Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Prodigy

"Thalangu thaka thimi thalangu thaka thimi thakathari kitta thom…”
"Stop it!", shouted TVR sir, and waited for the percussionist Shree Haravahanan's Mridangam to stop. He allowed a couple of minutes silence and said,
"Darling, I asked you to use the complete stage!"

They were in classroom 28 of Rajaji Girls Primary school, whose principal had generously offered to host their practice sessions after school hours, provided that they would not litter the campus. The room was packed with eager students and teachers who had stayed late to watch the practice, but it was clearly not dense enough to contain TVR sir's loud and angry baritone -- a voice which had permanently frightened away many of his erstwhile disciples. 
"And there are going to be more than 500 heads watching you on your big day. With your Pralokita, make eye contact with each and every person in the audience."
TVR sir was the most sought after Bharatanatyam teacher in Thenkudi. A proud winner of the Natiya Arthakovida award presented by his state, he had a famous temper. Students feared him, but their parents would do anything to get him teach their daughters and sons. His attention today was solely on 13-year-old Radha. 
Start again!", he continued as his voice pierced a silence no one else had seen fit to break, "and this will be the last time." His tone turned to a warning as he completed, "No more mistakes."
"Thalangu thakathimi.." he sang abruptly, and Haravahanan -- who had lifted a water bottle to quench his thirst during -- hurriedly placed it down and attempted to catch-up with the booming voice. No one would have noticed if he had missed a beat or two though, for every pair of eyes in the room was focussed on Radha's Shabda. Radha quickly adopted a hourglass-like stance, and started moving to her master's chants. Gradually, as the pace quickened, she began to crouch, leap, swirl, skip, spring, dart, and zip around the stage. Miming the story of Lord Krishna, she deftly transformed herself from the mischievous child God to the village maidens charmed by his pranks. For the next four minutes, the audience was transfixed by the grace and ease with which she performed the complicated movements, and they felt transported to Vrindavanam - the birth place of Krishna. They started applauding spontaneously towards the end of her performance when Krishna had killed the demon-king Kamsa. Radha completed her final motions and stood looking expectantly at her teacher, waiting for his verdict. One of the spectators shushed as TVR sir cleared his throat to speak and waited for absolute silence. 
"You need to concentrate on your Lasya", he said when his silence was granted. "You have a little more than a month. Practice hard, and get it perfected before I come back".
Having said so, he strode out hastily without waiting for an acknowledgement. With a collective sigh of relief, the audience continued their applause. Radha thanked the crowd perfunctorily, but her eyes were fixed on a lady rushing out of the class. The lady stopped near the classroom door, acknowledged Radha with a quick smile and ran behind TVR sir. 
"Sir, how did she..", she began before being interrupted. "
Madam, I have been teaching students for 27 years now, and I have never seen anyone like your daughter. She is a natural. She is a prodigy. Do not worry, but do not let her get complacent."
"Thank you very much sir. Her talent is a divine blessing. But we would feel less anxious if you were here to oversee her training before the event."
"I would very much like to, but my mother is not well. I need to visit her."
"Of course sir, I am sorry. We understand."
She will be fine." Saying so, he opened the door of his sedan, hesitated a little, and spoke again -- this time in an uncharacteristically soft and faraway voice -- "I will retire from teaching dance once her Arengetram is over. She will be my last student. She will be the best."

Radha stood with Meera and Jennifer on the veranda of her school building taking shelter from the unexpected February rains. A few other children waiting to be picked up by their parents stood around them in multiple pockets. Raja anna, the school watchman who sometimes doubled up as the back-up peon, stood with an umbrella on the now-sludgy mud that connected with the single lane tar road just outside the veranda. He was having a torrid time trying to direct the parents, with each of them wanting to park their cars as close as possible to the school building so as to not get their children’s shoes and their cars dirty. Rain is beautiful. Rain is irritating. Meera and Jennifer were discussing the school excursion to the town museum planned for next week. Jenny would be bringing some home baked cakes, while Meera had requested her mother to make bissibella bath. The children around them were chattering about the trip, and there was a cacophony of excited screechy voices. The most active of the lot had cast aside their bags at the veranda and were playing on the playgrounds across the road. Radha mentally replayed the conversation she had had with her parents last night during dinner, soon after her 3 hour dance practise. 

"Amma", she had remarked hesitantly, and raised her voice a little more,
"Yes dear?"
"They are taking us to an excursion at school.."
"Really? Where to? And when?"
"Next Tuesday. To the museum at Nallur." "Oh, that's wonderful. You can have a whole day's practice." "But amma, I want to go with them.."
"Darling, what do you mean? You have only 3 weeks left. Be serious!"
Her father looked up at his wife's raised voice and joined in.
"Radha dear, you need to concentrate on what is important to you, and you should not exert yourself unnecessarily."
"But Meera and Jenny are going."
"Let them. The museum is not worth a visit at all. If you want, I will take the three of you there after your Arengetram. For now, you should only be thinking of dance"

"MEERA! MEERA!" The girls looked around recognizing the voice of Kumar anna, the school peon. "Your father called. He said he is caught in traffic and that he will be here soon. He asked you three to wait near the veranda and.."
He was cut off midsentence by the shrill shriek. A girl with double-braided hair had fallen face down in the ground and she looked as if she was about to cry. As Kumar anna dashed into the rain to help her up, other girls around her laughed heartily at the awkwardness of the fall. The fallen girl hesitated, but quickly joined in the laughter as she helped herself up. Now that she was fine, Kumar anna rushed back to the shelter of the veranda cursing the little devils under his breath. But he was already drenched. 
"Shit! I forgot dad didn't go to office today!!", said Meera excitedly.
The girls lived in the same locality, and their mothers took turns picking the three of them up in their cars. It was Meera's mother's turn today, and apparently her father was filling in. Rajendran was the coolest of all their parents, and the girls loved to be driven around by him. He even let them choose their favourite songs in his car's stereo. 
"Yay! Your dad wouldn't mind his car getting wet!" remarked Jenny, as she rushed to the ground. Meera joined too. They both motioned at Radha to join them. Radha took a step forward, but then remembered the Arengetram. Mother would be mad if she got drenched in the rain and fell ill. She stood alone, looking at the playing children. Meera and Jenny had now broken into an impromptu jig, and a few other children joined them. Rain is beautiful. Rain is irritating.

As if rain was not enough, the night was accompanied by strong winds too. And darkness. The only source of light was a distant island, illuminating a bunch of children running around happily. Closer examination showed that the light was atop a hill -- a dark brown hill completely made of chocolate. The kids stopped frequently to bite a slice off the hill, and amazingly, the hill seemed to replenish itself. Radha could spot a few more children lying around idly. This island did not have schools, or teachers, or parents; and she was wading through the waters towards it. 
"Come back, Radha!" Her mother's voice.
Radha turned around and in the darkness behind her, over an embankment, she identified her mother's silhouette. She could not make out her mother's face, but she could intuitively feel the anxiety in it. Mom’s hands were stretched out as if it could conquer the distance and hold Radha's. She hesitated, but continued walking towards the island. The winds were strong, the waves were pushing her backwards, and the rains blocked her vision. It was freezing too. She shivered. 
"She is boiling hot!" her mother exclaimed.
"Sssh!! Do not wake her up. She needs rest. Does she need to go today?", her father's voice shouted over the rain.
"Poor girl! She must be so tired. Let her take rest"
"I will call Balki from the car and inform him".
She looked behind her once more. Balki sir, her class-teacher, was standing on the embankment now. He too was frantically motioning at her to come back. She remembered that she had not completed her science assignment ("collect ten varieties of leaves, stick them on a chart paper and label their parts"). She glanced at her mother and still could not make out her face. But she sensed her mother crying. Tears that were being washed away by the rains, only to be replenished immediately; like the chocolaty hill. She hesitated once more, but turned around this time and started walking back slowly. She could instantly feel the smile in her mother's eyes. Something made her stop, and she stood undecided. As she stood there, she realized that she had been dreaming. She stirred a little and her mother who happened to be passing by her bedroom rushed in. 
"What's the time, mommy?"
"Never mind that. It's late for school baby. You are staying home tonight."
"No buts! You have been working hard for the past few days. You need to get some rest. How does it feel now?"
Without waiting for a response she pressed Radha's forehead, and let out a satisfied sigh of relief. "Better. Get up and brush your teeth. Let me get something for you to eat. I will give you a Crocin after your breakfast, and you can sleep again"

The sun shone brightly through the windows and there was silence all around; the silence of working day afternoons. Radha woke up tired having slept for the larger part of the morning. As she lay down for some more time, she could hear soft conversations from the TV in the living room. She stood up and lumbered towards it. Her mother was slumped on the floor, cutting vegetables for lunch. 
"Why are you up so soon? Go get some sleep", she asked, turning around at the noise.
"I want to sit here" "Come here. Let's see if you still have a temperature."
Having convinced herself that Radha was fine, Radha's mother suggested a compromise.
"All right, bring your pillow and lie down on the sofa".
Radha huddled on the couch. Her mother reached for the remote control and increased the volume, which had apparently been kept low so as to not disturb her sleep. Radha tried watching the movie for a few minutes. A teenage daughter and her mother were having a conversation at the back seat of a car while on a journey down a picturesque hill. It was a Bengali movie. Radha's mother didn't know Bengali, but she liked to watch movies of all languages. Nothing seemed to happen in this movie, and people kept on talking. A little bored with it, Radha turned to watch her mother. She was briskly cutting carrots. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. The sharp knife was brought down at a steady pace, and the cut pieces were so uniform that they could have been made by a machine. Radha's mother had once confessed that she didn't exactly love cooking. Having to decide what to cook each and every day was the most difficult part, she had said. Radha hadn't believed her. How could someone not love something and still be so good at it? Or can they? 
Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
Clunk. Clunk. Pause.
"Yes dear?"
"Why don't you dance these days?"
When Radha had visited her grandparents’ ancestral home for her summer vacation last year, her Grandpa had shown her some childhood photos of Radha's mother. She had been surprised to find an album with photos of her mother in a traditional dancer's costume. Mother had never talked about it, and always found a way to wriggle out of conversations involving the album. Clunk. Clunk. "Amma?" 
"Sigh! You keep persevering, don't you? Just like your mother. Sleep. You need all the rest you can get. You will be going to school tomorrow, and you need to resume practicing. We don't have much time."

Radha woke up to the sounds of the alarm clock, and pulled up the comforter to muffle her ears. She heard footsteps accompanied by jingling anklets. Her mother was marching into the room.
“Radha, wake up! It is already late. How many more times do you want me to wake you up?”
Radha turned her head sideways, so that one ear would be muffled by the pillow and the other by her comforter. She soon realized that the comforter was being pulled away.
“5 minutes mom, please!”
“RADHA!”, her mother’s voice raised perceptibly, “you are already late for school. You bunked yesterday too. Come on! Let me feel your neck.”
Radha reluctantly let go of the comforter. Her mother placed her hands on Radha’s neck and let out a short scream.
“Look! She’s still got a temperature. I told you to sleep yesterday, and you sat up late night watching taht stupid Hindi movie on TV. Now how will you go to school? You have already bunked a lot, and you need leave for next week too! You have no seriousness at all! You need to perform on 29th and there are hardly enough days left! And you are yet to perfect your Shabdam. Do you have any seriousness at all? Answer me!!”, her mother’s voice kept rising with each breathless word she uttered.
Dad sensed an impending commotion and had hurried into the room. He was now standing at the doorway with a half-buttoned shirt, trying to decide if it was safe to interrupt. Radha just stared back at her mother silently. She was getting anxious and felt hurt. She hated making mother angry, as mom would get completely unpredictable. 
“I said ANSWER me! Is this how you take care of your health before an Arengetram? Do you know how much I am sacrificing so that you can dance? Where did you get the fever from? Did you get drenched in the rains? Mala told me that Meera had come home completely drenched on Thursday! Is that what you three did? Did you get drenched like pigs?”
Her mother was clearly hysterical now, and there was no saying what she would do next. Dad entered the room and tried to interrupt.
“Honey, look. Let her be. Please..”, but he was cut off.
“You stay away from this!”, shouted mother. “You keep spoiling her all the time, and this is how she ends up. Look at her arrogance! She hasn’t answered yet. Did you or did you not get drenched in the rain?”
"What if I had?”, said Radha almost inaudibly.
“What did you say?”, exclaimed her mother.  “What did she just say?”
“I said what if I had!”, replied Radha.
She was louder now, but her voice was trembling.
Why shouldn’t I get drenched, when Meera and Jenny are allowed to do it? Why should I always think about my Arengetram? Everyone else is allowed to go to the excursion, but I should stay home and practise! Why shouldn’t I watch a movie that I like on TV? All you want me to dance, dance, study and dance! Why? So that you can brag about me to your relatives and friends. ‘Wow! Your daughter dances so well. All credit must go to you’. That’s what you want to hear, no? You only think of your happiness! You are so selfish.”
Her parents had never seen Radha raise her voice before. They were too stunned to speak for a couple of minutes. Mother was the first to recover.
“How dare you talk back like that?”
Radha had lost all her resolve by now. She slithered out of her bed weeping, and ran away from it. It was dad who reacted now, and tried to stop her. His daughter dodged him, ran into the bathroom, and locked the door in. He turned towards his wife, and she too was wiping out tears of her eyes.
“Hey, why don’t you stay outside for a moment when I try talking to her? She is just getting anxious. Wait, you wanted to meet the caterers, right? Why don’t you go now, while I take care of her for a while?”
“You want me to get out of my own house?”, she starred at him defiantly.
 She noticed that he had turned slightly insistent, a tone which he rarely used, and nodded.
“What about your office? You said you had a meeting”.
“Yeah, but I can afford to skip it. I will call up Vinoth and tell him.”

“Hello madam, would you please open the door? How long will you stay in that stinking place?”
No response.
“Hey Radha, come on! Please come out. I have something for you here. Why don’t you see what it is?”
A whimper. That gave him more confidence.
“Hey, come out and I will tell you a nice story.”
The lock was unlatched from inside, and the door opened reluctantly.
“Come on lady! What makes you so angry? Tell me”
“I am sorry, pa! I was just tired, and wanted to sleep for a little while. Is she very angry with me?” He admired her maturity. She would grow up to be a wonderful woman.
“Forget it dear. Come, lie down. Let me toast you some bread with Nuttela!”
By the time he finished toasting, she had moved to the couch and was watching another ‘stupid Hindi’ movie.
“Aren’t you going to office daddy?”
“Nope. I bunked too”, he smiled, “Thanks for giving me a great excuse to not-work today! We are going to watch this movie today. That’s Akshay Kumar, right?”
“Look at you, so happy that at bunking office! Amma thinks you love your job”.
“I do, but not always. One cannot love his work completely. I would like to stay home too. You know, it’s been long since I lay down in the bed for a whole day. I would like to play too, but I can’t. Not until you become a great dancer and start earning for me, allowing me to retire”.
He smile became gentler. She had been smiling too, unaware of where the conversation was being led to. It was too late when she realized, and she could only give him a look of mock anger when she did. “You like dancing, don’t you? You are so good at it. TVR sir called your mom last night, and he couldn’t stop bragging about you”.
“Of course I do, pa. I was just tired”
She turned away her face almost imperceptibly, and her father let it pass.
“Appa! Was amma a dancer too?”
He looked at her with contemplation, and seemed to weigh his options.
“Yes, she was. Long back. At least, that’s what I have heard”
“Why doesn’t she dance these days? And why doesn’t she even talk about it? She always gets angry with me when I ask”
He sighed. “I haven’t seen her dance too dear. But your Grandpa tells me that she was the best in these parts of the town. I believe him, for I have heard stories of how good she was”
“But why does she hide it?”, Radha interrupted.
“Well, it seems she was so passionate about her dance that she left her home and stayed at her dance school for a month before her Arengetram. Just a day before her big day, she lost her mother, your grandma. She blamed herself for not being with her mother when she breathed her last. Her Arengetram didn’t happen. Since then, she just gave up on dancing. Until we discovered that you can dance too, that is. And dance so well. Your Grandpa says that you are better than your mother was.” He realized that he had told her much more than he had intended. But he didn’t mind. Children have an uncanny ability to sense things that are being hidden from them. They are more mature than grown-ups imagine them to be. He was reminded of the occasion when he and her mother had tried to surprise her with a late night celebrations on her 10th birthday, only to realize that she had sensed it, and just played along with them to act surprised. It brought a smile to his face, and he turned towards her affectionately. 
“But, it turns out that you might hate dancing. What a disappointment!”
“Who said that?”, shrieked Radha, and then realized that her father had once again tricked her.
“I like dancing too, pa. As soon as I finish eating this tasty toast, I will start practising”
“What happened to your fever? Come on, show me your neck”, he unsuccessfully mimicked her mother.
“Oh, that’s all right now appa”, she moved away with a sheepish smile of her own, “that went away at 08:40 as soon as the school prayer bell rang!”

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