Two-Act Tragedy (Part I)

“ But what are we going to do about him?” Radhika* — a senior and our dance ‘mentor’ — said, pointing towards me with a not-so-discreet gesture. I felt 4 pair of eyes fix their baleful gaze on me. My skin prickled. I took out a book and pretended to peruse it with great interest (it was a biology textbook with a bulbous frog on the cover and the diagrams inside could induce nausea in the stoutest hearted; I don’t think my charade was all that convincing).

“ Why is he even here?” her soccer-captain-boyfriend Nikhil* asked.

Now while I never expected Mr. Captain and me to become chummy, I had hoped for some civility. Evidently I had hoped for too much. Still, even if they intended to discuss my shortcomings, I felt they could have been tactful enough to whisper and perhaps even conduct their stratagems and spoils elsewhere (for instance in the principal’s office).

“ He’s good at geography apparently,” the girl-with-big-spectacles said, in a loud stentorian voice that had won several elocution competitions and startled many an unsuspecting eardrum.

“ Huh, geography. Even I can mark places on a map,” Nikhil replied.

“ So can I,” Pratul*, a portly 7th grader, chimed in.

“ See. We don’t need him,” Nikhil craned his neck towards Radhika for approval.

“ I mean we can’t exactly chuck him out,” she said, looking wistfully at the open windows and the bright green field outside.

“ We could just not have him in the dance. Who’s going to notice?” Nikhil suggested.

“ No, obviously Ms. Kapoor* will know. And she might complain,” she tapped her foot on the wooden floor, and tried a dance step.

“ Kapoor won’t notice. And if Chubby here,” Nikhil pointed to Pratul, ” Is fed well he’ll look even more like two 7th graders .”

“ Hey,” Pratul protested.

Radhika looked thoughtfully towards me and I began to feel worried. Mutiny was rearing its ugly head, and I had been looking forward to travelling to Lucknow.

Just then Ms. Kapoor walked in.

“ How is the dance coming along guys?”

“ Uh, I was just teaching them the basic steps,” Radhika said.

“ Great, great,” Ms. Kapoor smiled benignly all around. Her spectacled gaze fell on me.

“ Is even Tushar dancing?” she asked.

“ Yeah,” Radhika said, shrugging as Atlas would have done, a small resigned twitch at the burdens that were hers to bear.

“ Oh this will be great,” Ms. Kapoor clapped her hands excitedly.

* * *

It was miserable.

From the first day it became apparent that everyone’s fears about me were not misplaced.

“ Turn gracefully, don’t stomp,” Radhika shouted over the music as I swerved a dangerous 180 degrees, nearly knocking Pratul over.

I missed a beat in the next section, then forgot two whole steps and finally managed to execute the last move perfectly, or well…almost perfectly. With my energies focused on pulling of the final step, I had accidentally trodden on Nikhil’s foot.

He pushed me away. “ Watch out you jerk. The entire football team worships that foot.”

Now while I was aware of the clannish tribes of the sports world, I hadn’t known they practised such pagan rituals.

“ You mean they pray to it?” I asked, fascinated. I looked at the block-wood-like appendage with considerable interest. ” Do they anoint it with oils and prostrate themselves in front of it?”

Nikhil grabbed me by the collar, “ You think you’re funny don’t you?”

“ Hey, hey,” Radhika stepped in between us and disentangled Nikhil from my collar — a feat no less than separating a hungry mongrel from a bone. My respect for her grew significantly.

“ Oh you boys are all the same,” Spectacles said.

I was stung by the unfairness of this comparison, how dare Thick-Goggles put me and that lout in the same category. Why was my brilliance to be mired in the swamp? I started to respond when Radhika interrupted me.

“ Tushar, if you don’t get the steps right I’m going to keep you hear all day. Understand?” Radhika tapped her foot on the wooden floor.

I tried to think of a sarcastic retort courteous, but seeing Nikhil’s glare I swallowed the acerbic remarks, and nodded.

“ Good, now let’s do this from the start,” Radhika rewound the stereo.

I gazed out of the window, at the windblown overgrown grass, the outdoor basketball court, the sunken stone amphitheatre and sighed. A whole world without and here I was shackled to the dance floor with a team of misfits.

* * *

Allow me to delve into some technicalities. To better understand my trials and tribulations, it is imperative to know the type of dance form and the nature of the production. The four of us were the team chosen to participate in an inter-school competition. The competition organizers insisted that each team put on a dance performance (why they wanted to judge dancing abilities in an otherwise scholastic competition still baffles me). So under the tutelage of Radhika (the Ruthless) we were constructing a grand, cultural showcase. We were performing Bharatanatyam.

A word for the uninitiated — Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest Indian classical dance forms. It is a dance of grace and finesse that takes years to learn, and decades to master.

Radhika had been learning the art form since she was 6, an age at which I was devoting my attention exclusively to reading illustrated books and building LEGOs. While Radhika developed a puppet-master-like control of her limbs, I grew into a gangly teenager who was only good for own-goals and crude drawings.

Discord was inevitable.

“ Move your neck in one smooth motion. Don’t jerk it.”

“ Keep to the beat Tushar, didn’t they teach you how to count?”

“ Your left foot before your right foot. Left then right, is it that hard?”

I bore the insults stoically, ignoring all the barbs. I reasoned that if I just followed the instructions I would eventually attain a passable level of proficiency, and the nightmare would soon be over. However, unbeknownst to me the worst was yet to come.

Now one of the most important facets of Bharatanatyam is that each dance is a story, a narration composed entirely of gestures and signs. Radhika was intent on upholding this tradition and after spending the first week teaching us the basic steps she unveiled her complete plan. We were to enact an intricate tale that would include trees, deer, peacocks, tigers and much frolicking. I listened to her speak, letting the word devolve into meaningless babble, and nodded periodically, glad for the brief respite from the dancing.

“ Tushar you will be the deer.”

My mouth closed mid-yawn. “ What?”

“ You will be the deer. In the story. That we will dance out. You, will be the deer.” Radhika spoke with a deliberate slowness, labouring under the belief that I was failing to comprehend her scheme.

“ Yes, I understood that part. But why would you want me to do that?”

“ Because it’s part of the story. And it’s the easiest part out of all four.”

Despite all the years that have passed since this regrettable incident, I still feel the warm flush of embarrassment when I remember my attempts at impersonating a deer. So we will spend little time dwelling on this distasteful topic, suffice to say that my efforts were in vain (“ You look like an elephant ploughing through a field,” Thick-Glasses noted after one practice session). All the reader needs to know is that in the aftermath I was assigned a different role:

“ Tushar, this is the only other part I’ve got. I swear if you mess this up…” Radhika stopped unable to express herself.

“ Then I’ll beat you up,” Nikhil said, wiping the sweat off his face with the corner of his T-shirt.

“ I won’t,” I said with confidence that sprung from the knowledge that anything, any creature, no matter how lowly would be better than trying to bound like those pesky deer.

“ OK, then. Your new role is to be a tree.”

For the first time in weeks I smiled. A tree, how absolutely divine. To think we hadn’t thought of this simple remedy earlier. I began to envisage myself dressed in tasteful muted tones of brown with a wreath of green, and a preponderance of enamel standing absolutely still; not moving one foot throughout the performance. ” That’s how a good dance should be done,” I thought.

However, on the wooden floor stillness was apparently not an option.

“ You have to sway rhythmically,” Radhika said holding her hands up and leaning from one side to the other.

“ Most trees I know stand still,” I muttered.

“ How can you know a tree?” Pratul asked.

“ I was speaking figuratively,” I said, knowing of course that the knowledge would be wasted on the philistine.

“ I don’t care about your past relations with trees Tushar. This is my dance and you are going to do exactly what I’m telling you,” Radhika said.

I nodded, swaying to and fro was a damn sight better than the gazelle-act.

I spent the following week standing rooted (excuse the pun) in one spot with both my arms held high, my head moving with the beat while the others performed the more complicated manoeuvres. It was of course a criminal waste of my time and tremendous latent potential, however, Radhika insisted that I spend every minute ‘practising’.

“ But I’ve mastered the rhythm by now,” I complained on the third day.

“ Mastered?” Radhika turned from instructing Spectacles at the other end of the room and glared at me, “ You look like a drunk sailor instead of a respectable tree, I’m doing my best not to scream out loud. Try to move your head slowly and do it in one smooth motion, don’t jerk it. Yes, that’s better…keep practising.”

By the time the week of the competition arrived my neck had grown sore and my joie de vivre had been throttled to death from all the time spent in the small room staring at the wall. As I boarded the train to Lucknow I reflected that it was just as well that Radhika wasn’t attending the competition; the knowledge that she was hundreds of kilometres away would doubtless lend a certain freedom to my movements, an ease of comporting myself on stage. I fell asleep with the comforting thought in mind (it was an overnight train with harder-than-granite bunk beds).

I was deep in slumberland, dreaming of winning an armful of medals (in the Geography component of the competition, not the dance) when Nikhil rapped his knuckle on my head.

“ Yeah?” I asked.

“ Radhika wants to talk to you,” he said holding out his Nokia mobile.

I got up from the bed. Putting on my spectacles I noticed Nikhil was in Mickey Mouse PJs. I wisely did not comment on it at the time and instead took the proffered phone.

“ Tushar?”

“ Yeah.”

“ Happy birthday.”

“ Oh, thank you,” I said. She was off by a day, but as psychologists will tell you it is the sentiment that counts; and I was quite overcome.

“ And listen…”

“ Yeah,” I asked holding the phone closer to my ear, feeling a warm glow of kindness for my former tormentor. “ What is it?”

“ Don’t f**k up.”

* * *

Surprisingly enough I did not, to paraphrase Radhika’s assertion, cause consternation. I admit all was not smooth sailing — in the middle of the dance my grip on the cardboard tree cut-out I had been given slackened and Spectacles nearly tripped on it, but what are such trifles in the grand scheme of events? The crowd wildly applauded our performance, the judges loved us: “ The student portraying the tree was so masterful, he had such finesse. We were mesmerized by the gentle undulations, the vivid facial expressions…just brilliant and yes the rest of you were not too repellent either, but he, he was the consummate maestro.” (They didn’t actually say anything but these thoughts were doubtless at the forefront of their mind.)

My teammates were happy, other than Spectacles who insinuated that I had intentionally dropped the tree cut-out (which was a stupid idea to begin with) but she was probably just jealous of my Art and the smiles the judges had bestowed upon me. Ms. Kumar was exuberant because she got to see the performance live (they were streaming it online). Radhika was content because it was her choreography that had garnered applause. And I was euphoric because I would never again have to dance. Such a trial, I felt, could only happen once in a lifetime, and the Gods were probably well satisfied with the equanimity with which I had faced the crisis.

After this fairytale ending, time passed as it is wont to do. I grew taller and thinner (though no less clumsy), a manly beard accentuated the rugged contours of my face, Radhika and Nikhil graduated (a day that deserved wild celebration in my mind), Pratul took to rapping (the Internet has many a crime to answer for) and Spectacles continued winning debate competitions. I moved to a different school and the spectre of the dance all but faded from my mind.

I was now in my last year of high school. One warm August afternoon I was called to the principal’s office. She wanted me to represent the school at a leadership summit along with two other students. I agreed blithely enough however, a few moments later the topic of cultural performance was broached.

“ The summit requires every team to hold some sort of cultural performance,” our principal said, staring at us over her steel-gray glasses.

“ Maybe we could recite shlokas,” I suggested.

The principal swivelled her gaze towards me,“ Tushar we will not do something that boring. Remember you are representing the country, we have to put on a grand exhibit.”

She turned her gaze to the two other leaders-in-waiting. “ Fortunately Vidya* and Ria* are quite good at dancing. They can train you.”

I felt a hollow form in my stomach, the precursor to future mishaps.

“ Out of curiosity which dance form do you guys know,” I asked as we left the shade of the office and stepped into the bright sun.

“ Oh just some jazz, ballet and yeah some Bharatanatyam,” Ria said.

“ Yeah, I know some Bharatanatyam too,” Vidya added and smiled widely.

To be continued…

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