Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful
The old man had no one in the family. His entire life revolved around taking care of Gauri, Zahra and Shyama. The old man or Bauji, as he was lovingly called, did not know their age when he adopted them. He believed each was the same in all ways, and he loved them like they were his daughters. In fact, it was Bauji, who named them specifically.
Gauri, Zahra and Shyama were young – they were not aware of the chores of the world, and did things on their own. So, it was Bauji who took care of all the daily needs. Bauji, would take them to the field, by the pond side, feed them with his own hands, walk them down the streets, and with even more care give each of them a bath.
Growing up Gauri and Zahra were always envious of Shyama – for it seemed that Bauji had always been taking more care of Shyama than them. Bauji, would always give Shyama bath for a longer time, wash her gently, lather her, soak her, dry her neatly and on days would apply home made paste all over her body while singing to her. Not that he did not do any of this to Gauri and Zahra, but Bauji always seemed to look after Shyama’s appearance more.
Shyama, on the other hand quite enjoyed the attention she received. She would always sway her neck and stand with joy while Bauji took care of her. Not just that even when he took all the three out for a walk or to the grounds, Bauji made sure he would cover Shyama with an umbrella or with a piece of cloth over her head. Sometimes he would not let Shyama go out to play. Bauji would say “Shyama, don’t go out in the sun. Stay with me in the house. And Gauri and Zahara you go out, but come back quickly or else you will be become like Shyama. But remember, be in the shade.”
This was how Bauji loved all three. But at this young age neither Gauri and Zahra understood what it meant to be like ‘Shyama’ and Shyama who was getting all the attention cared less about the comparison.
“Shyama, on the other hand quite enjoyed the attention she received. She would always sway her neck and stand with joy while Bauji took care of her.”
As years passed by, Gauri, Zahra and Shyama learnt the worldly chores, and now without the company of Bauji, went to the fields, went by the pond side, walked the streets and played around with others of their kind. As the number of the others grew around the three , Shyama was the one who was left out. Everyone would easily approach and make friends with Gauri and Zahra, and then because Shyama was with them, they would have to involuntarily ask her to join in. Not that Shyama was shy but just that the others did not reach out to her first.
Shyama did not mind, but sooner than later this became a habit for her. She was always the one left out not just in making friends, but even in conversations. Shyama started distancing herself. She would stay in the field, secluded and a little away from others. Each time she looked up, she felt that the others were looking towards her, and murmuring and whispering something; at times even breaking into laughter. Even Gauri and Zahra joined the rest with a laugh!
The laughter would ring in Shyama’s ears, even at night when she went to sleep. Slowly, not only among the rest but even within Bauji’s house she became lonely. She didn’t smile like she used to – when she was young. And, with the growing cheerfulness of Gauri and Zahra on one side, Shyama started burying her feelings within herself. Bauji, noticed the shift in Shyama’s behavior, but somehow never gathered the courage to ask her. He would only look at her from a distance and sigh a deep breath. For Shyama the anxiety was unbearable. Till now she did not know what she had done wrong or was doing wrong that the life around was behaving this way with her.
One day during their usual evening stroll next to the pond Shyama was left by herself on one bank, while the others grouped and sat on the adjoining bank. Shyama resisting to join the others stooped low over the water and saw her own reflection in water. As she saw her face rippling across, she turned her face and saw the reflection of the others spread across the surface of the water. The moment she caught the glimpse of the others who looked all uniformly the same, she quickly turned back from her own reflection and stared with despair.
Shyama realised that though they were all the same kind she was not the same. Her face did not reflect the same way as the others. Days and months of being isolated now made her realise this difference quite deeply. Shyama, left everyone and with tears rolling down her cheek ran back to Bauji’s place and hid her face – almost in shame.
“The moment she caught the glimpse of the others who looked all uniformly the same, she quickly turned back from her own reflection and stared with despair.”
Bauji realising Shyama’s plight walked up to her and caressed her over her head. Bauji sat next to her and slowly gathering what Shyama might have discovered said “This is why I told you while you were young, to not play in the sun”, in a quivering voice he continued, “Everyone does not accept everyone equally. I tried my best. I tried to take care of you. Did whatever I can. I followed everyone’s instructions of what to apply, how to bathe you, how to protect you, and how to make you better. But I have failed.” Bauji reasoned in an apologetic manner.
Shyama did not move. She stayed still all night. Bauji’s words echoed in her ears – “followed everyone’s instructions… …to make you better”. “Am I inferior?” she thought – “Inferior than Gauri and Zahra? Inferior than the rest? But how? Can I not to do the same things – work, laugh, walk like everyone else? Is that why Bauji took care of me? Not because he loved me more or equally like my other sisters?” Shyama’s mind was full of doubts. The feeling of being inferior had seeped in so much that now she started to question even the love she had received!
She questioned her existence till date, and recalled of all those days when people would come to meet Bauji and only after caressing Gauri and Zahra everyone would caress her. Today, she realised that for everyone she was ‘secondary’. The words of Bauji “or else you will become like Shyama”, today settled within her.
‘Instructions’, Shyama recollected. Yes, that is what Bauji did. Not care. He followed instruction of others. That is what each one passed onto Bauji when they would meet her. Each one would meet just about everyone – the tailor, the lady who came to iron clothes, the distant Uncle who would show up occasionally, the voice over the radio and paintings on the walls of the streets. Specifications and guidance for Shyama so that she could become like Gauri and Zahra. So that she could be at par with the rest. Shyama felt demeaned from within. Not only because of the actions of others but also because her happiness was now clouded with self-doubt.
“Shyama’s mind was full of doubts. The feeling of being inferior had seeped in so much that now she started to question even the love she had received!”
Insecurity crept in Shyama coupled with an angst growing within. Shyama resented even stepping out of the house. She would stay still, not move, nor do any chores. Even if with great persuasion she would step out of the house, she would shy away from looking at anyone around. The umbrella of Bauji that once protected her now seemed to become an act of shameful hiding from the rest.
One evening, Bauji took Gauri, Zahra and Shyama to a festival in the town. Gauri and Zahra excitedly walked ahead while Shyama reluctantly walked behind Bauji, even though it was dark. As they stood within the crowd, Shyama noticed that everybody, turned their head from a distance, and took peeping glances at Gauri and Zahra and some even came to Bauji to speak about them. Shyama, remained unperturbed for by now she had gotten used to this behaviour. Suddenly, she saw that the entire crowd stopped murmuring and exchanging glances, and collectively bowed their head in front of the deity that now stood in the middle.
Shyama looked from a distance. The deity was not the usual. She was not like the rest. She was like how her reflection appeared in the pond, not quite the same as others. The deity looked different from others. “How come everyone bows down to her then?”, questioned Shyama. The deceit and the unfairness gleamed brightly within the blanket of darkness. Shyama, turned away and not willing to be consumed by everyone around, disappeared within the dark night sky.
" Shyama, turned away and not willing to be consumed by everyone around, disappeared within the dark night sky”
Bauji, Gauri and Zahra desperately searched for Shyama, not just that night but even the following day. She was nowhere to be found. As Bauji mournfully sat on the steps of the house, the next-door family walked up to him and said, “Look, Bauji, we have named her Kalika.”
Hearing the words, Bauji broke down with eyes full of guilt. The realisation of what he had imbibed, and what he had passed as teaching sank in his heart. Only a question loomed, “What if I had named ‘Shyama’ differently?”
thanks to the campaign Dark is Beautiful, and the initiative by Nandita Das.
Illustrations: Inspired and adapted from Gond art form