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Red Smoke

Three brilliant golden flames flicker in the center of three stout candles — off-white, black, and red — intoxicating the dressing room with the rich redolence of apple and vanilla mingled with charcoal. The burning wick adds a dark smell of ash. Dark, ashy apple slices dipped in vanilla, roasting on charcoal — a strange combination indeed, but who is to say what is strange and what is not? Strange is a contextual word, or more precisely, a contextual opinion but so is everything else in life. Isn’t life itself utterly contextual? From opinions to meanings, from forbidden to excusable, from shattered to fixed, and from fixed to unbroken, every single aspect of life is contextual, relative: chosen either carefully or carelessly to be presented as such.



She can hear the click of her heels on the black and white tiles. The sway of her black sari flowing in the whistling breeze trespassing from the window left open — the black queen gliding on the chessboard. She makes her way towards the silver dresser adorned with candles, jewelry box, a vase overflowing with lilacs, embellished hand mirrors, rouge, kajal, nail paints, perfume bottles, brushes of all sorts and what not. Just then, the room is set alight; a warm white-yellow glow and tranquil music fills the room. She seats herself on the velvet-covered stool in front of the dresser and glances intently at her youthful reflection in the sparkling mirror, which gives off the same brilliant radiance as the candles. She picks up a bejeweled white hairbrush and strokes her raven hair, never taking her eyes off her reflection. She darkens her eyes with kajal and gently rubs her cheeks with the cherry rouge while faint whispers of music divert her attention, giving her the notion that she is not in solitude. She looks intently into her dark-rimmed eyes in the mirror as though peering into the eyes of the physical manifestation of the whisper addressing her. “Do you use lipstick?” the whisper asks her. It is the voice of a child, a shy girl. She is unable to dismiss the striking familiarity of the innocent voice. “Yes, I do,” she replies, like a mother replies to her daughter who longingly eyes the graceful woman she yearns to become. “Do you use eyeliner as well?” the child’s whisper presses on. She smiles and says, "Yes.” “And nail polish too?” the voice asks ardently. “Yes, I do. And you can too if you feel like it,” she replies smiling into the mirror at the invisible child. “No, I can’t. I’m not allowed,” answers the child. “Well, how old are you?” she asks. She sits still, waiting for the whisper to reply or to ask another curious question but it does not say anything to her. The entity vanishes.
She waits a while but then resumes her previous engagement. She sprays herself with the liquid in one of the sparkling perfume bottles and the cool mist transcends into the skin of her wrist. She then wears a string of pearls. For her right wrist, she chooses a delicate gold bracelet with the infinity sign. The white watch that she adores the most is reserved for her left wrist. She relishes her every move, sweeping herself off her feet by her grand romantic gesture to herself. She cannot however, dismiss the feeling that she is being watched by an audience — a diverse audience indeed! Some eye her with scorn, some furtively glance at her with sheer admiration and some merely await her next move with curiosity but nothing more than that.
“Did I tell you what exactly about that woman put me off? Her messed up, disfigured clothes, her blandness, lack of poise, lack of grace. She looked like a boy with ungroomed hair. Tell you what? These trinkets, these girly pleasures, they’re what make us women,” scoffed another whisper. This is a senior woman’s voice, much more authoritative. There is a feeling of déjà vu in that whisper, like a lesson learned long ago, a mental note scribbled in haste in another life. Inattentively, she picks up a little black vessel, twists it open and a red lipstick sticks out. She always likes to paint her lips in the end. The contrast seems all the more striking that way. “Not red,” says the old whisper. “Why? Isn’t it womanly enough?” she questions. “It’s too womanly. After you’re married, perhaps,” the whisper replies. “Am I less of a woman because I’m not married?” she asks the old whisper. “You are to look more of a girl and less of a woman until you are,” answers the whisper. “And what if I am never to marry?” she exclaims. Silence once again. She waits a while for an answer, anyhow. When there is none, she dismisses the annoyance she feels and begins to colour her lips. The cool lipstick presses the red colour onto her delicate flesh, like a child playing with crayon brings life to a colourless rose in a colouring book.
At last, she picks up the tiny glass bottle of red nail enamel. As she twists it open, the pungent odour of enamel stifles her breath. She begins to paint her nails, neatly. She loves painting her thumb the most, with one coat, then two coats and finally a third coat, making her nails look redder than the reddest pomegranate seeds.
“Can I tell you something?” a fleeting whisper makes her turn around only to see the empty wall behind her, “You do it very nicely. When I was your age, I could not do it like that. Once you reach my age, all you can think about is namaaz and roza.”  The little friendly crackle at the end of the whisper resounds in the room. This one lifts her spirits a bit, diminishing the unsettling feeling in her chest and puts on a happy smile on her face.
Just as she is about to paint the nail of her pinky, she hears a woman's blood-curdling shriek behind her. She turns around with a jolt and feels the rush of a loud and angry wind in her face coming from a newly appeared window, the windowpanes bang violently and the curtains flap helplessly. The gale brings with it rain, which rushes inside and drenches her sari and everything inside the room. The candles are blown out and the warm yellow radiance is replaced by an envelope of gloom and darkness. She gets up from the stool and pushes herself against the tenacious wind, somehow makes it to the window and closes it shut. She turns around and sees that her precious dressing table and stool are no longer there. Instead, a single candle with a small flame rests in its place on the floor and beside it is the bottle of red nail enamel she was previously busy applying.
Confused, she goes towards it rather cautiously. She stares at the bottle for a while, reluctant to pick it up. After a moment's thought, she crouches down to pick it up and holds it for a while, looking around to see if doing so has given rise to yet another episodic storm. When nothing happens, she gets up, albeit still wary of all the movement around her. She takes a step forward in an attempt to escape the room, but as she does, the fleeting silhouette of a laughing child runs past her, making her lose her balance, knocking off the shiny bottle of nail enamel from her hands. The bottle crashes and shatters into tiny pieces as it hits the marble floor and the red enamel begins to evaporate in form of a cloud of red smoke that slowly engulfs the room. She looks around frantically, like a child lost in a crowd, she recalls nothing and her mind goes blank. There is no escape. The thicket of red smoke envelopes her lean body, and she feels lost in it.
Panting hard, she woke up startled from her sleep. It took her a moment to yank herself out of the daze of the perplexing dream she had. Slowly she took the warm duvet off and the chill of the silent night caught on. Her sister slept soundly on the adjacent bed, slurring slightly. She made her way towards the restroom, washed her face, staring at her ghostly reflection in the mirror, went back to her bed and made a futile effort to fall asleep. 
The sun rose behind the dark curtains of the room. Birds chirped and by noon people and voices frenzied around the house; there was laughter, there was shouting, hustle and squabbling. She felt uncertain of everything around her. There was a deep-rooted feeling of desolation in her heart that she had held onto for so long. She remembers a call she made to one of her consoling friend the previous day. She did not remember everything, but one thing she said could not stop replaying in her mind, “Try to make yourself happy. Do things that make you happy. You like to read, read as much as you need to till you feel good. You are your biggest commitment. Watch movies, buy yourself flowers and give yourself a makeover. Do things for yourself that you yearn for others to do for you.” She could not stop recalling this again and again: give yourself a makeover. Did she even like giving herself a makeover? She looked at her pale reflection with dark circles under her eyes, as though waiting for an answer. Oh, she did, once a very long time ago but maybe not anymore. She could not afford the chaos it would bring to her, the gravity of which she now knew well enough to avoid at all cost. For her, it was like a beloved child, buried in the ground, never to be spoken of again and so, she began to part ways from the mirror and went farther and farther away from it till she was unable to see her reflection anymore. HH


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“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

— Marie Curie 

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