Tia stared into the television screen with big round eyes. They were showing her favorite model turned actor Urvashi Basu’s interview. Urvashi was looking ravishing in a crimson and gold strappy dress with lustrous long black hair pinned up in a sophisticated bun. Tia had got up from the couch and was half-hopping and half-dancing in front of the television in her cute cotton frock.
Tia’s mother and sister, who were out shopping had just stepped in. Tia ran to them and announced in an excited voice, “She is on TV! She looks so beautiful! Come see her!” She pulled her mother’s arm.
“Who is on TV?” said her mother dropping her shopping bags on the dinner table.
“Who else, Ma! Must be Urvashi, your darling daughter’s latest obsession”, said Hiya, her sister, before Tia could answer. “Does Tia talk about anybody else, but her, these days?” said Hiya, kicking off her sandals and fidgeting with her cell phone.
“Ma, see Urvashi carefully. I think I look a bit like her!” said Tia pretending she could not hear her annoying sister. She was still bouncing up and down excitedly.
“Ma I told you she needs glasses. She is not being able to tell the difference between a beauty and a beast!” said Hiya letting out a mean chuckle.
“Oh, keep quiet you bloody basket!” said Tia agitatedly.
Mohua looked at her daughters in utter disbelief. “What kind of language is this? Hiya, why are you teaching her these bad words?”
“No, I am not. Had she learnt it from me she would have known that it’s bas##rd not basket” muttered Hiya.
“Quiet! Quiet!” Mohua poked Hiya’s arm and softly slapped against her own forehead in dismay.
Tia looked at Hiya, her nostrils flaring. “You are a mean girl! Ma, don’t listen to her. Where did you go?” Tia fetched Mohua from her room. Urvashi was just finishing up an interview. Apart from her obvious glamour, Mohua noticed a flash of genuine sincerity in her eyes. She looked kind and personable. Did that give her an extra edge that made her fans go ga-ga over her? Mohua was mulling over the thought when Hiya cut in.
“Is Tia going to the party tonight?” she asked.
“Yes Hiya, all the kids are invited” said Mohua.
“Yes, I am going and I am wearing my pink dress” Tia placed Mohua’s hands around her waist and sat on her lap.
Mohua chided her, “I told you not to switch on TV before you finish your homework. You never listen to me.”
“I finished my homework already”, she said cuddling up with Mohua.
“Did you have your evening snack?” said Mohua returning her cuddle.
“I did”, said Tia with a smile. “I have been a good girl unlike Hiya!”
“Call her Didi will you!” said Mohua.
“Okay, Okay” Tia stuck her tongue out at Hiya.
Tia was a chubby spritely eight-year-old third grader at Modern School. She lived ten minutes away from her school in South Kolkata’s Panditia Road with her family. Tia was her teacher’s favorite for her smartness, yet her secret wish, which was no more a secret for people close to her, was to become a skinny model when she grew up. She was quite the fashionista at this tender age. How she wished she was long-limbed like her mother and sister. But she was more like her father, short and stocky.
Hiya was ten years older than her and not really interested in conventional fashion. Her tall and lanky self felt most comfortable in baggy tops, kurtis, loose jeans, discolored scrunchies and dangly oxidized earrings. She liked spending her time penning abstract poems as part of an elitist English literature club. Lately she was only interested in her snazzy smartphone, which Thammu, their eighty-year-old grandmother had gifted her recently when she turned eighteen. The two sisters bickered continuously, but there was also an unmistakable bond of love between them.
“Ewww, why do you want to wear that silly pink dress? It’s so not cool!” said Hiya.
“Please Didi, I can’t wear jeans and T-shirt to every occasion like you. That is too plain!”
Hiya made an amused face and let out a tinkling laugh. “You are just going to Ful masi’s house for dinner. It’s not that big a deal. You create so much drama about everything!”
Tia twirled around a strand of jet-black hair with her chubby fingers and grew thoughtful. “No Didi, you forget everything these days. Ful mashi’s parties are always special. Don’t you remember last year’s Christmas party? She had invited the new actor. What’s his name…Deep! And she had also invited Radio Masala’s RJ, Anuja.”
“Hmm…actually you are right. She did invite Ayesha Hassan, the famous painter. Yup, Ful mashi’s parties are kind of interesting”, said Hiya scratching her head.
“And she is the only person who invites children. That is why I love her!” said Tia with a grin.
“Can you make a French braid for me? Don’t you think it will look perfect with my dress?” she asked Hiya.
Mohua looked at Tia and wondered how she knew so much about hair styling. She had always been particular about not encouraging too much discussion about fashion. But she did not believe in being a strict mother and stunt her daughters’ personalities. She had suffered severely growing up in a tightly controlled household that had not tolerated any level of deviance from the accepted norm. So, she had decided to allow some of her girls’ desires to be fulfilled even when she did not approve of some of them. But lately she was growing a bit alarmed at Tia’s obsession with fashion. Was she being too lenient? Parenthood confused Mohua. One day she would be convinced that she was doing fine and the very next day, she would be completely baffled with her children’s reactions. It was like keeping up with a moving target, ever changing and infinitely challenging.
“You know who can do the best French braid in this house?” Hiya said fiddling with her phone, interrupting Mohua’s thoughts. “Who?” asked Tia enthusiastically. “Thammu”, said Hiya. “Oh no! Thammu is in Kakai’s house today”, said Tia looking helpless.
Mohua cut in. “Stop playing with the phone all the time Hiya. It is irritating. And Tia, you are too small to spend so much time thinking how to style your hair or what to wear. I will decide what you are going to wear and please make a pony tail!” she tried her best to sound serious.
“No Ma, I can’t make a pony tail with the pink dress.” Tia looked appalled.
“You were supposed to save the pink dress for Hiya’s birthday, remember!” Mohua reminded her.
“All her shabbily dressed friends with thick glasses are going to come in her birthday. They have no fashion sense just like Hiya…sorry, I mean Didi. I had rather wear it today, please!”
Hiya got up from the dinning chair and pinched Tia on her shoulder. She thundered, “Keep quiet you pert girl. What do you know of fashion? Stop trying to look fake like the dumb Barbies. Ma, how do you allow Tia to talk like this?”
The sisters started scuffling playfully with each other and before the situation escalated into a full-blown battle, Mohua separated the two and said in a stern voice, “What a thing to fight about! How both my daughters can be so shallow, is beyond my understanding. Tia you will wear what I tell you and Hiya, please tie your hair as well. I can hardly see your eyes these days.”
Tia spent the next half hour convincing her mother why she had to absolutely wear the pink dress. Hiya refused to tie her hair and made a sullen face. Mohua was developing a headache trying to talk to her daughters and finally gave up. I only have control over what I can wear, I guess. Might as well focus on that she decided with a sigh, glaring at her obstinate girls. She needed to talk to Ajay about their daughters’ unruly behavior soon.
Sometimes Mohua wondered if Ajay’s profession had to do something with Tia’s obsession with fashion. Ajay Sil, Mohua’s husband, was a busy cosmetic surgeon with a lucrative practice in South Kolkata. Quite often he ended up discussing his professional activities without being totally conscious about it. He had casually mentioned that he would fix Hiya’s nose if her glasses kept slipping down the way it always did. He had also talked about getting fancy braces for Tia’s slightly uneven teeth. Perhaps these discussions were having an undesirable effect on Tia.
After squirming into her dress with some effort, Tia was finding it difficult to pull up the zipper. She looked at Hiya with a sheepish smile. “Didi….” Hiya stared at Tia warily while she struggled to fit into the dress she had forcibly made Mohua buy a month ago. She knew how badly Tia wanted to wear her new dress today. Perhaps if she opened up the seams a bit, Tia would be able to close the zip. But she knew that she was treading on thin ice. The last time she had told Tia something about her weight, she had refused to eat anything for two days and fainted in the school assembly.
Hiya was constantly annoyed with Tia’s antics, but she still loved her baby sister to pieces. Tia’s incessant chatter drove her crazy. She would ask her questions about everything. And then add her irritating comments whether or not they were asked for. “These glasses don’t suit you. You should have taken me along when you went to choose them” she told her last week. Her sister was a bossy kid but Hiya knew too well that she owned a golden heart as well and was willing to do anything for Hiya.
“Tia, this dress is not that great. Why don’t you wear the cobalt blue top and jeans I chose for you? Also, you can hardly breath in this. Why do you want to wear such a tight dress?”
Tia pout showed her sadness. “I could fit in it last month and now it is so tight. I know why this happened. Baba got those Swiss candies for us and I ate all of them!”
“No, no, you have not put on weight Tia, its just an ill-shaped dress…what, you did not save any of those candies for me? I don’t like this one bit!” Hiya deviated from the main point purposely. But Tia was already frowning. “How will I become a model when I grow up if I can’t lose any baby fat? I have to start a diet soon” she said looking into a long wrought iron framed mirror.
“Nonsense, you are only eight, why would you diet from this age? Modeling is anyway obscenely overrated”, said Hiya helping Tia get out of the dress.
“Don’t say that” said Tia dramatically. “I will become a model one day. I will work very, very hard. I will diet and exercise and not touch anything sweet or yummy forever…what does obscene mean, Didi?” Hiya bit her tongue and kept quiet. She had promised her mother not to teach her bad words.
Hiya had brought out her mother’s knitting kit and attempted a quick alteration of the dress while Tia combed her hair and put on her new hair clips. Hiya looked at her sweet cherubic face and said softly, “You know you should understand that much of beauty is inner beauty. It really does not matter how one looks, what matters more is being a good person and feeling beautiful”
“I know” said Tia and continued combing her hair. If only I was not so chubby she thought with a sigh.
Tia’s heart danced around in circles as their car reached Ful masi’s Alipore house. It was on a green tree-lined street with bungalow style houses which was quite a contrast to their high-rise complex studded avenue. It was lit up like a beaming bride just the way it always was when Ful masi had a party at home. Atreyi Sen, Hiya and Tia’s Ful masi, was a sought-after interior designer and knew all the coolest people in Kolkata, ranging from Tollywood and sports stars that featured in page three to top socialites and politicians. She often had parties in her house but the speciality of this particular party was that given the time of the year— summer vacation time—she invited children as well.
Ful masi’s sprawling two-storied house with a gigantic lawn was perfect for big dinner parties. Last year she had thrown a fancy dress party for the grown-ups with bonedi bangali theme to celebrate old zamindari time Bengal. Ajay and Mohua had laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea but had ended up spending a lot of time dressing up for it.
Mohua reminded Tia not to go overboard with the Cola and end up feeling sick. Since Tia’s consumption of any kind of soda as well as fatty food was strictly rationed at home, she did not have the heart to hold her back at parties. She felt bad restricting her diet at such a young age but Tia’s paediatrician had cautioned Mohua that Tia was on the heavier side ever since she was a baby. As a baby Tia was loved by all—family and friends–for her cheerful temperament and chubbiness. She was the official Glaxo baby of the family and her Ful masi had always fondly called her baby doll.
Atreyi waved at them and gave Tiya a tight hug. She was wearing a gorgeous black and red Sambalpuri Ikat with chunky jewelry that complemented her dusky complexion perfectly. “Thanks for coming in a bit early Mohua. Tia darling I have a big surprise for you tonight” she said.
Tia’s eyes lit up in anticipation. “Um hmm not now, I will tell you at the right moment”. Atreyi gave her an indulgent wink and turned to Hiya. “Hiya sweetheart I could definitely use your advice on the kind of music we might play tonight. I think we can start with some mild Hindustani classical as people start dribbling in and then go on to Western instrumental. I have some of the CDs you mentioned. But I still can’t figure out what to play after which. And Piklu is of no help at all. He insists that we play heavy metal but I don’t like the idea. It might give the elderly guests a headache”, said Atreyi with a chuckle. Piklu or Priyangshu was Atreyi’s free spirited son. He was a fourth year Medical student at Calcutta Medical College and an ardent hard rock fan. He was always getting in trouble with his mother for his horrendous hairstyles and according to Atreyi, disgusting taste in music.
“Where is our rockstar Piklu?” asked Mohua.
“He is here somewhere wearing an ugly purple t-shirt and strutting around like a rooster. This month his hair is blue! Oh God, what will I do with this boy?” said Atreyi throwing up her hands in despair.
Piklu was Mohua’s favorite. “Leave that boy alone, will you! Do you remember how you dressed in College? Ma had almost fainted seeing the size of your humongous bindi on your forehead!” said Mohua and went to look for Piklu.
Atreyi wrinkled her nose in fake disgust and turned towards her nieces with a big smile. “Tia, I have cupcakes for you. Go look at the snack table in the corner”, said Atreyi pointing at the food.”
“Is that the surprise?” said Tia a bit disappointed. “Oh no! I will tell you about that later” she said pulling Hiya towards a table with a music player.
Tia saw the delicious spread of snacks and soft drinks. She was not too happy about the dress fitting so tightly on her. So, she was determined not to touch any of the goodies. Maybe she would just taste a bit from Hiya but that would be the most she could allow herself.
“Tia!” she heard someone call her name. As she turned around she saw Rashi wave her hand at her. Rashi was the prettiest girl in her class. She was tall and slender and always managed to look perfect. Tia had often thought If only I was like Rashi. Tia walked towards her. She knew that Rashi’s mother was Ful masi’s kitty party friend so she did not ask the obvious How come you are here question. Rashi said, “I love your dress Tia.”
“Thanks! I chose the dress myself”, said Tia shyly. She always felt awkward and clumsy in front of Rashi. There was something very grown-up and elegant about her.
“You are lucky, you know. My mom never allows me to choose any dress for myself” complained Rashi.
Tia smiled and said, “You look lovely in anything you wear”. They started chatting about school and sipping Cola when they saw camera lights flashing near the lawn entrance. Tia knew by now that every year a few celebrities graced the occasions and were generally trailed by paparazzi. She craned her neck to see who it was this time but there were too many guests flocking around the new arrival, blocking her view. Then she remembered that Mohua had reminded them several times that its bad manners to crowd around celebrities. So she remained seated and finished her glass of Cola.
Piklu was arguing loudly with Hiya when he caught sight of Tia. He squeezed her cheeks and gave her a wide grin. “Where is my kiss Ticks?” Piklu had special names for them. Tia was Ticks and Hiya was Hicks. Tia grinned and planted a big kiss on his cheek. Piklu was the only soul on Earth other than herself who was absolutely sure about Tia being the perfect material for a future model. He teased her constantly but she did not mind one bit. He rolled his eyes with full drama. “Tight pink dress, matching hair clips and shoes…too much!”
“Thanks Pickles Bumsy Tickles. Yuck, why are you wearing dirty torn jeans?” Tia and Hiya called him by this name when they were alone but never in front of Mohua who was a stickler for proper etiquette. Piklu stretched his gawky limbs and widened his bulgy eyes. “Come on Ticks, I don’t expect others to understand my sense of fashion but you absolutely should! This is called high-fashion that artsy interior designers and snooty antels–intellectuals like your sister will never get”.
“Since when did wearing dirty rags start counting as fashion?” piped in Hiya with her eyes on her cell as usual.
“Here comes the cellphone princess! As it is you are half blind Hicks and now you will become full blind and deaf as well. And then no one will marry you!”
“Oh shut up Pickles. Look at yourself—you stinky hooligan! No respectable girl would want you. And where have you hidden my music medley CD? It was right here a minute ago!” They continued hissing at each other but Tia was no longer listening to them.
Tia’s eyes had wandered to the farthest corner of the lawn. There stood a stunning lady in a shimmery orange sari and black halter. Her glossy black hair fell around her shoulders in a cascade of soft curls. Her classy high heels could be partially seen peeping out from under her beautiful sari. She was flashing her million-dollar smile and waving at someone. Such even white pearly teeth unlike her own uneven rows. Her Sarowski earrings were glittering, adding an extra glow to her already lustrous appearance. Tia stared with her mouth open in utter surprise at Urvashi. She had not noticed Ful masi walking towards her, who tapped on her shoulders softly. “Looks like you have already found the surprise!”
Tia looked at her masi and said haltingly, “It is really…her…Can I talk to her?”
“Of course you can. I invited her especially for my baby doll. I will introduce you in a bit. Let me quickly say hello to a few people and I will be back to fetch you”, said Atreyi.
Tia and Rashi stood next to each other ogling at Urvashi. “Oh wow, she is even prettier in person than she appears on screen!” commented Rashi.
“She is beautiful”, said Tia softly. And all of a sudden she started walking towards Urvashi in a hypnotic trance. And then she stumbled and fell over a chair with a loud thud. Oh God, I want to die! she thought biting her lips. Mohua rushed to her side and there was soon a little crowd around her. They helped her up. Amidst all this exertion and fuss Tia heard a tearing sound and before she could think further, a side of her dress tore open.
Urvashi had also seen what had happened and joined the crowd around her. Tia was red with embarrassment. As Urvashi looked at her with anxious eyes Tia felt devastated. There goes my first impression she thought. She could almost imagine Urvashi narrating this incident later on— “And then there was this clumsy chubby kid who could not see straight and fell with a thud and tore her dress…how silly!” Tia was furious with herself. She walked into Ful masi’s house silently. Rashi asked her if she was hurt. There was concern in her eyes but Tia felt like a perfect clown. She had only herself to blame for what had happened.
She entered masi’s house from a side entrance. Mohua helped her clean up. The dress was torn at the side and coated in dust. Mohua said that Ful masi had a spare dress ready for her and she could change into it. “Last time you stayed over for the night, you had left back a dress. Why don’t you change into that Tia?” Tia looked shattered as she sat quietly on the bedroom couch. “I don’t need to change since I am not going out there for the rest of the party. I had rather watch TV or read a book and have dinner here. Can you please bring me a plate of food?” she said in a whisper.
Mohua smiled and said, “It’s just a dress Tia. You look nice in everything. Let’s change and then you can go back to having fun outside.”
“No Ma, I can’t come outside. Everyone is laughing at me.”
Mohua tried to reason with her but Tia was adamant. Piklu and Hiya stepped in at that moment. Mohua told them that Tia had decided to stay inside. Piklu tried to lighten up Tia’s mood.
“That is an excellent decision Tia! Absolutely genius I must say—why didn’t I think of it before? It’s a wonderful tactic for avoiding this super-boring party. Ahhh… now I can join you inside and let my hair down. Ma has been giving me killer looks all evening and most probably does not want me at the party anyway…”
Hiya hugged Tia and told her that it was just an accident. “When you become a model you have to walk the ramp all the time. If such an accident happens would you just run away or would you rather go back to face them all bravely?”
Tia was still not convinced and they decided to let her sit inside for a while and try bringing her out after some time. When they had all left Tia hid her face and started crying softly. She felt miserable. What could have been her dream evening had turned into a terrible nightmare. After a while she stopped crying and accepted her fate with a sigh. She was after all a clumsy fat girl with no grace. She changed into the spare dress Mohua had laid out on the bed.
She was planning to switch on the TV when she heard a rustle outside masi’s bedroom. Somebody knocked on the door and said, “May I come in?” Tia sat up alert.
“Yes please come in!” She stared wide-eyed as Urvashi entered the room.
Urvashi glided into the room with a natural ease and stood by the bed. She smiled at her. “So, you are Tia”. Tia nodded her head. “May I sit with you for some time?”
Tia could not talk. She was too nervous to make any noise. “My name is Urvashi. Did you know that Atreyi di invited me especially for you?”
Tia smiled shyly at Urvashi and finally said in a squeaky voice, “I am a big fan of yours.”
“I know. Thank you.”
Tia spoke again after a few seconds. “It was my dream to meet you. And then when I saw you I went and ruined it all”
Urvashi laughed softly. “No, you did not.”
Tia looked down at her shoes and fidgeted with her hair nervously. “Are you hurt?” Urvashi asked her in a concerned tone.
“It’s just a scratch on my knee” said Tia.
“Now don’t look so sad. Any of us can trip and fall”, said Urvashi touching Tia’s hand gently.
“I am clumsy. Everyone was laughing at me. I tore my dress also”, said Tia in a whisper.
“Where is your dress?” asked Urvashi. Tia pointed at the discarded pink dress on a chair. Urvashi picked up the dress and looked at it carefully for a minute. “Hmm…perhaps I can fix it. Let me try.” She called someone on her cell and turned to Tia. “I have asked for the emergency kit from my car.”
“What is that?” Tia was intrigued.
“Something I always keep near me just in case there is a need.”
Half an hour later Urvashi and Tia were chatting happily. Urvashi’s emergency kit turned out to be a magic box with all sorts of goodies in it. Urvashi offered Tia a bar of chocolate from the kit.
“You have a chocolate in your bag?” Tia was surprised.
“I always have a bar or two ready in case I feel a craving”, said Urvashi with a wink.
Urvashi fixed the dress with needle and thread from her kit. She cleaned up the dusty spot with a Tide-to-go stick. Soon after she held up the salvaged dress for inspection and smiled triumphantly. “This might work for the time being”, she told Tia brightly. While helping Tia comb her hair she said, “You know, you remind me so much of myself when I was your age.”
Tia was feeling shy but was secretly proud to hear that. She said, “How can that be? You are so beautiful.”
Urvashi ran her hand through her hair, tilted her face to a side and picked out a lint from her sari. Her expression grew serious, “I have not always been like this. Wait, let me show you something” She brought up some pictures on her cell and shared them with Tia. Tia saw a chubby girl with frizzy hair and glasses. She looked far from what she appeared now.
“Your masi said that you want to become like me. I am so flattered to hear that. But Tia let me tell you something. Listen carefully!”
“You are a little angel with bright eyes and a kind nature. With time you will blossom into a beautiful lady not just because of your looks but also because you will study hard, enjoy yourself and make so many friends. When you grow up into a happy and busy girl only then you decide whether you want to become a model like me. For now you just be yourself and enjoy.”
Tia listened carefully and said “But I want to become a model…”
“If you really do want it so much when you are all grown up then you think about it but now enjoy being a kid. Don’t make yourself miserable thinking about what will happen ten-fifteen years from now!” said Urvashi.
“I want to be famous and liked by all, you know. Nobody likes me now” said Tia in a low voice.
Urvashi sighed and continued, “Tia, first you have to like yourself. You have to absolutely love yourself. That will give you confidence. A lot of people think modeling is just a physical career but it is much more than that.”
“But all that comes much much later. And then who knows? Perhaps by the time you are eighteen you would want to do something completely different. So now have fun and relax!” said Urvashi.
Tia nodded her head thoughtfully. “Now smile and be a happy girl. We are going to have loads of fun outside.” Urvashi stepped out of the house hand in hand with Tia.
Tia was shaking her feet to the music with Hiya and laughing gleefully. Urvashi had to leave the party early but she had joined Tia for a while on the dance floor. She had also given Tia a big hug before leaving.
Piklu had finally got his way and was playing his kind of music. He refused to dance but was standing watching his cousin sisters dance to the beats with a big smile on his face.
All the guests had left. A cool breeze twirled around the dry leaves singing a peaceful murmur, filling the summer night with the sweet smell of jasmine. Atreyi sighed. “How fast children grow up. I still remember the nurse rolling out Tia’s baby cot from the delivery room and now she look at her!”
Mohua sounded troubled, “I don’t know what is going on with Tia. She is so obsessed with the idea of modelling. It just drives me crazy!”
Atreyi smiled and gave her a little wink. “I told Urvashi about her obsession and she offered to help. She had a little chat with Tia”.
“What did she tell her?” Mohua was curious.
“Exactly what you would have told her and she would have refused to hear. But when the same advice comes from her favorite Urvashi, how could she have not succumbed?”
Mohua looked at her elder sister and suddenly chuckled. “You are so wicked di”, she said patting her on the back.
Atreyi rolled her eyes and said, “I was just being Ful masi to my babydoll”.