Bilu would have to sing at the annual college celebrations. With what amounted to a hunger strike, she secured a sari from her mother and, with it, permission to go to the celebrations dressed in the sari.
In no circumstances would Bilu go to college in a frock today.
Bilu hated dressing in a frock – abhorred it. Theirs was a co-educational college. When she appeared in a skirt before her male and female classmates, Bilu’s discomfort with her body knew no bounds. She didn’t want to acknowledge her legs from the knees downwards, a shrinking feeling made her shoulders want to fold their wings, and Bilu would be relieved if the chambers of her heart could accommodate her arrogant breasts, which defied the discipline imposed by her tight dress. And could it possibly be any worse than sitting in class and trying in vain to pull the hem of her frock down below her knees?
And yet how beautiful, how exquisite, how alluring a sari was. If only she could accommodate herself in it, there would be no question of having that shrinking feeling.
And then the loveliness of a sari!
Could it possibly be compared to anything else?
Such a feathery softness in the folds of a silk sari, such regal opulence in the borders and extremity of the Benarasi sari. The entrancement of formal attire offered by Jamdani and Dhakai tissue saris, the air of a light-winged bird in mid-flight in the Mysore georgette chiffon, and as for the fine, milk-white sari from a loom… Putting these on must make one feel like a pure, sacred priestess – or so Bilu imagined.
Her mother possessed all such saris, as did her bordi and mejdi, the two eldest sisters. Even shejdi, the third sister, had been growing her stock recently. And Bilu? An entire shelf of the cupboard stacked with nothing but frocks. Who could doubt that it would take her fifty years to wear them all? Perhaps she would have a larger supply by then. For Bilu had not yet acquired the right to saris. Her mother was firmly opposed to “little girls” dressing in them.
A student of the senior-most class in school but one, Bilu had not yet been promoted by her mother from the ranks of childhood. And why should she? Even Bilu’s shejdi had barely achieved that status. She had received permission to wear saris only the other day.
When she saw Bilu sunk in dejection today, her eldest sister felt a stab of pity. She made a representation to their mother, ‘Your insistence is unfair, ma. The child has a fancy for a sari, why can’t she wear one for a day.’
‘It’s BECAUSE she’s a child,’ answered their mother gravely. ‘Why should a child want to play at being an adult? She’s at an age when she should be running about and laughing and playing, it’s so much more comfortable in a frock. Instead of which she wants to turn all clumsy in a sari… tchah! If I were allowed to, I’d give up my sari for a frock at once. Freedom!’
As she spoke, a hint of a smile appeared on the grim lines of her face, possibly as she pictured this brilliant sight. And, cashing in on this momentary vulnerability, Nilu chuckled. ‘Easily, ma, easily. All of us second this proposal unanimously…’
Their mother resumed her gravity. ‘You don’t understand, Nilu, this isn’t just a whim of Bilu’s, for a long time now she has been dying to dress in saris. Why? It’s only when grown-up thoughts pop up in the mind that people are possessed by such strange wishes. Let her try it once and she’ll pester me for it every day.’
Perhaps Nilu’s memories from Bilu’s age had long been wiped out, which was why she could view her sister with nothing but pity. It was from that perspective that she said, ‘You and your worries. When she trips over it at every step, she’ll say on her own, “I’ve had enough.” It’s nothing like that, the students will perform today – she wants a bit of novelty, that’s all.’
‘Very well then, let her. But remember, Bilu – just the one time. You cannot clamour for a sari every day.’
Bilu’s mother gave her daughter permission to choose a sari from her own collection.
Bilu was in seventh heaven.
She chose a light orange sari. Rubbing it on her cheek, running her hands over it to feel it, she sat down to dress herself, bursting with happiness. Her eldest sister took the advisor’s role, however, even lending her a lovely blouse.
After she dressed, no sooner did Bilu drape the end of her sari over her shoulder than her eldest sister laughed. ‘Silly girl, why do you want to look awkward like old women? Twist it around your waist instead.’
‘Oh no, why? This is very nice,’ protested Bilu.
As though she wanted to remedy her exposed state of all these years in a single day.
When she stood before the mirror after she was done dressing, Bilu almost had tears of joy in her eyes. Was she so beautiful! So very beautiful! When had she ever had the chance to learn that putting her hair up loosely instead of making her customary plaits on either side could make her face appear so lovely?
Bilu seemed to whistle. ‘How do I look?’
‘Oh, you look wonderful. Oh my god, you’ve put your hair up too. How ever did you learn?’
‘By myself. I’ve taken all the hairpins that you and mejdi and shejdi had above the mirror and stuck them in my hair.’
‘Good for you.’ Nilu hailed her mother, laughing, ‘Ma, come and take a look, your youngest daughter is a full-fledged woman today. And you thought she was going to trip over her sari – just see her now. She’s even put her hair up herself.’
The seventeen-year-old Bilu giggled helplessly at her own prowess with her hair – while Bilu’s eldest sister Nilu looked on with her thick glasses, her face pockmarked with pimples, her stoop prominent.
Bilu left in a rush before her mother could say anything.
So that her lack of poise in a sari was not observed by her mother and sisters.
Looking in the direction in which Bilu had disappeared, her mother sighed.
How would they know what their mother was perturbed about? In the past, women didn’t cultivate education, the family’s word was enough to tie down an unmarried girl indefinitely at twelve or thirteen. Even if relations or neighbours caught them out, proving beyond doubt that the calculations were doctored, the argument could still be won. But now such methods were ruled out. How could a college-going girl be passed off as a thirteen-year-old? Hence the futile attempt to hold back the hemline of age by forcing a short frock on the girl.
Bilu’s mother sighed once more.
Bilu was the youngest, after Nilu, Ilu and Milu.
How could this body, slim and sharp like a glittering sword, be allowed to dazzle under the polish provided by a sari just yet? The longer Bilu could languish in the darkness of the shadow of a frock the better.
Even if the song were completely memorized, having the book of lyrics open was a fashion. On her way to the library for a volume of Gitabitan, Bilu had to pause. Niranjan was on his way out of the room, leafing through the pages of a book of notations. She knew Niranjan a little better mostly on account of visits to the library. Despite their acquaintance, however, Bilu was of the opinion that the boy had a little too much of the air of an adult. Although he addressed Bilu respectfully, he seemed to exude an affectionate compassion for her.
But today’s encounter was completely unexpected.
Raising his eyes at the sound of Bilu’s footsteps, Niranjan seemed startled. Then he suddenly blurted out, ‘Glorious!’ His eyes shone with an unusual glow of wonder and admiration.
Bilu’s heart trembled.
Just a short while ago Nandita has exclaimed on seeing her, ‘Oh god! This is a new look! How fine you look – marvellous!’ But her heart had not trembled then.
But why should it have? There had been no such glow in Nandita’s eyes.
And what if there had been.
But even if her heart trembled, she must not let the trembling be found out. So Bilu had to say, pretending she hadn’t understood, ‘What’s glorious?’
‘Me! Me glorious! Oh, hahaha, I see…’ Bilu broke into giggles like a little girl given chocolate. ‘You’re saying this because I’m in a sari, aren’t you? Then you’d better use the word hilarious.’ She had to prolong her laugh, lest her heart be heard thumping.
‘What are you laughing for?’ Niranjan said, adopting the role of gravity. ‘You should be severely punished.’
‘Yes, severely punished. For not dressing in a sari all these days.’
‘I must be punished for not dressing in a sari? You’re funny!’
‘Funny? It’s the truth. In my opinion dressing shabbily is a palpable crime. You look so wonderful in a sari, but you…’
Was a man’s compliment such a dangerous affair? Did it make you lose your bearings this way?
But how could she afford to lose her bearings?
Forcibly exiling her heart to its rightful place, Bilu began to giggle like a clockwork doll. ‘I have to tell bordi when I get home. It was she who bundled me into a sari. “What do you mean you’ll sing on the dais in a frock?” she said. “No one will even notice you. At least in a sari you’ll catch people’s eyes, at least they’ll consider you a human being.” I must tell her.’
Maintaining his gravity, Niranjan countered, ‘Your sister is quite right. You’re catching the eye far too much in a sari. It is becoming difficult to tear my eyes away.’
‘Oh my god. You say such funny things. Heeheehee.’ Bilu’s forehead began to ache with giggling. ‘Oh dear, I’m getting late.’
‘Late? They’ve only just sent people to fetch the tabla players. We can chat for another hour.’
‘How simple it is for you. And to think I haven’t memorized any of the songs yet. I need a volume of Gitabitan…’
‘Whi… which? The second, I think. Let me check…’
‘Come with me.’
She had no choice but to follow Niranjan.
Some time was spent in selecting the book.
A period of silence.
This was much worse than conversation. The silence seemed to make the ground sink beneath her feet. She could find nothing to hold on to.
‘Will you keep a request?’
‘What request? Join everyone for tea on the way back?’ Again Bilu’s eyes held the darkness of ignorance.
‘For heaven’s sake, who’s talking about that? What I’m saying is… I beg of you, don’t ever dress in a frock ever again.’
‘Not dress in a frock ever? Oh my god, how is that possible. But why shouldn’t I?’
‘Because… because…? Because it’s absolutely intolerable. Wear a sari every day from now on, red or blue or green or white… any colour you like.’
‘Oh god…’ Bilu’s eyes seemed to grow round with fear. Crushing the end of her sari between her fingers as though she were rather ill at ease, Bilu declared, ‘It’ll be the death of me. I won’t be able to go anywhere or play games. Even a single day is bad enough. I feel all bundled up. I’m just waiting to go home and take this sari off. My god, I really wonder how people do any work wrapped in twenty-two yards of cloth.’
‘So will you. The sleeping beauty will awake at the touch of the golden wand of the sari…’
‘Good heavens! What is this nonsense you’re spouting? What sleeping beauty, what golden wand. I can’t make head or tail of any of this.’
‘You really can’t?’ Niranjan asked hopelessly.
‘Of course not!’ A little girl of five seemed to have taken possession of Bilu. ‘How can I? You’re just spouting rubbish. “The golden wand of the sari!” Heeheehee. Why not talk of the golden sand in the curry!’
Bilu had to giggle again. She had to giggle even if there were tears in her eyes from the effort. What else could she do but giggle? She could not afford to be serious. Didn’t Bilu know very well that she still had three elder sisters!
For Bilu was much, much younger than Nilu, whose eyes got worse – and stoop more prominent – every year; than Ilu, who was adding weight and gravity with every passing day and turning into a football; than Milu, who still starred as a young woman although her youth was spent. Her childhood could not possibly end just yet. Let the sari remain with its sensuous beauty on the highest rack in the cupboard, the lower rack was Bilu’s, where piles of frocks were stacked.