With just two days to go for the staging of the play, the excitement in the air was palpable. The children could hardly eat or sleep without dreaming of their costumes and their dialogues. The mellow music of the violin floated forever in their ears, the march Mrs. Braganza played on her piano was in their heads and made their feet dance in rhythm to it. Oh, what fun! It was such a pity Christmas came just once a year.
Mrs. Braganza had indeed had a brilliant idea, replacing the regular Nativity play that the children were quite bored with, with a little fairy story, a mix gleaned from Rapunzel, Cinderella and Snow White, that she herself had scripted. English names became Spanish and Portuguese; blond Margarets and Edwards became brunette Juanitas and Pedros. The village was small, the children grew up and grew bored rapidly. The stagnant little pool of people that still remained had witnessed the Nativity play numerous times over the years with the same actors. The Magi had outgrown their robes and the crowns had lost their sheen, though the timeless story still throbbed and thrived in the collective soul of the tiny, aged Goan village. Some things never could change.
“Ma, I’m going down to the theatre,” Leena called out to her mother, shutting the rickety wooden door of the one-roomed house behind her, bunches of her clean, patched, oversized skirt scrunched up in her fist to keep the hem from the slush of the previous night’s rain. The clouds had dived back into the sea now, grey mantle and all, disappearing in the sparkling, foamy blue-and-white swirls. The sky was just as blue, washed clean and bright, flecked with puffy white clouds.
“As white as Miss Naomi’s frock,” thought Leena, picking her way through the jagged rocks of the cliff that her house perched on, with a confidence born of the recklessness of girlhood. There was an additional spring in her step because she was going to the ‘theatre’ and would get to look at the lovely dresses and hold the pretty little tiara that Naomi would wear as Princess Juanita. It didn’t matter that she had only been picked to play the lady’s maid, and that because all the other little girls had refused to play the demeaning part. Nobody would be Juanita’s maid; how could they? Proud mothers taught their darling daughters to say no. Jealousy stained the pure innocence of childhood, leading to unforeseen consequences. Leena, for the first time in her life, was allowed to participate in the children’s activities. That she went to school with them was of no consequence, she sat in her own corner and ate her own coarse food. Who would mingle with the daughter of a domestic help?
Leena, in typical eleven-year-old innocence, knew nothing of the trappings of wealth and status. She was just overjoyed at the idea of being allowed to play with the others, and didn’t know that her mother’s heart bled at this base act of discrimination and injustice. The other children were the trained slaves of bourgeois discipline, taught to do what their parents told them to and not to commit the grave crime of thinking on their own. Dutifully, they learnt their lessons and repeated them, not daring or willing to go beyond the set boundaries. It was just too much trouble.
Skipping over stones, sending pebbles rolling under her callused, thin-slippered feet, Leena reached the ‘theatre’- a pompous word for a room with a makeshift stage behind the lone church of the village, freshly whitewashed for Christmas, smelling of newness, cookies and cakes. She was very early, as usual. She never could keep her excitement at bay. She peeped into the room warily, and finding no one there, hopped in with gay abandon, her hair swinging on her back in two oiled braids entwined with faded red ribbon. It was quite a marvel how, at the end of the day, Leena’s mother managed to extricate cloth from hair.
The costumes were stacked in a pile on an old sofa in the corner. Naomi’s white gown lay on top, a plain dress made over with all the frills and lace that could be procured at the local bangle shop, and for that very reason of abundance, attractive to a deprived child’s greedy eye. Leena was to have a costume, of course; the wise mothers had decided on a cast-off frock of one of the princess’s friends, for she was, after all, just a lady’s maid, impoverished and plain. Leena had looked on with justifiable envy as the frocks were brought in the previous day, and the girls rehearsed with them on for the first time. How pretty they looked, a sun-browned princess with curly black hair and her sun-browned friends, glistening eyes and rosy mouths over pink and white and yellow frills. And a little maid in a pale green dress, watching quietly from the sidelines, speaking when spoken to, acting obediently, a trained slave of the trained slaves of the bourgeois.
“How I wish I could have a dress like Miss Naomi’s,” said Leena to her mother that night, eyes shining in excitement. Her mother smiled. “You will, some day.” Some day, when she had enough money to afford a new dress; or some day, when Leena found an unemployed man with coarse lips to kiss her hair when he was impassioned and beat her when he was drunk (for that was what often fell to their lot and she couldn‘t imagine anything better than that happening), she could perhaps have a decent dress for her wedding. ‘Some day’ was the answer to most of Leena’s answerable questions and requests- when an already ragged cloth doll torn apart by a pariah dog could be replaced, when a scraped knee exposing a hideous-looking clot of blood would see new skin grow over and scar it closed, when they could visit the fancy restaurant where the lights dazzled and the Christmas tree came into life with trimmings and baubles in December. When that day would come, neither mother nor daughter knew; one viewed the possibility of its arrival with too little optimism, the other with too much. The line between childhood and adulthood.
Leena looked longingly at the white frock. What wouldn’t she give (if she had anything) to be able to wear it once, just once. She stroked the smooth satin bodice with her work-hardened hands, taking care to wipe them against her own blouse first. What a pretty dress it was! Such frills! Longing metamorphosed into intense desire, whittling away rapidly the fear that encased the tiny heart now swollen with greed. A new daring replaced her timidity, and before she knew it, she was pulling the frock on over her head, disappearing in its puffy layers, a model of incongruity in the still, sunbeam-broken air of the empty room. A faint glimmer among swathes of red velvet revealed the tiara, and with less hesitation than before, Leena picked it up and set it on her head.
Trembling with a strange mixture of thrill and trepidation, Leena climbed onto the stage. At this moment, she wasn’t Leena. She was Juanita. She was young, but the raw passion that sows its seeds in human hearts and leaves them dormant, to ripen at their own time, took root now; she was an actress, no, she was Juanita, the fictional princess, now real. She awaited Pedro. She was eleven, she scarcely knew what the love she was enacting was, yet she felt it. She pleaded, she cried, she smiled, she enacted the role perfectly. Juanita. The Princess. She was a reality.
Swirling around at the end of her little play, the skirt revolving in innumerable swirls around her thin legs, she curtsied prettily, facing an invisible audience, a satisfied smile dimpling her face. Her smiling eyes bashfully looked up from the rough wooden floor to the vacant chairs, exuding confidence at the idea of facing the grim, unseeing walls- and oh, horror of horrors, the chairs weren’t unoccupied any longer. Feet had come pattering in inaudibly, bodies had floated in noiselessly, and faces stared back at her now, curiosity and wonder stamped on them.
The chilly warmth of a tense coastal winter afternoon penetrated the silent air. The world came to a standstill, as if awaiting one moment of truth that would change things forever. And then- a sharp wave of applause broke through. One pair, then two, then several pairs of hands came together in loud applause that echoed off the whitewashed walls. Leena looked around in fright and bewilderment, and then sudden joy. Surprise, surprise! They were clapping for her. They were applauding her performance. She was the star they were cheering. Oh, how good it felt!
What took time to filter into Leena’s ears and make itself audible was the jeering. The scornful laughter that accompanied the applause. The sarcasm in the applause. The taunts and the jibes, the comments at the audacity of a maid’s daughter to think she could ever be a princess. Naomi’s eyes were red with wrath when they met Leena’s, and the poor little girl slid off the stage in fright. Hardly conscious of what she was doing, she squeezed into an alcove and dragged the frock over her head in a hurry, the frills swirling absurdly, shreds of lace entangling themselves in her hair and making her look like an absurd scared fairy. The once-beloved dress was discarded with shame, and Leena ran past the angry crowd of well-off, angry mothers and children, her deflated heart swelling again, this time with the hurt seeping in.
Leena ran like the wind. Her slippers tore, her skirt was splattered all over with mud, but she didn’t care. Sobs rose in her chest and her breath came out raspingly, painfully, tearing through her mouth in great gasps. Her childhood was swallowed up in those few unbearably real moments of discernment. Her position became startlingly clear to her, enlightenment washed in like a huge, engulfing wave.
She let herself into the house. Her mother wasn’t home, not that it would make a difference. Because, this time, the question wasn’t answerable. It didn’t have to be answered. It didn‘t have to be asked. For there wouldn’t be a day when she really could be a princess. “Some day?” a tiny voice whispered hopefully. This time, the question wasn’t answered. Along with all the other answerable questions, it was buried irretrievably in the past, never to be sought out again. Some things never would change.