Diversity and disability are two themes not often found together in one story, which is why I felt attracted to A Time To Dance by Padma Venkatraman. With regards to both, A Time To Dance didn’t disappoint me. Surprisingly, I also appreciated the novel’s third theme of spirituality. A Time To Dance is a moving and lyrical narrative of an Indian dancer who not only refuses to give up after losing her leg but also discovers love and faith.
First let me cover the diversity theme. What stood out most to me is how universal the main character’s story is, but yet at the same time how intertwined culture was to the story. Veda grows up having a passion for dance, not atypical for young women anywhere, but what’s more unique is the Bharatanatyam dancing Veda does. Veda’s mother is less thrilled, feeling that a dance career won’t provide an adequate income. Again, this isn’t an atypical parental response. What’s perhaps more unique is the hope that Veda will become a doctor or engineer. Veda’s family lives in a concrete high-rise apartment, not an atypical setting. However, other details are more unique such as the mosquito-netting that covers Veda at night in the hospital after her accident. From the mother’s attire of a sari, the grandmother’s snacks of cooked semolina, and even the sesame oil used to massage Veda’s muscles after a dance practice, the background is naturally woven into the story. Even Venkatraman’s style itself fluently draws upon Indian culture. For example, she compares the grandmother’s attentive watch to a snake following the motion of a snake charmer’s pipe. One can’t read A Time To Dance without being immersed into the Indian culture and yet the story could have happened outside of India.
Next let me turn to the disability theme. What surprised me most is how educational Veda’s story is, while at the same time being an entertaining narrative. When Veda is in a car accident that leaves her with just one leg, she has to decide whether or not to continue to dance. Maybe I should have been more aware but, prior to reading A Time To Dance, I had no idea that such a choice would even exist. Yet Venkatraman draws on actual research with real doctors to show how Veda could use a prosthetic leg to still pursue her dream. The leg is even custom-made to fit her dancing needs. Within certain constraints, if there is ever a step Veda can’t perform, the leg is tweaked. You’ll notice that I said within certain constraints. There are still some moves that can’t be replicated with a prosthetic leg. For the most part though, it seems that with extra work and practice, a dancer can resume their full original performances. Veda even learns of dancers throughout the decades who have overcome disabilities, some with less help from science, to maintain their profession. Of course, as Veda is educated, so are we as readers to how little a disability has to limit one. As such, A Time To Dance carries a very inspirational message.
Finally let me cover the theme of spirituality. When Venkatraman’s agent saw the word “God” on the first page, he apparently felt scared because few writers dare to approach this topic. He told Venkatraman it was hard to write spirituality without coming off as proselytizing or religiously bigoted. As for Venkatraman, she says that while Veda’s spiritual awakening is grounded in the Hindu religion to which she’s been exposed, the book is not religious but spiritual. Veda’s awakening is universal, not limited to one particular context, and the novel doesn’t try to push a particular religion. I do think that one will gain an awareness of the Hindu beliefs from A Time To Dance, which might make some adults feel hesitant about it. At the same time, Veda also asks spiritual questions common to those of many faiths. She wonders is God real, does God hear prayers, and why suffering and death happen. While I didn’t always agree with her answers, I did appreciate that the questions were asked. Believers of every faith will at some point want to explore their beliefs and few novels acknowledge this important reality.
A Time To Dance is told in flowing free verse, a fact that initially prejudiced me against it. I still can’t get used to the idea of my novels being poems. But, I need to overcome this bias. Most every verse-novel I’ve read has been not only easy to read, but also held merit in every way that stories should. Similarly, A Time To Dance has a strong plot, complex characters, detailed descriptions, and many thought-provoking themes. Highly recommended!
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
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