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Divya Muralidhar | December 09, 2003 11:36 IST

Two months ago, I decided to take Kathak classes in New York City. Before I came to that decision though, I gave a lot of thought as to whether the whole exercise was going to be worth the effort. Travelling to the city on a weekday meant leaving work early, driving to the train station for a one hour 15 minute journey to Penn Station on the Long Island Rail Road, a 10 minute ride on the subway, a short walk to class and then reversing the whole procedure to get back home. I knew that classes once a week and practice occasionally were never going to get me close to mastering the dance form and I wondered whether the time, effort and money were worth the one-and-a-half-hours of rhythmic bols, graceful chakkars and intricate tukdas. The answer was an absolute YES. Thus began my weekly trips to the city.

Today, I don't regret my decision one bit.

Of course, there is Kathak. The dance form has fascinated me and being able to execute some of its movements with ease gives me immense joy and a sense of achievement that is difficult to express. The fluidity of the hand and body movements makes me feel liberated and takes me far away from my little home filled with insignificant chores, trivial problems and the travails of everyday life.

My classmates are an interesting bunch and they make me see things in a different light. One is a charming cook from Pakistan; another is a Kashmiri interior designer with a husband who plays for a local rock 'n' roll band; the third a modern dancer who performs with a famous troupe in New York City and I am the nerdy research engineer trying to be artsy by seeking a part in New York's culture club!

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The long LIRR rides, which I initially feared would be a drag, have turned out to be fascinating and relaxing. I look forward to them almost as much as I look forward to my classes. I get a chance to catch up on my reading and bring to life the characters in the book without the sound of the pressure cooker whistle or the occasional screams of 'Touchdown" to disrupt my little world. Sometimes I just close my eyes and dream of being a tennis star, an ace detective in dark glasses or just being able to sing my favourite song to scale. And, once in a while, an interesting fellow passenger comes along and leaves an indelible mark.

I met Janaki, a white, 40-something woman, around a month ago. She wore a mustard-coloured salwar-kameez with a small red tikka on her forehead. She looked at me from a distance and came and sat next to me. We started talking and she told me how a trip to Rameshwaram in 1992 had changed her life. She had lost her child and her job in the same year and all she had was $3,500 in the bank. She had read about India and was fascinated like many others by the magical spiritualism of the East. An advertisement she had seen around that time prompted her to sign up for a temple tour of south India. She visited around 15 temples in 10 days. She said she felt absolutely nothing and mechanically went about the rituals till she got to Rameshwaram. The dip in the cold water and something about the way the priest the chanted the mantras enabled her to meditate and made her believe... Her faith just grew stronger with time. She was not able to finish her story that day but she left me with the knowledge that I didn't know anything about my religion, its philosophy or the strength of prayer.

Around two weeks after I met Janaki, a pan-chewing South Asian man sat next to me. I had no time to change after class that day and was wearing a short kurta and loose pyjamas. "Lagta hai aap hamare mulk ke ho [Looks like you come from my country," he said. He chatted incessantly for 45 minutes about Lahore, Wasim Akram, the importance of getting your children married within the family and the poverty and dirt in Mumbai (a city he had visited around 25 years ago) before he asked me which city I was from. "Bangalore, India," I replied quietly. He apologised for having mistaken my nationality and complimented me on my Hindi. He gave me his phone number and said I should definitely visit and meet his family. I was confused about what to think when I got off the train that day. Do differences between the people of India and Pakistan exist at all or are they so wide that they can never be bridged?

Last week, on my way back from class, I was chatting with a friend on the phone when an Indian boy around 10 years old entered the coach wearing a suit and tie. "One of those amir baap ke bete [a rich man's son] going to an exclusive private school," I thought to myself. But when he interrupted my conversation to ask me how long it would take to get to Minneola, his distinct Indian accent put paid to my 'private school preppie' deduction. Deciding I was his buddy, he then started telling me how he loves coming to New York. In minutes he showed me this huge photograph of himself with Gary Kasparov. Below, it said, 'To C Manoj Gaurishanker, winner of the British Under 10 Chess Championship in 2001, 2002, 2003. Signed: Gary Kasparov, Man v/s Machine (Frtiz X3D), NYC, November 18, 2003.' The future of Indian chess was seated next to me! I was thrilled. I told him it was wonderful to have met him and, just before he left, asked him who his inspiration. "Kasparov, without a doubt," he said. "Not Anand?" I asked. He just smiled and waved goodbye. I smiled knowing I'll keep track of his career and repeat this story of how I met him each time his name appears on the television or in the papers.

I'm already looking forward to my next trip on the LIRR. After all, one never knows whom I might run into...

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

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Number of User Comments: 9

Sub: A ride to remember

Hi Divya It was a really nice read. It flowed easily and kept me in it till the very end! Keep writing in your diaries. ...

Posted by Radhika

Sub: travel....

Hi Divya, Nice article. I recollect such experiences when I moved from place to place (not exactly a train travel). On most of these occasions, ...

Posted by Srivathsan

Sub: This was a wonderful diary

Lot of us have such experiences and it is really wonderful to know that someone has actually taken the pains to pen it.

Posted by Swetha

Sub: Enlightening Journey.

Often people get irritated when long distance travel become a part of daily life. But travelling has beome an inevitable part of life. It can ...

Posted by Tamanna Basu

Sub: A ride to remember

Any form of dance done with real passion is quite relaxing & soothing for the body.

Posted by gracy


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