Strange are the trappings of a troubled boyhood. You might think you have grown up, weathered the many storms of adolescence, teenage, and those particularly painful years of early adulthood that were made bearable only by bad verse and long love letters that were never posted; you might think you have outsmarted those years that made you flagellate yourself with a sudden sense of responsibility that pushed you to make it in the world; you might think you have finally come to occupy your body with a reasonable degree of comfort. But small things could catch you unawares and, in a flash, make you that little boy again, who stood petrified in front his classroom as the other boys jeered at how his long arms flailed, and how his limp wrists weakly sliced the air every time he flung them about...
That was how I felt today when I went to be part of a lecture-demonstration by my dance guru, Chitra Visweswaran, in a school. I was fumbling about in the staff room, that had been graciously offered as a greenroom, trying to get at least some of the creases out of my dhothi that was crushed beyond measure during the long, killer commutes through Bangalore city. The sweet young lady who had received us at the entrance walked into the room and introduced herself as the dance teacher at the school. She said, "I am delighted you are here with Chitraji! Lots of girls learn dance here, but the boys, even those who want to, don't. That's because there is a general belief among boys that it is not a very masculine thing to do. Today, they can see you and see how wrong they are!"
Though I laughed and managed to appear flattered, I was very aware of the churning feeling in my stomach, the same feeling that has gripped me in its throes several times before. Many years ago, I used to experience this so often that I was convinced these were the shudders of another creature that lay coiled within me, that was sensing danger around. This feeling of dread, which I would feel in my very gut, was like a response to a threat to my survival. It would start in my core and send out its tentacles that held me tight and made me breathless. But, strangely, it also gave me, every time, the will to brave whatever awaited me, to show up to the world no matter what, to live through whatever instance lay ahead of me. "This won't last for too long," I would tell myself, "this will be over soon." And in a bizarre paradox, I would draw my strength from this same threatened creature in my tummy, and manage to live through those instances - the several performances in school, the many times I had to respect the urge to put up my hand to ask the teacher a question, the umpteen speech competitions where I looked, as I reeled out my prepared speech, determinedly in the direction of the girls, who were always, for some inexplicable reason, wordlessly empathetic.
Today’s setting, I realized, was a scary re-creation of those school days. Here I was again, just a stride or two away from being thirty, feeling like a young boy again, acutely alarmed at the prospect of performing in front of boys and girls gathered in a courtyard that had an uncanny resemblance to the one in my school back in Kumbakonam. I did not know where this other scared and threatened creature lay inside me all these years. Don’t get me wrong. I have not exactly been an intrepid embracer of life in the years that have passed between then and now. I have had other frightened, upset and angry little creatures inside me that I have been, one by one, releasing patiently, compassionately and with a great love that I have had to learn to feel.
While I struggled to get the thread into the needle, my teacher waited patiently to secure her ornaments onto her costume with small stitches. My hands trembled, and I felt great love and protectiveness for my body that was manifesting in these tremors trauma buried deep within. Quietly, I started to speak to this creature that was responding in conditioned ways to perceived threat to its survival.
Once I chose to address this being with love, I saw that it was no mystical creature. It was a little boy shuddering and gasping. He was cowering under memories that were weighing down on him. I held his hand and said to him, “Please do not be scared. I am here. And there is help. Remember we have done this before. Many, many times. Don’t you think it is funny that this situation should arise now after several years? May be this is a chance to do something more about it. May be we don’t have to give ourselves the temporary assurance that this will pass. May be we can do better than dealing with it in such provisional basis. I am sorry I did not know you were still hurting, suffocating, and hiding. Let’s go and face this squarely in the eye. Let us not cower. And let us not be armed. Let’s just go there and have a good time. Remember the pleasure we have always felt in dancing, in surviving. No, not just surviving, but living gloriously. Come.”
And we went, me and this scared little boy within me; we went not to war, but to dance. Oh boy, did we dance! No one would have known that I was not dancing alone, that I was dancing with a little boy who badly wanted to dance, but was too scared to let go of his fears and drop his guard. No one might have known the joy both of us felt, or heard a little boy’s laughter floating in and out of the cheers of a happy young man. But it happened. They both had a wonderful time. They danced like no one was watching.
I am very lucky that I have a great teacher and friend in Chitra akka. Though she had been part of the conversation with the school’s dance teacher about boys and their notions of masculinity, she chose to circumvent this troublesome and unproductive terrain when she spoke after I performed. She said to the many boys and girls gathered there, “Did you see how much he enjoyed himself? Didn’t it look like he had a lot of fun dancing?” And the crowd of children went in a thunderous chorus, “YES!”
For now, that is all that matters.