Painting Witches

Ayesha was the Burmese princess, Tuptim, singing “We speak in a Whisper” with her lover, Lun Tha, when the heavy satin sash slipped from her shoulder. They met secretly, Lun Tha and Tuptim, doomed in their love; she belonged to the King of Siam. The White Phantoms were outraged when the sash slipped. They hissed at her from the wings to put it back on, almost making her forget her lines. At the end of the scene, the Chief Phantom, an American nun, accosted her with, “Meet me in my office after the play!” Tuptim’s dying screams that night , they said,made the audience teeter on the edge of their seats. She was terrified of the Chief Phantom and her masculine ways, everyone was. She wasn’t above rapping their knuckles or pinching them. The one they called Archie had pinched her viciously in Maths class. Ayesha was hopeless at Maths.
“You could have set the sash right on stage,” Sister Mary Faith said to her, pinning it in place on her shoulder after the scene.
“How could I in the middle of a song? Besides, I’m wearing something beneath the sash!” And she wasn’t big breasted either. How absurd,how irrational the White Phantoms could be! But she knew this was only an excuse they had been looking for to banish her. A few weeks ago, she had been molested and nearly kidnapped at the Spring Fair in a boy’s school. She had felt like a trapped animal, fighting their probing hands. It was the scandal of the year and grandfather had been livid.

She had a crush on Lun Tha. He was very dark,slender with intense eyes,long lashed. She liked them enough to forgive his nose its sins.

“Don’t walk like a cow!” Chief Phantom screamed at her during rehearsals. Ayesha tried to walk gracefully in Amma’s blue georgette with border of gold wrapped mummy fashion around her. The touch of Lun Tha’s hands during a love scene paralysed her, made her dumb, the palms of her hands cold and wet. She could hear the White Phantoms sniggering and mocking her. And what did Lun Tha think of her, did he not believe that he wielded power over her mind and body? She was ashamed. Lun Tha would prompt her then, turn her away from him gently when she stared mesmerised into his eyes. It was the first time a boy had touched her. After that they made her sit a mile away from him when they sang “We speak in a whisper”and she learned to control the feelings the touch of his hands roused in her.

The Chief Phantom put Ayesha across her pristine knees,lifted her pleated red skirt and spanked her hard. Ayesha was deeply humiliated. She was fifteen and being spanked by the Chief White Phantom! She did not say a word and when the nun stood up from the chair, she rolled off her knees to the floor, trying not to look ridiculous. Chief had seen her panties!
“You did it on purpose,” she said, sitting down behind her invincible desk, “you let the sash slip so you could attract the boys!”
“I did not!” Ayesha fought her tears,”It was too heavy, it slipped.”
“I’ve watched you with the boys, you’re immodest and bold. They only pretend to like that,they take advantage of you, you should know that, you’re not a child anymore.”
“But I’ve never dated anyone! I can’t help the way I look. They like that.”
“Looks don’t matter as much as you think,young lady, it’s the boldness they like,” Chief Phantom sneered.
Ayesha wanted to say “What would you know, anyway?” but she did not answer. They told her not to argue with her superiors, they told her she was cheeky.
“But the other girls,” she said,”do you think I’m the only one who talks to the boys? Why doesn’t anyone have anything to say to them?”
“Forget about the others, it’s you I’m talking about. I think it’s best if we transfer you to our boarding in Jamalpur. There’ll be no boys to distract you there”
“They don’t distract me,” she said,knowing she wouldn’t be believed. She was excited about boarding school in another place. It would be a new experience, a new set of girls, perhaps she would make some friends. Certainly she did not spend her time day dreaming about boys as the White Phantoms believed. It wasn’t because of the boys that she did not get a first class,but because a first class wasn’t important enough. Why was she studying history and geography and Maths when all she wanted to do was paint and sing and pose for the camera?
“You’re so capable of getting a first class, but look at you, your head’s full of boys,” Chief Phantom wagged a pink finger at her.
“I don’t need to cram like the others do, sitting up nights by candlelight, but I do well enough as is. At least I don’t tease my teachers and I listen in class. I think it’s important to listen. And I did get a first class last term, don’t you remember? I beat Manju Kardam to it!”

“Do you remember that you actually studied for it? You did not leave the revising to one day before the exams, you did not sit and write little romances peopled with highwaymen and reluctant young women! No, I’m afraid it’s final you’re going to boarding school in Jamalpur as soon as possible!”

“You’re being expelled!” Meghna said.
“Just transferred. After all, it’s the same school I’m going to!” said Ayesha.
“You’re going to have to spend your life answering bells!”
“It could be fun, maybe I’ll have more freedom than I do here in this house, and no grandfather to roar at me, either!”
“It was stupid of Chief to spank you, though. I mean, it wasn’t your fault.”
“Let’s hope grandfather will see that. Talk to him, will you? I can hear him roaring for me. I think I’d better hide beneath Amma’s bed!”
“My poor princess,” said Amma ,”I know you didn’t do anything wrong! Don’t worry, Daddy won’t be angry with you, I’ll see to that.” If mother had been there, she would have beaten her.
“I think it’s more than this sash business, it must have been that incident at the Spring Fair. I’m sure the phantoms are ashamed of me,” Ayesha thumbed through the books on the sparkling floor.
“That wasn’t your fault either. Only, it was foolish of you to be wandering around alone…I think the old man is going back now. Listen to the way he roars!”
“I think it was the dress I wore that did it at the Spring Fair. Remember, the peach dress, it was so pretty!” And her burgeoning breasts looked wonderful in it. Father arrived to take her with him to Bokaro the day after she arrived. He only smiled behind his hand when Ayesha told him her story,he did not mention the fair. She loved him like she loved no one else.

But the White Phantoms were wrong. The boys weren’t going to leave her alone, even in that out of the way place. Aries, whom she met during one of her holidays would follow his star all the way.

So would Lefty, a silly, lovelorn young lieutenant she would meet in Bokaro where the wild balsam threatened to usurp the land. He wanted to marry her,he wrote her fat letters packed with his family photographs. The White Phantoms did not allow him to see her, but he left a note with Iggy, the watchman who promptly handed it to them. Archie handed the note to her with a snigger.”My dearest Ayesha,” he wrote, “Good wishes. Today is the day when I am leaving for my destination. I am leaving my sad heart at Bokaro. This moment is sorrowful and sadistic for me. I am burning in agony of panicking desperation. I shall try my best to come to Bokaro on a short leave. In case I don’t get any leave due to unavoidable circumstances, then it will take another three and a half year for me to come to your Bokaro. I don’t know what feelings do you have for me in your heart. Let’s see what happens next.” Nothing happened next, but she did feel extremely sorry for him and the girls began to look at her with new eyes that said,”You heartbreaker, femme fatale,you! I wishI could be in your shoes!”
Ayesha liked the hostel and the campus. Their dormitory on the roof was always full of light during the day. She could see the rather bare but romantic hills of Jamalpur,the air was clean, the blue skies unmarred by buildings. The grounds crawled with monkeys that feasted on the guava trees every Sunday. Their sense of timing was uncannily accurate. How did they know it was 10.00 a.m., Sunday? The cinema hall next door and its vast courtyard was freedom to her, red walls beckoning. Sometimes interesting young men sat on the benches in the courtyard, looking up at the girls. She liked to dress for them, sing duets for them with her classmate,Keka. There was the boy who dressed dandily, who she was sure,came just to see her. Keka liked him, Netalie too, but she knew it was her he came to see.
“It’s not you he’s looking at dumbo!” said Seema Ali.
“It’s certainly not you they’re looking for,” she said.
“It’s no wonder they do, you’re cheap anyway, we’ve heard all about you from Patna!”
“Cheap! I can’t help it if the boys come after me! The way you look it’s no wonder no guy likes to be around you!”
“Oh yeah, matchstick legs!” Seema put her hands upon her hips,”Go ask them who they like! I know what they think of you!”
“They think of you as they think of any other boy, you’re jealous,aren’t you,big feet? Admit it! I’ve got tits and ass,I’ve got flesh where it should be, not on my shoulders and feet!”

Ayesha hated Seema Ali, the bully of the class. She was huge,her shoulders, hands and feet like a man’s. When she slept, she stuck her finger into her huge nose. She had it all wrong. She sat on Ayesha’s belly once to do her eyebrows and ruined them. Ayesha had been nervous of Ali’s massive arms resting on her breasts as she plucked her eyebrows. The girls said Ali was a lesbian, that she pursued the nice young men in the Technical Institute just to hide the fact.

Ayesha was fond of Ali’s best friend, Manju Kardam who had immense artistic talent. Ayesha could not draw like she did,copying a picture perfectly after staring at it for an hour. Kardam was ugly as sin, especially when she smiled or walked in her sleep. Ayesha was startled one night by her prattling about Michelangelo.

“Lift up the curtain, Michelangelo,look inside!” she said lifting her mosquito net and rising like a sprite from her bed, drooping eyes fixed in a dead stare. “And what do you see?” she continued, looking through Ayesha, “Isn’t that nice? You’re to paint me,do you understand? My smile will make you forget Mona Lisa!”

She must have an inferiority complex or something, thought Ayesha, this is just wish fulfillment, poor girl, and so talented too. I guess you can’t have it all. Look at me, so cute,nice breasts,nice face, but shame about my skinny legs, my arms too in that lousy photograph of me singing, “I have dreamed that your arms are lovely”, with Lun Tha! And my wig in a tousle, the saree making me look pregnant, my tiara askew! That night, upset and shamed, she sat alone under the moon,feeling its silver light cooling the fire within her skull. She sought solace from the moon when upset; the moon mothered her,drowned her in peace, she wondered why. Her worship of the Goddess of the Moon had begun.

“What do you do up there alone in the night?” Sister Pramila asked her when she came to hear of it.

“The moon brings me peace. Don’t think I have clandestine rooftop meetings with one of the Gymmies.”

These were the young men from the Technical Institute. Hadn’t the Chief White Phantom in Patna thought of that? The girls thought her moon meetings strange,cringing from the lovely green face she had painted. They said it looked like the face of a witch, why, why was she always painting witches? Ayesha told them about the fairy who had been in love with her ancestor, the ouja board, the magic of Grandmother’s hands. It must be in her blood!

“Strange!”,they muttered all the time.

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