The Belly Dancer

It was 4 p.m. in Mysore, a tier 2 city in South India. A daily coffee time ritual for Madri. She was a 53-year-old mother of 2, a staunch believer in Lord Krishna and a dutiful wife to her bank manager husband.

Madri had moved to Mysore when she was 21, she had married her husband right after college and started her new life in this small, beautiful city that housed the Royal Palace and the Chamundi temple that people visited from all over the country.

She was timid and shy when she was 21, and she found it daunting to ask her in-laws for help when she didn’t know how to cook a certain dish or when she wanted to visit her parents’ house back in Shimoga. She found it difficult to make friends since she was an only child to her parents who had carefully picked all her friends in university. They were protecting her from bad company.

Her son was born 2 years into the marriage followed by her second son 2 years later. They were difficult pregnancies that had taken a toll on her body. She gained weight rapidly that she couldn’t lose despite a moderated diet and plenty of exercise.

Madri’s personality changed over the years as she raised her children. She became more vocal about disciplining her children, and she interacted with the neighbours frequently and made new friends. She invited her mother-in-law on shopping visits and didn’t feel as afraid to pick out her favourite saree.

She was now 53, a plump woman in bright cotton silk sarees who loved her filter coffee. Her parents were old and needed constant help. She moved them into her residence where her in-laws also stayed. There was much hullabaloo about all of them living together, both sets of parents still believed in old-school traditions of a woman’s parents staying in their own house. Madri had no such luxuries, she put her foot down as she was an only child and her parents needed her. Her husband hired a nurse who could attend to the medical needs of all the senior members of the household for a few hours on a daily basis.

Her sons lived in Bangalore, they worked there and had married partners of their choice. Her husband had 2 more years left to retire, and Madri was alone with her parents and in-laws at her house for most of the day.

“Don’t Harshini and Nakul have work-from-home jobs?” Nakul and Sahadev were Latha’s sons, their names were inspired by the Indian mythological twin brothers from Mahabharat. “Yes Athe, they both work in IT,” she told her mother-in-law. “Why can’t they work from here then?” her mother-in-law asked as she drank her second fruit juice for the day. “They don’t like living here, it’s crowded with all of us, they want a separate house. And they find Mysore very conservative compared to Bangalore so they don’t want to buy a house here” she told her mother-in-law mentally taking note to buy more fruits.

“Can’t Harshini see you need support too? Your parents keep asking for you all day, sometimes you are not around” her mother-in-law told her. “Harshini is a modern girl Athe, she only takes care of her parents. Her parents informed us before the marriage they won’t agree if she has to move to Mysore. Nakul also doesn’t ask her for much, he doesn’t want any problems between them” Madri responded. “So modern that you can’t take care of your in laws and parents?! I told you she was the wrong girl for Nakul” her mother in law told her as the nurse was checking her blood pressure.

It was a Saturday evening when Madri first spotted them. She was sipping her coffee on the terrace and trying to relax from all the stress her daily household activities were giving her. There was a belly dancing class in progress in the dance studio cum gym that was very close to her house and the glass windows made all their movements visible.

Their hips swayed, and arms and hands moved fluidly, like serpents or ribbons in the air. Their hip shawl decorated with coins danced as the participants shimmied. Some of the women wore harem pants and some wore yoga pants, most of the women looked under 30. The teacher was an attractive lady in her 40s, she wore a tight-fitted top that exposed her midriff, black harem pants and a hip shawl. Her long black hair was tied to one side and bright red lipstick complimented her face.

Madri couldn’t hear the music since the studio was soundproofed but she could bet it was something Middle Eastern. ‘Why can’t they just join the gym if they want to lose belly fat?’ she asked herself. Her mother joined her a few minutes later, despite the stairs causing her pain in her joints. “Don’t they teach Bharatanatyam in these studios? Why are they teaching these vulgar dances?” her mother asked her. “Why do you need to come to the terrace when your knees are already hurting you Amma? Let’s go downstairs” she told her mother. “I had to escape from your father and father in law. They are ruining the last few years of my life by constantly talking about politics. I need some peace and a new nurse” her mother told her. They stayed on the terrace for longer, watching the class, commenting and sipping their coffee.

It was Madri and her husband’s 32nd anniversary, and she was looking forward to going out for lunch. There was a new seafood restaurant that had opened in the city and she was craving fish curry. She never got to make it like how she liked it at home since all the older members had to watch their salt intake. Her sons had gifted her a fitness band that she could start wearing on her walks in the morning. She wore a marigold yellow silk saree with gold bangles that she wore on special occasions. Her husband waited patiently in the car as she checked on each member in the household and went through the details with the nurse.

Madri and her husband were enjoying themselves after a long time, the fish curry was delicious and she was happy to be out of the house. “I was thinking of going to Bangalore for a few days to spend time with Nakul and Sahadev, I have some pending leaves at the office. What do you think?” her husband asked her. Madri knew she could not go with him, there had to be someone at home to care for the elders, it was risky to leave them unattended. “It’s a good idea. You can stay for a few days in each of their houses. I will make some snacks as well for you to take” she suggested.

As their scrumptious meal came to an end, Madri spotted the belly dance teacher entering the restaurant. She wore an emerald green top with jeans, and her gold earrings dangled as she spoke animately to her students. Madri told her husband about the class, “It seems indecent to me, wearing those outfits and those moves. There are such beautiful Indian dance forms that women can learn but they want to opt for the more sensual ones” he told her shaking his head in distaste. “Remember I used to learn Bharatnatyam before we had children?” Madri told him. “Yes, that was the only time I remember you being so extroverted. Otherwise you were so shy and timid. You used to be a good dancer” he told her as he paid the bill. “I wish I could join again, I would look so fat in that costume now and everyone is so young in these classes” she said thinking back to the days when she was slim and young and excited to dance. “You look fine to me, but who is going to take care of everyone at home if you are away for a few hours?” he asked her. “It was just a thought…let’s go, we have to buy fruits for your mother” she said as they were leaving.

It was a few months later that Madri bumped into her neighbour on her morning walk. She had known the woman for many years. After exchanging some pleasantries and which YouTube cooking channel they were following she asked her neighbour about the class. “It’s so vulgar! We can see them dancing from our terrace as well. The teacher dresses so provocatively in those tight tops even outside of class. My daughter wanted to join her class and I refused, we put her in zumba classes instead. What kind of parents would be okay with their daughters joining belly dancing class?” she told Madri. “I have seen some older women as well, they look married” Madri told her. “They must be modern husbands to allow their wives to attend such classes, we are not from those type of families” she said to Madri with raised eyebrows.

Madri continued her daily ritual of watching the class from her terrace. The dance class was the only entertainment she had during her stressful day. She was required at all times of the day, it was a demanding job to be a caretaker. She requested not to be disturbed from 4-5 p.m. while she watered the plants and sipped her coffee.

It was 9 p.m. and her husband was returning from his Bangalore visit. “Did you make Shavige Payasa for Pandu? He’s coming home after 1 week. Your daughters-in-laws would have cooked only what they want and your sons will anyway not say anything against them” her mother-in-law complained. “My sons cook well Athe, I am sure they made payasa for your son. I barely had any time today, how will i make something special for him?” she asked her mother in law. “Can you make it for Krishna Janmashtami at least? We have to follow all the rituals on that day”

As an ardent follower of Lord Krishna, Madri woke up at 6 a.m. to start preparing for the day. She wore her favorite blue silk saree and all the ladies got together in the kitchen and distributed the work. “I am thinking of joining dance classes,” she told her mother-in-law and her mother as they were setting up. “Why do you need dance classes at this age?” they asked in unison. “It’s a stress buster and I enjoy dancing” she replied. “What stress do you have? You are at home for most of the day” her mother-in-law asked her. “When did you dance to know you enjoy dancing?” her mother asked. “It’s getting late for the puja… let’s begin” Madri said ending the conversation, she knew they would never understand.

A few months later, Madri was on the terrace watching the dance class at 4 p.m. It looked like they were rehearsing for a stage performance. There were more dance sequences than usual, the shimmies and the hip lifts were more intense and the finale had the teacher at the centre performing while her students surrounded her and matched her hip movements in fervour. They reminded Madri of gopis that danced around Lord Krishna while he played the flute. The gopi’s anklets produced the same soft jingling sound as the coins on the hip shawl.

As time went on, more women were joining the dance classes, sometimes accompanied by their children. There was no judgement towards anything the women wanted to wear. The women who considered themselves fat were not ashamed to wear clothing revealing their midriffs, and older women were not hesitant to ask younger students for help maintaining the right posture and rhythm.

It was Madri’s birthday and she was in a terrible mood. Her sons apologised profusely since they couldn’t make it due to their professional deadlines and everyone else had forgotten her special day. The nurse had fallen sick and could not make it to work which threw Madri’s entire schedule for the day into the deep end. The meals tasted worse as she had cooked in a hurry and everyone was complaining.

Madri arrived on the terrace by 4:30 p.m. when half the class was over. She sulked as she sipped her coffee in which she had forgotten to add sugar with all that was going on in her day. Nobody had remembered her 54th birthday and the people who had remembered had not bothered to do something special for her. She relied on her family on special days like birthdays and anniversaries. ‘My life has become like this sugarless filter coffee, bitter but I still have to drink it’ she remarked to herself. She heard her father yelling from downstairs, “Madri, the movie has started, come soon, we are waiting!” he said. As Madri stood there on her 54th birthday trying to choose between watching the belly dance class or watching a movie with her family she felt a pang of guilt that her priorities were wrong.

It was 1.5 years since Simran had started the belly dance classes in the same building that housed the gym. She was always competing with women who picked the gym even if they wanted to attend her classes for reasons she never quite understood. “It’s a conservative city Simmi, you are doing your best to encourage them to feel empowered through dance but it takes time to shed inhibitions” her partner told her.

When Simran started a new batch on Sundays, she didn’t know it was going to be different. Her first class was going to begin when an older stocky woman walked in. She was wearing a soft pink cotton silk saree and had a mesmerising smile. Her voice was soft when she asked if she could join the trial class. “Of course!” Simran told her. The lady looked hesitant and uneasy, it was a surprise to Simran that she was there. “You can decide after the trial class if you want to continue” she said reassuring her.

It was the next day and Simran noticed that the lady had not come back. She was disappointed but that was just the way things were in her class. She turned on the music and everyone got into position. At that exact moment, a student walked in. It dawned on Simran that her work had more meaning than they gave her credit for, the older woman was back.


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