Meena pulled out the anklets that Savithri had given her to hand to Elisa. “Give these to her if I don’t get to see her,” Savithri had said when her illness had worsened, to a visibly anxious Meena. “She is the one who should get them by right. My grandmother would have wanted that.” Meena, who knew very little about Savithri’s grandmother, had held the tarnished anklets in her hand, a little puzzled and more concerned about Savithri. Nodding vigorously when Savithri had made her promise that she would not forget to give the anklets, she had fussed and persuaded Savithri to get back into bed so that she would not strain herself. Meena had absentmindedly shoved the anklets under her clothes in her closet, telling herself that she would get them later. She had promptly forgotten about the anklets, given the events that followed, and had not remembered till after Elisa had left for the US, promising to return to Kuala Lumpur for good, since Steven had left her.
When Elisa returned a month later, having resigned her job in the Community Day School, the first thing Meena did, was to hand her the anklets while gesturing that Savithri had wanted her to have them. Elisa stared at the anklets now quite blackened with age, curiously. She had seen them before. Savithri had promised to give them to her when she had completed her first dance program but had not had the chance to do so for some reason. Many of the gems encrusted in them were still intact. Elisa shook them just to hear what they sounded like. She had not danced in almost five years and the sight and sound of the anklets were enough to make her want to dance again. She looked up at Meena who was watching her intently and smiled. In their own way, each one sensed Savithri’s presence right then. “You should dance again,” Meena gestured. “She would want that very much,” she added. Elisa knew she meant Savithri. Elisa nodded and smiled. “She talked about you all the time. She was so proud of you. I am glad she never found out that you are now alone. No husband. It would have broken her heart,” continued Meena. Elisa sighed and glanced at Savithri’s photograph on the wall. Somehow Elisa felt that Savithri knew. Her calm gaze in the photograph seemed to take in everything; Elisa’s sadness, her loneliness, her sense of failure, her acute feelings of rejection. Savithri always knew Elisa better than anyone else, even Elisa herself. She decided to go back to dance school again. She would find Rukmini, her first dance teacher, as soon as possible.
The Dharmishtons had moved to Petaling Jaya, some distance away from Sentul Pasar, which was where Rukmini had lived the last time Elisa had met her. So, when Elisa went back to the old colony, she was surprised to find that not much had changed since the last time she had been there. Rukmini was a lot older and but still teaching with the help of a few older students. The old woman could barely contain her delight at the sight of Elisa, “My favorite student,” she declared to the young girls who were her students, her dark kohl-lined, wrinkled eyes sparkling. Elisa was fond of her old teacher and had always found her little idiosyncrasies endearing, even a little fascinating. Rukmini loved to dress up and age was evidently no barrier to her imagination and creativity. She was almost seventy-five and still wore a great deal of make-up which, if anything, showed up her wrinkles and lines a lot more. “No sane person will wear that kind of make-up,” Savithri had declared almost twenty years ago. “She looks like she is ready to perform in a Chinese wayang,” Savithri had said, sniggering disdainfully. “Don’t you dare dress like that,” she had warned Elisa. “People will think you are a psycho. Most people think your Rukmini teacher is a nut anyway. I think she finishes a tin of face powder every day.” Elisa had giggled at this.
She had to agree with Savithri, despite her affection for her teacher. Rukmini was a sight for sore eyes with her thickly powdered face, pink rouge that was streaked across her cheeks, her heavily lined eyes and scarlet lips. She wore lots of costume jewelry, some of which actually matched her clothes. Rows of beads, large, dangling earrings and lots of colorful glass bangles jangled wildly when she demonstrated a movement to her students. Her saree was always some bright color, usually a pink or brilliant green or red, and for some reason, she would always wear a blouse that completely did not match her saree, almost like a fashion statement. “A woman must always be well dressed,” she would tell her students. “Women must always wear bright, happy colors because we are all representations of the goddess Lakshmi.” Her students would look at each other baffled, doing their best not to guffaw. Actually, in her heyday, Rukmini had been quite an attractive woman with a string of admirers. Although she generally kept her private life close to her heart, she had revealed to Elisa during a lighter moment or two that she had never loved any of the men who had all been crazy about her. “I always kept them guessing and that is the only way you can keep a man.” Elisa had been about seventeen then and had thought it was a rather odd thing to say, considering she had never seen her with any man. Later she would tell herself that it was probably because Rukmini lived and breathed dance and was always visualizing herself as a nayika in a performance in which she imagined that she had an ardent lover in the wings at all times.
She gesticulated a great deal when she spoke and sometimes even her gestures looked like dance mudras much to the suppressed amusement of students. Rukmini was aware that her students found her amusing but she secretly liked it. She knew that they adored her and would not dream of going anywhere else to learn the art. It was not that easy to get into her school because her standards were extremely high. She had no qualms about telling a student to her face that she had no talent. “You should try some other art form. You can’t dance and I don’t think you will learn. You are too clumsy, even in the way you walk,” she would tell a tearful student. “I can feel sorry for you and let you continue but you will be wasting your time and mine. Go home and tell your mother that you need to find something else to do as a hobby.”
She was also demanding. She expected her students to be the best and would not settle for any less. “If you don’t want to practice at home, don’t bother coming back to class. There are a lot more deserving students who want your place. So next time you come back without practicing, I will throw you out.” And, she always kept her word. Students teased her and played with her but they also knew when to stop because they prided themselves as her students. Rukmini’s students were well known as the best in the field. Rukmini herself valued her students dearly because she handpicked them. Of these students, few became truly close to her, and Elisa was one of them. “You have so much talent, it frightens me. You are better than I am sometimes,’ she would tell Elisa, patting her on the back.
Rukmini had expected Elisa to bring the school more fame than it already enjoyed and so had been sorely disappointed when Elisa’s parents had instead chosen to get her married soon after she had returned from India. “Why do all you Indian parents think the same way? Why can’t a girl enjoy her talent for a while? What is the hurry to get the girl married?” she had asked when they had invited her to the wedding. “This comes from someone who has never married, probably because she frightened all her suitors away with just the way she dresses. Don’t listen to what your teacher says,” Savithri had chided crossly. “She is not normal.” Elisa had agreed to the wedding, wishing her parents had thought more like Rukmini. So naturally, Rukmini was ecstatic that Elisa had come back and wanted to dance again. “I always felt that you were wasted in a marriage. Your parents would not listen. You were not made for an ordinary life, marriage, children…nonsense. Dance and you will find peace and happiness,” she said gesticulating dramatically. They were alone, sharing a pot of tea. “I want you to take over this school. I had always thought you would,” she confided, in a stage whisper, although they were alone in the house. Elisa stared at her surprised.
She had never imagined that Rukmini had harbored such thoughts and it flattered her. Smiling she replied, “But Mini Aunty, I am not sure I am capable of handling such a big school. It is a big task.” Rukmini guessed that what Elisa said was only from her lips and not her heart. With a little laugh and a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, she said, “Spoken like a true performer. You love compliments, don’t you girl? How many times do you want me to tell you that you can be better than even I?” Elisa blushed and laughed in response. Elisa’s heart sang with joy as she rode the bus home, the warm night wind blowing in her face as the bus sped along. When Steven had left, she knew she did not want to stay on in the US because there was no real attachment to the place. She had liked it well enough and could have stayed on, as she had a sufficient number of friends and a decent job but her heart was with her parents and she wanted to be with them to the end.
Mr. Mitchell had tried his best to convince her to stay. “The kids like you and you can help make a difference,” he had reasoned when she had handed him her resignation. “Mr. Mitchell, you and I both know that it was an uphill climb for me all the way. There were good days and bad days and the bad days were sometimes so bad that it took me a long time to recover from them,” Elisa had said smiling gently thinking of the standoffs she had had with Blue and one or two others. She simply could never get used to the abusive language that some of the kids had sometimes hurled at her. Her flesh still crawled at the memory of those incidents. “Are you telling me that you gained nothing from this experience?” Mr. Mitchell had asked raising an eyebrow. “No, I am not saying that,” Elisa had responded quickly. “I won’t say that at all. In fact, these kids have taught me more about myself, both as a person and as a teacher, than anyone else. I just don’t think I can be here anymore. I think I will always value the experience that I gained here, but this is not my calling. I really need to move on now,” she had said emphatically looking into the kindly brown eyes. Mr. Mitchell had smiled and nodded before he had said, “Your honesty about who you are is always refreshing. You’re a smart lady. You’ll be fine wherever you go. What do you plan to do?” “Go back to what I love most, dance. I want to be who I was before I met Steven,” had been Elisa’s response.
When Elisa had said her goodbyes to her students, many had shown genuine affection. “Will you come back and see us Ms. Cherian?” they had asked. Elisa had simply smiled and said, “Well I am leaving the country and I don’t know when I can come back. By the time I do come back, all of you would have probably graduated. I expect all of you to graduate from high school,” she had said cheerily looking around at the faces that had become so familiar to her. “What you put out there for everyone to see and hear is a reflection of who you are. Remember that every time you even think of doing something that you should not be doing.” She had glanced at Blue as she had said this. The girl had pretty much been the only one who had not come forward to say goodbye and so Elisa had decided that she would go up to her. “Take care of yourself, Blue. You can graduate like everyone else. Just don’t throw your life away…” Elisa had begun before she had been interrupted. “Stop! I don’t need to hear this from you. You are leaving us. Stop pretending like you care about us. You’re moving on to something better! So what do you care about a bunch of kids nobody wants?” the girl had spat, her eyes flashing. “You too have given up on me. So what is it to you, what happens to me?” she had added before roughly pushing the desk away from her and walking out of the classroom.
A stunned Elisa had stood rooted in the middle of the classroom. Completely flabbergasted by Blue’s behavior, she had found it difficult to even move, leave alone stop the girl from leaving the classroom. Slowly becoming aware of the classroom full of eyes that were on her, she had sighed a little and walked back to her desk. Neither the kids nor Elisa had expected the turn of events, especially on her last day. An awkward silence remained, but the kids had slowly gone back to what they had been doing and the tension had slowly dissolved. But Elisa’s heart had continued to beat wildly, as it always had when she had had a confrontation with one of the kids. Elisa had not seen Blue for the rest of the day as the girl had chosen to remain in her colleague’s classroom. Valerie had mentioned during lunch that Blue had been sulking all day. “But what’s new, huh?” Valerie had said, tucking into her pasta. “I have never actually seen that girl happy. Oh! No! I am wrong. I have seen her happy. Did you know that that girl is an amazing dancer? Last year at the end of the school year, some of the kids had some music and they were all just dancing for fun. You should have seen Blue. She was simply fabulous. That was the only time I have ever seen her happy.”
At the end of the day, when the kids had left for the day, having said their final goodbyes, Elisa had been left alone in her classroom to clear up her things and pack her boxes. She could not believe just how much junk she had collected in just two years, stuff that she had tried to use in class but had found unsuitable for some reason, pamphlets that she thought would be useful for some lesson but could not find any use for, and extra papers and teaching materials. In the midst of her cleaning, Valerie had come in to say goodbye, “Bye dear. Write to us. I will visit you in Malaysia, I promise,” the ever jolly woman had said, hugging Elisa tightly. Elisa had merely smiled encouragingly. She somehow could never picture Valerie in any other country other than America, the country that she loved with a passion, even for holidays. Camping out somewhere in the wilderness of California was Valerie’s ideal summer vacation. “It’s so raw, so real, just to hear the sounds of the darkness,’ she would say animatedly, her eyes glowing. “You need to experience it sometime Eli,” she would say. Elisa had balked at the idea. She was one of those who loved adventure, very cautiously.
Elisa had almost finished her packing when she had found the note, a scrap of paper torn from a notebook, under a pile of books. Something was scrawled on it in pencil by what looked like a childish hand that Elisa immediately recognized as Blue’s. She had tried to get Blue to improve her penmanship and had even bought her books for it. “Don’t go, please. I really need you here,” it had said. Blue had not signed the note. Elisa had read the note again slowly. She had pursed her lips and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to digest the message before folding the piece of paper and putting it away in her purse. She had finally got through to the girl although a tad late.
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