MONDAY, 1 AUGUST
It wasn’t the ﬁrst time. But it always felt like the ﬁrst time as he stood in front of the mirror, uncertain, undecided, on the brink of something monumental. On the bare marble counter was a make-up kit. He ran his ﬁnger along the marble to check for dust. Only when he was satisﬁed that it was clean did he touch the quilted cover of the lid. The satin shirred under his ﬁngers. Something leapt in him, a wave of pure delight that was enough to set him off.
A giggle emerged. A snickering sound of pure joy, girlish glee and unfettered excitement.
He switched on the series of light bulbs that circled the mirror. The electrician had stared when he had asked for the light bulbs to be placed so. The electrician’s assistant had sniggered and asked his boss, ‘Why does he want so many lights? Who does he think he is? Rajinikant? Is he going to put make-up on?’
But he had set his heart on it after seeing it in a ﬁlm. And so he had frowned and said in his coldest voice, ‘If you don’t know how to, I can always ﬁnd someone else.’ That had settled it.
In the mirror, he gazed at himself just once. Fleetingly. Then it was time. He opened the kit and started working quickly with a practised hand. The concealer to cover the shadows on his chin and around his mouth. The foundation, the ﬁne creamy talc to smoothen the complexion, eyes enhanced with the kohl pencil, and a twirl of the mascara brush on the eyelashes for the wide-eyed look. He wet the tip of his ﬁnger with Vaseline and traced his eyebrows. A pat of blush and then carefully he outlined his lips with a lip pencil and ﬁlled it with a deep pink lipstick. He pressed his lips together and applied a coat of gloss. Glistening lips smiled shyly at the reﬂection in the mirror.
He took a tissue from a box and carefully wiped the counter. Marble was like skin, it showed up how it was used. He crumpled the tissue into a ball and ﬂicked it into the bin. Then he stepped out of the track pants he was wearing and hung it from a hook behind the door. He averted his eyes as he slid off his briefs and, making a moue of his lips, tossed it into the basket that held the T-shirt he had been wearing.
Naked and wearing just his painted face, he walked out of the bathroom. Then he paused and went back again to the dressing table. He opened a drawer in which were six vials of the ﬁnest attar.
He opened the stoppers one by one and sniffed at the mouth of the perfume vial. Nag Champa. Raat Shanthi. Roah al Oudh. Shamama. Moulshree. And his favourite, Jannat ul ﬁrdous.
He chose Shamama. Tonight he would be a garden of ﬂowers. A complex scent would herald his arrival and trail his footsteps.
The last door of the walk-in wardrobe was locked. Only he had access to it. He hummed under his breath as he opened the door. Green, green, tonight he felt like wearing green, he told himself as he pulled out a shimmery green chiffon sari.
From one of the drawers, he pulled out a pale-green petticoat and blouse. Then, with a smile, a padded bra and the matching panty. He was still humming as he adjusted the blouse and pinned the sari so it hung low, showing off his waist and his navel piercing. He touched the topaz in his navel. A frisson of excitement unfurled in him.
From the shelf on top, he chose a wig of waist-length hair. He placed it on his head and, as he looked into the mirror, something about the way his eyelids drooped told him who he wanted to be tonight.
With elaborate care he arranged himself so he was the woman from a Ravi Varma painting, fresh from a bath. He brought his hands to his chin and laced his ﬁngers so the tip of the foreﬁnger of the right hand touched the edge of his lower lip.
Hair to her knees, loose and ﬂowing. The sari clasped between ﬁngers, an attempt to cover herself but hinting at the nakedness of her breasts. The fullness of ﬂesh. Shy, yet seeking more. All woman.
He laid out the earrings. He always wore the same pair. Old-fashioned pearl earrings with hooks so he didn’t have to fumble with screws. He clipped a necklace around his neck and slid glass bangles on both wrists. The tinkle of green glass as he lifted the hem of the sari and stepped into two-inch-high green-and-beige sandals made him smile again.
No matter how busy he was, he always found the time to go shopping for clothes, accessories, cosmetics and perfumes. The sales assistants presumed it was for the woman in his life and they would exchange glances as he took forever to decide. Once, one of them had said, almost enviously, ‘She must be very special, this woman you are shopping for … most men who come here just pick the ﬁrst thing they see and leave … but you…’
He had nodded. ‘She is the most important person in my life!’
In the mirror, he saw himself as the woman the goddess wished him to be.
The goddess spoke every Friday. The goddess whispered in his ear what he should do. Ten days ago, the goddess had said it was all very well that he liked to dress up as a woman in the privacy of his home, but it was time for him to step out into the world as Bhuvana. It was time to take control. He had obeyed.
For the ﬁrst time, though, the goddess had appeared on her own this afternoon. He had dozed off after lunch. He woke up to her whispering his name. She was sitting at the foot of his bed. For a moment, he saw her and then she disappeared. All that was left was a smell of camphor in the room and her incessant whisper in his ear: Tonight you must be Bhuvana. Tonight you will be Bhuvana. As Bhuvana, you will walk the streets. Will you or won’t you?
‘I will, I will, Amma,’ he had whispered, overwhelmed at the vision.
She had left him then, but the fragrance of camphor still hung over the room. A reminder that she was there and was keeping tabs on him.
Now he was the woman he wished to be and he knew again that wave of pure delight. I am she! I am her! I am the most beautiful woman I know.
It was Bhuvana who stuck a hand on her hip and pouted her lips at him.
It was Bhuvana who placed the tip of her ﬁnger against her glossy lip and murmured, Tonight, tonight…
And it was Bhuvana who took his hand and led him into that secret place in his head where he was queen of the night, draped in sheer chiffon, with the lustre of those exquisite pearls tantalizing everyone.
Bhuvana, who knew how to make it all possible.
A gentle knock on the door brought him out of his reverie. A voice murmured, ‘Are you ready? We have to go now.’
He smiled at the woman in the mirror. Bhuvana smiled back and blew him a kiss. Tonight, all would be well. Tonight, she would have her ﬁll.
‘Yes,’ he called out. ‘I am done.’
Then, turning to the woman in the mirror, he said almost coyly, ‘Let’s go, Bhuvana!’ Bhuvana giggled.