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So her refusing the title part in the school play was news to Meera. She turned to look at Pari, and asked her in their secret language, what’s all this about?
The auditorium was packed. Every single seat had been taken and some parents were even standing at the back. The lights began to dim, and soon it was pitch dark. The curtains opened to a village scene. On one side was a house, in which a little girl could be seen doing some chores. The girl turned, beaming, to the audience, and they saw that she had a book in her hand and she was humming a song as she went about her chores, while reading the book.
It was the school Annual Day. The school had put up the play Beauty and the Beast, (the Disney version). Meera, mother to the little girl Pari, playing Belle on stage, sat proudly in the audience. As everyone clapped enthusiastically at the beautiful Belle’s performance, Meera’s mind went back to an incident about a month ago, when she had been called to the school by Pari’s teacher.
“Do you know what this is about?” Meera asked looking in the rear view mirror. Her daughter, sitting in the backseat merely shrugged and kept looking out the window.
Meera sighed as she drove on. The girl was a mere nine years old, but the attitude she showed, was too much for even Meera to bear sometimes. But Meera also felt good, looking at the rigid set of her daughter’s jaw reflected in the mirror. She was careful not to be seen smiling by her daughter, of course. But she was glad of how strong willed and confident her daughter was at this young age.
By the time they reached the school, where Meera had been called by her daughter’s teacher, Meera had already taken half a dozen calls from her secretary and was hoping that whatever it was that the teacher wanted to talk about, wouldn’t take too long; so she could be on her way to office where they were about to close an important deal today. As counsel for a company taking over another smaller, defunct company, Meera and her team had been toiling for the past three months over documents and legal loopholes; and today, of all days, the matter was coming to a head. The signing was scheduled for five o’clock in the evening.
In the school, the mother and daughter were ushered into Mrs. Khanna’s office. Mrs. Khanna, Pari’s Literature and Drama teacher welcomed them graciously.
“Hello Mrs. Mehra; good morning, Pari,” she beamed at them.
Meera smiled and looked at her daughter slumped in the chair next to her. Pari was short for her age and her legs dangled from the chair, barely scraping the floor. Right now, her gaze was level with the window behind the teacher. Meera got a feeling the girl knew what was coming. Meera looked back at Mrs. Khanna and gave a nod. She was ready.
“It is really a trivial matter, Mrs. Mehra,” the teacher began. “I wouldn’t have called you, you know. But Pari is sometimes just so adamant! She refuses to agree with us. And there isn’t much I can do this close to the date…”
“Mrs. Khanna …” Meera began.
“Oh, Roohi, please,” the teacher interjected with a smile and a hand to her coiffed hair. Meera swallowed, nodded, and began again.
“Roohi ma’am, I am not clear…”
“Oh! Of course! Let me tell you what has happened,” said the teacher leaning forward in her chair, placing both her hands on the table in front of her. “You see, we are doing a play for our Annual Day function that takes place in two months’ time. The play we have chosen this time, is Cinderella. It is a beautiful story, as I am sure you know. And seeing as Pari here, is our star performer, not to mention how beautiful she is – I mean, I can really see her in the pretty purple gown, dancing on the stage with… oh, I have just the boy in mind to play Prince Charming! –” here the teacher was lost in a reverie for a few moments, and Meera bit her lip to stop herself from smiling. She looked across at Pari with raised eyebrows.
Presently, the teacher continued, “– so, anyway, we are keen that Pari play the lead. I am sure you understand what a big deal this is Mrs. Mehra.”
Meera nodded. “I understand Ma’am. Pari has always performed in the school plays. And I am really glad she is getting these wonderful opportunities to showcase her talent…”
“Exactly! Exactly what I told her! And do you know what she did? She refused the part!”
Meera frowned. Pari was a lively little girl. A bit mature for her age, but then she was an only child and didn’t have too many friends. Her only company were books and her parents, so that was expected. But Pari loved her studies and her extra-curricular activities alike. And she loved to play dress up as much as she loved sports and studies. So her refusing the title part in the school play was news to Meera. She turned to look at Pari, and asked her in their secret language, what’s all this about?
This, of course, wasn’t lost on the teacher. And she turned to Pari saying, “Pari, why don’t you please tell your mother what you told us?”
“I don’t want to play Cinderella, Mummy.”
“You see?” the teacher pointed at Pari as if Meera wasn’t sitting right there and couldn’t see her. Meera kept looking at Roohi Ma’am and Pari alternatively.
“I don’t like Cinderella.” the girl shrugged.
Meera opened her mouth, but no words came out. She was frowning and trying to make sense of what her little girl was thinking. But before she could say anything, the teacher, feeling vindicated now, pressed on. “Pari, tell your mother what you told me and Kusum Ma’am about why you don’t want to play Cinderella.”
Pari looked at Meera then, her huge brown eyes melting in Meera’s matching, but lighter, brown ones.
“Cinderella is nothing like me, Mummy. I don’t want to play her. She sat crying when she was troubled by her sisters. She sat crying when she was refused permission to go to the ball. She sat crying when she was made to do all the chores at home, instead of standing up to her sisters. Even when the fairy godmother helped her with a chariot and a beautiful dress and the glass slippers, she should’ve just run away. But she stuck to the midnight deadline, and again, sat crying when the chariot turned into a pumpkin eventually! And she waited for the Prince Charming to come rescue her from her evil stepmother and stepsisters! I wouldn’t sit and cry! And I don’t want to play a girl who is such a cry-baby!”
The girl had spoken calmly. In a clear voice that rang out in the teacher’s office.
The teacher, who had expected this, was staring at Pari with her eyes narrowed. And Meera, who hadn’t known what to expect from her daughter, kept staring at her.
“You see Mrs. Mehra?” the teacher turned to Meera now.
But before Meera could say anything, the teacher changed tack. “Pari, would you step outside the office for a few minutes, dear?” she said suddenly.
Once they heard the click of the door after Pari had closed it behind her, Roohi Ma’am sighed and looked straight at Meera.
“Look Mrs. Mehra,” she said; “I appreciate that Pari is an intelligent, confident girl. I can also understand that this is not a quirk of fate – that there is a lot you have put in, to raise your daughter the way you have. And I applaud you for this really wonderful, confident way Pari is turning out to be. But Mrs. Mehra, this is a school play. For the Annual Day. It is entertainment, Mrs. Mehra. There is no need for Pari to be so adamant. Of course, she is a child. But I am hoping you can make her understand that it is no big deal…”
“Ma’am, if I may?” Meera finally got a word in. Roohi Ma’am nodded and sat back in the chair.
“Ma’am, I understand that Cinderella has a lot of entertainment value. The whole pumpkin-turning-into-a- chariot, the fairy godmother, the ballroom dance with Prince Charming, the glass slippers – I get it. It is good theatre. But ma’am, I think it would be good to respect Pari’s wishes. Maybe you could find someone else to play the part…”
“I am surprised at you Mrs. Mehra.” The teacher looked stricken now. Obviously, she had been counting on Meera as her ally, only to be let down.
“It is not about giving the part to another girl, Mrs. Mehra.” She said. “There will be girls lining up outside this office if I so much as mention that we are open to take someone other than Pari for the lead role in the play. I know mothers who would do anything to have their daughters play the part of the pretty Cinderella. But this isn’t about them. This is about not letting Pari get away with talking the way she just did. Pari needs to learn that opportunities that come one’s way should not be squandered away on a whim! She cannot just shrug and look the other way saying ‘thanks, but no thanks!’”
“Roohi Ma’am, with all due respect, Pari isn’t just simply shrugging away the opportunity. Did you not hear her just now?”
“Oh, I heard her.” the teacher said indignantly. “She has said all this before in the presence of another teacher as well.”
“Then I am surprised Ma’am that you still insist that she play the part. Pari cannot play Cinderella Ma’am, because Pari doesn’t identify with her. Pari is a twenty-first century girl Ma’am. She believes in her own strength and is confident that she can tackle any situation in life without sitting crying or waiting for someone to come and rescue her. The glass slippers, the Prince Charming, it doesn’t excite her the way it did the fictional Cinderella who hadn’t known this confidence and this inner strength. Yes, maybe Pari will grow up to like pretty shoes, and may even fall in love one day; but that will be on her own terms, Ma’am. And I am proud of her for it.
‘I am happy Pari has told us, in exact words, why she cannot play the part of a fictional, ancient beauty, the quintessential damsel in distress with no means to improve her situation. It has taken a lot on my part, and my husband’s; to raise our daughter this way ma’am. To give her this confidence that she does not find Cinderella’s superficial beauty important and that she doesn’t find the need for Prince Charming to come rescue her from her problems. And I am rather happy about it.
‘Ma’am, as parents and teachers, isn’t it our duty, to fill our children’s cup with so much confidence that nothing in the world can shake it off them? I am filling my daughter’s cup of confidence, Ma’am. Wouldn’t you help me fill it up a little more by allowing her to bow out of playing Cinderella?”
When the curtain fell, fellow parents turned to congratulate her on Pari’s performance, and her husband, sitting next to her, squeezed her hand. A tear escaped Meera’s eye. She thought back to the day, a few weeks after Meera had spoken to Roohi Ma’am; when Pari had run home to happily announce that the school was now putting up Beauty and the Beast for the Annual Day, and that she was playing Belle – her favourite character because she too loved books like Pari did and she too was unafraid to speak her mind!
I did alright, Meera thought to herself, now. I am raising Pari right. My Pari, my fairy – a Belle, not a Cinderella.
Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the February 2018 Muse of the Month, but not among the top 5 winners.
Image source: pixabay