Even in the moonlight, I could only see a vague outline of her movements, I couldn’t make out her face from where I was standing.
The journey home feels so much longer. The time refuses to move. I could watch the scenery then eat a pack of Lays, then call my friend to let her know I am coming and finally check the time to see it’s only been two minutes. For the first half, I am always awake, mostly because of the loud cities and noisy towns that never go to sleep. But as the view in my window changes to trees and meadows the noises fade away and lulls me into sleep. Yet when I am about to reach my destination I always wake up. Perhaps the trees here know my name, I have heard my name in the whispers of the wind and as a murmur in the trees. The flowers have bloomed to welcome me home. Even the usually grumpy Sun, seems happy today as if he is smiling. The walk from the bus to my ancestral home is slow. I stop to admire the paddy fields and the mango orchard. The trees have grown since I last saw them. They must think the same of me, I might even say they are laughing at me.
My mother is pacing in the courtyard, chewing on her nails, glancing occasionally at the gate, her face breaks into a smile when she spots me. “Kanna, why did you take so long? I’ve been waiting for you. Go freshen up now, food is in the kitchen”, she talks without pausing. I smile at her and nod. Mothers everywhere have a way of making us feel like little kids. Suddenly I was 10 again, late home after playing with the kids. I can smell her special sambar and chutney from here. I predict dosas. I am not disappointed. Between mouthfuls of hot dosa and sambar, I filled her in on my life, job and everything. She listens patiently, even though she may not understand the office politics or the problems of my job. After my father’s death, she has listened, been a good friend and done more than I could ever ask of her. I hate leaving her here alone in this house, but she refuses to go to the city with me. “This is my home, I can’t leave”, she’d say shaking her head.
In my room I finish up some office work and lie on the bed sleep evades me, I decided to take a midnight stroll and a dip in the pond to cool off. The path behind our house leads to an old temple and its adjacent pond. That’s where I spend most of my childhood. The temple had a hall of sorts full of pillars with carvings where the girls were taught to dance. As I walk past the temple I notice a silhouette near the temple. I stopped in my tracks. It was a woman, her flowing hair reached just above her waist was dancing in the light breeze. As I stood there, she started dancing. I watched her mesmerised. Even in the moonlight, I could only see a vague outline of her movements, I couldn’t make out her face from where I was standing. I didn’t want to scare her by going too closer. So I stood there for a while watching her sway to an unknown beat, her body moving in perfect rhythm with a music perhaps only she could hear.
I noiselessly made my way to the pond, for a refreshing swim. On my way back my eyes wandered around searching for the lone dancer, she had disappeared. I made my way back to my house, but my mind stayed near the temple and the mystery midnight dancer.
At breakfast next morning I casually mentioned dancing to my mother to find out about the dancer. To my surprise, my mother started talking about Sandhya, my childhood friend. “Poor thing she’s miserable. Her father won’t let her dance anymore and she dances with such grace. Her father thinks if she keeps on dancing like Devadasi’s she won’t get any suitors”, she said shaking her head. “What! that’s bullshit!”, I cried my mother shot me a reproachful look. “I mean dancing is not bad. It’s actually appreciated as an art form almost everywhere else”, I defended Sandhya. But my mind went back to the mystery dancer. Was it Sandhya?
I went down to the temple in the morning, my friends Chandra and Gokul were waiting for me. As we passed the hall were kids were now dancing, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a long hair and a hand full of bangles. When I turned around, the person had disappeared. I shook my head and made my way across the road to the banyan tree where everyone was waiting for me. “So how goes the city life?”, Chandra teases. “It gets boring after a while”, I reply settling down on the ground between them. “Yet you always go back”, Gokul observed. I didn’t reply, instead, I asked, ” What about you guys? How is life here?”. As they filled me in on the boring and interesting details of their lives, I found myself wondering about the mystery dancer yet again. She may have disappeared from my view, but not my mind.
“Look who’s here”, Chandra gestured and I turned to see Sandhya, walking towards us. Her hair was tied loosely in a bun, she had a small smile playing on her lips. “Well you have turned in to a complete city dweller”, she motions to my attire. “And you haven’t changed one bit”, I retort smiling back at her. Chandra and Gokul, the traitors have made up some excuses and left so quickly that it was obvious they wanted to leave us alone. She just stands there awkwardly fiddling with her hair. “Why don’t you sit down, if you have time?”, I ask gesturing to the vacant places next to me. She sits down and looks up at the banyan tree. “This tree knows so many of our secrets don’t you think?”, she questions her hand still trying to tame some loose hairs that were blowing in the wind. “Yes this tree does know a lot. “, I smile at her. “So what’s this I hear about you not dancing?”, I ask turning to her. “My father doesn’t think it is respectable”, she said a dark look crossing her face. “When has what your parents thought stopped you from doing something?”, I ask playfully trying to lighten the mood. “Hey! if I ever got in trouble, you were there right beside me”, she reminds me. “And I’ve not given up on dance, I have found a way”, she says with an air of mystery.
Everything suddenly clicks into place. The mystery dancer, Sandhya who has suddenly found a way to dance. “I saw you dancing”, I blurt out. Sandhya covers my mouth, “Not so loud, I didn’t know you saw me”, she blushes as she removes her hand. “I am sorry, I wasn’t sure if it was you, I was watching you from a distance, I was going for a swim in the pond”, I mumble. “I didn’t see you there, I thought everyone was asleep”, she says confirming all my suspicions. “No one else was, just me”, I reassure her. “You looked so happy and peaceful, dancing I could watch you dance all day”, the words fell out of my mouth before I could think twice. I could feel my face turning red as Sandhya studied me with a curious expression. “I find it hard to dance when people are watching, my father has said some vile things about dancing, it makes me very nervous”, she says her eyes on the ground. I wanted to watch her dance, I found it mesmerising, but I also didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. “You won’t even know I am there”, I say hoping after hope she will let me watch her dancing. She looks up, wide-eyed, I could see tears starting to form, ” I used to dance in front of everyone, on a stage, now I have to hide from everyone in order to dance, I am scared someone will tell my father about it, I am scared what everyone will think if they find out”, she halts catching her breath, “You can watch me dance as long as I don’t know”, she wipes the tears off her face and smiles sadly.
“I am so sorry”, I hear myself say flatly. There was no emotion behind it, it felt mechanical. “I know how much you love dancing I won’t watch if it bothers you”, I manage to say. This time she looks at me, “Same place same time, you city dweller”, she says as she walks away. I was a little confused. Did she want me to watch her or did she not? Same place same time, I knew what to do.
That night I slipped out without waking my mother, and promptly wait for Sandhya to show up, for a while nothing happens. Then I heard the clinking of her anklets. She was there alright, she was already dancing. I stood there watching her yet again. Was it a story she was enacting? I wanted to go closer to have a better look, but I also didn’t want to break my promise to her. So I remained hidden in the shadows, watching her dance away. The loose hair suited her much more than the bun that she wore usually. Her hair was wild and untamed. Just like her, the real Sandhya. Not the Sandhya that does only what her father commands, the Sandhya who climbed a Mango tree and fell down breaking a bone, the one who dances at midnight.
Next day as I make my way to the temple in hopes of ‘accidentally’ running into Sandhya, I spot her father. I wanted to run away, but he comes straight at me and smiles, “Kanna, it’s been a long time. I didn’t know you were here”, he says staring at my face with a mixture of curiosity and admiration. Ever since I had moved to the city, he has always treated me like a local celebrity. I found it funny in the beginning, but soon that lost its charm. I smiled at him politely,” I am just here for a couple of days, is Sandhya around, haven’t seen her lately”, I lie. “She must be somewhere there”, he motions towards the temple premises and moves on. I smile till he leaves and walked on, my eyes searching for Sandhya.
“There you are”, Sandhya says surprising me from my side. I beamed at her. Her hair was braided and glass bangles tinkled on her wrists. “What are you doing today?”, I ask smiling from ear to ear. “Well let me see”, she pauses her hand on her chin,” Nothing obviously”, she adds laughing. So she drags me around the temple premises, chatting with our neighbours occasionally and having fun ‘doing nothing’. Me on the other hand, I was just watching her, I was listening to the stories she said, about the lost souls from the past, about the little demons that cut off your fingers if you see them, about evil spirits that were warded off by the flowers that grew in her garden. She always loved a good story, even as a kid. She’d tell us scary stories and we’d listen with rapt attention. As I walked alongside her through the lanes we grew up in, I couldn’t help but think nothing much had changed.
Strangely enough, we never discussed her dancing at night again. I was reluctant to bring it up again, without her initiating the discussion. She must have stopped talking, while I was lost in my thoughts. The silence hung between us. Her eyes were wide and sad as she repeated herself, “Sorry if I am boring you with all the yapping. You rarely come down here and there are not many people to talk to here”, she said dejectedly. “No, no it was not boring, we should do this all the time, I was reminiscing our childhood”, I explained sheepishly. She still doesn’t look convinced so I elaborate, “It’s refreshing to hear you talk, you are so passionate about everything, sometimes I just space out you know?”. She smacks my head in what I hoped was an affectionate way saying “You were always a daydreamer”.
Sandhya soon left and I wandered around before going home. I waited for the correct time and made my way to the temple. There she was dancing as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Her hair had a choreography of its own. Her anklets and bangles were all the music she needed. As I stood watching, I felt an urge to go closer, to get a better look. After all, we did spend almost all day together. Then I reminded myself of the promise I had made.” You won’t even know I am there”, I had told her. So I remained hidden in the shadows, watching her.
The next week passed in a blur. Sometimes I would see Sandhya near the temple but we never spoke of her dancing or that I would watch her. It was an unspoken agreement that we would never discuss it again, it must have made her uncomfortable. Even though all my days blended together the nights were fun, I had made watching Sandhya’s dance a daily routine, one that I wouldn’t miss not even in the rain. With just two days left for me to leave, I walked the down to the temple, to watch Sandhya dance. The thought that the next time I was home, Sandhya might be married irked me quite a lot. Which is why I didn’t notice the lightning that day. It was a huge mistake, in a flash, Sandhya must have caught a glimpse of me. I could see her silhouette stare at me for a couple of seconds before running wildly towards the other side. I ran towards her to explain, but that must have looked even scary, as she ran her anklet came loose and fell with a clatter to the rough floor of the hall. I picked it up wishing I hadn’t scared her, she was nowhere to be seen.
The next day as I made my way to the temple, I saw Sandhya coming towards me. I blurted out my apology,” I am sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you”, I said shamefacedly. “What are you talking about?”, she asks bemused. I silently pulled out the anklet from my pocket and held it out to her, “You dropped this when you ran yesterday”. To my surprise she shakes her head, “That’s not mine, when did I run, what are you talking about?” I looked around to see if anyone was nearby before answering. “At night, when you were dancing”, I lowered my voice making sure no one was in the vicinity. Sandhya looked perplexed. “Night? I come to the temple to practice dance early in the morning with a few other girls, but I’ve never seen you around at that time. What are you talking about?”, she asks again, her eyes widened in confusion. “So you have never been there at night?”, I ask my mind reeling. Sandhya shakes her head. And it hit me, we never discussed it, we never even said the timings, it was never Sandhya that I saw, it was someone else. And I owed her an apology. And her anklet.
After a quick explanation about my mistake, I made a hasty retreat. I was in a dilemma, do I tell this mystery dancer that I had been watching her all these days or do I tell her I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. As I made my way through the path, I could feel my heart beat faster. The anticipation was killing me. She was already dancing when I reached there. “Hey! Please don’t be frightened, you dropped something the other night, I am just here to return it”, I shouted out from a distance so as to not scare her. No such luck. She stopped dancing and took off in the other direction from me. But I ran after her, it was a full moon and I saw her clearly disappearing behind a pillar. I quieted the voice in my head that said to leave it and turn around and jumped behind the pillar to see, well, nothing.
She had vanished yet again. As I turned around the statue on the pillar caught my eye. All the pillars in the hall were covered in sculptures of dancers. This pillar had one too. I studied the statue carefully. Her hair was loose, she had all the bangles and ornaments they all seemed to have, she seemed to be watching me. I shook my head, statues can’t watch us I reminded myself. The moon shined on her and my eyes locked on her feet. Her right foot was missing the anklet. Time slowed down and a chill crept down my spine. I remembered the story Sandhya used to say as a kid, about the statues that came alive and danced at night. I studied the face of the statue, the way she held her hands and her wavy loose hair. It all seemed too familiar. Heart thumping, slowly I bent down and left the anklet at her feet and made my way home.