She went to the land of Bollywood with a glass bead wedding necklace hanging loosely from her neck like a noose before it gives its snapping goodbye. She went to the land of dreams with pride coloring her shadow; a haughty swing of her thick plait; and why not? Her name was Sapana—she was named after a dream.
Why not? I thought, though I cried the night before because she got the chance bestowed to her curvy hips, her white Colgate smile, her Lackmed eyes. And what about me? What about me. I have never had the smartness of a woman.
I envied her from the day I realized that looking pretty was more important than being rough. I had always been good in games, in fighting, in being, well… rough. When we were much younger, I used to bully her so badly that she never joined any of our games. She became a weak ghost, a girl who was just that… a girl. No more. Well I… well; I was more of a boy, a fighter, someone who laughed when the mother advised the daughter to wash her hair in red mud to make it shiny and black as coal. I ran after kites and learned that slamming the flat of your hand into someone’s face is much more effective than curling that same hand into a fist. I learned that one should never box someone with the thumb hidden inside the white-knuckled clench of a fist. I learned that if someone digs at your eyes with two fingers, you could just bring your flattened hand vertically up at your nose, and whoever’s fingers however long, would never reach your eyes. I learned that being flat was more beneficial than being round.
The day I discovered that I was turning round, that my legs could not carry me fast enough, that the boys I used to beat up now towered over me; anger glinted inside like a raised knife waiting to fall. From then on, I stopped fighting with boys and started fighting with girls instead. I could have died for my gang—a group of seven girls who knew that their only honor was their strength.
One day my friend was walking down the road after a harvest party with a cup of alcohol made out of rice gurgling in her stomach. She bumped into an older woman with a baby clinging onto her hip; and the woman turned around and told her to watch where she was going, if she wanted so much to bump into somebody, why not pick on a boy and not a woman with child. My friend lunged for the woman, who managed to push her baby just in time into the arms of a stunned passer-by. With sour rice spinning in her head, she grabbed the first thing she could lay her hands on—the hanging glass bead wedding necklace of the older woman. My friend would have choked the woman if the latter had not bitten her hand so hard that it bled. When she came crying to us, shamed, with a bleeding hand, we promised to revenge her.
A gang of young girls met a gang of married women on an open field. They swore at each other across the field, draining their vocabulary of all possible provocative words. Then they ran at each other. One group slammed faces with the flat of trained hands. The other tried to box with clenched fists, thumbs hidden in… at least that was what we expected. But no, both groups used the flat of their hands, both groups were equally trained, both groups were down on the ground before a batch of nearby factory workers separated bodies that grabbed for each other like angry magnets. That was the day I realized that those married women had been like us once upon a time. It was only the glass bead necklace that made all the difference. From that day, I promised never to enter a fight again unless I wanted to make a total fool of myself.
We were playing a game of volleyball in our village school. A group of soldiers were staring at us from the barracks adjacent to our school. I felt anger at the leering stares; while I pulled my shorts a little lower down my hips so that they touched the top of my knees. Then I rounded in my shoulders so that they hid the roundness of my chest. Just as I realized that though flatness was more advantageous, roundness would be with me my whole life; I saw Sapana at the edge of the field, leaning over the fence to receive a red rose from the best looking of all the soldiers. She was smiling, saying something while flicking her black hair away from her face with a flat hand. I realized that there were many ways to win, many ways to use a flat hand.
I did not see the compact white roundness of the volleyball come flying towards me. By the time the other girls screamed words of warning, I had turned my face away from the fence just in time to receive the full force of the ball smack in the middle of my forehead. Roundness introduced herself to me the way I had always wanted—with a punch. They say I blacked out after that. The only thing I remember is waking up seeing nothing but the white sun and thinking nothing but that Sapana had listened to her mother and washed her hair with red mud, making in shiny and black as coal.
Somewhere between feeling the volleyball slap my forehead and waking up thinking that Sapana had washed her hair with red mud, I realized that I had missed something in life; that something had zoomed past me with the speed of a taxi, and I was left behind choking on the hot fumes.
Sapana came to school every day on the arms of a boy, the same one, a different one; I could not catch up on the latest news of her life. She gained popularity so fast; my previous gang friends joined her company. They started looking at boys themselves. They began smiling, talking, giggling, slapping back loose strands of hair with the flat of hands. They started washing their hair with red mud.
A week ago Sapana took off with one of her boy friends. “Eloped”—the news came in the form of hot speedy gossip. Everyone else’s question was “which one?” My question was “how?” Some said it was the one who dropped her to school on his brand new motorbike once. Others said it was the one who bought her a new sari. No one said how.
Two days later, another piece of gossip fired through our tiny village—Sapana has been sold, it screamed in bold letters, she has been sold to a whorehouse in Bombay. The boy only pretended to fall in love with her. He asked her to marry him. He said he would take her to his rich house in India. She flicked back her shiny and coal black hair and thought she would finally be out of here. She would finally show all these people who she really was. She would no longer be bossed around. She would finally be somebody. Her shadow colored with pride.
At first I cried because I had not learned how to become a woman. Then I cried because Sapana had not learned how to become the right type of woman.
I cried for her as I fought. I cried for her future as I broke my promise to myself. I cried for the man who sold her as I broke jaws with the flat of my hand.
I have earned a black belt in karate. I have fought with men. I have won national tournaments. I have fallen in love. In a month’s time I am going to start hanging a glass bead wedding necklace about my neck. What I will do with that necklace—that will be the hardest fight of all.