One fine morning, Kunda went ahead and shaved off her eyebrows. She did not have a razor but she stole her brother’s without asking him. Looking at her face in the small hand-mirror that hung crookedly from a rusted nail on the wall of their shanty, she washed her face with the apology of the soap pickings she had lifted from somewhere and wiped it with her brother’s dirty towel. Then, with slightly shaking fingers, she applied the razor – the blade was already inside – to her eyebrows and worked her way through till her face became unrecognizable even to herself.
Her face reminded her of that small child with no hair and no eyebrows in the free cancer ward where her father died a few years ago. That was one of the very few occasions she felt pity for that small girl. When she came to visit her father a few days later – she hated to come to the hospital but her mother forced her to – she found the bed empty. By then, the pity of the earlier day had vanished completely and Kunda somehow guessed that the little girl had popped off. Secretly to herself, she wished her father would also pop off soon so that she did not have to come to the dirty hospital ward with people in other beds weeping or wailing in pain, or, lying innate with tubes sticking out of their bodies covered in dirty sheets smelling of urine. Besides, there would be one mouth less to feed and no buying of medicines any more.
Kunda was not mad. Nor was she eccentric in the way that word carries meaning. She was “different” and despite an apology of a life, she shaped it the way she wanted to. Was it her way of accepting the life God had given her? No, she did not really believe in God and neither could she shrug him away. She remained somewhere in the middle of believing and not believing and never prayed for anything in the pooja corner of their room decorated with a few framed pictures of different Gods and Goddesses with their plastic flowers faded and dirtied through time.
Kunda turned around from the mirror and stepped out into the open street. They – that is Kunda’s mother who washed vessels in four houses in the multi-storied housing complex nearby, was as usual, away at work. Her brother, mercifully, was also not at home and this saved her from being bashed up real bad by him for having used his razor. The neighbours who lived in the other shanties – just a room with four corrugated aluminium sheets stuck together and an asbestos roof holding it all quite threateningly – looked at her for a fleeting second and went back to whatever they were doing. They did not seem to notice that Kunda looked ghastly without her eyebrows.
No one took notice of Kunda, with or without eyebrows. She was just Kunda, the girl who lazed around the whole day and was full of pranks no one cared for. She would set the slum’s pet dog chasing the kids making them run for their lives. Sometimes, she used a piece of charcoal to write illegible slang on the back of the skirts and frocks of little girls, turning them into scapegoats of laughter till they learnt what was there on their backs. Once, she had burst all the balloons of the balloon seller and laughed when he began to chase her. He reported her to her brother who bashed her up right and proper till she had a bleeding lip and a black eye. She had gone to school for a couple of years when she was little and then dropped out and no one at home was bothered. Since then, she lived life her own way and took the beatings by her mother and brother in her stride.
The neighbours, specially the women, avoided her because she had very light fingers and was an expert at shop-lifting. So, the bania in the locality and the corner tea shop and the bhelpuriwalla did not allow her to come anywhere near their shops or carts. But Kunda was not one to be deterred. When the chaatwalla’s stall was very crowded, she would snake her way through the crowds, reach out with one hand and grab a fistful of puris and vanish into thin air. The chaatwalla would scream behind her but could not leave his cart to chase her because he had a crowd of customers waiting to be served. She would also try and dip her hand in the curds bowl to catch a little curd and lick it off her fingers.
No one cared about Kunda because she did not belong anywhere or to anyone. Her mother had picked her when she was a baby from the steps of the neighbourhood nursing home. Someone had left her there and she was wailing loudly. Her mother worked as an ayah in the nursing home and as she finished her duty and walked down the steps, she saw the baby and brought her home. She had no clue whether the brother was also a pick-up child like she was because no one told her and she never asked. The father did not like Kunda at all but Kunda did not bother because she had no sense of belonging or the desire to belong. Her mother was not her mother. Her father was not her father either and the brother was the only one who appeared to care a bit but it made no difference to Kunda because she had no clue how different life was for other girls her age who had real parents and a real home.
Kunda had very long hair so her smooth face minus eyebrows looked quite bizarre. She really wanted to be noticed but all those who knew her, kept their distance because they knew she was both a thief and a liar. She was around 16 now and once had lots of friends in the slum they lived in. She would concoct fairy tales out of thin air and narrate these stories to them with live action – moving her hands, rolling her eyes, picking her nose, changing the tone and pitch of her voice to suit the different characters in the story and would send them into splits.
One version was that she was actually born into a rich family but her father did not want a female child so her mother left her outside the nursing home. Her friends listened with wide-eyed amazement to the stories narrated by this long-haired, dark and lanky girl in a dirty frock and believed every word she said. But their mothers set them right and slowly, after a dozen such fairy tales, they began to laugh at her stories and shooed her away. Kunda did not feel bad at all because she knew one day they would know she had lied. But all those lies made her happy because she had begun to believe in some of those stories herself. It somehow brought her some consolation when her mother beat her black and blue for having stolen something in the neighbourhood. “She is my step mother after all so she will naturally beat me,” she would say to herself.
As her body began to fill up and her breasts began to sprout, the young ruffians began to pay attention to her. But Kunda was wary of their attention because she knew no one liked her and no one had any reason to like her. So when once Ramu, the dhobi’s son tried to touch her, she bit his hand so sharply that he began to bleed and screaming in fear, ran away. He must have carried the tale among his friends so the boys avoided her also. She looked at Ramu who was busy ironing clothes on the make-shift ironing table. He looked up once but did not seem to notice that her eyebrows were missing. He looked back at his work at once because he was quite scared of her.
Kunda wore a wristwatch she had picked from somewhere. It did not seem to work at all because the hour and minute hands were fixed. Besides, she did not know to read the time in any watch. But it gave her a sense of pride to show it off. Who would check whether it worked or not? For Kunda, time was superfluous and the watch was just a show-off. But no one noticed it except strangers who cast confused glances at a young girl wearing a dirty frock also wearing a wrist watch. A wrist watch did not really go with her slum identity but she had this feeling that it made her look important.
“Perhaps I ought to have shaved off only one eyebrow then they would have noticed,” she thought to herself, disappointed a little when no one commented on her strange new look. The same crowd was aghast when she had coolly chopped off one of her two long plaits last year and moved around with that single plait hanging on one side while the other side had hair cut to the base of her neck. So, why were they not shocked any more? Strange that people even in slums who can only watch the glittering shopping malls from outside unless they are working there in the restaurants or as security were quite so shock-proof.
Kunda had once gone to stare at a shopping mall. She had wandered off to Worli once and wanted to go inside. But the stern-faced security ladies did not allow her to get in. She did not persuade them, nor beg of them to let her in. Kunda had this strange streak of pride that forbade her to beg. Her mother had once taken her to sit outside a temple in Worli to beg but though she was small, she did not beg. The beggars already established there permanently, drove her away with a small loaf of bread and a potato chop which she refused. Her mother gave her a bashing but also gave up hopes of making her beg. She found it funny that a girl who stole without any feeling of guilt, refused to beg or allow anyone to as much as touch her.
Once, her brother had got two passes and took her to the cinema unwillingly because none of his friends were willing to come. Kunda was stunned to watch beautifully costumed men and women moving around on screen and fighting and talking and hugging each other. So mesmerised was she with the visuals that she forgot to pay attention to the dialogue. During the neighbourhood Ganpati pooja, the organizers would put up a white bed sheet with four long strings tied to keep the rectangle fixed and work like a screen and would show films all night long. But the sheet was not straight and stiff like a cinema screen so the figures would move funnily when the bed sheets moved in the breeze or due to accidental tugs on the strings. That was much after Kunda had watched her first movie inside a theatre. But she got bored with the moving figures and found them singing and dancing at every turn quite stupid. Did these people have nothing better to do? Who did their cooking and cleaning and other household chores?
Talking of household chores, Kunda was quite a good cook but her culinary talents were limited to three or four dishes – varan-bhaat, danachi ussal, watana chi bhaji and kakri koshambir. But she hardly had the chance to explore her cooking because they were so very poor that green peas and peanuts and cucumber were merely dreams. The only dish she did cook was varan-bhaat and that too, without the toop – clarified butter. She had learnt the dishes while watching her mother cook in someone’s house when she was quite small and Kunda knew she had a gift of picking up things. But the idea of honing that gift never occurred to her.
She wandered across the narrow lanes and bylanes of the slum and walked up to the main square that then split into four different roads in four directions. She walked to the nearest bus stop and pretended to stand in the queue for a bus. Actually, she wanted to find out whether they would notice a dirty-frocked girl with two long and untidy plaits with strands of hair sticking out and no eyebrows. They did not. They took one look at her and looked away. It dawned on her that probably they thought she was crazy but she was as normal as they were. But were they normal? She had no clue. She waited for half an hour within which, two red buses came and went and people climbed in and climbed off but no one looked at the eyebrow-shaved girl.
It was afternoon already and Kunda felt really hungry. She had eaten nothing in the morning because for them, “breakfast” only happened on television and in films and in other people’s homes, not in theirs. She wondered whether there would be lunch at home either because her mother must be busy washing vessels or rolling chapaties in other people’s homes. She sometimes brought leftovers but her brother got first preference and sometimes, he shared it with her. Otherwise, an empty stomach was okay.
At last, a very tired and hungry and disappointed Kunda simply lay down flat on the dirty floor of the bus stop to have an afternoon siesta on an empty stomach. The people at the bus stop were shocked. But no one in Mumbai wants to get “involved” so they pretended to look the other way as if they had not noticed this girl at all. Or, rather, as if she did not exist. Kunda slowly got sucked into sleep. Before she waltzed into her sleepy world, she said to herself, “How long does it take for eyebrows to grow back to what they were?” Her wristwatch glittered in the shade of the bus-stop.