A ‘coming-out’ tale of a young woman, in 1998, in Madras.
“She took lonely walks, existed quietly, avoided office get-togethers, listened to Boney M and Eruption, read books by Kalki and watched movies with her neighbour, an Anglo-Indian, who introduced her to Roberto Rossellini. She was known by few, cared by less. She was a stranger in her own body, unyielding to truth and scared of expression. But it was all going to change because she would soon fall in love.”
The address was 15, Wallers Road, Madras – 2. The people around the mofussil lived their daily life much out of discomfort.
They imagined what it would feel like to be independent, to be in control of their life, to indulge in a little fantasy and to enjoy the company of loved ones. But such moments occur only in dreams and dreams rarely come true.
Such is the tale of this young woman who lived on the first floor of a ramshackle complex. She took lonely walks, existed quietly, avoided office get-togethers, listened to BoneyM and Eruption, read books by Kalki and watched movies with her neighbour, an Anglo-Indian, who introduced her to Roberto Rossellini. She was known by few, cared by less. She was a stranger in her own body, unyielding to truth and scared of expression. But it was all going to change because she would soon fall in love.
The landlord, intoxicated, had been waiting for more than half a minute at her doorstep with a bottle in one hand and a receipt in another. She quickly stepped out, paid the rent, grabbed the receipt and took off.
She was late for work.
As she ran down the flight of stairs, the landlord yelled: “A most wonderful day to you Madam!”
That morning, she took the double-decker and drifted towards work. It was 1998 and Madras had become Chennai but no one cared much about it.
She was a stenographer in a government office. The main hall there was full of men making callous noises, answering phone calls and exchanging advices on bank loans.
Most of her work meant being on the run alongside officers, turning their oral mumblings into written word and we all know, it is the written word that truly wins heart.
She liked the job. She was not the type who complained. In fact, she loved the job. As a transcriber, she was assigned to high-ranking ‘policy-making’ officials. She ‘felt important’ being among them.
Memos filled with the seal of the Head Engineer made rounds – ‘Proposal to raise wage by ten per cent for all and promotions/transfers for a select few.’
By noon, competent (mostly nepotistic) co-workers were informed through individual letters. She too hoped for a little bit of recognition.
She looked at her watch. It was already half past three and the letters had stopped. Dejected, she got up from her desk to leave. And just like that a memo arrived from the Manager. She had been assigned to the Public Works Department, the oldest government organization in the State, where she would take on a new role as PA to the Chief Community Development Officer.
A new sense of pride engulfed her. It was a very wonderful day indeed!
In the evening, she wanted to celebrate. And she did, by treating herself to ice cream(s), that’s right, two ice creams!
As she strolled towards the bus stop, she came across the most wonderful sight.
There are things in the world that pull you up by your neck and demand to be seen. And then there are those that naturally receive attention.
She could be describing a new flavour of ice-cream, but she wasn’t.
It was a woman in a plaid saree.
The two stood on either side of the road waiting for a bus. Her eyes pried open like an owl. She felt she could casually crossover and tell the woman how pretty she looked. The woman would then smile, maybe even laugh and ask her about things no one could.
And if the crowd grew larger at the bus stop, they would move closer towards each other. The woman would then whisper something in her ear in a voice that would make a nightingale envious. And they would talk all night as buses swept past them. She would take the woman on an ice cream shopping spree and buy her all the flavours in the world.
She got all this just by staring at the women in the plaid saree.
Now and then, the woman would make a slight wrinkle as her lips adjusted to the cold evening air. The woman stood there clasping her elbows – her shoulders stiff, her soul secluded…
The woman then gazed at her. For a brief second, it was so electrifying she had to look away. It was nothing like she had felt before.
Sure, she had fallen in love before, in primary school, with a boy who had the most magnificent hair. But that was nothing.
She watched the woman board a PTC bus.
“Should I follow her?” she asked herself.
She was ready to do it.
Instead, she took the bus home.
She tormented herself with questions. Why did she notice the woman? Was it because she was alone or was it the way she looked – so beautiful and ethereal. Maybe, it was her dress or her body – something about her physique felt athletic.
Anyway, she missed her stop and had to walk back to her place. She moved past multiple housing colonies and watched kids play cricket in the evening. Music and dance lessons had taken over every household.
All the while, she couldn’t stop thinking of her. She went home to her apartment and collapsed on the bed.
For two days, she went to sleep thinking of her and woke up with the same thought. It was both hell and heaven at once. For two days, she waited at the bus stop at the exact same time only to miss her.
She imagined how it would feel to hold her hands and plot romantic getaways.
She even gave the woman a name!
She decided on a name and all she could think of was ‘Z’. It was her belief that there were very few names in the world that start with a ‘Z’. Moreover, the sound of the alphabet had a mysterious vibe to it, much like the woman in the plaid saree.
At times, she felt unpleasant because ‘Z’ was a woman but she realised there are no rules to falling in love. She really hoped that was the answer.
Infatuation can lead to death. She had heard of cats and dogs die of heartbreak and wondered if it applied to human beings as well.
The doorbell rang. She had just woken up and did not look the least bit presentable.
It was the housekeeper. He had a habit of knocking at the wrong door. Given his inebriated state, it came as no surprise.
“Oh, apologises Madam! I was looking for the English lady.” The landlord grinned. He was enamoured with the Anglo-Indian, her embroidery clothes and her half-Tamil. He would spend minutes talking to her on the pretext of collecting dues.
He usually carried something or another in hand. This time around, he was delivering pamphlets. She picked one from the pack and perused it. And as she did, that last bit of morning drowsiness jumped out of her body. It was as if fate was directing her.
‘Sangam: A night of Indian magic’, read the advertisement. And there she was, the woman in the plaid saree, in the background among a Bharatanatyam ensemble.
The love of her life was a dancer…a frigging dancer!
Looking at the poster took her to a place far away from reality – towards her father, his love for sensory music, Moog synthesizers and Shammi Kapoor. She hated classical rhythms much like her father. He was a man who preferred synth music and afrobeat. She reminisced, how in 1984, her father lost his cool when he missed Osibisa perform at IIT-Madras. And with all those memories, she stood there staring at the poster. She had decided her next move. She knew what she was and what she was about to do and it frightened her.
She had rarely heard of such concepts, you know, the idea of love between two girls. She did come across the idea among men and in pulp fiction. In fact, she knew of a boy, in the neighbourhood, who gave up marriage and became a pujari (priest) for the exact reasons.
Anyway, she stepped inside and looked at the mirror, as she always did, like clockwork before office and before bed. But never had she felt like this before. For the first time in many years, she felt alive. Clutching the piece of paper, she glanced at the mirror – her hair splintered, her body gamine and her face like Juno.
When she sweet-talked the landlord into getting an admit pass for the event, he nodded with firm regret. He then pointed to the English lady’s room. Her face exercised a form of childish annoyance. And with much reluctance, she managed to ‘facilitate’ a conversation between the two.
Within hours, he managed to get the tickets, and on a packed Friday evening, she found herself among music aficionados in Mylapore. The hall was reverberating with Carnatic music.
It was unlike anything she had done before. Her idea of an evening was as simple as watching a housefly die of natural causes.
She was just in time for the concert dance.
‘Z’ stood in the middle, elegant and heavy with all that makeup and ridiculous getup.‘Z’ was wearin’ purple, everybody’s favourite colour!
She kept gazing at the woman’s hands as they moulded into weird physical manifestations. Mudra, they called it.
It did not matter to her if the performance was 60 minutes long or if the septuagenarian sitting nearby had croaked. What she felt for ‘Z’ was love except ’Z’ was a woman and that did stop her at times.
Was she ever in love with a woman before? No. But, she decided to embrace it. For her, this was real and it was a moment in time that could possibly shape her life.
She careened left and right tryin’ to position herself saunterly. She wondered if the woman would ever look her in the eye and acknowledge her existence.
She quickly minced those thoughts. She always did that. It was quite normal for her to do that, being what she was: a maladroit. Doubts and apprehensions were her lifelong companions.
The woman in purple was a delight though. She deserved a thousand ice-creams for her performance!
The dance ensemble broke into groups of two with ‘Z’ on the right-hand side of the dias directly facing her.
She chirped with enthusiasm. A million thoughtsflooded her mind and they all pointed to how she would end up saying something corny – “I like you very much. (a brief pause and then with a gasp of inexactitude) I like you more than I thought I would like you.”
All this thinking shifted her cranial plate mildly.
Her past, current and future thoughts went discursive when the woman in purple glanced at her. She was star struck. And when their eyes meet, this time ‘Z’ rolled hers skyward.
Applause poured in from all sides.
People stood up, threw roses and gave exuberant cries of commendation. Yeah, none of that happened.
After the show, she flew past the crowd inside the auditorium only to realise she had missed her again.
She passed through multiple rooms of the cultural centre in search. Her plight felt like a re-enactment of Stromboli’s final scene.
Taking a sip of water, she inspected the scene. In the back, the announcer was going on about a light music event. The atmosphere was pretty dour despite so much happening.
And there stood ‘Z’, away from limelight, like Nutan. She had slipped into something more formal.Alone she stood facing the other way, looking into the infinite crowd. Now and then, people would meet and greet her.
She made up her mind to walk towards ‘Z’ and Oh! The sweet agony! She was willing to die a thousand times for love, but the embarrassment of rejection lurked with every step she took.
When ‘Z’ finally turned, their eyes met in an instant and they never looked away.
About the author:
Mohammed Hidhayat is a Journalist working with DT NEXT, the English edition of Dina Thanthi