The dancer

Berjis Desai

Youngest of four siblings, he was too little to be alarmed by his father’s violent bouts of coughing and the fresh blood on his white handkerchief. He enjoyed watching the master cutting cloth in his father’s thriving tailoring shop. He was a waif like boy with sharp handsome features inherited from his calm mother who had silky long brown hair and the most perfectly shaped almond eyes. He did notice though the increasingly long absences of his father from home. His eldest brother told him that their father was staying in a sanatorium in Deolali as he did not wish to infect the family with his incurable disease. At barely five, he heard that the doctor had decided to cut three ribs, the final measure those days to prolong the life of a patient suffering from tuberculosis. He remembered attending the funeral and his mother looking more beautiful in a white sari and her suddenly bangle less hands.
Years later, he learnt as to how his father’s seemingly prosperous household had folded up, soon after his death, as he had no savings, then an alien concept; as to how his mother’s valiant attempt to continue the tailoring shop had failed after the master opened a competitive business just across the street; and unable to bear the catcalls and whistles of the local louts when she returned home late from the shop, she moved to her father’s house in Navsari. He was adored by his many cousins and his uncles and aunts, some of whom were only a few years elder to him; his grandmother having delivered her last child after his mother had delivered her first. He was a natural mischief maker and spared none in the dusty mohallas or the local boys school founded by the Tatas.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper

His mother taught Gujarati in the local girls school and became a theosophist. She was unable to deal with the daily complaints about her youngest son whose limited attention span was used more in flying kites and rolling marbles. When he failed in English, having memorably translated the sentence, John goes to the market, as ‘John gos (mutton) léva bajaar ma gayo;’ his disciplinarian elder uncle slapped him so hard that he somehow managed to pass the SSC exams with decent marks. The day his results were announced, he went to Bombay to meet a distant relative occupying a high position in the then fledgling Bombay Telephones, who immediately employed him as a junior clerk, by altering the date on the birth certificate. He would retire at 58, after 40 years of honest service.
When he really turned 18, his sister shocked the orthodox family by marrying a distant relative of Morarji Desai, then chief minister of undivided Bombay State, who allotted a large requisitioned flat in Dadar Parsi Colony to his mother who was compelled to escape enraged Navsari. There was not much work in overstaffed Bombay Telephones, so the lad expended his nervous energy by playing cricket in the shady lanes of the Colony with the rough and the tough boys on the railing including one Farokh Engineer, later to be India’s most celebrated wicket keeper. But his real passion was to dance. He learnt Bharat Natyam and Kathak and became a successful dancer in the theater troupe of a then famous Gujarati director called Yogendra Desai, the maker of many memorable dance dramas including the super hit Choula Devi, the story of a ravishing beauty born of a temple dancer and a future divining sadhu in the famed Somnath temple near Junagadh in Gujarat, who preferred to commit suicide instead of surrendering to the wishes of the invading army of Mohammed Ghaznavi. In the climax scene, our hero won hearts by his vigorous dance to mourn Choula’s sacrifice. In the troupe, he fell in love with another Parsi dancer who was rated second only to the famed Bollywood superstar, Asha Parekh, who acted as Choula Devi. They would hastily marry as she was pregnant for three months. Within months of delivering their son, she inexplicably left him, never to return.
Her mother being a divorcee, the girl knew the ropes of the Parsi Matrimonial Court and engaged the services of the late Freny Ponda, a brilliant cross examiner in matters of matrimony. Our poor hero engaged a Parsi male lawyer from the Rent Court, who knew little about law but fancied himself to be Perry Mason. He contested the divorce and fought hard for his child’s custody, which is next to impossible to obtain for a father. They made him cringe for visitation rights too. However, his love for his estranged wife prevented him from bringing some crucial facts on record. He was allowed to meet his son twice a month, for just a couple of hours; after being made to wait for 45 minutes outside the door; his son addressed him as ‘Daddy Uncle.’
Neither did any bitterness creep into his jolly persona nor did his joie de vivre vanish. He remained as he was — happy, helpful and nonjudgmental. But his feet stopped dancing. He never let anyone speak ill of his wife, even after being told by his mother that just before their marriage, her daughter-in-law to be had said that she was happy to marry any of her three sons, since she did not wish to abort. Unrequited, unadulterated love flowed towards her till his last breath, much to the chagrin of all those who loved him. Neither did she marry again, having attained the objective of having a child. He dutifully paid her alimony and maintenance out of his measly salary, by limiting his wants to the bare minimum.
He showered affection on his many nephews and nieces, apart from his rather ungrateful son, and adopted the family of a junior Maharashtrian colleague comprising of three lovely girls as his own. An accomplished cook, he conjured up a delightful chicken curry whose delicate coconut flavor was not brutalized by excessive spices, and golden fried pomfret fillets with the bones gently removed, lest it get stuck in one of his many children’s throats. And then, like his father, he began to cough violently. Tuberculosis was easily curable then, but his delicate dancer’s frame was battered by the disease, requiring him to recuperate in the Bahadurji Sanatorium at Deolali with its many black stone cottages infected with the smell of death. A young widow sweeping the cottages befriended him and his decades of celibacy ended. Happiness was always transitory for him. He casually asked her, while leaving, as to how her husband had died so young. She mumbled something in heavily accented Marathi.
He retired from Bombay Telephones and received a teary eyed farewell from colleagues who knew they would miss him terribly. He desperately sought a job to sustain himself in the absence of near zero savings. He began missing meals and walking miles to save the bus fare but never missed on his monthly alimony payments to his beloved wife, his eternal love. His body looked increasingly emaciated and his lungs began to bother him again. A doctor friend prescribed blood tests which confirmed his HIV positive status. It was then that he recollected what that young widow had mumbled — "aidus.”
Death had not the slightest fear for him; however, he was afraid that his many children could get infected, if they served him. He told his son that he did not want the slightest grieving and after he had been cremated, the son must enjoy a Chinese dinner with his mother. Tumors developed in his brain and the red blotches of Karpov’s Sarcoma disfigured his skin. In the early ’90s, hospitals were still awkward in treating full blown AIDS. Fortunately, the end was swift. A part-time priest recited the geh sarna prayers at home and the body was cremated at the Shivaji Park crematorium, soon after sunset. His son and his beloved merrily trudged to a nearby Chinese restaurant, as his many children wept.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.