Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013, FeaturedWriter Madhumita Gupta

Ms Mini Lives For A Day

March. The sweetest of months, thought Mini. The bitter cold was over, the scorching summer still to start, these were lovely, long pleasant days. Light breeze carried with it the myriad fragrances of the flowers bursting into bloom. The colors, the smells triggered something in Mini. The sudden wish to sing and dance and touch the flowers and admire her own reflection in the receding waters at the beach at sunset.

Yes, that’s what she’d do.
She stood in front of the burnished brown wardrobe made of genuine teak – gleaming with years of energetic polishing by the ever-willing old ‘Bhola’ – and gently pulled the doors open. Smooth as butter- quality will tell, she smiled to herself. She eased the keys into the lock of locker and felt inside.
Her fingers found the velvet box without any trouble. Resisting the urge to open it right there, she carried it to the well-lit morning room and put it on the glass- topped table. Slowly, reverently almost, she unlatched the silver-clasp of the box and held up the lid.

There it was, in its pristine beauty. Mini lifted the flawless pearl necklace from its blue satin bed and held it against her own white neck. It looked perfect, she glanced at her reflection in the glass-table and smiled. Truly ‘Swan neck’, as He and the media called her. 

How clearly she remembered the day when He had gifted her these pearls! It was the eve of their block-buster release. Of course, they hadn’t known at that point what a huge hit ‘Summer 1967’ was to become. But when it had, this string of perfect pearls had become her talisman. She wore it to all her premiers. And quite a few of their movies did go on to become top-grossers.

Mini rummaged in her wardrobe and chose the sheer midnight- blue sari, with its delicate lace edging. The necklace and this sari seemed made for each other. As much as He and she had been. Both on and off-screen, there was hardly a day they spent away from each other. They’d sit and read all their ‘Oh, we’re just good friends’ stories in the glossies and double-up laughing.
But then she’d start worrying, did they actually have a future together? 

“Don’t be silly,” he’d say and tease, “will you be able to live a single day without me?”
She’d forget her worries and tease back, “Would you?”
She dressed as immaculately as she did every evening and set off for another evening by the beach, just near the old band.

The assorted kids of all shapes and sizes were already there, running around after their ball, their mothers in their sloppy jeans and T-shirts sat around intermittently bursting into loud laughter; crows hopped around the wet sand, where t he waves had just been, looking for those tiny, pale crabs the waters had forced out of their holes. Mini found her usual bench unoccupied and settled down gratefully, easing her feet off the sandals and enjoying the feel of cool, packed sand beneath her feet.
It had felt strange in the beginning when awed whispers – ‘It’s her, isn’t it?’ whenever she made her rare public appearances in her huge trademark dark glasses, had given way to ‘Oh, it’s her, she looks different from screen’ smiles.
In the beginning it had upset her. 

She took to looking around, taking off her glasses and then, sometimes, some middle-aged ladies smiled at her, “Oooh, you’re Miniji, aren’t you?”
People – not the ignorant youngsters, but the ones with taste – hadn’t stopped recognizing her. Some solace.
It was one thing cribbing in her interviews ‘I miss going to the beach by myself and have pani-puris!’ and quite another having to do without the adulation.
Now, a sigh escaped her, she could sit here for ages and have pani-puris till she gave herself a massive stomach - ache and nobody would bother her!
But no good thinking about that. She listened hungrily around for Life. Her vicarious life. She could hear snatches of conversation around her and eavesdropped unashamedly. 

“I made it quite plain what I thought of her gaudy dress…”
“Did you see the dress she was wearing last night?”
“And she thinks she’s so well-dressed!”

The kitty-party types, Mini wrinkled her nose, she had never thought much of these gossipy ladies.
But she found herself agreeing with them, most people, girls, that is, had forgotten what ‘well-turned out’ meant these days! On a whim she started counting the blue-jeans around her and the ones that passed her. 

In ten minutes she’d counted more than 20 – age , sex no bar. From fourteen to fifty, it seemed everybody had started living in jeans. How many here, she wondered, knew that she had been the setter of this trend? At least, she smiled reminiscently, she was among the first ones who had made jeans acceptable on heroines, before that vamps were the ones who would wear western clothes while the heroines stayed covered in demure saris.
Oh, those were the days.

“I’m certainly not going to wear purple pants,” she’d stamp her heels.
“For me, dear…please and you know you look great whatever you wear…..” He’d cajole. And she agreed to everything.

In the end she did what he said and generally it worked. Some of it didn’t, like those purple –pants, she’d been the butt of jokes for months to come. He, on the other hand started adorning the cover-pages of fashion magazines. Was that when she’d started feeling manipulated?
She dragged her mind back to the present.

Yes, look at these girls – wearing just anything, no sense of colours or style. She specially noticed two girls, both fresh-faced, in the twenties, but so sloppily dressed! Loose T-shirts on chinos which did nothing for their figures.

Now when she wore westerns, she made sure everything flattered her hour-glass figure – from the fitted shirts to the carefully tailored pants or skirts. No one had heard of photo-shopping and what did they call it…yes… air-brushing those days, everything depended on how well you maintained your figure and on your dress-designer.
Tara, her dear Tara, a tailor’s daughter, had known so well what to hide and what to enhance and how! This sari she was wearing today was her creation. 

Girls today, Mini recalled some new actresses, yes, actresses, not one qualified to be called a ‘star’, all looked alike – same hairstyles, same size-zero figures, same dance-styles and even same mannerisms. They did speak better English, she conceded, but that was because most of them were from affluent families with good education behind them.
 How many of them had studied in vernacular schools like her and learnt English only by sheer dint of determination?

He had been instrumental in that, she had to admit, he had coached her patiently till she was almost as good as him, accent and all. People had started noticing how similar their styles and even choices of expressions were.

The problems had started around that time, all his restrictions, his insistence to sit in through her story-sessions, his interference – how could she forget that it had cost her the crucial two films which had de-throned her effectively. 

She never interfered with his movies but he had started doing that as his birthright. But yes, she had put her foot down when he had objected to working with Devraj- the legend.
 Who in their right minds refused The Devraj? And was she glad she had done ‘Aahista’ with him, the role of an handicapped woman standing against the world, the role which had got her her only National award.

“Now you’ll be labeled for life as an art-house actress!” he had jeered, “your stint as a commercial heroine is over for good!”

“It’d have been in a few years, in any case,” she’d countered, “now at least I have an award with me, which,” and before she could stop herself, she found herself saying, “which is more than what you can say for yourself…”
And that was the final nail in the coffin of the dying relationship.
And the funny thing was that though she missed him at times, she felt liberated. And she was proved right, though her hey-days as the reigning star were over, she had been recognized as a capable actress and she’d actually been among the few for whom the writers wrote magnificent roles. At least, they did till recently.

‘Recently’, she suddenly realized with a shock, had been quite a while. How many years had it been since ‘Gumraah’ was made? Her brows creased with the effort but she just couldn’t remember. Suddenly she missed the studio-lights, the constant hum of noise, the exhilarating shouts of ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’…. And then the inevitable applause, ‘What a shot, madam!’

But look, now she had all the time to look after her home, plants, herself, she argued with herself and convinced herself that it was just as well, she had needed the rest. This gave her enough time to spend time on herself, not like her colleagues who had let themselves go, and had become fat and grey basking in the newfound glory of their newfound ‘granny’ status!

 How many of the actresses her age had maintained themselves as well as her? All of them were ‘plus’ sizes, Mini sniggered derisively. To think these were ‘divas’ once!! Oh Lord!
It was perhaps the snigger that had escaped out loud, which drew the attention of the two teenagers sitting at the next bench, to her.

“Crazy!” one of them huffed, not caring to lower her voice.
“I’ve often seen her here,” the other one said, “always dressed to the hilt, for the beach, imagine!”
“Dressed to the hilt?” the first one echoed, “in that moth-eaten satin sari, which went away with great grandma?”
“Don’t miss the pearls!” and both of them broke into raucous laughter.
“As if she was the chief-guest at some high-profile party- the grande-dame!”

Mini’s face burned. Suddenly everything around her turned a dull grey. The soft-lights of the evening gave way to harsh high-masts highlighting the overflowing dust-bins. The silvery waters turned ominous grey. A huge storm cloud at the horizon appeared to be heading landwards.
Wrapping her flapping sari around her she walked towards her house. The few sickly plants near the weather-beaten door were shaking off their last leaves in the wind. About to ring the bell, Mini remembered Bhola would no longer rush to open it, he had passed away…..when? Again she couldn’t remember. A year ago? Or more? Running seamlessly, day after day, year after year, time had long since ceased to mean anything at all.
She took out the rusty keys and pushed the door open.

Tearing away the suddenly oppressing sari and necklace, she sat down on the wrought-iron cot her vacant eyes staring at the papery white, lined face at her own reflection in the darkening glass table.

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