It all began(Scene 1) with my friend Rachel coming late to class one day, looking different and chic. In no time we noticed that it was the upper half of her face that gave her that sophisticated look. Suddenly my friend Nilu (a Punjabi girl who always resented Sr. M… R…’s constant reminder about young girls behaving in a lady like manner) let out a howl. Sr. C, who was emoting the angst of King Lear dropped her Clarendon Shakespeare and looked at Nilu as though she were a ghost. The two girls and I who sat to Nilu’s left, jumped up and out of our skins and scrambled away, out of the room. Our plump friend who sat to her right jumped out of the window which was next to her, on to the veranda. Pandemonium prevailed in the lecture room while the rest of the girls in the classroom tried to run out. The teacher and students from the adjacent classroom gathered outside our class room, looking scared. Anyway, before a stampede could start, we heard Nilu shout at the top of her voice ‘it’s all right, it’s all right. I’m fine. Please stop.’ Her voice seemed to come from the skies and I followed it to find that she was standing on the desk (not even on the bench), looking sheepish, but gesturing like a music conductor, trying to calm the students, teachers and all. In reply to Sr. C‘s anxious question, she said “it’s Ok sister. I just had a bad dream”
Words fail me when I try to describe the expression on Sister C's face. By nature she was an affectionate and charitable soul but a little jumpy. Left to herself, she’d have laughed it off once she got a grip over herself but the teacher next door, who was watching the whole show, insisted that Nilu be hauled up - and she was. Properly. For howling, sleeping during the lecture and standing up on the desk! She had to explain how she fell so deeply asleep as to have a nightmare. She stuck to her guns but, later, told us her confidantes (5 of us) why she let out that eerie sound. As soon as Rahel walked in, she noticed that she had shaped her eyebrows!! Nilu, having grown up in Delhi and having moved around in the sophisticated circles there, had been a strong advocate for shaping the eyebrows. She felt that we southies were lacking in grooming. And she used to be at me all the time, to get me to shape my eyebrows. When Rachel walked in, Nilu saw that she had influenced at least one of her laidback southie friends, and felt so triumphant that she lost her head and forgot that she was sitting through the most tragic part of King Lear.
After Rachel took the first step, Nilu increased the pressure on me to prune my eyebrows. And Rachel joined her too, probably because she wanted a partner in the crime. Most of our class mates were teasing her all the time, or giggling, guffawing when she passed them.
Now a word about my eyebrows.
They were thick, wild and joined at the centre, and were the most prominent feature of my face. Nilu thought it looked like the wild growth at Tintern Abbey. Now, with Rachel on her side, she doubled her attack till I finally gave in.
Scene 2 took place during the lunch break, in a quiet small class room in the corner. Rachel had come with all the tools required for landscaping my face. (Her pardesi cousin had taught how to go about maintaining shaped eyebrows). The operation shaping began. One of our gang stood watch at the door, but no one came in there till the deed was done. I looked at my self in the mirror. I looked different-couldn’t decide if the change was for the better or worse ‘cos it was a small mirror which couldn’t show my full face.
The curtain went up on Scene 3 when I reached home. I wanted to walk in unnoticed, which was impossible in my house because amma would be waiting for me in the porch when it was time for me to reach home. Yes. She was there. Her face changed the minute she saw me. Anxious eyes wandered over my face but she simply couldn’t make out what had happened to it! Very gently she asked me if I was feeling fine. Not convinced by my exaggeratedly chirpy yes, she placed the back of her palm on my forehead to check my temperature. Then she let me go, but the puzzled, anxious expression followed me. A minute later she came into my room to tell me I should not take bath in cold water as I always do. Throughout the evening, I noticed that her eyes kept straying to my face. I still marvel at the fact that she could not put her finger on what caused the change in my appearance. In a few days’ time, she got used to my new look!
There were no more eyebrow episodes for the next two years when I went to a college in the big metro where I always enjoyed the anonymity that is the welcome companion of a nonentity who wants nothing except to keep a low profile. But the trouble began two years later (scene 4 starts here) when I was catapulted into a small town in mid-travancore, the heart of nazrani orthodoxy, with a job as a lecturer in a women’s college. In the 4000 strong college, there were less than 10 students who shaped their eyebrows. On the other side of the desk, I was the only one. Little wonder I came to be known as “plucker” – for plucking out hair to keep the eyebrows shapely. From anonymity to cynosure of attention – what a painful traumatic transition it was. I dreaded leaving my room in the staff hostel in the mornings. The students seemed to get into a state of excitment whenever they sat in my class or passed by me in the campus. The ‘plucker’ students looked at me with the expression reserved for a comrade – in-arms. My colleagues tried to keep a poker face – which scarcely concealed the glee? amusement? disapproval? marvel that one reserves for an ET.
Well. I survived it. And my eyebrows too. Like an arty novel or film, the story concluded with the protagonist merging with the crowd, losing her /his identity, for my eyebrows gradually lost its unique quality with people on both side of the desk taking to shaping theirs - - - -