The light of feetHow does it shape women who belong to communities where they are not expected to dance?
On nights when things got unbearable, Laxmi Maya always stepped out of the house in the quiet of the night. There was nowhere to go, really, but the gully. The gully or galli, as she said it, was the long tunnel that went from under the house on the main street into a courtyard where one of the four houses flanking the square, brick-paved space, was hers. Her husband’s family’s rather.
The bickering over the house had gone on for so long. Every few weeks, government officials showed up at her threshold, and asked her innumerable questions. Where was the infamous husband? “I don’t know,” was Laxmi Maya’s consistent answer.
As time went by, she had learned to say those words without at all batting an eyelid. And as she said it on repeat, the words became more believable to the government officials, as they did to her. She had started to believe she had no idea about his whereabouts.
In her mind, Calcutta was a distant country of which she did not know anything. She did not know what its streets or nooks looked like or how the tram she had heard about operated. And so knowing that her husband was in Calcutta was tantamount to not knowing where he was. So, her statement was not entirely false.
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The government officials always appeared in a pair. Laxmi Maya would hurry upstairs to her baiga after asking them to sit down on the wicker mats and quickly poach two eggs and pour a dash of aeila into little copper kholas and present them before the men.
“So you do not know where your husband is?” one of them would ask between taking a sip.
“I don’t,” she would say quietly.
“We are only letting you live in this house because you have three small children. By law, he is banished and so everything he owns is now government property, we hope you know.”
“I know, Sarkar. But this house was given to me in dowry by my father,” Laxmi Maya would lie again. It had become a drill.
Promptly, the officers would leave after polishing off their snack, setting in motion for Laxmi Maya, the wait for another such visit.
Did she miss the husband? She could not say. His presence had been punctuated by his time spent with the dancers, or neighbourhood events from where he always came away as the feared. What was there to miss of such a man, besides moments of imagined intimacy when his limbs were hers to hold? She wondered, had she been a dancer, would it also have kept him from straying? Yes, they said he had strayed.
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But the women in her clan did not dance. They had not been taught to. Dancing, they said, was for women who were “loose”. They had taught her to speak softly, tread softer and to hold her tongue and restrict her movements to grace. That was who she was-- all those things they said she should be.
Standing in the darkness of the galli, Laxmi Maya often felt streams of hot tears soak her face. She had never learned to cry before others, so the quiet of the night was a good time. On one such night, she had seen rows of carriages go by, carrying large boxes. They were followed by rumours that the Ranas were getting their belongings removed to India because some kind of revolution was afoot to throw them off. They said that was why the king had left for India.
Tonight, though, there was no such activity. It was quiet. As Laxmi Maya stood there, tears finding their way down her jaw, she thought she saw a light flicker near the Naradevi temple. It was followed by the clanking of a door and then of ghangala, the bunch of bells worn by the goddess. Wafting in with the sound was the goddess herself, stepping out of her temple, draped in a long red frock, a mask on her face. As the deity started doing the familiar dance, lilting her hands in the air, feet shuffling, Laxmi Maya froze, but her tears ran down in thick rivulets. She stared in awe and trembled.
“The wedding was fun?”
“The ratyauli was fun.”
“Yes. Ratyauli. I had heard about it but never seen one before,” says Mamu.
I ask her to explain, but she says she cannot because it would embarrass us both. She will not divulge any detail, but tells me how she felt a tinge of envy that women had the liberty to engage in that kind of lewd talk without being judged while singing and dancing and acting.
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“How come women in our community don’t dance?” I ask.
“We have the gods and the goddess, the masked dancers,” she says.
“But they are all men wearing masks,” I remind her. Then Mamu goes on to explain how apart from the Jyapu community, women from other clans had never been given that kind of freedom.
“Don’t you think that is so unfair? Taking the right from you to revel, to be in tune with your own body. When else do you explore the joy of being in your body as you do with dancing? It is so much to take away from a woman.”
“I don’t know, I never thought about it. My movements don’t sync and so I don’t dance.”
Mamu often sits in a corner watching others dance. When asked to dance, she will sometimes try, but her footwork never matches her hand gestures or the music: “I guess, I just watch people dance.”
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Dance! My senior, who is having a “ragging” session with me, orders. Do the twist, she says, and sings a Rafi number. What is a twist, I wonder. She says, if you do not obey your seniors, you measure the entire campus with a one rupee coin. In my heart, I wished I could just dance and get over it. But I can’t. Like Mamu, my feet are wooden, too. I just stand there, my face burning in shame and fury.
Here, she says. Take this coin and now go measure the entire place with it.
As I bend down at her feet and place the coin on the ground, I wish I could have told her I cannot dance because women in my community are not expected to dance. But saying that, would also require a dance-- of the tongue. So, I bend down and start flipping the coin inch by inch across the campus.
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Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.