Once upon a time, there was a girl named Kalyani who was not so little, she was thirteen. She moved with her parents from one place to another every 3 years. She had loved this routine when she was little, now she hated it. Anyway, Idlapur was where she was going to spend her next three years.
Idlapur was a small town. Like any other respectable small town, it had a town square. The square had a clock tower. The hands of the clock were still at 11:00 hours for a few months now.
The square was at the centre of not four but six streets. To the town’s credit it had a bustling market that spread over all of these streets. Each one of these streets specialised in particular kinds of wares.
The Kutti Haldi Street had shops that sold a variety of spices. The Laxmi Street was filled with jewellery shops and kitchenware stores. The Hara Bhara Street had vendors selling fruits and vegetables. The Junta Bazaar Street had General stores and wholesalers who sold food grains. The Sparkle Street had an array of clothing and tailoring shops. Then there was this street Kalyani’s father pointed to and said,
“That is a no-good street, no one from respectable households goes there”
“Are we respectable, Appa?” Kalyani had asked without really thinking.
Appa had glared at her. Amma had pinched her on the arm. Kalyani winced.
“Yes, I hope you don’t bring it down” snapped Appa.
“Okay, so respectable households are where children get pinched for asking uncomfortable questions,” she said to herself.
They went back to their newly rented home armed with supplies and Amma started cooking dinner as Appa got the cots ready.
In a small town like Idlapur everyone knew everyone. So, the newcomers needed to make themselves known.
The next day, after Appa had left for work, the next-door neighbour Halamma dropped in.
“How are you Shantamma? My Mother-In-Law sent me to check up on the new family. Hope you are settled. Let me know if you need anything”
She eyed the family’s belongings and sized them up before she spotted Kalyani jumping up in the backyard to pluck ripe guava.
“Arre, the Kusu has not gone to school?” she inquired.
Amma said, “She will go from Monday. I am tired of setting up the home and dealing with this monkey… Kalli!.... careful, or you’ll break your bones” she shouted across the hall. Then she continued talking to Halamma in a courteous tone.
“We are fine. Thanks for coming by. What will you have? Chai, Coffee, Horlicks?
The visitor nodded at her approvingly and said, “Half a cup of chai if it is no trouble. I see you have settled down very fast, very good”.
After half an hour of talking about other neighbours, Halamma left saying,
“I will tell Jaya to take Kalyani with her to school on Monday”
Monday was a fine day. Kalyani got ready to go to school. A tall, lean girl was already at the doorstep and she looked a little peeved at the task of accompanying the new girl to the school.
Shantamma said, “Appa may come sometime to the school to meet the Headmaster again. Be good at your new school” as she handed the packed lunch.
Jaya gave a once-over to Kalyani and said,
“So, are you coming to the school wearing this fancy dress?”
Kalyani looked at her dress and then at Jaya’s modest salwar kameez.
“Yes, my uniform is being stitched”
“Okay, whatever” Jaya said with a shrug and gestured towards the road with “Shall we?”
Kalyani felt a little knot in her stomach as they walked to the school.
“So, I heard you are coming from Mysore, a city girl, huh?”
Kalyani wanted to tell she moved to a different place once every 3 years before Jaya resumed,
“Keep your city slickness aside when you are at school, okay? That is if you want to stay out of trouble”
It was clear as the day Jaya didn’t like her.
They were at school.
“Okay, you said you were in A section. Move down the corridor and it’s the classroom in the end. See you at lunchtime, i.e., if you don’t make any friends by then”
Kalyani certainly didn’t want to see her at lunchtime.
She walked through the noisy corridor. She could hear silences and sniggers behind her back. She entered the classroom and took her seat next to the girl who looked a bit timid and disinterested.
The teacher entered the class. She announced, “There is a new girl in the class. She is coming from a reputed school in Mysore. Be nice to her”. She made ‘reputed’ sound like ridicule and everyone in the class burst into laughter except the girl sitting next to her.
By lunch hour Kalyani had already been commented about her hairstyle, her dress, her accent and of course her intelligence. None of them were flattering. Though she had faced this earlier this time she felt drained by lunchtime.
As she opened her lunch box in a quiet corner, she saw a frail figure approaching her from the corner of her eye. She looked up. It was Sabiha, her buddy for the week, the disinterested girl back from the class.
“Hi, may I join you?” she asked.
“Yes, Of course”
They ate through half of the food before Kalyani asked,
“Have you been in this school all these years?”
“Of course, where else would I go? My father owns an antique shop on Purani Quila Street.
Kalyani’s ears tingled. Where had she heard that name before? Ah… that was the street where respectable people didn’t go!
Kalyani looked up at her new friend with a smile.
Sabiha loved to draw. She also loved to sing but had been told respectable families only sing within their households. She had an elder brother who excelled at sports. She hated studies.
Three weeks had passed since Kalyani met Sabiha. They had become close friends. They both were misfits in a way but complemented each other rather well.
Kalyani had never thought about being popular earlier. She had always managed to find a couple of friends wherever she went. But now that she had stepped into teenage, a part of her yearned to be fancied by every boy, girl and teacher.
At times she stood before the mirror and wondered what was it about her that drove people away? Her confidence? Intelligence or dark skin? She wished a fairy would appear and make her instantly popular.
“Sabiha, do you think I am ugly?” she asked.
“No, in fact, I have seen many seniors looking at you when they pass us by”
“Really? How come I never noticed it?” She asked thinking maybe her friend just wanted to make her feel better.
“Forget it! I got a present for you. Happy Friendship Day!” She took out a palm-sized brass lady from her pocket. The lady sure had seen better days! But the gesture touched Kalyani’s heart and she felt a bit ashamed of not reciprocating the gesture.
“I should remember people in this town celebrate everything with more excitement than the city I left behind,” she thought to herself.
Kalyani sat down after dinner to complete her History project that was due for submission the next day. The ‘Friendship Day’ had made it clear how few friends she had, two to be exact. Sabiha and the boy who was always the butt of class jokes, Navin.
“Dammit, what is wrong with me? Since when did I turn into this pathetic friendship beggar?” She chided herself as she pulled out her pencil pouch and opened it with extra force. The brass lady, an Apsara fell down on the floor. Kalyani picked it up and studied it closely.
A part of Apsara had turned greenish-black. Her head that displayed a heavy hairdo was tilted sideways as she gazed into an ornate oval mirror. Her bust was strategically covered with a heavy necklace and an embellished short skirt covered her rather heavy hips.
“I bet you were a popular lady Ms. Apsara” Kalyani said even as she noticed a bun stick that had come loose. As she tried to push it back into the groove a strange blue radiance emanated from it. Before Kalyani could react, there was a glowing Apsara standing in front of her.
“Don’t be shocked, little girl. I am Padma. Thank you for freeing me. Oh, I have spent centuries inside this statue. Thanks again. I can grant you anything you wish for!”
Kalyani pinched herself. She was not dreaming. Though she was still shocked she mustered enough courage to ask “Is this some sort of joke?”
Padma said impatiently “No little girl. Don’t waste my time. Make it fast!”
“I want to be… the most popular girl in my school” Kalyani blurted out.
Padma gave a burst of tinkling laughter and said,
“Your wish is granted. If you ever wish to see me again, just take out the pin from my hair” and vanished.
Within two weeks Kalyani had become every senior boy’s crush, every teacher’s pet and every girl’s role model!
She also saw something she had not seen before. People only ever displayed their best behaviour in front of her. There was no way for her to know if they meant what they said. She enjoyed all the attention she was getting from the boys but didn’t know if they liked her for what she was- dark, headstrong and whip-smart. Lavish praises from the teachers made her not turn in her best work. But the thing that hurt her the most was Sabiha and Navin shutting her out. They were still loyal, attentive and supportive, but she was no longer privy to their setbacks and heartbreaks.
“Sabiha, I want to ask you something,” Kalyani said unable to bear it.
“I feel you have changed towards me. Why is it? Have I done something wrong?”
“Changed? Me? No… I think it is you who has changed”
“What do you mean? Are you jealous now that I am popular?”
Sabiha gave her an intense look before she said,
“No, I just feel you have no patience for other’s failings. That’s all. I am not complaining. It’s just the way it is!”
Kalyani was stunned.
Sabiha picked up her bag and went away.
After two months of being insanely popular, Kalyani felt the initial euphoria waning away slowly. She had become used to it but felt an emptiness from within. She felt a pang every time Sabiha or Navin passed her by. A new set of friends adored her but ascribed greatness to her she did not feel she deserved. Worse still she could never let her façade of perfection drop and talk about her fears or challenges she faced.
Two months on, the popularity suffocated her. She fervently hoped for her parents to move to a new place again.
One day Sabiha stopped coming to the school. She didn’t come for a week. Kalyani grew impatient. She had to know what had happened to her friend.
The school got over early on Friday and Kalyani masked half of her face. She was going to Purana Quila Street, to find out what had happened to her friend.
She entered the forbidden street. She was nervous but didn’t show it.
The street had shops that sold lingerie and other intimate things. She gaped at them as she hastily moved forward. There were a few liquor shops with kebab stalls in front of them. Surprisingly they were already crowded. There were hardly any women on the street.“Looked like only women belonged to respectable households” she thought wryly. She was in half a mind to turn back when she spotted an old signboard on a shop ‘Ali and sons (since 1945)’. It had many artifacts on display.
She met a genial man in a skull cap in his fifties who was surprised at the young girl entering the shop but hid it rather well. He was a good businessman.
“What do you want,” he asked.
A young man in his twenties peeped from inside to help the shop owner.
Kalyani asked bravely, “Uncle, I am Sabiha’s friend. She has not been coming to the school. I was hoping to meet her”.
The man’s face grew stern. “I don’t think it is possible. Mustafa, please escort the young lady out of this street”
Mustafa walked with her to the square and whispered, “She lives right down Laxmi Road, I can ask her to come out if you wait here for some time”
“You came all the way to see me?”, Sabiha couldn’t believe it.
“Of course, I was worried,” Kalyani replied.
“I made a mistake Kalyani. I recorded a song and uploaded it on YouTube. My family found out. You see, even I wanted to be popular. I said I will not go the school unless I am sent for music classes”. Her face looked determined.
“Moreover, I hate school anyway” she winked.
Kalyani felt a lightness in her heart as she laughed out aloud. She had missed this adventure, straight talk and companionship so much.
She looked at her friend and said admiringly, “You will certainly become popular one day or at least you will be happy trying to be.”
Padma did not appear too happy to be summoned back so soon.
She said, “Little one, what is it now? Aren’t you enjoying being popular?”
Kalyani said, “I enjoyed it for a while, but now I realize this is not what I want”.
The Apsara rolled her eyes, “Who can understand your generation?”
“Padma, I am sorry to bother you. I want the things to be as they were before. I will be popular one day, maybe not this much but I would have earned it, and I would have lived through each moment of it!”
“As you wish, little one”.