Two dozen expectant eyes bore into my face, waiting for me to move. I scanned them all in one long pleading sweep, looking for an escape route. ‘Go on!’ urged my traitorous boyfriend, who’d sided with the crowd. My only other ally shrugged at me. He was conveniently pinned down as his hand was tattooed with henna. I was out of excuses and my audience didn’t understand English anyway. The swirls up my forearm began to prickle.
It was a simple misunderstanding. The Indian family who had ushered us into their home had been nothing but hospitable. With only a few broken phrases of Hindi exchanged between us, we had spent hours being painted as we sat on low mattresses. Shy children scurried in to offer us curried treats, steaming sweet chai and treacle dumplings, before lingering in the doorway to stare at their visitors with round caramel eyes. Three generations shared this single room, and the sisters who had brought their families together laughed with their toothless mother, the grand matriarch of the house, who sat in the only chair swathed in green and gold.
The room was decorated with faded tins and packets that sat on a small raised ledge, paintings of dancing women in silk saris were pinned to the white walls. A bright Hindi calendar hung from the wall with no appointments scrawled in the dates. A bulky grey television propped up in the corner emitted a shrill warbling voice that somehow charmed the listener after a few minutes. The accompaniment of the clinking sitar and drums countered the street noise that entered through the open window, the wooden shutters fastened back to welcome the breeze and dust in. The camera panned across the magnified face of the heroine, her eyes of seductive black kohl innocently lowering at the bold advances of a young slick man. Behind him, a staircase filled with men with jumping eyebrows encouraged his futile wooing.
In the traveller’s spirit of charades, I gestured to the young girl who had finished wiping off my peeling chocolate paint to reveal delicate orange flowers underneath. I signalled to her to show me some Bollywood moves, and pointed to the leading lady in the box who was now curling her hands with a female army in unison behind her. I tried to wiggle my head, but instead jolted it from side to side like a nervous tick. She called the rest of her family, who reappeared in droves from the communal kitchen and wash area outside. Even her father silently joined the procession, wearing a serious expression under his clipped beard but the same smiling eyes. My translator crouched down on the floor, but I knew she and her siblings could hold that stance inches off the ground for hours without a wobble. I was alone on the newly evacuated stage, and I realised I had to dance.
Trying not to shake my hips or jiggle anything in particular, I began bopping to the plinks of the strings and swaying side to side with the rhythm. I’m not sure any movements below my hips registered – my harem pants simply rippled. There was an uncomfortable pause as the song ended and I could no longer imitate the Bollywood stars. I reverted to my own ‘unique’ style and my audience began laughing and sharing jokes in their mother tongue. I beamed at them, abandoning my worries and dancing freely. I pulled the girl up and spun her in circles, and did not notice my scarf falling from my shoulders. I upheld the British tradition of dancing badly that day, but it was a small concession for the privilege of experiencing a family portrait in Udaipur.