What would Nimmo do?
One of the things to know about Nimmo, the heroine in Thus, The Tale of Miss Tapna, is that we have met her before. She is the poor girl orphaned at a young age and thrust in the unwilling care of Uncle and Aunty whose purpose in life is to avoid disappointing people. We know her from countless films made in an earlier, unapologetic era of Hindi cinema, from Seema in 1955 to Chalbaaz in 1989. So thankful is the heroine for the asylum, that she’ll carry out a command even before it’s uttered, whether it is getting her cousins ready for school, making countless cups of tea for Uncle in the morning or placing her entire salary in the hand of Aunty.
And yet Nimmo is unique. Like the previous versions of the character, Nimmo too goes from hiding in the background to taking centre stage, but in her case, it’s she – not a man or dog or resurrected parents – who catalyses the change of her fortune. What makes her victory more remarkable is that she works her way to it in a city where things are so upside down – policemen greeting thieves, cows roaming about as though they own the place – that its very name has overturned to Tapna.
Tapna is the kind of city where the faintest hint of agency shown by a woman can cause its power structure to unravel. It can be a young woman riding a bicycle ‘who knows, she could become fearless, fall in love, or marry whomever she pleases’. Of course, it’s not only in Tapna that a young woman getting around on her own is seen as capable of the worst transgressions. Few things threaten the rigid code of acceptable behaviour in small towns more than women taking charge of their mobility. The public dread of girls flying around on their pretty little scooters – the ‘scooty’ being a tool of liberation like no other – is common to small towns across the length and breadth of the country. What’s worse than a girl riding the scooter is a girl covering her face while riding the scooter. In a meeting organised between the police and the concerned citizens in Indore a couple of years ago, parents spoke of the trick their daughters were up to: the young ladies were wrapping themselves in scarves not to protect their faces from sun and pollution, as they claimed, but to go around meeting boys without any fear of being caught.
Nimmo was banned from riding the bicycle, but she could live with it. Walking three kilometres to college seemed a smaller punishment than being thrown out of the house, even though it was a walk that took her through all kinds of dangerous territory peppered with men and potholes, the two colluding to make life difficult for the girls of Tapna. Nimmo would suffer this daily misery if it kept Uncle and Aunty feeling they had the control of her. She needed their approval to do what was for her a painless way to get a life: become a beautician. For all the rap the beauty industry gets for enslaving women to aesthetic standards dictated by the male gaze, it is the smoothest path to liberation for an Indian woman. It’s number one among the limited options available to a woman who wants to make something of herself while avoiding the cost of an open rebellion. It explains why the beauty parlour explosion in India is less about business and more about social change, a quiet revolution sweeping through the hinterland and changing forever anyone who enters its force field: young college dropouts, middle-aged ladies from joint families, anyone fallen on hard times. Ten thousand rupees is all it takes to train as a beautician – one doesn’t even need to venture out of one’s street to do so anymore – and for as basic an investment as one lakh rupees, it’s possible to open one’s own beauty parlour. All that’s needed is a wall-length mirror, a revolving chair, a herbal massage cream and a roll of white thread. There’s a lot Nimmo gains in life by working at the Lopamudra Beauty Parlour – a regular salary, respect at home, self-confidence, even a degree of independence – but she has a bigger game in mind. She wants to open a beauty parlour of her own. But where is she going to get the one lakh rupees?
There is a way, but it’s laden with risk. One lakh rupees is the prize money for winning the beauty contest at the Amigo club, the new axis around which Tapna’s upper-class society revolves. A lot is riding on the contest for Miss Tapna. It’s meant to revive the fortunes of some very desperate people: DB, the retired IG of police who’s launched the club to gain back his social ranking; Mayaji of the Lopamudra Beauty Parlour, who needs the contest to establish herself as the arbiter of high culture in Tapna; Singhaniya, the mining millionaire turned legislator who can throw in the money in hope of been seen as a respectable patron of the arts. But nobody wants it to succeed more than Nimmo.
Nimmo wasn’t born a beauty queen; before she learnt to groom herself at the beauty parlour, she looked ‘like a schoolteacher who hadn’t been paid in three months’. But she was smart, presentable, and, most importantly, ready to do what it takes. It wasn’t so simple, though. The prize amount was kept so high because few girls in Tapna would be ready to risk the disrepute of participating in a beauty contest. The announcement of the contest caused serious outrage among the middle class as well as the intellectual circles in Tapna. Fiery editorials were written and debated about; placards and banners called for the cancellation of the shameful parading of Tapna’s honour. Even a prize of one lakh rupees wasn’t enough to lure the girls of Tapna into putting on a swimsuit and sashaying down the ramp for the entertainment of men who awaited the sight with fifty-paisa coins pressed into the tobacco-stained hollow of their palms.
What was Nimmo going to do? She had taken the plunge without much persuasion, but as the swimsuit round went from being a distant dread to reality, leading her fellow participants to chicken out one by one, she was in a fix. Once she went on stage wearing a swimsuit, there would be no going back. She could never return to being the obedient niece, the dutiful employee, the self-effacing woman. ‘In one go, she’d escape the stifling well of familial culture. She’d be able to open her own beauty parlour. She’d be able to marry as she chose.’
If she won the title of ‘Miss Tapna’ it would mean she was no ordinary girl. She’d be excused from the rules that applied to ordinary girls. No one would be shocked at anything she chose to do with her life. To win a beauty contest in a small town is, after all, a sure escape from conformity. If you think of ‘Miss Baroda’ or ‘Miss Kanpur’ or ‘Miss Bhopal’ as empty titles, a way for small town girls to entertain themselves, you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s sometimes the most empowering step they have taken in their lives. A girl in Patna could win the top rank in an all-India medical/engineering/MBA entrance test and have her face splashed across the city, but chances are she’d be less free to do what she wants to than Miss Patna.
For most of the girls who came to Ranchi earlier this year to audition for ‘Miss Jharkhand’ – some from villages whose names I’d never heard before, some without taking permission from their parents – the title was less a vehicle to become the next Madhuri Dixit and more an escape from the predictable future: finish college, get an acceptable job, get married, have children…. When asked why she was contesting for the title, one of them, a tall, doe-eyed girl in a shimmery black dress said it was because she didn’t want to have a boring life.
In the middle of a crazy series of events engulfing the beauty contest at the Amigo club, Nimmo decides she doesn’t want to have a boring life either. She’d rather be Miss Tapna, living up to the meaning of the word ‘Tapna’ in Hindi: to leap.
Snigdha Poonam grew up in Ranchi and works as an independent journalist in Delhi. Her first book, a nonfiction account of the new Indian small-town life, will be published by Penguin Random House in 2016.
The small-town sashay: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/deep-focus/The-small-town-sashay/articleshow/47314385.cms