Choli Ke Peeche


From her perch at the front desk on level three, Preity spent her work days looking directly down onto the constant chaos of the airport concourse below; she knew she watched with the same bored detachment and disdain that the gods felt whenever they condescended to lower their glances to the general mass of humanity stewing earthside.

She peered down as a Caucasian family of four ran through the airport as if their lives depended on making their flight. The father had just pushed an elderly African American woman out of the way, and didn't even turn around to make his excuses. Preity solemnly wished she could smite that guy with a bolt of Indra's lightning.

The old woman was picking up the things from her purse that had spilled out onto the floor. No one stopped to help her. Preity shook her head in disgust.

Now look, the whole family of four are trying to shove to the front of the security line, she thought, what next?

Preity looked at the Krishh clock on her desk with dismay; not even 10 am yet, still far too early to make the long dash to the loo. Preity was careful not to draw too much attention to these daily voyages. She would take just two trips to the bathroom every day. Occasionally, on a particularly bad day, she would venture out three times. That was only counting the trip to the loo here at the airport; nothing at all that happened in her own house really mattered. It was still Rajesh's house, really, even after all these years.

Rajesh was a pilot for Allegiant Airlines, and he was the one who had found her the front desk job with the administration at the St. Petersburg–Clearwater International Airport. She didn't like the job, but it was better than sitting at home and watching Gujarati serials and Hindi movies all day, which is exactly what she had done through the whole first year of her married life.

The job kept her mind off home, at least. Home was not Rajesh's house. Home was not St. Petersburg. Home, she knew now, would never be any place except the small flat in Ahmedabad where she'd been born, raised, and from which she eventually married away. She hadn't realized the grip Ahmedabad had on her heart until she'd left. Perhaps if her parents themselves made the move to live with her in Florida, then home could creep back into her life. However, Rajesh was still against the idea. He liked his privacy.

At work Preity would sometimes make copies and coffee, but generally she just answered phone calls at the front desk. She would transfer janitorial complaints to the appropriate staffer. She would patch the general manager's girlfriend through to his private line, and call him to warn him if his wife was on her way down the corridor to surprise him. She took messages for airport vendors, and gave frantic passengers directions to the airport.

“You're in the Punta Gorda now? Well, if you leave now and take the Interstate all the way up, then you’ll make it. . . . No, if you wait for an hour, then you’ll hit traffic on the bridge, and you will miss your flight. Yep. . . . I'm sure. Ah, well, yes, okay. Okay, good luck!”

The clock read 10:20. India's first Hindi movie superhero, Krishh, held the time aloft in his mighty supergrip. Rajesh had brought the clock back from his last trip to India. She hadn't been back to the subcontinent since she'd left it for the first time of her life, just after their marriage three years ago. Rajesh had gone back last January for his brother's wedding.

“No need for us both to go. You barely know my brother, so why bother? You'd want to fly home and spend a week in Ahmedabad too, and you'd spend a fortune in presents, believe me, I know very well! Money doesn't grow on trees, you know. Plus, you only have one week of vacation time every year, and I’ll be in Calcutta for at least two weeks . . .”

Preity had argued, but she had lost, as usual. Rajesh wasn't a good listener. He was a very fine talker though. Once he had thoroughly set out an argument, he considered it a closed case—done and done.

She had been attracted by his confidence when they had first met. Even now she took some pride in her husband's gift of gab when they were out at Gujarati Samaj events in Tampa. He could charm anyone when he put his mind to it.

Every time he regaled an audience with the oft-repeated tale of how his plane was forced to make a daring emergency landing during a false alarm, saree-clad ladies would crowd around Rajesh with gleaming eyes.

“We heard loud rapping at the door, it seemed a hostile, desperate sort of pounding, and then we couldn't reach the air hostesses over the intercom! We were sure we had been boarded by Paki spies or some Arabian Osamas. I have never been so terrified in my whole life, but my copilot said that I looked completely calm the whole time, and that my emergency landing was the gentlest damn touchdown that he'd ever seen. Of course, it was all a terrible mistake. It had just been the air hostesses banging away like crazy to tell us the intercom was busted!”

The spectators would always laugh along with him, and compliment him on keeping his cool under pressure. At the most recent Navaratri function, Sweta Patel, dripping with diamonds as usual, had swooned theatrically during the story, and Rajesh had rubbed her on the back and sat with her as she calmed down.

Preity was used to the glances of envy she received from these women. All coifed and carefully preened, they looked like birds of paradise next to so many short, balding gas station and hotel owners. She could see in their eyes that they all thought it quite strange that Rajesh, the tallest, most handsome and exciting man in the Samaj would have consented to marry a mousy and silent little thing like Preity. Preity wished that she felt as lucky as the entire South Florida Gujarati Samaj Ladies Club seemed to think she ought to feel.

What the South Florida Gujarati Samaj Ladies Club didn't know is that for many years now Rajesh hadn't really put any effort in charming Preity. At home they would move in circles around each other; they would see past and through one another, like indifferent roommates. She was used to it now. In fact, she didn't really mind the solitude. Solitude was an old friend, but boredom and time were always against her.

The only thing that really bothered her was sitting still while the whole world moved forward around her; sitting still at the front desk, as the passengers came and went, and came and went again . . . it was a personal purgatory. However awful some of them might be, they had the karma to travel, and she did not.

Preity had earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from Gujarat University. She knew more about Dosteovsky than most Russians. Sometimes she fantasized about stowing away on a plane that would take her to Moscow, or the real St. Petersburg. She wondered sometimes—if, when her mother had showed her Rajesh's matrimonial profile and photo, he had lived in a “Chicago” or an “Amherst” instead of a “St. Petersburg,” then would she have dismissed the proposal as easily as she had all the others?

Preity doodled on company stationary and recalled for the hundredth time how disappointed she had been when she first landed here and found that the town had no inkling of its Russian namesake. There was no Russian community, no Russian orthodox churches, no streets named after the noble Russian generals who finally sent the mighty Napoleon packing in defeat and disgrace. St. Petersburg, Florida—hacked to bits, it was just “St. Pete” now—was all pastels and pastiche: sun-burned “snow birds” from Canada, identical strip malls, and restaurants that smelled of cigarette smoke. As if to add insult to injury, she had learned on her first day on the job that there were no direct flights to anywhere in Russia from this charmless, provincial airport that had the nerve to call itself St. Petersburg–Clearwater “International.”

Delia poked her head up over a cubicle divider behind the front desk.

“I'm gonna go get a bagel, honey. Can I get you anything?”

“No thanks.”

Delia disappeared, but Preity could hear her voice, even as she stalked off in the other direction.

“You never eat anything that doesn't smell funny! How you manage, I’ll never understand, but you do stay skinny, I’ll give you that . . .”

Preity was used to the jibes about the smell of her home-cooked curries. Delia, Elsa, and Margaret had approached her early on to ask that she use the microwave downstairs in the food court, instead of the one in the staff lounge.

“You understand dear, it's nothing against you. We all think you're real sweet. It's just that your lunch always stinks up the room something awful, and it kind of ruins it for the rest of us.”

Preity looked at her Krishh clock again. It was nearly 11 am. Rajesh certainly couldn't have known when he bought it that Hrithik Roshan, the actor who played Krishh, was one of her two favorite stars. Rajesh had never asked her about her likes and dislikes, and he persisted in remaining willfully ignorant and nonobservant. It shocked her sometimes that even more than three years into their marriage he would consistently forget that she was lactose intolerant.

“Want some?” he would ask blithely, as he dug into a bowl of ice cream.

Each time, she would remind him that she couldn't and explained why, and each time he would blink in surprise as if it was the first time he'd heard of such a shocking condition.

At first, she had imagined that Rajesh bought the Krishh clock for himself, and then gave it to her when he realized that he had forgotten to buy her a gift. Perhaps I'm not being fair, she had thought at the time. A few months later though, he had sheepishly confessed that the Krishh clock had been a desperate afterthought purchased for her in the Calcutta airport just ten minutes before boarding.

The phone had been strangely quiet this morning. Only four calls in almost as many hours.

Preity got up and passed a few empty cubicles to gaze out the back window at the tarmac below. She loved airplanes. She had only ever boarded two planes: Mumbai to Chicago; Chicago to St. Petersburg–Clearwater. She hadn't really liked the flying itself. The take-off was terrifying, but it was also the biggest thrill she had ever experienced. Better than getting commendations at school, better than her wedding, and better even than dancing garba with her cousins during Navratri. She loved watching the jets as the sun rose. The metal captured the bright orange rays as if absorbing power for the day ahead.

She both dreaded and dreamed of her next trip. Russia would have to wait. Her next flight would surely take her home, straight into the waiting arms of her dear and darling family.

Preity watched as a jet gathered momentum and sped upward quickly, finally hurling itself against the sky. Amazing, she thought, simply divine. She still didn't understand the physics of flight. Rajesh had tried to explain it a few times, but she usually glazed over. Truth be told, she didn't really want to know the details. It was better if it stayed unknown, magical.

Preity liked to imagine her deities descending from the clouds and riding these great machines for the pure joy of it.

Invisible goddesses would hitch a ride up into the sky, holding those shivering hulks of metal together with their unlimited compassion and shakti. That's why India is still so behind; still wallowing in corruption, nepotism, and poverty, she thought. All our deities have all flown away. They’ve tossed aside their ancient vehicles—swans, snakes, and chariots—and upgraded to flashier models, like jumbo jets and F-16s.

What fun, she thought, her bhakti mingled with more than a little jealousy.

Preity could visualize it all so clearly. Each plane taking off would bear a holy being eager for an easy ride halfway to heaven.

Kali stands up on the plane like a daredevil, her tongue hanging out to taste the cold air, and her hair flying wildly behind, so that it blends and becomes one with the dirty exhaust streaming out the back.

Sita lies down onto the fuselage, rests her head on the cockpit, and wraps her arms around the plane, as if cradling her beloved husband.

Lakshmi always rides the jets in a dignified side-saddle, head held high, her saree tucked between her tightly clenched knees.

And Durga. Durga rides it like a motorcycle.

Preity stepped away from the window, finally ready to visit the restroom. The flying goddesses always had that effect on her.

“Elsa, will you watch the phones for a few minutes. I’ll just be right back.”

As Preity slipped out the side door, she experienced an immediate rush of anticipation. Her pace quickened, and her mouth tugged upward at the corners, as if battling not to break into a full smile. The transformation had already begun. She smoothed out the wrinkles on her plain brown salwar kameez, and practically skipped down the stairs.

There are restrooms on the top floor of the airport, of course, but those are large rooms with a dozen stalls. Preity headed straight down to Concourse 2–level toward one of the private staff toilets, one that was out of the way, and had a proper lock on the door.

As she emerged out onto the Concourse floor, she glided around the packs of travelers dashing toward the departure gates as if in a blissed-out trance state. The Punjabi owner at the Seattle's Best waved to her as she passed, and Preity flashed back a wide, almost-sincere grin.

As she turned onto the administrative corridor, Preity almost ran smack into Trevor, one of the concourse janitors. She deflated somewhat, as a thin smile spread slowly across his face. She slowed her pace, and waited politely for him to repeat his favorite little joke. Sure enough, he was trying to spit it out, working hard through a pronounced stutter.

“Hey pret-pret-pretty lady. You sure are pretty, Preity!”

“Thank you, Trevor.”

She moved away quickly now. She didn't think the joke was funny. It was kind of sweet the first time, and even a bit endearing the second time, but over time it had become increasingly creepy. She just hoped that she would never bump into him outside the sanitized, brightly lit, safety of the airport.

Fully at the end of the hallway, she arrived at a door emblazoned with the words “Keep Out.” It used to be the airport's Chief Officer's private toilet, but now that the offices were on the top floor, it was rarely used, except by a few airline reps who were in the know.

Preity pushed at the door in vain. Someone was inside. She tapped her hand against her thigh impatiently, and paced outside for a long minute. She let her long black hair out of its tight bun, and ran her fingers through the length of it.

A Sunwing Air representative sporting three distinct layers of caked-on makeup, and superlatively high heels, stalked out of the bathroom.

“Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't hear you knock.”

Preity just wobbled her head in her favorite South Asian nonresponse response, dashed inside, and locked the door.

A small window above the stall let a shaft of light into the center of the bathroom. Eyes closed, her back pressed against the door, she exhaled fully, and completely until she had no contaminated breath left inside her body. This place was special—a vacuum with a window to another version of herself.

Preity imagined her loose Punjabi suit falling away. She stood straighter now, clad in a resplendent saree with gold brocade and a scandalously low-cut matching blouse.

As she opened her eyes and stepped toward the full-length mirror on the left side of the little room, she could hear the delicate jingle of gold anklets.

It would be “Choli Ke Peeche.” She had made that decision hours ago. Preity took her position in front of the mirror and saw large, heavy, almond eyes, and tresses as black and strong as the first flush of a Darjeeling tea season.

The music started. It churned through her mind as loudly as if blaring through a cinema loudspeaker. Preity began to dance as if every single atom in her body had been possessed by the ravishing starlet, Madhuri Dixit. She had danced this routine dozens of times since girlhood. She and her cousins had choreographed it during those long monsoon afternoons in their grandmother's puddle-dotted courtyard. It was similar to the dance sequence in the movie, but even better.

Preity swayed, twirled, kicked, and pranced. Her eyes played with the mirror, teased it, as if there were a handsome man watching from behind the wall. Maybe someone could see her. Maybe somewhere in Jaisalmer, or Hyderabad, there was another special mirror; maybe a chistled young man was standing in his bathroom quite amazed, as his own reflection had vanished, inexplicably replaced by a vision of Preity dancing her heart out.

She tapped at her heart, and hummed along with the music, “Choli ke peeche kya hai? Choli ke peeche!” What is it that's under my blouse? Under my blouse!

She tapped her golden bangles against each other and shook her hips along with the rhythm of the song. She was sweating, smiling, and stomping to the beat like an Odissi dancer. She was inhabiting her body for the first time all day.

Preity forgot all about the gawking peeper in Hyderabad whom she had invited to watch, and now she was just dancing for herself. “Choli me . . . dil hai mera . . . ! Choli me dil hai mera!” Under my blouse is . . . my heart!

She swung her hair fully around, and rolled her shoulders like a belly dancer. Now, Preity ran her hands over her own breasts as she lost herself in the music, swirling brocade-skirt lifting high in the air, the drums speeding up faster and faster and faster.

Her ending pose, struck at precisely the last beat, was triumphant and grand, like a classic still photograph of the great Rekha herself dancing in the film Umrao Jaan.

In the mirror, Preity beheld a dazzling creature flushed with exertion and the pride of artistry. I am so beautiful, she thought. A thump of the heart later, she found herself wishing that Rajesh could see her this way.

The gold sheen faded from her eyes, and she found herself in a plain, baggy salwar, locked in a dingy airport bathroom. She desperately longed for a rewind button. She wanted to rewind past the beginning of the song, and go back, back to before the wedding, back to Ahmedabad, back to a time when life was still bursting at the seams with possibilities.

Preity splashed some water on her face from the sink, and wiped her eyes with a musty brown paper towel. She looked into the mirror one last time. I am beautiful, she thought to herself, but I am the only one who knows what I really look like.

She quietly shrank back into herself, and braced her nerves for the panic on the concourse floor, the bright fluorescents, and the sickening smell of hamburgers. The corridor was empty. She walked very slowly, her shoulders slumping of their own accord.

Next time, she thought to herself, next time I will do “Nimbooda.” She could easily envision the lovely Aishwarya Rai dancing across the film screen with that tiny little lemon in her hands. The chords of the song flitted through her head like a preview flashing across a monitor. The decision put a little zing back into her step, and she lifted her chin a little higher.

Back on the concourse, she noted a mother chasing her already obese four-year-old away from the candy stall, and then how a whole women's volleyball team in matching USF sweatsuits giggled their way past those two gawking young men, each one sitting alone at Seattle's Best. Preity could hear a loud argument about the new checked baggage restrictions escalating between a Sunwing Air representative and a leggy blonde woman conspicuously still wearing her oversized sunglasses.

“Nimbooda.” She wished she could go dance it now, but she knew it was at least three hours of filing and phoning hence. Lemonade out of lemons, she thought. Preity stepped onto the glass escalator and pressed the button for level three. As she rose upward, she looked out at the Floridian town laid out so fastidiously beneath her, and took a deep, uneven breath. She could almost smell the lemon trees below baking in the unforgiving midafternoon sun.