When you’ve been told all your life that you were special and you wake up one day to realize you’re not, what do you do?
You put on your mother’s sari and her lipstick, and audition for the role of Draupadi in your co-educational college play. Damn your moustache and sideburns, damn your manhood, those stereotypes you tried every day to excel at till you finally understood there’s always someone who can do them better than you.
They snicker when you show up. The sari does not hide your wide unwomanly gait. The girls giggle when you stride to the center. Draupadi would never do that – stride to the middle of the room like that, unabashed – they say. You smile. “Till they drag her by her hair to the center of the room, you mean,” you think to yourself. The boys clench their teeth. There’s no fun in pretend disrobing a man.
You prepare to be violated. You prepare to be shared. You prepare to be insulted. You open your mouth to say the lines. You feel strange, made up. The lipstick and rouge come undone in your throat. You gag. They laugh.
Someone claps loudly. In the distance, near the horizon. An old, disheveled man, visibly drunk. “Well done, young man. Welcome to the club,” he says.
Is this what lies in store for you? Is this your reward for trying to do something different?
“I wrote it, you know,” the madman says.
“Go away!” The shock of what you’re wearing, what you’re doing, hits you. Hard. You turn to walk away from him, from all of them.
But he has caught up with you. How did he do that? He grips your arm tightly. Try as you might, you cannot pull away. For an old drunk man, he is surprisingly strong. Perhaps, it is his madness that makes him superhuman.
“Mahabharata. The poem. The play. Your story. Even you. Everything! I wrote it, you know. I wrote them all!”
The laughter and the giggles fade in the background as you turn towards him. Your breath catches in the puerile stench.
“I wrote it last night, on the back of a cigarette pack.” Ha ha ha. The madman laughs loudly, letting go of your arm.
You push him as he continues to laugh, breathing in your face. You run, you stumble, you fall.
There is silence. Total, utter silence. Even the madman has turned quiet. All you can hear is yourself.
Your mother’s sari has caught on a shrub on your way down. You heard it rip. Now, you feel the fresh breeze chill your uncovered bones. You lie, face down, in your blouse and chest hair. You pull your knees in, trying to gather as much of yourself in the petticoat as you can. You taste salt water. With a shock, you realize you’re crying. You dare not get up. Even if all you want to do is to disappear, to run away from all of them, to sprint up the stairs and lock yourself in your room and never ever come out. Somewhere deep within, a fury struggles to form. You implode.
You hear the gravel crunch behind you as someone walks up. One of the guys? A girl? Or, all of them, come to laugh in your hour of misery? You cannot be sure. Stone has no gender.
The voice is quiet when it speaks. It sounds like the madman now suddenly sane, but you recognize the voice from centuries ago, from the loose sheets of papyrus under the massive banyan tree when you were someone else.
“Stand up, Draupadi. Be a woman.”