Verse Novel Review: A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

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Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 1st 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books
Source: Library

“What are you doing, little one?” A priest
steadies my ladder. “You don’t have to climb ladders
to reach God.
He dances within all He creates.
Come down.”
I run my fingers
along the curves
of each stone heel.

The priest’s laugh rumbles up into my ears.
“Place a hand on your chest.
Can you feel Shiva’s feet moving inside you?”
I press on my chest. Feel bony ribs. Under them, thumping,
faint echoes of a dance rhythm: thom thom thom.
Shiva outside me, gleaming in the temple sanctum.
Yet also leaping, inside my body.

(2-3)

A Time to Dance, in case the excerpt and the title don’t make it clear, is about dancing. Specifically, bharatnatyam. Veda is a dance prodigy; she has been dancing perhaps even before she learned how to walk properly. Dance is everything to her so when a freak accident leaves her with a below knee amputation, she is gutted. She doesn’t know how to exist in a world, in a body, where she cannot dance. She is determined to regain her art, her dance, no matter how hard she works and no matter how impossible other people tell her the journey will be.

With the help of Jim, an American who is working in India, Veda gets back on her feet. A prosthetic was produced for her by Jim who researched the movements required for dancing and who consulted Veda every step of the way. When Veda returns to her old teacher, he refuses to take her on as a student again, citing the impossibilities attached to Veda’s mission. Veda finds a new teacher, new friends, perhaps new love, and a newer appreciation for both her art and her spirituality.

A Time to Dance is a beautiful book and Veda is inspiring in her refusal to give up and accept defeat. The book deals with Veda’s grief at losing her leg in an honest manner without sugarcoating or romanticizing anything. Veda does go through days when life seems without hope and she struggles under the weight of the ‘disabled’ label society gives her. But she, with her indomitable spirit, makes it through.

I stare down the first nosy stranger
who questions me.
He’s a lowly subject
of the kingdom I rule.

The bus
is my royal chariot.
I return every curious glance
with my imperial glare.
No one dares pester me.

On my way out of the bus,
I poke through the crowd with my crutches.
The old woman who sits up front jerks her chin at me.
“You there, Girl.
When are you going to tell us how you lost your leg?”

My regal stance must not scare everybody.
I bare my teeth in a too-wide grin.
“Crocodile bit it off.”
My sarcasm is lost on her.
She bends towards me.
“How exactly did that happen?”
“Like this.” I thrust my face next to hers, open my mouth
and snap it shut. Crocodiles don’t growl, but I roar, “Grr.”

(101)

I absolutely love the relationship Veda has with her grandmother, Paati, and the parts describing Paati are particularly beautiful.

My grandmother, Paati,
surges out of the kitchen like a ship in full sail,
her white sari dazzling
that streams through our open windows.

(7)

I also loved that Veda’s relationship with her mother is explored in detail. Unlike other YA novels where parents are forgiven wholesale at the end of the novel, A Time To Dance takes care to work through the troubled relationship between Veda and her mom.

But the reason this book succeeded with me was most due to the attention and respect it paid both the dance and Veda’s struggles and appreciation not just for her disabilities but her journey towards understanding and accepting the disabilities of other people. Bharatnatyam is wed to spirituality and Hinduism and Venkatraman’s careful research is apparent in the narrative. Facts/history/everything is woven so skillfully into the narrative that not a single word is extraneous or superfluous.

I loved Paati’s observations about the dance:

“Dance was too much
for me to want.
It was forbidden to Brahmin girls like me.
Those days,
dance was practiced only by devadasis:
women who were supposed to dedicate their dances to God.
Bharatnatyam was meant to be a sacred art,
through which dancers could reach
a higher plane, carrying the audience with them.
They had a measure of freedom,
those women of the dancer caste.
Even wealth of their own.
But they paid a price, a terrible price.
They weren’t allowed to marry.
And somehow, somewhere along the way,
society retracted
its promise to respect these women.
They were treated as prostitutes
and their sacred art degraded
into entertainment to please vile women.”

(125)

I also love how Venkatraman approaches romance in the novel. I do think that there is a slight white saviour narrative happening with Jim but he’s a transient character and mostly a learning experience so I didn’t mind too much. There’s a reality to the romance that I think other YA novels could benefit from. All in all, A Time to Dance is a wonderful reiteration of the beautifully diverse world we live in. It gives us a glimpse of a culture which may be foreign to us and opens for us lives rich with poetry, spirituality and determination. Everyone could benefit from any of these things. I strongly recommend this for your collection/library/pleasure.