On Caste and Questions

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Sitting in the office, having finished a couple of techie articles, waiting for either work or lunch, whichever comes first. There’s a niggle in the dip under my shoulder blade- a memory of a Bio class tells me it’s the scapula. Flexing it, I decide to create my own work.

I just shared an article about caste on Facebook. It picks at a thread that I’ve often worried, but been a little afraid to pull at. You see, in India, you never know when you could lose your head over what you say. Makes it hard to take a stand.

I lived in Pune for a while as a kid. When I was about seven, we had a bai (maidservant) called Kusum.  Kusum aunty, I called her. She was the sweetest bai we’ve ever had, as far as I can remember. When my father had surgery and mom stayed nights at the hospital, she stayed with us for hours at a time, sometimes at night, leaving only once my brother and I had slept. Until my aunt came down from Chennai, she made sure we had food in the morning, and after school, packed lunch for us, and made sure we ate our dinner properly. It was only a few days, but it was everything.

Kusum aunty had a daughter, or maybe a niece. I don’t remember now, but her name was Guddi. It means ‘doll’. She smiled a lot. We used to play together whenever Kusum aunty brought her home, to wait while she worked. I liked Guddi. We used to throw cushions at each other from across the living room, and one time I threw a bolster, and Kusum aunty gave us the tongue-lashing of the year.

Guddi had long hair that was parted, braided, then doubled up and tied with red ribbons. I’ve forgotten her face, but I remember thinking she was pretty. I loved her hair because it was long and easily braided, while mine was wild and curly and mom nearly wept at the prospect of having to tame it every morning. I remember liking Guddi very much. I don’t remember when was the last time I saw her, and I suppose she’s married now, with a couple of children. She was older than me, so she must be.

I remember that we never ate together, at the table. Not once. Kusum aunty used to give me my food when I sat on a chair at the table, and she and Guddi would sit cross-legged on the floor with their plates in their hands. No one objected- not Guddi, not me. I would eat quickly, as though if I ate and left the table, the ants under my skin would disappear too.

We had another maid, Hansi aunty, in Delhi. She was always sad- my mother told me her story, in bits and pieces, over the course of a month.

Her husband was old, had taken to drinking, had lost his job, had taken to beating. Her son demanded a bike as a precondition for getting a job. Her daughter was in school and refused to help around the house. After 30 years of marriage, with their savings almost gone, she was forced to work as a domestic help. She worked hard in two houses- ours and her own. “Mujhse isse zyada nai hota.” She said to mom. (“I am not capable of (here, strong enough for) more than this.”)

She usually came to work after drinking a cup of chai, and eating- nothing, she shrugged and said. She refused mom’s shocked offers (often with accompanying scolds) of breakfast. But mom refused point-blank to let her leave without eating something. One time, mom wasn’t home when I got back from college. Aunty was.  Mom had left a ton of dosa batter in the fridge.

“Make some for Hansi aunty also, okay. Don’t let her go without leaving. She’ll leave at 5- 5.30, so make food before that.”

Well, okay. I can make dosas. Generally, pretty good ones. And there was chutney and something else I can’t remember- maybe sambar, or aloo ka jhol.

So I made dosas. I set the table for two, heated the sambar/jhol, and began to make dosas. Like, okay, normal type of cooking.

Except that Hansi aunty brought her plate and a stool into the kitchen and ate there. She ate with a shaky smile and watery eyes, telling me (and later mom) that she felt like her own mother was making food for her again, and how nice it felt. And that was nice. I felt good, maybe like I was a little less of a heedless brat.

But I ate at the table and she ate on a stool in the kitchen, and she washed both our plates before leaving.

She was the help, so she washed the plates- all in the job description. But there’s nothing to prevent her from eating at the table.

But of course there is. Just as Kusum aunty and Guddi would never have dreamt of joining my seven year old self at the table. Caste and class are interwoven at many levels in India, and the former is old, older than religion, really. Caste acted on my ancestors and their ancestors and theirs too, telling them that this person can be touched and this touch is polluting and this person should not be seen and if you do, go have a bath and become pure again. Caste told Kusum aunty and Guddi’s ancestors that you sit down and look up all the time, be it a seventy year old man or a seven year old child, because you were born here and they were born higher. They did good things in their past life, and you might have killed someone even if you don’t remember, so take the punishment for a crime that you don’t know that of course you’ve committed.

I’ve written emotionally. It was emotional; it was a response to being brought face to face with the fact that I may not believe in caste, I may speak against it in my drawing room and online, but again and again, when I eat at the table and they eat on the floor or on a stool in the kitchen, I am practising the teachings of caste and the system that grinds down innumerable people, and has done so for centuries. I am part and parcel of a system that operates in all arenas of life- social, economic, political, and cultural- to dehumanise human beings, and erase them and their contributions altogether.

The filmmaker Anand Patwardhan visited our school and screened his documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade, once.I have very little memory of the film itself, though I remember being rather disturbed. What I do remember is that Anand Patwardhan asked how many Dalit students there were in the student body. We all looked around, and towards the end of a ten-second wait, I was mentally begging someone, anyone, to put up their hand and scrape off at least a little of the shame I could suddenly feel crusting my spine.

(No such luck)

(The crust is still there)

How many Dalit students did I know in college? None. Did I go out of my way to find any Dalit students and befriend them? No. How many friends do I have whose caste can be said to be significantly ‘lower’ than mine? None.

“I don’t believe in caste”, for me, is a passive thing. The whole truth is that I ignore caste, and the way it plays out in everyone’s life. I say everyone, because no one lives outside the caste system yet. You are either an active participant or a passive one- an enabler. I’ve been the latter for far too long, I think.

I read once that racism and sexism cannot be examined separately. In India, we have a third axis: that of caste. The relationship of any Hindu person to power in India is first a function of their sex, then of their caste, and then of their race (because yes, racism exists in India- it always has), and then of any newer variables such as class and income.

Caste complicates things. A Dalit woman and a Brahmin woman have very different relationships to power. A Dalit woman and a Brahmin man, two Dalits- a man and a woman, a Brahmin trans man and a Dalit man, a Brahmin trans woman and a Dalit man, two trans women- one Dalit and one Brahmin- all different.

Confusing, isn’t it? I’ve used Dalits and Brahmins because it’s probably the biggest polarisation in the caste system, and also perhaps the biggest ongoing re-negotiation of power and relationship in Indian society.

Like I said, caste is confusing. It’s also controversial; it’s not only a social conversation, but also a political one. I also said, though, that I’ve been passive for far too long. So these are conversations that need to take place, at all levels, in order to re-negotiate relationships, and to make the distribution of power as equitable as possible.

One day, that crust might vanish. A seven-year old child might not feel ants crawling under her skin as her friend eats on the floor, while her own legs don’t quite touch the ground  as she sits at a table. One day there might be a Dalit child at Rishi Valley. There could be a girl sitting with the maid at the table, eating dosa as the maid cries.

In India, you never know when you could lose your head over what you say. But you take a stand anyway.

 

 

 

 

Of Fresh Endings

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Now even the farewell is done, and it really is just a matter of time before it ends. I didn’t speak much yesterday; only a little bit of garbled nonsense, which was perhaps the only sensible thing to say. But there are things that seem sensible and important to say now, so this is where I’ll say them.

There are no absolutes in life. You know this. You’ve read about it. At the end of your three years, you’ll realise it.

You may think you’re going to remain friends with someone for the rest of your life. But hell, you may not even know when you stopped talking, stopped texting, and it’s barely been six months. Now you’re shaking your head and saying we used to be so close,  and you’re shrugging and turning back to someone with whom you wouldn’t have dreamt of sharing any kind of friendship. That is what happens.

Don’t shy away from talking to anyone, no matter what; the biggest inspiration I ever received in college is now also the source of my biggest regret. I wish I had spoken to her, the girl who will be the first female graduate in her family- hell, the first female college student. She has inspired me, and I may never know her. That is what happens.

You may come to realise that this is not where your heart lies, in these books and names and monuments, with these people, in this college. One morning or late one night, you may wake up crying, or too tired to cry, from a dream of how things could have been. You may find yourself forcing your eyes and mind forward into the book on the desk, with your heart galloping somewhere quite different. This is what happens.

But we are young. You can set yourself on fire and build yourself back from the ashes. You will stand tall and then suddenly break, get back to your feet and immediately shatter, and the best, most painful part is picking up the pieces again and deciding just how you want to build yourself again. How high, how broad, how deep- and stronger, always stronger. We are young, and this, what you build, will be the foundation of the tower of your life. Choose your stones wisely.

Remember to laugh. Laugh often, laugh loud and clear, feel your laugh in your lungs and your belly. Don’t forget to cry. Cry when you’re sad. Cry when something moves you. Cry during sad movies, cry with laughter too. Tears are as human as laughter, and both should flow strong like rivers out of you.

Above all, remember that you need to ask. Question everything. Read so that you can ask more questions. Be kind to people. Be kind to yourself. Fall in love. Have a hobby. Learn a language. Sing loud and off-key. Listen to good music, watch good plays. Watch the news. Don’t mess with Vandana ma’am or Ruchika ma’am.

Find what makes your heart beat faster and your mind move like quicksilver, and go do it. Make no apologies for any of it- loving, laughing, and being human. Least of all that. Look people in the eye, and talk to them, not at them. Dance even if you don’t know how. Get on the wrong bus and get off at the wrong stop, and ask people where to go. Travel alone. Travel in a group. Take photographs. Throw away your camera and make memories.

Hold your friends close, give your heart and mind and time freely, and love yourself with all your heart.

I sound so old, but I feel marvellously young. This thing doesn’t feel anything like an ending. Of course, it’s not a beginning either. I don’t feel tentative or nostalgic, though maybe that will change in the next month (Unlikely. Exams leave very little time for quiet nostalgia, the only kind that works for me because it lends itself quite easily to poetry. History exams have nothing to do with quiet, nostalgia, or poetry).

But, back to the point- this is a fresh ending, one I haven’t read before. College usually ends, in the books I’ve read, with a cocktail of euphoria, heartbreak, regret, and achievement, salt-laced with tears. Promises to remain in touch, to remain in memories and in hearts, and to meet as often as possible. How many of those will be kept, I wonder, and how many will flutter to the ground like glinting gust?

Does it matter? At that moment, I loved you. I cared about you enough to say I wanted to stay in touch. Is the fleeting moment less valuable than the broad expanse of time? Stupid, philosophical questions that matter even less than the promises that- let’s face it- we’re none of us going to keep.

It’s a new ending, a different end to a unique story that all of us have written, in solitude and together. It has been a terribly good one. I hope the next one is too.

Keep Calm and Make History.

 

 

 

 

On Being Dirty

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Is it ever a small thing, molestation? I don’t think so. It may have happened fifty years ago; perhaps ten; perhaps just five. Maybe it was just yesterday. It could be an open wound or a shiny old scar. You could cover it with your clothes or hair, or you could wear it openly; whisper it to heavy dark demons at night, or scream from the rooftops It happened it happened it happened. Because it did. It happened, and that is the truth.

It may seem, at the end of the first day, like a bad dream. But do you remember your oldest nightmares in detail? I remember in bits and pieces; but I remember that moment, that morning, so clearly- every tiny, filthy detail.

I’m not filthy. I’m not. I know this. I believe this. But I also remember after the initial realisation- I’ve been touched, I’ve been molested- sank into my skin, it was as though something black and oily  and viscous had replaced my blood, emanating outwards from the breast that had been squeezed- like an auto rickshaw horn, I thought- to every vein and capillary in my body. I was terrified that it would bubble up, dark and dirty, through my pores, and then  everyone would know. I’d be bad.

I didn’t keep it a secret for long. Home has always been where I could break, ugly and peaceful. I told my mother and elder brother that very day. There’s nothing quite like the warmth of a hug when you feel as filthy as I did that day. But hugs don’t wash away memories, and no matter what smile I put on at home or how flippantly I spoke, the ten minutes of hell were permanently burned into my brain.

I’m still rather scared of strange men, particularly those around 40-60 years. I don’t remember what my eve-teaser looked like, I didn’t see his face long enough. But black hair, fat face, and smug smirk sailing away on a motorbike- I remember that well enough. Too well, and too little, but enough.

I’ve moved past it, really. I’m not always looking over my shoulder. Mom thinks I should; after all, this is Delhi. But the road of my life will not be paved with stones of fear. I look staring strangers in the eye until they look away. I take public transport as much as I can. I try to live the life I want as much as possible, because the truth is that I am terrified.

Not of men, or what they can physically do. I’m terrified that my body and my belief will be alien and dirty to me again. So I try to live as much as possible before that happens, in the hope that it will never happen.

And really, I’m one of the lucky ones.

 

Madwoman

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On my last night in school, I went down to the basketball court and lay on my back at the very centre. The stars were very clear. It was summer, a warm night, and with the heat in the air, the chill of the concrete, and the clear so clear stars, it was a curious ten minutes. Ten minutes of heavy breathing, and the idea of a self that rises from the core into forever.

I saw a half-naked man lying at the centre of a golchakkar (roundabout) near the Ministry of External Affairs. It was a makeshift golchakkar, just orange traffic cones placed in a circle at the crossing. It was around a quarter to six in the evening.

He was just lying there, playing with a water bottle. I don’t remember if there was water in the bottle or not; he was just moving it up and down right above his face. I wondered what he could see in the bottle that we couldn’t have, the people who sped by him ensconced in cars, sparing him glances. Some are amused, some are flummoxed, some are innocently disgusted, but they are glances only, thrown like spare change that we don’t want to be caught giving.

I bleed into becoming that man. I remember. My clothes disappear, as do my breasts, and I gaze up into a rapidly dimming winter sky. I’m still me, whoever that may be. I remember. Flat on my back, no water bottle in sight. I’m looking for stars and clear black sky; I can hear cars, and although I’m aware of the people, speeding by and throwing me glances, they don’t really seem human, and their thrown alms of attention float to the road like the down feathers pigeons shed.

There’s a water bottle now though, so I suppose I must seem like that man to the faceless me that speeds by in one of the cars. Half-naked, and here’s a water  bottle. I move it to and fro in my hands, peering in.

It’s clear, and it sparkles. It moves around, sloshes around, and it looks like starlight that’s been forced into a canister, except that I can tell what it is. Stars made liquid, the sun and moon melted, a universe that’s folded in on itself and chosen this particular water bottle to drip into. A condensed swirl of perhaps a million galaxies and light-years of space, all sloshing around in here, pooled at the bottom of a madman’s water bottle. For who else would have eyes to see a universe, but the utterly mad?

I bleed back into mind, I see my breasts rising again like newborn mountains; once more, I’m girl and woman, with the remnants of sanity lying around my mind like so much construction waste dotting the landscape of school. Under my back is a mattress- no concrete or tar- and a ceiling stares blindly back rather than take my rising self like stars would.

I’m sane, you see, just a little closer to it than I’ve been all night, and it’s almost morning now.

Inhabit

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Roll your shoulders back, lift your chin, tighten your core.
Raise your eyes, and don’t blink. 
Smile, and let tears sting the very corners of your lids.

Never, ever let them fall.


But perhaps what was needed then was to be. Be sad. Be shocked. Feel the sting of the slap in the face, feel the burn of the humiliation.

Feel the beginnings of affection turn into jagged things; they prick and prick, waiting for time and life to smooth them away.

Be sad; cry. Cry at the half-formed spectres sitting on your pillow, the remnants of what might have been, what you thought was. Cry at the thought of how rosy the world once seemed, and how you can now see little spots of grey and rusty browns in the corners and undersides of pretty, softly glowing things. The world seems a little less bright, sometimes, and your heart isn’t even broken.


So little to say when there’s so much to feel. They’re things you can’t bring yourself to feel, and things you can’t admit to feeling. There are feelings which you fear to name, for it might turn your world on its axis, pull you apart and expose your insides to light and air and truth.

Would you do it? Let yourself and all you know be irretrievably changed, all for the sake of a name of a feeling? Should you? Could you?

I have no answers, and neither do you.


Oh stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.
~W.H Auden,
‘As I Walked Out One Evening’.

Think-Stream

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I had a teacher once, who said that even if I couldn’t think of anything to write about, I should just put my pen to paper and write. He said it didn’t matter even if I wrote the same sentence ten times; perhaps the eleventh sentence would be different.

He taught me just for a year, during my eleventh grade. I missed him a lot the next year. I wish he’d stayed. He was 22 years old; he was the only adult with whom I felt comfortable sharing my poems. We would sit in school after he’d read them, and he’d point things out to me, cool things I’d never noticed I’d done with words; he’d nudge words into better order, so the poem wasn’t lopsided. By the time we were done, it looked like it was proud of itself.
Many people had told me that I could write well; he was the first person to show me how to write better.

I have a friend whose descriptive writing I prefer to Amitav Ghosh. Her story about cancer ripped into me, but I kept reading it because of the sheer skill it took to put those layers of words and story together.

I think about my third grade class teacher who hurt me so much, and I want to meet her again and tell her about it. I don’t know if I can forgive her; maybe it won’t be necessary, maybe she won’t even want to be forgiven.

I have a friend who is incredibly attractive to me because he’s intelligent and confident and mature and a lot of fun. I don’t know if I’m attracted to him. I’m usually not, though; it’s just sometimes.

Honestly, though, the person I love the most in the world is myself, at the moment. I think that after so many years, it’s time I started believing that I’m worthy of being my most important person.

nearly, Almost

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Do you ever wonder
What we could have been?

Do you ever think,
Had curves been lines
And had not straight paths
Twisted us way-
Could we have been something,
Do you think?

When my mind thinks of you,
It is in thoughts left over;
Bitter ale
From the bottom of the barrel.
The dregs of things
That almost were feelings,
That nearly became hopes;
Not quite wishes-
Not nearly desire-
Time would have told.

Time tells me
What might have been,
And what instead is;
But I tell Time,
Of hopes that never died
Because they never drew breath-
Of things better off stillborn.

Just conversation;
Exchanges between us.
Time and I, we go hand in hand,
And sometimes, dear,
We may talk of you.

Sorted

Aside

“I just thought, dude I have to get this girl something, man.”

At the sight of the now plain steel of the pendant, and the hole where there once had been a glittering stone, her lips twisted into a grin. With a laugh that was half a scoff, she tossed the old chain into the ever-expanding ‘junk’ pile and spared it only a passing glance more.

Natasha continued sorting through her vastly engorged closet, occasionally adding an old or outgrown piece of clothing or a now-useless trinket to the junk pile. Soon- very soon- the junk pile had grown much larger than the ‘keep’ pile, and what had once been a neat (subjectively speaking) room now resembled a field of battle that had but recently seen terrible carnage.

With a despondent huff, she flopped down, not particularly caring where she sat. Therefore, it was only to be expected that such carelessness would be punished.

“Ow!!”

She jumped, messily trying to manoeuvre into a position that did not involve something small and hard digging into the tender part of her ankle. Finally successful, she groped around under her for the offending object.

When she had successfully disentangled it from the trailing ends of an old stole, she wished she could safely throw it hard into some corner of the room. Inadvisable, since the cheeky little bugger was likely to find some other more painful way of gaining her attention though what else an innocuous chain with an equally innocuous pendant could do, she could not imagine. Still, better safe than sorry, as the old adage went.

“Stupid Arnav.” She grumbled. “Still annoying me after god knows how long… still manages to find a way to piss me off…” In a lacklustre sort of way, she held the little chain around her neck and looked in the mirror.

A real grin bloomed on her lips. “Such a cheap piece of shit he is.” She murmured fondly, nostalgically. She turned this way and that, as though admiring the way the cheap steel piece looked on her dark skin.

A quiet laugh escaped her lips as she pulled it away. Then her expression became thoughtful as she studied the necklace in her hand.

“I’ve got something for you.” His perennially amused face appeared beside her. The expression, as always, made her long to smack him for no particular reason, but she restrained herself. 

For me? Why on earth would you have anything for me?” She asked, tilting her head and looking at him in utter confusion. They weren’t anything special to one another, after all, even as friends.

“No dude, it’s like, I have to give you something, just like that.” Well. Weird all right, but who was she to decline gifts? Although she remained a little wary.

“It better not be a bath in Slime Pond or something like that, or I will kill you.” She threatened, only half-joking. His grin widened. “No, come on man, it’s nothing like that. Don’t you trust me?”

Nope, not at all.” She replied cheerfully. “But jaldiiii, I have to goooo.” She tapped her watch emphatically. He only gave her that very-very annoying grin in return, which she returned with an unimpressed look, and reached into his pocket to extract, with great flourish

“A necklace?” She stated the obvious with a raised eyebrow, looking from Arnav to the object in question. Jewellery, however inexpensive, is not Arnav’s area of expertise. 

He dropped the grin, looking slightly sheepish. “My bhabi (sister in law) helped me choose it and all- I didn’t know what you’d like- and I thought, like, she might like a knife but then she might stab me with it-“

That surprised a laugh out of her. “Both true, how well you know me, Arnie.” She held out her hand and he dropped the necklace into it. “That’s so sweet of you, and I do like it. I like red.”

He cocked his head to the side, scrutinising her. “You’re not just saying that to make me feel good, na? Like, you actually like it, right?”

She snorted. “I wouldn’t spare your feelings. Trust me, I do like it. Now I really have to go to class, so… move.” She sidestepped him before he could, anyway, and walked off. “Thanks for the chain, dude!”

She wore it after about a month, winking at him over the dinner table when he noticed. It was a cheap necklace, and its crimson colour would, over time, wear off, but that would still take a while. For now, she appreciated the thought. ‘It’s the thought that counts.’ She told herself , even when she saw the silver shine of the steel begin to poke through the fading red.

She sat there for a few seconds, remembering. She was still kind of-sort of in touch with him, and he’d hardly changed in essentials since their school days. Apart from the thinning hair and the slight bulge in the middle- a common object for her jibes- the six years seemed to have passed him by.

Her fingers closed around the now-completely faded, forlorn-looking metal pendant. An amused quirk rising to her lips, she put it carefully into her ‘keep’ trinkets pile. After all, she didn’t want to lose the damn thing again, did she?

 

Musings

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I once told someone something along the lines of “When you’re dancing like that, at that level… it’s like your body doesn’t belong to you anymore.” And they were like “Whaa…?”

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I meant by that. I think I probably said that it in this brief moment of clarity or knowledge or insight, or whatever… well, that moment’s long since gone, but I still know that whatever it was, I meant something real and important to me… and as with most things which are that real and important, it was so much bigger.

So here I am, trying to figure out what I meant about a year ago while speaking to my friend about a ballet we’d been shown, and dance in general. I think I tacked on that last part in my comment and my thoughts, because our discussion just stuck to ballet, but for me, it kind of grew, and my thoughts and perceptions sort of latched on to everything else I knew and thought about dancing.

I’ve danced all my life- well, since I was five and a half, really- and according to my parents, loved it for even longer, because the only time their noisy, wild second baby (that’s me, by the way) ever sat still and really seemed to absorb what was going on around her was when they took me to a dance programme. And I got enrolled in a dance class early- I wasn’t supposed to start till I was seven, but my parents tell me that I cried so much to go that they ended up taking me to the nearest dance class (which was a pretty good one) and telling the teacher to just make me feel like I was dancing, for two years. Yeah, I just found that out today, and I’m seventeen.

SO… back to the topic. I’m going to just try and trace the events leading up to that conversation, and maybe I can get somewhere from there. We were being shown ‘Swan Lake’, and although ballet isn’t really my thing, I really enjoyed it… and I was speaking to this friend of mine, and he said:

“It was actually really indecent.”

And naturally, having exactly opposite thoughts, I asked: “Why do you think so?”

He replied: “The way they were holding each other… and it’s indecent for a guy to wear things like that.”

I think it was then that I came out with the line that effectively ended the conversation, because I was clearly (to him) off my rocker, and (in my mind) on my own trip.

Yes, tracing things like this was a good idea. I now have a fairly clear picture of what I was thinking.

I was thinking, at that time, that when you dance at that level- and by level, I don’t mean just the professional level, but also expertise, and maybe even that level of passion- it’s not your body that counts, but your heart and soul, both of which you bring to your performance when you dance. On a professional level, you have to wear what the costume designer gives you. On an expertise level, you’re doing such complicated moves that require such tight and/or sheer clothing. And when passion comes into the picture… you would be so immersed in your role, in your art, that you could be given a sack and you’d still be the Romeo that the audience loves. It wouldn’t be about what you’re wearing, or even about the moves you so  effortlessly perform with your body: it would be about you, dancing not with your body, but with your soul, and creating a character that stays with those who watch you.

I guess this, all rolled together, was what I was trying to say to my friend that day. Well, poor guy, no wonder he went “Whaa…?”.