The ‘thirkan’ rose on the wave of applause, and the louder the applause, the faster the ‘thirkan’, the rapid movement of the feet lifting just enough from the floor to come back with enough force to produce the jingling sounds from the metal anklets, and the faster they hit the ground, the louder the applause. As one fed from the other, not knowing which was pulling the other along in this wave of music where the music that the dance was set to was drowned in the sound of the movements, and in the roar of the applause. Till one dimmed just a little bit. Was it the ‘thrikan’ that started dying out first, tired of the incessant banging, or was it the applause, a person here or a person there having tired of the clapping. But with one, the other fell, and the first fell with the second. Till both faded out in a vignette of sound, and all that remained was an audience wondering if they were responsible for putting an end to this beautiful spectacle. And Badri, now sweating and stamping in a slow, dead manner, wondering if he could have carried on a bit longer, wondering if this was his best performance ever, the longest that he had sustained in his final act of ‘thirkan’, on this stage where he had been performing the same dance for over twenty years now. The dance that was now on the tourist map, and his audience, a mass of silhouettes joined in odd places that moved as a single big shadow as it clapped, the flashes from their phones briefly lighting them up, till they forgot all about taking the pictures, forgot they were an audience, and instead became one with the performance, to create that wave over which he rode, of that movement that was all he lived for.
Since how long had he been feeling like this? The way he felt now? It hadn’t been long back when he would will his audience to go on, forced them to go on, kicking off his ‘thirkan’ to a higher level when their applause seemed to thin out by a fraction. But now, today for sure, he had reached that stage when he was hoping that they would stop. He had started feeling that it wasn’t they who were slowing him down, but he them. He knew it. But they didn’t. Not yet. But how long could he carry on before they found out?
Walking off the stage, having taken a bow, he looked at Biman. Was his son ready?
Biman was taking off the dancer’s dress that he wore for his performance earlier. He always did the first piece with his father, starting from the point where they entered the stage from opposite sides and somersaulted over a coal-pit set to burn under the open space in the centre. They did the welcome dance. The one where they dressed up as peacocks and moved around the space, creating the effects of a forest with their steps. They both shouted out loud when the imaginary arrow sliced through the air and struck them both in their neck. Some said he did the head roll better than his father, but he knew that he didn’t. Not the way his father could strike the stage head first and then allow his body to follow. He still needed his knee or the tip of his fingers to feel the stage before he could let his head hit it. But he knew he was getting better. And recently, he had seen his father use his fingers to break the fall. And then the curtains came down like on every other day, and they got up. It was time for the thirkan, time for his father to take the stage alone.
In the last sixteen years, he had seen his father practice the entire sequence over and over again. Between their meals. During their meals. During his walk. Even when he came to drop him or pick him up from school. He was always dancing — either with his entire body, or with his hands, or just with his feet as he stood in the queue to buy sugar from the ration shop, or with his eyes. In his mind, it was the same sequence. Often, he had been woken up by his father’s scream and he knew that in the other room the older man had just been struck by that arrow in the middle of his sleep. But most often, Biman had been lulled to sleep, and jerked out of it, by the sound of the thirkan. And in those sixteen years, the last six had been with him being a part of the practice. In the last six years, he had been his father’s shadow. He had followed and copied every movement of his. He never asked if that was what he wanted. His father didn’t ask him either. When his father first asked him to stop going to college and wear the anklets with the metallic bells for the first time, it seemed as the most obvious thing to do. And when he first stepped onto their courtyard with him for his first formal instruction, there was so much that he knew already. There was nothing here that he hadn’t seen all his life. All he had to do was close his eyes and he felt like he could see his father move. Beside him. Inside him. He copied his movements. Or followed them. Or just lived them. Having soaked them in for so many years, he was now just being controlled from inside, not from outside. Watched by his father, even when the older man was watching his own steps, Biman practised the steps all the way from the start to the point where he fell as the arrow pierced him. And then it was time for the thirkan and even in practice, his father would ask him to clear the space and stand in a corner and watch.
For six years Biman had watched his father practise. And then perform. How could he not know the thirkan? You needed to lift one foot off the ground just high enough that it could be brought back to the ground fast enough and hard enough that the sound from the bell-anklet tied to it made a sound that joined in exactly where the sound from the other foot now lifting had made. And then you did the same with the other foot. And then you kept at it for what seemed like hours. But the trick wasn’t in how long you could keep at it. The real trick lay in lifting the foot to that height. And then in the force with which you brought it down. That alone is what took him over five years to master. One less than the number of years he had been performing with his father. And it hadn’t always been the entire set. His act had always stopped before his father’s thirkan. Their act started with the welcome dance, and then as an added sequence where he played the hunter who had released that arrow. And then to becoming the peacock who danced, and then died. And only two years back was he allowed to join his cry with his father’s as the birds breathed their last. And as this set the stage for the thirkan to begin, it was also his cue to leave the stage. This was where he would spin, take that jump over the fire and exit. And before the audience could question, or realise that the stage was now half occupied, the old man would take the centre stage and start the final act.
And everything else was forgotten. So was everyone else.
The audience didn’t know where Biman went. The musicians on their tablas and their stringed instruments didn’t. The boys and girls who helped put up the show — holding the curtains, dragging the coal-pit away, helping collect the tips — didn’t. Everyone was glued to that sound, that blur of the feet and the ring of the applause. The suspense, the tension that was all about seeing how far this could carry on. About seeing who would give up first. And for the audience, wondering if this would ever end. Wondering how this would end. Even as they hoped it would never end. But Biman wasn’t far. Just off the stage, behind that screen, matching sound for sound, lift for lift, he would be riding his own wave. His was tougher because he didn’t just need to syncronise his own movements and his own sounds, but his movements and his sounds with his father’s as well. His was tougher because the applause was not for him, the audience wasn’t his. His was tougher because he performed in everybody’s blind-spot.
And that was why his father always saw him taking off his dancer’s clothes just when he too got off the stage to take off his own anklets. Even though he hadn’t performed for over forty minutes since the leap over the coalpit after the peacocks fell. And that was why his father always saw him soaked in sweat. But he never thought too much of it, soaked as he was in the afterglow of his own performance, deafened by the thunder of the palms clashing on palms, blinded by the sudden flicker of the camera flashes by the crowd that had just woken up from a spell, and was trying to catch the last shreds of the act in their memory cards. And he would do a brief thrikan, suddenly. Just to draw cheer from those who managed to catch the motion-blur in their cameras, and moans from those who had missed it.
Today, for the first time, Biman felt his father had stopped before him. Or had he carried on a bit longer? He had checked himself, of course. Fearing the sounds from his feet would travel over his father’s slowing motions. But did he really carry on for longer? Or was he just imagining it?
Back in the courtyard, the next day, Badri stopped Biman as he started to move away after practising the first sequence. As he hit the foot down to signal the start of the thirkan, he looked at Biman and nodded. The son followed. For the first time, both stood in the centre and danced. Badri carried on for longer than he ever had. It was like he had no thoughts for any other thing. He moved like a man possessed. And Biman followed. Wanting to check if what he had felt the day before was indeed true. Wanting to see if his father was finally slowing down. Or if he was getting better. But it was the young man who slowed down first, and would have kept getting slower, had his father not glared at him, having opened his eyes after his ears told him that the sounds from the two sets of feet were not in sync, not together. And that stare from this man who was his senior by years, got the younger man back in rhythm. But how long could he carry on? Again he gave up. And again the man forced him on. Till finally there was no force that could bring back the energy in his feet. Not even his father’s stern glance. Badri stopped. Next when they practised the rest of the act, the father forced his son to do better, to jump higher, to fall without putting his fingers or his knee on the ground first.
The next day, the act took on a hue that was unmatched. The audience didn’t know it, for they were all new to the city, to the act. But the helpers, the musicians, the organisers, they all did. And the two performers did. And till it was time for the thirkan, neither came out better than the other. For that there was no competition, Because only one man performed. Did Bimal pause a bit longer than he should have, before he exited? Or was it just a feeling he left behind? But all was soon buried by the slamming of the feet on the wooden stage.
From behind the screen where Biman danced alone, he remembered sitting in the same place when he was a child and seeing his father breathe life into the dying applause, just by picking up a foot after foot when the arms of the audience tired out. Today, he felt the reverse was happening. The sound from the seats was pushing the dancer every time he slowed. But Bimal wasn’t slowing down. He kept pace with the music, with the applause, with his father. And then when his father slowed, he kept up his pace. For today he had stripped off the bell he wore on his ankles. Today, the sound from his father’s feet weren’t going to slow him down. And though he hadn’t been able to keep pace with the old man earlier in the day today, now he could. He looked out on the lit-up stage from the dark corner that he was performing in, and saw that he was ready for that spot.
“You think so?” Badri said with a smile. They were in their courtyard when the son told him how he never really left the performance, only the stage. Badri looked at Bimal and smiled. A father seeing his son working hard, sensing that his son was getting closer to take his place.
“Then let’s see you keep pace with me.”
Again they started. Again the old man kept on, urging him with silent glares, with encouraging nods, with a jerk of his head because the rest of his body needed to stay stiff for his feet to keep moving. And the young man tried his best. And the two almost finished together, the son a fraction of a second behind him.
Badri smiled, patted Biman on his back and the two sat down to lunch. Badri served the boy himself, an act that was seldom seen.
“Go!” It was almost a whisper, but came out like a hiss as the two jumped over the coal-pit. Bimal knew that it was a command from his father, an order to force him off the stage. Nothing had been decided back at home, or before the act. But the way the father had acted all day with his son, the younger man had assumed he had earned his place. The way he had danced, he knew he had.
Now, back behind the screen, Biman danced. With his ankle bells on, wanting his father to know that he could outlast him here, as he did there. And the man, who now had to be pushed by the applause, danced like he hadn’t in days. Bimal knew it was the sound of his feet that was pushing the older man now, though the audience clapped harder, thinking it was they who were doing it. But Biman knew. And he knew that if he could make his father listen to his thirkan after the old man’s had slowed down, he might earn the spot on the stage tomorrow. But the old man wasn’t stopping. Not tonight. Not till the young man did.
Finally, the young man did. He reached a point where he didn’t just slow down, but stopped all together, his feet unable to move. He fell. And the crowd, not knowing that they had witnessed the longest thirkan in the last two years, just sat stunned with hands too numb to feel their own cameras or operate them. And Badri stood, knowing that the absence of the flashlights was a bigger glare than he had ever performed under.
As always, he again did a brief thirkan. But this time, it was not for the cameras. But for Bimal. And not hearing the sound echoed back from offstage, he smiled.
Biman woke up next day to a pair of hands massaging coconut oil on his calves and the soles of his feet. He lay there, not moving, pretending he was still asleep. Not just because he was too tired and wounded to get up. Not just because he didn’t know how to talk to his father now. But also because he had never seen his father cry. Never cry at his feet. Never massage his legs like he was doing now.
Badri didn’t practice that day. Nor did he let Biman get up. He went to the kitchen, brought all his meals to him, and then took the dishes away.
That evening, he went to the performance alone. There was nothing in his performance that could make the crowd feel cheated. It was just that his heart was heavy. But that wasn’t going to stop his feet from lifting.
After two days of rest, Biman was back with Badri in the centre of the courtyard. The two practiced the dance, and then when it was time for the thirkan, Badri let him dance alone. He stood opposite his son, throwing an advice here, a suggestion there. The father squatted low in front of his son, his eyes glued to the feet, checking the movements for minor flaws. He put his fingers out, at a certain height, and told his son to bring up his toes only to their height. For hours they practiced, till it was time to take the stage.
When it was time for the thirkan, the old man took the centre, allowing the younger man to remain, but pushed to a side, a little behind him. And when the music started, and the two pair of feet started rising and falling, rising and falling, time stood still. The musicians gave up trying to keep pace. The audience stopped clapping, giving up after having slowed down and picked up many times. All that remained were two blur of feet, the jangling bells on the four feet, the sweat dripping from the two faces, the features melting from joy to ecstasy to determination to pain. The stage dripped in the sweat, and when the first drop of blood mingled in the collective pool of sweat, and no one knew if it was the father’s or the son’s. When the first bell broke off from all that hammering and rolled off to one side, no one knew if it was the father’s or the son’s. No one in the audience had the ears to know when music from one pair of feet slowed down, but the musicians could. But even they didn’t know if it was the father’s, or the son’s.
But the father knew, and between all that pain and the blood and the blisters now swelling under the soles of his feet, he smiled. And carried on, knowing he didn’t have to do it for much longer. The young man, a little behind him, and little to the side, stopped. And then took a few staggered, meaningless steps and collapsed.
Badri stopped. He looked at the stunned crowd. Then did his brief thirkan before he smiled, and then collapsed.
The next morning, without regard for his own wounds and his own pain, the father sat by his son’s side, applying a paste made out of ground turmeric and wet mud on his feet. The son slept.
The old man looked at the sixteen year old boy. He looked at his son. The man who would take his place on that stage, in front of that crowd, in all those photographs carried all over the world, in all those stories told by travellers to friends and families they go back to. And he, the father would do anything to make that happen.
But how could he explain to his child, that he wasn’t just a father. He was also a performer who was learning with every performance that his time would soon be over. That a younger competitor would come and steal away his place, his limelight, his applause. And his place in all those pictures. And whenever he took the stage, he had to do everything to delay that hour.