Of a purple toe and Deepa Mehta’s Fire

Snigdha Manickavel | Updated on July 31, 2020

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How a grain of sand caused high-voltage drama in the life of a hapless hostel girl

Back in the late 1990s, when men were brave, women were beautiful and viruses did not laugh so rudely at all our plans, my sister shared a cramped hostel room with D Kalpana.

Kalpana was a tall, lanky, serious student of zoology. Every evening she would study, swaying gently as she memorised the scientific names of insects. One December afternoon, on her way back from the mess, a single sweet bun precariously balanced on her tumbler of tea, Kalpana slipped. Luckily, her tea and bun remained unharmed but, in the course of that awkward shuffle, a single grain of sand managed to get under the nail of her big toe. Back in her room, Kalpana sat cross-legged on her bed and wondered how best to solve this dilemma. After much thought, she concluded that the old, rusty razor blade she had found on a window ledge was just the thing to dislodge this wayward grain of sand.

Things deteriorated rapidly from this point. The blade neatly sliced into Kalpana’s toenail and, though an impressive amount of blood appeared, the sand remained unmoved. Instead of seeking proper medical advice, Kalpana vaguely recalled something about nail-polish being a good disinfectant and proceeded to liberally apply a coat of lurid pink polish onto her mangled toe.

Days passed and people visited Kalpana’s room to gawk at her toe, which had turned purple and seemed to ooze pink glitter. Kalpana grew irritable. The pain distracted her from the scientific names of insects. She thought about her life, her toe and how she had gone to college every day for three years and had done very little else. The year was almost over and now her future stretched in front of her as blank as the eyes of a rhinoceros beetle (Oryctes rhinoceros).

It was time for a change, she decided. She would cut class. Not just cut class, she would sneak out of the hostel and watch a movie. Before she had time to change her mind, she grabbed her friend Latha’s hand and sailed out the back-gate of the hostel. They jumped into the first autorickshaw they saw and demanded to be taken to the nearest movie theatre. Kalpana stuck her head out of the vehicle like a happy Labrador for the entire duration of the ride. By the time they reached the theatre, she was feeling so reckless that she decided that they were not going to watch just any old movie, they were going to watch an English movie.

At this point in the story, I am sure that Kalpana and Latha would want me to explain several things. It was very hot and crowded at the theatre. The man at the ticket-counter was rude. He grabbed their money, tossed out two small stubs of paper and shooed them away. They found themselves with two tickets to a movie but they had no idea what that movie was. Another item of interest, they seemed to be the only women in the theatre.

The lights dimmed and the movie started — Deepa Mehta’s path-breaking film on lesbianism, Fire.

Kalpana and Latha huddled together and, as the movie progressed, they had no idea what to do with themselves. Should they leave? The exit was so far away. Latha closed her eyes, Kalpana stared down at her toe and felt unwell.

The Kalpana who returned to the hostel that evening was not the same Kalpana who had left so exuberantly a few hours earlier for a film. Her toe was killing her and she felt simultaneously guilty and cheated. That night, she developed a high fever and had to be sent away to an uncle’s house.

There, Kalpana slept fitfully through the day. By the evening, she felt better and joined her uncle and aunt in front of the television. Kalpana exhaled deeply and, surrounded by family, began to feel somewhat better. Her aunt had put some warm oil on her toe. Her uncle had insisted that this fever was brought on by too much studying. Kalpana smiled and modestly agreed.

Just then, the evening news came on. Kalpana froze. The façade of a theatre flashed across the screen. Angry young men were pulling down posters and beating up empty theatre seats. There was something horribly familiar about the women on the posters.

Kalpana’s uncle looked at her face and quickly changed the channel. “These people are not the problem,” he said in a voice quivering with disgust. “It is not even the people who make such filthy pictures who are the problem. It is the people who give money to watch such films, they are the real problem!” At which point Kalpana, having suffered through so much already, fainted into a heap on the floor.

In time Kalpana recovered, the grain of sand escaped, and life returned to normal. But now, whenever she walked down the hostel corridors, she could hear girls whisper, their voices heavy with awe, “That’s her! The one who watched Fire in the theatre! The whole thing!” And indeed, that’s who she now was.

Snigdha Manickavel is a writer based in Chennai

Published on July 31, 2020

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