The gate of the Town Hall had been mounted with a shiny bright yellow silk banner. It called for all dancers from sixteen to sixty in the town to participate in the competition for India’s Next Dance Star being held there. Consequently the compound was teeming with the hopeful faces of all those who had collected for the competition.
It was the first time that selections for such a famous program was taking place in Bhopal. Rumour had it that Remo D’Souza would be one of the judges. The final prize would be a trip to Mumbai, a dance workshop with Remo and a chance to compete in the program.
Bilal reached the entrance and felt lost in the crowd. He stopped for a moment to compose himself. His heart, assailed with doubt, seemed to sink into a quagmire of hopelessness.
Was he good enough? Would he be able to redeem himself in his parent’s eyes and his own?
Thinking never amounted to anything. Action did.
He followed the serpentine queues with his eyes. There were separate queues for males and females and they each easily had thirty participants. A young girl sat under a dull and faded awning taking down their details. He joined the long queue, his phone in his hands keeping him company. All around him, people were chatting as old friends were being discovered or new friendships forged but he stood alone.
As he turned his back to the crowd after registering, he could feel the other’s eyes raking his backside. He straightened his back and walked confidently towards the area indicated for the participants.
The whispers began soon after. Words that intended to be heard clearly and wound deeply, words that were cloaked in the excuse of anonymity among the teeming mass of hopeful participants.
“What’s he doing here?” someone asked.
“He or she?” another sniggered.
“This is a competition for men, not hijras,” another voice piped up. A titter accompanied this proclamation.
What gave them the right to insult him and abuse him? His different looks with his kohl lined eyes or the bindi in the center of his forehead? Or the fact that he walked with a grace and lissomeness that only few of the others could match?
Bilal tuned out the words. After all, this was not the first time he had slurs thrown at him. He was used to the words… not the hurt, though. However he had learned to mask it well. After all, he had more than a decade of practice.
A feeling of joy permeated the courtyard and the children gathered there. People moved around in their best finery; men in spotless white embroidered kurtas, women in bright colourful ensembles, shining with zari and gota. The sounds of tinkling bangles and laughter rang through the courtyard fragrant with delicate smells of saffron, kewra and itr. It was Eid and twelve years old Bilal was busy eating sewain and biryani along with the other boys.
A shout of joy preceded the silver Panasonic two-in-one that Munir, Bilal’s younger brother, deposited on the divan. He had succeeded in convincing their uncle to let them have the player for an impromptu dance party in the courtyard.
The player began belting out the latest peppy numbers from Bollywood in a volume high enough to raise the dead from their graves. The elders decided to overlook the transgression. It wasn’t everyday that the kids got to enjoy. The fact that the adults were also enjoying all the fun and frolic might have had a hand in it.
Next to the clamorous instrument, an elderly woman sat surrounded by numerous bolsters. Her mouth was busy chewing betel leaves, the juice slowly building up in her mouth like her irritation. Bilal’s grandmother had a tongue as sharp as the limestone that was added in her paan. Being a little hard of hearing, the loud volume of the player was not a problem. The dancing, on a pious day like Eid was however not to be allowed.
The song Kajrare Kajrare tere kale kale naina began playing and Bilal knew this was the opportunity he’d been waiting for. He pulled up his kurta over his midriff and tied it into a knot like the tops of heroines from the seventies. He then started gyrating his pelvis in rhythm with the beat. Left and right. Everyone stopped to watch his fluid movements. Bilal, heady with all the attention, started pirouetting. He tread as light as a feather and the movement made him feel as if he would float away in another turn or two when a stern voice made him stop midway.
“Stop all this nonsense. Shaking your hips like a hijra on the highway. We belong to a respectable family. Kids from our family don’t behave like this. Wait till your father hears about this.” Dadi, who had finally gotten up from the diwan to put an end to all this heathenism, exclaimed.
The kids dispersed. The fun was over. All of them went away to play cricket in the lane outside. Bilal also joined them half heartedly. He knew Dadi would keep to her promise of telling his father about his dancing and he shuddered at the thought of the words his father would have for him.
Bilal was lost in thoughts with a crude homemade bat in hand, standing before a group of ambitious sticks masquerading as wickets. No wonder that a well placed ball fell the sticks and brought his stint at the bat to an inglorious end.
“Bilal, what are you doing? Where is your mind? Not to dance again, I hope?!! Go to your room and move your hips instead of spoiling our game.”
Munir was indignant. Bilal was always lost in dreams of songs and dance steps in tune with the beat. He didn’t want him in his team in the first place. But had bowed to the pressure from cousins who also didn’t want Bilal in their teams. Now he regretted his earlier generosity and sent Bilal packing without a fraternal thought troubling his soul.
Bilal went home, sorrowful. He had once again been dismissed from the boy’s game. Ammi would be sad. It was only for her sake he tried at all to blend in with the guys. Otherwise, he failed to connect with the boisterous boys from school boasting about their childish escapades. What did it matter if you caught six catches in a match or batted an average of fifty-six? It wasn’t as if you would become Tendulkar or Sehwag.
He respected marks. They showed that you had brains and could make something of your life. But when it came to non academic fields, he never understood the urge to run fast, jump high or hit hard. Why did the world make everything a competition? It led to nothing but each person trying their best to put the others down.
As he entered the house, he was grabbed from behind by two little hands.
“Bhaijan! A querulous voice said, “You forgot once again! You’d promised to make Eid dresses for my dolls.”
It was Amina, his little sister. He loved making nice shiny things and was an expert with glue, paper, fabric and scissors. They took an ethereal shape under his nubile fingers and far-fetched imagination.
Whenever he wasn’t studying he could either be found dancing or smothered in thread, wool, mirrors and gota. He had inherited his love for art and crafts from his mother who had a huge stash in a big brown basket, full of fascinating things. Amina loved whatever he made for her dolls and enjoyed how the others oohed and ahhed at her beautifully draped dolls.
“OK! I’ll make a pink sharara for your doll with a star studded chunri.” Bilal had seen just the perfect piece of pink velvet fabric in his Ammi’s basket. He took it out and set to making the sharara.
He measured the length and cut the fabric, encumbered by the excited Amina hovering over each of his movements. He had to get her to sit on the side of the bed so as not to block the much needed light. Then he pleated the skirt and ruffled it. Once he finished attaching the waistband, he found a piece of gota just long enough and set to fixing it on the hem. As he worked, a shadow fell on the bed. He looked up intending to admonish Amina, when he saw that it was not Amina but his grandmother.
“Ab gudiyon se khelega tu? Hai Allah! Where do you learn all this? Sare ladkiyon wale kaam isi ne karne hain. Naak katayega ye humari!! Aane de tere papa ko!” The dowager turned and left huffing in indignation at her grandson’s proclivities.
Bilal quailed with fear. This was the second time he had been caught on the same day.
“Abbu to mera malida bana denge!”
He somehow finished the skirt and then half heartedly made the chunni to go with it, forgetting the stars in his haste and anxiety. Amina was so happy, she ran away to show the new ensemble to all those who were interested enough. Bilal, feeling disgraced and full of anxiety, fell on the bed, a million questions running around in his head.
Why is dancing bad?
Why can’t I play with dolls? What will happen if I do?
Who made these rules?
Main naak kaise kataunga if I like to dance or sew shiny things?
Sadly no one was there to answer his questions. He never realized when he fell asleep.
“Bilal, wake up! Abbu is calling you to dinner. Everyone is waiting.” Munir shook him like his life depended on it. Abbu was waiting. And it was never good to keep him waiting.
Seeing Bilal was awake he left the room. Bilal jumped up from the bed, rubbing off the sleep from his eyes. He needed to go down before Abbu decided to call him again. A direct call from him didn’t portend well for whoever he called, be it the kids or their mother. Only Dadi was impervious to his anger.
When Abbu returned late in the evening everyday, the first thing he did after getting fresh, was to go and sit with Dadi, sharing with her the happenings of the day, while both of them enjoyed a refreshing cup of tea together. Dadi had all the respect and love that Abbu could muster. After all, didn’t the scriptures say that heaven lay under your mother’s feet?
They would talk about lots of things. About old memories and new neighbors. About his indigestions and her arthritis. About the kids and their mother. Today was no different. Evening had passed and by now Dadi must have told Abbu everything after he returned after visiting friends for Eid. As he went down the stairs, his heart seemed to descend further into his tummy with each step. Nausea rose in him like a bad memory.
He reached the dining room. The nice aroma of chicken korma and peas pulao wafted into his nostrils and he realized he was hungry after all. He pulled a chair next to Munir and sat down. Everyone was already there waiting for him. His father sat at the head of the six seater table. He was a broad man, in the face as well as in the body. The thick beard he sported, lent a dignified air to his already grave look. His mother, sitting next to him, looked small in comparison, like the birds she was fond of feeding. The thought that she also wanted to fly away like one, someday, hit Bilal like a cramp. He had no doubt of this though it had dawned on him then only.
At the bottom of the table sat his Dadi, facing his father serenely. It wasn’t the look of someone wondering if she should tell a damning tale or hold it back. All the rats that had started to gather in Bilal’s tummy fled like rats deserting a sinking ship, leaving behind butterflies fluttering in their wake.
“Bismillah kijiye,” Abbu said. It wasn’t an order but was obeyed immediately by everyone at the table.
After dinner, when everyone had finished, Abbu called.
“Bilal, come. I have to talk to you.”
Bilal mounted the stairs one at a time after his fathet, one unwilling foot following the other, feeling the stares of others thick and warm on his back and wondered if this was how those people who were handcuffed by the police before being taken to the station felt.
“Sit down,” Abbu pointed to the plain wooden chair with handles on each side. Bilal sat on the edge, uncomfortable and eager to leave. Abbu sat down on the bed. Even sitting, he towered over him and his broad shoulders overshadowed Bilal.
“Bilal, Dadi told me about what happened today. How you were dancing like a…,” his mouth twisted in distaste and he continued without uttering the word.
“We are a respectable Pathan family with values to uphold in the society. It is not for us to entertain others. We were the ones who were once entertained. I know times have changed but our values stay the same. Honour and dignity mean a lot to us. Your grandfather was a Haji. We cannot have you behaving in this manner where you bring shame to our name.
Boys your age have to be strong, brave and outgoing. Participate in sports. Pick up a fight or two. Our boys don’t go dancing like tawaifs or sewing clothes like those low born tailors. We humoured you from childhood about your love for dance. But things have gone too far.
You have to stop behaving like a sissy and concentrate on your studies and games. I can’t understand how I sired someone like you. It’s the fault of your mother. Look at Munir. He’s younger than you but is a proper lad. Try and follow him. Now go away and don’t let me hear this nonsense.”
Bilal scampered from the room like a rat who had been caged, and found the door open unexpectedly. This talk had rung the death knell of all his dreams of being a dancer when he grew up. But to even think of not obeying Abbu’s wishes was akin to blasphemy. The chicken korma and peas pulao weighed down in his tummy but that pain was nothing compared to that of his mind weighed down with the burden of broken dreams.
“Bilal, what’s this?” Ammi asked, surprise and terror evident in her whispered question. Bilal’s heart sank at the tintinnabulation of the small bells, emanating from Ammi’s hands.
He was sitting at his desk, engrossed in the trigonometry problems scheduled for the test next day and proving too much for him to handle. Ammi had come into his room, looking for some glue to seal her letter to her mother. Instead she had found the ghungroos that Bilal had secreted away in his cupboard away from prying eyes. What was he going to tell her?
Not lies! He’d never lied to his mother.
But I cannot tell her the truth. It will break her heart.
You should have thought of that before…
screamed his mind.
His mother stood there mutely, unable to comprehend. The ghungroos didn’t belong in her home; a place where dreams weren’t nurtured if they didn’t comply with the strict rules of right and wrong imposed by her husband. It didn’t belong to her son who had promised five years ago to give up dancing and had stuck to that promise even if it had made the sparkle vanish from his eyes and the spring from his steps.
Little did she know that her son had kept the flame of passion for dance alive though all the practice he did was in secret.
“Bilal,” she again whispered. “How did this come here?”
So Bilal told her. It was to be their secret. But secrets are secrets only as long as they are buried in one heart.
The test next day proved Bilal’s undoing. He scored a thirty-five out of hundred and failed miserably. When he took the test result to his father, he exploded.
“What kind of marks are these? I had such high hopes for my son. That he would light up my world like the sun. But it’s not meant to be. This is how you’re studying? What’s your tuition teacher doing? Let me call him tomorrow to see how he explains this kind of performance from one of his students!”
“The teacher will only explain if Bilal is one of his students,” Dadi piped up, in a voice thin and sharp enough to cut, like paper.
“Amma, what do you mean?” Abbu asked, flabbergasted.
“Ask the lad! Or better still ask his mother.” Dadi replied, calmly pushing the betel leaves in her mouth from one side to the other, while Bilal stood there wondering if it was blood that was pooling within her mouth; drawn from the unseen wounds she inflicted on everyone with her tart tongue.
“Bilal, explain.” Abbu ordered in a menacing voice making Bilal wince.
The raised voices brought everyone to the verandah where the drama was unfolding. Munir came first, gloating at the scolding that Bilal was once again facing. Little Amina, who was now not so little, stood silently to one side, full of anxiety and fear for her brother. Poor Ammi stood next to her, her hand clutching Amina’s, hardly comforting her but rather Amina anchoring her mother.
She watched the proceedings with a feeling of inevitability and a growing sense of dread; praying for courage for herself and her first born but not having much hope of it.
Bilal couldn’t speak. He seemed to have lost his voice but Dadi hadn’t. So she related the whole story she had heard Bilal tell his mother.
A renowned Kathak teacher had opened a dance studio in town. Bilal hadn’t been able to hold himself back and had gone for try-outs. The teacher had praised his grace and told him that he had promise. Bilal had loved the feeling of letting himself go and losing himself within the taals and the pirouettes. So he had enrolled himself for the Kathak classes. He had left his maths tuition and simply substituted it with Kathak, the fees now going to the dance teacher, without telling anyone at home.
“How did you get the idea to drop your tuition?”
Abbu got as red in the face as the chewed out paan that Dadi squirted out of her mouth after finishing her tale. He found it difficult to speak coherently.
Wham! A hard slap landed on Bilal’s face. He wasn’t expecting it, and stumbled and fell. Another whack on his back told him that he was in for a thrashing. Abbu lost all reason. Blows rained down on the prone form of Bilal.
“You have no shame. At least think of your family. How can we face our friends and family if it gets out that you want to dance like those prostitutes residing in the infamous kothas?”
The mention of prostitutes enraged him further and looking around he picked up the stick that was Dadi’s faithful companion.
As he thrashed Bilal with the stick, mindless of where it landed, he kept screaming obscenities at his own son. Bilal rolled himself in a fetal position and wondered what would the same friends and family say if they saw Abbu beating his own son mercilessly. But he kept quiet, no scream escaping his lips. He wasn’t going to give the satisfaction to his father.
Bilal’s silence infuriated Abbu further and he brought down the stick on Bilal’s back with a rabid intensity, screaming all the while.
“Aur nachega? I will break your legs and ensure you never dance again.”
Something broke in Bilal. He was past the pain of the blows that fell on his body like whiplash. He whispered one word.
Abbu became catatonic.
“You dare to counter me. I will kill you if I have to.”
A weeping Amina ran and flung herself down on Bilal’s prone form, entreating her father to stop. Seeing Amina, shaking with fear but determined, Abbu held back his hand.
“You pansy. You can’t even stand up for yourself but have to be saved by your sister.” Saying derisively, he threw the stick and left. Dadi too got up, disdain written on her face, making it clear she was in perfect acquiescence with Abbu regarding both Bilal and her mother. She called Munir to herself and left the room on the heels of her son. Once they left, Bilal passed out. Hence, he couldn’t see his mother trying to wake him up while weeping silently into the corner of her dupatta, for her son and for herself.
Bilal woke up to find himself in a hospital room. He had bandages on his ribs and a plaster cast on his left leg. His mind was fuzzy with the painkillers but by concentrating, he could make the fog over his mind recede like the tide. As he remembered the events before he had passed out, he felt a lightness in his soul for having had the courage to say what he really wanted.
It was not possible for him now to live under the same roof as his father. He decided that as soon as he was well, he would run away.
“God be praised. You’re conscious.” It was his mother sitting on a chair to his side. “How are you feeling?”
“Relieved.” He spoke without thinking. He hadn’t expected anyone to be there after his brazen display of disobedience and he was surprised.
“Ammi! Didn’t Abbu ask you not to come? Aren’t you angry at me? Am I not sullying your honour with my insistence on dancing?”
“So many questions! You’re indeed better. It was getting quiet here after three days without your chatter.
I’m your mother, Bilal. No one can keep me from your bedside in this condition. Not even your Abbu. I’m glad you spoke up. It showed me that by keeping quiet I wasn’t helping anyone. So I am not at all angry at you but grateful. Your Abbu is angry with you now but he will come round with time and some convincing. He holds his honour dearly in his eyes but he will understand when he is shown the error of his understanding.
Honour is a notion that resides in people’s minds. It wasn’t decreed by God like right and wrong. People learnt to attach undue importance to things and convinced themselves that if these things were taken away, they would lose their honour. Soon the idea was expanded and twisted by those in power to suit their own narrative and the others followed till no one knew why the situation was like this. Only that it was.
Sometimes you just have to tell people some things in plain words. Honour is not in riches, or property or mindlessly following a set of rules. It is in how we conduct ourselves in our eyes and in the eyes of God, never in the eyes of our fellow men. And it is imperative on us to do whatever we do to the best of our capacity.
Your dancing will not sully my honour. It will be smeared only if you do not do it well.” Ammi paused, after her long monologue.
“But what about Abbu? He thinks I’m wrong in following my passion.”
“Do you feel you are doing something wrong? Let your conscience be your guide. As long as you aren’t hurting someone with your passion and giving it your all, you are in the right. I have talked to your Abbu and convinced him that what you are doing is between you and God, and not between you and him. He should guide you and tell you what’s right and wrong, not impose his own beliefs on you.”
“So can I continue with my dance class? He will not object?” Bilal couldn’t believe it.
“Tell me, weren’t you thinking of running away after that thrashing? Running away would have been wrong. You have to stay and show everyone that you are serious about your passion and are willing to do what it takes to prove your dedication. I haven’t raised you to be a quitter.”
Bilal realized something he had never given much thought to before. His mother was a warrior. In her own way, she had been fighting her battles without quitting, day in and day out. Her kids were her passion and she had proven her dedication by sacrificing her life for them. The least he could do was respect that sacrifice and be her support.
“I will show everyone that I can be the best at whatever I choose to do. I will not be labelled a quitter,” he clutched Ammi’s hands and solemnly promised.
Two weeks later when he hobbled back home on a pair of crutches, with his leg in a cast, everyone was there to receive him, except his father.
Once he got well, he poured all his energies in studies and found extra reserves for practising the kathak classes. An uneasy truce existed in the house as long as he was doing well academically but the silent treatment from his father continued. As did Bilal’s daily practice.
Soon his exams arrived and he did very well in them. He chose fashion designing for further studies. He also took to a fusion form of kathak, rajasthani folk kalbelia dance and the Arabic belly dance that was mesmerising because of its movements and much loved by everyone in class.
“Ammi, there is going to be a dance competition. Sir wants me to participate. He says our group is the best in Bhopal and I am the best of them. Can I?” Bilal asked his mother one day.
“Why don’t you ask your father, Bilal? Isn’t it time you both mended your differences?” she replied.
His heart shrunk, knowing there was no way Abbu would allow it. The whole of Bhopal would be watching the contest which would be telecast live.
But what if he says yes? He wondered. He did let me continue without saying anything.
Abbu was sitting with Dadi after returning from work when Bilal mustered the courage to go stand before him.
“Abbu. There is a dance contest in town. Can I participate?”
“Hmmph,” snorted Dadi. “Here we go again,” she murmured.
“Do you have a good chance?” Abbu asked and Bilal’s mouth dropped to his chest in amazement.
“Yes, Abbu. I have a very good chance.” Bilal replied, excitement breaking his voice.
“Go. Dance your heart out and make me famous.” Abbu said. Bilal, unable to control his excitement, hugged his father. As tears filled his eyes, he whispered,
“I will, Abbu. I will.”
Abbu hugged him back and they both broke into tears, washing away bitterness and resentment.
“Bilal Ahmad Khan!”
His name was being called for his performance. He walked onto the stage. Everyone gasped. A flowing chiffon skirt of midnight blue, studded with shiny silver stars covering the diaphanous material adorned his lower part. It moved like molten moonlight with his gait. A belt of golden coins lay suspended over the taut skin of his belly, flat as a chapati and rippling with muscles. He wore a see through cropped shirt barely covering his ribs. His bare midriff around his navel was decorated with intricate henna design.
We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. So did Bilal in the moment he stood on the stage, his passion and overwhelming joy making him feel like a feather floating in the bright halogen lights lighting up each inch of the stage.
The music began languorously at his cue and he moved seductively with the rhythm, picking up the tempo with time. He was divided into two, with his upper body static and the lower having a life of its own. The coins of his belt jangled with each shimmy and the audience watched spellbound when the henna design began swaying in a dance all its own, Bilal making his belly obey each and every command of his gyrating body. Once the dance finished, pin drop silence reigned in the auditorium. Perhaps, the audience was taking a moment to gather its breath.
In a single movement, everyone rose together like a wave, and the resounding sound of the claps was sufficient to declare Bilal the winner. Cries of awesome, super, fantastic, encore, rent the air as he bowed deeply and left the stage.
A couple sat in the back, half shadowed in darkness. The woman smiled. She never stopped having faith in her son’s abilities. The man was stunned. He had always wanted his son to light up his world like the sun. He was gradually accepting that his son would never do so.
His son wasn’t like the sun, glaring, bright, and so dazzling, it hurt. He was like the moon, whose light didn’t burn but gave comfort. He was calm, not fiery. So what if he wasn’t the way he wanted. The moon was beautiful even with its spots. To wish it to be like the sun would be to do it an injustice.
His son was perfect the way he was. Bilal, the full moon, a fount of beauty and joy just like his name.
Author’s note :
The story has been inspired from the life and struggles of Eshan Hilal, India’s first belly dancer. His life hasn’t been easy, living with a conservative family who didn’t support him in his choice of profession. However, that didn’t hold him back from shattering preconceived notions, shining in the field of his passion, and becoming an inspiration for those who, like him, dare to be different.
You can read more about his struggles here.
Pic credit: Fernando Cabral, Pexel.com
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