The first day I met Mrs. Maya was also the first day I felt pure hatred for my name.
I’m no psychologist, but its subconscious human nature I guess. If we share a name with a famous scientist, a movie star, a sports person or even a newly born baby, we feel thrilled with pleasure.
But in an unfortunate twist of fate, should our name match with a person who is a social disturbance, someone who breaks all the notions of the very simple south Indian lifestyle, we know a tragedy is to befall the relationship we share with them.
I was a very quiet, academically oriented simpleton who always wore very formal wear, had my hair tied into a neat pony tail and had zero make up on. Everyone on campus identified me, Maya Balan, as a docile and tame creature with an addiction for good science and an aversion for mathematics.
Mrs. Maya Ravinder, however, arrived on campus as a Glamour Grenade.
She wore shimmering transparent designer sarees that had chic and dangerously low blouses, very sharp pointed heels, matching modish accessories and a party style make up every day. The most outstanding attribute of her makeup was the flashy bright red lipstick that was in an alarming contrast with her pale, fair skin and light hazel eyes.
Nobody liked Mrs. Maya.
She was one of those few women who are capable of creating hate at first sight with everybody she met.
To add up to all that already prominent hatred, she also handled the most dreaded subject in all of Engineering. Digital Signal Processing also known as DSP among staff and as Degree Stopping Paper among the students.
‘The Fourier transform is like the Saviour of your engineering career.’ She’d say in a very low husky voice that invoked the curiosity of the boys and the disgust of the girls.
Most of the boys called her ‘The goddess of the frequency domain’. I understood she was just good eye candy for them.
The first thing I hated about her was the alarmingly red lipstick she always wore. It was just red every day. Her sarees, blouse patterns, stilettos and her other accessories constantly kept changing, but the lipstick never changed. It was either gloss the one day or matte the other but still alarmingly red nevertheless.
The second thing was the intoxicatingly sweet fragrance of her strong perfume. It lingered around the room even after she left the class.
‘What a sick attention seeking witch’ Rabitha murmured to me after she walked out of the class.
‘Yeah’ I sighed. At least Rabitha wasn’t named Maya. She did not have to deal with the emotional turmoil of the identity crisis that had befallen on me.
Despite everything, there was a voice somewhere at the back of my head that told me something grim lay behind those deep kohl-lined eyes. That she was covering up a very scarred and broken soul in the chemical security of cosmetics. That she had a thick stroke of grief in hidden beneath that red lipstick.
Three months passed and we had finished our first internal tests.
I told Rabitha without the slightest hint of regret as we walked out of the examination hall. Mathematics was the villain in my ECE career. If DSP’s composition was to be defined in a measure of three ingredients, it was mathematics, more mathematics and a little more mathematics.
‘You’ll fail?’ She echoed in fake disbelief. ‘That I guessed when I saw the question paper. By how many marks is my question?’
I ignored her question and waved at an acquaintance that walked past us.
‘That witch is sure to give me a zero.’ I said later, in the middle of the third hour.
‘You wrote that bad, Maya?’ Rabitha was frustrated. She hated it when I took my academics for granted.
‘Well, I wrote just enough crap to get me through.’ I confessed honestly. ‘But have you seen the way she looks at me? She hates me. I’m sure she’ll give me a zero or a single digit mark if she’s in a good mood.’
Rabitha did not argue further. She knew I had a point there.
It was DSP hour right next to lunch and we sat there figuring out a way to dismantle the steel windows, jump out and run away from the humiliation that was waiting for us. Even the studious Rabitha was sure she would be butchered. So were the forty other souls in the class.
Mrs. Maya made a theatrical entrance.
She swayed in gracefully, her hair entailed a ballet like movement as she strode in through the door, her flimsy saree leaning carelessly off her shoulders and the very subtle pout in her lips were managing to nullify the tension and cruelty of the bundle of papers in her hand.
‘Bury me alive, Rabi’
I begged to my best friend. I was not ready to face the humiliation in front of the entire class.
‘I will, if you promise to put a dagger through my heart first.’
Rabitha’s voice was quivering.
It was only then I realised that this time, I would not be alone. Even people like Rabitha and nerdy Joseph, who were in an intimate relationship with Mathematics, were scared to death. I concluded that the teaching process was flawed. I felt cynically better.
Failing alone is one thing, but failing with the entire class is completely different. That’s the malice of DSP. It would repel even the most dedicated student.
She placed the bundle of booklets on the table.
She called out the roll numbers and handed the papers to every student without making any extra comments. She did not even mention the marks.
For the first time since I met her, I liked her manners. She had saved me from mortification.
Few seconds later, after she called out for roll number twenty- six, I liked her yet again. This time at a greater intensity.
She had passed me, and given me a sixty percentile.
Had we been alone, I would’ve bowed down to her and said ‘All hail the goddess of frequency domain.’
Rabitha had received an eighty percent. She was relieved, but not particularly satisfied. She was a straight-ninety student at all other subjects and from the look on her face, I could say she was planning a reschedule on her study plan.
As for me, I was gleaming for the rest of the day and the entire week.
Then, all of a sudden, something went horribly wrong the next week.
The glamour quotient of Mrs. Maya had come down dangerously low. The Bollywood style designer wear was replaced with simple light coloured cotton sarees. The large eyes were not lined with kohl, exposing the hollow emptiness in it. Her hair was not its lush bouncy self, but tied into a limp low pony. There were no traces of perfume. She smelt of fresh fabric.
However the lipstick was still there.
Just the same alarming red, in gloss or matte or both. It was now an odd contradiction to the makeup free dull face. It did not blend with the rest of her.
She sounded gloomy, her voice was now depressing.
It was none of my business, but I couldn’t help wondering what could have happened to this otherwise beautiful nymph that now made her look like an ambassador of misery. It was like an improvised version of the Stockholm’s Syndrome. I was beginning to miss what I had previously hated. I had grown comfortable with her Camera ready smile and her Ramp ready make-up.
‘She seems pretty depressed, no?’ I asked Rabitha, trying to sound casual and emotionally detached. But I wasn’t.
‘Maybe her boyfriend dumped her.’ Rabitha was trying to concentrate on the class.
‘Maybe her millionth boyfriend dumped her for the millionth time’ Arjun, the guy who sat next to me, towed into the conversation.
A tuft of anger surged into me. My friend was bad-mouthing the teacher who had almost saved my degree. I wanted to kill him.
‘Like how you dumped those billion girls?’ I snapped at him. He turned away, murmuring something back, low enough for me to not hear.
‘Gossip cat.’ I said sharply even after he turned around. He acted like he didn’t hear that.
‘Rabi, you think she’s sick or something?’ I asked yet again, not being able to hold back the concern.
‘I don’t know Maya’ came a tired reply.
‘Maybe she’s in trouble?’
‘I don’t know Maya’
‘You think she’s being abused at work?’
‘I don’t know Maya’
‘Is her job at stake? What if she is going to be fired?’
‘I don’t know Maya’
‘You think it would be okay if I talk to her after class?’
‘I don’t know Maya!!’
There was an edge of annoyance in her voice that told me I had to stop with the questions. I went back to scribbling down whatever was on the board into my note.
I felt guilty, distressed and miserable for Mrs. Maya Ravinder.
This woman was dealing with something horridly cruel. She did not deserve to deal with it in loneliness. I knew nobody on campus talked to her with concern. She was an icon of social adultery. The over dose of make-up was, according to the simple psyche of the Madurai people, a reflection of bad moral fibre.
I walked into her cabin later that evening. She was packing to leave.
‘Mrs Maya?’ I said, already regretting what I was doing. ‘Can I talk to you for a second?’
She looked up and gave me an empty smile.
‘Sure, Maya.’ She sounded exhausted. ‘Walk in, dear.’
‘Well, ma’am’ I said wondering how to start. ‘You know, my fundamentals in Laplace and Fourier transforms are really very weak.’
She nodded. She had obviously noticed it.
‘Well, I was..uh…wondering if you could give me a little few classes sometime like uh…later in the evening..so as to polish my grades?’
I was blurting out fast. I felt awkward. She must’ve thought I needed speech therapy.
‘Sure.’ She was still smiling. ‘Here’s my address. Drop in whenever you like.’
I hopped out of the room.
I dropped in by her house that very evening. It was a beautiful, cozy little apartment in the heart of the city. The apartment looked just like her. Chic, well groomed, attractive and neatly maintained.
‘Ah, Maya!’ her intimately deep voice called out to me as she welcomed me in. ‘Come on in, darling.’
I walked in with a smile.
It was only few seconds later that I noticed a heart crushing detail. The smile faded away and anguish took its place.
Mrs. Maya was completely makeup free now. No lush hair, No kohl lined eyes, no blush, no concealer, no mascara and for the first time ever, no red lipstick.
What the lipstick less lips looked like was something I had not prepared myself for.
A deep cut, extending from the corner of her lower lip to her upper lip, dangerously exposing the damaged cerise flesh underneath, caught me off guard and made me stumble.
I felt mean, not because I couldn’t stop starring. I felt mean because I had judged her the wrong way for an entire semester.
My heart filled with heavy soreness. My eyes welled up. I imagined the pain she must’ve gone through when her lips tore apart, as a result of whatever barbaric action she had been subjected to.
‘I’m sorry Mrs. Maya’ I said as I sat down. It was the only thing I could manage to say. ‘I’m really very sorry.’
I gulped, trying to send down the lump in my throat.
She did not ask why. She understood. She was probably aware of what was going on behind her back.
That made me sicker.
She was aware and yet she had done nothing to justify herself.
‘That’s okay, honey.’ Her intimately deep voice now sounded soft and innocent.
She handed me a cup of coffee and started the lessons immediately. I couldn’t concentrate. I had decided not to.
I asked her, starring down at the books and not meeting her eyes.
‘I had one choice at selecting the ideal life-partner for me. I ruined that single shot, which in turn, ruined me.’
She summed up her whole life in a single sentence. An abusive husband.
It sounded alien to me, given that I had come from a very perfectly balanced family where the highest issue of clash would be not putting enough sugar in the coffee. Though it sounded alien to me, I could feel the agony of it all through her hollow eyes.
She had walked out, with her then four year old son, to live away from the danger her marriage imposed on her son. I shrunk deeper into my guilt as I heard the tragic tale of her life.
‘My education saved me.’ she said in her former cheerful self, as if she had sensed my guilt.
‘Is he here?’ I cleared my throat.
‘Oh, yes.’ Mrs. Maya’s eyes glistened with pride.
‘Can I see him?’
‘Sure, dear.’ She got up and led my across the hall. ‘He’s a little sick today, so he’s asleep.’
She opened the door and I was inside a room that looked like it had jumped out alive from a Raja Ravi Verma Painting. There were little pieces of art that hung on the wall, each perfect in its own way to be a master piece.
‘He’s an artist?’ I asked her. She nodded with pride. The hollowness in her eyes had temporarily vanished.
I spotted a skinny thirteen year old boy, in sound sleep.
Only a little later, did I notice the cluster of equipment next his bed that was wired into him. I turned around to Mrs. Maya in alarm.
‘The machines do the breathing for him’ her eyes moistened. ‘He was diagnosed with a lung disorder last month.’
It all made sense now. It was not a sickness, it was not the after math of an abusive relationship, it was not a job at stake, and it was definitely not a boy friend that had dumped her.
It was a son who was battling death.
I couldn’t hold on to it anymore. The flood gates opened.
‘I’m sorry Mrs. Maya’ I wept ‘I’m really very sorry’
She saw me collapse, rushed to me and held me tight. I cried and she was still calmly composed.
‘How did you endure being misunderstood for so long?’ I asked after I had pulled myself back together.
‘Maya, it’s a miracle called love. I’m ready do anything; I would give up everything, my own life included, so that I could have my son in my life for one more day.’ She said.
‘People talking behind my back is barely a price that’s worth my precious little hero’s life.’
I involuntarily pulled her into a hug. I was proud of the assertiveness and the fearless love she portrayed.
‘Don’t you hold any regrets?’ I enquired a little later. ‘At all?’
She thought for a second.
‘I do have one.’ She said as her eyes locked into a distant memory. ‘My marriage has had its effects on his confidence.’
I waited for her to continue.
‘Nine years of independence, and still he can’t sleep without feeling insecure.’
I understood. Every kid deserved a healthy dose of secure feeling. But there was another thought that was bothering me.
‘Well, we have a much more shameful situation at hand’ I said.
Mrs. Maya Ravinder keenly looked up at me. I continued, starring at her broken lip with lamentation.
‘Sixty six years of independence and still we hide scars with lipstick.’