The sun had set and it was time for Savitri to entertain the men seated in the hall. “It’s a private hall that is only meant for Raja sa and his special guests. No ordinary men or any women are allowed inside. Tu khaas se chhori.“, Rangoli had told Savitri.
“Oh! Is it.”, she blushed.
Savitri felt special. For her, it was about dance. It was about art that she had grown up learning. She felt grateful for her luck. She was to perform in a private hall, in front of important people and Raja sa, himself. “Sab sapne jaisa hai, Rangoli. All of this seems to be too good to be real.”, she said while putting on the earrings, made of lac and decorated with mirror, that fell gracefully just a bit above her shoulders. They were painted bright pink and green. They matched the bead work on her yellow peshwaz.
“Lovely.”, Rangoli could not help but admire.
Setting sun had left the sky filled with orange and purple shades. Standing under such splendid beauty of nature was Savitri – ready to take over the evening with her comely dance. She could hear the men talking and the soft music that played. She could hear the distant tunes of veena and flute. The thaaks of tabla were irresistable. Though nervous, she couldn’t wait to mix the echo of her ankle-bells with the sound of hand-drums. Standing in front of big, wooden doors of the hall, she silently took Baisa’s blessings.
“Jaa chhori aur Raja Sa ne bana le diwaana apna.”
Before Savitri could respond or even comprehend what Rangoli has just said, the doors fell wide open and there he was sitting in front of her, in a silk kurta and pajama – Hridhay.
There were multiple rows of men sitting on either of Raja sa. Hridhay was sitting in the first row, on the left side in a beige silk kurta. Seated beside a man, in his 50’s, he was talking and laughing. Shocked to see him there among a bunch of strange men, laughing and happy without her, Savitri didn’t know what to feel. She wanted to forget where she was and what for and wanted to run to him. Her head was suddenly clouded with several questions. The comforting embrace she had been dreaming of was right there in front of her. But, she was also angry. Angry that he didn’t seem to even remember her. Angry because he never contacted her again. Angry because he didn’t seem to be incomplete without her.
“I have to do it for Baisa. I cannot lose myself to these emotions right now.” she chided herself. Shocked and dazed, she beclouded her face under the thin veil of her dupatta.
Nervous that he would recognize her, she entered consciously. Half raising her eyes, she peeked at him. He was obscure of all connections he had with the woman that stood in front of him. Sitting there, he looked different. When he laughed, it was too loud and when he talked, his words seemed to be coming out all muffled. His expressions were unguided. One look, and Savitri saw them changing into lewdness. Disgusted and sad at the same time, she despised seeing him there.
“5 saal ka intazar aur mile bhi toh yaha, aise!“, she scolded but she wasn’t sure whom?
Moments passed before she realised where she was. She immediately bent and bowed Raja Sa.
“Shuru karo” was all that was heard before the music once again took over the moment, this time, mingled with the sound of Savitri’s ghunghroo.
“Look at the way her fingers move, imagine what they could do to me.” said the man sitting beside Hridhay.
“I want her too Majib ji. She is terrific. Jiski haatho ki ungliya itni khubsoorat ho, socho chehra kya keher dhayega!”
“Sharab bol rahi hai Hridhay babu ya tum?”, Majib teased him. “Khair, it is no use of us discussing all of this. Look at Raja sa. He is as enchanted as us – there is little chance that he’d leave her for us.”
“But aren’t we his important guests? He must give us all that we want. Raaj mahal hai, hume kisi baat ki kami nahi honi chahiye.” scoffed Hridhay.
“Do not be so disheartened, Hridhay. There are plenty of girls here – expect variety sa’ab. You can stay here for a year and ask for a different girl each night and your wish will never be turned down.” Even when talking, Majib would not take his eyes off Savitri.
And how could Majib, no man in the hall could. They watched her agile arms swinging around, her feet tapping to the rhythm, and her swinging long braid. Her thin waist had the perfect curve; it was laced with a silk belt around the peshwaz. The heavy, colourful neck-piece covered her breasts. Even with the heavy weight of her dress and jewellery, she moved effortlessly with grace, like a peacock dancing in first rain of saawan.
Trying not to look at Hridhay, she kept her eyes lowered. The marbled floor was all she saw until the end of her dance. Oblivious to the licentious gazes of men around her, she thought of nothing else but him. She danced to the music, she danced to her thoughts, she danced to her racing heartbeat. Her misty eyes revealed both joy and sorrow. She couldn’t wait the performance to end. “I will meet Hridhay later this evening.” she decided, “He’ll have to answer all my questions.”
Even with her mind fogged with anger and confusion, Savitri could not wait to be embraced and loved. She was already rehearsing all her questions, picturing their meeting, imagining his surprise and happiness, and feeling his warmth against her. “It maybe the first and the last time I am dancing in front of strange men.” she smiled to herself under the veil before swinging her arms to the right and tapping her feet, marking the end of her dance.
“Savitri”, Raja sa exhaled and why not, after all he had held his breath throughout.