Vinu’s mother walked into the room just as he had tried her new lipstick. She was startled. He was startled.
She said, “What are you doing with my lipstick? It’s new…I haven’t used it so far. Couldn’t you have waited?”
He smiled and handed it back to her. “I forgot to tell you…I am playing Draupadi in our college production… rehearsals start this evening.”
“Good for you,” she said, grabbing the lipstick from his poised hands. She was dressed in her pleated skirt, ready for work, with her bag slung across.
“Mom!!” he said, simultaneously checking the mirror, The color had smudged around his puckered lips. The effect was quite trashy, and he decided he liked it.
Mother shoved him off the chair, “You should be happy I don’t whack your pretty bottom for rummaging. Now shoo.” She sat on the dressing table and began the tedious process of lining her own eyes black. Her eyes always looked ready to fire up with expression, like an angry tigress, “So when is it?” she said, “And am I invited?”
Vinu crowded into the same mirror, scrutinizing her process, “Of course! Two weeks from now. You think daddy will come?”
The eye pencil crumbled at her pressure, leaving a black smear. She threw up her hands, “You know how I hate this. Now I have to do it again!”
“Consider it revenge,” he blew her a kiss, “And a lesson in sharing. Now be a good girl and give the red to your son.”
“Ha. And have you look better than me? No way!” She said, swabbing away the dirty black.
Vinu picked the pencil, sharpening it, “Here, let me do it for you. You suck at it anyway.” He made her face him, and drew the perfect arcs with a practiced twirl, even swabbing some smoky black on her eyelids. Then he stood back admiring her, “Why would this beautiful lady ever be jealous of her son?”
She turned to look at the mirror, and smiled, “Because he’s too much of a darling,” She kissed him on his forehead, “Now let’s not be late for your stardom.”
But he hadn’t told mother the whole deal. He couldn’t. Sharath was in the play, as well. As Lord Krishna.
And Sharath would see him, beautiful, for the first time.
Sharath and Vinu had been friends forever. Sharath the sweet, adorable, small-town guy, who teased Vinu for liking the girly things. In fact, Vinu slipped in the occasional bracelet, wore that floral shirt or even lined his eyes with Kajal, just to get that humored sparkle in Sharath’s eyes. “Vinu! You are so girly, yaar!” he’d say, and shoulder-pinch him, and Vinu would blush and say, “If I were a girl, would you be my boyfraind?” Boyfraand. The way Sharath would say it. In his sweet North Karnataka accent. Where each word in English was a chore; that Vinu took pains to correct. “I say boyfriend now, Ok,” said Sharath, pouting with such a look of mock hurt, that Vinu burst into laughter.
But Vinu noticed that Sharath always evaded the question. Would he do the same today, with his trashy red lipstick? His heart beat fast, just thinking of Sharath’s pinch, that few seconds of contact that would rush blood to his face. “You are so white, you even blush like a girl!” Sharath would say.
What would Sharath do if he knew of Vinu’s secret crush on him? Stop talking to Vinu? Confuse the crap out of the poor guy? Maybe it would fill him with the guilt of hurting a friend. There was, of course, that magical alternative, that Vinu loved and lived in the most: Sharath returning Vinu’s love. And the play was his one chance to live that dream. Let Sharath see him, as a woman.
The minute Vinu walked into the practice room, the boys had begun to hoot. “Eyy…look at this Chakka. He has come in his lipstick today,” The air kissing and clapping of hands was as loud as it was tasteless, and much expected of Kishore, the biggest of boors. The boy’s jeer showed all his dirty teeth, and he towered above him with all of his six feet. The bigger the boys, the more irritating they got to be, thought Vinu. But the boys and girls were surrounding him now, attracted by Kishore’s hooting. Kishore was a brazen brown and took a liking to walk shirtless and cracking loud jokes. And to make it worse, the girls seemed to love it. “He’s a perfect movie villain. What a gigantic mustache!” They giggled at each other. What fantasy looped in their minds, he couldn’t fathom, but Kishore supposed good looks filled him with nothing but revulsion. And this ass was to be Dhushasan, the villain of the play. And Vinu whole-heartedly approved of his drama madam/s choice. What he didn’t approve, was the boy’s slimy touch.
With the drama ma’m busy on the phone discussing lights and logistics, Vinu noticed that Kishore was gearing up for a bigger attack. Best to quickly exit the scene for a bathroom break, he thought. But the laughter came from behind him, and Vinu noticed that Kishore was following him, with what seemed an ugly imitation of Vinu’s feminine gait, the exaggerated ass bounce, and then when Vinu turned to face Kishore, the puckered mouth and fluttering eyelids were as disgusting as the slap on Vinu’s ass.
Vinu’s eyes tightened, but his smile was large and tantalizing. He put an arm around Kishore, a romantic gesture, “So darling, you are interested in chakkas, is it?”
Kishore’s nose flared. The tables were turning, the girls laughing were laughing at Kishore. The boy pushed away Vinu’s hand, stomping away like an injured dog off to nurse his wounds. It was a sweet victory for Vinu. Until he saw Sharath, who had just walked in, staring at Vinu and his Chakka act with a look of cold shock.
On the day of the play, was the first time Vinu was to wear a sari, in the way of the ancients.
Of course, he’d romped around the house in his mother’s salwar suits and skirts and loved her cotton maxis, sometimes slept in it. Mother’s wardrobe gave enough room (and a bit more, size-wise) for him to experiment. After Daddy left, somewhere around his 15th birthday, she’d let him go crazy with it (unless of course, something was brand new, then she was finicky as hell, and always reacted with unnecessary drama). Heels, jewelry: all were his secret playmates.
But not the sari. Vinu looked at the saree with reverence. Like a garment for a special day, for a special someone. Not for a child. That’s why he jumped at the opportunity. It was time to be himself. And what better way than this. He kept the rehearsals intentionally as brisk affairs. Sari over his jeans and shirt. Almost clownish. Winning many a laugh that he enjoyed.
But today was different. Today Vinu was Draupadi. Today he would be a woman.
He stood facing the mirror in his underwear and sandals. The three skin-colored bras he had stuck to his chest, carefully layering them one over the other, and hooking them together, until two breasts peeked at him, like a pair of curious oranges. There would be no blouse. No petticoat. He would submit to the yards of silk in all its unstitched glory. The dictated way of tradition.
He surveyed the light-red sari, folded and waiting for him on the bed, as an electric current of thoughts hit him. Would his father come? What would everyone say or think? Kishore, his class. Sharath. Would they see him for who he was? They would ridicule him of course, but would they accept? His palms closed together, his eyes closed shut. A prayer escaped his lips. He felt himself shaking, his forehead growing damp, his heartbeat racing.
Krishna, protect me.
His mind wavered to Sharath. Why had he said nothing about that day? They sat together. Ate together. Talked about everything as usual. But something was wrong. Vinu knew his Sharath.
One thing was sure. Where were the ‘girly jokes’? Vinu had gotten more reckless in the days that followed. A beaded necklace. A ladies sandal. A handbag. Every day at least one item of usual attire. And provoke it did, just everyone but Sharath. Was it anger? Was it pity? Was it disgust? What was he thinking?
Say it, Sharath. Just say it, Vinu’s mind had screamed, but his tongue stayed tied.
There was a loud banging on the door and his drama ma’ms high shriek. “Hurry up, Vinu. It’s almost time. Can you at least let me in? Do you even know what the hell you are doing? Let me help.”
But his head stayed bowed, his fingertips touching his head, lips, and heart. He picked the cloth, unfurling it around him, weaving himself in a cocoon of vermillion red, Banarasi silk, and fiery gold. It was over in a few minutes, his fingers following what only his eyes have seen a hundred times.
Then his eyes caught the daring black-winged eyes in the mirror, the bold red bindi, the face of an icon, of a fearless woman in a world of power-hungry men. The face of a warrior Queen.
Show Time, she whispered and opened the door.
Draupadi’s eyes adjust to the stage light, scorching her like a flaming torch.
The crowd beyond has hushed. Draupadi has been dragged by her hair and flung into the midst of the Kaurava court. Her five husbands do not meet her frightened eyes; shame colors their faces. In her confusion, she screams. What is happening?
Dhushasan walks up to her. Leering at her, his revenge thirsting after her humiliation. Your husbands, Duryodhana laughs, your husbands have lost a game of dice. You have been gambled away.
Her eyes are wide with shock, the horror of betrayal. The order to strip her is given to Dhushasan. She screams for mercy; her wails are tearing at the hearts of the crowd. Everyone’s, but her tormentors. Dhushasan’s hand grab the end of her cloth. Dhushasan pulls, Draupadi is flung into the whirl of shameful undressing, her hands clasped together in a holy entreating to Lord Krishna.
Save me, Krishna.
The crowds’ breath has collectively frozen in the grasp of this timeless pain. In the snow-white glow of heavenly white, Krishna appears. He raises his hands, a blessing to save his ardent devotee. The saree is enchanted as it extends endlessly. This is the cue for Dhushasan to fall, tired and confused by the length of the endless, enchanted zaree.
But he doesn’t.
Vinu’s startled eyes open to meet Kishore’s. The teeth are bare, his eyes rabid, and the last of the sari falls in a pile far away from him. Kishore’s revenge seems complete. Vinu stands in his underwear, the nude bras still pasted to his pathetic chest. The crowd is shocked. His hand rushes to his chest, his legs held together tight. The tittering in the audience is uneasy only at first and quickly unbridled into loud pandemonium. Anger and laughter spread through the hall in waves. The house lights are switched on to still the confusion. And Vinu now sees the crowd, perusing him in his absurd nakedness. His father’s eyes lock into his, cold and disgusted. HIs mother is pushing away, trying to wade through the crowd. The boys are hooting. Vinu’s eyes turned to Kishore’s. His legs are weakening at the boy’s leer. A hot flush is sending the ground hurtling towards him at a terrifying speed. But his consciousness slips away only in slow seconds, and he feels the powerful grip on the shoulder. Mother? The tears are falling from his eyes now. Pain shoots through his stomach.
Suddenly he feels lifted, floating above the ground. The sari is wrapping itself around him, like a soft, safe blanket. He seems cocooned in strong arms, with hovering eyes that stare without a hint of sympathy. Only love.
It was Krishna. His Krishna. Sweet Sharath had saved him.