It was in a set of quirky circumstances that they had met each other. The first time they came close to doing so, she was leaving the venue he was at, moments too soon. The performance she was watching had ended; how was she to know that he would be on the stage next? It was dark, and she had to get back. The city that was otherwise teeming with tourists, her being one, was a foreign territory to her. After all, her nurturing had been that way. When you are a girl raised in an Indian upbringing, you’re taught to not wander around unfamiliar perimeters on your own. Especially after sunset.
She was on a trip by herself to a city located seven hundred kilometres away from home to visit one of the biggest art exhibitions in the country. Arts and crafts – visual or otherwise – shaped her professional interest. That evening as she returned to her lodge, she reworked her next day’s agenda to accommodate a trip back to the town’s Heritage Centre. For on that same afternoon, she had to pore over the Centre’s collections in a rush, as the exhibition had neared its closure time. Her greed to strike off a spot in her itinerary had dominated her need to absorb real-time self-gratification. And thus, she had begun to second doubt of missing a display room here and attention to detail there. As a result, she had failed to concentrate on the following performance at the Centre. Furthermore, the venue’s landscape had in its earnestness charmed her, much so that she did not mind paying it another visit.
She arrived at the Heritage Centre next day and strolled through the rooms that had been elaborately carved in teak wood. Pillars adorned the gopura-scape at regular intervals like a reliable support system. A statue of Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, carved in sandalwood, dominated the centre stage. Gold-emblazoned plates were fixed outside each room, pronouncing the category of the cultural art it housed. Flex banners hanging loosely off the hook divided the walls between the five rooms. These banners embraced flavours of the biennial art exhibition, thereby staging the purpose of the bustling tourists from world over in the otherwise nearing summer season. As she meandered through the architecture drifting in and out of the contents on the flex, her eyes fell upon a poem by Sebastian titled Fraudulent Payment.
That’s when she heard him prompt to her from the room behind.
“Are you here for the art exhibition?”
“Did you watch the shows?”
“There are shows staged here daily on traditional cultures.”
“Oh, you mean, in there?” she asked, jabbing her index finger at the room in front of her.
“Yes. Kathakali, Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi. I think, on some days they stage Bharatnatyam also.”
“I watched Kathakali yesterday. I wasn’t aware they staged other shows too. Also, it was late, and I had to leave.”
“I perform there.”
“You mean, you demonstrate Kalaripayattu here?”
“Yes. The version on the stage is nothing as it is a small setup. We need to be careful of manoeuvring our movements. You must watch our early evening performances at the dojo.” He concluded by pointing his thumb towards the room’s interior.
“What’s a dojo?” she was intrigued.
“We call it Kalari in Malayalam; it is the place where we practice the art. Payattu means the weapons with which we practice this martial art.”
“I’m aware of what’s Kalari.”
“Usually, people know what a dojo is. It is a Japanese term used globally, which means the performing square. That is why I used it.”
“Well, it worked the other way with me.” She gave a little laugh.
“Yes.” He smiled slightly, reckoning a sign of friendliness.
“When do you perform?”
“Kathakali is on now. We will go in soon after.”
“How about the early evening shows you mentioned?
“Four to five PM.”
“Oh, I leave tomorrow evening. Otherwise, I would have loved to come.”
“Okay.” He jerked his head a little.
“Do you perform in the mornings as well?” She asked. She knew only too well of the response she wanted to hear.
“Erm, I have training in the morning.”
“Do you train yourself?”
“That, and I have a few students.”
“Oh, you do that as well in this dojo, is it?”
“Can I come and watch?”
“I hope that won’t be an intrusion.”
“Not at all.” After a pause, he added “The shows we perform in our dojo in the early evenings are severe because this is our space and we can indulge in the marital art the way we want to. In fact, before our stage show, we warm up here.” He pointed to the dojo. “Come and take a look.”
“Can I come inside?” She reiterated for she thought she had failed to interpret his invitation right.
It was with a child-like excitement she climbed the steps to the room that had embalmed outside a nameplate in gold: KALARIPAYATTU.
It had felt like entering a warm furnace. His performing squad may have only warmed-up there; however, their combined heat had increased the room’s temperature in its entirety. She felt stuffy, an apt sort, as the weaponry on display emanated another bout of a heatwave. Sticks of wavering heights lay stacked in one corner, some of which were askew while others held their ground. Shields and swords resembling the ones pictured on cameras in mythological battles filled up a portion of the room’s breadth. A parapet running above and parallel seated knives, daggers and their respective holders. A square of twenty by ten feet dominated the centre, occupying a majority of the room. A balcony was set up adjoining the entrance with a few chairs to sit and watch duels in progress. She saw the pages of an ancient sport unfolding in quick successions as she batted her eyelid. The blinking of her lashes was probably the only sign that reinstated in her her non-dreaming state.
Soon after the act of Kathakali had concluded, he went up the stage for simulating combats with his squad of three while she headed to the audience. The sticks entangled with clangs in midair and were followed by a series of attacks and blocks. As she observed him weave his way through a series of ambushes from his opponent, the reverberation from the wooden sticks unceasing, his arm movements drifted her attention to his build. The muscle cuts across his shoulders and upper limbs could not have been more striking. If one were naïve enough, they could have mistaken his flesh tones for artistic carvings. The customary black vest that duellers in this martial art typically donned as their uniform embraced and if only, enhanced his trimmed physique. His shoulder bones hunched up to his neck as seamlessly as they trod down his arms. With his lithe build, he pirouetted with grace to change sides, while insisting his eyes on his opponent. She remembered the moment when he had divulged to her the essence of Kalaripayattu. “The crux of Kalari is the coordination of the mind with the body. The trick is to look into your opponent’s eyes. It is easy to cheat a combatant with misleading body movements, but not with the eyes. Eyes don’t lie.” He had said. Little had she realised then, that he had had her there.
Had it not been to watch him indulge in the martial art with his students, they may not have met again. Except that they did, the next morning. From the way he went on about the sport, to how his parents had initially imposed him into a conventional line of work lured her. At first, she was uneasy of sitting across someone who could slate their lifetime records to a stranger like an open book. However, she began to discover a charm in his monologue as their conversation flowed. She was drawn to his gossip because not once did he shift his conversation from discussing non-specific tactics. Not once did he deflect their course of exchange into a contrivance of a personal whereabout or episode. As the sun peaked up and about, their conversation glided like a crocodile on the banks of a river in pursuit of its prey. Smooth and unpredictable. She was beginning to like him more by the minute.
Their chit-chatting sailed over a cup of chai, and she digested his features for reasons unrealised and unknown. She noticed how his face was so naturally oval, crowned with a mop of hair chopped in a blend of military and mushroom cuts. His eyes sunk into deep pits, the trenches emerging almost immediately for dovetailing a pair of jutting cheekbones. There was an unmistakable hollow in places where his cheeks should have been, culminating into a sharp and pointed jawline. She was able to discern his facial profile despite all of it being wrapped in a thick mane of black. His skin under the matted beard that ran the length of his cheekbones to his neck had clearly failed to see daylight for months on end. All the same, she found his dark fuzz as the highlight of her scrutiny. For it was one feature that imbibed in him a boyish charm ensuing in an irresistible masculinity.
He had dressed that morning in run-of-the-mill sweatpants and a full-sleeved shirt, the sleeves of which were folded promiscuously, and the buttons of which were undone until his chest. A black drawstring hung loosely from his neck depicting a silver Latin cross. He kept twirling his handlebar moustache now and then as he talked, an effect she found so measured and crisp, urging her to rip something off of him. Her gaze more often than not returned to his lips that had been on the move under that unruly mop and tash, since the time they had met. A part of her had wanted to ask him to shave never.
His warm callow made her wonder about the number of girls he attracted on a daily basis. A perception that consumed a slice of her in an unexpected jealousy. A part of her felt coy at the exuding amount of information he was capable of confabulating, but her intuition beckoned her to keep her sentiments simple. ‘He isn’t your type’ her gut had confided in her. He was a delightful company to be around with a bonus of causing in her a sexual fringe; however, there was a thread about him she couldn’t sew right.
All too soon, they had empty cups of tea as an excuse to continue their banter, when he invited her home. It was a proposition that she was taken aback with at that moment, but found lovely, as an afterthought. After all, one doesn’t ask a person to visit home unless they aren’t comfortable sharing their space or family members with the other. It was a gracious gesture she had to turn down as a result of her preplanned agenda. Of her greed to tick a few more to-dos off of her planner.
They departed to carry on with their schedules. On her return to her city, he was the one aspect of the trip she least retrospected about. She had wanted to keep her tour to the art exhibition alive for as long as her memory allowed her to. However, she had dismissed him with a label of an engaging conversationalist in her journal and cognitive record of encounters and learnings. A companion whose thought induced in her a pleasure-filled, squirmy wetness, nonetheless.
After all, she had no space to accommodate his significance into her existence. For her loyalty lay towards her marriage. Not because she considered the commandments the mortal society bestowed upon the lawful act in its entirety, but because she recognised her priorities too well.
Besides, she had felt a disconnect between them. A gap that arose primarily owing to the divergingly contrasting personalities the two were. Right from the way he could yap without a break, to how she could refrain from talking at most times. Right from how he preferred to be socially active, to how she liked drawing her energy being shut in a room. Right from his need to belong to different groups of individuals at various times in a day, to her preference of little or no company at most.
Their traits may have been poles apart, and she may have had her priorities set straight, but nothing stopped the shadowy corners of her mind from conjuring up fantasies about the remotely possible scenarios between them. One of her scripts had them riding together on a two-wheeler to a nearby town for his participation in a Kalaripayattu duel. Another one involved them travelling to a waterfall located on the city’s outskirts on a warm morning. A third scenario had him taking her on a State Corporation bus for an overnight trip to a town for sharing insights on his revered martial art. And yet another script brought out his aggression when one of his friends tried to get a tad ‘friendly’ with her.
Could she have reshuffled her priorities? For once, she wished she had the supremacy to predict the future.