This is a continuation of the semi-fictionalized Two-Act Tragedy post.
“ Can I be a tree?” I asked Vidya as we got into the taxi.
“ Yeah totally…wait what? A tree?” she looked up from her phone, her forehead wrinkled.
“ Never mind, an inside joke.” I turned to look out of the window, trying to catch my first glimpse of Singapore.
As the taxi pulled out of the airport I saw a distant green canopy, as more of the city came into view I forgot about the dance and glued myself to the window noting the familiar, and staring at the strange.
After a short drive (nothing in Singapore is very far) we disembarked at the school that was hosting the leadership summit. Our student guide directed us to our rooms, talking very fast and excitedly, ” The beds in these rooms are super comfortable but you won’t get to sleep at all,” he said.
“ But the schedule shows events ending at 7 PM every day,” I pointed at the glossy brochure.
“ Ha,” our student guide laughed, and shook his head – incredulous at my naivety.
And indeed the next few days turned into a whirlwind of activities. We were whisked around all of Singapore and most days I barely had time to digest (or even eat) my breakfast before we boarded the bus.
All of this activity kept my mind of the looming spectre of the cultural performance. Our principal had decided that the only way for our national pride to escape unscathed was to perform a good ol’ Bharatanatyam and Bollywood fusion dance. “ Anything less would be unsatisfactory,” she informed us in her office, adjusting her spectacles and transfixing me with her basilisk gaze (I had suggested reciting ancient Sanskrit verses in our first meeting, an idea that struck her as tame and dull – oh well, to each his own).
However, on our third day at the summit the after dinner time-slot was reserved for ‘cultural performance preparation’. The program was 2 weeks long and we (or well they) thought our performance could easily be perfected in these regularly allotted pockets of time.
From the onset of our first meeting I knew we were in for a struggle. The moment the Ria* and Vidya* started to experiment with the dance moves I felt my limbs grow leaden, my mind stubborn. My unpleasant past experiences had surfaced to the forefront of my mind, and doubtless waned my enthusiasm.
But to be completely honest, my reluctance was in part due to a certain coolness that had sprung about between me and Ria and Vidya. Just a couple of days past there had been time dedicated for the groups to go sight seeing. I wanted to go on the night safari but the remaining 2/3rds of my team wanted to shop. So it came to pass that I found myself sitting in a marble-floored air-conditioned mall, the exact replica of the one back home – feeling stifled and restless. Where I could have been sighting exotic animals, and shudderingly speculating at mysterious movements in the dark I was watching a sea of humanity bustle in and out of bedecked stores, and emerging laden with goods – like buccaneers emerging from a ransacked ship. (Between you and me the mall was dedicated exclusively to high-end fashion labels and had not an XBox, PS or bookstore in sight, this naturally added to my discontent.)
These feelings festered and by the time the team got into a cab to head back home I had become awash in righteous fury. What, I asked the ‘Forever 21’ shopping bag that was obscuring Ria’s face, was the good of coming to a different country if not to explore and learn. Was it not our duty to broaden our minds (and for that matter our stomachs; I never got to try the local crab)? Was it wise to lounge in stodgy comfort when adventure was awaiting? My rhetorical questions were met with firms answers. Apparently there was a big sale of sorts going on at one of the high fashion stores (“A once in a lifetime opportunity,” Vidya said hyperbolically), and I was stupid to not recognize it. After this polarizing debate not another word was exchanged between the aggrieved parties. Vidya and Ria whispered to each other and I stared out of the window (a growing habit).
Relations hadn’t improved much by the time of our first practice and I sat in a corner of the mirror-lined dance floor while Vidya and Ria hunched over their laptop, looking at YouTube videos to figure out the choreography. Occasionally they would spin or execute a dance move and I would shudder, thinking of the unnatural contortions I would soon have to undergo. With them talking in soft voices, and with me contemplating a peaceful calm had descended over the room, this was shattered when the door swung open and our partner group strolled in. This group consisted of three tall stalwarts, two with guitars swung over their shoulders. Awkward pleasantries were exchanged. “ How do you do?” one of them asked shaking my hand, “ Miserably, thank you,” I was tempted to say but went for a small and tragic smile instead.
After all hands had been shaken, and all names misheard we sat down to discuss our joint cultural performance. “ We were thinking of doing a song,” one of the guitar-swashbucklers said, running a hand through his hair. My sunken heart rose like a submarine emptying the ballast. A song would solve all my woes. While I was certainly not a great crooner I could disguise my frog-croak in a group with considerable skill, indeed had years of practice doing so.
“ I think that’s a great idea,” I said.
“ You sing?” Vidya asked, incredulous.
“ Of course,” I said, trying my best to look offended by the question.
“ Do you also speak Tamil?” the second guitarist asked.
“ The song is in Tamil.”
“ Oh damn,” I said subsiding.
A word about Indic languages, there are over a 1000 and different ones are spoken in different parts of the country. All the languages share the same root language – Sanskrit, and occasionally you can understand a word or two from these – but for all practical purposes they’re foreign. I knew Hindi and English but that was the extent of my linguistic abilities.
“ Don’t worry you can lip-sync,” the third boy spoke up. I felt myself warming towards him – what a kind soul, just the sort the country needed.
“ I think you should stick to the dance,” Ria said, none too enthusiastically.
“ I’m afraid you’ll have to do without me,” I said turning to her, “ I’ll be joining these gentleman in their little acoustic rendition.”
Vidya looked as she was about to strangle me (the reason for their irateness was not because they were particularly fond of me or valued my dancing skills, but because they had already prepared choreography for three people), for the first time since leaving home I felt happy.
Learning the lyrics of a song in a language you don’t understand turned to be deviously difficult. While trying to lip-sync along I would lose track of where we were and soon find my lips moving gustily during a lull in the singing. It would have taken a fairly obtuse (or short-sighted) audience member to not recognize my bluff. To my further dismay, we discovered that the song lasted only 3 minutes while we had about 10 minutes for our performance. The dance would have to fill the remaining time, but it would look bad if two people did the majority of the performance. After another ad hoc council meeting (in which my suggestions were ruthlessly ignored) it was decided that everyone would participate in the dance and the song – to ensure parity of work. Vidya and Ria got busy re-working the choreography. I was inwardly bracing myself for the worst. It was a cruel fate to avoid the abyss so narrowly, and breathe the wholesome sigh of relief only to be hauled back in so abruptly.
When preparations for the dance began in earnest I was pleasantly surprised. I had expected the ordeal to be no less trying than my past experience but this time the Fates had done me a favour – the three musicians who had joined the troupe were even worse dancers than me, and in the wobbling shadow of their clumsiness my follies escaped unnoticed. The three while enthusiastic and not at all self-conscious lacked the necessary finesse. They thudded the dance floor with all the grace of a herd of hippopotami marching to the watering hole. They collided, jostled, fell; all in great good humor but driving Ria and Vidya to the precipice (“ I swear to God if they mess up one more step I’ll throw them and their guitars out of the dance,” I heard Vidya complain to Ria). Amidst this clumsy company I felt completely at ease, and when Ria snapped at me for missing a step I took no umbrage, after all I had survived the reign of Radhika the Ruthless – these two were just small timers.
As the days to the dance became lesser our practice sessions grew longer. The session 2 days before the finale stretched on and on and were all roundly insulted by Ria and Vidya (who were still maintaining an embargo with me). We emerged out of the practice room, hobbling, well after midnight.
Finally the day of the dance was upon us. I was feeling comfortable with the dance moves but tragedy struck in a different form. We had been practising in shorts and T-shirts but for the performance I donned a dashing kurta–pajama combination. To my consternation I found shortly before going on stage that my pajamas were alarmingly loose around my waist. My left arm had to constantly be on the alert lest the garment tried to divest itself (I had lost weight over the trip – a combination of the missed breakfasts and gruelling dance sessions). As I stepped on stage I was forced to move my hand away (the dance steps required both hands) I slipped in a small prayer to God. Fortunately my pajamas clung to my waist (hanging, as it were, on will power alone), and an international incident was narrowly averted. The dance itself was well received by the audience who applauded loudly and clearly were kind rather than just.
After the harrowing performance, I rushed off to change into my jeans. Having firmly wound the belt around my waist (and thus securing my modesty) I allowed myself a moment of stillness. As I glanced at myself in the mirror a tiny grin played on my face – the unadulterated joy of relief. ” Never again,” I promised my reflection, and watched the smiled grow wider.
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