How I met my body

I was helping my father repair a telephone connection. It was a landline, and sometimes inside that small dabba with all the connectors, the screws would come loose. A tiny electric current pulsed, and I dropped it, surprised by the shock in my fingers. It happened again, and I dropped it once again, and my father snapped, irritated with having to start all over again, “Don’t behave like a girl. That small current won’t hurt you.”

I was one of those children who would heft suitcases, dig the garden (the one time our flat was in the ground floor), and do all sorts of physical work without a second thought. Delicate, coiffed, prim — such adjectives were for the characters I met in books. I thought of my body as something that helped me go from place A to place B, lift things, and served as a good appendage to my head.

Cut to a few years ago. I was chatting with a friend in Bangalore in a cafe, and we laughed over this ridiculous notion we both shared that our bodies did not exist. All our lives, it seemed to us, we wanted to prove, we were not our bodies.

Of course, that self-deception could not last. My reckoning with the rest of my material being came with a back issue. I woke up one day, bent down to get a glass of water, stood up, and suddenly, my back would have howled if it had a mouth attached. I could not put on my pajamas and tie a naada. I had to go to the governor’s house — there was a press conference. In the auto, every pebble and dent in Chennai’s roads pulsed into my vertebrae. At the entrance the auto’s wheels said hello to a set of horizontal metal cylinders spaced evenly, and my spinal column — you get the picture. The person who was a guard there asked, “Back problem-aa?” I nodded. We commiserated with each other. I waddled in, and the rest of the day is a blur.

This happened over a decade ago.

Many things changed after that. I learned to bend my knees every time I picked something up from the ground. I became aware of how I held my back, or at least, I tried to pay attention.

And then, I met a community of dancers.

A friend and I were discussing about how of all the art forms, dance demands all of you as a human being. You can write, like I do, without bothering much about the body, except when your wrist hurts. You can sing, paint, sculpt, make love to a violin, and all of that means translating what you have within onto an external medium. With dance, your body is your instrument. All of what you have within, your emotions, your intellect, your sense of self, others, the world, and the universe, is expressed when you stretch you hand out or curve your spine. Acting comes close, except, I think, the demands dance places on the body are more strenuous.

S. once spoke of the idea of ‘lajja’ — and how you hold that veil, the position of your hands, the tilt of your head, where your eyes gaze at — all of which advertises in a body-shaped billboard as to who you are.

In conversations with her, I keep discovering layers and layers that make dance such a difficult art to practise. Cultural codes and signals of desire, propriety, consent — their definitions in multitude find expression in a gesture. As a dancer, you bodily inhabit a character you want to speak of. A lover in distress, a lover in anticipation, a lover in post-coital languor — not only do you have to inhabit that person’s mindspace, you need to communicate it to your audience so that they too journey with you.

For over three decades, S. has been working on the body and dance to the exclusion of everything else. Imagine - day in an day out, working only on the art. Where does a movement stem from? Are you emoting intellectually or are you actually feeling it? What does it mean to hold a limb at a certain angle? What if you lowered it a bit? Does the meaning change?

The body never lies. Or at least, I think it takes a lot of practise to lie with your body, or a heavy blanket of self-deception.

S. reads bodies. Once I was walking up to her, with my back against the sun. She glanced up, and said, oh, you haven’t slept properly? And I was stumped. I had not. I had showered, repeatedly splashed my face with cold water to drain the exhaustion with the droplets. “How did you know?” I asked. She shrugged. It wasn’t my face that told her about tossing and turning in my bed, it was the way I held myself.

Touch is another way to read a body. I have always liked giving massages. It used to be a champi before, warm oil kneaded into scalp. My mind always boggles at the fact that there’s no formula to a good massage. You can’t capture it in an algorithm, and code it. You have to discover it each time, as every body is like a signature — it is curved and wobbly at different places. It helps to think of the skeleton underneath, a hidden map to how the body flows. When your fingers trace bones, and the muscles wrapped around them, it is a sort of code — knot here, not here, press there, and loosen that. Of course there are techniques, but that’s like saying, biriyani is rice and meat. Flesh and bones are never the same when they are infused together in a living body. One friend has rigid thigh muscles; every time I knead those muscles every stroke has an undertone, a groan. Another friend pulls her shoulders taut like a overwound string — it feels like one pull and it will all come apart. Never does, but that’s how they function. My feet are best massaged with a blunt metal tip; human fingers lack the impact strength of metals.

Even if it seems like the most intimate relationship there is, the bond you have with your own body, it isn’t. For, I think the relationship with my own body is mediated by the way others see it, interpret it, and communicate it. There are constant signals around, and they sediment over years and crust into hardness, a wall. You can call them fears, phobias, or insecurities — I see them clogging any flow between me and the body I inhabit. That’s where politics comes in — my body is how power allows me to see it. In a way, a definition I have for progressive politics is what lets me commune deeper with my own body and that of others.

There was a man called Alexander. He froze on stage every time he had to perform; his vocal chords jamming up. He said, if fear can hold my muscle rigid, by loosening it, can I let go of fear? It is the corollary, right? Fear is a strange beast. On the one hand it takes material shape, different kinds of touch, gaze, action, and thought coalesce in your body as incarnate fears. On the other hand, it is as intangible as a thought. So, if the psyche shapes our bodies, can we shape our bodies differently and mould a different psyche? Alexander created something called the, ahem, Alexander Technique. Very simply, it tries to do exactly that — change your body to change your psyche.

I think it works, but takes time, lots of time. It is like learning to play a new instrument, except, the instrument is your own body. Unlearning would mean things like walking differently. Apparently, when I walk, especially run, I slant to one side, favouring it. I don’t know why or what that means, but now, I am trying not to do that. I am learning to walk.