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Image is Everything

Mariam was a teenage girl and like most others of her age, her days were spent between schoolwork and helping her mother in household chores.  Within this daily routine, Mariam had another passion though. A passion for dance. So, whenever she would find time, she would open her hair and swirl it in the wind. Move her hands gently in the air to converse with herself, tap her bare feet on the ground to create impressions and even move her eyebrows to the sound of rain. Being the only daughter, her parents never objected, her friends just watched, and everyone just let it pass. But for Mariam, that was her expression of freedom.

On a regular day, as she was standing in the verandah moving her wrist to imprint the movement of the clouds above, a man stood across her and stared at her from a distance. The man slowly approached the house and revealing that he was a painter, requested her parent’s permission to draw up a portrait of Mariam. Her parents were pleased, and Mariam stood in a corner smiled gleefully. The artist then gave specific instructions to how the portrait would look, a visualisation that he had framed looking at Mariam from a distance. And so, the process followed.  From tying up hair, to draping her in the appropriate manner, the right amount of ornamentation, to emphasising her posture, the smile across her face and even her expression – the artist crafted everything. Her parents watched, as the painter said, “This is Mariam – beautiful.” Mariam stood like a figure, as the rains pitter-pattered on the roof top. 


“ The artist then gave specific instructions to how the portrait would look, a visualisation that he had framed looking at Mariam from a distance”

Few days later the news of the painting spread like a wildfire in the vicinity. Everyone heard of the artist who had painted the most beautiful picture of a woman, and everyone desired to own the picture and see ‘Mariam.’ People, relatives, passersby and even strangers from the nearby villages visited the house to see the painting. And every time, each visited Mariam herself voluntarily dressed up, behaved and postured to give a reference to the art. She maintained the etiquette of the image. Hair neatly parted, hands closer to the body, only a measured smile – no laugh, cured feet and a demeanour that reflected the same essence of the painting.  Sometimes, she would cringe but that was only if people came at odd times or if she was tired, but willingly upon the insistence of her parents, she would get prepared.   

As people saw both her and the painting, they rendered her with their own adjectives. Some called her the ‘epitome of calmness’, for other she was a ‘symbol of love’, and for some ‘a rendition of happiness and joy’ or simply ‘good tempered’ or one that portrayed the ideal picture of traditional woman – ‘responsible, caring and sincere’. Her parents loved the accolades and accordingly cared for Mariam, and she equally reciprocated the attention that she received.  Each one had their own impressions, and within each version Mariam started shaping up under the watchful eyes of her parents. 

Mariam grew up not by swirling her hands to the rain, but by using them to beautify herself. When people spoke to her, when people were around her, when people just merely passed by, her only concentration was about her appearance. That extended to even when she was all by herself. She would spend hours to attain, rectify and project the Mariam the way others identified her as. For her everything revolved around that image. Mariam matured over the years to become a living image of her own portrait.  


“ Her parents loved the accolades and accordingly cared for Mariam, and she equally reciprocated the attention that she received

On another regular day, as few relatives came to the house, Mariam unaware just walked straight down to meet them. The relatives and her parents looked at her in certain dismay. They looked up at the painting and then looked towards her again. Mariam slightly stood bewildered. Her hair was messy, the stance little awkward, and her feet tapped instinctively on the floor at the sound of hummingbirds. It was all instinctive for this teenage girl. But Mariam suddenly shook up looking at the painting and said, “Oh sorry, I will just be back.” As she came down back again, the people sitting, passed a pleasing smile and said “There you are. Lovely!” as Mariam poised herself next to them and smiled. This time she sat uptight just looking at the birds who were humming.

As the people continued speaking, Mariam maintaining the adjective ‘epitome of calmness’ heard with great diligence and responded with great dignity. As words exchanges, something irked the teenage girl and she remarked loudly and in disagreement, “That is not how it is supposed to be. One cannot be tamed by the other”, as her hands flayed across the room while she voiced her opinion. Everyone heard her out and when she finished, her mother spoke gently, “You are not like this. You are a gentle girl. Behave properly.” The other joined in and echoed what mother had spoken. One by one, each taking their time, mandated on ‘how she should be’, ‘what she is’, ‘what people think of her’, ‘how others look up to her’ and ‘how she should portray herself’. No one responded to the girl who expressed her view, but instead all just instructed Mariam. She just heard.

Later that night as the rains poured, the girl laid on her bed and kept staring outside into the dark sky. She could not recall exactly all the instructions that were laid out, but all she remembered was what she had spoken – ‘One cannot tame the other.’ She felt unsettled, walked up towards the window, as her reflection appeared on the glass pane that had the remains of the raindrops. What she saw was a girl that was not draped or ornamented. A natural reflection of Mariam who stood not like a figure but appeared as a person.  One that did not stand as an ‘idol’ of any assigned attribute but one that did know did not have any expression either. Mariam peered into her reflection, in search.  She kept staring to find something. What she wanted to find, she did not know. She realised, she had lost something. But what, what was she trying to find? The feeling left her hollow and her reflection left her haunted as the night sky clouded over her.


“ She realised she had lost something. But what, what was she trying to find? The feeling left her hollow and her reflection left her haunted as the night sky clouded over her”

Mariam now started dressing up reluctantly. For today the attire felt like a burden as the reflection she had perceived never left her from within. Her mother came up to her and said, “Mariam, people have come to see you. Come downstairs. And what is with your hair, let me do it for you!”  Mariam, lost in her thoughts asked her mother, “Ma, when was the last time you saw me open my hair and swing holding the column in the courtyard?”  Her mother busy grooming her said dismissively, “Those are childhood things, forget about it!” and held Mariam’s hand and walked her downstairs. The people greeted Mariam and the first words spoke to her were, “Just as we had imagined you would be. You are just like the painting, even after so many years. Perfect bride!” As the young man standing next to them nodded in agreement.

Hearing the words, Mariam collapsed, though outwardly she stood upright. Turning away from the guests she went to the main door of the verandah and broke down in tears. The words ‘like the painting after so many years’ oscillated in her hand. Mariam now could not stand still in anymore.  She paced up and down, in anger, sadness, rage and in guilt. Unable to control herself, she ran out of the house with the same rigour as the rains were gushing down. Mariam ran, as her barefoot imprinted once upon on the wet ground, her hands flayed in motion, and her hair wavered in the breeze. She ran unstoppable without a care in the world, as her dress caught stains of mud and the drapes disfigured over her body. As her appearance shambled, a tiny little child-like smile appeared across her face. People peeked and remarked “Doesn’t she look like Mariam?”. As other interfered saying, “No she is not this kind, it cannot be. She is so decent”. While other said “What is wrong with this girl? She was never like this!”  Mariam didn’t listen and only halted at the doorstep of the painter.

Looking at Mariam, the painter walked up and said,” Do you want to get another portrait done? You are my best subject. Everyone wants to be like Mariam – beautiful! Even now your painting is in demand I have become wealthy and popular selling you. See!” as he held Mariam’s hand and showed her around. Across the room, neatly arranged, were the image of an intelligent young man; the fearless and fiery lady; the compassionate dark-skinned female; the helpless old woman; the depiction of a family and even an intellectual and well-educated person. There was an image for all, for everyone to choose, for all to become.  


 " There was an image for all, for everyone to choose, for all to become. Mariam stood shocked”

Mariam stood shocked, fell on her knees, as she looked at each of the images and their carefully detailed representation. Though she had come all the way to accuse the painter, she was left dumbfounded. The only thought that crossed her mind was, “Who are they? Who made them? And how many kinds are there?”


She turned back and started walking.  As she dragged her feet, a woman came towards her and said, “Mariam, what happened?” Mariam wanted to speak but before she could continue the lady said, “Look at your dress. It has got soiled and why is your face looking so dull. Let me mend you”. Mariam stood still, gathered herself and portrayed a smile.

Illustrations: Inspired and adapted from Jamini Roy's paintings

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