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Aru imagined the sigh as a big dust ball accumulating inside her for years. There was a mixture of anger and regret in it. Aru wondered if she too would sigh like that years later.
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Not A Cinderella”, and the story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is,
The fourth winner of our February 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Smita Vyas Kumar.
Aru rang the doorbell as she glanced at her watch. 6pm. Bang on time. For the umpteenth time she wished her mother would give her the house key. But no, that would mean that she could slip into the house after her deadline and no one would know. Ringing the doorbell was her factory punch card.
She shrugged and put on a smile as her mother opened the door and instinctively glanced at the big clock just above the door. That clock ruled Aru’s life. In the morning it nonchalantly saw her father, grand-father, and the two siblings off to work and college but turned into a tyrant when it monitored Aru’s return home.
“How was your day?” Aru asked her mother giving her a quick hug.
“Oh, same old. My life is the same every day. Cook and clean and wait for all you lords and ladies to come home.”
“Didn’t you go to Sarita aunty’s today?”
“The maid didn’t show up. I was waiting for you only. Change quickly and help me with chopping the vegetables. I hired only for this one job and she won’t show up for that too. God knows how I manage really.”
Aru’s mother sighed a deep sigh. Aru imagined the sigh as a big dust ball accumulating inside her for years. There was a mixture of anger and regret in it. Aru wondered if she too would sigh like that years later. Most likely she thought. She knew her mother was gearing up to give her the Woman’s Burden lecture and she hurried away.
Her brother was playing on his PS3.
“Mamma you could have asked Akshat to help you. You all keep saying he should become a surgeon, maybe he could practice some cutting skills with the onions.”
Her mother ignored her. As usual. Aru shrugged and went to change. No point aggravating the situation.
Aru thought about her double life. She had realised a long time back that her home was not symmetrical. The menfolk had rights, the women had duties. Rather than complain about this situation she had decided to play smart and work around it.
Her father was happy to send her to an all-women’s college and she had worked hard to get into the best one in the city. Her parents were keen she study soft subjects and she had complied. They saw her graduation as just a ticket to a good groom.
“Get a first class and see what A-class boys I line up for you. Till then enjoy college life before it is time to settle down. Just follow some simple rules ok? Come home by 6 every day. Before night falls. It’s safer for you and better for our peace of mind.”
“Yes Papa” Aru said dutifully. Her father smiled and patted her on the head as one would a little kitten.
Aru smiled to herself. Lectures were till 2pm. She had four hours of freedom to do what she liked. So long as she was available on the phone everything was ok.
Aru loved the extra-curricular activities her college offered. One day, Prof. Awasthi announced a new group ‘Katha Nritya’. This group would tell stories through dance on social issues and would perform in colleges and public events. Prof. Awasthi was the star of their college. She had received various awards for her work in championing children’s rights and was recognized in academic and art circles for her research on dance vocabulary.
Aru’s hand shot up, “I want to be part of this group, Professor!”
“Lovely! Tell me, why do you want to join?”
“I want to try and express myself without words ma’am. I think actions can always speak louder than words.”
And I’m always trying it at home, she thought to herself.
“Ma’am, I’m a big admirer of your dance career and seen all the YouTube videos of your performances. I admire the way in which you have always fought for important issues. I would love to learn from someone as passionate as you. Your dance on child labour was so amazing,” she gushed.
“I will expect the same dedication from you. I am quite a task master I am warning you! But you already know that,” she added smilingly. “We will spend after college hours rehearsing. I hope you have time”
“Oh, I have time” Aru said confidently, inwardly shutting out the voice which kept saying, “6 pm Aru, 6pm.”
“Great. You are in. Now I need you girls to prepare some material for the first class.”
“Oh sure. What do I need to do?” Aru asked eagerly.
“Search for Mudras in Bharatanatyam and bring a print-out to the first workshop. We will work with those. You all will need to understand the basics of dance to do dance drama.”
Aru was excited. But this had to be a secret. Her parents did not approve of girls performing on stage except at family functions where no outsiders were present.
Oh well, just one more thing to be smart about. Self-pity didn’t get you anywhere, being clever did, she said to herself.
Aru was the best dancer-actor n the Katha Nritya troupe. She had a natural ability to express with her eyes and her body movements were so fluid as to make someone feel they were watching water.
Very soon it was time for an inter -college competition and Prof. Awasthi chose Aru to compete in the Solo Pantomime category.
“Wow! When is the event, Ma’am?”
“It’s next Friday. You can do the piece on the young girl who shines in football.”
Aru’s mind raced. Her brother or his friends may see the performance and tattle. She had an idea.
“Ma’am, I can wear an all-black outfit and paint my face white in pantomime style. It will keep the focus on the story.” Aru waited for Prof Awasthi’s reaction with bated breath.
“What a great idea, Aru! You do that. And yes, I will be sharing the recording on our YouTube channel. You know how we document all our performances.”
“Sure ma’am, but please don’t use my name.”
Prof Awasthi looked at her quizzically. She could see the girl was tense.
“Ma’am I want only Katha Nritya to be popular. I am just a troupe member.”
“Fine” Prof Awasthi said and noted Aru’s slow exhale.
“The event is at 4. At the University Club house. Now get down to it.”
Aru calculated quickly. 4pm. It took her half an hour to get home. 6pm. The witching hour. It was doable.
Aru practised like a maniac in college and was back home on time ready to help her mother.
“You are in a good mood these days Aru,” her mother noted. “You haven’t once complained about the work like you usually do.”
“Oh, just enjoying college and happy to make you happy.”
“Hmm I hope you are not up to anything naughty?”
“Who me? I am a good girl” said Aru batting her eyelids innocently.
“Oh, I know that look. I had the same when I was a child.”
“You were a naughty child?” Aru looked at her in astonishment.
“Oh yes totally.” Her mother giggled at a memory.
“One day I used red chilli on Sarita aunty’s cheeks because we were not allowed make-up and then I forgot about it and rubbed my eye. You should have seen the firing I got!”
“Mamma you! I can’t believe it.”
“All gone now.” Again, the same deep sigh. Aru could see the dust ball grow bigger.
Aru shone in the competition. Soon it was down to three finalists. And it was already 5pm. She had half an hour before she needed to make tracks home. Aru looked with interest at the finalist who she considered her real competition. Avinash from GM medical college was an excellent performer and cute to boot. He caught her staring at him and smiled. She blushed at being caught out but fortunately the white paint masked her colour. She was waiting to talk to him after the competition. Right now, they were rivals and his cuteness could not distract her.
The competition ran late thanks to a sound system malfunction. Aru’s heart was racing. It was 5.45. She could not afford to reach home late. It was a pact she had made with herself. Her freedom depended on her punching in at 6pm. Hopefully Rima was waiting outside on her scooter to take her home. She wished she had her own scooter but that was impossible. “Giving a girl a scooty means giving her wings.” She could hear her father drone.
Without waiting for the results, Aru dashed out of the clubhouse. Rima was waiting for her. “C’mon let’s get you home. Clean up on the way or you will scare the daylights out of people with that make-up.”
Behind her, she could her Avinash yelling, “Hey White Face, wait for the results at least!”
Aru waved to him and ran. The white scarf she had tied around her hair fell off. As she hopped on to the scooty and sped away, she saw Avinash pick up the scarf. Did he look dejected? No time to think about it. Right now, she had to scrub her face and get home.
She reached at 6.30 and taking a deep breath rang the doorbell.
Her mother must have been waiting there because the door opened immediately to a volley of words.
“Where were you? I was getting so worried!” Her mother looked at the clock meaningfully as if was answerable to it.
“The bus was late. Sorry.”
“Just sorry! I wish you had called and you didn’t answer my call also. No one thinks it fit to inform me. And I only wait and wait. I needed you help today with stuffing the samosas. The maid doesn’t do it well and..”
“I’m here mamma. I’ll just change and come” Aru interrupted before she spiralled out. Just as she edged past, her mother stopped her.
“What is that white stuff on the side of your face? What have you been up to Aru? I hope you haven’t done anything I won’t like.”
“Mamma, I have never done anything you won’t like. You know that.”
“Come here! Is this paint? You put make -up on? You were on stage?! Oh God!”
“Better than putting chilly powder as blush-on and pretending all your life.”
The words were out before she could stop herself. The mask was off, and she didn’t want to put it back on.
Her mother’s eyes opened wide and then screwed shut. Between them lay the dust ball, hairy and tangled. Aru continued in a rush.
“Mamma I was a finalist in a dance competition but thanks to the 6pm rule I could not even wait for the results. I am sick of this double life. I am not Cinderella to change into someone else every evening with this horrible doorbell.”
Aru stuck out a bit of her tongue at the clock. Her mother had the faintest glimmer of a smile in her eyes as Aru walked to her room on wobbly legs. Her phone beeped. It was Prof. Awasthi’s message. She had won.
“Thanks Ma’am”, she replied. Then she added another message “Ma’am, I would like you to credit me as the artist in the YouTube video. I am proud to be known as your student.”
Aru logged into Facebook and searched for Avinash Wadhwani, GM Medical college. There he was, with his cute smile. She quickly wrote a message. “Hi! I think you have my white scarf. I’ll take it from you tomorrow outside my college at 3 pm. See you there.”
She smiled and clicked ‘Send’. Tomorrow was the beginning of the rest of her life.
Smita Vyas Kumar wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Image source: shutterstock