For 11 years, from the day she was appointed as a temp, then confirmed as a Librarian’s Assistant, and later promoted to the post of Chief Librarian of Girl’s Sr. Cambridge High School, Coimbatore, she had been travelling on this very route. Every morning, she left her house at 7.25, armed with a steel tiffin box that contained last night’s leftovers or this morning’s breakfast, to catch the State Transport bus that dropped her opposite the old post office at 8.25. From there she would take a rickshaw to reach the school at 8.42. In the evenings, once the school shut after its second shift, she would repeat her morning routine in reverse.
The hour-long commute in the morning often bored her. She wished she had something important to hold on to. A few sheets of paper or files like the other ladies who got on from the Y.W.C.A. did. Most of them were steno-typists or aspiring stenographers. It was the ‘it’ profession for women in the last decade. Hundreds of women after graduation would enrol for part-time classes in the many women’s polytechnics that had sprouted all over the country. Somehow even parents from the most conservative families wanted their daughters to learn this new skill.
Dressed in brightly coloured poly silk sarees wearing matching lipstick, the women chattered incessantly, comparing typing speeds, machines, and men. As she overheard them, her own world seemed increasingly mildew-ridden, dusty, and boring in comparison. Perhaps she could have carried a book to pass the time but books so overwhelmed her for the rest of the day that she wasn’t ready to bear them any more than was absolutely necessary.
In the evenings, however, she faced no such problems. The buses had a more mixed crowd, and took a shorter route, reducing travel time by a good fifteen minutes, giving her enough time to mentally prepare the evening meal that would be acceptable to every member of her family. In the evenings, the buses did not go via the Y.W.C.A. If they had, she would surely have seen the stenos in a different light, with their poly silk sarees a little crushed, their lipstick smudged, and their fingers cracked and spotted with ink and Eraz-ex.
It was on one such evening after work that it happened. The bus was extremely crowded. Fortunately she had found a seat and even managed to decide the menu for the evening. Lemon rice with brinjal curry and poppadum to satisfy the husband, and koikatte, a coconut and jaggery preparation, to bribe or blackmail the kids into eating the meal. She left her seat two stops before she had to get off, for she had estimated that it would be a struggle to get to the door. She pushed and made her way across a goat, a few young men listening to cricket commentary, and grumbling passengers who cribbed about the fact that people who got to sit for most of the journey were now in a hurry to race to the exit. As always, the crowd got denser the closer she got to the door. The bus had a single door for boarding and alighting—for the conductor to ensure that every passenger bought a ticket—and it didn’t help that most passengers considered the footboard to be the best seat in the bus.
When her stop arrived, she jostled to get out even as people on the other side pushed to get in. In this heave of humanity, a hand snaked in to the folds of her saree and found its way to her breast. In one swift moved it squeezed her through the fine fabric of her cotton blouse. The fingers—or possibly just one finger—had a long nail that dug into her soft flesh. As she cried out in pain and surprise, a wet voice whispered deep inside her ear. It said one word: “Sexy.” And then it was gone.
Before she’d had time to realise what had happened, it was over. She looked around helplessly, but no one seemed to have noticed what had happened to her. In fact the conductor yelled at her for holding up the bus. For a moment she even thought of pursuing the culprit but then she realised that she didn’t even know whether he had got on or off the bus.
She spent the rest of the evening in a trance. She did not tell anyone what had happened and no one suspected that anything was amiss with her. No one noticed the vacant look in her eyes, no one noticed that she had barely touched her meal, no one noticed that she flinched when her husband gave her a loving pat complimenting her on the meal.
She kept herself busy running about between the kitchen and dining table under the pretext of serving hot food. She cleared the table without asking the kids to help and meticulously washed all the utensils until each one shone. And then she proceeded to tidy up the house, even though it needed no tidying. She kept working until she had done everything that needed to be done and then undid it, just to pass the time.
When she finally went to bed, her husband had fallen asleep and was softly snoring. She tiptoed to the bathroom and undressed. There was no mark where the man had pinched her. But the voice remained in her ear. It rasped, “Sexy.”
No one had ever called her that. Not even her husband, not even when they made love. There was a time when it was considered a bad word. Only a stray woman with loose morals could be sexy. But now it wasn’t so. In today’s world, ‘sexy’ was a compliment. Girls nowadays aspired to be sexy. It was better than being pretty or beautiful. It was something more.
The man’s voice had reached where his hands couldn’t have. The word crept below her skin and stayed there. As she looked at herself in the mirror she whispered, “Sexy”. When she savoured it on her tongue, it felt good, like only something bad can.
She tried to find sexy in the mirror. But no matter which way she turned, all she saw was a 37-year-old woman, the mother of two children, one of whom was a teenager. Such a person could never be sexy.
Even as a young girl, she knew that she was remarkably plain. Her features and figure had never been extraordinary. By nature, she couldn’t act sexy. She could never bat her eyelids or pout the way some of her classmates did at boys. On the whole, she was a bit reserved with the opposite sex. And this shyness was never seen as a tease but rather as a sign of aloofness. In all her years, no person had ever complimented or complained about her looks. And that included herself.
The next day, after a bath, she traced the word on the fogged-up mirror. When the mist disappeared, she couldn’t find it. During the day in the library, she thought about the incident repeatedly. She paused and replayed it in her mind over and over again like a cassette. Could he have it for someone else? But she knew he had meant it for her, for no one else but her. Deep in her ear. And if he had found ‘sexy’ in her, why couldn’t she?
If she ever found the man again she would have loved to ask him what he found sexy. But she knew she never would. By the weekend, she picked up the courage to ask her husband. He was sitting at her feet as she massaged coconut oil in his hair. Between the strokes and his recounting the week that had gone by in office—more for himself than her—she blurted out the tale to him. He was shaken and visibly upset. He cursed the times and promptly called their teenage daughter and instructed her to be careful while using public transport and forbade her from staying out after dark. The girl in return assured him that she always travelled in a large group with friends and she knew how to handle anyone who acted fresh with her. Satisfied with his daughter’s confidence her husband went back to his office soliloquy, altogether missing the point and leaving her silently screaming, “Me, but what about me?”
The next day she did not take the bus to the post office. Instead she travelled to the centre of town where a new departmental store had come up that specialised in ‘cheap’ foreign goods. She had been inside it only once when her daughter wanted a new dress for a farewell party. The sights and sounds felt unfamiliar. As she walked through the various aisles selling women’s clothing, a poster caught her eye in the perfume section. It showed a woman pouting, wearing bright red lipstick and not much else. As she gazed at the woman a sales girl with a plasticky smile approached her and asked if she liked what she saw. In her embarrassment she nodded mutely. She allowed the salesgirl to convince her to buy it, something she had never done before. As the salesgirl packed the glass bottle shaped like a naked woman in delicate gauze bags, she instructed her on how to use it. “Just dab it on your wrists, behind your ears, and there,” pointing between her legs.
Clutching her indulgence she rushed out of the store, hoping that no one would find her there, but not before taking a final look at the pouting woman in the poster. “Be sexy,” the poster said.