8: Dancing With The Devil
They danced and danced. She floated in his arms as light as a dream. No fancy moves, no acrobatic lifts or dizzying drops. Just a smooth fluid movement. A song of love in motion.
She could have gone on forever like this, the music energizing her aching limbs. It was a perfect end to an otherwise imperfect day.
But the dance came to a halt and along with it so did she. Her mind, now completely relaxed and heavy with languor drooped, wanting to rest on his broad shoulder and call it a night.
“Perfect! Just Perfect! You aced the waltz Ms Khanak!”
Her head came up with a jerk. His brusque voice rudely awakening her from her fantasy.
She blinked now fully awake. His eyes seemed more alive in the faint light. He was looking at her with lips compressed in a thin line, as if vexed about something.
She backed away uneasily. The room began to spin making her dizzy. She teetered but then steadied herself holding on to the back of a chair.
“Are you okay?” He asked with a concerned look on his face. “I’m sorry. How neglectful of me. I should have asked you to eat first. You must be starving.”
She drew back several steps. “No I’m fine, I ate a lot of junk this afternoon and these are probably the repercussions.”
“Food Poisoning?! Oh no! C’mon, let me take you to the hospital!” He exclaimed, grabbing her arm.
“No, I’ll be fine!” She cried, disengaging herself. “Its nothing a good night’s rest won’t fix. I’m as tough as they come.”
She rushed to her room and locked the door.
“As tough as they come? Who am I kidding!”
Khanak burst into a loud hysterical laugh. Horse who had sneaked in sometime ago and camped himself at her feet, growled in complaint.
“Sorry boy, I forgot you were here. I’m terrified of the dark..are you too?”
The furry creature lay his large head on her stomach in a gesture of quiet reassurance.
She smiled and tried to push him away. “You are too heavy for me but I got the hint. You’re letting me know that I can count on you. Thanks! Now go before your master blames me for stealing his best friend!”
As if on cue she heard a low whistle from outside her door. “Horse? You there? Come out buddy. Let your new pal rest.”
Horse unhappily slinked away, his tail tucked between his legs. She followed on his heels to unlock the door.
But before she’d reached the foot of the bed, it cracked open and her Boss’ head popped around the edge. At once she dived back in, and pulled the sheets up to her neck.
“Sorry to scare you like this, but Horse has aced the art of opening and closing doors.” Shan murmured apologetically when he saw her large terrified eyes. “I’d have left him with you, but he has a bad habit of chewing on stuff in his sleep. You should see the state my bed is in!” He laughed.
“Oh..I didn’t know that.” She said still keeping a tight grip on the sheets.
He hesitated. “Are you feeling better now? I could still take you to a hospital or, I could call a friend, he’s a doctor. Yes, I should do that. May I use the phone?”
He made a move as if to walk in.
“NO! DON”T!” She screamed.
He jumped in the air at least a foot or two.
“Sorry. I’m fine! It’s just the fatigue and a lot of other things. I’ll be right as rain in the morning. Can you go now? Please?!” She pleaded.
“Oh..alright. I was just making sure. Good night. C’mon Horse, off we go!” He grabbed the dog by the collar and rushed out.
What a weird girl! He thought while putting out some food for Horse. She looked like she’d seen a ghost, when all I was trying to was help–Human to Human, Soul to Soul..
Do I look that terrifying? He wondered, examining himself critically in the hall mirror. A clean cut face with sharp perfectly chiseled features, warm brown eyes, black wavy hair worn slightly long in accordance to current trends and straight white teeth without pointy sharp fangs ala Dracula.
No, he wasn’t scary at all, rather he was someone who could be described as overwhelmingly good looking, one with the ‘swoon’ factor. He was used to girls known to hail from ‘honorable’ families behave outrageously in his presence and send him their underwear in the mail. Some had even stalked his apartment and sent him death threats if he didn’t look out the window–extremes of madness.
But no one had looked at him like that, like she had, as if he was about to cause her a ton of harm.
Maybe it’s nothing, maybe it’s the night, maybe it’s my mind playing tricks on me.
He went down on all fours and started doing push-ups.
“Off Horse! You need to go on a diet!”
The overgrown puppy growled but relinquished his favorite position–his master’s back.
Perhaps she’s right, she’ll be fine in the morning. But somehow he couldn’t forget the look on her face.
Then the computer screen came alive distracting him from his thoughts. It was Natasha.
Natasha aka Tashu who had been ‘Jhankar’s (Shantanu’s dance company’s) lead dancer since it’s inception and who had a fan following rivaling none other than the man himself, had caused a small furore in the closely knit fraternity by doing the unthinkable i.e. taking a tumble and breaking her ankle! It was a definite no, no and a surefire career breaker!
‘How could she do that?’
‘Couldn’t she have taken better care? Poor Shantanu what will he do now, with the new season coming up?’
‘She said it was an accident, and they are by nature unavoidable.’
A few not so soft whispers had been making the rounds.
Shan was taken by surprise when he saw her face on the screen. She had not figured in his thoughts for at least sometime. It had been someone else.
Her beauty was undeniable–green eyes flecked with grey, brown shoulder length hair, butter soft skin marred with freckles that dotted her nose and cheeks–a thing she hated. People raved about her but for him lately the beauty had turned superficial.
“Hi Gorgeous! Missing me?”
“Hi Tashu.”He replied absently.
“What? Just Tashu? Not gorgeous or even simply beautiful?” She asked incensed. Calmness was not her forte.
“Sorry, I was a bit preoccupied.” He said. He was used to her ways. “How’s your ankle? And Grandma? Is she feeding you her famous Konkan fish curry? I miss that.” He smiled, remembering fondly a couple of years ago when he along with his group as a travelling troupe had stopped by the idyllic fishing village for an overnight stay and had been treated like royalty. They were some of his fondest memories.
“Hmmmph! It’s healing quite well, the doctor has advised complete non weight bearing for three weeks and no stress of any sort for several weeks thereafter. So that means no dancing this season for me! Poor you!”
Shan looked up sharply, did he hear a hint of glee?
“As for Grandma, she’s fine. What else did you expect? I’m her guinea pig. She smothers me with so much attention that it makes me wanna puke.” She made a disgusted face.
“She misses you Tashu. After all when did you last pay her a visit? Like never? You didn’t even go when she was deadly sick with Pneumonia!”
“Oh that! Well then I’d have been stuck forever playing nanny, when she had so many other people to look after her. Anyways, she wasn’t as sick as they made her out to be. They said she almost died!” She smirked.
“Tashu. Don’t speak like that.” Shan retorted surprised at her callousness. “She has only you in this world whom she can call family. Look at who’s taking care of you now?”
“Oh, alright! I don’t need advice on how to maintain my familial ties from Mr. Runaway himself!” She didn’t see Shan flinch. “Forget about all that. Let’s talk about us. What do you think of making a trip to Milan or even gay Paree..? I want to update my wardrobe and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to hang around during the season with nothing to do..would you? We can have fun..just you and I.” Tashu said with a brilliant smile.
I’d love to go there but not with you doll! He mused while pretending to consider her suggestion. “Hmmm…sounds like an idea.. but how did you come to the conclusion that I’m not going ahead with my show? I don’t remember saying anything to that effect..did I Horse?”
His faithful companion who was busy messing around with the computer mouse let out an angry growl, he sensed that his master was upset.
“So? What do you mean? Are you going to just put up a show just for the sake of it? It’s going to be damp squib without me! You will become a laughing stock Shan..don’t go ahead with it!”
“My show will never be a damp squib as you like to put it Tash, what if I tell you that I have found a replacement?” He said grimly slowly realizing that her accident may have had a sinister purpose behind it.
She laughed. “No, never! That’s impossible! If it’s that girl Simran, then you are done for Shan! ‘Jhankaar’ will die a thousand deaths, the name that I have made for you with so much hard work will be trashed in no time! Don’t risk it!”
“I see that you have become larger than your discipline and that is a dangerous thing Tash.” He said grimly. “An artist no matter how big he or she is should always be humble. Simran is really not that bad, come to think of it. But I have another ace up my sleeve which I won’t reveal now. She’s an uncut diamond, but in the right hands she has the ability to be one of the greatest..perhaps even better than you.”
“Shan you can’t, you wouldn’t, you are lying just to make me jealous. I know. All right what about the rings we exchanged, the promise you made to me?” She whined.
“I’m a man of my word and I remember my promise to you. As for the rings? You bought them and I opted to humor you just because you were not in the right frame of mind. There was nothing official, no witnesses, no papers signed and I’ve told you that before and if you wish I’ll remind you again. See, I don’t even wear mine.” He said, popping his hand up in front of the camera.
“Shan please don’t clown around, I know you can’t survive without me. I, I may want to come back.” She laughed again but this time her face had lost all its vivacity.
“Oh but it’s too late now, Tash and you have to follow the doc’s orders or else your future would be in ruins. Take my advice, I’ve been there. I’ve gotta go now. Need to attend a call.” He said wandering out of the frame with his mobile while signaling to his dog. “Am getting some visitors from Japan who want to spend some time with us. They want to learn what makes Bollywood tick.”
“No Shan, you can’t cut me off like that!” She wasn’t sure if her words got through because just then Horse figured out how to turn off the computer.
Natasha walked slowly out onto the grand verandah of her Granny’s old house, leaning on her crutch, her ankle badly sprained, not broken. The place was constructed almost entirely out of wood. It was a major tourist attraction in the region, considered a national heritage site which she would inherit lock and key once the old dame passed. But she wasn’t interested in keeping it up. She had already made plans to get rid of it, sell it to the highest bidder.
Her heart and soul resided in Mumbai. She hated the quiet of country living. She thrived on the bold and beautiful lifestyle of the city, where she was constantly surrounded by fans and sycophants, grown men who rushed to fulfill her smallest need, except for one–Shantanu Khandelwal.
Though he had always given her her dues, he refused to dance to her tunes. But she was enamored by him, he was a part of her dream, her future, her insurance. She thought she had him securely trapped in her design but right now she wasn’t so sure.
Khanak had just come out of the shower when she heard a loud bark outside her door followed by a scratching noise.
“Hey wait Horse! I’m coming, don’t scratch the door down!” She opened the door laughing, then stopped seeing Shan there. He was holding the struggling dog by the collar.
“Oh..I didn’t know!” She said quickly getting behind the door as she wasn’t fully dressed, having yet to pull on the bottom of her two piece salwar suit.
“My, my I haven’t seen him this excited in a long time..at least not since Tashu came to visit with her poodle! Seems like he has fallen in love with you.” Shan grinned, his eyes not missing her freshly shampooed hair nor her dew kissed translucent face. He realized that she needed very little makeup, if any at all.
“EEEEkkks!” She screamed for as soon as the hold on his collar had loosened somewhat, Horse had grabbed the chance to jump up and lick Khanak’s face.
“Down horse down! He’s become uncontrollable lately, over stimulated!” Just like me. “He needs to go on a long run!” Shan laughed, then looked the other way realizing the reason for her embarrassment. “Go ahead and get ready. We have to get going soon. It promises to be another long day, but hopefully much more fun.”
“But, but you said I..we’ll continue the search for alternate accommodations…” She protested then decided not to press further. She couldn’t put too much pressure on him. He was her Boss after all and the only source of living at the time being. She was grateful to him for having done so much for her already.
Shan had hoped that yesterday’s experience had been enough to dissuade her from the search, and the attention he had heaped on her would make her want to stay with him. He had never anticipated so much resistance! Damnit! This girl is a new breed. She still seems apprehensive of me, I’d have thought it was a short term phenom brought on by the late night and an upset stomach!
He decided to try a different approach, one which was curt and business like. “We’ll come to that later, if you wish you can pay me rent, if that’ll make you happy. But right now we have to start working on your routine..and you have to work really, really hard if you want to get where I want you. That may mean several 24 hr days. I have to monitor your progress and finalize everything and be ready to go in 2 weeks! I hope to introduce you as my lead on the big Gala which starts this season, and that would also be the day when you’ll receive your first paycheck and I assure you it’ll be a generous one.”
What? 2 weeks? Khanak stared stunned at him. “I, I don’t think I can..it’s too short a time. But I have to, I have to. There’s no other way.” She muttered to herself adding a silent prayer begging for strength..
Shan followed her curiously as she went back into the room.”What does that mean Horse? Why is she acting so strange and nervous? I’m sure you know a lot more than I do about it though.” His forehead wrinkled into a frown as he puzzled over it. “I hope now she’ll stop talking about leaving, I did what I could do. Now you have to take over my friend.”
Horse gave his solemn promise by placing his paw in his master’s hand.
Khanak’s emotions were in an excited frenzy.. This was her first real test outside her comfort zone and she wasn’t even prepared for it. She had no idea of what to expect. But wasn’t that how thousands of other aspirants like her faced the challenge of the unknown? What was the phrase for it?
She closed her eyes tight to aid the concentration process against the shockwave of Mumbai traffic. Ahhh..yes, they winged it. That’s it! I can do the same! I can also wing it! She pumped her fist and unconsciously banged it right on to the broad back in front of her.
The face that belonged to the aforesaid back turned around. It was almost completely hidden inside a helmet. “Now what was that?”
“Oops sorry Guruji! I, I was lost in my own thoughts. Did I hurt you?” She asked anxiously.
He grinned taking the opportunity to tease her. “It felt like a ton of bricks crashing down on my back..you don’t know your own strength!”
But she was no babe in the woods. She could hear the subtle yet clear tone of amusement in his voice. She smiled and pretended to casually examine her fingernails, while her heart beat in another tempo.
LOVE IS IN THE AIR-STRICTLY BALLROOM