Brinda S. Narayan: Deodorized
This is the beginning of Narayan's story.
No bus to catch, yet Rani was late. lt was getting dressed that took her longer and longer every day. Scrunching her face in the oval mirror that rested against the steel trunk, she twirled brushes, dabbed powders, squeezed scents. At first she had one lipstick, one face powder, one scent. Now laid out on the uneven surface of the trunk, she had four lipsticks,
two powders, five scents. Like the madams at her workplace, she combined colours: today,
brinjal purple on her eyes, a pomegranate flush on her cheeks and a scent like ripe grapes. Nestled inside the Whitefield slum, her home was fenced off from the IT Valley's tidy gardens and mirrorwork towers by concrete walls and barbed wire. The walls were too tall, the barbed wire too spiky. If not she'd have hurled her body - lithe and muscular under the
drab Callus uniform - away from the non-stop cries of untended waifs, from snapping dogs and growling drunks into the muffled English of her nightly workplace.
When she was almost done, a scramble for her office badge. Only one room, one steel trunk, yet nothing could be found. Aiyyo, there it hung on the metal hook that held her father' s shirt; she slung it on her neck, a plastic card with her unsmiling photo attached to a
yellow ribbon: Rani Kampanna, Contract Worker # 343, Housecleaning, Callus Inc. In the stamp-sized photograph, of which she had five copies, her ears, weighted down by hefty earrings, were large loops of flesh; she was only seventeen, but her ears were those of an old woman. Her eyes, because this was her first studio photo, were creased by blinding Studio lights. In the photograph, she wore an orange-pink China silk but to work she wore
her Callus uniform, a blue-grey sari with a grey overcoat hanging below her knees. Rani liked large prints and radiant colours, turmeric yellows, chilli greens. The uniform, stark like cement, had a Callus logo embroidered on the front pocket of the overcoat shirt. No flower motifs to dress up the border or sari pallu.
But the photo-badge she wore like a garland; inside her neighbourhood, it granted her a
special standing. Strapping boys, recently outfitted in jeans pants and slick hairstyles, racked her movements. They followed her each night, when she walked to work, with hoots and whistles that halted at the Valley's gates. She was the only one among several hundred slum-dwellers permitted entry into a world so tantalizingly close, yet soundly secured from hovering outsiders.
At first, some slum men seemed overly rattled. There were discussions in beaten pathways, between beedi puffs and the night's last swig: how did she wrangle access, when several of them at various times approached gate security guards for any kind of work and were beaten back by a gruff 'No work for you here'? How did Rani, a girl at that, receive official sanction for her nightly entry?
'Don't give anyone,' her mother hissed, 'the contractor's contacts. You cannot trust anyone here.' Rani, who heard of the recruitment agent from a school friend, had given a false address for the ID card. Her friend said the next-door slum was avoided by IT Valley contractors. 'They're being told not to recruit nearby troublemakers,' the friend said.
'Better give a different address.' The troublemakers included Rani's parents, construction workers
who once roamed freely inside the Valley' s boundaries; who reared their infants among its sand pits, metal pilings and granite heaps; who bare on bumpy turbans, flat pans of liquid cement to fuse puzzles of brick and glass; who stubbornly refused to shift their tin and tarpaulin homes for vague promises of alternate housing; who belonged to the IT
Valley Construction Workers' Union, an unregistered body even after fifteen years of fighting for
fighting for unpaid wages, disputed lands.
Still, despite her lying and cheating and false address, despite her accidental crossing
into the gated campus, Rani felt finer than her neighbours. Even if singled out only by fate, she was singled out nonetheless and the difference between her and them showed in small ways: the way she brushed her teeth in the morning -her brush moving up, down, all over
her mouth with lips clamped to keep the foam from dribbling -the way she wore her sari a few inches below her waistline, the way she combed her hair without a parting, the way she walked on high heels without tripping or falling, differences apparent only to the keenly
observant but more obvious with each passing day to a changing Rani. When she turned
into the IT Valley grounds, flashing her contract badge to the gate security, her gait altered.
Swaying from side to side on brick walkways, she goaded the slum-boy stalkers into soaring frustration.