Vidya lost her mother when she was very young. Plump and ungainly, she drifted through her teen years, ridiculed and ignored. Her only redeeming factor was her sharp brain. Will she find her way out of the emotional morass? Will Reena’s ghost let her forge ahead? Chitra Singh narrates an interesting tale.
‘’Don’t let anyone dull your sparkle‘’
The biggest problem in Vidya’s life was that her mother passed away very early, even before she reached puberty. Now that can be a disaster. Her father thought he could bring up his children on his own but he didn’t have a clue. When her first course came, she hid herself in shame because she didn’t know what the stream of blood meant or how to stem the flow, or for that matter what to do with herself. She thought she was dying in those four days. To tell the truth, her father was not a caring man and he let the children stumble on, on their own. It didn’t strike him that children need nurturing, and turned a Nelson’s eye to their problems. He let them grow like neglected weeds in a garden, knowing full well that weeds have to be tended to, for the garden to flourish, but not wanting to be troubled by anything.
So Vidya, as a teenager, was everything that a girl her age should not be. The word attractive was not in her psyche, no one had made her aware of it. She was fat from indulging in all the wrong foods, her carriage was deplorable, and to top it all she totally lacked a dress sense. That was for two reasons. First because her father was a bit of a miser and didn’t provide for a proper wardrobe, and secondly she never realised that good clothes could do wonders for one’s personality. She went about in ill- fitting and archaic clothes, looking dowdy and ugly as hell. But the best part was that she never realised what an unattractive picture she presented. Given the circumstances, naturally she was quite diffident. However, she did have one God given gift, a clear and concise mind which was really quite brilliant, endowed as it was with analytical skills and a remarkable memory. As a result, she soon became the topper in her class, in which ever school she attended.
When she was about fourteen, her father got a new posting in a town which boasted of exclusive schools and people came from far and wide to avail this advantage. As was his wont he didn’t skimp on education and enrolled Vidya in the best school there. The school catered to the upper crust and was populated by the children of the wealthy, and of the service class. It was run by European nuns, who though they claim to look after Christ’s humblest flocks, in actuality, were quite enamoured apparently by the well- heeled. Vidya landed in this school midterm, and joined class ten which was the penultimate year of the school curriculum. Though she was provided with a brand new uniform, her entire appearance was ungainly and didn’t present a pretty picture. When she was escorted into the designated class-room, she knew she was the cynosure of all eyes, and all the other students were eyeing her with open curiosity. The teacher in a gesture of kindness seated her in the front row after making the adjustment with one of the students. As Vidya seated herself, she distinctly heard a snigger, and her non-existent self- esteem literally slithered down to her shoes and she shrank further into her shell. She pretended not to notice and turned her attention to the teacher.
Reena was definitely the queen bee of the class. She knew she was the prettiest, with wide set eyes, a cupid bow- mouth, and a stylish haircut. A lithe and graceful figure only gilded the lily. She managed to look ethereal even in a school uniform. Just because she was pretty she thought everyone should dance to her tune and surprisingly everyone did. Reena got a peculiar satisfaction in making every one defer to her. She loved to see how much she could get away with. The school authorities humoured her because she came from a wealthy family which was always advantageous for the school. Her classmates fell in line with her because no one had the courage to cross her. Her air of superiority and her complete self- confidence managed to make every one subservient, and she assumed that was her birth right. When the sloppy Vidya walked into classroom Reena couldn’t believe her luck. Could someone like that really exist? Well she was a sitting duck, thought Reena and she had every intention of making the most of the situation. Fortunately, the teacher had seated her on the seat right next to her. After surreptitiously taking her in Reena felt she had every right to demean her to the hilt. God! her uncouth appearance was right out of an Oliver Twist scenario. Her ungainly body, her ill- fitting clothes, her utter lack of grooming proclaimed she came from some kind of orphanage and Reena thought it quite abhorrent. What presumptuousness to think that she could study in this school. ‘’Well Miss Vidya, I know what to do with the likes of you, I’ll soon show you,‘’ she thought gloatingly. Perhaps it would be best to humiliate her so thoroughly, that she would flee from the school. That would put Miss pretentiousness in her proper place once and for all. With that decided she started biding her time.
Each morning Vidya felt more and more reluctant to go to school. She hated the idea of being a part of that indifferent class. No one had come forward to get to know her, or to make her acquaintance. She felt as if she was sitting on the edge of a very slippery precipice and any moment would be given a rude push from behind. Somehow each morning she made her way into the classroom, despite the sly glances and barely concealed looks of ridicule. Pretending not to notice she would busy herself with her books. The curriculum was no problem for her and within days she was able to start making an impression on the teachers. She had gauged that the general level of the class was quite mediocre. She found Reena, who sat on the seat next to her, quite at sea with most of her work. When the teacher asked them to write a composition on some perilous adventure they had experienced, Vidya had a field day describing a fictitious encounter with the abominable snowman, the Yeti, in the snow clad wilds of Tibet. She let her imagination run riot. Not surprisingly, the next day, the teacher was all praise for her effort and even went to the extent of reading it aloud in class, and telling everyone that was how compositions were meant to be written. Little did Vidya realise that with this reading her fate was sealed.
Reena felt things were getting out of hand. This upstart of a new comer was getting too much attention, and all too soon. Her wings had to be clipped. She devised a way to humiliate her. She took out an expensive colouring pencil from her collection, and unobtrusively dropped it in front of Vidya’s desk, while stepping out for the morning break of fifteen minutes. Vidya too thought she would go out in the sun during the small break. As she gathered her books to one side of her desk, she noticed the pencil lying on the floor. Not knowing to whom it belonged she picked it up and put it on her desk, thinking the owner would see it and take it.
As soon as she returned from the break, she saw a group of girls gathered around her desk, with Reena standing at the head of them with folded hands. “Why you thief’’ she uttered, “see girls she has taken my pencil’’ and picking it up from the desk she flashed it around. “Thieving that’s what you do.’’ Vidya was so nonplussed by the accusation that she could only shake her head in denial. She stood there as if struck by lightning. She realised there was no point in speaking, because no one would listen to her. She shrank within her shell, and somehow brazened out the day. Many times in the days that followed she thought of taking up the matter with the teacher but somehow couldn’t summon up the courage. At night she chastised herself for her cowardice but by morning her resolve disappeared. Days turned into weeks and the matter blew over and Vidya realised her image was tarnished forever. Thus, the final year of her schooling was purgatory, and not having anyone with whom she could discuss the matter, or take advice as to a course of action, she learned to live with it, but the anger simmered within. There were many nights when she woke up in a cold sweat, because the incident kept whirling in her brain like a rotating hurly burly. But the worst was that she despised herself for her cowardice.
The years rolled by. She joined a prestigious college and had the good fortune of rooming with a girl hailing from a prestigious well to do family. Aarti was kind and gentle and had all the social graces. It dawned on Vidya, that having no one in her life as a mentor, it would be best to absorb from Aarti, and subconsciously let all that was beautiful and attractive rub off on her. She found that she no longer indulged in her eating bouts, and started mastering the nuances of sensible eating. She embellished her lifestyle with a round of morning exercises and when she went home after the first semester, the ecstatic hailing of her neighbour aunt ‘’Vidya is that really you? ‘’ gave her a secret moment of ecstasy. No one had ever remarked on her scholastic achievements, but the loss of all her puppy fat had evoked such enthusiasm in people. She had been noticed. It dawned on Vidya that her future was mapped out for her.
By the end of her four years of college education she had learned all the intricacies of couture dressing, the art of subtle make up and the importance of having the right accessories. Coupled with her academic achievements, Vidya was now a very formidable package, and took life head on. She excelled in her undertaking and became a sought after professor in a renowned University. An attractive loving husband and two brilliant boys completed the picture. But whenever she was in a pensive mood that humiliating incident from school surfaced and caused a dull ache at the core of her being. Try as she might, she realised the incident would stay with her forever like an unwanted ulcer. The scene replayed in her mind like a programmed video and with her new persona she tackled Reena in a hundred different ways. But they had gone their separate ways and lived life to the full. Oceans of water had flown down the Ganges and both had carved niches for themselves.
Vidya stood before the looking glass and eyed herself critically. She had gathered up her tinted hair in a neat and becoming style and adorned it with a gleaming clip. Her rounded figure looked alluring in a bright red chiffon set off with a brocade blouse. Her eyes held a sparkle as if she was still on life’s threshold. Tilting her head to one side she thought her seventy years sat lightly on her. A contented smile hovered on her lips as she grasped her clutch and stepped out for the evening ahead. In all these years she had ignored these school reunions but this year was some kind of jubilee celebration and she had got talked into it. In fact curiosity had got the better of her. She was wondering whether Reena would be there and what their encounter would be like after all these years.
On reaching the venue, Vidya was caught up in the festivities and delved into them enthusiastically. She hailed one or two of the more familiar batch mates and joined a congenial group. But secretly her eyes were doing an unobtrusive sweep of the place and soon spotted Reena sitting on a high stool at the bar. All alone; where was her coterie? She didn’t appear so intimidating at this distance. Was this frail looking creature the one who had held the whole class to ransom?
Vidya decided to take the plunge and sauntered up to her. “Hi Reena! “she hailed, and realised Reena was totally at sea. “Remember me? “she added for good measure, but realised Reena was unable to connect or comprehend. On proximity Vidya took in her spindly figure, clad in a teenage style dress in a desperate attempt to cling on to youth. Heavy make-up had failed to camouflage the deep lines on her face. The striking good looks had disappeared. The mouth which was once a cupid’s bow was stretched wide like the joker in a batman movie, and the eyes had a hunted look. No sign of the class beauty there. The bitterness was almost palpable and Vidya decided that it was futile to engage with her. To think she had tortured herself all these years for this inconsequential person. With quicksilver change of mood, as if she had emerged from a dark cave into the light, she blithely moved to join her group and plunged into the activities with abandon. The others filled her in on the cross Reena was bearing. Her only son had been apprehended for economic offences. Poetic justice at its prime. Vidya wondered what nomenclature she had given her son. Her husband had never recovered from the shock and stigma and had recently passed out. There was a power struggle in the family and Reena was caught up deep in it. The list was long and unsavoury, and Vidya thought it best not to delve any deeper.
Raising her glass Vidya called out to her company, ‘’next round is on the one who can’t rattle of the school anthem in one go’’ and was shut down with a huge guffaw of laughter. A quick look in Reena’s direction found her staring deep into her glass, oblivious of her surroundings, Reena was there but not quite.