Chinni cannot even begin to list the things she hates about herself.
Today, latest on that list, is a single thick strand of hair that has sprouted overnight from the mole on her chin. She hates the mole on her chin. It is three sizes too large to be beautiful, and many a friend has failed to resist all bounds of propriety, reaching out to touch it and see if it was real. She agrees with each of these friends – it feels like the back of a kambli-caterpillar, like cheap fabric, and yes, it has the texture of her mother’s round sticker bottu.
Chinni’s mother frequently discourages her from looking at the mirror. She says it’s important for a growing girl to not be interested in vanities, but must be invested in becoming a virtuous, obedient woman fit for marriage. As she scrubs turmeric into the small hairs on the sides of Chinni’s cheeks, Amma insists that Chinni is not merely pretty, she has lakshana: beauty fortified with the qualities of grace, piety, divinity, and of course, values.
But every morning when Chinni brushes her teeth, she finds herself horrified again, tearing up again at how helpless, how alone she is in her hideousness. The faded bottu from yesterday squat in the middle of her shapeless brows. Her round cheeks and soft jaw. Her plaits, and the small unruly curls nagging at her ears. Her plain brown eyes shaded by clumpy long lashes. A fuzzy shadow under her tuber nose. Her thin lips covered in toothpaste froth.
She does not care to be beautiful on the inside.
It’s not like she wants to look like Sushmita Sen or Aishwarya Rai. Frankly, she is unfazed by the women she sees in the glossy newspaper supplements or on TV. It’s not a lifestyle of beauty she yearns for. She simply wants to fulfil a basic aesthetic appeal. Some redeeming quality. Even one thing. Anything. A quality that has been bestowed upon her without her having to make an effort. But she never finds it. She quickly bathes and gets ready for school, giving up again today, but knowing fully well that battles like these can only be fought in increments.
Later in the afternoon when she comes home from school, her Doddamma pulls her aside and asks if she’s stopped wearing a petticoat. Chinni is confused. No? Doddamma summons Amma, and together they hail an auto to Gandhi Bazaar. They alight at Vittal Dresses. Chinni is confused again. She is never used to being singularly taken out to go clothes shopping. Plus, it isn’t anytime close to her birthday or Deepavali or Gowri-Ganesha. Doddamma clucks her tongue. Come inside Shilpa, she says, using Chinni’s real name to convey the strain on her patience. Discreetly they are ferried deep into the ladies’ section where every hue of saree blouse greets them.
The women behind the counter size up Chinni, and their hands unbox and box a variety of cotton bras. They all look the same. Chaste white cotton cups with white elastic bands. They look like they have already been washed with a blush of liquid blue. The model on the cover has astonishingly conical breasts. Amma and Doddamma pay for three bras at the counter. They hail an auto back home. Chinni holds the brown paper packet in her hands, and feels the plastic cover slip-slide under it.
In the bedroom, she takes off her uniform and her petticoat. She unfurls the neatly folded bra on the bed and takes in its shape. She grins, remembering how her Doddamma pronounces the word. Brey-see-yerrs. Chinni mouths the other word, bra. It sounds sexy. Forbidden. Belonging to a world that was not allowed to her so far – and it dawns on her that there is so much about this world that she does not understand, that is frightening. Thrilling. Bra. It sounds awkward. It sounds as sheepish as she feels when she passes a shut shop with “Avon Bra and Panty”painted loudly on its shutters. Bra. The pop of “buh” with a rush of “rah”. She keeps repeating it to herself brabrabrabrabrabrabrabrabrabrabra until it loses all meaning. She finds herself giggling, giddy. She snakes her hands into the straps and adjusts the cups at her chest. It feels strange. The lack of restriction around her belly feels alien. The absence of a petticoat. The exposure of her navel. The awareness of the two distinct parts of her femininity. The bra, and the panty.
She looks at the mirror and cocks her head. She’s wearing a pale green panty. And a new white bra. Her breasts are not pointy like the model’s on the box. Instead, the cups look wrinkled, askew, deflated. Like badly spread butter on bread. She hoists her breasts up and simulates the eventual fullness of her bra. How she will bloom.
She starts laughing. How silly it is to carry breasts in cloth bags.