I can clearly remember the most embarrassing moment of my life when I was in school. I had always been extremely slim as a child and when I was in the eighth grade in my girls’ boarding school, I was summoned to the hall by the Prefect after tea. Now I realise Prefects are meant to be bullies in school.
Reluctantly, I downed my weak, watery tea with the thinnest slice of white bread spread with home made butter that stood up rigidly in separate pieces refusing to melt. Wiping my mouth with the napkin, I slowly walked towards the hall upstairs climbing one wooden step at a time until I came across the landing. The school was built during the British colonial era in northern India. The whole building which must been about a hundred years old was an antic by itself. The wooden boards on the floor groaned when the young girls ran about throughout the day. We even shared books which belonged to English girls who had penned their names on the book covers. We would then write our names on it too. You could see English, Anglo-Indian, Indian and Nepalese names almost littering the cover pages. But during our time we had girls from Calcutta, Siliguri, Bihar, Punjab and Nepal too.
I could now hear sounds coming from the old piano which must be dated back over a century too. The pianist was the plumpest and most rounded woman I ever set my eyes on. She was an Armenian lady by the name of Miss Jack, a rather masculine name, I thought. She had very curly red hair which she tied up into a pony tail and the overall shape of the hair was round. Her cheeks was fair and hung to her cheek bones and she had a sagging double chin. But overall she was always smartly dressed in western outfits. Girls told me that she had been a ballerina in her youth and after she stopped dancing she began putting on so much weight. We used to wonder how an Armenian happened to exist in this rather secluded boarding school amidst jungles of conifers in northern India.
The huge prefect rushed towards me and pulled me by my hand and headed towards Miss Jack. “Miss, she would fit excellently for that part in the dance,” cried the prefect pushing me towards the teacher. Miss Jack ran her eyes up and down at my fragile being and nodded her approval through her tinted glasses. I could not make out what they were sizing me up for. ‘Get her ready for the dance practice,’ the teacher ordered the Prefect who rushed me behind those huge maroon curtains on stage.
I saw some of my prettier and feminine friends sashaying around in their crude make-up and lovely satin dresses. The rogue of the Prefect kept pulling me until we came across a group of giggling girls who were practicing the steps for the Nepali dance. They said that since Rupa was down with typhoid, they needed someone who would fit the part of a boy in the Nepali dance sequence and I would fit the part nicely. Without giving me any time to think, I was asked to learn my steps immediately as we had only five days left for the Annual Concert. I enjoyed the practice since we did not have to attend classes and we’d spend the day giggling and merry making. It was a Nepali folk song sung in the hills and mountains of Nepal. The song began with the girls calling out to the boys to listen to the sound of the drum beat which is urging them to go somewhere. Basically it was a song of love and fun with a catchy tune. Compared to the girls, my steps were rather easy to learn since all I had to do was cross my arms behind my head and sometimes on my hips while the girls would have to do most of the dancing and twirling in their colourful skirts.
The day finally arrived. We were all sore and fed up of hearing the same music day in and day out. The worst part was trying to fit into the white male clothing with a short waist coat and a red cap. A moustache was painted on my upper lip. My lovely lock of hair was forced inside the cap and I began to look at myself in the mirror. I detested doing the part but was left with no option. I’m sure I was being harassed then. But then there is no human rights in school. The girls flitted about in their gay attire with colourful scarves looking gorgeous and here I was looking like a boy.
Suddenly the curtains opened and there was a huge crowd in front of me. Amidst hundreds of students and parents, there were distinguished guests and to top it all, there were boys from the neighbouring school. I could feel myself burn doing that stupid dance.
How I wished to be nice and plump enough to have been chosen for the part of the village belle instead. Here I was slim and tall, without an inch of fat on my body and they decided to make me a boy!
Even when I think of it now, I do feel embarrassed by the experience and smile quietly.