In which Soundarya and Nirav meet an unlikely fairy godmother. What should the Indian Cinderella wear to the dandiya?
“What is it with girls and Rajkumars? You know India is a democracy, right? The days of princes and princesses are over!” Nirav snapped.
“No, I’m not interested because he is a Rajkumar! It is because I will be the only one cooking while all the others in our town will be dancing! It’s like the whole town is participating in a maths competition. Except for you!” I retorted.
Nirav held up his hand. “Oooh, don’t you dare joke about such things! No, you are right! You like dancing, and they are stopping you from enjoying yourselves. I was wrong! If you really want to go to the dandiya, we have to find a way! Take your time with the shopping. I’ll be back soon.” Nirav said mysteriously.
It seemed like the whole universe was conspiring to make me feel left out. So many people in the market were talking about the dandiya raas.
It was sometime before I felt a pat on my shoulder. I turned back.
“Ma and her friends are going to help make the snacks, and you’ll be finished by the afternoon. Then they’ll have to let you go to the dandiya.” I could have hugged him. Instead, I used the energy to carry ten kilos of potatoes back to the house. Nirav loaded the bigger sack of potatoes onto his cycle.
I couldn’t sleep a wink on Friday night. So when the sky outside the window turned gray, I tiptoed into the kitchen and started to boil the potatoes. I slogged all day. My aunt and cousins were too busy to see that I was bringing some trays in from the back door.
Somtime in the afternoon, I called out. “Aunty, the ragada pattice is ready!” Stony-faced, my aunt stood by the kitchen counter, checking the trays of food. My cousins came running, Meena, kajal pencil in hand and Veena, her hair half braided. They looked accusingly at their mother.
“Very nice, Soundarya! Now go rest, child!” Her voice chilled me. “Aunty, I finished….”
“Yes, my dear. You’ve done a lot of work so far. I want you to rest because you’ll have to work hard tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after…go rest, child. If you fall sick, then you won’t be able to make the snacks on the other days. We can’t let my friend Sonal down.”
In all these years, I have never been able to say anything to that voice. I shut the storeroom door. I will not cry! I will NOT!
DUNG! I sat up. Dung! There, there it was again!
Why is everything dark??? And then I remembered…the ragada pattice and the dandiya raas.
I dragged myself to the kitchen. Nirav was trying to peer through the grill door.
Do you know how many potatoes you must peel for 500 patties? I can peel them with my eyes closed, I tell you. I’ve had so much practice today?
What am I doing in this maidaan with all these people in their glittering clothes? To think I had to leave my new math book behind just because Ma told me I had to check in on Soundarya.
Uuuuh! What a gaudy outfit! Eeek, that’s one of the cousins, I’m sure of it. Where is this Soundarya anyway?Oh, don’t tell me she was left behind, after all!
Oh, my dear calculus book, please wait for me. I have to make sure Soundarya is okay.
I left my cycle by the gate of Soundarya’s house and walked around to the kitchen. There was no sign of life in the house. I pounded on the grill door and waited. A hazy shape moved towards me. It was her, alright!
“What happened to you?” I demanded.
“Oh, I had to rest so that I can get up early to make the kachoris for tomorrow. That’s what happened!” She sighed and sat on the steps by the well.
“What? All my potato peeling was in vain!” I’m really good at saying the wrong thing.
“Never mind your potato peeling. I want to go to the dandiya raas so badly!” I was afraid that Soundarya was going to cry.
“Oh, right, there’s that Rajumar fellow!” my turn to sigh.
“Listen, everyone wants to meet a Rajkumar, so what’s wrong with me wanting to meet him? He is supposed to be very rich and very handsome. But then, why would he want to meet someone like me when others like my cousins will be dancing in their beautiful clothes.” Oh-Oh. I prefer it when she’s yelling at me.
“That’s so sad.” A frail old woman, her pallu covering her head, stood leaning on the well. Were those tears in her eyes?
“Who? What?” I got up to run.
“Child, go change into something nice and come back. I will make your dreams come true,” the woman spoke.
“What? What do you mean? Who are you?” Soundarya eyed the woman suspiciously.
“Do you want to do this or not?” the woman stood with her hands on her hips.
“I don’t have any nice ghagra choli…” Of all the lame excuses, I don’t have anything to wear, must the lamest. Some people have no sense of wonder!
“Do you want to go to the Daandiya or not, Soundarya?” I glared at her.
“This is madness; that’s what it is!” She glared back and stomped away. When she came out again, I was shocked!
“Mmmm, your ghagra choli does look a bit old. Were you ten when you got it?” I asked her. Oooh, I better shut up!
The woman scooped some water in her palm and sprinkled it on Soundarya.
I knew it! I knew it!
Soundarya stood in a long flowing skirt with shimmering mirrors all over. For every drop of water, something changed…glass bangles, jhumkas, and necklaces. Soundarya gasped as she caught sight of her reflection in the window glass. Her long, messy hair was neatly braided with tiny pearls and jasmine flowers set prettily. “Don’t let your eyeballs fall out, Soundarya. You have to be able to see to dance with the Rajkumar.” Ooops! The woman heard me too.
“Young man, go grab a pumpkin for me,” she pointed her knarled fingers at me.
I didn’t like that. So I scampered to the kitchen garden and found the biggest pumpkin I could find.
“Ma could make dhudhi halwa with this one,” I tried a friendly giggle, but it died a quick death when I saw the old woman take some water in her hand.
A sprinkle and honk! There stood the carriage!
“An auto rickshaw!” Soundarya stamped my foot.
“Do you want to go to the dandiya or not?” We stared her down.
A curious cat ran out of the neighbour’s kitchen, and a few water droplets later, we had our auto driver.
“Remember, child; the magic lasts only until midnight. Come back home before that,” the woman told Soundarya. She nodded and slid into the auto.
“Wait! Wait!” I shouted. I pulled ma’s gift out of my pocket and held it out. “Ma asked me to give this to you.” Soundarya reached for the chunky anklets with a hundred tiny silver bells.
“Oh!” She looked like she was going to cry.
“Go on. Wear them,” I was embarrassed.
She did! And off she went. I followed behind on my bike. No, I wasn’t going to dance! Ma’s orders to see her back home safe.
The road to the maidaan was lined with parked cars. I didn’t care if I was the only one in an auto rickshaw. I stepped out, and the guards shooed the auto to the very end.
My anklets sounded loud in my ears as I took in the sight. Dancers swayed to the garba song in big and small circles. Eyes drilling into me, and for a teensy minute, I felt foolish. But just for a minute. A little girl came up to me and said, “Didi, come dance with us.” And soon, I was dancing in a small circle.
As I swayed to the music, a tall young man broke into our circle. Everyone was looking at him. And he was looking at me! So many other women were trying to slide into place next to him, but he kept stepping back to my side.
It was hours before we stopped to rest for the aarti. People pushed themselves between us as we stood singing. That’s when I saw Meena and Veena wiggle into place, one on either side of the young man. What were they wearing? Then I slid away from there. Sure, I looked different but I didn’t want to take any chances.
“All the girls want to know him, na?” a middle-aged woman smiled at me. “He is Rajkumar, the organizer, Sonal’s son. Rajkumar in name and Rajkumar in wealth. And goodlooking too, na?” The woman winked. So this was Rajkumar, and it was his name! He was just another rich young man.
Tap, tap,tap, the sticks beat in rhythm as the dandiya music started. I stepped into a circle, and who do I find next to me? Rajkumar or the Rajkumar! Young women, moms, grandmas…so many others tried to join our circle, but somehow our circle never became large. We beat the sticks in rhythm, my skirt billowing as I twirled the night away.
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