Monday, November 25, 2013

About a Girl

Ours began as a relationship of convenience. As most – all – childhood friendships are wont to begin. Diana Penty was my original friend-of-a-friend and I, hers.
Said common friend was our unspoken navigator in the socio-political minefield that is fourth grade at an all-girls’ convent school. We regarded each other with the shy acknowledgement of sidekicks, taking care not to find ourselves alone in each other’s awkward company. Until Common Friend shipped off to another school just as we were about to be thrust into the grim world of secondary education, with its terrifying implications of trigonometry and training bras. We would need to go this together.
Neither of us is quite sure precisely when we turned best friends.  
I may never have said more than the odd word to her before, but how different she was never escaped me. I now feel Diana always carried a measure of natural celebrity. One of those people, who, it is not immediately apparent why, seem to have a stronger force field than others. Diana was always at least a head taller than everyone in our class, and folded her reedy frame into a self-conscious stoop throughout school. There were the thick, shiny jets of blacker-than-black hair locked into a hurried ponytail, big, intelligent almond eyes behind nerdy glasses, pert nose, mouth full of steel. And
a gentilesse coupled with just the touch of nonchalance (a trait I have tried to imitate ever since we met) one does not think to expect from a 10-year-old.
In contrast, my near-sentient mass of curls, pubescent weight gain and Goan Catholic intonations (my favourite word, “itsims”, turned out to be the rather dull “it seems”) felt anxious and ungainly.
I was self-conscious, and a little proud, of how quickly we became inseparable. We spent most of those first teenage years in each other’s company (of which at least one was spent almost exclusively giggling). Every day we would be dropped to St Agnes High School in her white Maruti 800. We were partners if we’d lucked out that year and landed in the same class, spent our long and short breaks together if we hadn’t and walked back together after school, usually running the last few metres to her house to make it in time for Small Wonder (she had cable; there were no downsides to this friendship).
By 13, we were like a single entity – DianaCheryl CherylDiana. Never expected anywhere without each
other, shuttling between her house for the fluffy Le Patisserie goodies her refrigerator was invariably stocked with, and mine for the fish curry – my mother can take full credit for introducing her, a then staunch chickentarian, to piscine joys that remain with her to this day. She taught me to rollerblade “along the lines of the floor tile…WATCH OUT!” My brother was our brother and her dog, Ruff, a derisive Lhasa Apso, was our…no he wasn’t, he was most definitely
her dog. “Ruffu, ruffu!” she’d use her baby voice and he’d let go of his general contempt for the world for several minutes to turn into an adoring, writhing mass of puppy while she scratched his belly.  
We talked endlessly – no sooner would we part ways after school, than we’d get right on the phone to each other – about a lot of things: When we would get our first waxes, what we would do if either of our ailing fathers suddenly died, who and how our boyfriends would be, should be (“hope he’s not a crier, eww!”), when our music careers would take off (Mariah Carey’s ‘Hero’ was our anthem, our by now 15-year-old souls thrumming with lofty emotion each time she let out one of her high-frequency yodels). We recorded our own talk show too, being host and guest interchangeably – the latter modelled on whichever classmate had incurred our wrath that week. Diana was shy even then, with just two of us and a tape recorder in an empty house; if someone had told her she’d be doing that on national TV a decade on, or having her face loom up on a movie theatre screen, she would have giggled and secretly thought them not very bright.
But let me not wend slowly through the chronology of our friendship of 18 years. Or how it is she’s come to be famous and how I’ve come to find myself with an assignment to write about my best friend for a national magazine. Here is Diana: The Short Version:
She was named after Princess Diana because her mother was
a great fan of the fey royal.
Shovelling spoonfuls of Milkmaid into her mouth is a guilty pleasure that makes it all the more tragic that she’s now lactose intolerant.
The leanness of her frame belies the heft of her appetite. This girl can destroy a 12-inch pizza and then comfortably manage a chocolate chip cookie as big as my head. She won’t, though, not often, unlike those annoying skinny girls who want to make a point – “God, I’m just cursed with great genes.
She’s funny, in a droll, observational way that doesn’t need to hit you over the head with a punchline. There Diana, I admitted it. In print. You’re funny. (Just not as funny as me.)
Diana does not enjoy talking about herself. She never has. After Cocktail’s release, she stole away to the quiet of her uncle’s turtle resort in Goa to decompress from the show-and-tell. She likes the work, she just doesn’t enjoy the fame fallout.  
And my god, can she do patience. Paint-drying, glacial, moss-lifecycle patience. In relationships, in friendships, in work. Most tiresome, this virtue. She makes the rest of us look impulsive, reckless. Enough is being said about how she’s squandered Cocktail’s momentum, not having used it to lasso her next project. Aside from the occasional doubts, she remains unruffled as she keeps meeting producers and reading scripts, taking her time to figure what it is she’ll do next.
“What on earth are you writing about me?” she WhatsApps me right as I’m trying find an appropriate note to finish on. Do I go the hysterical “BFFs 4eva!” route or make do with a “but don’t take my word for it” disclaimer? “Hmmm,” she considers in her singular Diana way when I ask her, as though she’s turning the question over. “Say ‘She’s awesome and she changed my life forever?’” she types, and then a jettison of grinning emojis. So then, good reader, what she said.  

This story appeared in the November 2013 issue of ELLE India.   

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Who We Used To Be

There was a sense that time had stopped even as I watched it march along in every calculable way. I kept my forward motion, but inside I remained inert. I had only a vague, wisplike memory – or maybe a dream – of what it felt like to be fully etched in reality. Those days when I met people, I thought about them as the children they might have once been, before they chose their cover-ups. Before the uniformity of childhood, the uniformity of recklessness slowly left them. 

The surly teacher whose only solace was the range of violences she meted out to the smallest of her charges – who was she as a little girl? Were her fingers singed with a wooden cane too, until she wrenched out a shaky tune from an instrument she didn’t understand? Why was this barrel-chested, eminent man so easily incensed by the slightest of slights? Can a pipsqueak with wobbly cheeks really be riven into this kind of inventive malice?

My own mother. A single calendar cycle had brought her jowls and taken away her knees. Her horrible singing, too. Now she sat by the window drowning this new silence in tepid cups of coffee. When I go back to the village now, they still tell me how the young boys used to follow her around, this mysterious, angular creature formed by the hand of a doting god. To be spoken to, even reviled by her like they so often were, was to have a blessed day. Don’t I have any photographs of her on my smartphone at least, they ask. Why does she never come back here? She keeps very busy, I say, letting them invent her as they please. They nod approvingly.

I thought about who we’re born, who we decide to be and what we ration of our true selves to the world. When does fact give way to mythology? Had I really always been a mute spectator inhabiting the fringe world, or was I imprisoned there? Might I be a dancer tomorrow, a jester the next, simply by willing it?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The New McDonald's

This evening my mother returned from church, marched straight into my room (she doesn’t do knocking) and said “Let’s go to Mac-dough-gnarled.”
A new one has just opened around the corner from my house and its proximity is exciting.  

“I was just about to go for a jog,” I say.

She stares at my day-old nightie, then at the paused, agape expression of President Josiah Bartlet on my computer screen, then at the empty cake carton on my desk.

“I’ll be ready in five minutes,” I say.

Once we get there, we make a few noises (“so big, looks so small from the outside, but so big”, “crowded, must be minting money”, “price of houses in this area will now appreciate”), I order food while she looks on proudly* and then we try to find a place to sit. She heads straight for the table by the window.

“Why here?”
“Why not here?”
“Everyone can see us.”
“Who everyone?”
“No one can see us.”
“This is glass, of course they can see us.”
She shakes her head and chuckles.
“Why so much walking these days,” she asks after biting into her veg burger, making a face, putting it down and scooping up my chicken one.
“What just? Everything just just all the time.”
“You’re still walking all the way from your office to the station?”
“Legs don’t pain?”
“You like pain?”
“I like it.”
“Boy called you?”
“You called him?”
“It’s over?”
“You are so proud.”
I stare at her, slurping at the coke, and suddenly I’m angry.
“I’m proud? How am I proud? I’m not proud enough! If I was prouder, my life wouldn’t be so crappy.”
Now she looks amused and I’m getting angrier.
“Don’t smile,” I spit at her. “This is your fault!”
“I see.”
“I ALSO see! Now I FINALLY see. Everytime anything has ever happened, what have you said to me – no tell me, what have you always said to me? ‘Let it be baby. Try to understand baby, you be the bigger person baby!” I am now talking loudly and in a grating drawl. “I am sick to death of understanding everything. I don’t want to be the bigger person anymore. I want to be the smaller person. I want to be the SMALLEST person.” 
 She is not smiling anymore.
 “I want to kick and scream and throw tantrums,” I keep going. “I want to not care about how anybody else is feeling. I want to say anything that comes to my head and then conveniently say sorry for it later. I want to do that.”
“So do it,” she says quietly.
“NO!” Shouting whispers.
“I can’t. I’m stuck with who I am. I am fucking stuck.”
“Talk properly.”
We’ve both abandoned our burgers. The remaining fries have gone limp.
“Do what you want, baba. It’s your life now. I have taught you what I knew, rest is your choice.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell her, suddenly fighting tears. The bright lights, the grotesque newness of the place, the insipid filth on our tray – it’s all too much.
She looks away.
“Do you want ice-cream,” I ask her. She has developed a real sweet tooth in recent years.
“No,” she says. “I’ve had enough. Let’s go home.”

We walk back, but not in silence. Our hurts we inflict on each other, are left inside the door of the new McDonald’s around the corner from my house. Now we are discussing Mrs Sarkar from the fourth floor who is very “ghamandi” and never says hello to my mother, even when they’re in the same lift.

“Do you say hello to her?”
“Why should I?”
“She must be thinking the same thing no?”
“Let her bloody think.”
“You are so proud.”

We look sidelong at each other, grinning.

“Shut up,” she says.

*Does this happen to you? Do your parents appear to glow with pride while watching you order food at a restaurant? I’m guessing it’s either to do with some middleclass notion of “Look at us, ordering another less financially successful human being to bring us our meal” or a parental notion of “My offspring, who is paying for this meal, can form articulate sentences!” I couldn't say for sure.