The world began with a dance. First, there was only emptiness below the heavens, neither cold nor hot, neither white nor black, neither light nor dark. Then Lord Nataraja entered this void, raised one foot and brought it down, and reality blossomed, sprung from the rhythm of his heels and threaded through the endless nothing until it formed our world. This is why we can still see the cosmic dance etched into everything, from the spreading arms of the peepul tree to the cobra’s undulations. And this is why my mother dances: the stamp of her feet and the sway of her hips, the serene set of her face lit by the flickering brass diyas which line the temple walls. Black kaajal lines her lotus-petal eyes and her lips are painted red to highlight her mukkapil, the elaborate facial expressions she assumes as she narrates a tale through her body. She is halfway through the varnam now, the central aspect of her nightly performance. Today she is telling the story of two celestial lovers who have been separated by an ocean. Her right arm extends slowly, miming the breadth of the dark waters as her thumb and middle fingers pinch the air to form mukhuro-mudra: the hand gesture which symbolises loved ones who have been torn apart.
Crude whispers leak from the British press about the laxity of our morals here in the dancers’ quarter. They say we use the gods as an excuse to bed anyone whose pockets are not empty. They see our painted faces, bare feet dyed red with marutani, and flashy silk sarees––so bold, so different from the stiff pale clothing they wear––and call us wanton. They watch our languorous dances about love, see how our women are not cloistered or forbidden from partaking in life to its fullest extent, and call us courtesans. Prostitutes.
My mother expertly curls her right hand into soochikamukha-mudra––the sign of joyful reunion––and slants her gaze toward a dark-skinned, suit-clad young man sitting in one corner of the crowded indoor pavilion. Despite the rumours instigated by our colonisers, a dancer’s attention, especially from one so renowned as my mother, is still considered an honour and a blessing. Row upon row of watchers are seated on the floor. Their garments showcase a cross-section of our society: from the simple homespun shirts of menial labourers to the richly embroidered vestis wrapped around the legs of upper-caste merchants. At this time in the evening, most of the throng is composed of men, but a few women in shimmering sarees sit cross-legged beside their husbands, equally enraptured by the performance. Perhaps they wish, deep inside, to stand up and join her. Perhaps they are jealous.
My own fingers tap out a silent aimless beat on the warm stone floor. Although I am seventeen and therefore long past the age when I should have joined her in her performances, I have instead been relegated to watching from a corner as she whirls, channelling the spirit of Nataraja for a crowd of mesmerised worshippers. I have been told, by more people than I can count, that the physical resemblance I bear to my mother borders on the uncanny. My skin is darker, my build shorter and heavier; but I have her turned-up eyes, her full mouth, small nose, broad face, and curly hair. The effect is generally pleasant. Yet––and there is always a “yet”, lingering quietly, sorrowfully, in the air each time the compliment is delivered––yet, I do not have her abilities. My dancing is not simply clumsy and amateur. It is practically blasphemous. If I were to stand alongside her and attempt to mimic her routine, it is likely that Lord Shiva himself would bring about the end of the world simply to spare its inhabitants of the torture.
It is not for lack of interest that I cannot join her. Seven generations of dancing course through my blood, and even now the sweet voice of the singer burns in my belly. I would love nothing more than to carry on her work, but I cannot. Nobody has managed to find a cure for the way my arms and legs refuse to coordinate with each other, or the way the space around me bends and shifts dizzyingly before my eyes, throwing me off balance and making me collapse to the ground. Nobody has come up with an explanation beyond vague and unhelpful rumours of a family curse that swirl around our circles.
Her dance ends with the customary freestyle known as thillana––the lovers have found each other, and their happiness is shown through a series of increasingly quick twirls accompanied by deft mudra changes. The last note of the accompanying pajan is sung and applause resounds throughout the pavilion. My mother leans quietly against a wall, catching her breath, as the crowd disperses from the temple accompanied by a low wave of murmurs about what to cook for dinner and whose daughter is having an extravagant wedding in a week. Only the man in the suit remains, crossing over to the singer and leaning down to whisper a request in her ear.
The singer nods, rising to her feet and making her way over to my mother to pass on his message. He wants an audience with her, of course. Many men do––but seldom is this desire granted. The temple itself, to which my mother has been dedicated since her girlhood, provides us with a home and money for food. Unlike lesser dancers bereft of such a dedication, she has no need of sponsorship––only loneliness occasionally opens her heart. She has not entertained a serious suitor in many months––so perhaps this man may hold some attraction for her. He is tall, and handsome in a way which reminds me of a melancholic poet.
My mother turns to me. “Amara, will you go tell Mariamman that I will not be able to attend our lesson today? This gentleman would like a private conversation with me.”
I throw a quick look at her companion. My mother, like all of us, lives under the protection of the gods––yet for some men, that is not enough to garner their respect. But I am being uncharitable: he has done nothing to provoke these emotions, and his face seems trustworthy enough. “Of course, Amma,” I say, rising and brushing off the coating of withered petals and yellow grains of uncooked rice which cling to the back of my half-saree. The temple floor is permanently lined with a layer of these: remnants of offerings old and new.
My mother sighs and reaches for a corner of her saree, then withdraws an anna coin and hands it to me. “Buy some sweets on the way, in case she starts shouting.” I bite back a laugh as I take the money. With Mariamman, shouting is almost a certainty. My mother is supposed to visit her every evening, to learn new dances and devotional songs, but she has missed the entirety of this week for reasons which, according to Mariamman, are wholly unsatisfactory. “I’ll get adhirasam,” I reassure her. Mari’s favourite confection: a soft fried cake of rice flour, jaggery, and spices.
“Y–you’d better not stay too late.” My mother and I start in unison as the man, silent thus far, finally opens his mouth. “There’s been talk of setting a curfew––and even without one, some of the soldiers here hardly need an excuse to target an unaccompanied woman at night.” Immediately, the colour in his cheeks darkens. “Pardon me,” he says. “I’m a secretary at the fort. That’s how I know.”
My mother nods slowly, her expression uncomfortable. “Don’t linger,” she tells me.
The warning is unnecessary. At the mention of soldiers, my chest contracts uncomfortably. I have never exchanged words with any of the pink-faced men in khaki who march down our streets and sit at the forefront of the City of Vitaipattinam’s operations; and judging from what I have heard I would very much prefer to keep it that way. “I’ll be back before dark,” I reply, casting a glance through the open temple door and to the still-blue sky.
The adhirasam vendor, Aadhirayan, has evidently learnt to anticipate my visits, for he positions himself closer and closer to the temple every day. Today I step into the thick hot air and nearly run into his cart, which stands just outside the door. “Amara!” he says, flashing me a toothy actor’s grin. “The usual?”
“The usual,” I confirm.
Aadhirayan expertly scoops dough onto a wide oiled pan and lets it sizzle. “This is the fourth time you’ve visited in as many days. Is this a hint that you are waiting for a marriage proposal?”
“I’d rather marry the sweets,” I say mildly, and Aadhirayan laughs. Both of us know he’s joking, and it’s better that way: like my mother and hers before me, I am not meant for married life.
The thought crosses my mind before I can push it away: But I’m not meant for the life of a dancer, either. So what do I have left?
“Amara? You’ve been staring into nothing for the past minute,” Aadhirayan says gently, before handing me a steaming paper-wrapped parcel. “Here. And take this.” He presses two perfectly round brown pastries into my hand. The sweet fragrance of cocoanut and sugar wafts toward me, and I can’t help but smile. “You look like you need a bit of fortification,” he says, winking. Gesturing to the larger bundle, he adds, “Let me guess. That is a bribe for someone quite important––and, judging from the amount packed in there, possessed of quite a hearty appetite.”
It’s my turn to laugh. “Correct on both counts.”
Aadhirayan cups his hands under his chin in a show of deep thought. “Mariamman?”
“She stopped by here earlier today, you know. Bought twice the amount you did, all the while muttering about… what was it? Ah, yes: wayward upstart temple dancers neglecting her teachings and attempting to placate her with silly gifts.” He raises an eyebrow at me.
I grimace. Evidently, my mother’s pacification tactics aren’t as effective as she had hoped.
“I threw in a handful of laddu just in case,” Aadhirayan says, pointing to a large clay bowl filled with spherical yellow sweets, glistening with ghee. “Made them this morning. No extra charge, not for my best customer.” He winks again, languorously, and this time a bit of heat rises to my cheeks. “Good luck in dealing with Mariamman. She’s irritable even when she’s in a good mood.”
There is nothing understated about Mari. Her home is only a ten-minute walk from the temple, and its peacock-green façade sticks out amongst the narrow-faced homes cramped together on Thirunangi Lane––named after its inhabitants, the thirunangi, those dancers and singers whose spirits and bodies flow freely between the realms of male and female. As I draw up to her unlocked door, I can hear rhythmic thumping from within, interspersed with the occasional curt instruction.
I knock, tentatively. The noises halt; there is an annoyed mumble and a series of heavy footfalls before the door swings wide open and Mari peers down her hooked nose at me.
When addressing Mari, it is impossible to look anywhere except up. She towers over everybody: my mother, reed-like Aadhirayan, even the British soldiers, many of whom are a head taller than any of the Indian men I know. The wide, sharp hook of her nose has always reminded me of an eagle’s beak, and today as I take in her expression I feel as if I am a mouse cowering from her talons. She looms over me, a carved statue, her ageless features frozen like a stone statue of the Goddess Kali––all save for her eyes, the same vivid green as her home, which are alight with fury. “Hello, Amara. Are you here to tell me that Sarala has died? Or perhaps she is marrying into royalty––that would certainly explain the deluge of sweets.”
I apprehensively hand her the packet. “Amma is… very sorry to have missed so many classes. She’ll spend double time on her new steps all through next week.”
Mari scoffs. “At this rate, who says there’ll be a next week? Why should I teach someone who treats me like roadside rubbish?”
The answer is obvious to us both: because my mother is by far her best student. When Sarala dances, the world around her brightens. Talent like hers is rarely found, and for all her complaints Mari really does look upon my mother and I as family.
“I’m sorry,” I say again.
Mari lets out a theatrical sigh. “It’s not your fault. Sarala has too much beauty and too much talent, so it’s only natural that she’s also got the listening skills of an earless moth.”
“Aren’t all moths––?”
She waves dismissively. “Come inside, won’t you? Have some sweets and watch Brihannala dance.” She gestures behind her, and only now do I notice Mari’s current pupil: a willowy, broad-shouldered young thirunangi with large lotus eyes, a mane of deep brown hair, and fine, sharp features. Brihannala walks with the fluid elegance of rain, and as the three of us enter the main room I find myself mildly hypnotised by her movements. Jealousy battles with admiration as I watch her take her position and delicately pinch her long fingers into shukatunda-mudra, the parrot’s beak. Each elegant step she takes only reminds me of my own crushing deficiency.
“She’s promising,” Mari whispers, leaning forward to pluck two sweets from the open paper. “A little hasty in some of her transitions, but which sixteen-year-old isn’t?”
“She’s perfect,” I mumble in reply. My voice must have sounded bitterer than I had intended, for Mari frowns.
“Still no luck?” she asks.
I look down, swallow thickly. “No.”
Mari pats my hand. “Don’t try and force it. The talent will come in time.”
“When? I’m seventeen, Mari. I can’t dance and I can’t get married. What’s left for me?” Almost immediately, I regret snapping. Mariamman is an elder, a teacher, someone who is rightly held in the highest esteem by everyone. I cannot let my own insecurities bleed into outright disrespect. Besides, Mari is already angry enough at my mother.
Yet despite my insolence, Mari does not chastise me––only places a hand on my head and gently smooths back my hair. “What is left for you?” she repeats, then pauses. Many unfinished sentences flit through her eyes, before she finally settles on: “What isn’t?” Abruptly, Mari stands and claps her hands. “That will be all for today,” she tells Brihannala. Then she plunges one hand into the voluminous folds of her saree and rummages around, before coming up with a few annas. She tosses them to Brihannala, who catches them with ease. “Go, buy us some sweets or fruit. To celebrate your progress. And don’t forget some for Kaikesi.” Kaikesi is Mari’s pet parrot, a large and rather bedraggled bird who perpetually looks as if it has just lost a fight with a pail of water. She is cantankerous and beaky like her mistress, and Mari spoils her shamelessly.
Brihannala inclines her head gracefully. “I’ll be glad to,” she says. Her voice is husky and soft, and somehow puts me in mind of sweet incense smoke. Once her footfalls have receded and the door shuts behind her, Mari turns to me, her face suddenly dead serious. “I may have a task for you,” she says. “But first, tell me––do you remember the English I’ve been teaching you?”
I try not to let my confusion show. “Of course I do.”
Mari bends and retrieves a book from under her chair. “Prove it,” she says, handing it over to me.
Raising one eyebrow, I flip it open, running my hands over the crisp new paper. “The Jungle Book,” I read aloud, in English which is only very slightly hesitant. Ironic, indeed, that I can read the language of our colonisers so fluently, yet cannot make out a single letter in my mother-tongue. My mother has never thought deeply on the merits of literacy, and Mari––Mari seems keenly bent on instructing me only in English.
“By… Rudyard Kipling.” The name is so ridiculous that, despite myself, I giggle.
Mari snorts. “He’d probably consider your name equally strange, Amaravati. So you really haven’t forgotten. Good.”
“Why are my English skills suddenly so important?” I ask, switching back to our mother tongue.
“Ideally, they shouldn’t be,” Mari grumbles. “But we’ve not been left with much of a choice, have we?” She leans close. “I’m glad you came, instead of your mother. I know Sarala isn’t inclined to take this sort of warning seriously.”
My throat goes dry. “Warning?”
Mari glances at the door, an uncharacteristically nervous expression on her face. “I didn’t want to scare Brihannala. That’s why I sent her out.” Her lips thin. She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. “Amara, there have been reports of temple dancers being… targeted by British officers.”
“Targeted––how?” I croak out. They have never liked us, and they have made that amply clear; but from Mari’s tone I can guess that she means something much more serious than the handful of taunts and rumours the British have tossed in our direction.
Mari shakes her head. “I don’t have many details, only a few things I’ve heard from friends.” This is a surprising statement, considering that Mari’s network of contacts would rival a king’s: she knows everyone from dancers to street-sweepers to the women who squat on woven mats at the vegetable market, hawking vendakkai and amrakai. “Last week, Yazhini says a soldier stopped her in the street and tried to buy unspeakable services from her. When she refused, he tried to apprehend her––luckily, she’s a fast runner. Adipattan says he was sweeping outside a temple entrance when he saw a child being taken from her mother by an English couple. He couldn’t make out the woman’s face––only that she was arrayed as a dancer, and she cried and pleaded until they slapped her down.”
I taste salt, and only then do I realise that I’ve been biting my lip so hard I’ve drawn blood. Yazhini is my aunt, my mother’s younger sister. “Why?” I ask hoarsely, once I’ve found my voice again.
Another shake of Mari’s head. “Perhaps they suspect us of plotting a rebellion––although I’ve heard nothing about one, and believe me, I’d be the first to join if we were. But Amara, do they really require a reason? We are dancers, after all. The bane of their model society.”
I cannot bring myself to answer her question, so instead I ask: “What do you want me to do?”
“You’re in a particularly unique position,” Mari says. “You’re the daughter of a temple dancer, but you don’t dance yourself. Nobody outside our community knows your name or face. And, thanks to me, you speak very respectable English.”
The implication hits me. “You want me to spy,” I say quietly. “On the British.”
The door creaks open. “I’m back,” Brihannala announces, passing out handfuls of sesame candy. She fills both of Mari’s palms, adding, “I brought back plenty for Kaikesi.”
“Excellent,” Mari coos, placing Kaikesi’s share in a little clay cup. “This will sweeten her mood once she wakes up.”
“That parrot is incapable of being sweet,” Brihannala mutters to me.
I stifle a laugh. “Has she bitten you yet?”
Brihannala makes a face and holds up her thumb, displaying the fading red mark on it. “She nearly took off my nose,” she says darkly. “I managed to get out of the way just in time.”
Mari flaps her hands, shooing us away. “Brihannala, take Amara back to the Shiva temple. Amara, come back tomorrow morning. I have something I’d like to discuss with you. And tell Sarala that she better be standing outside my door tomorrow at the proper time, or I will have words with her.”
“Come,” Brihannala says, resting her hand on my shoulder. “Let’s leave before the demon awakens and decides it fancies another gnaw at my face.”
“Oi! Kaikesi only gives love nips.”
“If that’s how she shows love, no wonder she doesn’t have a mate,” Brihannala shoots back, then ducks as Mari flicks a crumb of sesame candy at her.
“Rascals!” Mari calls after us as we exit into the warm damp evening.
We walk in amicable silence until we reach the end of Thirunangi Lane, and I find myself sneaking quick looks at my companion all the while. In her physical aspect, Brihannala is my very opposite: a head taller than me, slim and narrow-hipped, with sinewy thin arms and long, long legs.
“I didn’t know Sarala had a daughter,” Brihannala says suddenly, snapping me out of my thoughts. Her cheeks colour as she quickly adds, “I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to be rude. I just… She’s a bit of a legend, you know.”
Oh, I know. “Ah,” I say noncommittally.
“Mari may scold, but she won’t stop talking about Sarala’s dancing, you know. Keeps comparing her to one of Indra’s celestial maidens.” She sighs wistfully. “And you see her every day! You must have performed with her, too.”
At this rate, my lip will scar from my constant nervous biting. “I– I don’t dance, actually.”
Brihannala stops walking so abruptly that she nearly trips over her own feet. “You–– what? But––”
“I can’t! Nobody knows why, alright? Maybe I’m cursed. Maybe my mother dropped me on the temple floor as a child and angered Lord Shiva, because my dancing is an insult to every pair of eyes which witness it!” Brihannala’s mouth hangs open, and I instantly regret my outburst. I am used to questions like this. There was no reason for me to be so snappish. “I’m sorry,” I say––but she holds up a hand, cuts me off.
“I want to see.”
I blink, slightly dumbfounded. Of all the phrases she could have uttered, that was quite possibly the one I’d least expected. “What?”
“Dance for me,” she says, eyes sparkling. “I promise, my eyes will suffer no insults.” She casts me a half-smile. “I daresay you’ll be better than me during my first lesson.”
“W–we’re in public,” I say. It’s a flimsy excuse: everyone around us has closed their doors for the night, and the only activity around us is the gentle flicker of birds’ wings as they settle into their roosts.
Brihannala snorts, in a manner uncannily reminiscent of Mari. “This street is empty––and it’s nearly sunset, anyhow. Come on!” She wraps her long cool fingers around my wrist and gently pulls me to the side, into the little alley which winds between Thirunangi Lane and my own street. “Just a few steps, that’s all.”
I take a deep breath. Dancing is not a good idea. I know this, have proven it to myself in the dark empty solace of the temple night after night. Besides, as she had observed, the sun will set soon. I should be home. My mother will not be pleased if I show up late. And yet–– as my feet slide apart into the starting karana I’ve seen my mother assume a thousand times, a thought rises: Perhaps, this time will be different. I had always danced alone, or in front of Mari or my mother, their pained eyes following every clumsy movement until I inevitably stumbled and fell. Maybe with Brihannala it will be different.
I extend my right arm, curl my fingers into anjali-mudra. My right foot raises, comes down heavily. The fire in my belly burns brighter. Distantly, I hear Brihannala suck a breath in. This is it, the voice in my mind whispers. This is the day you will begin dancing.
One step forward. My left hand and foot attempt to move in synchrony, but suddenly my hand is heavy, my legs light as air. The alley, littered with half-trampled garlands of flowers and puddles of betel juice, recedes into something pitch-dark and punctuated with flashes of light. My feet are no longer on the ground. There is screaming, but it’s warped, as if it’s coming from miles away. Dimly, I register that the cries are in Brihannala’s voice.
Something wraps around me, and then there’s a sting on my cheek. The world rushes back into focus. I am on the ground–– no, I am almost on the ground. Brihannala is holding me, one hand raised as if to slap me once more. Slowly, she lowers it, but her face is white as jasmine. “You… you looked like you were going into hysterics,” she said. “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t hurt you. Can you stand? Here, wait, let me help––” Before I can reply, she is already hefting me upright and hastily dusting the earth off my skirt. “I’m sorry,” she repeats, her voice cracking slightly. “I shouldn’t have pushed you to…” She trails off, swallows. “How are you feeling?”
“Brihannala, I’m fine,” I say, attempting to smile. “This is… normal. It’s been happening for as long as I can remember.”
“But there must be some kind of cure,” Brihannala says desperately. Her tone surprises me––I am so used to everyone around me unquestioningly accepting my defect. “I mean–– well, you looked… happy. When you began dancing, before––” Her cheeks flame again. “I don’t mean to make you feel worse. I just…”
I let my eyes flutter shut for a few minutes. My trouble with dancing––it is not my fault. I did nothing to invoke this curse upon my head.
“Amara? Please say something.”
But it isn’t hers, either. She was only being kind; she had likely seen my protests as little more than a case of nerves. “I’m fine,” I say again, and this time the smile which crosses my lips is less pained. Brihannala looks unconvinced, so I add: “Would you like to meet my mother?”
The peace offering works brilliantly. She gasps, her eyes round with awe. “Really? D–do you think she’d be alright with it?”
“She loves meeting aspiring dancers,” I say. “Especially ones who perform as beautifully as you do.” The corners of Brihannala’s mouth lift and she looks down through her eyelashes. A thought flits into my mind, unbidden: her dancing is not the only unfairly beautiful thing about her. Hastily, I set it aside and will my own cheeks not to darken in embarrassment. “Come tomorrow morning,” I add. “If you haven’t got anything better to do, that is.”
“I’ll be there,” she breathes, her face wreathed in happiness. “Thank you! Oh, this is…”
The embrace comes with no warning. For a moment I stiffen; and then I tentatively return it. Neither my mother nor Mari are inclined to grand displays of physical affection––so it is a strange feeling, being pressed against Brihannala’s warm bony torso. Strange, but not at all unpleasant. I almost feel sorry to break away. “My mother wants me home before dark,” I explain.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
I watch as she turns and walks back across the alley to Thirunangi Lane, bathed in the red glow of the setting sun. Then I make my way down my own street, and past the temple, across which my mother and I dwell in a private home. Our lives are chained to the gods––and so, too, is our abode.
I expect her to be asleep; instead, I find her pacing around our quarters. She starts when she sees me, before her eyes darken. “A simple message to Mariamman shouldn’t have taken so long.”
“I was held up for a few minutes on my way back. I met a girl, one of Mari’s students, who––”
“I don’t care!” she nearly yells. “When I tell you to hurry back, I expect you to listen.” Her face is red, her eyes bright with tears, and that is when I know something is very wrong.
She cuts me off before I can finish my question. “The man who visited earlier. His name is Hari, and he is an acquaintance of my sister’s. He has been watching Yazhini dance since the night of her debut. But he sought me out tonight, because––”
My stomach sinks as I remember the story Mari had told about my aunt: a soldier stopped her in the street… “Did something happen to her?”
Silence. My mother slows in her pacing, then lowers herself heavily onto her sleeping mat. Her eyes remain dry, but her breaths are short and shallow.
“Amara… Yazhini has been missing since the day before yesterday.”
Aditi Ramaswamy is a South Asian emerging author who adores watching and reading traditional dance but struggles with dyspraxia. “Nritya” was born of that deep love, as well as her own desire to see people like her––marginalized people, queer people, people with disabilities––represented in fantasy literature.