Despite being the uncrowned queen of garbage collection, I like to clean things out once in a while. This doesn’t mean that I generally live like a slob – just that I’m a collector of things that a few might consider garbage (because they lose sight of the emotional value attached to it). I was cleaning out a small box of trinkets I’ve collected from the best of my experiences so far. There was a photograph of me with my best friend, a picture we took at a studio after dolling up, just after I finished my last day at college. It was a celebration in being done with five years among some of the most difficult people, people I had bade goodbye to and moved on in a flash of unabashed happiness. There was an old tooth-brush with a chubby dragon for a handle, one that I didn't have the heart to do away with after it ran its course. There were a couple of photographs of different times with family, friends, little memorabilia recording milestones and some very amusing stuff that my best friend from school (and beyond) preserved.
After much rummaging and reminiscing, I finally found it: the broken Taj Mahal.
A year and a half ago, I got to teach a feisty group of kids dance. Besides being a beautiful exercise in handling pocket-sized powerhouses of energy, it was also a time when I reconnected with the said best friend from school – in as much regularity as we did when we were at school itself. So these kids – they were probably 9 or 10 at the most. And they were a motley crowd. There was the perennial class bunker, a sleepy smiling one, a charming diva, a prankster, an uncrowned monarch who believed not in a classroom but a kingdom, another who believed in that self-proclaimed propriety, a teacher’s pet, a tiny little elf, a mischievous little imp and a gregarious one. There was kicking and screaming, especially among the boys who wouldn’t want to have anything to do with dancing. There was gentleness and grace, especially among a bunch of girls who redefined dancing in a way that only such innocence could. There was gay abandon among the ones that had the song with the best of beats and rhythms. And there was an absolute sense of disregard, specifically among a bunch that was there just to get to miss a math test.
Somewhere behind them all, was a slip of a girl. She was silent, thick glasses framing her tiny face, with a head full of oily hair that clung to her scalp. She smiled broadly all the time, her little teeth like okra seeds. I didn’t hear her voice, even if I strained myself. I noticed that the other kids didn’t talk much to her – she tried sometimes, but they’d mostly ignore her. But she would try her best, learning all her dance steps and performing them with gusto. She never drew attention to herself – being a wallflower of sorts. I must confess I was arrogant too. I didn’t even look at her sometimes, focusing on the ones I thought had potential and had the most buoyant energy. I didn’t pay attention when she missed a step, instead burying myself with the woes of convincing a more boisterous child to tone it down. She still danced, nevertheless. I remember drawing comparisons between her and a former classmate at school while my friend and I left for home, one day.
The kids were affectionate, and perhaps the sweetest I had encountered – warts and woes and all. They’d give me cards, little self-knotted friendship bands that they insisted on tying, and sometimes even candy – which I would insist that they ate, rather than me. I loved the attention while it lasted – a month later they might not have remembered me. It felt warm and fuzzy to hear about 60 little voices in a tinny high pitched collective shriek as they bid me goodbye, or gave me a thumping welcome. In all that time, I hadn’t noticed the little girl with thick glasses.
Until one day when the aforementioned uncrowned monarch (who believed not in a classroom but a kingdom) decided to push her for his amusement. In moments, her eyes brimmed with tears. I helped her up, and took her aside to the stairs, while my friend took the monarch aside to gently give him an idea or two about being a benevolent king. This little girl didn’t say much, she just nodded or smiled, as her tears dried up. In a squeaky voice, she said thank you. I asked her if she was alright, and if the kids often did that to her. She looked at me, her eyes big, and nodded. I didn’t know what to say. And even if I did, I didn’t have a means of ensuring that she’d be taken care of – I had only a month with the kids at school. She went back to class, and I had a lump in my throat.
Here she was, this little girl with a soft temperament, thick glasses and oily hair. Here she was, this little girl that simply wasn’t accepted or given the friendship she had every right to have. At that point, I realized that 9, 19, or 29 you’re always expected to be a certain kind to “fit in”. It is always their idea of what you should be that you should be – and if you aren’t, well, you’re out.
After the day’s practice wound up, I went back to the classroom to say bye. The little girl came running to me and pressed a little model of the Taj Mahal in my hand. The lump in my throat grew bigger, and tears threatened to flood. I croaked my thanks, and hugged her. I told her I wanted her to keep it – it was hers. She softly said that she wanted me to have it.
One of the minarets in the model is broken. But it sent me a strong message. To Shah Jahan, the man who had the Taj Mahal built, it was an edifice in recognition of the love he had for his beautiful wife, Mumtaz. In the entire span of time that it has remained, the monument has come to symbolize impeccable beauty. To me, the broken model of the edifice represented the celebration of true beauty, of the beauty that is inherent in imperfection, of the beauty that lives in one’s soul, not in one’s appearance.