The leg swept in a wide arc, missing her face by a margin. Avni scooted further back, her eyes trained on the dancer who strode across the room and leaped twice, a leg stretched one way, a hand stretched the other way. She didn’t want to miss a thing. The dancer fell to the ground lightly, the body surrendering to the fall, to the pull of gravity. In its surrender, the body defied the will of earth.
Avni followed her mother and her friend out of the studio after the dance performance.
“Did you like it, dear?” Avni’s mother’s friend asked her.
“Yes, very much, aunty,” Avni said.
Her body felt different. A current of power passed through it. The girl who went to bed that night did so with the determination to hold on to that feeling. She was an overweight kid who wasn’t spared the bullying. She loved parathas slathered with butter and rasmalai, and her classmates weren’t too far away from the truth when they mocked her ability to eat anything, even a rock. Avni could eat anything, hungry or not. The body felt like something that had a life of its own. Sometimes, she sat within it, within the layers of fat, and wondered at it. How it ballooned around her. The dancer changed that perspective. She was in full command of her body. It obeyed her. She set the rules by which the body behaved.
The next day Avni was back in school and the feeling receded to the background though it was not completely forgotten. Like a forgotten seed that didn’t receive sunlight or water, it lay hidden in those many layers of Avni through high school, college, office. Not that Avni hadn’t attempted to grow the seed. She had tried to learn dance. She could barely squat in Bharatanatyam class, no one chose to partner her in the salsa class, she simply could not face the red-faced heaving monster who stared back at her during Zumba, the songs in Bollywood dance taunted her as they sang the praises of svelte bodies, there was no back to bend in the Odissi class. The instructors would look at her with barely contained mirth, disdain, impatience, and pity.
She was twenty-three. There was much excitement in the clan as a boy who was a software engineer with prospects to move to America was coming to see her. The proposal was arranged by her mother’s younger sister. Avni’s virtues had been called out. She was an MBA class topper, a cooking whiz, and her skin glowed. All true. When she walked in with a tray of sweets, the boy’s plaintive voice hushed everyone.
“But she is so fat, Mummy.”
That little detail had been left out. The humiliation did not end there. The boy and his family felt misled but they were willing to let it go. Where she was large of body, they were large of heart. Her cousin, the svelte Sarika, they would still be willing to consider.
Unable to stand the pity, the justifications, she packed her bag and went to a yoga retreat on a whim. She needed to retreat. She was thrown into a rigorous schedule that was no holiday. The room doors could not be locked. She had to start at five every morning. The doctor who saw her when she checked in drew up a diet for her and gave her food coupons. She discovered that all she was allowed was a plate of fruits and vegetables.
“Of many different colors,” the serving lady pointed out. She handed her the plate. Giving Avni a kind smile, she added a few extra slices of cucumber.
She had to sit in an aluminum contraption every day, which was the closest she had come to a medieval torture device. It poured steam until she began to resemble a boiled red radish. Then there was the yoga class. The tree pose made her feel like a tree stump. The lotus pose made a mountain out of her while the mountain pose sent her falling into a heap. She stuck it out. “Mummy, she is fat” kept playing in her head and kept her company during the grueling schedule. Somewhere a seed, a memory of the body’s power and endurance, began to push its way through the layers of lethargy and began to sprout. Ten kilos lighter, she left the retreat to go back home and to resign from her job. As she explained, she had found her calling, her source of strength. Seeing her thinner, her boss agreed that she may be on to something. Her family was less convinced. All for a boy, tsk tsk, they said. They served her laddus and gulab jamuns, which she threw up. It is a disease, not eating, they said. Resolute, she dug into her bowl of sprouts on a bed of lettuce. Uncertain how long she could hold up, she applied for a yoga teacher training program in another city, far away from her mother’s kitchen.
“Why do you want to be a yoga teacher?” the instructor asked.
“If I have to teach others to practice yoga and to be healthy, I’ll have no choice but to take care of myself.”
She settled into the punishing routine at the ashram easily. Her system was not as easily shocked as it had been at the retreat. She transferred her academic discipline to physical discipline. She learned to align her body and went deeper into each asana until she didn’t hold it, it held her. She felt her energy surge and flow. The resistance of her body kept breaking until there was none. Her edge kept moving further and further until she was in full stretch.
“That’s all for today, ladies. Good job.”
The women who had obeyed her every command gathered themselves into their normal and mostly rumpled postures. Only their muscles remembered the contortions and stretches that they had endured. A few looked like they were ready to conquer the world, others unhappily determined. All of them a little bit in love with Avni, wanting to be her, hungry for it.
The tall panels of mirrors covering the walls of the studio reflected Avni. Long legs encased in leggings with cosmos swirling on them, a crop top revealing a flat midriff with a silver ring biting into her belly button, pert breasts, toned arms which were a uniform olive broken by the tattoo of a snake shedding skin. Her sleek hair was held up in a ponytail. Her smile even, perfect, ceramic.
Her newest student stood before her, worshipful.
“Hi. Did you enjoy the class?”
“Then you were not doing it right.”
“You’ve got to push harder. When you feel you can’t take it and want to stop there. That is your edge and you’ve got to go over it. If you do that, well, you won’t enjoy it. You aren’t meant to enjoy it. No pain, no gain.”
The young woman laughed nervously. Nodded her head like a bobble-head toy and with as much charisma. She tucked her hair back. Ran the tip of her tongue over her lower lip. Her eyes grew glazed.
No sense of her body, Avni noted. She didn’t inhabit it. She wouldn’t make it. There was none of the grit that Avni had built in herself when she was that woman’s age. Fifty pushups if she was asked to do thirty. Ten laps if she had to do seven. The point where she crossed the threshold, defied it. Her pulse raced just thinking of it. There was one other person who understood it.
“If you can discipline your body, you can do just about anything that you set out to do,” Avni said.
Kunal carefully pierced the grilled broccoli and bit it. Chewed it slowly. Patted his mouth with a napkin. Set it aside. He fetched his wallet out of his pocket and showed Avni a photograph of a teenager. A scrawny boy.
“That was me, ten years ago.”
“I swam. Mornings and nights. Pushed weights. None of the junk food and booze that my friends had. They said I couldn’t do it. And here I am.”
“Here we are.”
Avni had met her soulmate.
He carried that photograph with him always, he told her. To remind himself when he felt he couldn’t take on life. If he could go from a scrawny weakling to one of the country’s top models, well. She on the other hand, had destroyed all her fat-years photographs.
Avni had met Kunal at an exclusive yoga masterclass that she led before the fashion week kicked off. He was a sculpted god. Post-class, he invited her to dinner. The FlowLife was Kunal and Avni’s effort to get people to look better and to feel better. They had created a routine on which they held a patent jointly that blended dance, yoga, and pilates. The duo was sought after in the wellness circle and had even won the few awards and recognitions that there were. Avni was not one to rest on past glories. She wanted to push the edge and go past it, every time. It was too easy to become a has-been. She wanted to expand FlowLife into an exclusive wellness club in every metropolis for the crème de la crème, and by invite only.
“You’re losing the plot,” Kunal had said. “Good health needs to be accessible to everyone, not a choice few. We built this for communities.”
“Communities want what they can’t have,” she said. “Consider it as our way to push them to be more, to get more.”
The class over, Avni let Rufus inside. Her students didn’t like a dog around while doing their asanas. Distracting, they said. Showed their priorities, Avni thought. Her spine straight, she parted her legs, feeling the stretch of the hamstrings as she did. She bent, head touching the ground, hands holding her ankles. The sweet stretch sliding through her spine. The spine that supported her, held her up, never let her down. It had her back, alright.
She and Rufus set off for home. A dog with a beautiful and fit woman. A moving postcard of picture-perfect health. The roads were layered with a brown and yellow carpet of leaves. The season was in transition. The sun harsh, the air dry. Maybe she would toss a salad with cherry tomatoes and basil, Avni thought. It cheered her up. Life held promise, undeterred by the death and decay around her.
Entering the apartment, the alcohol hugging the air almost didn’t bother her. Not like in the initial days after Kunal’s surgery. They were partners in every way and she had held him when he’d cried. He’d never be able to run again; his knees couldn’t take it. Worn out at thirty-six. She had channeled all her strength into him with words that had bounced off the walls of self-pity and fell uselessly around him, squirming silver-bellied fish of puckered mouth and glassy eyes. She wasn’t sure when he started drinking – maybe when he began to go for his walks. To clear my mind, he had said.
She was relieved thinking he had snapped out of his misery. But no, he had plain snapped. By the time the excuse of walks ended, it was too late. She was now married to a full-blown drunk. His body flabby, the first hint of a beer belly beginning to show.
For the first time in many years, Avni began to feel out of control. She teetered on its edge. Her discipline was beginning to feel the tremors of uncertainty and disenchantment. She could see the life she had built fall apart, lie belly up, reeking.
As she walked into the living room, she saw staring back at her the blown-up and framed photograph of Kunal and her. It was sundown. Behind them, the Bay of Bengal raged. They stood frozen. He the mountain, she the warrior. Perfection.
Avni smelled him before she saw him. You just had to follow your nose to the source of the stale air of defeat till it grew stronger. But you didn’t stop there. You continued to let its repulsive allure reel you in closer and closer. Until you saw Kunal lying on the couch, mouth partly open, a dribble of drool stopping short of his chin, a soft snore. Further still, you kept going, until you stood over him. Hearing Rufus’s barks, you notice with surprise, your hand is sticky with blood and beer.
Avni stood over Kunal, unable to release the bottle, its jagged jaws bleeding. Kunal never opened his eyes.
Heart pounding, she went to her bedroom. Aligning her body parallel to the floor, she pressed her palm on the cool marble. Using her arm muscles, her core strong, she raised herself, lowered, and raised herself again. First you go low, and then you rise. And stretch till you snap.