Radha had to pee.
Like, really bad.
Honestly, she should’ve predicted it after all the years she’d been dancing. Every time she performed, her entire body reacted . . . including her bladder. After nailing a routine she’d been working on for months at the International Kathak Classics semifinals, the urge was particularly heinous.
And not a toilet in sight, she thought. Radha looked around backstage for her mother. If she disappeared without letting Sujata Chopra know, the woman would have a meltdown. Sujata was even more high-strung about the competition than Radha was, since it had been her dream for Radha to perform. Being the best had never been a priority for Radha, though. The only thing that mattered to her was that she got the chance to dance.
“Hey, Farah,” Radha said to the stage manager rushing past her. “Have you seen my mother?”
Farah covered the mic attached to her ear and shook her head. “Did you need something?”
“I wanted to run to the dressing room for a moment. I have to p—uh, fix my anarkali.” She motioned to her long gown, which covered her from her neck to right above her ankles.
“If your mum asks, I’ll let her know where you are. Go ahead, love. You only have twenty minutes before you’ll have to be back in the wings again.”
Radha hurried down the stairs and into the basement under the stage. The hallways were empty since most of the contestants had left. There were only four semifinalists, so there was no point in the other contestants sticking around.
Her ghungroos, two hundred bells on each nylon cord wrapped around her ankles, chimed as she ran on her tiptoes toward the end of the hall. She paused halfway, horrified, just as the event DJ started to play hype music. An Indian classical-dance competition shouldn’t have hype music. It was a serious occasion, and random Bollywood movie songs cheapened such a prestigious event.
Holy Vishnu, I’m starting to think like my mother.
The basement walls vibrated with the sound, which drowned out Radha’s footsteps until she reached the dressing room.
She stepped through the doorway, and over the faded bass from the DJ upstairs she heard the sound of conversation coming from the other side of the lockers.
“Yeah, my mom sent me an SMS and said she did amazing,” Diya said in her screechy voice. She was the oldest of the semifinalists—twelve years Radha’s senior—and had trained with her when they were in Rajasthan, India, a few years ago.
“She could dance like a gorilla and she’d still win,” Rippi said. “Haven’t you heard about her mother?”
“Sujata Roy Chopra? The famous kathak dancer, right? She stopped performing like twenty years ago. People forgot about her until Radha showed up, but from what it looks like, Sujata controls Radha like a puppet.” Trish, a Canadian dancer, snorted. “It’s like her mother says do a chakkar, and Radha turns without question.”
Oh my God, Radha thought. They were talking about her. She froze, hoping that her ghungroos hadn’t given her away. All thoughts of bathroom visits disappeared.
“A few people from the committee told me that Sujata Chopra was seen with a principal judge after the celebratory cocktail party,” Rippi said. “Apparently Radha’s mom and this judge were very, very friendly, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t think I’m following,” Trish said. “Was it just flirting or . . . more?”
“Well, from what I was told, they left together. I believe it, too. Sujata Chopra has a reputation in the industry. She’d lie, cheat, and steal to make sure her daughter won.”
No. No way. Radha felt bile burning in the back of her throat. Her mother was a little pushy, but she would never betray Radha and her father like that.
Would she? The idea of her mother cheating . . . Oh my God.
“Gross,” Diya said. “It makes sense why we’ve all lost to her so many times, though. Remember the Singapore competition in May? Radha choreographed her own number, and it was awful. She still won, which confused everybody there.”
“I can definitely see her mother cheating for her to win in Singapore,” Trish said. “I wonder if Radha knows. Like, is she the kind of person who is okay with that? She must have an idea of what Sujata is doing. Or who she’s doing.”
“Even if she didn’t know about her mom,” Diya replied, “she probably wouldn’t react if someone told her. She has no personality at all unless she’s on a stage. If you ask her a question, it’s like you’re asking a piece of cardboard. She’s nothing, nobody, outside of dance.”
“The fact that she’s boring and a mommy’s girl doesn’t make me feel bad for her,” Rippi said. “What does make me angry is that I spent years working for this moment, to get to the International Kathak Classics, just like you two have, and Radha gets to the finals because her mother is having an affair? That’s dirty, and it cheapens our art form.”
Radha felt the radiating sting of Rippi’s words like a punch. Dancers could be mean to each other. She wasn’t completely clueless. But Radha had considered these dancers her peers. Instead they were picking her apart and slut-shaming her mother.
What was worse, they weren’t just talking about her mother cheating, but about her mother doing so to help Radha win a competition that Radha didn’t even care about.
They had to be wrong. Her mother was pushy and demanding, but she would never jeopardize their family and Radha’s career like that.
Even as she vehemently denied it in her heart, puzzle pieces from the last few months started to pop into place. Her mother had been acting stranger than usual. Then, last night, she’d said she had to go attend some business meetings. Radha hadn’t thought anything of it before putting on a sleep mask and going to bed.
She hadn’t asked any questions. She never asked questions.
Radha wanted to yell, to scream at Diya, Rippi, and Trish. To show them the cuts and bruises on her feet from her hours of practice. To pull out her training calendar and prove to them that she’d worked just as hard as everybody to get to where she was, maybe even harder. Four a.m. wake-up calls for early-morning practice followed by another three to five hours after school every day. No breaks, no vacations, no friends. Her father owned an Indian restaurant in Chicago, for God’s sake, but she drank protein shakes and ate steamed veggies every day of her life just to stay in shape.
That only proved Diya’s point, though: that she had no life outside of kathak. When she was a kid, she used to say that kathak gave her “dance joy” and made her feel complete. But where did that leave her? With no personality, and a slew of competitive wins that were now questionable.
She rocked on her heels, and her ghungroos made the faintest ringing sound. Her breath came short and fast now as her lungs tried to pull in enough air.
Oh my God. Was she having a panic attack? She could tell because it felt familiar, even though she hadn’t experienced one in a long time. She’d been managing her performance anxiety just fine. Especially when she focused on her love for dance, and not the onstage part. But there wasn’t a stage in sight.
Her hand trembled as she pressed her fingertips to her lips. She breathed in deep through her nose, hoping to stop the dizziness, the urge to gasp for air. The hype music began to fade, and the three girls moved in a flurry of ruffling costumes and bells.
“Let’s go,” Rippi said. “We don’t want to be late.”
Radha was still standing in the doorway when they appeared from behind the lockers. Their faces were a study of shock and horror when they saw her.
She didn’t care. Radha watched them for a moment, feeling a sickening sense of satisfaction at their discomfort, before tilting her chin up. Like hell would she let the competition see her trembling, struggling to take deep breaths.
She walked past them, hands fisted, toward the back of the dressing room. Radha focused on putting one foot in front of the other until she reached the table that had been assigned to her.
The surface was covered in tubes, color palettes, hairpins, and safety pins. She picked up her empty bag from the floor and, with one quick jerk of her arm, swept everything into the duffel.
She then went to her locker to put on her coat and shoes. In less than a minute she had all her things together and was ready to go.
Her three competitors were still rooted in the spot where she’d left them.
Radha strode forward until she was nose to nose with Rippi. The twenty-six-year-old looked fake in her stage makeup, with rosy red cheeks and eyeliner that covered most of her lids.
Radha’s voice was as sharp as a blade. “Slut-shaming is a reflection on you more than anyone else. Don’t ever talk about my mother like that again.”
Rippi jumped and visibly swallowed. She didn’t say another word as Radha walked around her and left the dressing room.
She passed familiar faces, people who touched her arm, as she made her way into the lobby. She was going to keep walking until the sounds of the DJ’s horrible music went away and she could find silence at the hotel.
Her pulse raced as she grew closer and closer to the exit doors. This place was no longer for her.