I read recently a quote, “… the world can be turned into heaven by accepting that everyone is right from his angle”. It was a Jain text, I think.

R Seshasayee’s debut novel, The Dance of Faith, is a prayer that the world be turned to heaven. It is the story of a young Muslim boy who falls in love with dance and yearns to become one with it. But his journey is not easy. Our world is complicated by labels and stereotypes dividing us.

Anandhi loves Ahmed. Her vermilion world and Ahmed’s green, have co-existed and yet are two worlds unknown to each other. She morphs between Anandhi and Ayesha, for Islam means surrender, and that is just saranagathi. Zaheer wants to go to Srirangam; he wants to dance. But it seems he cannot do either because he is a Muslim.

The Diva says art is a form of worship, but declares that non-believers can’t connect to the soul of art. For Kumar, the rich and powerful are ‘them’, and aligning with ‘them’ is betrayal. He uses Mysore Sandal soap to erase the memory of generations of sewage cleaning.

When Zaheer makes tomato chutney in his guru’s kitchen, Sharma, who is the musician in the guru’s group, skips lunch. Zaheer stops eating meat and asks for paya curry without meat. Moeen bhai at Farhan’s is not pleased. The guru’s husband says that if one eats curdrice (to be uttered as one word!) twice a day for a week uncomplainingly, it proves that one is a Brahmin. Zaheer, of course, could not. He is acutely aware he is falling between poricha rasam and paya curry.

Zaheer is told, that if you are a Hindu, then you can learn dancing, if you are a girl then you can learn dancing. He questions, why can’t the two co-exist? Why can’t I be both? His family says no, the Diva says no, and his classmates too say no, and ask him to pull down his shorts.

There is Anbarasan, the young rationalist teacher, who tries to infuse reason by asking questions and using irony. But who can hear his voice, when the drummers are reaching a crescendo, drrrrrdik? Aatha has possessed the ‘goddess man’, who is flaying and is in a frenzy. He… no Aatha… reveals some inconvenient truths about the leaders of the village. And so a goat is killed to appease the goddess and stop further revelations. Years later, Anbarasan is still struggling to find an answer to his question, “Do I need a religion to identify me?” We met them all in this book.

Seshasayee deftly weaves into Zaheer’s story, the tale of the one who conquered and shattered fetters, Andaal. ”I don’t feel like a Brahmin girl…Mentally I identify with the Yadava clan…The Yadava girls were not restrained by Brahminical orthodoxy.” She refuses to subscribe to man-made conventions and defines her own faith, her own religion, and her own personal relationship with the Divine.

So, why can’t Zaheer too be one with his divine, Nrithya, dance? Why should he subscribe to man-made conventions and traditions and be subjected to Procrustean treatment? The book raises these questions. But we lock everyone in tight labelled compartments and not everyone can break free.

The language is exquisite. The village festival, the orchard where Zaheer and Kalaivani ostensibly learn dancing, “Later in the night, when illicit activities unfolded under the dark caverns of its thick foliage, the orchard would turn an eager voyeur”; the scenes of Madras, Marina, “that socialist construct of Nature”; the “bylanes of Sowcarpet“ where the city coyly covered its head”, the Sabhas, “wrestling rings where the slug-fest of power in the world of performing arts is decided”; all come alive.

Cinema cannot be far behind in a story about a Tamil boy dreaming of Bharatanatyam. It is when Zaheer saw the famous Padmini-Vyjayanthimala dance in Vanjikkottai valiban, that he arrived in his world. Anandhi/Ayesha Perimma, tucks an MGR photo into her blouse and is forever humming his songs. Zaheer reaches the temple of cinema, Kodambakkam, but he recognises that group dance is not his divinity.

Dancer Narthaki Nataraj has often mentioned that her experience was like the girl in love with Siva in Appar’s “Munnam avanudaya naamam kettaal” (first she asked what his name was). Zaheer too loses himself, his sense of gender, his parents, and all in Nrithya. He is also like Andaal, who lost herself in Krishna. He defines and decides his God. He bows toward Nataraja in admiration. He sees the Lord reclining on the serpent. He bends in pure devotion to the One and only Supreme Allahu Akbar. No labels.

The language sometimes sounds like Seshasayee wrote it in Tamil and then translated it into English. I am not sure if it is intended or if it’s something special for bilingual writers. There is one scene where I felt Seshasayee was talking directly to the reader. But I can understand why. It is his urgency. “Every faith is candescent,” Seshasayee quotes Amir Khusro. If you believe art heals divisions, read this book; if you don’t know it yet, do read it.

Check out the book on Amazon.

The Dance of Faith by R Seshasayee.
Publisher: HarperCollins.
Price: ₹499.
Pages: 320.

(The reviewer, Justice Prabha Sridevan (Retired), is a former Judge of the Madras High Court)