She stared at the opaque screen they call mirrors – the foggy glass a reflection of her clouded mind. A trembling hand rose, squeaky strokes uncertainly caressing the cold surface. She stood there, watching, unblinking. She stared beyond her large brown eyes, beyond the tangled cascade of hair that lay limp on her shoulder, reaching just under her left breast. She watched as drops on her forehead advanced to meet beckoning calls of an already forming stream. Trickling down the corner of her eye, onto her cheekbone, it gained pace as it gathered stray droplets, allowing gravity to have its way. She cocked her head to the right, noticing how the mirror was mocking her – drops of water streaming to the bottom, slicing across the mirror in wavering paths. Snapping out of her reverie she noticed that the water from the shower was sputtering, choking on its way out of the nozzle.
Head swarming with thoughts, she focussed on her reflection in the mirror. Watching herself, she tried to put on one of those smiles she would rehearse so often. It didn’t come as a shock that her facial muscles had forgotten how, and her eyes refused to comply. “Don’t smile so much, sweetheart. Your smile is crooked. Makes you look ugly”, her mother would say indifferently. And she’d go running to the mirror to practice smiling lesser, as if she were adjusting the volume knob on the stereo. Ah. There. She’d perfected it now. She would always imagine herself erasing and redrawing lines on a stick figure. It came so automatically now, this smile.
The mirror clouded up again, as if refusing to allow itself to be tarnished by the sight of her. Blinking, she swerved out of the bathroom, as the shower continued to laugh, belting out ripples onto the floor. In her room, she gasped as the oxygen suddenly filled her lungs. She fell into bed, wrapped in her towel, allowing the pillow to soak water from her hair. “Never lie on the bed with wet hair, darling”, she could hear mother say. This was not rebellion, she realised. It was inertia. The sinking feeling in the depths of her stomach promised to drown her with it – in the overwhelming urge to cry, the constant invisibility. On days when she decided to give up the act, to bury the pretence and stay in instead – those were the days when she got noticed – her absence mattered more than her presence.
She thought about the countless times people forgot to take notice. How she could’ve listed date, event, what people were wearing, remarks they passed – all this, but not one person would recall her being there. Maybe she’d gotten so good at being translucent, people had actually started seeing through her? All the effort they would put into crumpling their forehead into a frown, attempting to place her. All the times she smiled a meek smile, slouching just a little more, convincing herself that they meant it when they said “Oh, yes! Of course! Now I remember seeing you!” just a little too quickly, pitch a couple notes higher than usual.
Rolling over to her right, she saw her collection of puppets on the shelf above the study table. She thought about the first one she’d bought. The shop she’d stumbled across on one of her evening walks, and how she’d stopped in her steps when she saw the one that struck her as Mother’s. She still didn’t understand why she had done it, but she knew she had to have it. Over the next few months, she took that route on the days when she felt like she needed to hurt a little more. The sharp pangs of pain she felt every time she bought a puppet – her guilty pleasure. It brought her more relief than did the cuts she made on her thighs.
Like Ravi, the boyfriend puppet, had descended from the shelf and was lying beside her presently. They were cuddling like they did after sex. “Shikha!” he had moaned once; “Divya” he’d called out to a several times. What were the others? Dianne, Asmeena, Latika, Varsha, Richa… He always explained, though. “I’m so burdened with work this week, and she’s just the person I need to coordinate this project week, that’s all. We’ve exchanged so many phone calls all day, that’s just a name I blurted. You understand, honey?”. And, “Oops! I’ve been so absent-minded lately, haven’t I? Latika’s an old classmate I reconnected with. Always liked that name. No wonder its been on my mind so much. You should meet her someday. She’ll like you.” His stories gradually became shorter, more vague, and less apologetic. Today he’d called her Gayatri. “I obviously meant you. Gayatri’s this – ah, never mind that. So I got a promotion at work today….”. She’d told herself a while ago that she just had a disliking for details. That’s why she never asked more than he told.
“Hey! Could you please cover for us at work today?” Harsha from accounts suddenly rose from her shelf, and came to hover over her stomach. She looked up at Rhea on the shelf, who swooped down on cue, and in her most exhausted voice said, “You do know how draining this last campaign has been, we thought we’d go get brunch.” “We would have asked you to join, but someone from the team needs to be there, right?” said Aliza as she propped up her leg on the bed to make herself a stool, sitting on it. “Unless you want to come, then one of us can stay back, of course”, Aditi said matter-of-factly, as she dove, suspended over Ravi, who was still lying beside her, watching her. She’d always say she didn’t want to go, and they’d all sigh and agree that she would join the next time. She had heard somewhere that they called her “the alibi” at work, but never tried to understand it. Details, right?
Mrs. Shinde from school floated down, taking centre stage, as Ravi and the folks from work sailed to the sides, parting like curtains. “Such a good girl. Never speaks out of line. Always helping others, even if she needs to bend over backwards”, said Mrs. Shinde, then dropping her voice to a whisper she added, “Mr. Shinde will be expecting you for Maths tuitions at my home at 5pm today. Don’t be late. I’ll be in school preparing your report cards, of course”, she smiled.
She took a deep breath in, and sighed. Mother rose, hovering above her, and laughed. The others joined in, their cackle resounding in the hollow room. The sound reminded her of hyenas. “Look at you! Tied down to bed in that towel. We’ve got strings, but we’re free. You’ve always been so.. imprisoned. By your own thoughts. By the words of others. By-” She stopped abruptly, her expression stern, looking around at the others, as they slowly quieted down. Mother had managed to establish her tyranny here too, she thought. Mother looked back at her, decided she was bored of the subject, and glided higher towards the ceiling in a singular motion. Like smoke from incense, they all wafted upward one by one – including Ravi – joining Mother close to the ceiling.
They had all circled around Mother as she commanded over them, made them laugh, made them obey. How she pined to be like Mother. Even now, her own puppets were dancing to mother’s tunes. It was useless trying to gain control. She didn’t know how; neither did she want to. She just wanted to be. She had spent so much of her life peering from outside the window. She wanted to be inside the room now. At the table. Talking. Being heard. Being looked at. Admired. The way she watched Mother. They were all dancing presently; swirling, twirling, legs dangling under their colourful robes. They held hands as they spun, laughing merrily. She watched them hypnotised, longing to be free; yearning to be like them.
Getting out of bed, she brought out the puppet strings she had bought herself the previous evening. As the stool and ropes took their place in the room and on her, she wondered if she would’ve joined the dance had it not been for her puppets. But she had never cared for answers. She noticed how her feet dangled now – just like the puppets’. Her body started dancing in the air. The puppets were dancing too – around her now – watching her with amazement. She heard a drum beating somewhere. There was reverence in their eyes as they continued to clap, dance, and chant. It was like a celebration. And she was at the centre of it all. Up here, there were no lies. Up here, everyone could see her. And with her final disappearing act, she knew they would think about her forever. See her in her absence like they’d forgotten to in her presence. And she finally laughed. With her eyes, and her heart and her mouth. Her smile frozen on her face forever –
– just like the puppets.