Thursday, January 23, 2014

Opening Act: the Out of Print Workshop at the Times Literary Carnival 2013: Suneeta Rao

Pink Doll
Suneeta Rao

It had been four years since she was lifted out of the dark green BMC garbage can by the calloused hands of Amma, the oldest rag picker in the colony. There was barely enough life in her to stare blankly at you from behind those cobalt blue eyes. Amma held her, tentatively but firmly – petrified a bone might crack or that she might get hurt – and walked away from the dump with renewed vigour and a determination in her face that belied her age. The chipped and dirty words CLEAN UP painted on the bin receded as she took the fragile little bundle to her corner under the bridge. That was to be the child’s home for the next four years.

Poorvi was younger than Raji. The sisters passed the junction everyday on their way to school. Raji would get mad whenever the old lady knocked on their car window leaving behind a slimy smear. The baby would be peering at them curiously as the girls bickered and tried to shoo the old lady away. Every time, just as the car rolled away from the signal, Poorvi would toss a rupee coin into Amma’s outstretched hand – and they would exchange a brief but intense look which would be interrupted by a loud and impatient honking by Driver Ramu, who had no tolerance for any such delay.

Poorvi could not keep her mind off those dark blue eyes. It was she who stopped the car when she saw Amma’s body lying lifeless on the pavement – the pink doll in shreds beside her. It was Poorvi who picked the girl up and took her to Asha Sadan, the adoption centre run by their mother. It was busy at the intersection under the overpass that hot Monday afternoon. The traffic light just turned green when the girl suddenly let go of Poorvi’s hand and darted across to the mangled remains of her doll. She picked it up and ran back clutching the woolly head to the shouts of ‘Hurry! Hurry’ from Raji, who tried to grab at the doll’s brilliant pink hair. ‘Let her have it, you cow,’ Poorvi shouted and yanked Raji away. ‘Kid doesn’t have anything, not even a name. Let her keep the damn doll.’ Raji let go but bared her teeth and jeered, ‘Anaamika.’ The girl child didn’t care.

That was the day their next-door neighbour, Mrs Sen, came in with her application. Mrs Sen had been married for nearly ten years. Although her music gave her a full life and some satisfaction, it could not lighten the heavy burden of not being able to bear a child. Her body refused to bear fruit even when things were good with her husband – and she spent those years craving for a child that was never born. ‘A girl,’ she had said. ‘I want a girl’.

Mrs Sen’s palms felt soft and smooth and a little pudgy to the child as they cupped her face. It made her think of Pink Doll. She missed Pink Doll. Raji had snatched it from her the moment they reached the home and she had not seen it since. When she closed her eyes now she could remember what it felt like to stand in the shadow of the massive concrete arches, hugging the doll to her chest. The sensation evaporated as Mrs Sen removed her hands, leaving a shallow vacuum.

‘Sangeetha, that’s what I’ll call you,’ Mrs Sen said. ‘Yes, Sangeetha, music, that will be your name. And I will teach you to use that voice of yours.’

Although Sangeetha practiced diligently everyday for years – not daring to incur the wrath of old Mrs Sen by missing a single day of Riyaz, it was dance that was her true passion. Poorvi was the dancer – and Raji the singer. Sangeetha would watch Poorvi practice her Bharatanatyam with passion and longing – and then, when no one was looking, she would close her eyes and throw herself into a world of movement and gay abandon – her every fibre one with the music that only she could hear. She dared not let Mama Sen see her – that would mean she would have to skip her meal that day – which meant less energy to dance!

Poorvi would secretly take her for dance class on the days Mrs Sen was busy. Sangeetha would watch and soak in as much of it as possible, and the moment she was on her own she would burst into a whirling frenzy – forgetting it all – the taunts, the rules, the scolding, all the things that cramped her style and soul.

But the singing continued. Every morning she would wake up at the crack of dawn to the starchy smell of Mama Sen’s crisp red and white saree. The thick, powdery, crimson-red circle loomed large on Mama Sen’s forehead – like the third eye – always watching the girl’s every move lest she dared to stray from the raga or falter in pitch or tone.

It is now twenty years later. Sangeetha is twenty-four. She has changed her name to Tridha.

The accident had left Poorvi paralysed from the waist down. But she has managed the long and arduous journey to New York. Mama Sen, older and calmer, is still strong enough to push Poorvi’s wheelchair. Raji and her husband will join them at Boston airport – she has just completed her degree in Music Pedagogy. Poorvi’s novel is almost complete – she had started it in the hope that writing would heal her devastated heart. And it did to some measure.

The roar of the stadium crowd is deafening. Madison Square Garden is brimming with a charged, multi-racial audience. Screaming teenage fans are clamouring with each other for a glimpse of anyone who steps out of their sleek black shiny limousines onto the red carpet. Cameras and wide smiles flash everywhere. The paparazzi are going berserk. Lady reporters are shouting into their microphones, trying not to smudge their eyeliner or lipstick while powdering their noses every second and adjusting their in-ear monitors frantically.

She steps out gracefully in her diamante strapped stilettos – the slit of her shimmering gold brocade gown slipping ever so gently to reveal her toned bronze calves. The Prada purse comes next, followed by a swish of her thick silken black hair. The low back dress is now in full view and as she turns to face the cameras – the crowd goes wild. She lifts her hand in a gentle warm wave, stopping every now and then to oblige a voice that calls her name from behind a camera, not wanting to disappoint any one of them.

The ramp is long enough for Mrs Sen to want to pause for a moment every few minutes, for a breath. The wheel chair is now becoming heavy – and Raji and her husband are too busy gawking at the stars to offer to help. A sympathetic Mexican security guard in his smart black suit and dark glasses finally emerges from the crowd. He effortlessly wheels Poorvi up the ramp and Mrs Sen, looking astoundingly elegant in her maroon silk Calcutta saree nods with graceful gratitude as he cocks his handsome head in acknowledgement.

The anticipation is unbearable. The low hum bursts into a roar as the MC of the show, a popular comedian, announces the opening act. Mama Sen watches in awe as one after the other the performers and awardees make their way on and off stage – each one more enthralling than the other. Finally, the moment is here. The nominees have been announced and now it is time to announce the winner.

Mrs Sen knows it is her the moment the famous actress on stage starts the introduction. Her eyes are already welling up.

‘Ladies and gentlemen … the winner of the “Best Female Pop Album of the Year”… All the way from Mumbai, the feisty newcomer, for the first time ever a crossover pop star from India – Will you welcome please, Tridha Sen, for PINK DOLL!!!!!!
Suneeta Rao is hailed as India's most loved performing artist. Her song, Paree Hoon Main from the album Dhuan made Suneeta a household name, leading the press to affectionately crown her the ‘Paree of the Masses’. The song, and the UNFPA sponsored video Sun Zara was a pledge to fight against the practice of sex selection and received worldwide acclaim for its powerful depiction of the cause of the girl child. Suneeta is the spokesperson of the girl child initiative Laadli. She has recently released her first English single called You Say You Love Me

As a writer Suneeta has written and published a number of travel articles including one on Ladakh for Jetwings called Ah! Ladakh! and one on the coffee plantations of Chikmagalur that was published in Midday. She also wrote for JADE magazine on her favourite musicians of today's Indie Music scene. Suneeta was commissioned to write a blog for the Times Wellness site called Diary of a Supermum, which was published weekly for a year. She writes her own lyrics and has dabbled in poetry.

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