The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 12, 2001
Lead Article

From GORI to GAL

This is the story of Pinky, one of the many small town girls who come to the city for higher studies. It is based on actual incidents from real life and provide an insight into the conflicts, dilemmas and contradictions thatrage in their minds. Raman Mohan gives Pinkyís story, and of those like her, in first person singular.

MONSOON and I are no strangers. We have been friends for over two decades now. But one particular hot and sultry monsoon evening continues to haunt me. It changed my life forever. I could never fathom whether the change was for the better or for the worse. But I cannot wish it away. It had rained heavily that day.Though it raised hopes of a good crop, it also meant additional work for me. The last of my chores was to tidy up the cowshed. Having done that, I was to pack my bags. I was leaving home the next morning for a town 50 km away for further studies.

At 16, I had passed my Plus 2 examination from the girls school on the far side of the village. Thatís all the village had to offer by way of education. Though a rustic, my father gave in to my motherís wishes that Pinkyó thatís what they call me ó should go to a college in the nearby town and stay in the hostel. My elder brotherís wife, Roshni, gave me her bright red VIP suitcase to pack my clothes in. "Take good care of it. I brought it in my dowry", she told me sternly before she parted with its key.

It was already midnight by the time I finished packing. The next morning, I was to leave with my father by the first bus for the town. I could hardly sleep that night. The prospects of leading a life on my own, howsoever sheltered in a hostel, thrilled me.

I was in the midst of a dream when I was rudely awakened by my mother. "You are supposed to leave in an hour and you are still smelling of cow dung. Go scrub yourself clean while I cook food for you", she said before disappearing in the kitchen which was full of smoke. The rain had dampened the dung cakes and the firewood. No more of these smells for me, I told myself. I couldnít be more wrong.


I was wearing my school uniform - a plain pink salwar kameez with a black dupatta - when I followed my father to a room in the college. Three stern-faced teachers were seated there behind a long desk, shuffling through a bunch of forms. The room was noisy as girls chatted incessantly. Suddenly, I was facing the trio. "Whatís your name?", one of them asked me. "Pinky", I said as softly as I could. Instantly, I heard a girl behind me say ":Obviously, it couldnít be anything else". The entire room broke into a laughter and I noticed everyone was staring at my pink-clad persona. I was almost in tears.

I had not yet got over my rather rude initiation in the strange world when my rural roots were shaken again. I was to share the hostel room with a girl from Delhi. I saw my father off very reluctantly. Back in my room, I felt lost and lonely. Suddenly the door opened and the diminutive, fair and jean-clad girl who had made fun of my name barged in. "You. You, Gulabo. Do I have to share the room with you? No way." She said and walked out.

She was back again in a few minutes, this time accompanied by a tired looking hostel warden. "Madam I canít share the room with her. We have nothing in common. Look at her. She smells of cows and smoke", she said. "Any more reasons Shalini?" the warden asked and dismissed her objections. We spent the night tossing in our beds.

Sometime during that night, I decided to say goodbye to my pink uniform. That was the mother of all troubles, I reckoned. I took out my new suit my mother had stitched for me and gave the green and magenta apparel a loving look. This should be okay, I said to myself. Later, this turned out to be the beginning of my transformation over the next few months.

I noticed that there were about 20 of us from villages and small towns in the hostel. Like birds of the same feather, flocking together came naturally to us. We were spending most of our free time together as did our more sophisticated college and classmates. It was around this time that we met Mimansa. Two years our senior, she did not betray any outward signs of her small town background. She had short hair, a clear complexion and a very feminine gait. She was also a shade skinnier than most of us. She sported jeans and salwar kameez with equal ease. The only time she unwittingly revealed her background was when during an animated conversation she would momentarily switch to the rural dialect. She was born Dilbhari, but within months of joining college she acquired an urban alias - Mimansa.

So, Dilbhari nee Mimansa became a role model for us as we strove to be more acceptable. The first signs of change came when one by one we stopped carrying desi ghee to the mess. The skinnier the better, we gathered as we watched our urban counterparts avoid ghee and almost starve to keep their bodyweights tightly leashed. Next, I was beginning to fall out of love with my long lustrous hair. These long plaits donít go with a skinnier personage, I surmised. The very thought of a short boyish haircut thrilled me no end. To me they were the hallmark of an urbanite. One night I confided in Mimansa. She was almost expecting it. "There isnít much time then. In another month, you will be going home for the September break. You must use the scissor tomorrow so your father can see you in your new avatar at least once before he comes to take you home", she said.

The next Sunday, Mimansa escorted three of us to a beauty parlour. In less than an hour our veneered long plaits were consigned to the bin. I felt strange. Suddenly, the scalp was breathing. I could feel the air touching it. When the hair-stylist asked me to look in the mirror, I found I could not gather the courage. The thought of facing my father with that kind of a haircut froze me in my chair.

The haircut lightened my head but burdened my mind. What weighed heavily on my mind was that sacrificing my long locks had not done the trick. My short hair did not go well with my sprightly gait. Nor did my skimpy and homely wardrobe compliment my new look. I felt very much ill at ease. As days passed, I became more and more envious of Shalini and members of her cult. Whenever I saw a jean-clad girl, I kept thinking of how I would look in denims. Will it suit me? Will it succeed where the haircut failed?

One Saturday, Shalini decided to stay overnight with her local guardians. Though she dressed immaculately, she had this nasty habit of leaving her jeans and tops hanging from the cupboardís door. I decided to try these on. I bolted the room and gingerly picked up Shaliniís jeans wondering if I would leave traces of. "cowdung smell" in it. But I could not resist the temptation. Finally I was in her jeans. It was too tight at the waist and I felt very uncomfortable. The top was so short it left at least six inches of my tummy exposed.

The room had only a small mirror. So I could only see myself in parts. Nevertheless, I convinced myself it suited me more than Shalini. Before I went to sleep, I decided buy a pair for myself. First thing the next morning, I narrated my nightly adventure to Raj Rani and Laxmi who I knew were also craving for jeans after the haircut.

On Monday, we skipped lunch and headed straight for a store in an upmarket area. All three of us were nervous. But Mimansaís presence was reassuring. The tidy air-conditioned insides of the shop unnerved me. I walked carefully lest I slip on that ceramic floor. The salesgirl spoke fluent English and asked us what we desired. We were tongue-tied. I had never spoken a word of English. Mimansa was, however, quick to react. "Dolly, inke baalon se nahin samjhi? Inko Kareena Kapoor banana hai. Jeans aur tops dikha", she said with an air of finality.

Trying on a pair inside the try room was too big a task for all of us. "Let us carry these to the hostel. We will decide there", I suggested. But Mimansa shot it down. "Go and try these on, one by one", she blurted and like obedient understudies we had no choice. After half an hour, we had the objects of our utmost desire neatly tucked under our arms.

The first shopping experience was not yet over. Mimansa wanted us to buy matching footwear. I tried on a few high-heeled pairs and even took a few shaky steps. It took me some effort to keep my balance. I feared I would trip. But the thought of being transformed into a Kareena Kapoor was impetus enough to go in for the most modern-looking sandals.

All of us wanted to wear the new dresses the very next day but Mimansa ruled it out. "There is a function on Thursday. That will an appropriate occasion", she said. I spent the next two days looking longingly at my object of desire several times a day. Finally, the magic moment arrived. An hour before the function was to begin we took our new outfits to Mimansaís room. All of us were both nervous and elated. Mimansa singled me out for some harsh treatment. "Look at your hair Gulabo Rani. Those who wear jeans have their hair shampooed so they are light and fluffy. Go and get rid of the sarson tel immediately", she said visibly upset over my indiscretion. That was the first time I used a shampoo. It was also the moment I realised why I smelt of cows and their shit. I drew several deep breaths to savour the fragrance. I hated myself for not having bought a shampoo earlier. I told myself, I would never use Nirol soap for washing my hair in future. I was finally clad in jeans. Though the top did not leave my tummy and waist exposed, I kept pulling at it repeatedly fearing my skin would show. No one had ever cast a look at those vulnerable parts of my body. With this fear in mind we headed to the pandal. The moment we entered, many of the city slicks whistled. As word spread many of their gang came in groups to look at us. The import of their visits was not lost on us. The jeans and the shampoo had sent our confidence soaring. But it was short-lived. The city slicks were determined to demean us. As we were walking to the hostel after the function, Shalini and her gang accosted us midway. "You look wonderful Pinky. But may be a pink trouser would have been more appropriate", she said in English with an anglicised accent. None of us could retort. The jeans had not taught us to speak in English.

Learning to converse in English was harder than wearing jeans. Even the Rapidex English Speaking Course was not much of help. However hard we tried, we could not proceed beyond the Ďhow do you do and quite well thank youí. Our search for the Queenís English ultimately led us to Mimansa again. As always, she had a working plan.

"How many of you remember the story of the thirsty crow and the farmer and his five sons who were always quarrelling?, she asked. Six hands instead of three went up instantly. Such was our enthusiasm for our new obsession. "Well itís simple really. Each one of you will speak one sentence of the story and then wait for me to say something. Note that", she said. I was the first to speak: "Once there was a thirsty crow". "Oh, I see. And where did he live?", Mimansa asked. "He lived on a tree", the three of us said in a chorus. It was Mimansaís turn to respond and we waited breathlessly. "Thatís nice. What was his problem?", she asked. "One summerís day he felt thirsty", Raj Rani answered. "My God, why didnít he drink water, Raj?", she asked with a worried expression on her face. Mimansa, I marvelled, was a really talented actress. "Because there was very little water in the pitcher", Laxmi said almost as a reflex action.

Lo and behold! We had learnt the first lesson in English conversation. Rapidex might have sold by lakhs, but Mimansaís crash course was the ultimate. At least for us rustic unsophisticated, short-haired, jean-clad daughters of toiling farmers who had graduated from washing soap to shampoos for hair in less than six weeks. We made it a point to converse always in English. But that was limited to conversing within our group only. That ensured no one could make fun of us. But it was a big mistake. Even as we developed the ability to translate our sentences and speak them, we did not gain the confidence to do so outside our closed circle. Besides, our spoken English was loaded with mispronounced words. We also spoke with a heavy Hindi and Punjabi. The September break was nearing. We had to find excuses for getting our hair chopped. Our haircuts were sure to make our momsí hair stand straight in disbelief. Mimansa, however, had gone through this mill. She came up with a time-tested excuse. "Where is the time for oiling, washing and grooming hair? You can either study or groom your long hair. So, donít worry.", she assured us. On the last day before the break, my father came to pick me up. He did not react at all. That worried me. Was he saving all his anger for our return home? What reassured me, however, was that by tradition, rustic fathers maintained a certain distance from their grown-up daughters. I wished the distance would for once increase. I landed home and played a trick spontaneously. I found my grandmother in the courtyard and I rushed to hug her warmly. I uncovered my head and asked "Dadi, how do I look?". I knew as I touched her feet, she would bless me by placing her hand on my head. And she would not start rebuking her balkati Pinki immediately after blessing her. She broke into a loud garrulous guffaw while my mother and bhabi stood in the doorway watching the little spectacle. But Bhabi, I suspected, could still be up to some tricks. I had come prepared for that. I had brought along a bottle of shampoo for her. That would please her, I thought. I was wrong. Later that night, she told me, "Pinki ab lagta hai tu college mein padhti hai". I thanked her profusely and cursed myself for thinking like a sheharwali and trying to bribe her. I presented her the bottle of shampoo which, I now felt she deserved very richly. I hardly moved out of the house during my stay in the village. The others could not be expected to be as tolerant and appreciative of the haircut as my family. But my friends from school who came to see me had a faraway look in their eyes when they saw my hair. This forlorn look said it all. How they must have wished they could sport a similar hairstyle! But what bowled them over were the photographs of the function. Pinki in jeans and tops was something they could never have imagined. They loved the jean clad Pinki. That was the first time someone had complimented me for my evolving avatar. We villagers were a sincere and well-meaning lot, I thought. Then why was I forcing a change on me? I did not know.

Yet, all through the vacations, I missed the hostel. I missed my jeans and English lessons as well. By the time I returned to college, I was almost longing to be there. Shalini was already in the room. I was expecting her to flare her nostrils. But to my surprise, she hugged me lightly. "Good to be together again", she said. I never expected to be accepted to her exclusive club so smoothly.

The girls had by now settled down. The evenings in the hostel were becoming more and more colourful. Literally. The city slickers were dressed to kill. Whiffs of costly perfume pervaded the guest-room and the lawns outside. The hostel parking was full of mobikes and sundry cars. The city slickersí boyfriends were regular visitors now. Those 90-odd minutes when visitors were allowed in daily were what everyone looked forward to. We, because we loved the liveliness, and our urban friends because they loved their boyfriends. A few weeks on and I began to realise it wasnít the liveliness I was looking forward too. In fact, I knew deep in my heart, I wanted a boyfriend for myself. But where could I find a Hrithik for Pinky? As I got closer to Shalini, she introduced me to her steady friend Rahul. At times I exchanged a few words with him. That gave me immense confidence. I felt I was ready for a boyfriend. I set my heart on Dhruv, the shy-looking friend of Rahul who often accompanied him to the hostel. So, with little help from Shalini and Rahul, one lovely evening, me and Dhruv were friends with all the connotations of boy and girl hinging to the friendship.

That day, I forgot plain walking. Instead, I floated. I flitted around the city on Dhruvís mobike hugging him as closely from behind as I could - in true Kareena style. We ate golgappas and lots of sundaes. He bought me a Gucci perfume and a stick of lip colour. I soon learnt to carry my light make-up without getting overly conscious. On Sundays we went to the movies or spent the day uttering sweet nothings in a boat at a nearby picnic spot. Life was truly kind to me. And how time flew !

In fact, it flew so fast, I didnít even realise examinations were on hand. I did not want to offer my family failure in return for all that they were doing for me. This helped me put in some hard work and I managed to pass my B. A. Part I examination in the second division though I could have done better if I had not learnt to float.

Mimansa had passed out that year. So, for the new lot of our sisters in the hostel, there were many Mimansas in us. We watched their troubled graduation to our club with the amusement of veterans. Rahul and Dhruv had departed too. While Rahul joined the Army, Dhruv left for Delhi to prepare for the IAS preliminaries. We found their replacements. Dhruv was in touch regularly and I was still very fond of him, but the club rules desired that no desirable girl should be without a boyfriend. In fact, the "veterans were supposed to have many at the same time," as Mimansa used to tell us. The next year was therefore spent frolicking. That was also the year I lost my virginity and also offered my doting family a compartment in the examinations as the fruit of all their labour. In the end it was a terrible year though when the days were fleeting past, life seemed so much romantic and thrilling. I had changed so much and yet I was not sure if I was better or worse off. Nevertheless, I also knew I did not want to be the same Pinky who tended to cows and brought fodder for them from our lands. The forced shades of Kareena had raised a wall between Pinky and her humble home in the village. After the final examinations, I was reluctant to go home. I tried my best to avoid it by wanting to join a computer course. But my father ruled it out straightway and the hostel rules did not permit us to stay there during the long vacation. The long spell of boredom broke only when Mimansa invited me to her marriage. I spent three days with her alongwith other members of the cult. Mimansa was, however, not as thrilled by the marriage as us. "I donít need to tell you. You will know in another year", she muttered helplessly. I was soon to realise the import of her warning.

When the college reopened, I had a job on my hands. I had to clear the compartment. So, the jeans, Rahuls and Dhruvs had to be sent to the background for a while. Once I clear this dreaded compartment, I would have some fun again, I promised myself. I cleared the examination. But fun seemed to be slipping away. I had hardly resumed my flings with jeans and boyfriends when I was summoned home. I still remember the cold morning when dad walked in unannounced. "There is a ceremony at home, you have to join it", he said. Dad stonewalled all my queries. But something kept bothering me all through my journey to home.

The house was unusually tidy that day. The baithak had been given a fresh coat of lime. The charpoy sported a new gaudy bedcover - something unusual in a rural setting. Even a shoddily-crafted centre table adorned the poorly-ventilated room complete with a tablecloth which, did not match the bedcover. All in all the setting had an uncanny resemblance to Mimansaís baithak during her marriage. What was up, I wondered.

When the suspense unfolded, it shook the earth below me. In a few hours, I was to be engaged to a bank clerk of my caste. He worked in a branch in a small town not far from his village. And, he lived with his large family in his village. I was to be the latest addition to the herd in a few months. All my family members were happy they had found me an educated husband. They were so sure of their choice, none bothered to ask for my opinion. Their enthusiasm killed any I had for raising any objections.

Before the sun had set that evening, I had been engaged. I had not exchanged a word with my future husband. My world had turned topsy turvy in three hours straight. Before he left, my father-in-law spent about 15 minutes huddled in an adjoining room with my father and my elder brother. I could only hear the parting shot from my father. "No problem, we understand your concern".

Later that night, I found myself closeted with my bhabhi and my mother. "Look Pinky, its different now. You will be a wife before your examinations and god willing, a mother soon after. Let your locks grow back. No more jeans for you. Get yourself some suits tomorrow. Your husband and his family want it but it is our desire too. You should understand" my mother told me. Bhabhi nodded in agreement though I could see she did not relish the little sermon.

Two years have gone by. I have a small daughter in my lap. I have never worn jeans since that day. And I have grown my hair back. The numerous jeans and perfumes lie in a metal trunk. Souvenirs from a gone era. Though I scored a first division in the final year, the degree gathers dust in my closet. Outwardly, its back to Pinky. But the Kareena in me has not died. Life has come a full circle but I keep going in circles wondering how to keep Mimansa (I named my daughter after my friend) from falling into this vicious circle - the ultimate chakravyuha.

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