Lose weight, burn fat—join us for a fun aerobic workout.”
The bold words leaping off the pink flyer caught Raji’s attention. It was the first week of January, time to compile her list of New Year resolutions, linked by a central theme. One year she had resolved to manage household expenses within a fixed budget, another year she had launched whole heartedly into gardening. This year was different. She knew what her focus would be or rather, should be. She needed to lose weight, significant weight, soon. Her diabetes, which had started out as harmless gestational diabetes prior to Shobha’s birth, was gradually worsening. Now Shobha herself was pregnant. Raji shuddered at the thought of her daughter suffering the same fate. Even more frightening was the prospect of not being around to see her first grandchild. The concern on Dr. Greene’s face, something rare for a medical practitioner who had seen plenty of life, had scared Raji.
The timing, location, and price seemed almost perfect. But aerobics! She had two equally unpalatable options to lose weight. Diet or exercise. Just the previous week in Dr. Green’s office, she had read an article pointing out the drawbacks of dieting while praising the benefits of exercise. Mahesh’s comment that the slow walk around the neighborhood did not count as meaningful exercise seemed grossly unfair to Raji. Combining healthy eating with regular aerobic activity was the key. She signed up.
The first morning Raji stood by the large double doors watching others walk purposefully into the brightly lit square room with glossy hardwood floors and enormous floor-to-ceiling mirrors along two sides. A few early arrivals were setting up pink rectangular steps at various spots. Women of various ages, sizes, and shapes entered the room, although the young, hard-bodied, skimpily clad girls seemed to outnumber the irregularly-shaped mature women. Raji set up her step at the back of the room at the lowest height and picked up the tiniest pair of navy blue weights that had “2 lb” printed in white at both ends. In the locker room a few women politely waited their turn to check their weight, grimacing at the unflattering digital display. Raji turned away at the momentary mental image of herself as a gigantic truck lumbering towards the weighing station, a scene she had often observed on the wide-open American freeways.
Raji had never possessed a skeletal figure like the current crop of high-fashion models. As her relatives had pointed out early on, she was “healthy.” The two major moves in Raji’s life had been mentally stimulating but physically deleterious. As a young bride in Mumbai, she had embraced new foods, specially dhoklas and shrikhand. Her desire to create new dishes and explore new cuisines had expanded her palate and widened her waistline. She would joke about the extra fat that protruded under her shoulder blades, peeping out from the edge of her blouse like two small bananas, as she tried unsuccessfully to cover them with the folds of her sari. Two pregnancies in four years had added to the thickness along her middle. Her sedentary lifestyle had added the lumps on her thighs. Mahesh had retained his skinny athlete’s body over the years and periodically teased her about her pleasant plumpness. The move to America a few years ago was also leaving its mark on her body, albeit slowly. The bland American cuisine without the familiar spices had amazed her. With time she had acquired a taste for pizza. And cheesecake. Her weakness for the velvety desert had been her undoing. Her figure now resembled an overgrown turnip. She needed to focus on the enormous task before her—to lose at least 20 pounds, preferably in the next three months!
An assortment of women displaying a wide range of skin shades and hair colors moved around the locker room in various stages of undress. Some appeared to be getting ready for class, slipping on tank tops or T-shirts over heavy-duty exercise bras. A few others were returning from the adjacent gym, or coming out of the shower with narrow towels. Most women seemed to be at ease with their naked bodies. Raji had always been self-conscious about her figure, even in youth. As a shy teenager in a house where men outnumbered women she had been the target of merciless teasing by her numerous cousins for inadvertently exposing her shoulder one morning! The black stretch leggings and oversized T-shirt that Shobha had picked for her were uncomfortable. She felt like a character dressed for a bit part in a play, waiting for her turn on stage. A red-haired woman dropped her towel on the counter and calmly proceeded to dry her hair, totally naked! Raji continued to stare at the woman in fascination as she pulled on a pair of purple bikini briefs and matching satin bra, embossed with the name of a fancy lingerie store. As Raji moved towards the next available restroom, she wondered about the other surprises that might await her in class.
A slender woman in tight shorts and a neon yellow figure-hugging shirt breezed in and the loud music began almost immediately. Raji watched the moves for a few moments. The group matched the instructor’s step in unison, like a school of fish, stepping up and down, turning this way and that. Raji was surprised to find herself joining in easily. The fast-paced rhythm had her sweating within minutes and she stopped several times to sip some bottled water. The songs blurred into each other, making it hard to understand the words. The instructor’s shapely but obviously enhanced body, pierced in multiple locations, moved rapidly. Raji glanced at her reflection in the spotless mirrors and momentarily missed her step. It seemed easier to concentrate on the woman directly in front of her, the one with a spectacular nine-inch long scar on the back of her left knee. Her complete attire was covered with logos of several local companies. The foot and hand movements were fairly easy to imitate once Raji figured out that the entire sequence of moves was based on a count of eight. The movements were mechanical and disjointed, not graceful like ballet or energetic like some of the Latin dances she had seen on television. In fact it could hardly be considered a dance form. She glanced at the slightly over-weight young woman on her left who was off by half a beat, trying desperately to keep up with the group. Raji let herself be drawn into the severely choreographed precise movements and before she knew it, the hour was over. When Mahesh asked her that night, she could not deny that it had been fun.
The next day was excruciating. Muscles, whose existence she had not known, screamed loudly forcing Raji to remember the last time she had indulged in vigorous physical activity. The painted hands, make-up that accentuated her eyes, strings of paper flowers light as snowflakes cascading down her braid; memories from a forgotten part of her life descended into her vision, like a dense fog. Acknowledging those memories would only cause grief, something she had decided she would never wallow in. She had made a choice, a difficult one. She had to live with its consequences, as she had for years.
There must be some way to lessen the ache in her muscles, she thought. A long soak in the tub sounded perfect, an activity that had struck her as decadent when she had first seen the luxurious bathtub. Raji lowered herself into the bubbles and rested her head on the cool tile, closing her eyes briefly as the warm water soaked away some of the stiffness. Her thankful body released audible memories, the strident voice of her bharata natyam teacher, the beats and rhythms, the jingle of tiny bells at her ankles as she alternated her poses with rapid feet movements. It seemed impossible that she had spent grueling hours practicing her techniques, perfecting every step, every move, every expression for her debut performance. Once she had planned on starting her own dance school. Until Mahesh had shown up. She had been forced to choose. She had chosen with her heart, picked her love for Mahesh over her passion for dance.
The entire day unraveled strangely after that brief flashback. Raji caught herself trying out some basic steps as she walked to the pantry. She noticed Mahesh looking at her strangely when she flung the dosa batter on the pan with an exaggerated flip of her wrist, imitating some long forgotten dance move. As she glided upstairs to their bedroom she stopped to look intently in the ornate mirror on the landing for some sign of the Raji the dancer, the “young talented artist of great promise, blessed with expressive eyes and swan-like grace.” She could recall the exact words that had been printed in the local newspaper about her arangetram. She had saved the news clipping in a fragrant sandalwood box at the bottom of the suitcase containing her expensive silk saris. With dance, she had also abandoned kajal and dangling earrings, tinkling anklets, and other accessories that had been essential to that part of her life. Even her naturally graceful dancer-like walk had been replaced by an ungainly waddle.
She buried her head in the softness of the pillow, trying to decipher the garbled messages her body had been sending her all day. Her long, peaceful married life with Mahesh was proof that she had taken the right path. This easy life had included a loving family but excluded dance. Her parents had been bitter about her decision. It was too great a sacrifice, they said. Dance was not considered a respectable art form by Mahesh’s conservative family. Mahesh had deferred to his parents wishes, Raji had agreed. It was not really a sacrifice, it was a choice. You made choices everyday, some trivial, some significant, some forgettable, some memorable. She had worked hard and succeeded to a large extent, in eliminating dance from her life. Then why did one aerobics class bring these long-forgotten memories to the surface so quickly? Her dancer’s soul had not forgiven her practical heart for this silent sentence; a life bereft of rhythm was a life in perpetual mourning.
Shobha had moved her chubby hands and feet in response to upbeat movie songs, showing early signs of an aptitude for dance, though not to the same extent as Raji. As a child, Raji had walked with a flourish, spoken with her eyes, and communicated with gestures. Dance had been the medium through which she had expressed herself. This wide chasm of the intervening years had diminished her fluency in that medium, not eliminated it completely. Like a forgotten melody, the rhythms from that earlier life lingered in her subconscious. Her innocent foray into aerobics for a healthier lifestyle had unbelievably revived the pulsating rhythm that had once flowed in tandem with the flow of her breath. Mahesh’s mother had quickly squelched Shobha’s talent and physically kept the children away from the performing arts.
Was the dormant dancer in her ready to emerge from a prolonged state of hibernation, like the first blossoms after a long winter? But how would her body react? It had been so long. She was not bound by old traditions now that her in-laws had passed on. It was the out-of-shape condition of her body that worried her. Hour long aerobics was child’s play compared to the all-consuming nature of dedicated dance practice. What if her body was a rusted shell, crumbling at the slightest exertion? For old, overweight, diabetic ladies, dance was a formidable task. If one class had disturbed her equilibrium to this extent, she was unsure where she would end up at the end of the 12-week session. Staying away from aerobics to preserve her sanity seemed to be the best option.
The next morning Raji headed to class, assuming that to be her last one. As she vigorously stepped up and down her step, in harmony with the rest of the class, she wondered if her ghungroos would make the familiar tinkling sounds if she wore them during aerobics. She could clearly hear the melodious sounds, like miniature temple bells, resonating with the precise movements of her feet. The brassy surface of the bells fastened to the palm-wide red velvet backing would probably be covered with a dull sheen, even though she had wrapped them in a silk scarf and saved them in the box with the newspaper clipping. She knew she had saved that special detergent-cum-polish meant specially for restoring the original shine to metal surfaces in one of the kitchen cabinets. She would try that when she got home. Bells were made to tinkle, even antique ones. What they needed was a good scrubbing to remove the grime accumulated by years of disuse.