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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 11/15/2016 |




The shadows were already lengthening across the fields as Mira came out of the shop. The car cast a long shadow in front as well though the sun was still blinding. She rolled down the windows, breathing in the smell of freshly cut grass on the slopes that bordered the road. Autumn was on its way, she thought, looking at the fields full of neatly stacked bales of hay. The farmers had been hard at work these last few weeks, harvesting late into the night. The fields were now silent, in repose, like a woman taking a break after a long day’s housework. The wind was fresh on her face, the road dappled with the shadows cast by the trees, and she was almost happy, her apprehensions momentarily forgotten. She glanced at the plastic bag lying on the passenger seat. She frowned, wondering once again if the dress she had bought for the party that evening was adequate. ‘I should have taken Gina with me’ she thought. ‘She would have known.’ She was less worried about the accessories she had chosen – they were not new and had already won the stamp of approval from her friends and colleagues. Mira looks at her watch – there was plenty of time before the party started. She might even be able to grab a coffee before it started, provided she found the place easily. Her car had a GPS, but this place was supposedly in a pretty secluded place – apparently an old hunting lodge of a king or a nobleman that was now used for exclusive receptions and other types of events. Mira was almost certain that the signal would be lost just when she needed it most – the surrounding forest would definitely ensure that. She had intended to put a road map in her car, but had forgotten at the last moment. ‘Typical’ she thought with a grimace. ‘It would be great fun if I got lost in the forest. That will teach Rita. There will be nobody to make the presentation come tomorrow morning.’ She shook her head at this silly childish thought – it was like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Her mother’s face flashed before her eyes – she had used this phrase countless number of times. For to be fair to her mother, Mira was a bit miserable and pathetic while she was growing up and often did things that hurt her more than anyone else.

Mira was annoyed when she had learnt the day before, just before leaving work that she would have to replace her boss for this reception. Although it was just a fund raising affair, their company had to be represented – ‘it is at these places that you make interesting contacts that may eventually bring us business’ her boss had said primly.
‘Why me, Rita?’ she had moaned. ‘You know I’m not too good at these things. Gina would do much better. She is the real party animal.’
‘Gina can’t go tomorrow. She has the DCX project to finish. We present the draft day after tomorrow. But of course, you know all about it. You’ll be there as well, to present the digital part.’
‘OK, alright then. But I am doing this under duress, Rita. And I shall miss my dancing class too.’
‘Sorry Mira. I know how much you like your dancing classes. But this event is really important. Tell you what – you can take the afternoon off after the client presentation.’
Although not totally mollified, Mira accepted the gesture of her boss with a smile. ‘Thanks boss’ she said ‘I won’t grumble anymore.’

Lost in her thoughts, Mira almost missed the crucial turning. But the road was devoid of any traffic and she gleefully reversed on to the road the GPS lady was screaming at her to take. ‘OK, OK, I’ve got it’ she muttered to the GPS, now silently happy that she was back on track once again.

The narrow road winded in and out of the trees that formed a canopy overhead, filtering the rays of the sun that was already low on the horizon. Shafts of light danced before her eyes and she wound the window down, breathing in the slightly damp smell of the forest. Her GPS said that she was still 30 kilometers away from her destination and on the screen the road seemed to stretch straight ahead. Mira relaxed as she glanced at her watch. She had made pretty good time and was not in a rush. She drove slowly, her thoughts steering to the dance class she would miss that evening.

Mira loved dancing, and as far as she could remember, had always loved it. Unlike her friends she had always been an avid watcher of dance programs on the television. She had little or no interest in the soaps and comedies that her friends watched and discussed incessantly. She often pestered her parents to take her to watch live programs by famous and not so famous dancers. Neither of her parents had any interest in dancing but most of the time they humored her. When she was old enough to travel alone, she would do her best to see as many live shows as possible. The city she grew up in had a lot to propose – the numerous dancing clubs and cultural societies sponsored dance programs either free or at a nominal price. Some of her friends took private dance lessons, but none of them had any real passion. Mira bombarded them with questions about what they had learnt, how good their teachers were, whether they were going to put up shows and would they invite her. ‘Why don’t you come to my place one day, Mira?’ one of her friends told her. ‘Then you can see for yourself.’

Mira was totally dazzled by the beautiful lady who gave her friend dancing lessons. Graceful and supple, her entire body moved in time with the music. Her fingers traced patterns unseen to the two young girls, her feet tapped a complex rhythm, her eyes expressed a whole range of emotions that completely enchanted Mira. The harsh words she used to chide her student had no effect on Mira – she was mesmerized. And dying to try out some steps the lady taught. She did not dare to ask, but once she returned home, she tried to imitate the movements in front of her mother’s dressing table, hating herself because she looked like a ridiculous puppet. That did not prevent her from entreating her mother to let her have dance lessons. ‘They are costly, dear, and we are not that rich, you know’ her mother had said. ‘And in any case, given your school workload and all the extra-curricular activities, you won’t have any time for practicing. It is not enough to take lessons, you know, you have to dedicate time and energy to learn anything well.’

Mira had not argued with her mother or pointed out that a lot of her school friends do manage to make time for other activities. She just swallowed her disappointment, and did not discuss the subject again. Every time a dance performance was put up by the students of her school, she hoped against hope that she will be asked to participate. But of course, only those who already knew how to dance were chosen. Mira was good at a lot of other things – debate, acting, quiz, recitation etc. and duly participated in performances and competitions. She continued to derive her pleasure from watching talented dancers on stage and on TV. But the wish to learn dancing remained alive, and it was after many years, when she started earning herself, that she indulged in her passion. She joined a class and hardly ever missed her weekly lesson, and shared her feelings & experiences with her colleagues. They all knew how much Mira looked forward to it.

Mira suddenly realized that her GPS had been silent for a very long moment now. She glanced down and sighed. ‘Signal lost’ said the message on the screen. But Rita had told her that this godforsaken place was actually signposted for the benefit of its rich and famous clients. She slowed down and looked around her. The road winded through the quiet forest and she could not see beyond a couple of bends. Almost certain that she had not seen any other road branching out, Mira drove forward and soon spotted the small signpost almost hidden by the surrounding trees. She gasped when she saw the beautiful building looming at the end of the road, more a castle than a mere hunting lodge. A large intricately designed gate stood partly open revealing a wide driveway flanked by tall trees and bordered on two sides by neatly trimmed flower beds that looked like an intricately designed patchwork quilt. As Mira pulled up under the gracious porch, she could see two long outbuildings on both sides equipped with horse boxes. An ancient carriage stood on one side, probably for decorative purposes. A few cars were parked under the porch, but otherwise not a sound could be heard from inside.

Mira pushed the heavy door and walked into a beautiful hall. A woman rose from behind a big mahogany desk placed on one side and waited for Mira to approach her. She greeted Mira politely and told her that she was the first guest to arrive for the party.
‘It won’t start much before half past seven, so you’ll have time to freshen up and maybe look around. The grounds here are very beautiful. Are you staying the night, Miss?’ she asked.
‘No, I have to return tonight. But you’re right, this looks so charming. Do you have horses here?’
‘Oh yes, there are eight horses here. We have a small riding school here for professional cavaliers. We look after their horses.’
‘I will go for a quick walk then and freshen up afterwards. Can I leave my car under the porch?’
‘Of course’ said the receptionist. ‘Stick to the path and then you won’t get lost’ she advised.

Mira walked down the path and discovered an enchanted place. A small river danced in and out of the trees, reflecting the warm rays of the setting sun. Small arbors with climbing roses were dotted across a large circular field. The tall trees in the forest towered in the background, casting long shadows. A large garden of herbs and flowers was hidden in a small hollow, the air heavy with their fragrance. Mira sat down on an ornate bench, raised her face to the sun and closed her eyes, a feeling of pure peace flowing through her entire being. The silence was occasionally broken by a bird trilling somewhere in the forest, a dog barking far away or the whinny of a horse from the stable. She reluctantly walked back to the main building after a time, picking up the small bag containing her dress and her make-up kit. She went into a sumptuous marble restroom where everything a person can need to freshen up was neatly arranged on glass shelves under huge mirrors. Mira looked at herself critically once she had finished dressing. As always, she felt uncomfortable in the sling backs she had chosen to wear that night, but otherwise was satisfied with the way she looked. ‘Don’t know why I should care’ she muttered. ‘I won’t stay long, in any case. Just listen to the opening speech, have a drink and some nibbles and then I’m off. I wish I was with the gang now instead, rehearsing for the show.’

When she walked into the large dining room after stowing her bag in the car, she saw that the room had started filling up. People kept coming in – alone, in couples or in groups, greeting each other occasionally. The hum of the conversation started growing. Mira did not recognize anyone so she quietly drifted towards the back of the room that was still relatively empty. She picked up a cup of coffee from the large table laden with all kinds of drinks and spotted a kind of ante-room on her right. She looked inside- the four walls were covered with paintings. Hoping that she was not intruding, she moved quietly into the room to look at the pictures, glad to have something to occupy her before things started in earnest. As she moved further into the room, she saw that she was not alone.
‘Hi! Are you hiding too or do you really like paintings?’ said a male voice.
Mira saw a man with a glass of wine in his hand, leaning against a mantelpiece. Hiding her annoyance, she replied lightly.
‘Neither. I am just waiting for the event to start. Drifted in here by chance, actually. Are you hiding?’
‘Not really, but I am not too keen to make small talk right now.’
Mira nodded and started looking at the pictures which were all hunting scenes, some of them really graphic in their details of blood and gore. The man stood at one of the windows looking outside and Mira quietly slipped out. The rostrum was now in place and an elegantly dressed woman was getting ready to speak. A lot of cameras were already trained on her and the video team was in place. People were congregating towards the middle of the room with glasses in hand, some already munching on the snacks that the drinks table was laden with. The woman gently tapped on the microphone and the hum of conversation gradually died down.
‘I hope she won’t carry on too long’ said a voice and she turned around to find the man from the painting room. ‘Speeches can be tedious sometimes.’

Mira smiled at him, but she was a bit annoyed. She was not very adept at small talk and was wary of overfriendly men in any case. He looked harmless enough, though, and did not talk to her while the speech was on. Ms. Rosa was a good public speaker and made her points briefly and forcefully. Her speech was followed by donations and promises from affluent individuals and some private companies. Mira applauded enthusiastically and reflected that maybe with all this money Ms. Rosa will have some means to continue her crusade. After the speech, people drifted around, drinking, nibbling, and greeting each other. Conscious that she was here in official capacity, Mira tried to mingle, introducing herself and her company. None of the conversations lasted for long, and after about half an hour, Mira reckoned that her duty was done. She was ravenously hungry by this time, and after a bit of jostling, managed to get some food on a plate. She had a long drive back home, but couldn’t resist a glass of champagne. All the little tables were by now occupied, and she decided to carry her plate and glass out on the terrace where a few smokers were dragging furiously on their cigars and cigarettes, anxious to get back into the main hall. She found a small table in a corner and put down her plate and glass. It was a clear night and the lawn was mottled with the milky moonlight. Mira inhaled the autumn scents - a mixture of damp soil and rotting leaves. She breathed deeply and turned to her plate. She watched the scene inside the hall through the plate glass window – people eating, drinking, talking, and flitting from one table to another. Mira felt a slight twinge of guilt – she should be doing the same – networking with potential clients. But it was getting a bit late, and she had a long drive back home. So she concentrated on her food instead…
*************************************************************************************

The garden looked really enchanting. Tiny solar powered lights lined the pathway to the stables. The forest loomed dark in the distance. A pool of yellow light from a room upstairs backlit a climbing rose on a trellis. Mira looked at her watch and almost against her better judgment, stepped out onto the lawn. The velvety scented darkness was like a healing hand after the noisy interior. She walked towards the stables, wanting to look at the beautiful horses before she left. She almost knocked into the man coming from the other direction. It was the same man. Again!
‘Sorry, sorry’ he said and smiled when he saw Mira. ‘Hey, so we meet again. I see you couldn’t resist walking out either.’
‘I was going to look at the horses’ Mira said. ‘They are so beautiful, aren’t they?’
‘Oh, I’ll come with you too. Yes, they are absolutely majestic.’
‘So, do you have a name, young lady? He asked; ‘I am Luke. Nice to meet you.’
‘My name is Mira. Nice to meet you too, Luke.’ She said politely.
They reached the stable. The horses were quiet now, probably settling down for the night. Mira could see their shadowy forms and huge eyes. Their tails swished gently as they thrust their heads outside their stalls. Mira tentatively stroked a wet muzzle and suddenly realized that her companion had remained totally immobile. She turned and looked at him. The man was gazing silently at the horses, a strange look on his face. Mira touched his arm impulsively. ‘Are you all right, Luke?’
He shook his head slowly, as if coming out of a dream.
‘I used to be a show jumper in what seems an earlier life now, Mira. I wasn’t too bad, actually. Horses were part of my life. I too love them.’
‘You don’t ride anymore? Why?’ Mira asked before she could stop and reflect whether it was really polite to intrude. ‘Hope you don’t think I’m intruding?’ she added hastily.
‘No. I had a very bad fall and fractured my legs. My horse had to be put down. She was magnificent, almost a part of myself. I gave up riding after that.’
‘I’m so sorry. Must have been really tough for you.’ Mira said sincerely.
He nodded and looked at her. ‘Riding was my passion. What about you, Mira? Do you have a passion in your life? I feel you have.’
‘I love dancing. I don’t know if it can be called a passion, but I have loved it since I was a child. Of course, I didn’t train to be a professional dancer, although I would have dearly liked it. I would have given anything to become one, you know. Never had the chance, though’ she said wistfully.
‘You can still learn’ said Luke. ‘You’re still young, and as they say, it is never too late to start learning.’
‘I do go to a dance class, actually. I joined quite a few years back, and I’m not a bad dancer either, or so my teacher says’ Mira replied lightly. She found it surprisingly easy to talk to this total stranger.
‘Ah, so you are a dancer. Look, this is so strange and fortuitous – some of my friends run an amateur theater group, and they are staging a musical. They are desperately looking for someone to replace one of their dancers who broke her collarbone a few days back, and won’t be able to dance for the next few months. They are auditioning people right now. Do you want to try?’

Mira stared at him. All her life she had wanted to perform on stage, in the lime light, with a spellbound audience watching her perform. The music, the heady atmosphere, the costumes, the make-up, and above all the oblivion of losing herself in the music. In a flash she visualized a darkened hall, a lighted stage, herself in some wondrous costume. Her eyes sparkled.
‘Ohhhhhh. What a kind offer, Luke. But I’m probably not good enough. Your friends will only laugh at me. No, I won’t dare.’
The man standing next to her looked at her strangely. ‘Mira’, he said gravely ‘we don’t know each other but I don’t make idle offers. There are a few women in that hall right now who are accomplished dancers. I know. But I am asking you.’
A shiver ran down Mira’s spine. This was getting too weird. Although she was a firm believer in chance encounters, this was way beyond what she ever believed.
‘I don’t know what to say, Luke. I am tempted, very tempted, actually. If only I could get someone to show me things… I attend this dance class, true, but its only once a week and there is a lot more banter and goofing around than learning to dance in earnest. In fact, I have often regretted that, you know. People are there to have a laugh and a good time more than anything else.’
‘I know someone who can teach you if that is what you need. But she is a stern master, and won’t accept anyone who doesn’t have a passion.’
‘Luke, I do appreciate this. But I am not rich. I can’t afford to pay for private lessons. Thank you so much.’
He shrugged. ‘As you please’, he said. ‘My Dad always taught me not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Have a great evening, Mira.’ And with that he walked away. And Mira suddenly realized that they had not even exchanged their business cards!
*************************************************************************************

As Mira drove back home later, she could not get the strange meeting out of her head. As usual, the two Miras started arguing in her head - the bold and the timorous; the adventurous and the cautious; the techie and the aspiring artist; the girl and the woman. ‘Oh, shut up, both of you’ she said aloud. ‘Yes, OK, I refused to take a try. I am a craven;’ She smiled in spite of herself – the ‘Game of Thrones’ vocabulary was becoming hers as well…

The next day, Rita commanded her to take the afternoon off. The client presentation had gone incredibly well, the account was theirs. A big contract too, so Rita opened a bottle of champagne that she kept for her special clients, and there was a lot of hand shaking and back thumping and high fives. They went to the local Sushi bar – the whole project team, and simply gorged on whatever the restaurant had to offer. She bid goodbye to her colleagues and set off, wondering what she was going to do with her afternoon. It was a glorious autumn day, too wonderful to spend indoors and in the shops. She decided to go for a walk in the forest, eager to walk on the carpet of fallen leaves, meeting people walking down the paths with baskets on their arms, collecting edible mushrooms that grew in abundance in the shady groves. As she walked into her house to change, her work phone rang. The screen flashed Gina’s name.

‘Hey gorgeous, sorry to bother you, but I have a very urgent message from someone called Luke. Said he met you last evening. He has left an address and said that you need to go there at five if you want to go ahead with the project you talked about. Hey honey, what’s going on? Are you hiding something from your old friend?’

Mira was totally foxed. She was certain that she had not given Luke her visiting card. But he could have easily got her work number from the guest list.
‘Nothing’s going on, Ginny. Will you text me the address please?’
‘Of course. You sound a tad secretive, lovely. What project?’
‘Look, I was going to go for a walk while the sun shines. I’ll tell you tomorrow. Deal?’
‘If you insist. Have a great afternoon, Mira. We’ll have lunch tomorrow together, OK? You can tell me all about it then.’
*************************************************************************************

Mira finally found the house, outside a really rundown village where most of the houses were shuttered, with rusting gates and overgrown gardens. It was a small cottage much like the others she had passed on the way. She felt apprehensive as she got out of the car, almost wishing she had not come. ‘At worst, they will say I’m not good enough, and then I shall be cured of this ridiculous ambition’ she told herself as she knocked on the door. It was almost immediately opened by a woman who smiled at her warmly. ‘Come in, Mira. I was waiting for you.’ She was dressed in white, silvery white hair tumbled down to her shoulders. The room was large, with almost no furniture. ‘Perfect for dance rehearsals’ thought Mira. ‘Thank you for receiving me’ she said aloud. ‘Luke insisted that I should come for the audition. But I am not a professional dancer, and maybe I’ll just waste your time. But I do love dancing and…’
The older woman raised a hand. ‘Don’t fret, Mira. I am not here to judge. Luke asked me to meet you, and maybe I can help you in some small way. He said that you are really passionate about dance. Are you?’
‘Yes, I am. I have always loved dancing, but never had the opportunity to train properly. I take lessons now, but it is more of a hobby than anything else. Luke said that your troupe was auditioning for someone to replace one of their dancers. I don’t even know if I’m any good…’
‘I am not part of any troupe, and there are no auditions here. I am a teacher.’
Mira stared at her. ‘Oh dear, there must have been some misunderstanding then. I thought…’
‘Well, now that you’re here, show me what you can do, Mira. I shall put on some music, and you dance. Don’t worry about what you have learned and what you have not. Do you want to try?’
‘I can try, but as I told you’ she started.
‘I heard what you told me. But before you start, we need to do something together’ said the older woman. ‘Come with me, Mira.’

She led Mira into a small room at the back of the house. In the centre of the room stood a shelf with fragile glass doors. Small figurines were arranged on the shelves – Mira recognized several – Terpsichore with her lyre, dancing Apsaras, a bronze Nataraj, and the three Muses. There was a stone vase in one corner filled with water and flower petals. The woman dipped her fingers in the water and asked Mira to do the same. ‘Open those glass doors now, Mira. Let the Gods and Goddesses of dance bless you.’

By now Mira was in a kind of daze, and did not hesitate even for a second. The doors opened with a beautiful tinkling sound. The room seemed to grow brighter, and for a moment Mira thought that their eyes had come alive and was looking at her. ‘Now let us see you dance’ said her companion. They walked back into the front room and the music started.

Later, Mira could not remember what she did. The music spoke to her – tales of love, desire, wars, betrayal, reconciliation and forgiveness. At one point the older woman joined in, an ethereal figure in dazzling white, light as air, graceful as a moon beam, her feet hardly touching the ground. Mira followed the movements blindly, totally lost in the complex rhythm. The walls around her seemed to disappear – she was dancing in a forest, beside a sunlit stream, in a fragrant garden, under a bright blue sky. And when finally the music stopped, she sank to the floor, totally drained and weeping. The woman put a hand on her head. ‘You have been touched by the Gods’ she whispered gently.

After what seemed an eternity, Mira stood up. It was dark outside. The room was bathed in a pearly light of a lamp stood in one corner. The older woman sat on a low chair, looking at her. ‘You did very well, Mira. I can now see why Luke sent you here. You were born to dance, I can see that. I can teach you more if you like. But the spirit of dance is already in you.’
Mira simply nodded her head. At the door she said ‘I don’t even know your name. But thank you.’
‘You can call me Sara. Come back tomorrow if you want to. I shall be here for as long as you need me.’
*************************************************************************************

I am one Mira’s numerous students. She is now old herself, and is considered to be one of the finest dancers of her generation. She made critics sit up when she performed in a musical tragedy staged by some amateur group long time back. That was the only show she did. She gave up her job and devoted herself to her art and later to teaching others to dance. She told me this story on dark stormy winter evening while the wind howled outside and lightning slashed an ominous sky.

‘You are the first person to hear the entire story, child’ she told me as I sat there drinking in her words. ‘Because nobody has ever heard the end till today. After that first day, I went back to that little cottage several times. In fact, my entire existence was centered on the hours I spent with my Teacher. I auditioned for that musical and was accepted instantly. The next day I visited her to give her the news. ‘I am happy, Mira. You don’t need me anymore.’

‘Don’t say that, please. How can you? I need you more than ever now. I have to do this show.’
‘I am going away for a few days, Mira. Concentrate on your rehearsals, give yourself fully. Maybe we shall see each other sometime soon. Maybe not. My Gods have blessed you; don’t ever forget that.’

‘I got caught up in the whirlwind of rehearsals, shows, interviews and parties’ said Mira. ‘I didn’t have time to visit my Teacher for a few months. And then, when things calmed down, I made my way to the little cottage. I had bought an enormous bouquet of white irises – she loved them – and a scrapbook of pictures and reviews of the show. I wanted her to be proud of me. But…’
‘Oh, please go on’, I cried ‘was she proud? Did she give a big hug?’
‘I never found her’ she said. ‘The cottage looked abandoned and totally dilapidated. The roof was falling down. The garden was so overgrown that I could hardly push the gate open. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was only a few months since I visited her last. It was evident that no one had lived in that house for a very long time. It seemed impossible.’
‘You went to the wrong house then?’ I asked.
‘No. how could it be the wrong house? I had been there umpteen numbers of times. I got into my car, bewildered, and on my way back I stopped in the small café in the centre of the village. I asked the old men sitting there about Sara. I described the house. They looked at me like I was mad. ‘But that house has been in ruins for at least two decades now’ they said. ‘And no one called Sara has ever lived in this village, as far as we remember.’
‘How can that be, Ma’am? Did you call up Luke? He could have explained things to you. Maybe it was a ruse – Sara didn’t want others to know?’
‘You can never hide yourself in a small village, child’ she said. ‘I never found Luke either.’
I stared at her, feeling goose bumps all over my body.
‘I never had his number, remember? I asked the members of my group – they knew a couple of men called Luke, and I called them. They did not know me, or so they said. I checked up with the hotel where I had first met him – they did not have anyone called Luke on their guest list. Gina & I traced back the number he had called from our call log, but when I called it was not in service.’
For a moment, I wondered if she had made up the story. But then, why should she?
While I was listening to her story, the storm had spent itself. Now an almost full moon shone through the torn cloud blankets and made its way through the uncurtained glass windows, illuminating my teacher’s serene face. I no longer doubted one single word she had said…


[APARAJITA SEN]

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