent had paid a visit on Saturday, a gentle man.  How is everything, he had asked.  Six months’ rent was in arrears.  He may not be so gentle the next time.

Tenderness surrounded Sowmya’s heart for the way Mallika was hurting.  But it would not compare to the humiliation they would suffer when they have to vacate the house. The Chettiar was not going to be patient forever.  If dancing for the cinema would pay the rent, why not?  Mallika was so charged with her own demons that she would not see reason.

Suddenly the light bulb above came alive with dim yellow light.  The fan creaked overhead.

Satya slapped a hand over his forehead.

“I almost forgot what I came to tell you!” he said.  “I have arranged for a dance for the earthquake fund.  We will get Gandhiji himself to preside over Sowmya’s performance. Even Dr.M will finally be silenced.  Let’s see the pickets then!”  He turned to Sowmya.  “It is also great exposure for you…”

The earthquake had occurred in Bihar four years ago, in the winter, destroying life and homes.  As if that was not enough, floods followed and malaria had become rampant.  Gandhi had declared it all as punishment for the practice of untouchability, the tainting of people forever by the menial work they did.  He urged every Indian to clean his own latrine.  

“Satya, what we know is our dance,” Mallika said with forced patience.  “What do we know about making speeches?  We have had enough social reform.  You seem to think we live in your personal orchards in Mylapore.  It’s all right for your Brahmin women to march on the streets, roll bandages, satyagraha for Gandhi, this, that.  We work for our living.”

“Well, we can get her into those orchards.”  Satya looked at Sowmya.  “Simple enough,” he smiled.

Sowmya looked at the odd patterns of russet stain on her palm in the silence that followed.

“How simple? Tell me,” Mallika’s voice was soft but Sowmya heard her fierce breathing next to her.  

“Mallika! What I meant was––”

“Akka!” Kitappa said, rising up.  “It was a joke, take it easy.  Satya, be careful please, these things––”

“Mallika. You have completely misunderstood––”

“Shhh!  Everybody calm down, please—” Sowmya touched Mallika’s arm.

Kitappa put out the hurricane lamp.  The room smelled of kerosene.

“I’d like to see the studios,” Sowmya said.

Satya looked a little stunned from Mallika’s assault and it did not seem like he heard her.  Sowmya watched the single stream of sweat that ran down from his impeccable hairline, a small pulse beat at his temple.  He would make her shine like a star, she knew this.

“Some day, when it is convenient,”  she said.

Satya stood up.  He offered to drive Neelam home and they left together.  A second later he appeared back at the door.  “I’ll send the car around tomorrow,” he said and left again.

Their voices in conversation could be heard as Satya and Neelam walked out of the compound and up the lane towards the car, the sound diminishing and finally the night became silent again.

Sowmya switched off the lights, locked up the doors, and stood in the still moonlight that lit up the terrace like it was day.  She wondered about the studio.  She could not begin to imagine what it would be like or how they made movies but she was sure she wanted to be part of it, part of Satya’s dream.

When Sowmya finally climbed the stairs to her bed in the terrace, Mallika and Kittappa were both snoring, keeping up a steady chorus.

She had brought with her the leftover marudani paste in its leaf pack.  She sat down on her mattress and began to shape the paste into small caps on each of her left fingers. Carefully arranging her pillow, without smearing the damp and soft paste, she stretched out. The moon grinned overhead.

The bachelor who sublet one of the rooms in the house next door played his gramophone.  The hit song from the film Chakku Bai played:

The song I hear in the wind

Oh how it stokes my dreams!

When Sowmya returned home from the visit to the studio the next day, she went directly to the trunk in which she had stored her notebook.  She flipped it to the pages of Bharathi’s poems that were copied out in tidy script.  She flipped the pages, thumbed so many times the letters were smudged with fingerprints.

Bharathi’s prolific writing was consumed with fervor.  He extolled, cajoled, scolded and lamented a nation to its liberation.  She searched through this outpouring.  The ideas were immense, of a nation in bondage to an alien power, a call to break the chains.  She went into the back terrace and looked up at the clouds.  How do you capture the sky in a bottle?  That is how the task before her seemed, to express a grieving nation in dance.

In the evening, Lazarus arrived with the projector and a gramophone as Satya promised.  He set it up and turned the projector on, wound the gramophone, dropped the disc in.  He showed her how to stop, resume, and then turn it off.

“I can come and get it in the morning, madam,” he said and then left.

Sowmya lifted the needle off the disc and the music stopped.  Now Ruth St. Denis danced on the screen in silence.  She watched the movements that seemed random at first, the dreamy expression, a smile that was not quite a smile. Gradually shape and rhythm appeared in the dancer’s movements, a grace.  Sowmya sat down and watched the shimmering light in silence.  She no longer noticed Ruth’s hair, the turban, the bare waist or arms, but only the expressive hands, the movement.  When the man, Ted, appeared, their movements reflected each other’s and became two pieces of a unit.  

Sowmya ran it again, and again.  Finally she turned the projector off and sat for a while in the silence of the evening that was falling outside the door.  A kuyil called plaintively in the dying light.  Quickly her vision flooded with images of her own dance, the movements across the stage, its age-old grammar pre-stamped with meaning which was efficiently conveyed through symbols and stylized emotions.  Bharathi raged at the cowardice of his people, the submission to a foreign master, selling out a nation.  Sowmya walked into the compound and stood in the still evening light.  She hummed a tune softly, and took a few steps on the earth.  One of the songs settled in her mind and she tested the images of the ancient story, translating Bharathi’s emotion in the movements of her limbs, sensing the fire that burned at the center of these words.  

She thought of Ruth’s dress in the film, so free and weightless.  She went inside, pulled off her sari and dressed in a long skirt and a blouse.  She imitated Ruth’s movements, what she called her Indian dance, drowning the remembered rhythm beats of her own, and the dance postures that had now become natural to her.  She waved her arms, bent sideways at her waist. She twirled. Free of the sari, she felt different.  She was not sure if she liked it, the bareness seemed cumbersome.  

Hopeless. I hate it, this is nothing, it is a nothing dance! It is empty. I am imitating this woman imitating me, and it is not even me!

“What are you doing?” Mallika stood at the doorway.

“Umh!  Come here, watch this.”  Sowmya picked up her sari and quickly draped it back on.

Mallika sat down and looked at the projector with suspicion.  The film rolled, the dance ended.  Sowmya turned the projector off, and moved it away to a corner.

“She’s American.  She’s called a prophet, an avatar of Shiva.”

“Hmmm.”

“People pay a lot of money to see her Indian temple dance.”

“It is a north Indian style of dancing,” Mallika said.  “They call it a lamp dance.”

Sowmya was surprised at the calmness with which Mallika took all this in.  

“She has changed it somewhat,” Mallika said.

“I have some ideas for the dance for the National Earthquake Fund.  I am going to add a new number.”

“Like this?” Mallika pointed to the silent projector.

Sowmya brought the notebook and read the poem she had selected to Mallika.  Mallika listened quietly but Sowmya knew that ideas were filling her head.

“What do you think?”

Mallika moved her head in little nods.  “Work it out and see.”

The next morning Sowmya asked Kitappa to look through the notebook as well.  He agreed with her selection.  They went in to the front porch and Kitappa pulled out his harmonium.  He sat down on a mat and placed the notebook in front of him, punched a few keys, pumping the instrument with his other hand.  He played with the raga, testing the notes for a few minutes.

“We can do this,” he moved his head side to side.  “Child, fetch me that blue notebook, please,” he said, pointing to a small shelf against the porch’s wall.  A fat notebook, it was bound in blue canvas.  It contained every song he had ever composed or set music for.  This book went with him wherever he went, he was never without it.

Sowmya clasped her hand together with glee and jumped up to fetch the book.

Kitappa sang a verse to the tune he composed, made some notations, picked up the verse again.  This went on for about half an hour.  Sowmya waited patiently and would sing for him a verse when he asked.  After about an house Kitappa was finally done and they sang it together.  Mallika watched from inside.

Kitappa set the song to dance rhythm, inserted a few jati, a little pleasing decoration of series of beats.

Sowmya stood up, demonstrated.

“Do the verse in moderate speed.  Set the last two lines to repeat in double time.” Mallika was at the door, holding the beaded curtain aside. She tapped out the beats on her palm, breaking down the syllables in demonstration.

Together they worked on the beat, making it come out right.  Sowmya mimed variations: the toddler waking up to a new dawn; the sacred rivers, majesty of the mountain ranges; the young girl frolicking at the river, a sunbeam on the water; a maiden dancing in the moon-lit night; the worship of the ancestors; a wedding and a love-making; freedom.

Then Sowmya held up her hand.  “Brother, just your voice.  Just sing it, please.”

Kitappa muffled the harmonium.  His pure and unblemished voice rang out.

Her eyes still closed, Sowmya said, “Now the mridangam.  Alone.”  

After a few seconds of silence Kitappa’s fingers stroked the sides of the instrument and it spoke to her.  She saw the spinning of the wheel, a lone flag fluttering in the wind.  She saw the entire dance shine behind her lids, and it was new and she suddenly understood what Ruth St. Denis was doing.  She had invested the song with a brand new feeling, patriotism. To make it concrete in her dance she would express a little bravado, a little piety, and some kind of joy or affection.

“It has to be that kind of a thing, as if you are the child and the mother at the same time,” Mallika said.

Sowmya found a man named Farid at Amarjothi Tailors, at the corner of East Mada Street, who agreed to make the tricolor flag for her. She found him some silky and slippery material that would unfurl as required.  He kept the project inside his house and worked on it at night.  She would meet him at his shop after his work was done, and he would take her to his house and show her how he would piece the parts of the spinning wheel together in the center and embroider around it. She was pleased.

On the day of the dance the lawn at the congress office was covered with white sheets.  The program had started in the late afternoon with a welcoming ceremony and several speeches.  So the stage was set up and ready when Sowmya arrived with the musicians.  The lawn was now dotted with people who had gathered among the long shadows.  Satya introduced Sowmya.

Sowmya began the program in the traditional way, with an invocation to Ganapathi.  Nervous about how it would be received, she had planned the new item for the final piece just before a short and sharp concluding hymn.  

When the time came for the dance the stage lights dimmed.  Somu played a dirge like beat on the mridangam.  The flute came on, and then Kitappa and Neelam’s voice rose in unison.  

This land of a thousand years, shaped by a thousand thoughts . . .

my mother’s playground,

where she learnt her first sounds,

and danced in this moonlit night,

frolicked in these rivers,

made sweet music with my father,

this land of my mother.

Sowmya raised the standard and pulled the string.  The flag dropped down, and she leaped around the stage to the beat of the refrain, the flag unfurling:

Would I not adore it in my heart

and cry out in joy

Vande Mataram! Vande Mataram!

Even before the dance came to its conclusion, people rose to their feet, cheeks wet.  Sowmya found her eyes filling over with tears when she finally stood waving the flag.

When she went inside to change and remove her make-up a messenger came in and gave her a slip of paper.  The manager of Saraswathi Sabha wanted to meet her.  He was waiting with Satya when she came out of the room.  The man greeted her shamefacedly and she returned his greeting.  He wanted her to perform the next evening at the sabha.

She looked at Satya.  

“All the funds go for the relief effort,” he said.

She thanked the man.

The next day a journal carried a report of the event and an announcement of a repeat performance scheduled for the evening.  There was a photograph of Sowmya receiving a garland from a congress leader.

The next evening the sabha was packed.  This time when she went back to her green room, a young constable was waiting for her.  With a shy smile he told her to come with him. When she came out to the front of the auditorium she saw three more constables and Satya was talking to them.  He quickly walked up to her.

“Don’t worry, I will meet you at the station.”

“Police station?”

“They are charging you with subversion.  These people will take you down to the station and finger-print you.  Don’t say anything, don’t admit to anything.  I will meet you there, but I first have to go see some people.”

The constable who met her swung his baton and cleared a pathway through the crowd, waiting for her at the gate when she came out.  A fight had broken out earlier, protesting the arrest, when word had first spread through the crowd.  It was put down swiftly by the police.  She climbed into the van, still in confusion over what exactly was happening.  

At the station in Santhome a clerk rolled Sowmya’s fingers and thumbs, one by one, on an inkpad and pressed them on a form.  She was charged with violating public order and peace, and was banned from using the flag during her performances.  She looked at the flag that Farid had worked on for several weeks.  It was rolled up and thrown into a metal bin with other confiscated items.

She was pointed to a bench.  She sat down and waited. A man was brought in, charged with vagrancy and thrown in a cell.  She became nervous after an hour and there was no sign of Satya.  The constable who brought her strolled by, watching her.  She felt naked in the costume she was wearing, an orange skirt with glitter, a white blouse, and just a yard long sari of green chiffon draped across her shoulder.  He returned after a few minutes and told her she may have to be moved to a cell for the night.  As he was telling her this she heard a motorbike.  Satya.  She was grateful that he had thought to bring a cotton shawl to throw around herself.  He carried a letter and asked to see the sub-inspector of police.  In a half hour he came out, paid bail, and had her released.

Once outside, Satya pointed her to the motorbike and asked her to get on.  She hesitated; she had never ridden on one before.  He kick-started the bike, threw a leg over it and asked her to climb on behind him, “Come on, come on.”  

She sat sidesaddle on the pinion and gripped his shoulder. It felt solid under the shirt fabric.  The motorcycle wheeled around and soon they were roaring out on Santhome High Road towards Marina Beach.  Her hair ruffled in the wind.  She wrapped the cotton shawl around her to keep it from getting windblown.  The barely contained power of the machine was beneath her, carrying her away.  She smiled into the wind.  It had been a strange night.

Satya suddenly veered towards the curb when they arrived at the Marina Beach and pulled up, cut the engine.

“Come on, let’s go cool off a bit before I take you home.  This is big, what has just happened.”  

He helped her down to the wide promenade which, pleasantly crowded earlier, was deserted now.  A bright full moon grinned up above, but the violet light from the mercury lamps turned the colors of her outfit into strange shades.  The breeze pressed the sari to her limbs and she felt light, as though floating.  Satya’s shirt had turned a brilliant white and she pulled at her sari, which was fluttering towards him.

The tide was high.  Waves crested and heaved in the moonlight, shimmered silver against the dark, and smashed themselves against the shore.  She matched Satya step for step, keeping up with his long strides effortlessly, and their undulating motion was like breathing.

He pulled out a large handkerchief and laid it down on the sand for her to sit on.  He dropped down beside her, stretched his legs out and leaned back on his elbows.  

He took out his cigarette case, flicked it open and took a cigarette out.  When he lit it the flame kept going out.  “Here, cup this lighter for me, will you?”

She drew close and cupped her hand around the flame, and in the sudden flare of the lighter she saw the way he sucked in his cheeks, his fingers touching hers to steady them, smooth and beautifully shaped, with clean white nail beds, and in the shadows, the shape of his arms rounded and solid.  He drew deeply, and the tip glowed.  She reached over and held the cigarette.  He looked at her with a bit of amusement and let her have it.  Clutching the cigarette, between thumb and finger, she took it to her lips and tentatively puffed on it.  

“Take a small whiff, like this.”

He showed her how and handed it back to her.

She pulled on the cigarette and went into a coughing fit.  

“Easy,” he said.

She drew again, smoother now, and then handed it back to him.

“Keep it, keep it, this is a celebration.  You have pulled off something quite big.  Watch what happens in the next few days.”  He lit another one, turning towards the side of the catamaran to protect the flame.

“What did you tell them at the station?”

“Don’t worry about it, it’s over.  You just watch the headlines tomorrow.”  He grinned at her.  Her heart flipped watching his happiness, something she had had a part in causing.  He seemed proud of her and she realized the full depth of what she had done with so little awareness.

They smoked silently for a few moments, the roar of the waves constant in the breeze.

Satya buried the butt in the sand.  He laced his hands behind his head and slid back on the sand and reclined.  He had never seen so many stars in the sky, he said, every single one of them brilliant.

Sowmya stretched beside him on the sand and listened to him.  A sprinkle like rain, barely perceptible, fell.  The stars were still shining. She allowed the starlight to sink into her, percolate through every pore, taking into her the night air, and the man, who if he reached over, could fold her in his arms.  Sowmya turned to her side and laid a hand on his chest.

She saw now how he must have looked as a youth.  Not his physical form but what must have been in his eyes when his mother had called to him, Come to me, my golden child, from her bed, dying from hemorrhage and fever in her polluted state after a stillbirth, her young son standing at the doorway in the light that fell from the open courtyard.  Taken away abruptly Satya never saw her alive again.  She knew what that kind of memory could do.  He grew up on the favors shown to him, from one relative to another.  She saw his eyes lit up with images from the silver screen at the Gaiety, the swashbuckling hero, the masked man who rescues the beautiful woman.  He would enact them in the light of the hurricane lamp, the shadows looming over the wall.  He married the daughter of his mentor, he owed him much, and dutifully prepared for the Bar.  But his dreams he kept.  Sowmya, he had told her, always there are ways of getting things done.  He seemed untouched by the means he employed to get them, all appropriation being rightful when the goal was so clearly for beauty.  She wanted some of that energy, that kind of a desire so formidable that it made everything appear attainable.  

The weight of her hand right below his neck, the faint perfume of her jasmine hair-oil, all mingling in the saltiness he would taste in her lips.  She waited, her skin erupting with a thousand sparkles.  Instead, he leaned into her and brushed the hair off her face, again and again, the motion infinitely more comforting than what she saw in the piercing brilliance in his eyes that had revealed so much.  

Raindrops fell.

 

 

This novel excerpt is from: Desire of the Moth.
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Image Credits: Pabak Sarkar