His mother walked into the room just as he was about to apply her new lipstick.
"What are you doing with my lipstick? It's new...I haven't used it so far. Couldn't you have waited? You have your own set Arjun."
He smiled and handed it back to her, “I love this hot pink Maa. Do you think Draupadi would like hot pink? I forgot to tell you...I am playing Draupadi in our college production... rehearsals started a week back."
“Oh! That’s nice. When is the program?” she asked.
“On the day of Diwali. The team thought I could really do well as Draupadi. You know I have those adaayein Maa,” Arjun threw his hand over his bosom, lowering his eyelids with coyness of a girl.
She looked at him, her 20 year old handsome son, who had taken her big black eyes, her soft features and a distinct sweet voice. Unlike boys whose voice cracked and become hoarse when they reached puberty, Arjun’s voice turned sweet. The sitar and the harmonium that had been collecting dust for many years found a new master. At a time when boys are exploring their body, learning how to masturbate, having wet dreams, wondering whether boobs feel like a sand pouch, ogle over cheap magazines replete with photographs of women in bare essentials, Arjun had found a new occupation.
He started learning Kathak from his mom. She taught him with enthusiasm and interest. He practised at home and performed at society functions dressed as a female dancer. Most of the leisure was spent experimenting with his mom’s dancing attires, accessories and make-up. Santosh, whom he fondly called amma was uncomfortably surprised at the newly developed interest but did not object. She would have never objected. Her life was one relentless hunt to find some love and respect. Whatever little came, had come through Arjun. What if she lost it all by disapproving his ways?
Married at a tender age of 20, coming from a lower-middle class, orthodox family in Bihar, pursuing kathak professionally was unimaginable. Sometimes having a will made of titanium and a vast amount of talent succumbs to the orders of parents and boundaries set by the society. Her ghungroos and her dreams were neatly packed away. She could only manage to make them part of her trousseau which she carried to her husband’s house. Her husband, Satish Anand, a man two years older to her. No questions asked, no preferences seeked, just married off. Sometimes, it is that simple. Sometimes, it is that abstruse.
Arjun nudged his mom, “ How is this amma?” the hair extension danced on his hips.
Santosh smiled and started clearing the bed. Soon Mr Anand would be home from work and if he saw this one more time, it would be the final nail in the coffin. She hurriedly started to put the false eyelashes back in the box, folding the dupattas when Arjun came and hugged her silently, “Thanks amma.”
“For what?” she asked.
“For teaching me Kathak,” He nuzzled his face in her pallu.
Santosh turned towards him, took off the hair extension and whispered, “I love you.”
Her gaze fixed on the small table top photo of her son dressed as Cinderella for fancy dress competition when he was 10 year old. Trying to absorb the reality of her life, she meditated, “Whatever keeps you happy Arjun. I am not sure what I am doing is right or wrong, what your father, your grandparents, or this society would say. What I know for sure is that it is about you, what you want and I will not stop you. I have lived 20 years with a man, your father, whose house I get to live in, and whose money is the source of our survival. You happened to me by stroke of a stray sex encounter. That was the first time your father touched me. That was the last time I touched your father. After 20 years, what stays between us is his lunchbox and the dinner plate. I came from a small town but had talent of an universe which my father did not care for and your father never came to know about. I could not understand your father, his apathy, the reason for him being so distant, isolated and inaccessible that even his own son could not reach him. You are all that I have. Stopping you would mean distancing from you and that is something I do not want to do, to you or to myself. People need some love to survive, for me it is you. Whatever keeps you happy Arjun.” Santosh let out a sigh and started to leave the room.
“Arjun, wrap up fast. There is so much strewn around. One college drama and so much over it. Uff this dupatta! It's so old. I wonder why you still cling on to it? Which saree do you finally want? Will this red one do? Or you want something more grand? What about these false breasts? You sure you want to wear it for the play?”
“Will see what the team says,” uttered Arjun.
The old wooden clock hanging in the living room announced it was 7:30 pm, time for Mr Anand to return from work. A graduate from Gurukul Kangri in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, Mr Satish Anand was a reclusive and indifferent man. People had labeled him depressed, pessimistic and lifeless long time ago. His mundane life had nothing to offer to anyone except survival...somehow. A senior engineer in BSNL, Bokaro, Mr Anand had not shown much vigour or interest in learning new skills or climbing the ladder. The promotion came more by seniority rather than merit or performance. But it didn't bother him. What mattered to him was that nobody should touch his things, his eyeglasses, his clothes, his files and folders, his cupboard, his room and guess his life. He had negotiated this loneliness for the income he provided to run the family. 20 years and even ‘life’ had left him untouched. It went about like a machine day after day.
Though Arjun, his son, still got some of his attention and few moments of affection in these 20 years. Arjun treasured it for he knew it may never happen again though he didn't know why. After his 12th, when Arjun had shown inclination towards pursuing theatre, rather than engineering, a big confrontation ensued between father and the son. He had overlooked Arjun’s odd behavior till school but now it elicited strong disapproval, reproach and conflict. Last week had ended at a very bitter note when his father had seen Arjun with the hair extension, dancing merrily oblivious to neighbours watching him through the half open window.
“I say, wrap up fast, shove it under the bed,” Arjun saw the sudden rise in Amma’s temper and anxiety. His Baba was about to come and if he saw Arjun with the lipstick on, a saree draped around and a bra showing off his hairy chest, it would start a war. How difficult it was to make his father understand? He wasn't sure if his mum did but at least she didn’t object either. Sometimes, it seemed that his father wanted to burst open but Arjun wasn't sure what would come out. The only solace was his mom to whom Arjun meant the world.
The doorbell rang and the maid opened the door. Santosh ran out of the room closing it from behind. Mr Anand entered and handed the bag to his wife. No looks exchanged, no words shared. No sooner did he walk towards the washbasin to wash and clean that he saw Arjun in his room through half closed door, hurriedly wiping off the lipstick and hiding the ‘Draupadi’ under his bed. Mr Anand opened the door. The creek of the old door startled Arjun as he looked at his father trembling with anger and rage. Very slowly Mr Anand walked up to his son.
“Baba, I was just, I mean am sorry, I , I , I …..”, he stammered.
Before he could explain further, Mr Anand's temper landed on his son’s face, throwing him on the bed on the heap of the dupattas. Santosh stood motionless in fear. Mr Anand pulled the sequined dupatta from Arjun’s hands, collected the lipstick and accessories that lay on the bed. The cupboard was ripped apart and everything emptied from the drawers, the carton box under the bed, he took it all. Arjun wept bitterly as Santosh hugged him from behind.
“Where is the kerosene oil?” demanded Mr Anand.
Santosh looked bewildered as the maid scrambled to the kitchen for the kerosene container. As his father took the steps towards the terrace, Arjun ran behind and held on to his feets pleading, crying, sobbing, apologizing. Mr Anand gave Arjun a violent shake and moved on. Up on the terrace, he made one heap of Arjun’s identity and dreams, poured kerosene and lighted the matchstick; all executed in a matter of 5 minutes. It was over...finally...his father had burst.
The flames leapt high...charring Arjun from within.
“You are going to Gurukal Kangri in two weeks. The admission process is complete and your tickets reserved,” announced his father sternly.
The phone rang and Mr Anand went to attend. Arjun stood motionless, staring at the small heap of his burnt self, his lips still pink from the traces of the red lipstick and earring dangling from his ears. His mother stood next to him, wondering if she should have jumped in the flames too.
Time- 1:30 am
Arjun sat in a corner of his room, his dinner plate cold and chapatis tight. A tiny cockroach roamed freely around the plate. Arjun had foreseen the war coming but wasn't sure that it would happen so soon. He felt defeated, crushed and deeply pained. A part of it came from seeing his father so angry and upset. That is the strange thing about love. One can never truly hate those whom one loves. He hated himself for not being the son his father would love. His heart raged with anger towards his father who failed to understand him and helplessness over the situation life had so painfully organized around him. There were questions blazing in his mind as he reminisced his growing up years. Not that he understood what was happening to him. Since childhood he just felt right doing girlie things, dressing up like girls and playing house with dolls. Then, his parents didn't seem to mind. Children do opposite gender role play at that age. Later, when he urged his parents that he wanted to grow his hair, his parents knew something wasn't so right. He was good at dramatics and dance at school. Somehow a lot of boys didn’t seem to care about him but he had a strong circle of girl friends amongst whom he felt HIMSELF. When he hit puberty, he chanced upon a magazine from the boys group which had pictures of men dressed like women. Digging further on the internet he got to know about cross dressers and transvestites. The words were new but he was familiar with the feelings. Teenage years were spent in exploring and understanding himself. While his mom stood by him, his father became his enemy.
Today, the enemy had won. His father’s words’ Gurukul Kangri’ kept ringing in his ears as he got up, dragging his feet to drink water. The house was wrapped in deadly silence except for the ceiling fan whose rusted parts made a tik-tik sound in every rotation. He stepped in the dining room and saw his mother sleeping on the sofa which had served a dual purpose of bed at night for several years. His father’s bedroom was on the terrace floor. The refrigerator had a half empty bottle inside. Arjun drank it all in one go trying to extinguish the fire that burnt within. As he traced his steps back, he saw a faint glimmer of light coming from upstairs. That was unusual because his father resigned to bed by 10pm, his bedroom door shut. He had never seen the door open and a closed door meant peace for the house.
Why was his father awake? What was he doing? He never worked at home late at night. Was he feeling unwell? Did he need water? Care and concern mixed with doubt and suspicion made him tread towards the room and he started climbing. With every step he knew he was flouting the rule which ruled the house and the relationships. He stumbled on a strewn object and landed up banging onto the half closed door of his father’s room.
Startled by the sound, his father looked up. Arjun looked back at his father and what lay scattered on the bed.
An old worn out suitcase, half open, nightgowns, babydolls, slips, brassieres, and other types of nightwear, lingerie, pantyhose, and items of a distinct feminine look and feel, lay all over the bed. Mr Anand lips were deep maroon and before him lay some very old, worn out box of lipstick and female ornaments. Next to it was a container of kerosene oil.
Minutes passed by as the father son kept staring at each other. The lipstick fell from his father’s hand and he sat down on the edge of the bed with a thud, paralyzed. Arjun walked up to his father, picked up the lipstick, handed it back to him, picked up the kerosene oil and walked away. He closed the door from behind.
Mr Anand stared at the lipstick, a dirty, dusty old maroonish in color. A strand of hair stuck to it and so did his identity. “Tomorrow you are going to Gurukal Kangri. Enough of all this madness. I have also looked for a girl for you whom you will marry as soon as you finish college,” the words of his father spoken years ago echoed in his ears.