Baby Doll – Trusha Navalkar

Ilustration by Delna Abraham
Ilustration by Delna Abraham

She saw the red needle inch steadily rightwards. It was almost hypnotic, the slow, graceful arc traversed by the tiny protrusion. She mentally egged it on to outpace the equidistantly placed numbers that were jeering at her in sharp relief. To her adrenaline-pumped self the scene seemed to be playing out in excruciating slow motion. The dogs were barking at her heels, comically snapping their canines, the saliva streaming out of the corners of their mouths freezing mid-air like crystals on display for passing commuters to admire.

The frozen, static saliva reminded her, alarmingly, of them gaining vantage.

She revved her midnight blue Vespa onto an elevation that appeared on her right, and right on time too for the road turned an abrupt left. Bumping along, it didn’t take her too long to realise that the elevation was a dubiously held-together strip of boulders that was supposed to be a wall, a wall of a width that just about accommodated the thickness of her Vespa’s tyres, all this to escape four manic dogs giving her a furious chase. The absurdity of the scene escaped her; the imminent danger of being shred to bits shut up her micro-analytic mind for once.

For a second she allowed herself the fantasy of whizzing past a rugged John Abraham, a la Dhoom. She imagined giving him what she hoped was a sexy slight side smile while he stared at her dumbfounded. Sure her Vespa was no Hayabusa, but tonight for all intents and purposes it was no less. Bless the Italians and their sense of design, she mused. She imagined an animated retelling of the night’s incidents and everyone’s reactions- jaw-dropped, wide-eyed and awed….

She was still revelling in a premature survivor’s high when she had to snap herself out of her reverie, for a few feet ahead the wall came to an abrupt end. She turned her neck a little to gauge how far behind she’d left the dogs barking. Then, pushing a nagging thought to the fringes of her mind, she took a deep breath and tightened her grip on the accelerator.

She flung off the wall in what looked like a graceful ballet-esque leap, in slow motion, while all sounds muted in the background. She felt so light, despite trying to manoeuvre mid-air a metal contraption weighing over a tonne. Orchestraic music rose in crescendo in sync with her trajectory. Wow, this really does feel like Dhoom.

She landed, momentarily imbalanced, with a thud that seemed to act as a cue for all sounds in the air to un-mute together. The mad barking and distant honking suddenly drowned her senses as she tried to will some control over the wavering lean- machine. Not wanting to take any chances, she just accelerated into the night.

The rhythm of her heart thudding against her chest sounded like music to her ears, intermingling with the isolated sounds of the night- the faraway honks, the low hum of vehicles, the occasional drunkard singing off-key…and a high pitched maniacal laughter. The sounds dissolved in and out of the nightscape, but the high pitched laughter continued ringing in her ears. It wasn’t until she’d left the main road behind and drifted on to the bridge that she realised it was her own. Bathed in the warm golden glow of the street lights, her spirit exalted by the solitude of the midnight, she threw her head back and soaked in the moment, aware of every cell in her body throbbing with life. Awash in the relief of being alive, she just carried on deeper into the city, going with the flow. It felt liberating to do something unplanned, something spontaneous. She now finally understood what motivated adrenaline junkies.

She felt like the master of the night, as if the road stretched out in front of her was laid out especially for her. There was no other human or animal to be seen. It was ethereal, yet eerie. Gold seemed strangely omnipresent. Airbrushed, larger than life models decked up in gold smiled at her from all sides. She encountered four more gold jewellery billboards. The only exception was a billboard that rose in view with a looming gold crown advertising the pompousness of Alchemy Heights apartments.  She brushed away the peculiarity. She blissfully went on riding, ignoring the popping up of gold in her vision every now and then. To add to the absurd universal synchronicity, the chart razing pop number ‘Baby Doll’ began busting in her ear. Ye duniya…ye duniya pittal di…ye duniya pittal di…ye duniya pittal di…

Before the singer could stroke her narcissistic ego any further, she revved up her engines loud enough to block out the lilting catchphrase of the song (she hated it). She had a sneaking feeling the song was being played for her.

She decided she’d had enough adventure and spontaneity for one night. Thankfully, she hadn’t strayed too far from the familiar routes in her post-adventure bliss. Now she was unable to comprehend what motivated adrenaline junkies; the crash after the high was truly wrecking. She decided to avoid the main road and prayed the mongrels in the gallis decided to sleep this one night. Talking of mongrels! May be it was because she was deluged in gold that she had the sudden epiphany that eluded her so far in the adrenaline haze- She was chased by Golden Retrievers.

As the high of adrenaline suddenly painfully subsided, her incessantly over-thinking conscious brain took over. The nagging thought that she’d pushed to the back of her mind now jumped to the fore like a pop-up book. Since when did people start abandoning Golden Retrievers in the middle of the night? Why were so many of them let loose?

Unable to reconcile ear-thumping Baby Doll, the sudden sprouting of gold jewellery ads and the pandemic of Golden Retrievers on the road, her sense of liberation of a moment ago morphed into confusion and was quickly giving way to paranoia; she felt like a victim of a well planned, well executed prank.

She suddenly started feeling cold. Acutely aware of the gooseflesh developing on her skin, she craved some warmth but was too scared to pause and retrieve her jacket from the dickey. Wait a minute, wasn’t I already wearing one when I left the office? She looked down and was befuddled by the sight that met her. Her legs were wrapped in the elaborate folds of a saree– an exquisite Kanjivaram silk saree with an intricately embroidered gold border.

Seized by an utter sense of stupefaction, she steadied her hands on her bike and gulped in mouthfuls of air to calm her heart rate, now rising for the second time. Positively wheezing, she thought she would burst as she heard ye duniya pittal di increase in volume and tempo. Under different circumstances she would have been delighted to see gold dust scattered everywhere, for it reminded her of Tinkerbell. To her horror however, she realised it was the golden border of her Kanjivaram de-threading into a golden trail behind her.

She arched her neck behind to see the golden thread unfurl into gold dust as it suspended in the air in a Brownian motion. It was a surreal sight, if tinged by a sense of life threatening anxiety.

It was so surreal that it remained in her waking consciousness in the morning after she woke up. She was vaguely relieved that the toothpaste wasn’t golden in colour. She was used to absurd dreams. She was also used to making sense of absurd dreams; a dog-eared copy of Dream Interpretation by Sigmund Freud lay faithfully on her bedside table. She looked at the book that had remained untouched for a few months, like it was the forbidden fruit of knowledge. She felt tempted to leaf through it again, the inexplicable pull of all things mysterious drawing her in. Her Virgoan tendency of analysing and filing away every piece of information in her mind latched onto anything unexplained, unaccounted for and proceeded to prod and probe for any strains of residual reason and logic.

Dream interpretation, she felt, was like predictive astrology, relevant in vague terms and in spurts. It also held the same power of influence. It was difficult to resist a peek every now and then once you indulged. You begin to obsess over every dream you’ve ever had, and the day that followed, to check for signs that match. It makes you over- think to the point of paranoia. Like checking horoscopes every day, constantly interpreting dreams fucks you up too. You know you need to stop when you deliberately start to mould the events in your real life to fit the ones in an uncertainly interpreted dream life.

We shall not get into the details of how exactly she went overboard with Freud and his phallic obsessions. Desist to say it wasn’t pleasant. She picked up the book anyway, justifying the move in her head by reminding herself of the sheer absurdity of the dream. Having flipped through it till the last page, she felt a little silly for expecting Golden Retrievers and Kanjivaram sarees in a book written by the man about a hundred years ago and whose theories, while forming the bedrock of modern psychoanalysis, were also largely debunked. She would have to rely on her own deductive abilities it seemed. They’d never failed her in the past; she never gave up sniffing, like a determined Beagle.

Ignoring the layer of dust on the floor, she plonked herself in front of her wardrobe and fished out the only saree in her possession. She ran her finger over the intact gold border depicting Lord Vishnu’s foils in his various avatars, all the while marvelling at the intricacies of the embroidery. She smiled at the wave of nostalgia that washed over her. Her first cousin’s wedding the past year was notably fun considering it was a South Indian wedding. Decked up in a traditional Kanjeevaram saree, she played the part of a traditional Indian girl to the hilt, letting her ‘loose urban girl’ ways slip under the radar. Mixing alcohol in the beverages and smuggling in an occasional cigarette made for her collection of adventurous stories for the summer. The wedding, despite her sneaky tries to slip under the radar, also brought her under the glare of the spotlight, for she was now second in line to get married. The bored Kotamraju aunts of course displayed hitherto unexpressed interest in her and her prospects. The bets were on her choices, or the deemed lack of them, for her ‘unfeminine’ and ‘modern’ ways were unanimously voted to prove a roadblock in scoring marital bliss.

Fair enough, she thought. She hadn’t exactly given them a reason to favour her and swoon all over her 100% pre-surgery natural self. She was unlike her cousin in almost all aspects. She wasn’t the pretty one or the homely one growing up. She wasn’t bashful in public as was expected of respectable women. She wasn’t the one who brought prospective-groom-boyfriends home for a formal introduction to the family. Worse, a slight on her femininity- she wasn’t overindulgent when it came to vanity. The truth is she’d felt limited all her life due to being, simply put, fat. No point being euphemistic about it, she thought now that the surgery had provided a much needed perspective.

It was one of the reasons why she appreciated the saree so much. It was a versatile garment that could drape and flatter every body type. A saree could do wonders to a woman’s silhouette, hiding all the problem areas while adding a dash of grace to the gait, the kind raunchy Bollywood numbers were written after. It was also the first time in a long time that she allowed herself the indulgences of being a woman. She allowed her over-excited cousins to dab some makeup onto her, let them style her hair (before they fell limp after all protein leached out from her post-surgery) and even accessorised! She felt rather feminine. Sure, the limits on mobility caused by draping the saree round and around and around and…did get irritating after a while. But she had to admit there was a faint charm to the whole trying-to-run-while-holding-the-helm-of-the-saree thing that depicts a Bollywood actress at her innocent best.

This saree accorded her all this before the confidence surge that came with the post-surgery weight loss. Feminine indulgences and attention had now become a more frequent occurrence. Her fingers reached the panel depicting the churning of the celestial ocean by Lord Vishnu as Mohini. She smiled. It was one of her favourite mythological stories. She loved how Indian mythology was full of god-like characters of ambiguous morality and how they often resorted to trickery and deceit to upstage the Asuras. Churning of the celestial ocean was a personal favourite growing up. It amused her to no end; the tales of Lord Vishnu’s beguiling Apsara charm that enchanted the Asuras long enough for the Gods to retrieve the Somras from the ocean bed. It was strangely comforting in her childhood. The thought of a male Vishnu evoking such mind-numbing distraction in his female avatar was indicative of hope- for her future. She had learnt about the power of beauty at an early age. As it got cloaked over time by other practical matters, this lesson remained embedded somewhere deep in her subconscious. Admiring the quality of the craftwork one last time, she carefully folded the saree and placed it at the back of the wardrobe where, hidden behind a waiting avalanche of clothes, she was sure it’d be preserved with the care it deserved.

On the ride to work that day, she was in a sort of reverie. She was musing about Mohini, about the much hallowed grace of the celestial Apsaras and the subtle power of beauty that could subvert power dynamics. Mythology was replete with examples- Helen and the debacle of Troy, Mohini, Draupadi, Sita… To her, they were somewhat of an enigma. Ek, do, teen…Bollywood also tried to replicate the legend of the Apsaras. Sure enough, Madhuri’s Mohini became the Apsara of her generation…

Her mind was swimming in thoughts of the simmering strength of femininity in the ancient scriptures- the neglected yin, the chi, the river, Lady Magdalene, the Shakti- even as she walked to her desk. She sighed over the hailing of all that represented the masculine; she herself had given more prominence to masculine traits as a child growing up. She found being like boys- and being a boy- was more favourably accepted than being a conventional girl. Her whole life she’d tried to mould herself to suit the male ideal, while actively rejecting the feminine. Make no haste; it proved to be immensely empowering as she was largely more independent and self-reliant than her female peers. Sure it meant she was never considered the pretty one, the boys didn’t line up for her (though she had the best ones admiring her from a distance, which she of course never knew) and she earned the disapproval of her extended family (especially the aunts who used her as an example of what not to become). She’d faced a lot of criticism growing up. It was confusing. But she cocooned herself in her non-feminine disposition and used it as a defence, sometimes even offence, against the oppressive world, all the while convincing herself that intelligence, independence and self-reliance were the gains that disproportionately outnumbered the losses…A sudden piinng interrupted her flow of thought. She turned her face to the computer screen and got swept away by the work duties that kept piling up.

She plonked her lunch in front of her desk neighbour with whom she shared a working relationship characterised by mean banter bordering on the offensive. Yet they were still genial and looked out for each other. He unknowingly illuminated the rude truths of her life for which she was secretly thankful, but she wasn’t going to tell him that anytime soon.  “So, how’s your love life fatso?” She grimaced at him but let it go. He was a senior from college and she knew him enough to not mind his tactlessness. “Still non-existent?” She sighed, “Yes, just like yours.” “I’m still getting some,” he countered. “I thought we were talking about love life, not sex-life”, she smiled at him. Tally 1-0. “Oh c’mon!” he groaned. “I like being precise,” she offered.

The bickering was to continue had they not been interrupted by the sudden appearance of a huge sponge cake that read ‘Happily Married’. The colleague in question blushed and seemed visibly drenched in post-marital bliss. Clapping for her sent our protagonist’s over-thinking self into a worry-typhoon. She couldn’t imagine being married at twenty-four, tethered so young. Plus there was the whole who-would-marry-her-she’s-so-fat-and-boyish thing that her aunts had rooted deep in her mind. “Why do you want to get married? You seem content enough being by yourself,” piped up the tactlessness again. She didn’t realise she’d been murmuring out loud. “I can’t imagine you married, being spoken for. I wonder what kind of man would fall for you.”

Huh, she thought. She was speechless for a minute, seething inside while outwardly projecting a façade of bubbling happiness. It was unexpected to receive this kind of bullshit from a product of the current generation. It really stung. She felt being pulled further into the typhoon, her critical self launching into a monologue a step higher- why would he say so? What if he’s right? Does everybody think of me this way still? What if I never find love?…”Just give him oral,” he winked. Yet again she was murmuring her thoughts out loud. She began to spiral further into the abyss of self-loathing. She tried to shake these thoughts off of her; but it was too late. The gloom had descended on her. Not wanting to kill the celebratory buzz, she hugged her still-blushing colleague and excused herself to go to the water cooler, but not before she had a tiny piece of the gorgeous cake so as to not offend her colleague.

Seeing the water fill in the glass only made her feel her throat constrict more. She never had any affinity towards water bodies. The indefinite shape, the uncertainty of structure, the ever elusive horizon… didn’t gel with her need for structure, definition and boundaries. She found it difficult to wrap her head around it; it was formless, shapeless and mutable after all. Glugging down the water sip by sip she tried to will the thoughts down her throat, into her oesophagus to be churned by her intestines and finally excreted out of her system. It is just the kind of tactlessness one expects of him, she tried to console herself.

While waiting for her cab after filing her stories, she Googled ‘dream interpretation’. After a string of key words, finally gold dust and Golden Retrievers served up hits. The minor glimmer of excitement generated got just as instantly snuffed out. “Golden retriever is an indicator of family ideals. It’s also a pun on something that needs to be retrieved or regained control over….. Gold dust streaming through fingers indicates regret of some relationship ending. Feeling like a terrible mistake has been made…. None of them sounded encouraging. Her foreboding was turning pathological as she tried to think of possessions lost and relationships gone sour. So much negativity gave her a headache. The stress of looming deadlines and a bummer of an afternoon made her head feel so heavy that she felt she couldn’t think any further. God, how could thinking be so laborious? It could get quite taxing to live in her head.

That night she just tested her blood sugar levels and retired to bed. At least something went right in the day; her blood sugar, thankfully, stayed at normal levels. Of course her constantly chattering mind didn’t shut up and she didn’t get a wink until quite later when sheer exhaustion put her to sleep. Meanwhile, resolving to not think about the dream any further, she couldn’t help but continue where her stream of thought was interrupted by the arrival of work. She lay wide awake staring at the ceiling letting her thoughts run amok… The gains were disproportionately larger, but the losses were there, very much there. And they seemed to have reared their head now that her, hitherto ignored, looks seemed to have jumped into view like a naughty photobomber. Her life had seen an upheaval in the span of a few short months. She suddenly fit into clothes she didn’t dare look at with desire, began to be noticed at pubs by cute guys (she found to her surprise she too had a flirting gene), found herself in the company of the desired and the desirable, and shockingly, developed a hidden bitch side she didn’t know existed. She felt she had become a meaner person since losing all that weight, now that she didn’t have the crutch of ‘fatness’ to rely on. She found herself giving sarcastic, sometimes caustic, replies and where earlier she would’ve just shut up, trying to evade attacks on her looks. She wondered if she had been lying to herself about her inherent goodness. She still didn’t know how to deal with, how to live with, the girl inside her that was pushing and jostling her way out trying to expose herself. The foundation of her core identity now seemed to be wavering. This whole femininity business was hella confusing and sending her into an existential tizzy…

Having rested enough giving her mind-on-overdrive a break of eight hours, she woke up afresh, ready to face the day she had been looking forward to for a month. The wait till the evening was excruciating until finally she settled comfortably in her seat reserved for the Press. The perks of being a journalist, she smirked to herself. The grand yet frugal production started minus any frills and devotional antics; Chandralekha, the Bharatnatyam danseuse turned choreographer was known for her rebellious ways.  She had read a lot about Chandralekha’s experimentation with Western Contemporary Dance and her larger efforts in trying to break away from traditional Bharatnatyam conventions. To see Chandralekha’s choreography in action was an experience in itself, one unparalleled by any other. Bharatnatyam combined with yoga infused an otherworldly grace into the dancers who seemed lost in a state of trance. As the audience oohed and aahed and gasped, she remained transfixed in her seat, not uttering a sound, her pen lying stationary in the air. The finesse of the adavus coupled with the enviable flexibility created beautiful anatomical structures and silhouettes, enhanced by the strategic psychedelic light play. She gazed in awe at the perfection of the rapid footwork and the nritya hastas. The abhinaya of course stole the show. She had never seen a dance production this moving. She sat back in awe as the dancers walked, rather glided, in for the second act. She was intrigued by their choice of frugal costumes and props. She groaned upon seeing a golden Shivalinga, though seeing Shiva walk in as the lights dimmed only served to heighten her excitement.

The whole world was in the clutches of an existential crisis. It was in imminent danger of collapsing altogether. The Atlas like figures seemed to be bending under the weight of trying to hold it up, hold it together. The apocalypse predicted was finally happening, dot on time; the world was coming to an end; literally, figuratively and in every way possible. The souls were in crisis: those burning in hell crying for help, those in heaven pleading for mercy. For a change, there was no difference between the two. Bound by destruction, they were all one and the same- the figures in white and the figures in black. The material world was all but annihilated, with scattered debris all over, like the shattering of the illusion that it was. The world was being revealed for it was, in all its terrible glory way beyond any human’s perception. The jarring contrast caused by the lack of flamboyance in the art direction somehow only added to the sinister appeal, leaving much to the neurotic imagination to run free with. As the cloak of civility was unceremoniously ripped off (like it always had been in mythology) and the Earth descended into chaos, the Gods tried to intervene. But all pleas fell into deaf ears. Or rather ears attuned to a music only they could hear. In the far corner, Shiva didn’t move a muscle or a hair strand in response to the Gods’ frantic pleas. For an onlooker, it was a chance to witness the greatest production of all; except there were no passive onlookers, for Shiva’s fury consumed all.

Then it finally happened. The third eye revealed itself, taking in every inch of the apocalyptic scene, the survivors gazing back in to it with a mixture of fear and hope, looking for any sign of sympathy. Then as if lost in a state of trance, Shiva with the legendary mane began to respond to the drum beats. The music that governed the destruction now choreographed the downfall of all of Existence itself. He alone could infuse grace into the utter wildness, utter chaos, the ultimate letting go- the Tandava. As terrible as the wrath of Shiva was said to be, the Tandava was the most anticipated, most feared of his states. Now erratic in frenzy, the God of Destruction had woken up from his meditative trance and he wasn’t too happy. It was now time; time to strike balance, time to strike. The energies had remained unbalanced for thousands of years; the outcome was inevitable. The surviving mass of humans at once tried to rearrange itself as a last futile bid to pacify Shiva.

Humanity deserved it, having ignored all hints over generations and generations. It was the nature of things after all. It was just the cyclic Cosmic Laws meting out justice. Birth and destruction were two sides of the same coin- like good and evil, love and hate, big and small, war and peace, life and death, night and day, masculine and feminine; each clutched the other for support. Black and white intertwined thus after millenia, united by Shiva’s efforts. They were one and the same really, but humanity’s illusory vision fogged them to the point of blinding them to the truth, to Advaita. If humanity could have its way, it’d go on dividing, go on separating, go on distinguishing. Advaita was like the admonishing elder sister and Tantra the free-spirited rollicking child. Tantra had had her run and was now hurtling down the hill, gaining momentum by the second. There was no point protesting it. Why do they even try? Shiva laughed out loud, manic in disposition. He was, simply put, out of control and relishing every moment of it. This was when he got to revel in himself -the violence and the aggression he so carefully tethered to the discipline of meditation now let loose. He wasn’t going to stop anytime soon, claiming his right like an entitled male. Only one celestial being could calm him down, but she was inconspicuous by her absence.

Bound and gagged, Shakti, stumbling into view could only despair over the developments. It was only time before she would be unable to help. Her whole body twitched and squirmed and tried to wriggle free, every sinew, every instinct in her body aching to dance. Like the essential duality of all things, Shiva’s Tandava was accompanied by Shakti’s Lasya. Her femininity was so powerful that it could pacify Shiva’s excess masculine energy. When Shakti attuned to her music, the celestial heavens watched in rapt attention, hypnotised by her grace, her laya. Even in her gagged, bound state there was a hint of grace in the way she wriggled and squirmed. The polar opposite of Tandava, Lasya was a soulful, mindful call to movement. So supreme, so sublime was the beauty of the two that her human descendants tried to capture and distillate the essence of the Cosmic dance. Today, Shiva’s Bharatnatyam found no companion in Shakti’s Kuchipudi.

Shakti’s urgency was only fair, since they’d danced together the world into existence, enraptured in the rhythms of Shringar Rasa. This very union was worshipped by millions of disciples on Earth as the moment of creation in the form of the Shivalinga, a phallic symbol. A tear rolled down her glowing cheek as she began to see the first glimpses of a crack appear on the golden Shivalinga. It pained her to see the state of their union as it stood currently. With every thump of Shiva’s foot, the crack deepened. As the Gods looked on in utter dejection, even the most powerful of them, Vishnu the Protector, couldn’t bear the sight of the Shivalinga snapping into two. The annihilation was complete. All that could be seen was only gold dust suspended in a Brownian motion, the whole world suffused in a golden glow…

She woke up drenched in sweat, panting for air. Feeling for her pillow and blanket, she sighed in relief to see everything intact. The world was very much alive and kicking; time ticked on, the Earth still revolved around the Sun, the Moon revolved around the Earth and life went on as it always had. There it was, the Moon full in its glow and glory, suspended in the night sky. She was vaguely relieved it didn’t glow golden. The shattering of the golden Shivalinga shook her to the core, shattered her soul. She was hardly surprised it was golden; she was the golden Baby Doll after all.

There was no way she was going back to sleep after witnessing the destruction of the world. As disconcerted as she was, she was still impressed by her subconscious’ ability to fuse perceptible reality and imperceptible abstractions into a short movie one saw in their sleep. Should ease out on apocalyptic research, she thought. Google was now her go- to guide for dream interpretation as Freud was painfully anglicised in his approach; only a democratic web could help her. She shivered as her fingers trembled over the keyboard. She knew what she was looking for, she knew what to expect. The message couldn’t be more loud and clear. The reality she had been suppressing so far had revealed itself in her dream like a child throwing a tantrum for attention. She couldn’t ignore it any longer. “Golden retriever is an indicator of family ideals. It’s also a pun on something that needs to be retrieved or regained control over… She was for the longest time made to want to behave like a boy, be a boy for all practical purposes. She now had to rescue and retrieve the asphyxiating girl inside, regain control over her gender identity crisis. “Gold dust streaming through fingers indicates regret of some relationship ending. Feeling like a terrible mistake has been made… A terrible mistake had indeed been made. She had ignored all hints hinting at the imbalance in her life. She never admitted it to herself, but her relationship with herself was rocky. To add to the jigsaw puzzle, the golden Shivalinga had snapped into two. She was terrified. Did it mean it was too late? Had she progressed to a point of no return? Was it too late to reclaim her femininity? Too late to rescue the bound and gagged Shakti? It was the writhing form of Shakti that illuminated her to the condition of the Shakti within her; how she had kept her gagged and bound so she couldn’t even cry for help. Every squirm of Shakti resonated within her; she had a physical reaction to the abstract dream. Feeling sick in the gut, she ran to the bathroom just in time to puke out the violent disturbance within her. Pale after the violent retching, she lapsed into a dreamless sleep, as if there was nothing to dream about; the world had after all met its destruction.

It was clear that she had to now ‘girl up’. The only glitch was she didn’t know how. All her actions, her reactions were attuned to masculinity. She had trained herself to behave like her brothers, watching and making mental notes on the sidelines. She learnt to stifle a giggle because it was a typical girly trait. She suppressed her growing vanity as it was a luxury accorded only to women. She killed every natural instinct that felt feminine. She suppressed herself.

Despite herself, she woke up early and headed to the bookstore. She didn’t know what she was looking for; she’d thought of perusing the self-help aisle. She just hoped no familiar face spotted her, she didn’t want to be one of those losers.

Chicken soup for the Soul, Chicken soup for the Teenage Soul, Chicken soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Patriotic Soul…there was no Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul to be found. Management, stress management, weight loss, creative thinking, effective parenting, even pregnancy found some help on the self-help aisle. But there didn’t seem to be anything for childless women. She found a corporate hacks book urging women to be more assertive and aggressive in the workplace, behave more like the men. No thanks. Bummed, she just started to walk aimlessly, running her fingers over the book spines. She loved the feeling, the only thing that was preventing her mood from plunging again. She was in the company of books and knew she was being taken care of.

Her eyes drifted over to her fingers. She suddenly paused and went back a few books. There, nestled between two fat editions of the Bhagavad-Gita, was an inconspicuous The Creation of the World Part III- The Cosmic Dance. It wasn’t what she was looking for, but hey who doesn’t want to know how the world came into existence? Any explanation excluding Physics and Chemistry and hard Sciences was rare to come by. She pulled it off the shelf and flipped through the pages. While musing over the text, a line caught her eye. She quickly turned back the pages…“…mindful indulgence in an activity is the true religion- it is a painting, it is a song, it is a dance, it is science, it is true beauty, it is celebration, it is meditation, it is the divine, it is me, it is you…” Something about the line resonated within her. She began to read further and was soon so engrossed that she finished reading half of the book in the store itself. She flipped through the book one last time heading to the counter, simply to indulge in the feel of a book. Closing it, she reflected over the cover. The hardback had an image of Natraj lost in trance. The look of bliss on his face strangely drew her in. For a few minutes she stood just stood there looking at it. She could identify with the image. She herself had been privy to the meditative after-effects of a spiritual approach to dance.

She recounted how she had gooseflesh while watching the dance recital. She was so moved that she was blank. She had experienced one of the most beautiful sights in the world, so much so that her body had reacted too. With every beat of the laghu, the dhrutam and the anudhrutam, she could feel her feet respond. Before long, she was tapping her feet in sync with the dancers’. She longed to fit into the aharya again and get swept away by the infectious energy of the dancers, get swept away by the dance.  Shiva dancing the Tandava was only a hark back to the times long gone when she was a Bharatnatyam disciple, being schooled in the Thanjavur style. As a child she’d gaze longingly at the didis attempting to perform the Tandava and the Lasya, often loitering around after class to watch them practice. Enchanted as if being entertained by Apsaras, she’d sigh and fantasise about reaching that stage some day; she was still working on perfecting her adavus at the time.

She reminisced over why she gave up Bharatnatyam in the first place. She’d thrown thunderous tantrums to withdraw from the class. She still remembered the raised voices, the tears, the utensils hurled around in the kitchen, the look of disappointment on her mother’s face…the feeling of devastation that descended on her soon after. She could never forget that horrible feeling of suddenly being untethered from an anchor to be let loose to the ever mutable, ever changing sea…Sure enough the memories came back to her in snippets. She could hear in her head all those snarky comments on her weight, the bullying, the mean nicknames, the taunting (even though she was among the best). That’s the funny thing about self-esteem, as much as you may try to convince yourself it’s too shallow to place importance on looks, the truth is it is like your shadow. It never leaves your side and looms over your existence, disappearing only when you are in your darkest moments, having morphed into self-loathing. She had nursed an injured self-esteem her whole life that made her give up her one passion- Bharatnatyam. With that she lost the last traces of her authentic self. She had to now turn around and grab the little sobbing girl by hand and lead her into self-awareness, into the aharya clad, foot-tapping world of Bharatnatyam.

She hesitated outside the door of her childhood guru. She was at once deluged by unpleasant memories and considered running away. However, the visual of the Shivalinga snapping into two was too disturbing to ignore. She crossed the threshold with a firm resolve. Voices reciting the talas floated up to her and little girls ran around in the traditional aharya. She smiled; it smelled like childhood, like home. She gingerly walked into the demo class. She tried to hide her eyes as she bent to touch her guru’s feet. He held her gaze for a long time, then smiled a knowing smile at her. Something in her gaze told him that this time she’d stay. The wordless interaction was enough to alleviate all her nervousness, all her fears. She was warmly accepted, for the wild- haired chandan- smeared old man rarely graced his students with a smile. Holding back her tears stoically, she walked up to the reception desk and asked for the registration form. Oh, how the place had modernised…The bored looking receptionist began tapping her pen on the desk. She took hold of the pen gingerly and proceeded to write her name. She suddenly giggled, as if laughing at an inside joke.

She wrote down her name in her characteristic long strokes – Lasya Kotamraju


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