Nityapriya ran, picking up her lengha so that she wouldn't trip over it, as she fled through the doorway. She looked backwards for a split second, just in time to see the clay pot flying towards her head. Ducking and swerving out of the way, she leapt into the waiting rickshaw, shouting for him to get moving. Her aunt stood in the doorway, screaming at her as she clutched at another pot.
"Shameless whore! May you give birth to a thousand rotten dogs! Die in the gutter for all I care!" The older woman's face was dark with rage, but Priya didn't even flinch at the sight, gazing as the hut she called home grew smaller and smaller with each passing moment. She had prepared herself for this moment a long time ago, and now the entire situation was bathed in a strange sense of inevitability.
"To the train station, sister?" The rickshaw driver asked, navigating his way through the watery streets. The torrential downpour from last night had ended, the sun starting to peak out from behind the clouds.
Priya smiled despite everything. "Yes, to the train station."---
When Priya was seven, the goddess Parvati visited her in a dream. Sach. She no longer remembered much of the dream, only that it happened, that she saw the goddess in her purest form. Immediately after her dream, it was as if the world had changed. She could hear the trees calling to her, whispering ancient poems. The dust kicked up by her eldest brother's cart shimmered like magic in the light of the setting sun, revealing something Priya had not been able to vocalize at that age. It was beauty, mystery, awe, love, the joy that God blessed upon the earth. In her childish exuberance, she told her aunt about what she saw and was beaten for it. It wasn't easy being the youngest of six siblings, especially being the youngest and a girl. A reckless, useless girl who chafed under the toil of back-breaking labour in the fields like her older siblings.
"Don't speak about such silly things, Nityapriya." Her brothers scolded her. But they pressured her aunt and uncle to keep her inside as much as possible. She has such fair skin; she will make a fine bride one day if you keep her out of the sun. It was a tactic that worked until all of her brothers had left for the city, toiling in smoky factories and sending back what little money they made to their aunt and uncle, who had taken them in when their parents had died.
"It's better if you just keep your mouth shut." Her sisters didn't understand. But in the dark of night, as they lay beside each other in their cramped bedroom, they taught her what they knew of songs or poetry in the dark of their rooms. They prayed to Parvati, that Priya would be blessed with strength and grace and perhaps a chance they had all been denied.
Priya's aunt and uncle were adamant that she pay her dues and contribute to the household as soon as she was old enough, forcing her out into the hot heat of the sugarcane fields. There was little time to examine the beauty of God's creation then. Months turned to years and Priya bottled her passion deep inside. That was, until she met Vimala. Vimala told her about the dance troupe. A former dancer herself (before a severe illness had robbed her of her strength) she encouraged Priya to break free and follow her heart.
At first Priya had been skeptical. She had heard stories from her sisters about these scandalous women who bared their bodies for countless men, often ending up dead or worse. But Vimala was not promising such a future to her. She spoke of things that awakened her spirit, things Priya had thought only she understood... how the sound of the nightingale calling made her dance on air, how the sad songs on the old radio brought tears to her eyes, how the rays of the rising sun made her want sing in their praise. The world was surrounded in beauty, so much so that Priya didn't know how to contain herself at times.
God had created her for something more than this simple life.---
Vimala was waiting for her at the station, frantically waved Priya's rickshaw down as soon as she saw her.
"What took you so long, Niti? I was starting to think the old witch had beaten you to death." Vimala clucked, her cheeks cheerfully rouged and eyes heavily kohled even during the day. Priya always admired that about her, that she felt no shame in playing her art. She would say: it is our life, and we do this to make a living. Why should we hide who we are?
"She was more than happy to see me go. It's one less mouth to feed and one less body to clothe." Priya grabbed her bag from the rickshaw and paid the driver herself, ignoring the curious look he was giving the two of them. But he said nothing and drove off as soon as the bills passed into his pocket.
"No matter, you are here and that's all that matters. You will make a fine addition to the troupe. In the company of such hard-working and talented men, you will surely find the success you deserve." Vimala cupped her chin tenderly, like the mother Priya had lost, gazing at her attire. Decked in form-fitting red and black, silver jewelery adorning her like dew on a rose.
A man with weathered skin came up behind Vimala and tapped her on the shoulder. "Train is about to leave. Is this the girl?"
"Haan ji, this is Nityapriya." Vimala patted her comfortingly, pushing her in the direction of the awaiting train. "Mahendra and his boys will watch over you, you are their little sister now."---
The sun was warm against her skin, and for the first time it did not feel oppressive to Priya. Pulling off her dupatta so that it only covered her head, she lay down in the hay with a happy sigh. So this is freedom. Her heart felt as if it would burst, so she did the one thing that came natural to her. The musical words spilled from her mouth as she stretched, her movements cat-like and sinuous as the dance troupe roused around her, eager to join in and enjoy the sound of music being made by their newest addition.
And then, another voice. She looked at the man and was startled to see the same passion and happiness that she associated with her own eyes. He stood and began to dance, the smile of an innocent child on his face and the dancers gathered around him. Priya smiled as he jumped from his perch to dance with her; this was a man who understood the secret language of the world, the language that tied them all together.
The train moved on, she continued to recklessly sing and dance in joyous abandon, with the bright-eyed man, with her new dance troupe, through green forests and darkened tunnels, words in praise of love and God and life. There was such danger in what they were doing, but no one cared, least of all Priya. Nothing would ever be the same again for her, but as she swayed and sang with the smiling stranger, she didn't wish for it to be any other way.
When the train stopped in Srinagar and Mahendra and the men started gathering up their belongings, Priya realized that the stranger had disappeared.---
Several months later, Priya woke up with a start in her comfortable bed. The sun had not risen yet; today was Independence Day and she was to be performing solo during the festivities in Ladakh. It was a dream come true in such a short time.
But the fleeting image of Shiva visiting her dream gave her a slight chill. God of destruction. Pushing the ominous thought away, Priya sighed and settled back into bed.