By Jegadeesh Kumar

Vijayalakshmi alias Vj showered, dried her hair, brushed away the thought of having a ponytail and decided to keep a loose hair style. With larger earrings, it’d look graceful if the hair overflowed the ears. She scanned her image in the mirror. The hair was straight, shiny and bubbly. Yatra’s hair was curly. Everyone in their gang in college knew her hatred for curly hair. She visited a beauty parlor every so often to straighten it but the hair kept curling back. Clara suggested shortening it. She said it would be a sign of modernity and would suit her face. But Yatra did not accept the suggestion. 

Vijayalakshmi looked at her entire profile in the mirror and observed she was fortunate not only in inheriting her mother’s beautiful hair. She could not blame herself for being short. Without constriction, you could place all the men in her college who were above 5¾ feet tall in a ten by ten bathroom. All of her other features were, in the boys’ language, ‘damn hot!’

The most charming feature was her face. Soft, pimple-free cheeks. She considered how her friends were struggling to get rid of their pimples. Oil free diet; applying countless creams and liquids. Vj didn’t have to go through any of those tortures. She had been aware of the eyes that admired her at the bus stations and at school, ever since she was thirteen.

But until last year, she’d been compelled to carry all this beauty only as a burden. She had to wear the same, boring, faded set of uniforms everyday to school. The hair needed to be pomaded and combed. The face powder and the eyeshadow her mother applied to her would dissolve in sweat even before she climbed down the schoolbus. The white shirt would display wet semi circles at her armpits. When she came out of the squeezing crowd – realizing all the while that many did the squeezing on purpose – she would feel the need to shower once again. 

Vj wore light blue cotton jeans. She struggled  initially to accommodate their tightening of thighs and bums. She got used to them now. She wore a light yellow crop top, the length of which was short enough to expose the back pockets of her jeans. A beaded choker in the same color. She wondered at the brilliance of those who gave the name to that thing. ‘Choker!’ Ponds cream for the face after foundation. Mascara for eyebrows. After the application of powder, lipstick in natural color. She pursed her lips to make it even. The vanity bag too was yellow in color. Only three notebooks to carry. They’d be inserted at the front of her scooty.

“It’s getting late, ma! I’m leaving,” she said in a loud voice.

Her mom came out from the kitchen, her sari crumpled and face sweating. “So, you will miss breakfast today as well?” she said in a reprimanding voice. She looked at Vj and gasped. 

“What’s this Vj? Wearing a short top! It’ll expose your hip when you bend Vj!”

“ Come on! You say the same thing everyday.”

“Twelve new churidars are sleeping in the closet. You keep doing this, I’ll donate all of them to the Blind’s Association.”

“You know something, mom? Wearing churidar went out of fashion in the two thousands. You better donate them already.” She came out with a smile and started her scooty. 

* * *

The bell had rung when she parked her scooty at the college campus and walked towards the third floor. She hurried her steps. Her heels tripped her, making her drop her books. She crouched and grabbed them from the ground. When she looked up she saw Lavanya standing in front, smiling.

“Good morning. Getting late to class?”

“Good morning, ma’am. Ya, I am.”

Lavanya stood in front of her silently for a few moments and said, “Can you meet me at my room during interval?”

“Sure, ma’am.”

“Good,” she said and walked away with the rustling noise of her silk sari. Vj had to run towards her class to enter before her Inorganic Chemistry professor did.

Vj was in a confused state when she walked towards the Psychology professor’s room during interval. She listed out the possibilities as to why a professor, who, from an unrelated field, wanted to meet her. Was it about participating in a college cultural meet? But that’s handled by linguistics. No. Perhaps about submitting a research paper on Psychology? Vj did not think she showed any signs of having prowess in Psychology. Did she want her to help her little sister in her tenth grade chemistry lessons?

Her stream of thought was abruptly cut upon reaching the entrance to the staff room. Lavanya smiled at her when she entered and signalled her to be seated.

“So, you like to wear modern clothes, right!” she opined, without any prelude.

Vj could not immediately respond to this comment. She alerted herself and replied with rhetoric. “Don’t you think everyone likes to wear modern clothes these days?”

“When you bent to pick up your handbag this morning, your cleavage showed. It’s not difficult to assume that your hip skin also would’ve been exposed.”

Vijayalakshmi fixed her eyes on her, squinted a little, raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders. A typical sign of her saying what was wrong with it.

Lavanya’s smile did not change. It seemed like she wore this static smile like the jewelry she wore everyday to college. She took a deep breath and exhaled audibly. A sign of the coming of a long lecture.

“Vijayalakshmi! Girls of your age wear these modern clothes and jewelry with so much affinity. But the choice comes only through  peer pressure. You don’t realize that this has been forced upon you. Another point. You are not sure of your personality at this age, which is understandable. But that uncertainty induces you to create a fake image for yourselves. Your presumptuous appearance is the result of that uncertainty. This is just to attract attention!”

Vj understood the direction her lecture took. In pure English sentences, laden with dense critical observation, Lavanya was only echoing the same old-fashioned ideas that people like her mother possessed.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I’m afraid I can’t agree with you. What’s wrong with those points you put forth as reasons for our modern appearance? Isn’t it natural that we’d want to put our personalities at the forefront? By any means?” she said.

Lavanya’s smile faded at this question like the facial would dissolve in sweat under the hot sun. By looking at her squinting eyes, Vj understood that she got irritated by her question.

“Do you think you present your actual personality? Aren’t you carrying fake images borrowed from an actress or a sports person through commercials? Can’t you build your personality through constructive ways? Do you know how many millions of dollars are being earned exploiting teenage stupidity? Personality is not in the exterior. It depends on the interior,” said Lavanya. Her bosom was heaving rapidly behind her dry washed silk sari.

Vijayalakshmi was searching for defense points in her mind. She wore modern clothes to appear beautiful alright, but that didn’t mean she had a cauliflower in her head. Her involvement in intellectual discussions was popular among linguistics professors and students who took part in college culturals. Vj also felt the need to represent youth at the moment.

Lavanya noticed Vj checking time on her wrist watch and said, “I’ll inform your professor about your being late. Whose class is it? ”

She had time to gather herself when Lavanya called Polymer Chemistry over her cell phone. Interval would be over in a few minutes. She heard a few boys laughing out loud outside. Outside the window the sun burnt everyone equally. Neither Lavanya nor Mr.Ramanujam who slept in the next seat seemed to be bothered by the persisting noise of the ceiling fan.

Lavanya placed her cell phone on the table and said, “mm?”. She looked like an army general ready for a battle. It seemed she was expecting Vj to come up with points of arguments.

“Ma’am, I want you to look at this issue from our point of view. You know, in India, women have been imprisoned in their kitchen for ages. This modern appearance is a symbol of our freedom. This is a sign of the freedom women possess not only in designing their lives but also in the expression of their thoughts.”

Lavanya’s cell phone sounded announcing a text message. She took the phone and read it. “This discussion is very interesting. Tomorrow is Saturday. Why don’t you visit me? We can discuss the topic further deeply. Right now my department head calls me,” she said with an authoritative smile on her face.

Vj stood up, switching off her argumentative mode. “May I know why you’ve started a debate on this topic? Any reasons behind choosing me to talk about it?”

“You know better. Who else can I discuss with a topic like this? Youth of today are quick to embrace modernity but lack the maturity to carry it. But I believe you do have that maturity.” said Lavanya.

* * *

The odor of Nitric acid invited Vj when she entered the laboratory. About fifteen students were gathered near the third desk. Manju, who stood at the exterior circle, looked at her and said, “Vj! Yatra poured Nitric acid on her head.” All her friends called her Vj. Her profile name on Facebook too was the same.

Students moved away to let Vj in. She was the class representative. She would have to register the details of the accident. Yatra sat supporting her head in her left hand. Water was dripping from her hair. A palm sized hair had burnt near the forehead exposing white underskin. Her face showed signs of agony due to the acid attack. 

The professor of Polymer Chemistry Mr. Rajaram stood next to her. “Turned the test tube towards her to check if the acid had reached boiling point. Thank goodness, her eyes are safe. Vijayalakshmi! Accompany Yatra to the hospital. Clerk Sivasamy will join you both. The Principal has given permission to take his car,” said the professor.

Vj supported Yatra to the Principal’s car and helped her sit in the back seat when she noticed another car entering college premises. 

Opening a passenger door, a plump and fair skinned lady walked towards them, panting. Vj observed the woman’s head looked as if on fire, the hair completely turned red by repeated  applications of henna.

“What happened, Yatra? My dear!”

She turned out to be Yatra’s mother. With a face burning with anger, she did a thorough enquiry on the accident, shaking her head in disbelief at frequent intervals, complained about the institution’s irresponsible administration and took Yatra to the hospital in her car.

Rajram had cancelled class. Everyone went to the college canteen. They discussed with concern, on what would Yatra do to repair her damaged hair.

“Don’t you worry! The hair transplantation techniques have improved a lot in recent times. You’ve seen Satyaraj doing it! Our Harsha Bhogle!” said Varun.

After a few minutes of conversation on the topic, they concluded that burning your hair was not after all a huge loss. There also was a high probability of complete healing in quick time of the scar made by the wound on the forehead. The rate of healing depended on the depth of the wound. 

The conversation naturally took a different direction. Cricket, music concerts, movies and the products newly introduced in the market gained prominence in their discussion. Vj browsed her friends with her eyes. Everyone appeared a representative of modernity. Don’t they have an image of their own? Including myself? What is this I? If my youth and appearance change, will I cease to exist? What about the opinions that construct my life? They too change over time! How can I own those ideas as mine when they don’t stick with me forever?

“Hey guys! gals!” said Gourav, removing his shirt. There was a tattoo on his upper right arm showing two fire spewing dragons in tight embrace. Every boy and girl in the gang said, “Wow!” in unison.

“Permanent. Half of it will be exposed when I wear short sleeves. It’ll be awesome!” said Gourav proudly.

Everyone assented enviously. They wondered who would have the courage to tattoo their arms in their little town. Sumantha asked, “Hey, can you tell where you had this tattoo? Do they serve girls as well?” hoping to have a tattoo in the region between the back of her jeans and tops. 

He’d gotten that tattoo when he visited Chennai. It’d been a week. He’d hidden that information from his parents. He said there would be a Tsunami at their house if they knew.

Everyone started bragging about their accessories. Boys blustered about their tattoos, shoes, coolers and earrings while girls did the same about their cosmetics, studs, climbers and crawlers. They went so far as to discuss their underwear as well. Vijayalakshmi concluded that youth and their accessories were inevitably inseparable.

* * *

Lavanya continued looking at her husband who, with utmost care, was watering the flower plants that grew up to his shoulder. He never allowed anyone to pluck flowers from those plants.  He was passionately involved in maintaining their little garden weed-free and clean. Sometimes it would seem as though he was conversing with those flowers when he stood supporting them in his palms.

He came towards her, wiping his hands with a towel. “When will the girl come here?” he asked.

“I think she’d be here by ten,”said Lavanya.

“Well, don’t trouble her too much with your ideologies. What’s wrong in girls presenting themselves pretty at this young age?”

“Don’t start over again!”said Lavanya impatiently. She’d had a lengthy debate with her husband on this matter already. 

“Alright. I’ll be upstairs, reading. Don’t bother me,” he said, climbing up the stairs. 

Lavanya was ready for the battle when Vijayalakshmi arrived. She spoke to her in Tamil on this occasion.

“Vijayalakshmi, I’m assigning you a project. The Tamil professor told me about your interest in Tamil literature. He was the one who suggested your name for this project,” said Lavanya, offering her a portfolio.  

Vj took it and thumbed through its pages. It was a recommendation for research on educational Psychology. The blurb encouraged the would-be researcher to quote from ancient Tamil literature on Education.

“This is the reason why I’ve asked you to visit me. Also a chance for us to continue where we left off yesterday,” Lavanya said, smiling. 

Vj placed the portfolio on the desk and waited for her to begin.

“Have you ever seen me wearing bangles, chokers and other accessories? Or have you seen me wearing makeup to school?” 

Vj shook her head.

“I haven’t been interested in them since my childhood. I thought they are a symbol of slavery. My conviction was confirmed when I read Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in my college days…”

“…Do you know what you present by wearing makeup? You just prove you are nothing but slaves in sexual service to men who you placed on a higher pedestal by this very act. Isn’t wearing makeup and accessories only to sexually attract men? My argument is that you girls project yourselves as sexual objects. It is my wish that today’s younger generation should focus on proving their individuality in constructive ways, and not with cheap means…In Japan there was a women’s community called Geisha. Their only job is to adorn themselves everyday with jewelry and satisfy the big shots in the town. I don’t see any difference between them and you.”

Vj felt like she got slapped hard. She did not expect this accusation. She had nursed a faint hope that she could make Lavanya, who had a firm belief in her own feminist ideas, agree with her view that beautification is only a symbol of women’s liberation. There was no difference between this accusation and the methods of enslaving women employed by those who were rooted in conventional ideas. She wanted to prove that girls of her age were not for slavery.

A woman in a tattered sari entered and stood in front of them. Lavanya looked up and said, “Muthu, wait here. I’ll be back in a minute,” and went into the next room. She came back after a minute and offered the woman a stack of cash.

“Thank you ma’am. The bus is at eleven. I’ll go get Komu and leave,” the woman said. “I’ll bring her over before leaving. She needs your blessings.”

“Alright!” said Lavanya, smiling faintly. When the woman left, she explained to Vj, “She is our housemaid. Next week is her daughter’s marriage. I gave her some cash to help her in the marriage.”

Vj forgot the debate for a moment and said, “Is the girl living with her mom?”

“We’ve built a small house for them in the backyard. The girl studied until her higher secondary here. Seems like her uncle’s son is waiting for her in the village. They got engaged five years earlier. They’ll be married now. I told her mom multiple times to send her daughter to college. She didn’t listen. I thought the only way for them to come up in life is education. But there seems to be no difference between the illiterate and the educated these days. The educated think of their education only as a tool to make money, not to change their fundamental thinking.”

Vijayalakshmi began. “ Ma’am. I ask you again. What’s wrong in projecting ourselves as sexual objects? How can you think this projecting makes you a slave? I personally think beauty is given to women as a gift. What’s wrong with men and women trying to mutually attract each other or giving prominence to sex? Doesn’t everyone like sex? You argue that this education did not change our views. But your argument forces us to accept slavery in a different format. I don’t think our lives are founded upon the letters of the textbooks. We want to take this life as an experiment. We will commit mistakes along the way. But this education will not be a forced one.”

Lavanya looked at her with a frozen face. Her look suggested that Vj was an incorrigible character. 

The woman returned with her daughter. The girl looked seventeen. She wore a half sari which might presumably be the mother’s old one. Her face shone in sweat. She wore no earrings. An imitation gold chain hung around her neck. Her youthful beauty surfaced all over her body in spite of the many defects her poverty-stricken life endowed upon her. Vj was captivated by her looks and was drinking in her beauty for a few moments without being aware. 

Lavanya looked at the stairs and called out, “Ramesh! Ramesh!” When he climbed down his eyes showed signs of weariness. “Muthu is leaving. They’ve come here to take leave of us,” said Lavanya.

The girl fell on Lavanya’s feet to receive her blessings. Lavanya’s husband kept looking at the girl. The mother and daughter bid farewell and left. Lavanya’s husband went towards the garden again and started to look through the flowers. He kept looking up at the leaving party until they closed the front gate and disappeared out of sight. 

Vj turned to look at Lavanya. “A beauty, isn’t she, ma’am? Isn’t she ravishing even without any makeup?”

Lavanya avoided looking at Vijayalakshmi. Then she turned to look at her husband who stood admiring the flowers in their garden.    

Jegadeesh Kumar is a student of eastern philosophy, Mathematics teacher, writer, and translator, raised in Southern India, now living in South Carolina, USA. He lived on the southernmost island of the Republic of Maldives for ten years, teaching Mathematics to high school children. Until a few years ago, he’d been writing prolifically in Tamil and got published in a few online magazines before he decided to go on hiatus. On his blog, he writes, both in English and Tamil, short stories, poems, and on eastern philosophy. He is currently working on a dystopian novel set in an imaginary Vedic land.
His works have appeared on Prometheus Dreaming and Indian Periodical.

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