My sapphire is an illuminated speck of subdued agony and several vibrant shades of pastel ultramarine. My sapphire bleeds a blurred, burnt blue. It runs intense and deep. Hidden in its Prussian depths 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.
Let me enlighten you. Devadasi comes from two words: “dev,” meaning “the Almighty,” and “daasi,” meaning “slave.” A slave of the Almighty ought to be a good thing, right? Except for the fact that a devadasi is His eternally owned servant, restricted to the quarters of the temple for an entire lifetime serving the Almighty as His slave and His wife.
So, the question becomes even more obvious. How did I turn up?
No, I didn’t turn up on a red muslin-draped floral platter with a handful of rangoli and sweetmeats. As far as bringing a parcel is considered, all I brought for my mother was a plate 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 was 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; abuses and insults from strangers, my twenty-one-year-old devadasi mother shielding my ears with her palms. I spent my childhood playing around the temple with the starving children, sliding down the edge of the stairs, climbing trees and combing my waist-long hair.
I used to love dancing. Not the way my mother danced in the temple, facing unknown crowds in colorful sarees. She used to come back from these so-called aradhaana nrityas, completely drained, eyes swollen and red marks on her wrists. She complained of headaches but never forgot to treat me to her delicious, homemade halua.
I was a free bird – the wanton wind of the monsoons. The unrestrained flight of the kingfisher. I was the vibrant shade of sapphire. Navy blue. I loved dancing to the beats of mridanga and dholak playing near the temple. Here, girls of varying ages danced in harmony, but I wasn’t allowed inside to join them.
I wouldn’t be stopped. While the girls danced within, I took to the pavement outside. After the completion of the nritya dance, I watched the women sprinkle the holy water – gangajaal – on the stairwell.
In our hut, there was little more than a bed, a small fireplace, and a couple of old photographs. Whenever I told my mother about the inconvenience I caused near the temple, she tried her best not to smile.
Yes, she smiled. She often told me stories of mischief and the carefree days of her too-short childhood. She, too, was the mischief-maker of the family – until a twist of fate made her a devadasi.
She wasn’t ashamed of having me. She tried her best to provide as much education as possible, in spite of the complaints. She confronted the opposers. “Their rejection makes me determined to prove 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.
Early in the morning, 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 taught me the Telegu and English alphabets. It was the happiest hour of my day.
They were the only ones who treated me like a normal human, other than my dog, Kalu. I found him shivering at the riverbank one cold morning; from that moment on, he was my best friend, always listening to me with c***ed ears and transfixed eyes. Later, Ma told me that 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. Ma would wipe tears from her brown cheeks. When I asked why she was crying, she would deny it. “Cry? Na beti. It was just the smoke getting in my eyes.”
As I learnt the alphabets, with a lamp shining down on me and the smell of boiling rice filling the musty air, I entered a completely different world. It was a world where I could learn without any censorship. Even the mosquitoes buzzing in my ears and the oppressive heat didn’t bother me. By the time I was eleven, I could read and write Telegu and speak in broken English.
But what I loved most of all was dancing; I liked the rhythm of my bare feet hitting the uneven surface of the mud and brick floor, the graceful mudras that Ma taught me, the tinkling music of the bangles as I moved, the unrestrained joy surging through my veins.
After my thirteenth birthday, while dancing outside the nrityashaala, I saw some women pointing at me and talking in hushed tones. I could only make out bits and pieces of the conversation. “Shameless girl … the devadasis … unclean … see? Dancing! That is what she is meant for! Dancing for all eternity.” A woman, stifling her giggles, replied loudly 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 a gesture in the air meant to drive away a bad omen. “Your fate is sealed.”
Down at the gate, I found Kalu waiting for me. He looked anxious. As we walked home, I told him about what had happened. He listened with rapt attention and licked my sweaty fingers 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 expected Ma to start laughing. I expected her to enliven me with one of her satirical comments on the foolishness of humans. On hearing my story, however, her face turned stony and furious. Abruptly, she stood and walked out, saying only, “I’ll be back. Stay here and play with Kalu.”
It wasn’t in my nature to disobey Ma, but this time, I was too curious. With Kalu at my heels, I tiptoed out.
Outside, I heard Ma speaking to the Brahman. Her voice was thick with tears. Even the Brahman looked solemn.
I heard Ma’s voice: “I will never let her live out the same horrific life as me! Soon the village will force her to become a devadasi. I can’t allow that.”
“Na beti! The Gods have a different future planned for her. She is meant for greater things. It is in her palms,” the Brahman mused. “Here, give her this nilmani. It will bring her good luck.”
I tiptoed back inside and feigned ignorance. Ma came back with a forced smile and showed me the ring – a bronze band with a sapphire perched on top. Something stirred inside me; I felt the indomitable spirit of the gem inside me.
My sapphire is the color of the ocean deep. Pure and untouched. Seductive, yet illusive. Brimming with life.
By the age of seventeen, I had mastered Telegu and English. Still, dance ran in my blood. I had left the village three times, shielded by inky night’s darkness, to take part in dance competitions. I had won them all.
“It’s got to be because she’s the devadasi’s offspring!” they complained. I didn’t let their mockery dampen my spirit. I wanted to prove them wrong.
By the time I was nineteen, the mockery and criticism changed into outright obscenities hurled at my mother. “It’s time you married off that shameless girl. Daughter to sautan? It’s time she really started dancing.”
Ma paid no heed to these remarks. “It’s just that they suffer from serious indigestion, seeing you succeed.” But I could tell that deep inside, Ma had her own insecurities. At times like these, my otherwise bright sapphire lost its luster and revealed a dull powder blue.
On a scorching day, 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 have come! Thank the Gods! Where is she?”
They had come to interview me and videotape my dancing. A couple of days later, I left town to take the first step toward a golden future. In a single day, my fate flipped. Those twenty-four hours shaped the rest of my future. My sapphire blushed purple.
My sapphire is the untainted bluebonnet of the sky. Vast, limitless, and unreachable.
Now, I am the director of the National Bharatnatyama Institute of Tamil Nadu. Inside its premises, any willing amateur dancer – even children of devadasis – is allowed to learn bharatnatyama for free. I am thirty-one and unmarried. I have chiseled out my own life.
Back home, Ma is no more. I had to make my journey alone. She died when I was twenty-three. My journey is still incomplete; the biggest challenge lies ahead. It’s my mission and moral obligation to ban the ruthless practice of devadasis, once and for all.
Today, I sit cross-legged on my couch, listening to the patter of rain. Flipping to the first page of my diary, I look at the entry, written in cobalt letters: “How Blue Is My Sapphire?”
A shabby piece of paper falls from the creases. For the hundredth time, I smooth the letter out on the table. The words are still prominent, stained and spotted with teardrops.
I know that some day I’ll be proud of you. Some day, I won’t be known as a devadasi but as Devki’s Ma. I am waiting for that.
As new teardrops stain the wooden table, I feel the same void that has gripped me for many years. I drift back to the past. My sapphire glows a brilliant sapphire blue!
With shaky fingers, I hold the letter close to my heart. “Ma, are you listening?”
As usual, she doesn’t reply. But in that moment, my sapphire ring seems to glow brighter.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.