December 6, 2020

Khoobsurat

(c) J. Singh, 2017

Guneet Kaur left her house feeling upset. She made her way down the busy street to the large black metal gates of her friends home, three houses down the road. She pushed on the buzzer three times in quick succession. It was their code to let each other know who had come calling. Within a minute, the large metal gate creaked open and her friend Chann Kaur stepped outside.

“What’s wrong?” she asked immediately, noticing the frown on Guneet’s face.

Guneet shook her head angrily. “Ugh, my Mom,” she said in exasperation.

As they walked down the narrow street together, Guneet explained.

“You know Simmi Grewal? Well, they came to our house yesterday for tea. And she was all dressed up with her hair plaited all nicely and was wearing her chunni the whole time. And she had oh just perfect manners. And today my Mom got mad at me because I didn’t finish all my homework and the chores and didn’t help her in the kitchen, and when I was crying she says that I won’t be beautiful because I’ll get bags under my eyes and then I’ll look like a ghost! Can you believe she said that!? And then, after all that wasn’t enough, she says why can’t I be more like that Simmi, she is so beautiful! So much more beautiful than me! Arrghhhhh!”

Guneet clenched her fists and cried out angrily. Chann looked at her friend sympathetically.

“I think I’ve seen the Grewal’s at the Gurudwara,” Chann said.

“Then you’ve seen Simmi,” Guneet quickly replied, “she is tall and usually wears her hair in one long plait.”

“Is she the one with the younger brother, the one who is like five or six years old?”

“Yes, that’s her! She is not so gorgeous, is she?”

They had reached the main street, which was even more congested than the side street they had come from. Crowds thronged in every direction, while vehicles, bicycles and scooters attempted to make their way through the noisy melee. The friends made their way across the wide street to other side and then cut across the polluted, dirty park, taking care to avoid stepping on any garbage or dog excrement. Through the park, and then across another busy street, and then downhill into the market square. Finally they reached their destination, and found a quiet spot in the corner of a tiny, cramped coffee shop. It had faded signs hanging from the ceiling, covered in dust and neglected for years. Everyone already knew the price of a cup of tea or coffee anyway, and the number of customers coming from other towns was negligible.

The old man at the front desk rubbed his nose when the girls walked in, and without a word, turned to begin brewing the coffee that they liked. It would be ready in a minute. The girls sat down and continued their discussion. Chann knew that before they could turn to other topics, Guneet needed to resolve her emotions surrounding the incident with her mother.

How could she talk to me like that!?” Guneet seemed unable to fathom her mothers actions. “Saying that Simmi Grewal is more beautiful than me!”

Chann looked at her friend helplessly. Guneet was a pretty girl, with long shiny black hair  and big, brown eyes. Her high cheekbones and perfectly aligned nose made her look almost like a model. Chann wondered if Guneet realized how often the boys would stare at her, caught by her beauty.

“Guneet,” Chann said finally, cutting her off in mid-sentence, “why is this making you so upset?”

“Because, arghhh!” Guneet was clearly frustrated, “Simmi Grewal is not more beautiful than me! A fact is a fact!”

The old man shuffled up to their table and set two mugs of steaming hot coffee down. Chann paid him, and with a brief nod and a grunt he turned around and retreated back to the front desk.

“Okay,” Chann said to Guneet, “I have an idea.”

“For what?” asked Guneet, sipping her coffee.

“I want to show you something. Finish your coffee then we’ll go.”

It was a short walk from the coffee shop, but Guneet had never explored this area of the town on her own. It was all new to her. Chann led her through narrow streets with open gutters, turning and twisting this way and that. Within minutes, Guneet had lost all sense of direction.

“Where are we?” she asked in bewilderment.

“Just a little ways more,” Chann answered, “almost there.”

The smell of urine and feces permeated the air. Guneet covered her nose and mouth with her chunni in an attempt to stave off the offending odor.

“How much longer?” she asked desperately, “I think I’m going to faint!”

Finally, they came to a clearing of sorts. The narrow street opened up into a wider one, which then merged into the main street, which was as busy with traffic as all the others. On the side of the road was a courtyard with several entrances and exits. It was a large area, with a few small buildings on the far side, but it appeared to be far from clean or hygienic. In one corner sat a large pile of garbage. Flies buzzed around it and in the heat, a strong stench arose and attacked the senses. Guneet pinched her nostrils shut and gave Chann an exasperated look.

Chann waved her on, and they entered one of the small buildings. It was dimly lit inside, with a stuffy, choking feeling. They were in a hallway lined with low wooden benches along the walls. It was crowded in here, with men, woman and children seated on the uncomfortable benches, in various postures, all awaiting treatment. They appeared to be in a clinic or hospital of some sort.

Why are we here?” Guneet groaned to her friend. “These are the slums!”

Chann nodded in a matter of fact way. Then she pointed. Guneet looked where she was pointing, and through the open doors, they saw an examination room. Inside stood an old woman wearing a simple, light blue saree, hunched over, tending to an infant on the bed. Her hair was white and her skin was wrinkled with age. She moved slowly and deliberately. After the baby had received his treatment, she lifted him up gently, cradled him in her arms and then handed him to his mother. Then she turned and waved in the next patient. A ten year old girl. The old woman smiled at the girl and her mother as they walked into the examination room. She cupped the girls face in her hands and smiled at her warmly.

“Scared, are you?” she asked in a loving voice. The girl, too frightened to speak, nodded and tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Oh, there’s no need to worry,” the old woman gathered the girl in her arms and hugged her. “You will be just fine, I’ll see to it!”

Guneet stood transfixed, watching the old woman. She was reminded of her own grandmother, and she felt a pang of loneliness when she realized how much she missed the loving embrace and feeling of safety and security that only her grandmother had been able to provide. It had been six years since she had passed away, and Guneet could still feel the empty hole in her chest.

“Why did you bring me here?” she asked Chann in a hoarse whisper.

“I wanted you to see what beauty looked like,” Chann replied.

“What?”

“When I was little, I kept looking at pictures in magazines and on TV of models and actors and actresses. Everyone called them so beautiful because they were pleasant to look at. Then one day, my Dad asked me what beautiful was. He asked me to define it. And he explained that a person is beautiful when they are kind, when they are loving, when they forgive others, when they help others, when they have compassion and caring in their hearts. That’s what makes them beautiful, not their physical appearance. This old woman is the most beautiful person I know because she works in this clinic treating the poor people who cannot afford any medical care. And she has been doing this every day for the last twelve years.”

“Really?” Guneet’s jaw dropped open in surprise.

“And she doesn’t get paid anything for her work. She does it all for free.”

Guneet felt her face flush with shame. She realized how shallow she must have sounded, complaining about her mother and comparing herself to Simmi Grewal on the basis of physical attributes.

“It’s ok,” said Chann gently, as if reading her mind. “I just wanted to show you this. So maybe next time, you won’t get so angry.”

“I won’t,” Guneet breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that her friend was not judging her. “I promise.”

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