Following is an excerpt from Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise Of Rain, out on on October 7 from She Writes Press.
Mahendra ~ Summer 1554
For five long years, the rains had failed to come. For months, my brother Mahendra had watched the lake’s water level drop far below the steps that used to lead into it from the sandy path, leaving ever-smaller brown rings along the shore. The grasses in the temple courtyard crackled in the wind, yellow and brittle. Within two days of being painted, decorative designs on the outer walls of the scattered huts, made with a paste of white lime, flaked off and blew away. And out beyond the city limits, where Mahendra often sought refuge from what he felt were his burdens, even the camels swayed languorously over the hazy dunes, dragging their flat feet across the searing sand as their drivers ut-utted them in irritation, eager to set up camp in the cold relief of night.
The morning Ma announced that I, her last child, would arrive, our father—“Bapu” to us—summoned my brother to go to the temple to pray for a safe birth. Mahendra crossed the still-dark room to wake five-year-old Hari Dev, whose crippled legs poked awkwardly out from under his blanket.
Bapu cleared his throat. “Not Hari Dev. He need not come.”
“But Bapu, what if he has one of his fits?”
There was a brief silence, the type in which Bapu weighed the knowledge of his heart against the desire of his mind. “Fine,” he said.
Bapu’s footsteps retreated into the darkness, followed by the clicking of the bead curtain hanging in the front entrance. Mahendra shook Hari Dev awake, pulled two shawls off his bedding, and together they joined Bapu in the courtyard, where the babul tree and the pots of rice and lentils and the near-empty water jug stood neatly in the grey-blue darkness that precedes dawn.
“Yes, Bapu.” Mahendra bit his upper lip, where a few sparse hairs were sprouting. By the end of the summer, he would have a genuine moustache, and then he would advance his plan.
“The temple is what holds us all together, son.” Bapu rubbed his hands for warmth. “Today is an auspicious day. You will see. The child on her way will be our salvation. For a long time I have worried about the fate of this temple, but she will save it.”
Mahendra glowered behind Bapu’s back. He imagined the day Bapu, the temple dance master, would acknowledge to him that his son had chosen the right course, that in fact it was his to choose, and that battle was indeed as glorious as dance. But it was a different glory that each one sought.
Bapu handed Mahendra a clay cup of water, cooled by the desert night. Mahendra drank half, then gave the rest to Hari Dev. The chill in the air smelled metallic. They set out wordlessly for the temple, Bapu walking as always with a distinct sense of purpose, Hari Dev struggling to keep up on his shriveled legs, and Mahendra following close behind.
It was not so much for me that Mahendra had agreed to pray at the temple. Rather, he was worried about Ma. He was right, for her child-bearing years were drawing to a close. Our sister Padmini had been born twenty years earlier. As for his sister-to-be—for Ma said I would be a girl, and Ma had never been wrong about such things—Mahendra thought perhaps it would be for the best if, like Hari, I was unable to dance. It was a thought Mahendra knew he should not have, but he could not deny his feeling. If the gods decreed that I be unable to dance, then Bapu would finally remove his blinders, accept that none of his children would follow in his footsteps, and life would be easier for everyone.
It was still dark when they reached the temple. Bapu pointed to a corner of the outer courtyard.
“Sit here and wait for us, Hari.”
“Can’t he come in?” Mahendra asked, although he knew the answer.
Bapu shook his head and gestured upwards.
Mahendra spoke before Bapu could say it. “I know. The earth and the sky are his temple.”
“Exactly.” As Bapu entered the temple, Mahendra turned to Hari Dev.
Hari Dev shrugged. “It’s alright. It’s my legs. He doesn’t like to see them in the temple.”
Hearing Hari Dev say this so clearly hurt Mahendra more than the time he had cut his own palm, sealing with blood his promise to himself to become a warrior. Yet Hari Dev was content on the dusty ground. This was one thing everyone in the family knew.
Mahendra scuffed his foot against a loose stone and looked toward the temple. “We’ll be back soon,” he said and patted Hari Dev’s head. He left him sitting in the red dirt, worrying an ant hole with a twig, his legs tucked under him.
Mahendra entered the temple as Bapu slipped quietly around the carved sandstone pillars of the inner courtyard. In front of him was a lithe and graceful dancer, not the tired, bony old man he saw at home, whose presence lately suffused the air with tension. The gods had made Bapu a dancer; not even Mahendra could deny that. Bapu knelt in prayer before the main shrine to our Lord Krishna, oblivious to the stone floor’s chill. For his chosen ones, the earth melts away in Krishna’s presence. Mahendra wrapped his shawl tightly around his narrow shoulders, slender as Bapu’s, and shivered.
He kept to the side while Bapu danced. He leaned against a pillar, tracing the contour of a carved elephant, weaving a story. In his mind, the elephant took life, and he rode it across the desert, leading a charge against the Muslims and returning home triumphantly as the Raja’s favorite warrior. In the years to come, my fingers would trace the same nooks and ridges of the temple pillars, drawing from them a different inspiration.
The sound of an urn clattering to the ground echoed through the chambers, and peals of laughter followed. The devadasis, the girls and women wedded to Lord Krishna who danced for the temple, were readying themselves for the day. The slightest of frowns momentarily marred Bapu’s peaceful expression. Mahendra knew what he was thinking, could even hear the words in his mind: The temple is no place for giddiness and giggles. You are servants of God, after all. You are the embodiment of the divine.
But the giggles stirred something pleasant in Mahendra as his mind wandered to the devadasi quarters, where no men were allowed. The devadasis always went to the men’s homes or to other meeting places; they never received them at the temple. Mahendra wondered what it was like when they were out of sight of the priest and Bapu, and away from the men who paid the temple for their favors. What did the devadasis do? It was a world forbidden to Mahendra, and thus he could only imagine what any young man would imagine. He pictured an unclothed devadasi, Chandrabai in particular, with her eyes soft as sand and curves smooth as dunes, pouring a jug of water on her head, the cascade of her hair clinging to her breasts. He imagined the devadasis washing together. They appeared to him as a riot of bare arms and legs, inner thighs and slender necks, unraveling lengths of silk and cotton.
Bapu’s voice cut through his fantasies. “Mahendra, what are you doing?”
My brother shook himself from his daydream, his face on fire. Hurriedly, he joined Bapu in front of the blue wooden statuette of Lord Krishna nestled in an alcove in the sandstone wall. He breathed deeply to cleanse his mind, ashamed for having those thoughts right there, in the temple. And about the devadasis!
“Sing with me,” Bapu said. “You will need to know how to do all this when you take my place.”
A familiar tightness clamped around Mahendra’s chest. He clenched his fist around the scar in his palm. He joined Bapu in singing a prayer, but while his voice fed Bapu’s like a stream feeds a river, their hearts were far apart.
They performed a ritual that had long become second nature to Mahendra. Singing a melody in sixteen beats, they brought their palms together in front of the statuette of Lord Krishna and bowed to his all-knowing presence. Mahendra looked up and searched his face for a sign of reassurance. As always, Lord Krishna’s expression emanated peace, yet something about the eyes on this day looked different. Mahendra chided himself for thinking that they glowed as though Lord Krishna saw something dazzling, but he could not turn his own eyes away. I have felt Lord Krishna’s love from the moment those eyes alighted on me, but that love has come at a price.
“Do you see that, too?” Bapu whispered in Mahendra’s ear. “It is a sign of what is about to happen.”
Mahendra, never one to believe in signs, stood. “Shall I fetch Hari Dev?” he asked, eager for an excuse to break the chamber’s spell. Besides, Hari Dev had been alone long enough.
“Oh, yes. He can join us now. Krishna’s will is done. There is no changing it.”
Mahendra crossed the chamber and walked through the pillared main hall. He had just stepped into the courtyard when Hari Dev lurched into him, whimpering, and wrapped his arms around Mahendra’s legs. Dark clouds rumbled in the distance against the lightening sky. Clouds! The air smelled rich, fertile. Across the courtyard, Sundaran, the temple cook, gesticulated wildly. On Mahendra’s arms, the hairs rose like the quills of a crested porcupine.
He pointed. “Look, Hari!”
Hari Dev’s face was wet against Mahendra’s legs while Krishna’s eyes danced in his mind. And for a moment Mahendra almost lent credence to Bapu’s belief that one unfortunate child could suppress the rains and another blessed one could bring their return.
Mahendra pushed Hari into the temple. “Come inside.”
Bapu was singing. His voice was strong, resonating throughout the chambers. His face was alight as he thanked Lord Krishna for watching over the devadasis and his family. And then he reached for a small bundle tied into the folds of his white dhoti. Mahendra watched as Bapu carefully unwrapped the layers of cotton cloth and revealed four dried apricots.
Bapu giggled. Mahendra thought he sounded like a little girl, and was torn between amusement and scorn. I wish he could have felt the same lightness of heart that Bapu’s rare laughter gave me. Hari Dev lifted his face from Mahendra’s legs and watched our father.
“I found them in the sand,” Bapu said, placing two of the shriveled fruits on the brass tray at Lord Krishna’s feet. “They must have fallen from a Persian caravan on its way to the market.” He grinned. “Do you want one? Look, I have scraped off the sand.”
Bapu sat cross-legged on the floor and motioned for my brothers to sit with him. He handed one apricot to Mahendra and kept one for himself. As so often happened, Hari Dev went without. Bapu and Mahendra each bit into theirs and, unknowingly, both felt the same thing: a tingle beneath the tongue, a re-awakened sense of hope in life’s richness. The rush of saliva, the flood of feelings moved Mahendra to stand and dance, despite himself, in thanks to Lord Krishna. He chose the story of Krishna and the serpent Kaliya, although the reason escaped him.
With rippling arms and hands, Mahendra created the river Jamuna. His arms encircled the girth of a tree trunk, and his fingertips formed the bright flowers on the branches. Then with one turn he became little boy Krishna, the cowherd, playing along the river with his friends, and Mahendra recalled himself as a young carefree boy before his dance training had begun. Krishna tossed a wooden ball up in the air and caught it, to the beat of an imagined melody. And then, full of mischief, he climbed the tree. But all of a sudden, he lost his balance. As he reached to regain his hold, his ball fell into the water.
Then Mahendra was Krishna’s friends on the riverbank. Eyes wide, hands at his cheeks, heels drumming fear on the ground, Mahendra called out to Krishna not to fetch the ball, for surely the water serpent Kaliya had it now. His hands fanned over his head, he showed Kaliya’s hundred and ten hoods, and for my brother the serpent’s threat became that of Muslim armies invading our land.
Once again Mahendra became Krishna, now a savior, his expression serene. He jumped into the water, pushing aside the water grasses to search for the ball. Then Mahendra was the serpent Kaliya, rising in anger, his body undulating. Mahendra’s arms showed the serpent coiling around Krishna, the foreign army encircling our citadel. But Krishna assumed his divine powers and grew to such a size that Kaliya had to release him.
Mahendra was the furious serpent, vomiting poison. Mahendra was his furious self, letting loose his rage in the pounding of his feet. Then he was Krishna, jumping onto the serpent’s heads. Krishna assumed the weight of the universe, and Kaliya slowly began to die. At this, Kaliya recognized the greatness of Krishna, and lowered his body to the ground. In my brother’s eyes, Kaliya melted into an image of my father, then a foreign soldier with red eyes. In the end, Mahendra was Krishna again, placing his hand on Kaliya’s heads to pardon him but banishing him forever from the Jamuna River. It would not be as easy, however, for him to forgive Bapu or the Muslims.
Mahendra kept his eyes closed, his body at ease for the first time in a long while. In the fleeting moment of stillness after a dance, he almost understood how dancing was divine, how one could spend a lifetime searching to hold onto that feeling of lightness. A weight was lifted, the intensity of his anger faded, the burden of Bapu’s expectations lessened. He tried not to let himself think, simply to feel, to make the moment last.
But, for him, it did not.
Bapu rose. “Wah, wonderful, my son. Wonderful. I was beginning to doubt, but now I am sure again. You have the dance within you. Just think! One day you will be your sister’s teacher, the teacher of all the devadasis. I know there are very few now, but this will change, you will see.”
Despite the grey early light that filtered between the pillars through the cutouts in the ceiling, Mahendra felt a lid had been slammed down on a well, with him at the bottom. He wanted to shout to Bapu that no child of Ma’s, who wasn’t a dancer herself, could be a devadasi, that if he tried to force the condition upon me, he would only bring more misfortune on the family. Just see what Padmini had done, turning her back on all of them and breaking a piece of Ma’s heart. He wanted to shake Bapu by the shoulders and ask him if he ever thought about what the Muslim invaders would do to the devadasis when they captured the temple. Did he really want that for his own daughter?
I know now that my life might have taken a different turn had my brother not changed his own path. Our actions are all connected, whether we want them to be or not. But what exactly my life would have become, only Lord Krishna can answer, and I have chosen not to ask that of him. I am thankful not to have been given the knowledge of what would have been—only of what was.
The daughter of an Indian father and an American mother, Anjali Mitter Duva grew up in Paris, France. After completing graduate studies in urban studies and civil engineering at MIT and launching a career in infrastructure planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Additionally, she is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. In delving into the dance’s history, Anjali found in it, and in the dance itself, the seeds of a quartet of novels. Faint Promise of Rain (She Writes Press, October 2014) is the first. Visit her at www.anjalimitterduva.com