It was early morning with an atmosphere of great calm but there was hardly time fully to absorb the situation when a man appeared at the far end. He wore a dhoti and sandals and was bare to the waist. A few moments and he was standing in front of me with an imperious raised eyebrow. I explained that I had understood that Josef was staying there. Disarming flash of teeth and eye and an outstretched hand. "I am afraid he is out; I am Ram Gopal how do you know Josef?" I told him and he suggested that I go with him to watch the morning exercises of his dance troupe as he was already late.
They took place in what, to Western eyes, was a gym with a shiny polished floor with a few chairs and cushions along the wall. Ram was a hard task master and demanded perfection. He performed each part of the dance a couple of times and watched. Stamping his foot to beat out the rhythm or calling out the beat of the tabla player. "Din..dah..din..dah..tikka tikka.tikka.din..dah!" Again and again he forced the pace until they were sweating. One position was with the body erect, knees turned outwards and flexed, toes turned upwards. It was extremely difficult to hold the position within the dance and soon the little grunts of effort were replaced by tears of sheer pain streaming down their cheeks. Ram was relentless. He performed with them and then repeated the steps. He seemed never to tire or show signs of exertion.
The other great dancer of the time was Uday Shankar. Each had their followers. Uday Shankar was often dismissed as a popularist and Ram Gopal held up as the classicist. When it was over he came over to me and asked where I was living. He expressed horror and said "That awful place: You must come and live with us!" He called over his chief acolyte and said "Rajeshwar, see to it that this gentleman's belongings are fetched from that place and find him a room here. Under other circumstances I would have bridled at being taken for granted but with my state of mind at that time, I said nothing.
Ram obviously had many wealthy patrons and needed to have. He ran a large and extraordinary establishment. The basic structure was Hindu as interpreted by Ram. Among this extraordinary mélange there was a small coterie, usually of about five who chattered endlessly about their Sado/homosexual experiences. A few fragments of their conversations stick in my mind (they always referred to themselves and fellow participants as 'she'). One epicene near albino little fellow - "She said to me - she said--'Look. I will only just stroke you with this whip'; and she gave me such a thrashing!" I never saw Ram or any other member of the 'establishment' have much to do with them. They just existed in a cell of their own.
Josef went about his business and returned in the evening. I, similarly, went to the squadron each morning and returned when I was finished. He and I frequently discussed the community, almost all of whom were homosexual and laughed at the fact that we were so much in the minority that we could hardly claim that we were the normal ones. Another community member was a doctor, a homeopath of some distinction who became interested in my problems with urticaria. Ram invited the two of us to accompany him on a visit to his Guru. (The relationship of pupil and Guru has been much misunderstood in the West. Once the contract has been entered into the pupil must obey any request of the Guru. This said, a Guru should never act in bad faith.)
We left the car and walked up a rocky track until we reached a small, level open space. The doctor and I sat admiring the mountain scene while Ram disappeared up a rocky path. We discussed everything from homeopathy to the possibility of Indian Independence. I could not understand his membership of the community and told him. With great patience he explained that although Ram's community was not an ashram (Community, usually religious) the calm served to help him find himself because he just existed there for the time being. No one bothered him and he bothered no one. He asked me about myself and I tried to answer completely honestly. We must have been there three or four hours when an ecstatic Ram appeared holding a crumpled piece of white silk in his hand. We walked down to the car. He explained to us that the Gods had thrown down a nugget of gold for him. He was going to have it mounted in a ring. It hardly looked flamboyant enough for him. We sat in silence examining our personal thoughts. I found later that the doctor and I shared a similar opinion. Ram seemed, for once, just a little unsure of himself. However the little nugget had materialized I felt that the Guru would not have been out of pocket.
One morning Ram seemed much preoccupied and invited me to go with him. I followed him to the end room of the first floor. It was a truly beautiful apsidal room. The complete semicircle was broken only by a window in the center with a niche on each side. In the one to the right of the window was a photograph in a silver frame. It was of an elderly woman of great beauty decorated with fresh garlands of white jasmine flowers threaded on single threads. I discovered later that it was Ram's Burmese mother and that today was the first anniversary of her death. In the niche to the left, similarly garlanded, was an exquisite little statue of the god Shiva 16 to 18 inches tall representing him in the form of Nataraja King of the Dance with a halo of fire surrounding him, symbolizing the Cosmos. In one hand was held fire and in the other was a drum. (In this case there were two arms but in many Natarajas there are four.)
It was said that Ram had earlier presented himself as a ritual prostitute at the temple of Madura. Whatever the truth of that, the temple was very generous to him and the statue was either a gift or on loan. Also on loan was the only other occupant of the room, a drummer sitting halfway between the left wall and the niche holding the "Nataranja". The drum was far larger than I had previously seen.
Ram was dressed in classical costume with several turns of small bells around each ankle. I took the chair he indicated against the back wall. There was the feeling that the drummer and I no longer existed for him as he took up the Baratanatyam pose. Right hand almost level with his eyes. I have seen Ram make a great leap that would have taken him to the centre of a stage with hardly a sound. He was standing perfectly still but a faint trill was coming from the ankle bells which grew louder as the dance began and the drummer's fingers flickered across his drum.
The torso was held erect over some invisible spot but arm and leg followed the drumbeat. Every gesture had a precision that seemed to follow geometric lines that, at that particular moment were predestined. It was as though I was reliving a dance that I well knew. Each movement was a recollection that was buried deep in the psyche. It was a prayer to or for his mother. Ram's face was quite impassive. From the complete calm at the beginning the drumming filled the earth and the crescendo of sound and movement rose to an unbearable point then performed the complete cycle with Ram standing motionless as the bells, ever so slowly, fell silent. He tapped me on the shoulder as he passed without a glance.
I was exhausted. The drummer left and I sat alone pondering on what I had seen. Whatever it was it was a profound religious experience and I felt immeasurably honoured.
Several days later Ram asked me if I would be free the following day and I said that it could possibly be managed. Rajeshwar was smiling so I asked what it was all about. Ram said "Rajesh is to be married tomorrow and we want you to attend the ceremony." Rajesh would be very happy if I would agree. He was a lovely chap and was to marry a very sweet girl whom I had met. They would certainly go with every good wish from me. The ceremony itself appeared to me to be simplified. Normally bride and groom looked straight ahead of them and the bride was almost invisible within her ceremonial costume as the ceremony creaked ahead. In this ceremony there was complete informality. The bride looked as all brides would wish to look, Rajesh was tenderly protective. At the end of the ceremony Rajesh went up to the first priest, made obeisance and handed something to him. I was too far away to see what. He was then looking for me. I tried to hide but he came up, tried to prostrate himself but I caught his shoulders and pulled him upright. He thrust into my hands clothing which I was not able to examine at the time. I tried to catch his eye for a mutual wink but he would have nothing of it. When I was able to take a look at my 'Thank you' gift I found it to be a dhoti with embroidered edges and the most lovely Kurta (long Nehru jacket) in the finest sheer cotton. To my mind one of the most attractive items for male attire. *
When I accepted Ram's invitation I was most grateful to get away from the officer's mess that held few friends from 'the old days'. I had not the slightest idea that he might have been interested in me as a possible 'conquest' but in retrospect my stupidity is amazing. I never, for a moment, thought of it. It had never been my 'scene'. Once, in a taxi, Ram had put his hand on my knee. He said "Oh! Edward! ---If you have never loved a man you would never know. With a woman you express yourself into her. With a man you go FREE. You go FREE Edward. He had done nothing to offend me, I did not react in the slightest way and he finally withdrew his hand.
It was suggested to me at a later date that the fact that Sneh was my partner may well have represented me as a "Conquest" to be made. I realized that he could be capricious but he was always perfectly open and friendly with me and the friendship was unchanged when we met in London years later. Sneh was due to join me so I went in search of accommodation. Just before my leaving, an old friend of Ram's, a young Indian officer, had been released from being prisoner of the Japanese. As I was leaving in the early morning I had to step over them. They were lying fast asleep, among scattered cushions, Ram curled up against his partner: I wished them luck with all my heart.
*The kurta was finally given to my oldest son when, because of girth, I could no longer wear it. The dhoti I kept and two years ago when I had shingles (only the elderly will be able to understand this) I had to wear a silk shirt and the only thing that I could bear over that was, yes, Rajesh's dhoti.
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002