When had I started carrying a white lace kerchief? We used to call those kinds of girls Kerchief Kumaris. We used to have names for everyone. And everyone had names for us.
We were goddesses. Meena, Annie, and Nayantara. Even our names were like heroines. Meena and Annie had known each other since they were 5. I met them in seventh standard. Though we never said it aloud, we knew that three beauties had more power than two or one. Like the Hindu gods. Or all those pop groups. Like the Wilson Phillips. We liked the Wilson Phillips. We pretended to like the fat one but heart of hearts we didn’t.
In college, when the three of us walked in, I used to feel like we were in those slow-motion shots in a campus film. Not a Malayalam campus film with fat 25-year-old heroines, but Hindi film heroines. We were already thin. We were already tall. We were thin and tall before anyone else was thin and tall. We had danced every day since we were toddlers and we had thighs like those sexy stone statues. If you were very, very strict, you could call me fat because of my bum but even I had a very slim waist.
We had good sunglasses, not those big ugly Gulf-return ones. We wore ghagras at weddings before anyone else did. We draped dupattas over our elbows casually even though our arms ached by the end of the day. We never sweat. You don’t understand that, having grown up here in Bangalore. If you didn’t sweat in Kerala’s climate, God had blessed you.
I know the real reason we were goddesses is because we were dancers. We were award-winning dancers, crowd-rocking dancers. People knew us in the youth festival circuit as the three girls from St. Agnes, not so-and-so dance teacher’s student. We had dance teachers but we did our own choreography. We had a category that we always won: the fusion dance. Before us no one knew what that meant. They had started the category when we were in twelfth standard. We knew immediately that the way it was meant to be done was not the way it was being done.
Before we came on the scene people either had a fast version of a Hindi film song or a Tamizh film song. And then they had two groups on stage dressed in different clothes: one in Western outfits doing some rubbish steps and one in Indian costume doing some bad classical steps. Sometimes they had the same dancers alternating between Western and Indian sequences. It was just rubbish.
We discovered A. R. Rehman. That seems like a stupid thing to say. But really we did. We discovered his was the best music for our category. Annie’s cousin Peter was the first DJ from Cochin. You may have heard of him. He plays in Bangalore also. His professional name is DJ Spacey. As a favour to Annie he would mix our tracks for us. But mostly we didn’t need to do anything to A. R. Rehman tracks. They inspired us easily. For songs like “Vande Mataram” our choreography looked so natural that even people who hated the fusion category could not really complain. As classically trained students we had flawless execution. We were able to do things that the untrained Western dancers could not. In any case the Western dance category was dominated by boys. And unlike most of the ground-kissing, terrified Bharatanatyam dancers we liked to dance for fun.
We spent all our free time in my empty house. My parents are doctors so there was less of the strict supervision that most of our classmates suffered. The constant where are you going, who are you going with, who is calling.
At 14, Annie, Meena, and I knew the whole final dance routine in Dirty Dancing by heart. We practiced sexy dancing with a chair. We bought four-inch heels and learnt to dance in them, though we would never wear them outside. By the time we were 18, we had finished with sexy dancing and danced again for fun. We were constantly copying dance steps from videos and from Hindi movies and trying to make them better. We loved Saroj Khan. We were excited for some time by a young choreographer called Farah Khan who had done the dances for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. But mostly we loved Saroj Khan. Tamil and Telugu films in those days were hopeless with their robot aerobics dancing. Malayalam films! You know no Malayalee can dance.
Except us. In our first year at Agnes, we sailed into the dance team, so meticulous in our preparation that not even a half-blind selector would drop us. Once we began competing we seemed inevitable. We won thirty gold medals in three years. We won all over Kerala, in Madras, in Bangalore, and in Delhi.
At first we travelled to the festivals in the college bus with every other cultural team and a couple of teachers, all insisting on playing Antaakshri badly the moment they got on the bus. Afterward we traveled without chaperones. Sometimes we even drove ourselves to the competitions, driving like mad little boys from Cochin to Thiruvananthapuram, discreetly racing past the chaperoned college bus full of kathakali, bharatanatyam, mohiniyaatam, mime, and mono-act participants.
Thiruvananthapuram was the big youth festival, the one where scandals broke out, goondas arrived sometimes, people cried, people died. Every year the kala thilakam, the student who won the maximum points (and this was usually a dancer who had won points across a dozen solo events), enjoyed glory across the whole state. Her name was splashed in headlines the size of ladies’ fingers. Many of Kerala’s famous movie stars had been discovered after they became kala thilakams.
We carried our own huge bags backstage, looking so good doing it that no one made fun of us. Not even the comment-addi boys sitting on the green, mossy walls who usually would have a million things to say—“Aye, porter, Aye coolie, paavum camel, poor donkey”—things we could imagine them saying to other girls who made the mistake of being weighed down by anything. They didn’t say anything to us. Thiruvananthapuram was a city so famous for its rudeness that in my mother’s generation Cochin families would never marry into Thiruvananthapuram families. (My aunt was visiting someone in Thiruvananthapuram and went shopping in the vegetable market. She was picking up different vegetables, testing whether they were green, ripe, rotten. The vegetable seller told her, “Put them down, you old hag. Those tomatoes are not your husband’s balls for you to squeeze like that.”)
We were not interested in the kala thilakam scene, only in our category and in having fun. We found a tame taxi driver who would drive us quietly from the dorm to the beach and back, very early in the mornings. We walked around in tight jeans, pretending to be NRI Malayalees who did not understand Malayalam. With sunglasses on, we looked as much as we wanted at the Jalakanyaka’s perfect naked body. On all other trips our parents had never allowed us to look at the statue. Their cars would gain sudden speed and you would only see her thigh or giant concrete breast flying by.
Backstage that first year at the Thiruvananthapuram festival we already frightened the other girls, their crazy judge-bribing mothers, and their super-expensive dance teachers. The floors were slippery with foundation, what seemed like kilos of face powder and sparkles. Every surface was covered with thick snakes of jasmine and glittering clothes that made good “show.” In one corner, we could see Rukmini-teacher from Palakkad reducing her favourite new student to tears. “When you do that mudra, you are supposed to look like you are opening a silver sindoor box, not your father’s suitcase!”
We smiled a lot and even helped some people with their hair and costumes. We were relaxed, not sweating under the dramatic makeup we did for one another. After the makeup was done we could not smile anymore. We sat blinking calmly, the broad coloured tails we drew to our eyes making us look like strange birds. We draped and pinned shawls over our costumes so that no one would see them until the very last minute.
We had decided that along with our modern choreography for Thiruvananthapuram we needed a completely new look. After much experimentation, we decided to combine sleeveless saree blouses and salwar bottoms with dupattas draped tightly over the blouses. It had to draw attention to our perfect curves but not in some cheap cabaret dancer way. The first time in Thiruvananthapuram we knew we were taking a risk, but we were sure we could carry it off. We knew that more than anything else what would shock the public were our bare arms. Malayalees have this strange thing about “sleeveless.” Sleeveless means bad girl. Usha-Uthup-voice bad girl. Never mind that stomach and back and breasts are showing when you wear a regular saree blouse.
We were used to designing our everyday clothes and our tailors were our slaves. In return they happily stole our innovations for their less imaginative clients. They wouldn’t ever try to touch us sleazily or suggest that our necklines were too fast. But for these new dance costumes we had had to find a brand new tailor.
The only man to go to was Blouse Mohan. Blouse Mohan never spoke, never chatted with clients. He never measured. Every woman in Cochin with the courage (and a surprising number had the courage) went to him. You stood before him. Took off your dupatta if you were wearing one, moved your pallu aside if you were wearing a saree. You stood before him while he looked at your chest. When he was done he looked at his notebook, wrote indecipherable things, and never looked at you again. Meanwhile you explained (to the top of his head) the occasion, the style, the look you were trying for. You were never sure whether he heard you. One of his dozen assistants would then give you a date to come and pick up your blouse. And on that day you would get the best-fitting, most flattering blouse you had ever had in your life. Courage was involved not just in letting a strange tailor stare at your breasts. It also lay in the possibility that Blouse Mohan might refuse to stitch your blouse. Oh, the assistant would tell you that saar was busy. But you would know that you had been checked out and found wanting.
When we went to him we stood quietly before him. We explained our requirements in detail, one professional to another professional, handed over our material sure that we would not be refused. Even Blouse Mohan would never refuse us. And it was true, the incredible costumes that we wore from Thiruvananthapuram onwards, in those three years that we won thirty gold medals, the costumes that people raised eyebrows at, were all made by Blouse Mohan.
Our costumes became so distinctive that in final year, when we went back to Thiruvananthapuram, the boys from SDA College did a bad skit that they called the St. Agnes Kumaris Dance Drama. Three of the boys wore saree blouses and jumped about on the stage, their hairy stomachs bouncing above tight salwar bottoms. One of them wore a bra over his salwar bottom and pranced around, speaking in a fake aash-posh-Malayalee-girl voice. Annie and Meena said it was annoying, but I was secretly thrilled that they had sat and planned a skit to make fun of us.
Rukmini-teacher was now scolding her second favourite student. “Beckon gently to Lord Krishna with your eyes, don’t frighten him away with your ugly face!”
A few seconds before we went on stage we did our secret ritual. We crossed our hands at the wrists, held one another’s hands tightly, formed a triangle, leaned back, and spun round and round. At high speed, in that tight space, beyond the storm of face powder our feet was creating, we could see the shocked dancers, teachers, and mothers. But we didn’t care. We were enjoying the rush and their shock. We stopped, dizzily dropped our shawls, ignored the gasps, and went on stage.
Nobody had seen anything quite like us before. Even our friends from Agnes stared at the costumes and then forgot the costumes during our performance. I think I can still do that dance. I remember all our steps. It was a long performance. Eleven minutes of blood-rushing perfection that ended in our trimurti pose.
After Thiruvananthapuram that first year, everything was easy. Wherever we went, the boys lined up to be helpful. To fetch, to carry, to have a quick, sneaky coffee between Western and fusion. We looked them in the eyes and laughed at their jokes as loudly as you can imagine classical dancers laughing. They went away saying we were “frank” girls–a compliment they usually give to ugly girls.
It was at IIT Madras, toward the end of our first year, that we found our serious devotees. Staying at the IIT women’s hostel, we were horrified by how little the girls maintained themselves. They had mustaches and they were reading all the time. Even during the festival, they were walking around sluggishly in nighties.
We, on the other hand, were on fire. From the moment we got off the bus, boys followed us around, offering to show us the beach, take us shopping, take us to Landmark, to Shakes and Creams, to Mahabalipuram, to see the famous IIT deer who ate Chinese food, to the best coffee on campus. Used to some degree of primness around wolfish Malayalee men, we were liberated by the polite gratitude of IIT boys, who seemed like they had never been around women. They were smart but didn’t assume we were stupid. They were funny but did not make fun of us.
At IIT, with five different contests over four days, we had a lot of work to do. For the first time we had competition. The Madras and Bangalore colleges were quite good. We practiced for hours, going over every detail. The rest of the time we tried to figure out our lighting and sound systems with the volunteers. By the fourth day, we knew that even we were tired. Rehearsals, performances, after-performance flirtations, staying up all night on the lawns pretending to like Pink Floyd, we were ready to drop. Still we danced. We went to a disco for the first time that night and danced some more. The sexy moves had been in storage but not forgotten.
Past midnight our taxi left us at the IIT entrance and we walked slowly, a dozen boys and three girls dragging our feet on the long road to the girls’ hostel. I looked around at the boys and thought for the first time that I would like to kiss someone. At least four of the boys seemed like possibilities. These and other thoughts took us to the point where we decided, almost simultaneously, that we could not possibly walk another step. Annie, Meena, and I lay down on that smooth road. The boys stood above us laughing quietly, trying to talk us into getting up, considering lying down on that road themselves. I am not the romantic type, but I remember the stars and trees and the boys’ heads looming above us as if it was a photograph. At some point a motorcycle drove past us, around us, and I saw a familiar face looking back in horror. It was Rukmini-teacher’s favorite student, the one who in Thiruvananthapuram had opened the silver sindoor box like a suitcase. She was riding sideways on an IIT boy’s motorbike. We got up gracefully, as if we had been practicing all our lives to get up off a warm road in front of an audience.
Then two boys picked me up, balancing me on their shoulders. Annie and Meena were picked up too. We looked at each other, above the heads of the boys. We were laughing but we were really not. We were carried all the way to the hostel gate, where they stood waiting for us to disappear out of sight. A few hours later, when we surfaced to leave Madras, they were standing there, almost as if they had never left. At the bus stop they waved, and I know at least one boy cried.
Never particularly talkative, we were silent on the way home. When we were back in college it was as if we were radiating light, people were so careful and respectful around us.
So many things were unspoken between us that I can’t tell you why I thought the three of us would have brilliant lives. We were beautiful, we were well-heeled, we were excellent students. I knew we deserved wonderful lives, more than our parents’ with their tired flab and sugar and blood pressure. When the three of us were still in school, our cousins and sisters who lived abroad seemed to have those wonderful lives. They and their husbands were trim, their Malayalam lightly accented, their family photographs gorgeously candid.
One Christmas we sat in the quiet corner of Annie’s crowded drawing room, listening to the young male visitors talk. Brothers-in-law, cousins’ husbands, cousins—they were all in their thirties and globe-trotting successes. At some point, the conversation turned to their wives packing their suitcases.
“I was in Dubai for three days and I realised that Valsa had not packed a single pair of black formal shoes for me. Throughout the conference I kept hoping that no one would notice I was wearing black track shoes with my suit.”
“That’s nothing, last month when I went to London, Mary did not pack any underwear!”
“That must have been intentional.”
“What are you boys saying about underwear?”
“Nothing, Ammachi.” More muffled laughter.
After dinner, we heard one of the cousins’ voices raised in anger in her bedroom. “Six years I have been married to you and I packed your suitcase wrong once! Once and you must tell everyone and shame me.”
When I was 13, I had read my first Mills & Boon. It was the first time I read a book that I enjoyed. Brought up on school syllabus reading and my parents’ musty collection, I was astonished to find books where people’s clothes and the color of the hero’s eyes were described in every scene. I lent Annie and Meena the book and they loved it as well. After that we smuggled romances into our houses and read them secretly; in each house censure of the red-blue-green books was different only in degree. To the first dozen M&Bs I read, my real response was, “Where are these people’s parents?” They never seemed to have anyone bothering them. Later I think I forgot about that.
By the time we hit college we no longer liked to read the romances in which the guy was experienced and the girl was a virgin. First we laughed at them, then we were annoyed by them. We did not like naïve girls.
In our first year, a couple of weeks after we had come back from IIT, a scandal rocked St. Agnes, making it to the front pages in Kerala. Some of the hostellers had decided to have a pajama party and for some idiotic reason had stripped to their underwear and taken pictures of each other. As if this were not stupid enough, they had actually taken the roll to be developed at a photo studio in Cochin!
Flash! It was all over the tabloids and even all the big newspapers. It went online as well. Agnes threw the girls out. The girls were sent by their parents to colleges out of state. We didn’t even laugh, their stupidity was so pitiable. Think of how careful we were.
Several boys from IIT had written to us. A few emailed us, even offering to take trains down from Chennai to see us, but we discouraged them. To be spotted in a restaurant with strange men was too dangerous. Later on we understood that even in Cochin there were places we were guaranteed never to see someone we knew.
But then we were content to chat up boys on the Internet. We each wrote to several boys. Mails went back and forth ten times a day. The IIT boys had their own comfortable 24-hour computer labs and no one to bother them. We had a harder time until Annie persuaded her father to get a dial-up connection. Every time the modem came on, making its distinctive, creaking, noisy tune, I wished there was some way of muffling the sound. As annoying as it was, it was still miraculous. It was the best thing to happen in our lives after cordless phones.
Over the next year our social lives were planned carefully on the internet so that no one in Cochin suspected a thing. We arranged to meet boys on our out-of-town competitions. We each had fairly serious relationships, romanced boys in different small town colleges, had sex with them in more anonymous big towns. We were together and strong and happy.
Then college was over. No matter how long I had awaited the end, it still felt sudden. I was admitted to the microbiology masters program in Cochin. Meena and Annie had not applied anywhere, I found to my astonishment. Before I could figure out what was going on, my parents hustled me on a trip to Malaysia to visit my older sister.
When I came back two months later, I was fat. I had never been fat in my life, but two months of not dancing and eating really well had killed me. I pinched my waist and did not understand whether flesh was actually meant to feel that way. Repulsed by myself, I delayed calling the others. And strangely they didn’t call me either. My mother remarked that Annie’s engagement seemed sudden. I nearly dropped the iron. Only the shame of being left out prevented me from running to the phone in front of her.
As soon as my mother was out of hearing, I called Annie. I pretended to be calm. “What is this vishesham that I hear, Madam?” I faked a teasing tone. Annie laughed. “Isn’t it wonderful? Who did you hear from?” From my mother, you bitch, I wanted to yell. But I didn’t. So I heard how Annie had met Rohan, an ophthalmologist her parents had found for her. The wedding was a year away, the engagement in a month’s time. I sat down hard. What had happened to that sweet Telugu civil engineer she had been seeing for six months? Big-eyed, tall, warm, he and Annie had made a stunning couple. Just before I left for Singapore, he had come to Cochin, defying Annie’s orders because he was going away to the US. I had driven Annie to the jetty and waved them off on their ferry ride. Annie had been in her NRI tourist disguise with a hat, sunglasses, and fresh toddy in water bottles.
Now in this phone conversation, I could not even ask about him. I knew the rules had suddenly changed. While I scrambled to catch up, Annie told me to pack and be ready the next afternoon. Her Rohan had paid for a five-day holiday at a local spa for the three of us.
I longed to call Meena but was terrified to. The next day, when I met them at the spa, ten kilometres outside of town, I felt I had a right to be scared. They did not remark on my appearance. That by itself frightened me. Annie spoke continuously of Rohan. I looked at his photograph and was astonished afresh. He was plain, acne-scarred, and tubby. He had a sweet smile, but that was all that could be said about him. Annie said that they wrote to each other every day. In his latest note he had said that he was sending her a gold credit card.
Meena made jokes about Annie as if this was a romance. I wanted to hit her. When we actually had romances, we had never teased each other in that giggly annoying Malayalee-dubbing artiste way. Why now over this whale in a white shirt? But I choked on the words.
It was called a spa, but it was actually a very strict naturopathy clinic run by Catholic nuns. I thought sourly that Rohan probably did not have to pay much for these military-bunker surroundings. For the next five days, we were woken at dawn, given cucumber juice, and led to yoga class. I kept falling asleep mid-asana and the others laughed at me. It was almost like being together again, but not quite. We ate sliced cucumbers, drank bittergourd juice at lunch time, and had fruit for dinner at 7 PM. The others fell asleep looking like angels and I glared at the ceiling, uncomfortable in the hard bed.
Between one massage and the next, I managed to get Meena alone. I tried to ask her casually about Annie’s abandoned Telugu boy. Meena was infuriatingly uninterested.
A day later, while sitting in the sun with thick, smelly kozhambu all over my body, I asked Meena about her own current boyfriend, a sweet Malayalee boy at IIM Kozhikode. “Mummy said no,” she said calmly. “Your mother! Your mother said no?” I could not understand it. Meena’s mother, the most open-minded of all our parents— she had even agreed that Meena’s elder sister in Bangalore could marry her Bihari boyfriend in a couple of years.
“But Keshav is a Bihari!” I said.
Annie and Meena looked at each other. Meena smiled, “I know, I said the same thing to my parents. But Mummy says that a Bihari is so far away, no one knows what a Bihari is really like. But everyone knows Latin Catholics were all originally fishermen converts. They drink a lot.” And that was the end of sweet Stephen.
We were having the special massage on the fourth day. I was incredibly sick of the spinach thoran and cucumber juice that I knew was coming. Even thinking of it was making me retch.
Three days of near-starvation had made no difference to my fat. The other two sat near by, glowing, feet crossed elegantly at the ankles, murmuring to each other. Even the grumpy massage girls remarked on how beautiful they looked.
I suddenly caught what they were saying. Meena was saying to Annie. “Mummy was joking that since Chechi’s is a love marriage to a Bihari, they would not have to give dowry. But it’s only a joke, ketto? It is a matter of our pride after all. They will give Keshav as much as they give my groom. Not as much as you but at least twenty-five.” Annie nodded gravely.
I was shocked. Dowry! 25 lakhs! Who were these women? Where were my friends? The rough hands scraping my back silently pushed down harder. The smell of the kozhambu made me nauseous.
On the last morning we sat quietly combing our hair before the steam baths. I looked at my feet, which were usually as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Walking around the nasty spa’s concrete courtyard with all kind of oils had given my feet cracks. While pretending to focus on my feet, I started a conversation with the others, deliberately turning to nostalgia. They resisted. I tried to get them talking about the future and the marriages they had in mind. Conversation flowed easily. I relaxed, too.
It must have been on my mind—I certainly had not planned to ask, but I blurted out, “Will you tell your husband about your boyfriends?” Annie smiled, “Perhaps, later.” Meena said no. Annie added, “What is there to say anyway?”
I thought of Stephen always remembering to order Thums Up, not Pepsi or Coke, for Meena when we ate Chinese.
I thought of seeing Annie across a darkened hall in Delhi, tossing her long hair back, fully dressed from the waist upward, astride her awed engineer, rocking her hips lightly, with concentration. I had watched till I fell asleep.
What was there to say anyway? I looked at them straight in the eyes for the first time since I had come back. “Will you tell your husbands that you have had sex before?”
Annie and Meena looked at each other, a gesture I was growing to hate.
Meena said, “But we haven’t.”
Annie nodded. “Never.”
I thought I was going to be sick.
The next day, the ride back was quiet, almost normal, devoid of the strange wedding chatter of the last five days.
At home my father was patronizing. A bad sign. Even he had been afraid of us when we had been together, recognizing a force beyond his control by watching the news continuously. Now he patted my head and said, “Depressed because your friend is getting married before you? Your turn will come too!” I could have killed him.
When my classes started, it was a relief. I had a lot of work to do and did not want to think too much about the others. They had signed up desultory courses, courses we all knew girls took to abandon midway for an H1 visa.
No one knew me now. It was shocking. For the first time ever, I was victim to the comment-addi boys. As if they knew that I was defenseless. I came home crying a couple of times. Then my father started sending a car and driver to pick me up. I, who knew that the car and driver was a leash you could never drop, thanked him for it. My boy with the magical eyes had lost interest and stopped driving up from Thiruvananthapuram. I could not remember the last time I had danced.
Two years later I married Pradeep, who was midway through his MD in Bangalore. He did not listen to Pink Floyd. He did not surf the net. The only thing he had to say was that he spent his spare time playing badminton and TT. He had never had a girlfriend. After we got married, I knew that he had not been lying.
The day I was getting married I stood in the reception meeting hundreds of guests in four-inch heels, knowing it was the last time in my life I would be the center of attention.
When I first moved to Bangalore, a mean woman whom I met during a bride visit, told me that everyone would think I was what the Kannadigas call a halli-gugu—a country bumpkin—because of the handkerchief I held in my left hand. “If you twist it any harder then it will disappear,” she said. At that time I was so angry I swore I would never speak to her again. Only much later, years later, did I wonder when exactly I had started carrying one.
Recently Pradeep’s friends took us to see Saroj Khan’s troupe perform at Bangalore Habba. Afterwards Pradeep made fun of me, saying that I was regretting missing my chance to be part of the troupe. I also laughed. He told his friends that I had been a kala thilakam. The girl who actually been kala thilakam in my second year had become a movie star. She was going to save Malayalam cinema from its eternal shortage of heroines. She was a powerful presence in three movies, all flashing wit and diamond nose stud. Then she married a fool comedian. He said he did not want her to act any more. She was never seen on screen again. I don’t think I hate anyone more than I hate him.