Thus, the Tale of Miss Tapna by Arun Prakash
Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
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'You will not ride a bicycle to college. If you ever leave the neighbourhood on a bicycle, I’m kicking you out of the house,’ thundered Aunty.

 

Aunty

If the house were a ministry, then Aunty would have been the Home Minister. Once upon a time, her name had been Shakuntala. Back then, she was probably as comely as the Shakuntala of myth and history. But her Dushyant did not desert her; rather, he was her husband who lived with her every day. And it was thanks to this Dushyant that she’d become quite heavy.

 

When she’d married, she’d been so comely, her husband Shivaranjan Prasad had called her ‘Shakun’ – lucky. Shakuntala is a long name. There’s no romance in long names. Romance is in short names. As soon as a name is shortened it begins to ooze with honeyed affection. That’s why husbands shorten their wives’ names

right from the start. That way, the name gets a bit of literary romance to it. When literature adds a bit of salt to life, life is good. But when literature adds sugar to life instead, and it dissolves too much, a husband and wife will come to blows. In such cases, the wife’s name just gets longer and turns into B-H-A-G-W-A-N, or God.

 

Like a ministry, the house was also narrow. Two bedrooms, one living room.

 

Aunty had two little girls. Sukanya was ten, and Manavi was eight. Our heroine slept in the same room with the two of them. Aunty slept in the other room with her husband. Aunty eventually got bored of living in the boondocks, where her daughters’ futures seemed shrouded in darkness, so she applied pressure on her husband to get himself transferred to the capital, Tapna. Her children would receive a good education there. They would have careers. If nothing else, it would at least be easier to get them married if they became sophisticated. Despite being the mother of two Lakshmi-like girls and no sons at all, Aunty exercised a Lalita Pawar-style dominion over the entire household: over her husband, over her daughters and most of all, over our heroine.

 

Dusky-hued Aunty of the heavy body was very dramatic. She had mastered a number of different dramatic skills, such as how to weep at a moment’s notice, how to burst out laughing in an instant, how to rage, how to sulk, how to scold, etc. Even at the age of thirty-five, she was still an attractive housewife. She loved to rule the roost. She had the highest opinion of those who rule with threat and guile. She always tried to make up for the personal weaknesses of her sheep-like husband. She had come to Tapna with the dream of raising the status of her family. But, although her husband was indeed transferred there, it was to a dry division of the Secretariat that lacked the irrigation of bribery, and so it started to look like it might take a while for Aunty’s dream to be fulfilled. This annoyed her, so she berated her husband, scolded her daughters, and even beat our heroine, Miss Tapna, aka Narmada, aka Nimmo. It was for this reason that the proclamation that Nimmo not ride her bicycle to college in the city of Tapna took immediate effect.

 

The City of Tapna
It’s necessary to write about the city of Tapna because that’s where our heroine lived. In the city of Tapna, little girls could ride toy bicycles. But for big girls, or young ladies, it was forbidden. The elders of the city had promulgated the belief that if a young lady were to sit upon a bicycle her character would be destroyed.

 

Actually, let me tell you that in Allahabad, if a young lady rides a bicycle, her self-confidence grows. Any young lady in Jalandhar who doesn’t know how to ride a bicycle would be considered a slacker. The problem with character is that only an individual who is quick, clever, and full of self-confidence can protect it. Thus, the young ladies in Jalandhar ride bicycles, and girls full of self-confidence drive mopeds and scooters like nobody’s business around Bangalore, Chennai, and Pune. And all these cities are also considered of good character.

 

However, the inhabitants of Tapna feel that just from sitting on a bicycle, a girl might flutter off in the breeze. Who knows, she could become fearless, fall in love, or marry whomever she pleases ... she will no longer remain under the control of a man. The way things stood in the city of Tapna, even the most cowardly of men wanted to keep women under their control. Older women who kept younger women under their control also perpetuated this cowardly tradition in order to make their own cowardice appear more proper.

 

The atmosphere of the city of Tapna also made a special contribution to this. Everything was upside down and backwards on the streets. People driving motorcycles knocked into buses and the buses turned over. Policemen greeted thieves. Tax collectors waived the taxes of criminals. The result of all this was that even the name of the city got overturned and became Tapna.

 

After the ban on riding bicycles went into effect, not even her uncle Shivaranjan could help our heroine.

 

Uncle
Uncle was like all uncles in the world. Innocent, fearful, fawning, and an expert at changing the subject. It’s hard to imagine that this same Shivaranjan had refused to do anything at all in the district office without a bribe. There, people had called Shivaranjan ‘the Leech’. He sucked the blood from all who approached him. But as soon as the valiant Shivaranjan snuck back home, he became the lowest form of mouse. He was very dark, and two of his teeth protruded such that patheticness radiated from his potbellied person. He never talked back to an officer. If he received praise, he merely listened quietly. If he was cursed at, he still listened. Both his teeth stuck out no matter what. No one has any idea to this day whether he is always laughing, or baring his teeth and grovelling.

 

All the weight of his personality came from having a government job; it hung in its entirety from that nail alone. He did manage to get a transfer to the city of Tapna, but he was made an officer in the Planning Cell. He had got a ‘wait posting’; in other words, a lousy deal. What would his income be in the new posting? What was in it for him? Dried up statistics! Projections! The Planning Cell wasn’t worth a damn. Most reports were for unfunded projects. How much money could you squeeze out of maps, ammonia prints, photocopies, and paper?! Everyone in the office watched these purchases. In his greed to come to Tapna, he’d ended up in a hellish cell.

 

He would have to stay at that office for a little while, and try to pry loose a recommendation for transfer so he could get out. He wore magic rings. He made offerings to Saturn on Saturday. He placated Hanuman on Tuesday. But nothing was working. Neither did he get a new posting, even after giving the required bribes, nor did his family’s status improve. Furthermore, his bribery income was completely shut off now. On top of that, his older brother had burdened him with the responsibility of getting his orphan niece Narmada, that is, Nimmo, a college education.

 

It was this Nimmo who had been forbidden from riding a bicycle.

 

Nimmo
After the ban on bicycles, things became quite difficult for Nimmo if she missed the bus to college. She’d have to pay a rickshaw driver ten rupees for the ride. Now, for that many rupees you can buy a heavenly soft drink or a bar of soap that promises to make you as beautiful as a film star. This only made Aunty more irritated. Why was Nimmo late? How could Nimmo even answer that question? She got up at five every morning. But because Aunty got up late, Nimmo had to get Manavi and Sukanya ready. She had to make their breakfast and feed them. She had to serve Uncle tea, twice. Then she had to get herself ready; how could she save any time? She was usually late.

 

Sometimes Uncle would relent and hand her a ten-rupee note, and say, ‘Go on, quick. Then you’ll only miss one class.’ But Nimmo would still set out on foot, to save the money. Her college was three kilometres away. There were three stages to this journey.

 

The first stage went through the Government Quarters. This is where you’d see the unemployed boys puffing on cigarettes in the style of Shatrughan Sinha at the paan shops. These boys were not dangerous. They were the sons of government workers. Thus they were respectable to the point of cowardice, like their fathers. They cast a cursory glance at our heroine Nimmo. A pale, skinny girl. Wrapped in an ordinary sari. Slow. Instead of the new style of bun, she had a pigtail. She was a little bit attractive, but so what? Who really cared if there was even a little bit of lustre to her? She looked like a school teacher who hadn’t been paid in three months. Instead of looking at the young men, Nimmo walked along staring down at the broken road as though she were a contractor for the PWD or the Municipal Committee, and she was examining the potholes in the road to solicit contracts for repairs. The first stage of our heroine’s journey to college was not dangerous from the point of view of character. But there was always the danger of breaking one’s arms or legs. She had to look here and there to make sure she didn’t slip in cow manure and fall down splat. That had already happened to her twice. In the city of Tapna, cows roamed about as though in a sanctuary. The government was quite generous with them. They could drop their dung anywhere and thus danger lurked everywhere. For this reason, our heroine’s gaze was also fixed on cow manure.

 

The second stage of this journey was dangerous in terms of one’s honour. The legislators’ residences lined the road here. This was considered the most frightening district of the city. Sometimes there were beatings, sometimes shootings. If there were rallies, the region’s hooligans would take part in such municipal activities as well. Armed contractors hovered about daily. The police were there to help them. If there was a murder, the police would drop the corpse off at the station and sprinkle water from the Ganges on the crime scene. Respectable people didn’t like to pass by the area. But the short cut to the college went right through it. The danger here was that if she walked along the side of the street she might bump into a hooligan. If she walked right down the middle of the street, the inexperienced son of some minister might run over her with his car. Somehow she'd make it through that area, huffing and puffing all the way. Finally she would reach the Tax Bureau. Here were the respectable criminals. They avoided openly teasing girls. After this she’d make it to the college without a hitch.

 

Nimmo was a very stubborn soul. Even after toiling doggedly like a cleaning lady and puffing along by foot, she still had a little bit of strength left. She listened attentively to the lectures. As soon as a class ended, she’d start to doze off. For the next class she was again alert. Over time, she came to be known as ‘the sleeping girl’. ‘What’s her name again? That pious name, yaar … yes! Narmada! She’s always asleep, no fun at all! Who knows if she even studies at all!’ Though she toiled so, she never got sick. She made seventy or seventy-one per cent marks in her exams.

 

In college, all the girls were stylish. The nibbled away at the English language like squirrels. In terms of clothing, our heroine looked like any well-dressed servant girl. She stammered over her English, but she was an expert at reading and understanding it. She’d swallow her fear, drink up her sorrow, put up with the jokes and endure the rudeness. She even smiled when she was insulted. She hadn’t turned out this way on purpose; time, and her situation, had knocked her about and made her thus. She neither made a show of piety, nor did she flee the field. She neither won nor lost. She just saved her skin every time. Nimmo was a very stubborn soul.

 

Anyway, when our heroine returned from college by bus, the bus went all the way around the entire city of Tapna before dropping her at home. For Nimmo, this was a heavenly time. The rest of the girls chattered away. They expressed their views on films, neighbourhood boys, brothers-in-law (both older and younger), fashion, and the secret lives of the lady lecturers, during which time Nimmo would get two full hours of sleep. This refreshed her. On returning home, she threw herself with renewed vigour into preparing dinner and looking after her two cousins.

 

When our heroine passed the BA exam, she hoped her life would change a bit. If she did a BEd she could get a job at a school. If she learned typing and computer skills she could get a government job. But Uncle said, ‘Don’t talk like an idiot. There isn’t any government restructuring happening, and if it does, the reserved classes will get those jobs first. You’ll grow old waiting for a government job if you do a BEd. Learn some small skill that’ll get you a private job so you can make some money yourself. For that, we’ll put up with a bit more expense, but we won’t pay for you gathering useless degrees.’

 

Maya
Our heroine’s dreams had been crushed. After that, she began to seek a new future. Her college friend Dolly introduced her to Mayaji of the Lopamudra Beauty Parlour. Mayaji had had quite a past. She had been a politician’s mistress. She had published a two-page newspaper and become an editor. But the political thing didn’t take. Drinking made her gain weight. Her irritation grew along with her hopelessness, to the point that even her cow-like husband left her. Finally she’d opened this parlour to make some money. When a bit of money started to come in, she had the excess fat removed from her body through liposuction, and removed the signs of age from her body and face via plastic surgery. With this rejuvenation her demand went up in political circles. There were many old men who came to her to feel younger when they had time off from their politicking. Mayaji had regained the attentions of the bureaucrats. And she also began to dabble in providing such men with ‘cultured’ escorts.

 

Mayaji questioned Nimmo for a long time. Nimmo looked and sounded only average to her. But she thought, ‘Well, she’s educated, so she can take care of the high society ladies.’ The thing she liked the most was that Nimmo was an orphan. That way she wouldn’t be too demanding. ‘I’ll give her some comfort and awaken some ambition in her, and she’ll become a useful girl,’ she thought.

 

She began Nimmo’s training. Everyone at the beauty parlour called Nimmo ‘Narmada’. When, after three months of training, Mayaji gave her a thousand rupees salary and five hundred for travel on top of that, Narmada could not sleep all night for happiness. She handed the thousand rupees to Aunty. She hid the part about the five hundred rupees of travel money. Starting early in the morning the very next day, Aunty’s attitude changed. Aunty got up herself and got the girls ready. She even served Uncle tea twice. Handing a cup of tea to Narmada as well, she said, ‘Narmada, drink your tea and get ready. You must also get to work by ten o’clock.’ Our heroine couldn’t believe it when she heard the name ‘Narmada’ from her Aunty’s lips. But when Aunty brought the newspaper for her to read and said as she handed it to her, ‘While you’re reading this I’ll bring you one more cup of tea, Narmada,’ our heroine really did believe that Aunty was now going to call her wage-earning niece by her full name. As she was leaving for work, Uncle remarked to Aunty affectionately, ‘Young children are always bashful about asking for money every day. Give her enough travel money for a month.’ And Aunty gave her five hundred rupees. With just one month’s worth of salary, Narmada’s family’s politics had changed. Narmada had moved from the weak opposition party to the party in power.

 

By the time a full year had passed, Narmada was not only bringing home three thousand rupees a month, but she’d also secretly saved up eighteen thousand rupees of her own. Wealthy ladies had started leaving her tips. And she was even more generously rewarded for making up brides. She was considered the most skilled beautician in the Lopamudra Beauty Parlour. All the women wanted her to do their make up. Because of this, Maya kept increasing her salary. And our skinny heroine began to fill out.

 

When she suddenly became more attractive – which happens for most other girls at fifteen – Maya was the first to notice.

Even at her age, dark-skinned Maya still loved to make herself look fair. She always asked Narmada to cover her entire body with cleanser. That day, Maya decided to do something mischievous. She sprinkled some water on Narmada, and Narmada, in her effort to escape, knocked over a bowl of water. Maya liked how pretty Narmada looked in a wet sari. Then she instructed her, ‘Narmada, you’re always making up other people, but you don’t take care of yourself. Take a sauna bath once a week. Go on, start right now. You’ll have to change your clothes anyway.’

 

The sauna wasn’t really a sauna; it was just an enclosed bathroom that filled with steam from a boiler. She actually had already used it several times with respectable ladies – customers – but having the nerve to go in alone was an entirely different matter. When she was drying herself off with a towel after the steambath, she looked at herself in the mirror and was surprised. Her hair was the same as always, but in the old days, Aunty always stopped her from putting coconut oil into it: ‘Why are you oiling your hair now? Save it for when your hair starts turning white. That way the white gets hidden.’ Sometimes Aunty would shriek, ‘Now you’re going to empty out the entire bottle? We’ll have to plant a whole coconut tree for you.’ Now her neatly trimmed, shampooed hair fell down in waves to just above her hips. No one could call this hair a pigtail now. They’d have to find a word from Sanskrit for her – Yatha charukeshini, or manjukeshini. Her cheeks had filled out. Her skin was radiant. A look of self-confidence had replaced the one of low self-esteem, and in place of disappointment, there was a smile. For the first time, our heroine was entranced by her own beauty, though she entertained no dreams of romance. In fact, she was extremely pragmatic. Her dream was to open an even better beauty parlour than the Lopamudra. 

 

For this she would need money and a special diploma. And so, she went to Delhi with Uncle. There were many shops handing out beautician’s diplomas. They cost ten thousand rupees apiece. She got a diploma right away. Some photos of her training in the institute were snapped for proof. Now she had both credibility and a diploma, but she still didn’t have enough money to open a parlour. And so, she continued to work at Lopamudra. And she continued to expand her contacts with wealthy ladies and practice speaking English.

 

Mayaji, in the meantime, felt that only by giving this proud maiden praise and love, and passing on to her the spark of ambition, would she be able to bring her into her secret escort business. If she rushed, the whole game would be ruined. She would often say, ‘Narmada, who do I have but you? You alone will run Lopamudra. You are already the most important person here. I’m enjoying myself so much I might as well be retired.’

 

One time, when she was saying this, Devraj called, and Mayaji got up, saying, ‘You take care of everything. I have to go meet Devraj Sahib at the Amigo Club.’

 

Devraj Banerji
No one who saw Devraj Banerji, or DB, could say that he was as old as sixty-two. When he retired from the post of IG of Police, he had a fancy house on one acre of land. He had six dogs. His son had moved abroad. His wife had divorced him some years before, giving him his freedom. He had all kinds of money, white and black. But the serenity of domestic life rankled. Ever since his retirement, his social status had been diminishing. The problem for bureaucrats is that when they are at their post, they forget about other people, and as soon as they retire, they attain the status of outmoded clothing. Nobody asked for him anywhere. He had to remind people who he was: ‘I was the superintendent of police in Chaibasa in seventy-two…’

 

Anyway, DB went every day to play tennis at the club. In the evenings, he dressed up and participated in its amusements. But everything at the club seemed old and tired. It was the city of Tapna’s old gentlemen’s club, the Victoria Club, from British times. People raised their noses in pride when they were admitted as members. By day, only pensioned bureaucrats gathered there. They wolfed down sandwiches with tea. They told tales of valour from their days in service. The evening team was mostly bureaucrats who were still working. Their pockets were full. They drank liquor and gave parties. They had the status to frequent five star hotels, but the entertainments at the club were cloaked in secrecy.

 

All the same, everyone was sick of the Victoria Club. Everything was worn out. Sometimes there were baby contests, sometimes rose contests. On husband day, the wives put on plays. They’d dress up as policemen, or stenographers, or mystics, or astrologers, or holy men. The Victoria Club was nationalist on the twenty-sixth of January or the fifteenth of August. A ghazal singer would be invited. The club members would listen to the ghazals and drink standing in the yard or sitting in their cars, instead of sitting at the bar. Fashion parades or beauty contests had not yet entered into the genteel consciousness of the city of Tapna. The members had not yet performed the last rites for caste, honour, and status, and found the courage to show off the bodies of their wives and daughters. The club would have appeared modern if it weren’t for the Indianness that gnawedat its soul like an old termite.

 

One day, while gossiping with some new members, the idea of opening a private club suddenly flashed in DB’s mind. Thousands of gentlemen were dying to get memberships in the old clubs. He began to think of a private club as something like Aladdin’s lamp. His empty house would fill with people again. He would be much in demand. His contacts would grow and he could start up a liaison business. He would again be visible to officers, ministers and the Chief Minister. Who knows, maybe he would be made chairman of some committee, or the castle door of politics would open to him. The greatest attraction was that this would increase his contact with genteel ladies who were bored of home and had become ‘social’. The deadly quiet in his life would come to an end.

 

DB found a wealthy shareholder to help him. Singhaniya had become a millionaire running an illicit mining business in the jungle of Hazaribag. He’d managed to slip into the legislative council and dreamt of reaching the status of minister. The scheme of the club seemed good for business and good for politics to him. And so, the Amigo Club was established. ‘Amigo’ is Spanish for friend. After examining several well-known clubs across the country, the interior decoration work began. The club was fitted with brand new amenities. Everything from a billiard room, to a health club, a swimming pool, a mini auditorium, a film and video projection room, a tennis and badminton court, a bridge room, a bar, a party room and guest rooms. They began distributing advertisements like mad. The Amigo Club – the future club of Tapna!

 

The cunning DB fed a story to the papers about how the Amigo Club had refused membership to the opposition leader because he had not been found worthy of the club’s criteria. The implication was that the Amigo was so exclusive that the opposition leader was too uncouth to be given a membership there. The impact of that news item was that gentlemen started lining up to fill in membership forms. The opposition leader objected to the report. The Amigo people remained silent. They had achieved their goal.

 

Maya was an old companion of DB’s. She too glimpsed her own reawakening in the Amigo Club. She became a member of the club, and advised DB on the programming. The first item on the agenda was to put on a beauty contest.

 

At first the members of the club were encouraged to have their families take part in the contest. No contestants came forward. And if there were attractive girls who even considered it, their mummies probably scolded them. And their daddies probably abandoned polite language and cried, ‘If you even mention such a thing as a beauty contest I’ll break your arms and legs!’ DB received inside reports from several families of members. In the absence of contestants, the preparations started to seem fruitless.

 

But Mayaji insisted they keep trying. ‘DB Sahib,’ she said, ‘announce a large prize. Allow every girl in the city of Tapna to participate in the contest. That way we’ll find contestants to enter. And if they don’t do it themselves, I’ll make them. Our preparations will not be in vain. Your job is to get the Chief Minister to come.’

 

DB’s eyes opened wide. He was filled with divine insight: the most beautiful girl would receive one lakh rupees, the beauty in second place would get seventy thousand, and the third place winner would get thirty thousand. The announcement was made.

 

The people of the city of Tapna have trouble focusing without some kind of debate. Essays for and against the contest began to appear in the papers. People started hearing coarse and obscene critiques of the beauty contest. The matter had become a topic of conversation. Intellectual men were at the forefront of the discussion. Intellectual women expressed their views less. The Chief Minister enjoyed being much discussed. The topic of the contest came to his attention.

 

There were endless problems associated with the contest. How would DB solve them? He had no idea what arrangements needed to be made for a beauty contest. Problems such as ‘Where will we get the judges from?’, ‘What will be the criteria for beauty?’ made DB feel dejected, but Mayaji was extremely helpful. She roped in Mrs Sachdev, winner of the Miss Mussoorie contest sixty years before, Miss Natrajan, retired principal and confirmed spinster, and Miss Vishwas, a lady doctor, to be judges.

 

But the contestants were still cowed. Mayaji’s advertising scheme had failed. Not a single girl was ready to take part. Mayaji prodded nurses, approached school teachers, asked hotel receptionists. Everywhere, she received blunt refusals. Finally she began to make the rounds of the beauty parlours. ‘You will get three thousand for taking part in the contest,’ she said, ‘and an additional prize if you win the contest. The club people will arrange for the clothes and make up.’ Finally, ten needy girls agreed to participate, six of them from six beauty parlours.

 

Narmada was thrilled when she heard about it. Her photo would be printed in the papers. If she somehow won the contest she’d get a prize, and even if she didn’t, she’d get three thousand just for participating. She went and burst in on her friend Dolly, who was her adviser.

 

Dolly
Dark-skinned, short, and stocky, Dolly looked even stockier when she wore her glasses. Her round, clear eyes looked like those of an idol, and her nose was attractively shaped. It was her habit to think carefully, and only speak after thinking. For this reason she listened to what everyone had to say without losing patience, and only gave her response at the end. On hearing Narmada’s proposal that she enter the contest and get three thousand rupees for taking part, she said softly, ‘Narmada, explain this to me at greater length.’ But Narmada was in a hurry, and she also felt she had some authority over Dolly. ‘What else is there to think about now? I’m telling you to do it, right?’

 

‘I don’t believe you could have thought it through properly before you spoke. I’ve heard of people winning a prize in a contest, but the fact that the contestants will receive dresses, make-up kits, and three thousand rupees on top of all that seems strange to me. There’s something else going on, Nimmo!’

 

Now Narmada opened up, ‘Many girls feel nervous about taking part in a beauty contest. Their families are stopping them from doing it. That’s why they’re offering money.’

 

‘Oh, so that’s it. Well, I would say yes, but what do I have to show off? I’m dark, I have fat thighs, I’m short, and I’m heavy. I live in a hostel, so I’m free of my parents. But should I prepare for my MA exam or enter this contest?’

 

Narmada felt sad. But she didn’t ask her to participate again. Instead she asked her advice about preparing for the contest, because Dolly read stacks of magazines and knew about all sorts of things.

 

‘What I’ve read in magazines is that you need to practice smiling in the right way. You should wear a swimsuit and stand in front of the mirror and look at yourself. Practice walking with a book on your head without letting the book fall off. That will help you practice for the catwalk … but do think once more before entering.’

 

‘What’s there to think about? I’ll benefit from being famous. If I win the contest, I’ll be able to open a fantastic beauty parlour.’

 

‘What will your Uncle and Aunty say?’

 

‘I don’t need to get their permission now. After all I’m their wage-earning niece. What does it matter if they find out after the contest? Now I just have to practice.’

 

Miss Narmada

When Narmada peered out of the window of the dressing room that first night of the first month in the twenty-first century, she saw the club was jam-packed. Thousands of people were crowded around outside the club as well. They were waving banners and placards and chanting, ‘Stop making an exhibition of women!’, ‘Up with progress, down within decency!’, ‘Go back Chief Minister!’. There was a heavy police presence. But the police didn’t appear to be angry with the demonstrators. They were laughing. Some rubbed tobacco between their palms in a leisurely fashion.

 

Narmada said in a worried tone, ‘Arré, how will the Chief Minister get in with all this going on? He’s the chief guest, after all.’

 

‘Get ready quickly,’ said Mayaji. ‘The Chief Minister already came in through the back door. He came in a suit and tie today instead of kurta-pajama. Two judges have already arrived. We’re just waiting for Mrs Sachdev now.’ Mayaji turned abruptly and left the room.

 

The Chief Minister was coming to the Amigo Club for the first time. DB, Mayaji, and Singhaniya were glued to his side. Club members arrived and shook hands with him. Most of the members were just bureaucrats. After shaking his hand, they went over to their comrades. ‘That’s the magic of a beauty contest,’ whispered one. ‘Even the CM has put on a tie today.’

 

Now DB was worried because Mrs Sachdev hadn’t arrived.

 

But just then, Mrs Sachdev slipped into the auditorium. Her false teeth sparkled as she smiled. The wrinkles on her heavily made up face danced merrily. Maya came forward right away to welcome her. Suddenly Mrs Sachdev opened her purse and began to search around in it. She’d put an extra aspirin tablet in there, even though she’d taken one just before coming, just in case the pain in her joints flared up again.

 

Mrs Sachdev had been Miss Mussoorie sixty years before, during British times. She was in Mussoorie for the summer holidays and entered the contest for fun. She received a cup as a prize. Who knew where that was now. In that contest, one had only to wear nice clothes and walk down the ramp. The judges sitting below made the selection. She felt a bit nervous now. But seeing Miss Natarajan and Miss Vishwas on the other judges’ seats she felt somewhat reassured. For their part, the other two judges felt reassured that someone with experience in beauty contests had shown up. ‘Mrs Sachdev, what will be the criteria for choosing Miss Tapna?’ they asked.

 

‘Things have changed quite a bit since my time. Back then, they looked at a girl fully clothed and examined her face and then gave the scores. But I still enjoy watching beauty contests on tv. I don’t know everything, but I do know that they give a hundred points for body, ten for hairstyle, ten for eyes, five for speech and ten for face. Then there are fifteen points for the question and answer period. The girls will have to come onto the ramp for every round.’

 

The musicians on the stage started to play when they got the signal from DB. An announcer holding a mike stood at the edge of the stage: ‘Ladies and gentlemen! The region’s first beauty contest ever will begin now! We are updating the wonderful traditions of Vaishali and Magadh and moving forward with the world. We don’t want to lag behind anyone in this new century.... Brothers and Sisters ... the girls sent in their pictures. They sent in their biodata. They sent in their measurements … we thank them!’

 

‘We should have some minimum standard for qualifications, shouldn’t we, Mrs Sachdev?’ asked Miss Natarajan.

 

‘Yes! They should be between five and six feet tall. They should have lovely teeth. They should have nice legs. They should have pretty hair. A waist between twenty-two and twenty-four inches. They should weigh up to fifty or fifty-five kilograms.’

 

Mayaji noted down the details. She got up and gave the note to the announcer.

 

The announcer was busy with thank-yous. ‘We are grateful to the city of Tapna. There has been much debate. Articles have been written. Even now there are thousands of people demonstrating outside. Whether they’re for or against, we are grateful to all the people taking an interest … it wasn’t possible for all the contestants to participate, so minimum criteria were set – weight: between fifty and fifty-five kilograms; height: between five and six feet; waist: between twenty-two and twenty-four inches. A shortlist was compiled. Ten contestants were chosen. The contest will take place between those ten girls. We have three judges and the prizes will be distributed by the lotus hands of the honourable Chief Minister. So let’s begin, Brothers and Sisters! The first round of the contest!’

 

Darkness veiled the stage. The musicians played faster! The eyes of the excited viewers were glued to the stage. A girl came out wearing a sari, her hair falling in waves down her back. A spotlight followed her. She walked away smiling, her hair rippling.

 

‘She’s got amazing self-confidence!’ Applause. Girl Number Two.

The girls came and went, wearing salwar kameezes and dupattas draped over their heads, glancing to the right and to the left. The thunderous applause grew louder with the music. The crass commentary also increased. But filth could not be vomited forth in front of wives and daughters, so the people who were masters in this ‘skill’ slipped away to the company of their friends.

 

In the third round, the girls came out smiling, their teeth sparkling in the lights, each holding a rose. The stage was bathed in blue light, as though for a magic show. The band played softly, but the drummer marked each footstep with a drum beat. Tap tap tap! All the girls wore skirts down to their knees. But there was nothing attractive about the way they walked. They strode onto the stage as though they were walking up on the roof to hang the laundry out to dry. They seemed nervous, and looked as if they lacked the courage to look toward the clapping crowd. They stood together in a line. They were supposed to walk off the stage in a line, waving. But, oh dear! They rushed away completely disorganised, like a bunched up rope, and disappeared into the darkness.

 

And how should they have known what to do? There had been no rehearsal. Maya had been busy gathering up the girls until the last minute. She’d enlisted a nurse, Suzie, from a private clinic; Namita Chowdhry, the housekeeping assistant at the Hotel Mahaan; Hema Vishwas of Railway Colony; Miss Rama of Sarita Travel; and the rest, Vinita, Sushma, Devki, Prema, and Pushpa, were from the city’s beauty parlours. And, of course, Narmada was from Maya’s own beauty parlour.

 

Since this was the first time they were taking part in such an event, they were anxious about the audience who was whistling, hurling obscene compliments and cracking rude jokes. They felt as though the crowd could fly out of control at any moment. Then what would happen? The girls broke out in a sweat at the very thought. But they helplessly wiped away their perspiration and prepared for the next round. Maya helped them keep their courage up.

The description of the final round was filled with such exciting words the crowd held its breath and listened, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we have now reached the final round of the contest between the most exceptional beauties in the entire city. In this round, six beauties will have to pass through a round of questions and answers in which the most important part of their personalities will be assessed, namely their intellect. After that, the winners of the top three places will be announced. Hold onto your hats! Here come the beauties of Tapna in their swimsuits. Contestant Number One!’

 

Darkness cloaked the stage. The music grew faster. One-two-three … tap tap tap … the audience was tense with anticipation. Time passed, but there was no sign of Contestant Number One. People began to grow restless. What had happened? Why wasn’t the beauty in the swimsuit coming onto the stage? Just then, Mayaji came onto the stage and whispered something into the announcer’s ear and then went away.

 

The announcer began to speak on the greatness of the beauty contest, ‘Brothers and Sisters! No country makes progress by merely installing factories! It must also improve socially. The amount of progress any country has made can be measured by how much progress its women have made … when a Miss Pithoragarh has been chosen, why not a Miss Tapna?’

 

The audience was not prepared to listen to the announcer’s sermon. They began shouting loudly, ‘Start the contest!’ Singhaniya and DB could ignore the noise from the audience, but when DB saw the Chief Minister looking at his watch, he swung into action. DB and Singhaniya both leapt toward the dressing room, where a backstage drama was taking place. All the girls were surrounding a weeping Miss Rama. Mayaji was holding Miss Rama by the hand and pulling her. ‘Everything was already decided, you were told what you had to do in the program not once, but several times. Now you’re getting cold feet when your name has already been called. Why did you take the three thousand rupees if that’s how you felt!’

 

Rama’s eyes were red from weeping. She spoke haltingly between hiccups and sobs, ‘When did you disclose this? You said I would have to wear nice clothes and go on stage. Now you’re saying I have to wear this and have my picture taken with naked legs! My father finalised my marriage just yesterday. If my in-laws were to find out …’

 

Singhaniya saw that none of the girls had put on their swimsuits! He got angry. ‘It’s too late to stop now! Go put on the swimsuits! If you were going to be home bodies why did you enter the competition? Is this some kind of joke? The CM is sitting in the hall, all the press is here!’

 

The girls were frightened by Singhaniya’s roar. They all began to cry. Only our heroine stood apart, in the corner, watching the spectacle. She had sympathy for these girls but … DB tried to convince them, ‘Look, it’s just a matter of five or ten minutes. Participate in the last round. And Rama … we’ll tell the press not to print your photo. I'll guarantee that.’

 

Now the boldest girl, Suzie, erupted in anger. ‘What exactly will you guarantee? This Mayaji had said everything would be decent. Respectable people would come and watch. They would praise us! And what happened? People are cursing at us! The Chief Minister Sahib is sitting out there, but even that doesn’t stop them from yelling dirty things at us! If we go out in swimsuits now, what will those people get up to next when they see our bare legs? God knows!’

 

DB tried to handle the matter, ‘Look, it’s a good crowd. Those people just can’t control their excitement. The Amigo Club is the city’s most respectable club. All the members are respectable.’ Suzie came forward and taking a fifty-paisa coin from her blouse she stuck it in DB’s palm, ‘Here you go! Your ‘respectable’ members threw that coin at me, and it just happened to fall into my blouse!’

 

Silence fell in the dressing room. Maya, who had seemed aggressive until now, also looked shocked.

 

‘They’re all trouble-makers and hooligans,’ said Hema Vishwas haltingly. ‘What do you call them … they’re louts.’

 

Everyone looked a bit ashamed. But Singhaniya apparently had thicker skin than the rest. This was the opportunity to strike, otherwise everything would be useless. ‘They’re all trouble-makers, hooligans, louts! If I go right now and announce that the girls won’t come back on stage, because they think the audience is all trouble-makers, hooligans and louts, what will happen then? The audience will climb onto the stage and have their way with you in the dressing room. We won’t be able to save anyone. Go put on your swimsuit!’ The impact of the threat was that, with the exception of our heroine, all the girls sat down and began to wail like old women performing satyagraha. ‘Singhaniya Sahib! What’s the use of sending these girls with swollen eyes onto the stage? They won’t look good and people will say all kinds of things … DB Sahib! You think of something!’

 

‘Singhaniya, stop making threats,’ agreed DB. ‘The security of these girls is our responsibility. As long as we’re here, nothing can happen to them. Have we called them here to give them prizes or to threaten them? Girls! Listen to me! Whichever one of you will go on stage wearing a swimsuit will get an additional seven-thousand-rupee prize. She’ll also get the prize money on top of that. Come on … stop carrying on and get ready.’

 

None of the girls moved a muscle; they just kept on crying. DB motioned to Singhaniya. He immediately put a wad of seven thousand rupees into the hand of our heroine.

 

Our heroine hesitated slightly, and looked timidly at Mayaji. Mayaji came over to her, ‘Wonderful! That’s what we call … confidence.’ Our heroine stuffed the bundle of notes in her purse and went off to put on a swimsuit.

 

An enthused DB rushed off to the stage and whispered into the ear of the announcer. There was a drumroll….

 

As soon as he got the signal from DB, the announcer announced, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, nine contestants have not taken part in this round because they were afraid of losing. They should have had a more competitive spirit. Now only one contestant is taking part in this round…

 

‘… and it’s Miss Narmada, Contestant Number 10, Brothers and Sisters, please give her a hearty round of applause! Miss Narmada … Number 10!’

 

The stage was again cloaked in darkness. As Narmada stepped out wearing a swimsuit, she broke out in a sweat. She’d seen the state of the nine girls weeping and wailing for shame in the dressing room. They lived in a traditional environment and considered tradition to be more valuable than this show. They were afraid that after exposing their legs in public, they’d be cast out from their neighbourhood and society. Their paths to marriage would be blocked and their futures would be bleak. But our heroine had divined that all she needed was just a few minutes of courage to win the prize and become famous overnight. In one go, she’d escape the stifling well of familial culture. She’d be able to open her own beauty parlour. She’d be able to marry as she chose. Our heroine’s legs trembled, but she remained focussed and firm. The spotlight hanging over the stage followed her.

 

She turned around in the midst of a roar of applause, whistles and obscene remarks. She walked once around the stage and curtsied low, her arms outstretched in gratitude like a ballerina. After that, she walked backwards and finally disappeared from the stage. The music reached a crescendo. A short while later, she reappeared on stage wearing a sari and the entire stage was bathed in light.

 

The three judges had already seated themselves in front of the mike on one side of the stage. Narmada stood before the mike on the other side. She was hoping the judges wouldn’t ask her questions of the type that appeared on exams: ‘Answer any five of the following questions.’ Whatever happens, I’ll be sure to give interesting and unusual responses, she decided.

 

The announcer began to speak, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen! We shouldn’t consider beauty to be limited to the body. Beauty should exist in the entire personality. A contestant’s self-confidence, intelligence and wit should also be examined. Now our lady judges will ask Miss Narmada questions …’

 

‘What’s our regional specialty?’

 

‘Caste.’ (The audience chuckled)

 

‘The region’s political specialty?’

 

‘Overindulgence.’ (The audience was silent)

 

‘The region’s economic specialty?’

 

‘Coal.’

 

‘Give an example of a regional custom.’

 

‘Kowtowing to politicians from elsewhere. Even Clinton could win an election here.’ (The audience chuckled)

 

‘What do you want to do in life?’

 

‘To fill people’s lives with beauty.’

‘That’s all. Thank you, Miss Narmada.’

 

While the three lady judges got to work tallying up the scores, Mayaji argued with Singhaniya outside the dressing room.

 

‘This is wrong. When only one girl has made it to the final round, you should give her the money for all three prizes. Narmada will get two lakhs. You’re only losing one lakh. If two more girls had come into the final, you’d have to give them prizes too. Narmada saved the honour of your program by putting on a swimsuit, otherwise you people wouldn’t be able to show your faces.’

 

‘Why should we give it to her?’ interrupted Singhaniya. ‘Didn’t we give her an extra seven thousand for putting on the swimsuit? This isn’t free money that we should go around throwing it away.’

 

‘If you give her the money, the contestants will be lining up next year. You’ll sell tickets and make money; otherwise you can consider this your last beauty contest!’

 

Singhaniya got the idea, and he got DB to agree too.

 

Mrs Sachdev announced the prize. As soon as they heard Narmada’s name, the audience echoed with thunderous applause. After that, DB brought the Chief Minister onto the stage. The Chief Minister was to say a few words after the prize was awarded. But he said more than a few words: ‘What’s left to say after a prize is awarded? After the wedding who asks about the groom’s party? I’ll just say a few words first … to tell the truth … before coming here, I was advised not to participate in this program. My advisers said a Chief Minister should not participate in such trivial programs. But I said, ‘This is a program for the public. Everyone in that club will be a gentleman. So I should go.’ I was worried there might be naked dancing in this program. But there was nothing of the sort, and so my misapprehensions were allayed. Now we have to award the prize. My opponents will say, ‘He went to give out a prize at a beauty contest.’ Let them say it. How is this anything new? Long ago, we had Amrapali in Lichchavi. She danced in the darbar. She was honourable. This is our tradition. In those days there were beauty contests too, and one Amrapali was chosen from thousands of beauties. And she’s still honourable. Even to this day, there’s a train called the Amrapali Express…’

 

Just then, Narmada came out onto the stage. DB announced he was giving her a cheque for two lakhs. The Chief Minister put a crown on Narmada’s head. He gave her a sash and handed her the cheque. People understood that the program was over.

 

The Chief Minster asked Narmada, ‘Where do you live, what does your father do? What is your uncle’s name?’ Then he began to speak into the mike, ‘As of today, this girl has become Miss Tapna. Do you people know the meaning of tapna? In Hindi, ‘tapna’ means to leap, or jump. This Narmada, the niece of an ordinary officer, Shivaranjan, comes from the lower middle class. As soon as she became Miss Tapna, she leapt into the elite class! Democracy is a very important thing. She was chosen democratically. I wish her all the best.’

 

In this way, our heroine was transformed from Narmada into Miss Tapna, but the old ways don’t just disappear all at once. When she came forward and touched the Chief Minister’s feet, the applause was deafening.

 

Miss Tapna

When Miss Tapna arrived home late that night, Uncle opened the door. Miss Tapna thought she should tell him the news. But then, she thought, ‘What if he blows up right now and causes a scene in the middle of the night?’ She went quietly into the kitchen, drank a glass of water, and went and lay down in bed. But she couldn’t fall asleep. Never in her life had she had an opportunity to consider herself special. That night she’d heard thunderous applause in her praise for the very first time. She’d won a prize of two lakh rupees. On top of that, she’d gotten the Chief Minister’s blessings. Her body and soul fizzed the way it does when you put Eno fruit salt into a glass of water and it bubbles up with a hissing sound. ‘Tonight I’ll sleep,’ she thought. ‘Tomorrow, my picture will be in the papers, and the news will be published, and even the people who ignored me will begin to see something special about me.’ Before, she hadn’t been able to find the right path to the sky. But today, she saw a staircase made of bars of light climbing into the heavens. She’d found such happiness, such satisfaction, she forgot all the old insults and pain. She decided when she got up in the morning, she’d get Aunty to see her point of view. Then she’d bring Uncle around.

But since she fell asleep quite late, she woke up late, and only after Aunty shook her. Uncle was shrieking in the drawing room. She quickly took all three cheques from under the mattress and put them into Aunty’s hand.

 

‘Aunty here are the two lakh rupees of cheques and ten thousand rupees,’ she said.

 

The look in Aunty’s eyes softened, but just then there was the sound of glass breaking. Both of them leapt up and went into the drawing room; a rock lay on the floor, wrapped in paper. Someone had thrown it from outside. When Uncle opened the door and looked out, he saw five boys standing across the street.

 

‘Have you no shame, doing something like this?’ he cried out to them.

 

‘Your niece is shameless now, so why should we have any? Just send her outside. We want a glimpse of Miss Tapna ourselves.’

 

Aunty handed the piece of paper to Uncle. ‘We have a right to Miss Tapna,’ it said, ‘signed: the band of lovers at the crossroads.’ The veins in Uncle’s neck bulged. He recognised all the boys. They lived in the government quarters.

 

‘Don’t you have mothers and sisters in your homes?’

 

‘Certainly. But we don’t let them dance naked on stage. Send Miss Tapna outside.’

 

Aunty felt it best not to let the matter go any further so she pulled Uncle inside. Now he let loose a torrent of anger on Miss Tapna.

 

‘Look what you’ve done! There’s a photo on the front page of the newspaper. Those wretches even printed my name. If you needed to shame yourself, so be it, but why did you tell them my name? You earn a few pennies now, so you just go ahead and do whatever you want to! You entered a beauty contest without telling us or asking our permission. Who knows what lifetime this is revenge for!’

 

Aunty gave him a glass of water. She set out the tea. Then she said hesitantly, ‘It was the influence of the lady from the beauty parlour, Mayaji.The poor thing was forced to take part. If she didn’t, how could she get the two-lakh reward? The poor thing is docile as a cow. She gives us whatever she earns with her own hands. Have you ever heard of any problems with her and boys? She earns so much, and even so, she doesn’t hesitate to do housework. It’s a new era, girls wear pants now, they play cricket, they become PT Usha. How can you save this girl, you’re too concerned with your own honour. It’s because of your honour that you haven’t been transferred yet. Everyone has to give a little to get a little; you can’t just protect your honour and keep writing more requests.’

 

Any other day, Aunty would have brought Uncle round, but today it was his turn to boil over.

 

‘It’s easy to sit at home and make khichri,’ he said.‘Go outside sometime, then you’ll know how much the insults hurt. People will say, ‘She was their orphan niece so they made her dance naked on stage. For money!’ Who’s going to believe she entered the contest secretly, behind our backs? Now it’s all gone too far! Tell her to pack up her things and leave! I’m going to give that Mayaji a piece of my mind on the phone right now!’

 

Uncle leapt up and though Aunty tried to stop him, he left the house. The drawing room was heavy with silence. The rock that had come through the window was placed on the centre table. Aunty acted as though she’d been bitten by a snake. Miss Tapna was working on getting her nerves under control. She still wanted the protection of her uncle and aunt. She still wanted to live in this house. But how to get Uncle to come around? Mayaji would surely know how to make that happen.

 

‘Aunty, I’m going to get ready. I also have to go to work,’ said Miss Tapna and she went inside.

 

Uncle was outside in the public phone booth, giving Mayaji an earful. ‘We sent her to you to learn a skill. You put her out in the bazaar. We’re throwing her out of the house, but we’re not going to let you off either. We’re going to sue you for misleading a girl. We’ll go to the papers with this!’

 

Mayaji knew just how to solve the problem. Shivaranjan would have to be given an award as well. She already knew about his problem. Miss Tapna had told her about her uncle’s transfer a number times. Now the time had come to take action. If they didn’t take care of this problem, that lunatic Shivaranjan would surely go running to everyone, from the courts and the papers, to the opposition leader. The opposition leader was already fuming over the membership issue. The Amigo Club and the Chief Minister would get dragged through the mud.

 

Mayaji told both Singhaniya and DB over the phone that the problem was very serious and something had to be done at once. After this she got in her car and set out for Miss Tapna’s home.

 

Miss Tapna was about to leave when Mayaji got out of the car. Uncle pursed his lips when he saw her.

 

‘What do you want from us now? You’ve already robbed us of our honour. Take this hussy away with you … no need to speak with us. We’ll be meeting you in court.’

 

Mayaji smiled, despite her anger. ‘This hussy is going to bring fame to your family name. She hasn’t just received an award; she’s reached such a high status now that she can get you transferred. She won’t even set foot in this house until the transfer is complete. Come on.’

 

Time passes quickly! Miss Tapna stayed with Mayaji. She opened her new parlour under the name ‘The Personality Centre.’ Future Miss Tapnas were trained there. The fat became thin. Bellies became firm. Narmada also modelled for Elephant Print Chewing Tobacco. From then on, she went from being Narmada to Naimi. Naimi’s Centre is well known amongst the city’s young men and women, vain older people and wizened politicians. Everyone is eager to go there and change personalities. And Uncle knows all this. All the same he has not come by to visit the centre.

 

The very day Shivaranjan was transferred to the Department of Mining, Miss Tapna was brought home in the evening with honour. Our heroine stayed there only one night. Then she went off to live in a flat in a nice locality. In this manner, our heroine lived happily ever after.

 

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This story first appeared in Arun Prakash’s collection, Swapn Ghar, Penguin/Yatra 2010. It is reproduced with permission from the author’s estate.

 

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Daisy Rockwell is grateful to Amitava Kumar, Aftab Ahmad, Nirmal Taneja, and Prashansa Taneja for help with the translation, and to the author's son, Manu Prakash for granting her permission to translate the work..

 

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Arun Prakash was a Hindi writer who was born the year after Indian Independence in Bihar. He was the author of a novel, numerous short story collections including Bhaiya Express, set in the riots of terrorist struck Punjab, and a collection of poetry. His work has received critical acclaim and won many awards.

Arun Prakash was at the centre of the Hindi literary scene, having edited the Sahitya Akademi’s journal, Samkaleen Bhartiya Sahitya for many years. He passed away in 2012.

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Daisy Rockwell is a writer, translator and painter living in the United States. Her translation of Upendranath Ashk's great 1947 Hindi novel, Falling Walls (Girti Divarein) published by Penguin was released in early June, 2015, and her retranslation of Bhisham Sahni's Tamas is due out in November. She is also the author of a novel, Taste, Foxhead Books 2014, and The Little Book of Terror, Foxhead Books 2012, a collection of her paintings and essays on the War on Terror.