My sapphire is an illuminated speck of subdued agony and several vibrant shades of pastel ultramarine. It is a judicious blend of the richness and blue transparency of dewdrops and the shadowed mist looming over our subconscious. It is the purple of the garden sage san the brilliant crimson of the scorched dawn break.
Yes. My sapphire is blue. My sapphire bleeds a blurred, burnt blue. It runs intense and deep. Hidden in its prussian depths, there remains a whole new ultramarine 'sapphire'-ness to explore.
My sapphire is the pale, gloomy blue of the isolated lake studded with scum. Neglected but in bloom.
I am the daughter of a Devadasi. Are you wrinkling your nose? You should. After all, I am not supposed to exist. If you are not, then it's a God forbidden sin! You are ascertaining eternal damnation in hell.
For those of you who are yet to sprinkle gangajaal on yourself for ignorance, let me enlighten you. Devadasi comes from two words-'dev' meaning 'the Almighty' and 'daasi' meaning 'slave'. So, a slave of the Almighty ought to be a good thing, right? Except maybe for the fact that a 'devadasi' is just not a worker in the temple of God. She is His eternally owned servant. His 'ardhaangini'. Precisely, she is restricted to the quarters of the temple for an entire lifetime serving the Almighty as His slave and His wife.
In our place, the words 'wife' and 'slave' were nearly analogous. However, the devadasi had an additional tag on her. One of eternal doom. So, the question becomes even more obvious. How did I turn up?
No, I didn't turn up in a red muslin draped floral platter with a handful of rangoli and sweetmeats. I didn't turn up as a parcel from above!
As far as bringing a parcel is considered, I had brought for my mother a platter full of unasked for misery.
My sapphire is the munshell of dusk blended with midnight. Soothing to look at but hidden in the shadows.
I might have been conceived by chance; but I had been brought up by choice.
As far as I can remember, my memory is misty with thoughts of dhoti draped Brahmin and incense ash; early hours of dawn, the throaty screech of the conch shell; garlands and the huge gong in the temple; mostly abuses and insults from strangers, my twenty one years old devadasi mother shielding my ears with her dung smelling palms. This is how I spent my childhood: playing around the temple with ragged children who lived without food, sliding down the edge of the stairs, climbing trees and dressing my waist long oil draped hair.
I used to love dancing. Not the way my mother used to dance in the temple, facing unknown crowds in colourful sarees and outrageous ornaments. Often she used to come back from these so called aradhaana nrityas, completely drained. Tired of fake smiles, sprained ankles, swollen eyes and curious red marks in her wrists, she used to complain of headaches. However, she never forgot to treat me with her deliciously made halua.
I was more of a free bird. The wanton wind of the monsoons. The iridescence of rainbows. The unrestrained fly of the kingfisher. Mostly, the more vibrant shade of a sapphire. Navy blue. I loved dancing to the beats of mridanga and dholak playing in the nrityashaala adjoining the temple. Here, girls of varying age used to dance in harmony, united by the common decree of bharatnatyama. I wasn't allowed inside the premises, though.
However, I couldn't be stopped. While the girls danced within, I took to the pavement outside, from where I could not be legally driven away. Every afternoon, after the completion of the nritya, I used to giggle uncontrollably, in a spirit of my self acquired victory, as the women sprinkled gangajaal on the stairwell.
Back in the hut where we lived, there was almost no furniture except for the charpoy, the small fireplace and a couple of old photographs. When I used to tell my mother about the inconvenience that I caused in the nrityashaala, she would try her best not to smile.
Are you surprised? Yes, my mother did smile. The kind of unrestrained, unstoppable soul within her apparently frail and obedient self still remained. Part of it, she had passed on to me. She often told me stories of mischief and jolly days of her ever-so-short childhood. She told me about the pickles miraculously disappearing from the rooftop, the coal that would peculiarly change its location, the womens' apparels getting switched and her father's much dreaded staff landing on her back.
Yes, the mischief maker of the family! Until her twist of fate had made her a devadasi.
No, she wasn't ashamed of having me. In fact, I was almost the only good thing in her life. She tried her best to provide me as much education as possible(which was uncensored for me), in spite of all the complaints. She confronted them all for my sake. "The fact that they don't accept it makes me all the more bent upon proving them wrong", she often told me. "I will give you the life I have been deprived of."
My sapphire is the crystalline azure of pointed ice. Beautiful but ephemeral.
Every morning, during the early hours, I used to leave for the old Brahman's place. There I touched his feet and sorted flowers. He would recite scriptures and his elder son would teach me Telegu and English alphabets. It would be my happiest hour of the day.
They were almost the only people who treated me like a normal human being, other than Kalu. Kalu was my two years old dog. I had retrieved him from the river bank, one cold morning, in a state of shivering. Ever since, he had been my best friend.
It was only later that I realised that Kalu was dumb. Imagine relating your stories to a mute friend! Yet, he remained constant, unlike many. He made up for his weakness by being an intent listener. He listened to me, with ears popped up and beady eyes transfixed upon me.
Later, Ma told me of how animals were much more humane than humans. "It is us who prove to be the worst beasts of all."
Every evening, after the aradhaana, the Brahman would again teach me scriptures. In his high-pitched nasal voice, he used to cite the lines in a monotonous singsong, that's typical of Brahmin. "The creator creates with a purpose. He is all powerful, all knowing, all deciding. Nobody in this world is useless. Nobody is a burden." In a corner, Ma used to wipe tears from her brown cheeks. When I asked her why she was crying, she would deny it. "Cry? Na beti. It was just the smoke getting at my eyes." "Oh! I was sleepy." "You are outrageous! Tears and me?"
As I learnt my alphabets, with the lamp shining down on me and the faint smell of boiling rice filling the musty air, I entered a completely different world-a world where I could learn without any censorship imposed on me. The mosquitoes buzzing near my ears and the oppressive heat from the oven couldn't bother me. By the time I was eleven, I could read and write Telegu and speak in broken English.
However, what predominantly had me gripped was my urge to dance. I liked the rhythm of my bare feet hitting against the uneven surface of the mud and brick floor, the graceful 'mudra's that Ma taught me, the tinkling music of the bangles as I moved and mostly, the power of unrestrained and pure joy surging through my veins.
One day after my thirteenth birthday, while dancing outside the nrityashaala, I saw one of the women pointing at me and talking in hushed tones to the other. I could only make out bits and pieces of the conversation. 'Shameless girl...the devadasi's...unclean...see? dancing! That is what she is meant for! Dancing...entire life. Dancing for all eternity...a devadasi after all! Very soon, will marry the same one...her mother married years ago! Hah!' After this, the other woman, stifling her giggles, replied loud enough for me to hear."Don't be in a hurry to dance, girl. That's what you'll do your entire life. Like your devadasi mother. In those unclean...".She made an imaginary gesture in thin air, meant to drive away bad omen. "Your fate is sealed."
After hearing this, I was confused. I felt as if for the first time in my life, I had been appreciated by strangers. After all, what else could be better than dancing throughout life?
Down at the gate, I found Kalu waiting for me. He looked anxious. I could almost visualise him, woofing at me. I told him about what had happened back there. He listened with rapt attention and didn't look very pleased about it. For some strange reason, he licked my sweaty fingers, as if for comfort.
That night, in between bites of stale chapattis and plain curd, I told Ma about the incident. Kalu filled in the gaps with his stares. I had almost imagined Ma to start laughing, when I told her about this, and enliven me with one of her satiric comments on the foolishness of humans. However, on hearing it, she looked at the door with an intent serious expression on her face. She looked furious and I thought that she would scream, but she did nothing of the sort. She simply stood up and walked out. On her way, she said,"I'll just be back. Meanwhile, play with Kalu".
It wasn't in my nature to disregard Ma but her sudden drift of mood had undoubtedly worried me. So, with Kalu at my heels, I tiptoed out.
Once outside, I heard Ma speaking to the Brahman about it. She looked worried. Her eyes were teary. Even the Brahman had a solemn expression on his calm and serene form. I heard Ma saying, "No way will I ever let her live the same horrific life that has befallen me! It's not much time before the village will force her to become a devadasi. I can't allow that!"
"Na beti! The Gods have a vividly different future planned for her. She is meant for greater things," the Brahman mused. "It's in her palms. Here, give her this nilmani. It'll bring her good luck."
I never told Ma about what I had overheard. She came back with a forced smile and made me wear the bronze ring in my fingers, with the little sapphire on it. That's the time I really started feeling the indomitable spirit of this invaluable gem, inside me.
My sapphire is the crayola of the ocean deeps. Pure and untouched. Seductive, yet illusive. Brimming with life!
Before I could realise, I was seventeen. By now, I had mastered Telegu and English both. Bharatnatyama now ran in my blood. In fact, thrice had I left the village, under the oblivious cover of the inky night and taken part in dance competitions. I had won all. Strange, isn't it?
"It's got to be! She is that devadasi's issue! Dancing must be running in her veins", they criticised.
However, I didn't let their baseless mockery dampen my spirit. I wanted to prove them wrong.
'All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am because I had been successful in gathering, with care, the shattered pieces of an inevitable past and walking alone towards a brighter future.'
By the time I was nineteen, the verbal mockery and criticism changed into outright obscenities hurled at my mother. "It's time you married off that shameless girl to your 'supposed-to-be' husband!" "Daughter to sautan?" "Now it's time she really started dancing."
She paid no heed to all these remarks and back home, made fun of them. "It's just that they suffer from serious indigestion, seeing you succeed." However, I could tell that deep inside, Ma had her own insecurities. At times like these, my otherwise bright sapphire lost its lustre and revealed a dull powder blue.
It was in such a day that a couple of well dressed young men turned up outside the temple, with briefcases and cameras. The Brahman came to our hut, running despite his years, his face glowing with joy. "Nirmala! They are here. They have come! Thank the Gods! Where is she?" My mother joined him, still in shock and unanticipated nervousness.
They had come to take my interview and a couple of days later, I had to leave for town in order to tread my first step towards a golden future.
In a single day, my fate did an upside down flip. Those twenty four hours of my life shaped the rest of my future. My sapphire blushed purple.
My sapphire is the untainted bluebonnet of the sky. Vast in expanse and huge! Limitless and unreachable.
Now, I am the director of National Bharatnatyama Institute of Tamil Nadu. Inside its premises, any willing, amateur dancer is allowed to learn for free(irrespective of whether she is a devadasi's daughter). I am thirty one and yet unmarried. I have chiselled out my own life.
Back home, Ma is no more. I had to make my tedious journey up till here alone. She died when I was twenty three.
However, my journey is still incomplete. The biggest challenge lies ahead of me. It's my determination and moral obligation to ban the ruthless practice of 'devadasi's, once and for all.
Today, as I go back home-a humble seaside villa, it starts drizzling. With the petrichor refreshing my spirit and the chandelier glaring down at me, I sit on the posh couch in my terrace. I flip back to the first page of my leather bound diary and look at the few cobalt letters.
'How Blue is My Sapphire?'
Just then, a shabby piece of paper falls off from within the creases and folds of uncertainty. I carefully lay out the letter on the solitary table for probably the hundredth time. On its coarse surface, the letters are still prominent, stained and spotted with marks of teardrops. I read:
I know that someday, I'll be proud of you. Someday, I won't be known as a devadasi but as Devki's Ma. I am waiting for that.
As new teardrops drain down my cheeks, I feel that same void within me, which has gripped me for so many years. For a moment, I drift back to the past. My sapphire glows a brilliant sapphire blue!
I feel the letter with shaky fingers and hold it close to my heart. "Ma, are you listening? "
As usual, she doesn't reply. But somewhere out there, a distant star glows brighter.