The Sacrifice

Hauling my suitcase up the unevenly-paved alley, I glance at the second-storey room I share with Komal. Against twilight’s midnight blue, our window glows white. She’s sitting at the window-table: hunched over her laptop, left arm raised, fingers worrying her scalp.

I haul my suitcase upstairs. As quietly as possible – the stairs are narrow, my suitcase unwieldy – not very quietly. Across the landing I see Komal at our door, grinning ear to ear. “Welcome back, Meenakshi! How was Goa?”

I fling my arms around her, and squeeze her. As always, she says Ow, in a flat, comic voice, so I squeeze her some more. Discreetly behind her back, I exhale to dislodge from my nostrils the bhringraj-pungent restorative hair oil saturating her scalp. “Goa was splendid, Komal! I’ll tell you all about it.” I lay my suitcase flat and push it under my bed. “I’m starving. Shall we go have dinner?”

“Okay!” Komal’s already reaching her jacket – she always wears a jacket outdoors, even in this muggy August weather: I think to conceal her breasts – when I glance at her laptop.

“But you’re reading a manuscript. Due tomorrow?”

“Ye-ah,” Komal drawls, a wave of irritation scurrying across her face, instantly suppressed, “But I can finish afterwards.” She’s an expert at suppressing her emotions: but I’ve learned to recognise her irritation when she’s faced another minor conflict, has again failed to assert herself.

“You’re on page 254 of 270. Why not finish first? You must be in the climax.”

“It’s not exactly a page-turner.” That’s Komal-speak for ‘It’s shitty’ – she’d sooner bite out her tongue than disparage someone else’s work. “But, ye-ah, I guess I can finish first? D’you want a snack meanwhile? Cheetos?” She heads for her junk-food stash under her bed.

“No, thanks! I’ll manage. Take your time, and then we’ll go eat.”

No need to freshen up – I travelled in an AC compartment; and, after Goa, where the beach gets boiling by 10am in the shade, Bangalore is pleasant – so I sit down at the second table and ring my parents, as I promised to do after reaching my room. (And as I did after I boarded my train, and after my train reached Bangalore, and after I boarded a city-bus from the train-station. As Indian parents go, mine are average neurotic.) This table adjoins the bathroom-door – an excuse for me to sit facing the sole window, across the room, over Komal at her laptop.

When we moved in, Komal offered me full use of the window-table – ‘You’re in your final year, yeah, and I’m just doing a silly intern’s job’ – but I reminded her that, as our schedules differed – she’s a night-owl – we could share the window-table; also, that her job was, not silly, but an entry into the publishing world she’s dreamed of.

I reassure my parents that yes I’m well, no I’ve not got heat-stroke, yes I’ve got all my luggage, no I’ve not starved in the three hours since lunch on the train. My parents’ve agreed to put me on speakerphone: now we make do with one set of reassurances per conversation.

Murmuring Yes Ma and No Pa, I watch Komal. She’s hunched over her laptop again – I straighten my own spine; and worrying her hair again – I stop pulling at the skin of my throat, which I find myself doing when I’m bored or anxious; and her tummy’s confiding itself frankly to her thighs – I suck in my own little tummy, and for good measure commence a set of sitting-down core-tightening exercises. Komal’s engrossed in her work: around me, totally unself-conscious.

Then, to my horror, she starts doing it again. Her face is still engrossed: she doesn’t realise what her fingers are doing: pulling up her hair by the roots, one strand at a time, focussing on the edge of one patch of scalp, already bare, near her crown.

My heart races. My hand strays back towards my throat. I put it away. There’s a name for her disorder: trichotillomania. She told me. She knows that she does it; she just doesn’t know when. I’m determined not to develop, from sympathetic anxiety, my own disorder. (I’m done with my disorders.) My hand keeps straying. I sit on it.

“Bye, Pa. Bye, Ma.”

Again I wonder: should I tell Komal she’s doing it? I’ve never told her. I don’t know how she’d react. It makes me uncomfortable to watch – but how much longer?

In a few months I’ll have finished my B.A., and started my M.A. in Mumbai. Komal’s nice: but we became friends from proximity, and roommates for convenience. It makes me uncomfortable to watch Komal tearing out her hair: but how much longer shall I be in her life, to watch her? Probably she, too, regards our friendship as provisional: she wouldn’t even tell me her brother’s name – I could’ve worked out the rest. I’ll soon be in a new city. I’m good at making new friends.

Komal nods decisively, lids her laptop, and turns to me, smiling. “All done!”

“Ready when you are.”

Pretending to scroll through my messages, I watch her putting on her jacket before the blotched mirror nailed outside our cupboard. She’s gained weight while I’ve been gone: the button over her bust won’t fasten. She fastens the buttons above and below that, studies the effect, unfastens the button below, then unfastens the button above, and finally tries the whole placket unbuttoned. Then I watch her – now swaying left to right – confront the bald patch just left of her crown. That, too, has expanded this fortnight. She combs her hair carefully over it into a slightly lopsided ponytail at the nape of her neck. Then she uses her fingers to rearrange the strands over the still-visible bald patch, resmoothes these disturbed strands, and readjusts the scrunchie. Then she fiddles with her jeans and belt – ill-fitting mom jeans, and PVC belt peevishly moulting patches of its skin – and, standing back three feet, turns left and right, checking which combination of waist-height and belt-hole creates the smallest belt-bulge over her tummy. Finally she turns – I’ve just time to turn my eyes down to my mobile-phone – to me, and says, “Ready!”

I sling my purse back across my shoulder, bolt the door behind us – the monsoon has rusted the exposed bolt, and it squeals like a chicken being beheaded – and turn the key in the heavy brass Godrej lock. We skip downstairs, and pick our way through narrow alleys. Shiny cars sprawl across the remnants of pavement outside shabby old houses. The cars are normal-sized, but dwarf the houses: packed wall-to-wall, each surmounted by a cobalt-blue water-tank, distinguished one from the next only by the colour of the cement facades: sea-green, rose-pink, sunshine-blue.

The asphalt is potholed, the pavement interrupted every few steps by driveways, lounging dogs, and hybrid cows: flesh-mountains sitting statue-still, bar their shit-encrusted fly-swatting tails, and square saliva-drooling masticating jaws. Against the unquiet gray that stands, in the metropolis, for night’s black, the streetlamps clutch jealously to their heads their own jaundice-yellow auras: casting, from a blade of grass cowering between paving-stones, a mile-long shadow, further complicating navigation. But we’ve navigated similar streets all our lives.

Still, Komal walks like a drunkard. Staring fixedly at the ground, landing flat-footed in a half-dried cowpat; stepping on the wrong corner of a loose paving-stone which then seesaws perilously, under her, over the sewage-drain. Keeping to her left, I guide Komal as best as I can without bossing.

I am bossy; and Komal, though a year my senior, never tells me off: so I’ve accepted that such will be our friendship: born from proximity, stagnating at superfices, in my mind already sundered by distance. All we have in common is a vaguely shared taste in literature – which, anyway, we discuss seldom these days. She pulls out her hair; I look away; I steer her; she silently accepts or silently resists.

“Where shall we eat?”

“Wherever you like,” says Komal, and today I’m in no mood to insist that she pick. Today – dislocated by my trip, emboldened at finding my best friend the same as ever, only worse – I’m contemplating a speech. I know what I’ll say; I don’t know whether I’ll say it. Need a proper venue: good food and privacy. And then a signal Yay or Nay.

“Let’s go to Aryan Chariot.”

I pick a table by the steel railing that separates the unwalled elevated first storey from the street fifteen feet below: near the back, by the kitchen, where it’s less crowded. But then I can’t decide whether Komal would prefer to face the crowd or away from it. I ask her; she says “Anything is fine, yeah?” So, at 20, stage-managing what might become an intervention, with my friend who offers no views of her own, I decide she should face away from the crowd: for privacy.

“What’ll you have?”

“Butter chicken and naan.” About food, Komal never vacillates. Butter chicken and naan at a north Indian restaurant; idli-vada-sambhar at a south Indian. “What did you eat at Goa?”

“Lots of prawns.”

“Yum! Any good?”

“Big, at any rate… Some restaurants skip degutting them, so sometimes they’re bitter. They sell’em at the beach, too, for a premium. You sit thirty feet from the water, with a chair keeping the sand out of your bumcrack, and an umbrella keeping the sun from broiling you at 10am; you watch the fishermen beach their canoes, unravel their nets, and sort their catch into piles – and you eat your prawns. And, for that scenery, you pay twice what you’d pay in a sit-down restaurant 200 meters away on the street, and it’s worth it… Yes, good prawns, good scenery, splendid trip… I’ll have bhindi masala, and dal fry, and plain chapatti please,” I add, to the waiter. “Two of each.” Portion-sizes are small here, and this morning I ran down the beach, end-to-end, before catching my train. My calves are leaden, and I’m famished.

“That’s not a celebration meal!” Komal objects. “That’s what you’d eat at home.”

I’ve chosen a meal the opposite of Komal’s: low-fat, high-nutrient. “I need the fibre,” I prevaricate. “I always get constipated when I travel… Rabbit no get leafy, no make poopy.” When I turned vegan, Komal nicknamed me Rabbit.

“Poor Rabbit… Okay let’s see photos!”

I pass Komal my phone, then bring my chair around. She’s now on my left, which works for me. She’s already thumbing quickly through the photos from the spice plantation, the cruise-boat, and the scenic old churches. I offer commentary. “That’s an allspice plant. I’ve brought back a sachet of allspice power from the plantation’s shop. Have you ever tasted allspice? We grow it in India, and it’s been in demand in Europe for centuries – but I’ve never seen it before.”

“What’s it taste like?”

“Three spices: thus the name. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and, uh, clove,” I venture.

“Ooh, that might work as gunpowder.”

When Komal’s not eating junk, she eats rice with a selection of ‘gunpowders’ – coarsely powdered blends of spices and lentils, which resemble gunpowder not at all, unless you’re myopic like me and colour-blind like a dog. Back in Kerala, ‘gunpowders’ and several vegetable dishes – and meat, if you’re Hindu but non-vegetarian, as most Malayalis are, as Komal is – accompany red rice. Here in hostel in Bangalore, Komal makes a meal out of white rice and gunpowder.

“It might,” I speculate. “And this photo was on the cruise-boat, which goes down Mandovi river and back. We photographed the sunset from deck – also these huge casino-boats; then they began playing loud music, and there wasn’t much to see above, so we spent the hour dancing to Bollywood hits in the ballroom downstairs.” Komal listens politely, then thumbs quickly through the next few photos. I open my mouth to explain about the ocean-liner-sized casino-boats, which dazzled me – but Komal’s already rushed past those photos. I feel irritated. She asked to see photos.

“Ooh.” Komal’s arrived at the beach photos. “Wow.” She pauses. It’s just me and my two tripmates – secondary-school classmates, now in Mumbai – smiling at the stranger behind the camera, the waves lapping our feet, the sun crimsoning in a colourless cloudless sky, sinking towards the sea behind us. “Bikini?” Komal points at me in the photo.

“No. My friends bought bikinis: but they’re expensive, and I didn’t know when I’d use one again.” I chuckle. “I’m in my regular underwear.”

“This is your regular underwear?” Komal peers at the photo.

“It’s just a cotton underwired unpadded bra, and cotton hipster briefs.” I omit telling Komal that, in this photo and in all the others, my brastraps are clipped behind, racerback-style, with a braclip: to shorten the brastraps, and lift my breasts: which sag at the best of times, even minus a drenched cotton bra. “There’s a reason they don’t make cotton bikinis,” I add irrelevantly.

“Wow. I could never make a bikini out of my underwear!”

I smirk. Komal often leaves her underwear in the bathroom we share. She still wears the white woven wireless bras our mothers got us started on: which show their multiple seams through teeshirts; and which, relying on compression, squeeze your lungs. As for her underpants, I thought at first they were high-waisted knee-length city-shorts.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen your underwear,” Komal continues.

“I don’t like leaving it around… It’s my first year away from home. A few more years in hostel, during M.A., and I’ll be leaving everything out, too.” I laugh, confident that I will never let myself go.

Komal’s still staring at the first beach photo. Finally she thumbs forward. This one’s just me, same setting, with the camera now just ten feet away, slightly to my left, the photographer, unasked, kneeling.

“Wow. You’re hot,” says Komal. I giggle, then compose myself, and pretend to be puzzled. So, obligingly, she elaborates: “You’ve got a perfect hourglass figure, and perfect skin.”

“I do like my skin…”

I want to add: ‘But not my figure. I wish my arms weren’t so slender. Since I recovered from anorexia nervosa, I’m over that slender look… And no, I’m not a perfect hourglass: my hips are one inch wider than my shoulders, and I wish my shoulders were two inches wider, for my hips will catch up eventually. Soon. I wish there was a gym nearby. I’ve lifted the hell out of my chair, and your jar of rice, and this is about all the upper-body muscle lifting those ersatz dumbbells will give me. I wish my breasts weren’t saggy: clipping my brastraps all day to lift them pinches a nerve in my upper back, and gives me a horrid neck-and-headache, for which I pop a paracetamol almost every evening. And I’m just 20.’

All this I want to add. I don’t.

Komal admires my figure; Komal doesn’t know about the anorexia I’ve overcome, the braclip I hope to overcome, or the body-insecurity I’m beginning to realise I may never overcome. Komal doesn’t need to know any of this – for I cannot sacrifice her admiration. I lost three years of my teens to my disorder; the doctors told me I lost several inches off my adult height – based on my parents’; they also told me my disorder often wreaks lasting damage on bone density and neurological health. I didn’t want anorexia, but I got it, and it took things away from me. I must have some compensation: and Komal’s admiration – on however false grounds – will do. After all, admiring me doesn’t cost her anything. And she wanted to see these photos. My body-insecurity was not my fault, but then neither is hers my fault.

So I watch Komal thumbing through the beach photos: through these not rushing. It’s seldom enough in India that you get to self-exhibit. My two tripmates are also getting plump, framing me nicely, lord love’em.

But Komal’s admiration ebbs into silence, our food arrives, and I weary of watching Komal study my phone across the table. And my boredom sounds the signal I was waiting for. Yay.

Accepting my mission, I lower my face to the table, tilt my head, and grin up at Komal. With a smile she recalls herself and returns my phone.

“How’ve you been? How’s work?”

“Not bad, thanks! They might be renewing my contract this year.”

“You’re a good employee. You’ve been working for two since that chap quit, and they were going to find someone else, but they haven’t, and it’s been six months. ’course they’ll renew your contract!”

“Ye-ah… I hope so.”

“You’ve not asked’em?” She shakes her head. “Doesn’t your contract expire next month?” She nods. “Then shouldn’t you ask? Find another job if you need to?”

“Ye-ah. Maybe I’ll ask. Soon.” Halfway through her meal, she’s picking at her food. I offer her some of mine – perhaps she’s finally wearied of naan and butter chicken – she declines; so, shovelling food into my mouth, I watch her, listening to the clink of cutlery. Has something happened at the publishing house? Komal sighs, spears a morsel of chicken on her fork, smiles pallidly, and asserts, “But everything’s fine, yeah?”

“Good.” Again I wait. Again there’s silence. Several times her left hand has stolen towards her scalp, and she’s arrested herself. “And,” I venture, “You’ve been visiting your psychotherapist?”

“Yup, every Saturday. We talk about what all is troubling me… She says maybe it’s time to see a psychiatrist. She says anxiety medication might take the edge off… I don’t know.”

What’s Komal anxious about? She’s always been fidgety, but today she’s preoccupied. Should I ask about her job again? Or ask how she feels about seeing a psychiatrist?

Having forked her chicken gravy into a mash, and festooned it with her naan, ribboned, Komal pushes away the hodgepodge she’s made of her half-eaten meal. Distracted, it’s food I blurt into teasing her about.

“Finish your meal, Komal. Chicken has protein; that’ll keep you full.” I stop short of adding, ‘And it’s good for your hair.’ We’ve been best friends three years, roommates for one, but I’m still wary of discussing her disorder. Instead, I wag a playful finger at the woman who was running our college Literary Association when I, a new member, attended my first meeting. “No good going to bed hungry. You’ll only be eating junk later… I hear you every night, when I’m in bed, munching sneakily away!”

Komal’s rubbing her fingers together, rubbing away naan-crumbs, rubbing in the neon-orange tint from the gravy. As my ribbing hovers between us, I hold my grin, waiting for hers. It doesn’t come. “It’s easy for you,” she drawls, the words dragged out of her, “To be relaxed about food.” She studies her fingers, now beautifully orange-tipped.

I want my friend to look at me. I want to say something that’ll make her smile. Really smile. I don’t know what to say. (I do. But I still can’t make the sacrifice. Why can’t she just take my word as an ordinary healthy person that she should ditch the junk and finish her meal?)

I finish mine, making a point of mopping up the last of the daal with my chapatti. We each pay for what we’ve had, and split the service-tax. With neither of us a cook, we eat out often; it might be simpler to take turns paying; but, as a newly-converted holier-than-thou vegan, I’m determined not to finance my friend’s animal-cruelty lifestyle. (Besides: vegan dishes in India are cheaper, and I’m the student.) I don’t see anything wrong with this calculation: but I’d never articulate it.

“Fancy a walk?” Perhaps in the open, moving, side-by-side rather than face-to-face, she’ll tell me what’s bothering her.

“Okay!” Komal’s always willing to fall in with my plans. And I enjoy making plans. That, as much as our shared love of Dostoevsky and Malamud, has kept us, from two ends of the country, together.

I’ve taken her arm, the better to steer her. Now she squeezes it. “I’ve missed you,” she mutters.

“You must come with me next time!” I asked her this time, but she hesitated to ask for leave, though she’s entitled to fifteen days a year. “You just sit there on the beach, and the heat stuns you, and eases you out of any desire to eat, sightsee, work, achieve. Slowly the tides come and go. You can listen to the waves all day, and all night, and it’s never dull, and it’s never too much… Well, okay, eventually it might get dull, but we spent a day and a half that way, and afterwards I felt I’d been born again, I was so relaxed. Then we did the sights, and that was fun too…. Vacations should be mandatory. You build up all this tension, from day to day, so slowly that you don’t realise it, and you think you’re fine, you keep hobbling along, you don’t realise you’re hobbling… and then one day you’re exhausted, but you still don’t think of taking a break, because that’s become an alien concept… Look, when your year’s up, at least, you must go somewhere. If it’s only for a few days, I’ll cut class and go with you.”

“Hmm… But I need to visit home.”

I wait for her to invite me home. She doesn’t.

When Komal’s brother was ten, and she was four, he molested her, and she told her parents, and they backed him. When Komal told me this story, I demanded her brother’s name so I could catch a train and go bash in his skull.

She’d got drunk, then there’d been a flood of tears, then this flood of words, then silence – but, even weepy-drunk, she wouldn’t yield her brother’s name. Afterwards, she relayed to me the excuse her parents had given her: ‘He’s just a curious little boy.’ Staring at her feet, she repeated the words to me: trying, after seventeen years, to soothe, with those words, her hurt.

We turn into Cunningham Street. In 2008, malls in Bangalore are still oddities: it’s mostly small, brightly-lit high-street stores that we pass. The stores are new and multi-storeyed, but the street remains its old, narrow width: at 8pm, shopping rush-hour collides with commuting rush-hour, and the street is a bedlam of autorickshaws, foot-passengers, two-wheelers, and cars intricately entangled.

“I don’t do well alone,” Komal continues, under cover of the lights and sounds. “I’ve gained four kilos since you left.”

“Four kilos in fourteen days!” is my knee-jerk reaction. I bite my tongue. “Four kilos, that’s not so bad… Want to come walk with me in the park in the mornings?”

Komal shakes her head. I clutch her arm, wondering if she’ll burst into tears. (Wondering also what it is she discusses with her psychotherapist. It’s after dinner, the evening air’s cooling my sweaty scalp, lulling me suddenly sleepy. And I’ve classes tomorrow.) “People’re always looking at me when I try to exercise… Nothing fits me, least of all workout clothes. My breasts bounce up and down.”

‘That’s normal,’ I want to say. I’ve hunted in vain for a supportive sports-bra, and devised several hacks so that I can run with negligible discomfort. I open my mouth, then close it. I’ve tried, often, to get Komal to come walk with me. I’ve suggested that we learn to cook healthy meals together. I’ve made salads and offered them to her. Now I pause before a Mango store-window, thinking she’ll appreciate the relative privacy of window-peering. I remind myself: I’m neither therapist nor trainer.

“Whenever I think about my weight,” Komal continues, “I just get more anxious, and eat more Cheetos, or if I’m really starving then I sneak out and get a takeaway burger, or sometimes two. The burgers are so tiny here… I’d like to go walking with you… If you’re with me, people won’t stare so much at me.” My heart is torn between sympathy – and this unintended compliment. I shake my vanity out of my head. “But my knees feel kinda stiff.”

“Oh! You’re too young for joint pain. Tomorrow we’ll go see a doctor.”

“No-oo. I’ve seen doctors before. They just glance at me and tell me to lose weight… It’s a, whatdyoucallit, Catch-22.”

“They don’t even examine you?” I cry.


But my mind’s no longer on Komal’s body problems. I’m studying a lovely black sheath in the window. The mannequin has no figure at all: this dress is cut for me. I’d never spend so much money on a dress, but I yearn to try it on.

“D’you have any other ideas?” ventures Komal.

Then I remember: I’m stuffed. My tummy will be bulging.


“For losing weight?” says Komal. “Besides diet and exercise?”

I face Komal in the store-window. The window’s brightly lit, and the streetlights flicker above us, and the crowds rush past behind us. Reflected in the window-glass, Komal looks from the dress to me. “That’d look perfect on you.” I see her surreptitiously adjusting, under her jacket – under which she must be sweating now – the waistband of her mom jeans. I realise: this is another chance.

Year after year, I’ve let chances pass me by. In a few months I’ll have graduated and moved away to Mumbai. How many more chances will I get to do right by my friend?

Born from proximity, stagnating at superfices, readily sundered by the coming distance – I don’t accept that such will be our friendship. I don’t accept that Komal admiring my figure – on false grounds, on true grounds – is worth purchasing with my silence. My complicity.

Komal’s body-insecurity is not my fault, but then neither is it her own. If I can help her feel surer of herself – that will be ample compensation for my anorexia.

“I do have another idea.” I seize Komal’s hand. Technically, not another idea: but perhaps this’ll make it easier for her to do what she needs to. “Mind if I try on this dress?”

“Okay!” says Komal, her voice instantly cheerful.

And, as we plunge into the brightly-lit store, I understand.

I understand one reason why Komal’s always ready to go along with my plans: to distract herself from herself.

I understand that that’s not the only reason for her complaisance: Komal’s good nature is not solely a byproduct of low self-esteem. This is a friend I should fight to keep.

I understand that Komal’s anxious about her body, and that she punishes her body for her anxiety. Just as I did. The details of the causes and effects differ only superficially.

I remember reading that victims of sexual abuse sometimes punish their bodies this way. I wonder whether she’s told her psychotherapist about her abuse. I imagine it’s hard to find a good psychotherapist. I know that if Komal landed, at first try, a bad one, she’d politely keep seeing her till kingdom come.

Then we’re inside the store, facing a surfeit of shop-boys standing around awaiting customers, and my moment of enlightenment passes, and my scepticism returns, and my insights seem suspect, and my mind throngs with excuses to avoid making this sacrifice.

“Could I try on the black dress in the window, please?”

“Size?” asks the shop-boy, already eyeing me. I pull my purse across my body, and cross my arms. Why don’t they employ women in a women’s store? I’m tired of buying everything – from sports-bras to running-shoes – from men.

“Medium,” I venture.

“Ma’am there’s no ‘Medium’ here,” says the shop-boy loftily. “Small Medium Large is only supermarket size… 34?” he suggests.

“Bust size 34?” I ask, scowling preemptively to discourage any liberties. Shop-boys never take liberties: but they look just like the men on the streets, who do: and I’d rather be uncivil than unintentionally uninviting.

“No ma’am, label-size 34 means bust-size 32. For bust-size 34, take label-size 36.”

Even in tranquil conditions, arithmetic baffles me. Now my head spins. “Why do they size it like that?” He shrugs. “No, give me, uh, 38, for 36.”

I take the dress into the dressing-room, just big enough for the door to open into it. Ignoring the mirrors and bright lights, worried they’d dissuade me from trying the dress on in my food-baby-disfigured state, I change. From habit, without thinking, thinking it’s time to undress for bed, I unclip my braclip behind. Instantly the tightness that’s cramped my upper back all day, that’s climbed insidiously up my shoulders, falls away, freeing a suddenly raging headache – and, also instantly, I’m now prepared to make my sacrifice: all I need to do is not clip the braclip back on. The dress is generous in the waist – cut for the mannequin’s boyish figure – but, as I now face the mirror, it bulges over my food-baby. It’s also tight over the bust, further flattening my now inadequately-supported breasts.

I open the door a smidge. Feet wide apart, Komal’s studying the rows of dresses, swaying again from left foot to right, and briefly I wonder if I’ve erred, bringing her here. “Komal!” I whisper. “Mind coming in here?”

I unzip the dress and free my shoulders; the dress spills over my hips, the cotton-elastane brastraps sag, and my breasts confide themselves frankly, over the underwire, to my flying ribs.

Komal enters.

I face her with my sagging breasts and bulging tummy. This, too, is an exhibition: but this time I know I look bad – and so it is this exhibition that my immoral vanity shudders at as morally repulsive. I’ve recovered from anorexia, but my ideas about food, and beauty, and morals are still a bedlam, intricately entangled.

“Wow,” says Komal, shutting the door behind her. “What the hell?” she snorts.

I want to punch her, but just for a bit. Relief washes over me that I needn’t explain Exhibit A.

She turns to scrutinise us in the mirror.

“No, not in the mirrors. They’re slimming, as you can see. Look at me.”

“I am! What the… Are those stretchmarks over your breasts?”

I nod. “From running in an ill-fitting sports-bra. Or maybe I always had’em. Don’t know.”

“Are they always this saggy without clothes?”

“With clothes, too. Here, help me on: that’s why I called you in.”

She zips me back in. I turn to her, resisting the urge to pat my tummy, to emphasise it. My friend, who walks flatfooted into cowpats, who pored admiringly over my beach photos, has sharper eyes than I’ve bargained for. She pokes my tummy, startling me – I always do my best not to look at her bald spot, or at her tummy (while she’s facing me). I’d never dream of poking at her.

“Tum-tummy!” she giggles.

“Ye-es,” it’s my turn to drawl. I decide against pulling up my dress to show her the stretchmarks under my buttocks. She gets the idea. “The tummy’s from dinner, but it’s a tummy alright. The stretchmarks and sagging are permanent.”

Komal surveys my figure. I reach for my purse, to pull it across my body – my purse is on the floor – and I resist the urge to cross my arms. Slowly a smile overspreads Komal’s face. Another wave of relief washes over me.

Relief to be seen, at last, for what I am. Recovered. Healthy. Active. Slim. But not quite what I look like when strapped up and sucked in. Why did I fear this? Her ‘wow’ was just her knee-jerk reaction. How long have we stood here, face-to-face? For the longest fifteen seconds of my life.

In the tiny changing-room Komal hugs me. “Ow,” I say, miming her flat, comic voice. She laughs and stands back.

I’ve prepared a speech. ‘Komal. Wear your grandma-underpants if you like: but not to hide yourself, for you’ve nothing to hide. Eat junk if you like: but not to punish yourself, for you’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve never had anything bad happen to me – well, one time a street dog jumped up and snapped in my face, but that’s because I kept treading on his tail, I was just a curious little girl, I wanted to see how far I could push him… Anyway, what I mean is, my life’s been good, but I still got anorexia. And now I eat well, and run miles every day, but I’ve still got stretchmarks, and I’ve searched high and low for a supportive bra, and sports-bra, and it’s no good and I’ve got sagging breasts, and also a chronic neckache. And I have a slight squint in my right eye, enough to make crossing the road problematic: but what bothers me is not that: it’s that someone might see I have a squint, so I keep anyone I’m talking to on my left, where they won’t notice it… I want you to be happy and healthy, but don’t feel like you need to fix yourself, because you’re fine. I don’t know if any of this will help you stop pulling your hair out, or bingeing on junk – but I hate to see you anxious, and I wish you’d at least stop worrying about your body.’

I’ve prepared a speech – but Komal stands looking me in the eye, looking happy for the first time since I got back, and I realise there’s no need for a speech.

“You should buy this dress. You look good in it… Just don’t wear it after a big meal.” Komal tries to wink; she blinks. My head reels. Did she just rib me?

I begin stripping. “I can’t afford this dress. I just like trying things on.”

“Aww… Well, then we’d better be getting home.” Komal pops out; I change; we’re back in the street.

Outside she acknowledges the speech I’ve not made. “It kind of always felt like you were lecturing me, from above, you know? I thought it was easy for you to say, ‘Value your body, do right by it, who cares how you look, if you want to come walk with me, just come walk with me, who cares if people stare…’ I wouldn’t let anyone see me in my underwear, not even if I looked like you. I mean – you know what I mean, good on you… I always wanted to tell you, ‘You don’t understand, a normal-sized person can never understand how hard it is to find well-fitting underwear.”


“I guess you do understand.” She squeezes my arm. “I’ll try walking with you tomorrow.”

“Yes! Just wear your ordinary clothes. You don’t need special clothes to walk in. It’s cool in the mornings… The sun rises flame-red over the dark-green trees into a bleached-blue sky.”

“You really love nature.”

“Nature washes away the unimportant things.” It was by surrendering to nature that I found myself after anorexia. But I’ve not told her. I won’t this evening. This evening is hers.

We walk down the now-emptying road, and back through the network of residential streets, the street-dogs patrolling glitter-eyed. We’re almost at our gate when Komal says, “I’m seeing the psychiatrist on Wednesday. Will you come with me?” She pauses. “I feel like he might listen better if I weren’t alone.”

“I’ll go with you, Komal. But” – I pause, and wag my finger, “You need to speak up for yourself. We can roleplay beforehand, so that you know everything you want to say, and feel confident saying it… I’ll go with you, and sit beside you: but you have to do the talking.”

“Ja, direktrisa!” She ducks her head.

We trudge up the stairs, Komal behind me. “Hey what’s the best thing to put on a salad? To make it taste, you know, less salady?”

“Salads do taste good, if you” –

“Yeah, yeah, if you give’em a chance.” I turn and stare. Did Komal just interrupt me? She grins.

“Maybe we can sprinkle your gunpowder on salads… You know, I think the allspice might work, but as an addition to gunpowder. By itself it might be too strong.”

“Ooh, I love experimenting with spices… But can you add gunpowder to salads?”

“You can add anything to anything. Life’s your salad.”


Amita Basu

Amita Basu is a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in Fairlight Shorts, CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Bewildering Stories, Gasher, and other magazines and anthologies. She lives in Bangalore, and blogs at

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