01 January 1970

Book Excerpt: A Night Of Revelations

An excerpted portion of Chapter five oft he the intriguing novel, 'The Ritualists' by Harish Nambiar,

A mystery unfolds
A mystery unfolds Getty Images

When Lieserl reached Arjun’s flat, his door was not latched, just a wee bit open, tenuous on its hinges like a forgotten decision, though you could only know this if your nose was three inches away from the crack. Lieserl, a little tense, softly pushed the door open, and entered the soft-lit living room without announcing herself.

Lieserl gently closed the door behind her. The door murmured its soft, muffled click of the latch apologetically. It was obvious that her surreptitious entry was both unexpected and unnoticed. She dropped her satchel on the cast iron bench that Arjun had bought from Chor Bazaar, Thieves’ Market, Mumbai’s most famous and infamous flea market, a prized conversation starter in his living room.

It was an old railway bench now seen only on stations that time has forgotten, where even the occasional long-distance trains stop, more out of an ancient habit, an unconscious ritual, than to actually exhale or inhale passengers. Sturdy, thick, teak boards were screwed into the cast iron but the screws had long lost their heads to rust and weather. And Arjun refused to redo them; he wanted to retain that well-worn, aged look.

The moment she walked into the room, her skin tasted the disparate granules on the air inside. The room felt cool, as though she had entered through the precise vent from where a temperature control apparatus was leaking. The cooler temperature indoors kept the mixture of smells from becoming homogeneous. There was the tenacious, floral smell of incense sticks, and the faint, sticky sweetness of marijuana as well as strong female perfumes in armed neutrality to each other, like differently smelling vines suspended mid-air. A swirl of two-dimensional, multi-aromatic wave swirls, they did not merge with or penetrate each other, even as they swivelled invisibly in the air like copulating snakes.

Lieserl knew Arjun's home like she did the homes of most of her friends. She could easily live in them blindfolded. She sat next to her bag, and silently untied the laces of her sneakers. She felt instinctively, that any noise she made might upset the unearthly, delicate, equilibrium of Arjun's tastefully done-up flat, gaily decorated with all kinds of kitschy knick-knacks, mostly Central Indian tribal brass and woodwork, a few touristy Thai Buddha heads and some African wood-cut masks.

Once her feet were free, she tiptoed across the dim-lit living room through to the kitchen. The moment she was there, she could see into the room opposite that opened into the common corridor, Arjun's special place for himself where he had consecrated a small replica of a Hindu temple in rosewood. In that temple was the little image of his favourite god, Krishna. From inside the room Lieserl heard feminine sounds.

Not voices, but the tinkle of anklets, soft, rhythmic and private, a dancer performing for her personal god, like a performance prayer without audience.

She moved through the kitchen noiselessly to the door of the room. Now she could see that all the low-hung Chinese lanterns were dimmed to cast just a suspicion of light inside the room. And in the middle of the room was a slim woman, with her back to Lieserl, dressed in a ghagra choli, the ghagra tied well below her waist so that it cut with delicious callousness into the soft bulge of her hips.

That slight act of sartorial cruelty enhanced the dancer’s feminine mystique, adding a tinge of suffering to desire; the final ingredient that makes seduction so fatal.

Lieserl could see the elaborate laces that zig-zagged across her bare back before it was knotted daintily at the neck. The girl was swaying to a rhythm all her own. Not vigorous, not leisurely, just an unhurried, unselfconscious swaying of the hips. Her hands, mating serpents, were held above her head and swaying in a slower paced synchronicity like partial rhyme made concrete and sensuous, ebbing and swelling vertically to some celestial tune. Lieserl thought it was probably the stoned immaculate harmony of marijuana. But she still did not know who this strange girl was. Arjun had never mentioned any girl to her. And there was little Arjun did not tell her.

She stood there, unsure what to do. She could either barge in and disrupt the dance and confront this ethereal stranger. She decided against interrupting. Something familiar about the dancer stopped her. She was unsure what exactly was familiar about the dancer but figured she would nail it once she spent some more time studying the apparition-like body swaying before her. She decided to wait in the shadow of her negligible but uncertain guilt of having breached the code of good manners by sneaking in on somebody.

The girl kept swaying to her music with her back to Lieserl. She moved with an elegance that touched upon the incredible. Her dance suggested something beyond the sum of the music and the body moving in tune with it. Her long hair that reached her hips fell in a cascade that shone and glinted even in the severely sparse light. Every time she twisted her body, flowing with the music, a sort of muted toss of her head made the dense dark tresses rise ever so slightly before they settled again, vital, lustrous and breathing. Lieserl sensed a perceptible yet undefinable buoyancy that the ether had trapped in her hair, her every pore, the difference that makes some performances elemental and others competent.

Lieserl felt herself being slowly mesmerized by the swaying woman and the marijuana smoke. The music, too, seeping into her, was beginning to affect her. It was an instrumental melody that seemed a little bereft, as it was only partial, not full, played like a clue on a television quiz show. It was obviously not a composition that was meant to be without lyrics. That’s when it struck her.

“This is the tune of a Meera Bhajan."

Lieserl had been thoughtful and alert when she first arrived. But now, she was losing focus, hypnotised by the slow, ritual sway of this unfamilar, sublime dancer. She could not place the dance within the very many Indian folk-dance forms she was familiar with. Lieserl was also vaguely aware that she was not an invitee and might actually be an intruder into someone's privacy. That is when the swaying figure turned. As she turned fully to face Lieserl, she continued her swaying.

Lieserl watched agape.

She was struck by the dancer's abrupt turn. Transfixed by her lissom body, Lieserl was still fighting to quell her embarrassment when she realized that the dancer did not seem to have registered her presence. She was blissfully swaying to her own beat, eyes half-closed. Lieserl was very sure that despite the subtle lighting in the room she could not be missed by anyone with thirty per cent vision. Besides, the light from the kitchen available in the corridor would throw enough light to bring her physical presence into relief.

Now that she was sure that the dancer was actually stoned immaculate, Lieserl's confidence returned and she started observing details.

The stunning young woman had her slim hands stretched into the air as if that were the most natural thing for hands to do. They swayed in the air with a synchronized ease that defied the standards of rehearsal. The dancer’s face was extraordinarily expressive. Large Indian eyes, cheekbones just shy of being high, nose long and shapely but coyly declining to dominate her features. The lips were full, but then again, not extravagant. They smiled but not the smile of happiness or joy, but of a kind of teasing serenity; the supreme contentment that only a satisfied and willed death can bring in adults.

Her face was a neat arrangement of features that were spectacular by themselves, but locked in an involuntary mesh of modesty. Despite the beauty of her face, the eyes fascinated Lieserl. Horizontally elongated ovals squeezed at ends and the border marked by long lashes, the black irises sucked Lieserl into their very epicentre. Lieserl felt herself reduced in size and drawn into the very core of the phantasmagorical figure that was oblivious of her presence.

She stepped back slowly, on her toes, constantly watchful if her movement was affecting the unseeing dancer before her. Three steps, and she realized that the dancer was absolutely impervious to her or any slight shifts her movement made in the dim lighting of the room. She turned around in the corridor and headed for Arjun’s kitchen.

Lieserl opened the fridge, pulled out a bottle of cooled water from the bottom rack and headed for the sink. She unscrewed the bottle, poured water into her cupped right palm at the sink and slapped the water into her eyes. It was as much to clean up after her auto ride through dusty fumes of the city as for a quick ignition of her senses.

Eagerly, she gulped the cold water staring at the low ceiling, steadying her hand as she held the bottle three inches above her mouth to let it stream evenly into her mouth. Water spilled out every time she closed her mouth and flowed down between her breasts, wetting her white shirt all the way down to her waist.

Calmed, she screwed the cap back on the bottle, deliberately and meditatively, her concentration once again sharp enough for her to trust. As the cold water travelled down her parched throat, she felt alert and her physical organism re-centering.

She quietly and very carefully returned the bottle, now half empty, to its place in the fridge door. She patted her shirtfront twice, smoothing the farthest edges of her water stain, and prepared, more alert now, to head back to Arjun’s room to face that intriguingly spiritual dancer.

Lieserl had let the water she had splashed into her eyes stay unwiped on her face for a while, and then she spread her right thumb and forefinger on the top of her forehead and ran the arch pressed to her wet face all the way down to her chin. Little drops of dirt speckled around the banks of the river that ran down the length of her faintly yellow, once white top.

Lieserl, now collected, turned towards the room to finally confront this strange dancer she had never seen before in Arjun’s home. As she moved, she felt a slight swish emanating from the room that neither brightened nor softened the light in the room significantly, like a subtle wipe of her visual range. She reached the door and saw the dancer slowly, almost like a deliberate slow-motion tilt, falling onto the long soft cushiony mattresses arranged against the wall.

As the woman fell, Lieserl saw that the upper body hit the mattress harmlessly and the hairline detached itself from the scalp on the impact of her gliding fall. Her long tresses were an attachment, an artificial accessory, and through that two-inch gap where the wig was detached from the forehead, emerged Arjun’s wide unadorned forehead.

Lieserl gasped.

She strode deliberately, fully conscious now that the cross-dressing Arjun had succumbed to marijuana after his slow and long-lastingly brief tryst with the idea of spiritual surrender. Meera’s submission to Krishna, which Arjun had long visualised as a physical amalgam of two bodies in astral space. His entranced Sufi dervish had been consumed by his passion at climax and his spiritual exhaustion had consumed his disguise.

(Excerpted portion of Chapter 5 'A Night of Revelations, Part I: Arjun Chattopadhyay forgets to lock his door' from the novel 'The Ritualists by author Harish Nambiar)