It is 1555 in the desert of Rajasthan, an outpost of resistance against a new Mughal emperor. In a family of Hindu temple dancers a daughter, Adhira, must carry on her family’s sacred tradition. Her father, against his wife and sons’ protests, insists Adhira “marry” the temple deity and give herself to a wealthy patron. But after one terrible evening, she makes a brave choice that carries her family’s story and their dance to a startling new beginning. Told from the memory of this exquisite dancer and filled with the sounds, sights and flavors of the Indian desert, Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise of Rain is the story of a family and a girl caught between art, duty, and fear in a changing world.
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They named me Adhira, born of lightning and rain. Adhira of the liquid eyes and shimmering hair. Adhira who came early to end the drought and restore life to the desert, said Bapu. The rains only lasted two weeks, but during that time they were plentiful. Months after my birth, a pair of chinkara still lived by the lake, their dark horns glinting in the sunlight. Fox tracks had soon appeared alongside their hoof marks. Families of birds had returned to the temple grounds, pecking at newly green bushes. Lizards, indolent for months, darted in and out of view, chasing succulent beetles and mosquitoes. Water filled the wells around the city, and women gathered at their edges, balancing jugs on their heads.
Now, six months later, on the day before the Janmashtami festival to honor our Lord Krishna, Chandrabai was sitting by me. We were alone in the courtyard of the temple, in the shadow that the back wall threw upon the ground, a merciful respite from the ardor of Surya the Sun. Bapu was resting in the dance chamber and had asked Chandrabai to watch over me. The still air of early afternoon hung quietly over the temple. Even the insects were hiding, in the cracks between stones, in dry dirt holes.
Chandrabai watched me lying on a folded piece of cotton cloth, enjoying the tranquility of the moment. She was fifteen, and it was only a matter of chance that she had not yet had a child of her own, although in the devadasi quarters, there were already whispers on the subject.
“Come, Adhi, do you want to play?” She picked me up under my arms and pulled me to a standing position. There she held me for a moment, wondering at the lightness she felt in her own body. She sat me down and let go of me, and the sensation faded. It was the same sensation I have felt within me, as if the droplets of my blood were humming in unison with Lord Krishna’s flute.
“Do you want to dance?” she said in a whisper. She held me up again and moved me from side to side, watching my little feet tap the floor. The sensation returned to her. Softly, she hummed a melody that Bapu often sang during dance lessons, and sat me in the crook of her crossed legs. She felt my warmth against her stomach and chest, and she gently rested her chin on my head.
“Where is your brother?” She stroked the wispy curls at the base of my neck. “He left so suddenly, a few months back. He wouldn’t even tell me where he was going. All he said was that he was fulfilling his real duty.”
Chandrabai looked around the courtyard. “But his duty is here, isn’t it? To the temple, to dance? To me, and to you?” She clasped her hands tight around me. “He’ll be back tomorrow for the festival, at least. He can’t possibly miss it. And we’ll keep him here, right?” She rubbed her cheek on the top of my head, breathing in my milky smell. “You and I, we’ll keep him here.”
She stood me up again and turned me toward her. She looked into my face, seeking some validation of her belief in my brother. A hawk flew overhead and cawed loudly. It swooped down, landed briefly on the courtyard wall, cocked its head toward us, then took off again, circling once before disappearing from view.
“Chandrabai!” Sundaran the cook came running into the courtyard. “A messenger is here. Your patron has called for you.”
Chandrabai closed her eyes. She nodded to Sundaran, who shrugged apologetically with a half smile. Then she stood, placed me on her hip and returned me to Bapu, who was waking with a yawn, before heading toward the citadel.
She walked as slowly as she could. Two years earlier, when she had come of age, she had been given no say in the choice of patron because of the lean times. It had pained Manavi-ji, but she had agreed to the highest bidder for her granddaughter. It had been an unusual moment of weakness, when Manavi-ji had first begun to feel unwell — although she had still told no one — and then it was too late. Now Chandrabai passed the lake and glanced at the women at its edges, envying them their afternoon of washing clothes together as she herself made her way toward the explorations of her patron.
She lingered a moment at the arched entrance to the lake, as a hawk swooped to the mirrored surface. Was it the same one she’d seen at the temple? Continuing on the path toward the citadel, she entertained a frequent daydream of hers. We have all, at times, sought refuge this way in our minds. Had Mahendra been able to do the same when the circumstances of his existence were too difficult for him, it might well have saved him, and our family. In Chandrabai’s daydream, she thought of Mahendra, recalling their first flustered encounter in the unused guard house behind the temple. Since that first time, he’d appeared more and more in her thoughts and dreams. For the six weeks that the rains had lasted, she had seen him every day at the temple, had watched the muscles of his shoulders and calves as she danced, then felt them under her fingers during their unions. For her, it had been a glorious summer.
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The daughter of an Indian father and an American mother, Anjali Mitter Duva grew up in Paris, France. After completing graduate studies in urban studies and civil engineering at MIT and launching a career in infrastructure planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. In delving into the dance’s history, Anjali found in it, and in the dance itself, the seeds of a quartet of novels. Faint Promise of Rain (She Writes Press, October 2014) is the first. Additionally, she is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance.