The big pillared hall in my mother’s house, in Kalyanikkarai, was dark and cool until I was five years old. And then one summer, the year I turned six, it was bright and hot. All morning the hot ribs of light from the window shrank as the sun rose higher; they crawled backwards across the red oxide floor, over the worn teak of the swing that hung off to one side of the hall. The house was smaller that summer, and there was a new front door. There were voices on the other side of the wall.
One day that summer, I sat on the swing while my mother bent over her trunk. When she straightened up, a crimson cotton sari was in her hands. She flapped it out of its folds. She ripped the borders out, rolled them up, and stuffed them back in the trunk.
Amma tied one end of the red strip to a window bar. The window was a dazzle far away across the room and the red streamed towards me like a long tongue. Amma wore a splash of the same crimson on her forehead. Her shoulders were dark clay from the Kalyani’s banks, smoothed, polished with water.
“Eley, Kalyani,” she said, holding the soft middle part of the sari. “Come here.” Amma’s veins ran along her forearms like blue branching rivers over dark loam.
“Stand still, child. Hold this end of the sari. Pull hard, like this.” Amma put the loose end of the cloth into my fists, and made me grip it tight and flat against my belly. I was wiry like Amma, and beginning to be tall. I looked at my hands beside hers, and they were soft and white. I liked the feel of the stretched cloth. It was like the tug-o-war rope at school, it made me feel my strength. But I also liked to fret, and keep Amma’s attention, because when she became absorbed in work, I felt she did not care for me.
“Aaah,” I said, wincing. “It hurts.”
“If you think this hurts,” she said placidly, “you wait till Samu Vathyar has finished with your thayya thai. Your thighs will be on fire.”
“I don’t want to dance,” I said, wriggling in her arms. “Keep the cloth stretched, like a good girl,” Amma said, “and listen to the story of your name.” Amma’s palms were rough against my knuckles. “Lean away from the window. There. Long long ago, Gangai poured down from the heavens, to wash the world clean of sin.”
I leaned away from the window; my mother took me by the shoulders and turned me around and around, keeping the tension in the cloth.
“Her power was too great for the frail earth.” She half spoke, half sang the story. “To soften it, Siva-Peruman caught her in a knot of his hair first, before sending a trickle to the mountains below. People bathed in her waters, washing their sins away.”
I walked into the taut red. Every time I turned, it licked me up some more. It wrapped itself tighter and tighter around my stomach until I fetched up on the barred square of light under the window. I looked up and saw the parakeets wheeling green and dizzy above the neem tree. “Kee! Keeya! Keeya!” they cried.
“One day, Gangai went to a rocky hill in the south and offered sacrifices to Sivan. ‘I am tired of sin, Lord,’ said Gangai to Siva-Peruman when he appeared before her. ‘Give me a sister to share my burdens.’ So Siva-Peruman made Kalyani and set her flowing from the very spot where Gangai prayed.”
I writhed inside the red that made me stiff as a plank from chest to hips.
“Hush. Then a king conquered that hill and built a town near it and called the town Kalyanikkarai. He saw Siva-Peruman in a vision, in the mist rising from the river.”
“It’s too tight.”
“‘Here, in this very place,’ Siva-Peruman told the king, ‘you will build a temple for me and celebrate my festivals.’ And so the Kalyanikkarai temple was built.”
“And so I am called Kalyani.”
“It is a beautiful name,” Amma said.
“I can’t breathe,” I moaned.
“If Samu Vathyar hears you fussing, he’ll break your legs. It’s an honour, a teacher as great as him teaching a little titch like you.”
The summer before, the roof had made a low wavy fringe over the window, like an eyelid almost shut. Standing at the window, I could see the lowest section of the neem’s trunk, but I couldn’t see where it forked into branches. At the end of the year, a storm whipped the tiles away and smashed them against the wall. When it rained, we took our mats to the other end of the room.
“Can’t we stop the rain, Amma?” I asked.
“No one makes pipe tiles any more in Kalyanikkarai. They are Madras tiles, and to repair the roof we have to go to Madras.”
I waited, imagining a trip on the train, and a return with a basketful of red tiles. (Now I know there had been no money to repair the roof.)
So that summer, which was the beginning of my dancing life, I could see up into the neem’s branches. The parakeets were cracking the neem pods inside their red beaks, making the bitter milk splash on their neck feathers. The sun poured into the house. I shut my eyes tight, and the insides of my lids glowed like live coals. I opened them and watched the parakeets. Amma’s body hid them when she untied the end of the cloth from the window bar, and they came back again when she stooped to tuck it into the red band around my belly. The end of the cloth was crumpled with being knotted, powdery with rust.
(One window bar in Amma’s house was bent like a bow, disturbing the pattern of hard black verticals in the bright patch on the floor. It had been pressed into service as corseting technology for over a century.)
“You must–” Amma said, on the day of my first dance lesson, folding my wrist as far back as it would go, not stopping until I winced, and placing it on my hip over the red band, “–keep a straight back in Samu Vathyar’s class.” She braided a heavy kunjalam into the end of my plait. She took my face in her palms and looked at it critically. “Hmm, you’ll do.” She kissed me. “Put on your slippers,” she said. “It’s hot outside.”
On the street, with my slippered feet, I rubbed out the hopscotch squares that the neighbours’ girls had made by dragging their heels in the fine dust. They played in a group, and I could hear them every day, arguing: you stepped right on the line, I saw you, you just made up that rule, you dropped your tile, didn’t she drop her tile? Once, I said, “Yes, she stepped on the line, I saw her.” They rounded on me: “Who asked you, you stupid thing?”
I never questioned much the fact that they would not let me play with them. For as long as I could remember it had been like this.
I was not unhappy. I found ways of occupying my solitude at home and in school.
Three houses away, Samu Vathyar sat on a wooden chair in a pillared hall larger than my mother’s, one leg crossed over the other at the knee, his hand holding his foot, his body charged with nervous energy.
“I’ve told you all a hundred times, there will be no more dance teaching in this family.”
“Let the child learn,” Vadivel said. He was Samu Vathyar’s third son and the only one of his sons who still lived in Kalyanikkarai. “She is our Rajayi’s daughter, she’s bound to be good.”
My black-and-gold kunjalam swinging at the end of my plait, my red sash tight around my waist, I was a supplicant in the temple of dance.
“They’re calling the tevadiyas whores,” Samu Vathyar said. My mother’s lips tightened. “What does that make us, then, Velu? Do you want to be famous as a pimp? The other castes are mocking us. I cannot hold my head up without shame. When something has come to the end of its time, and is ready to die, it must be allowed to die. This dance is finished. Better to sweep the floor in some rich man’s house than keep it alive.”
“The child is eager to learn,” my mother said. It was a lie; I didn’t care. “So many high-caste girls, brahmin girls, are learning to dance, and you are teaching them. Why would you turn Kalyani away?”
Samu Vathyar was quiet for a long time. Then he sighed. “All right, Rajayi. For your sake. But this dance business is a vampire. It climbs on people’s backs. It will have your blood and the child’s blood and Velu’s blood.”
They spread a cloth on the floor and poured rice grains on it for the ritual of beginning to be a dancer. My mother took me by the hand and planted my feet on the rice.
“Turn your feet out,” Samu Vathyar said. “More. More. More. Don’t tip forward like that.”
He took up his stick and began calling the first step, in the slowest speed: thayya thai.
Amma held my ankles and made my feet stamp in time to the stick. Thayya thai, thayya thai. The rice grains jumped up brown around her glass bangles. By the time I finished my thayya thai, my thighs were on fire. Samu Vathyar proved every bit the curmudgeon she had warned me about.
“Down!” he shouted. “Bend your knees! Open them wider! Go further down! What are you sticking your behind out for? Tuck it in!”
And by the time I finished learning the next step, the thayyum thatha, my arms were on fire too.
“Hold your elbows higher,” Samu Vathyar growled. “Even if a pack of monkeys jumps on your arm, it must not drop below the level of your shoulder!” I imagined balancing monkeys on arms I held stretched like a bow. He was free with his tapping stick. He threw it at my feet when they were not turned out enough and he threw it at my wrists when they drooped. Luckily for me, he was in his sixties and his aim wasn’t very good.
Excerpted with permission from The Undoing Dance, Srividya Natarajan, Juggernaut.