Vanity in Two Acts




“Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos." - Tennessee Williams


It was a gaudier Friday night at Xanders, glitzier than most weekends but not totally unexpected, at the exclusive social club that sprawled over a fair area in the elitist South suburb of Mumbai.

The pool deck was draped with white pixie lights encased in plastic crystals, and human-sized acrylic chrysanthemums bespeckled with gold dust and sparkles were pinned onto its peripheral shrubbery. The bar was overcrowded with shimmery skins, tweeds and suedes, and Oudh and orchids, subduing the backdrop of laser-lit psychedelic graphics, while bartenders poured artistry into glasses to indulge its patrons. Some martinis and Scotches preferred the watering hole to conduct pleasantries, but most sauntered into the adjoining glass walled Crystal room where kaleidoscopic patterns moved in sync with the pull and throbs of EDM on a 16 ft. screen. Dancing figures silhouetted themselves against the screen in purple and blue, and flaunted their egos with professional pirouettes or reckless moves instigated by the liquid in their glasses.

Earlier in the evening, the dance floor was a plush carpeted stage in deep burgundy backdropped by white gossamer curtains and mammoth bouquets of acrylic chrysanthemums. An impressive 3 ft. hologram of a classic “V” rotated in 3D on the projector screen. The highest ranking fashion publication in digital and print, Vanity Box, was celebrating its fifth successive year as the “Best in Fashion Media” and the crystal plaque awarded by the Design Guild of India was artfully exhibited on an ivory pedestal at the entrance of the dance room.

The evening rolled out with the mandatory award ceremony - the publication house felicitated achievers for “their outstanding performance and contribution to carry Vanity Box to the skies” with Swarovski chrysanthemums inscribed with a “Congratulations”in an ornamental script and the publication’s “V” monogram. The staged congratulatory speeches and applause, the high tones of loose flattery, and air kisses blown by well groomed and painted mouths were remarkable performances that masked ugly jealousies. Dancing bodies danced alone even though they tangoed together.

Shaista opted for the starry cool air of the poolside after the felicitation drama. She watched the lusting silhouettes through the glass walls - silhouettes thirsting for acclaim and status - they shuffled and swayed to frequencies of frenzy. “I was in there last year,” she smirked to herself stroking her glass of shiraz.

Nothing ever changed at Vanity Box’s award soirées besides the venue (twice), some awardees, and very rarely, a new appointment in its upper echelons of employment. Friday evening saw all three.


Rewind six-seven months: the haute publication house had made celebrity news headlines with the extravagant appointment of M. Art Director - a profile that previously was filled by the collaborated minds of Shaista, the firm’s Editor-in-Chief, and Mme. Director.

Vanity Box had climbed to an illustrious high - a rather precarious position, and it was imperative to not slip. Mme. Director had pulled strings and undid some satin ones to snag the golden boy.

Flamboyant M. Art Director had asserted his unorthodox temperament through innovative photo shoot structures and designs, unusual layouts and 3D presentations, and the eccentric work ethics he expected of his assistants. M. Art Director worked alone: his ideas, and his decisions to implement those ideas, although he did lay them out on the granite conference table before Mme. Director and Shaista - his gesture of respect for the organization’s protocols.

The makeover had pushed the publication several rungs higher, and nobody complained. Nobody could. Shaista had hissed and growled to herself, her belly knotting with her every scream.

She had witnessed her editorials getting a snip here and there, her edited pages of guest articles artistically reworked or slashed; consequently the downsizing of her profile, and ultimately, her credibility as the publication’s E-I-C. The year had painfully challenged Shaista who held tight to her classic haute couture style which, page after page, was threatened by the razor sharp avant-garde approach of the company’s six month old member.


Vanity Box awardees had already been announced, congratulated, and thanked a few weeks ago in an all Academy Awards-style glitzy video dropped into every staff member’s inbox. The thirty seconds video had concluded with a “last but not the least” gratitude note to those who “could not cut it this year”… breathe, Shaista … before the signature white chrysanthemum had faded into the classic serif “V” in iridescent glow. Breathe, girl! Almost half the staff strength of 652 members, upper and lower deck, had revelled in the celebratory news after work hours.



The glamorous Friday night at Xanders appeared to be dedicated to M. Art Director. As he took centre stage amongst whoopings and cat whistles, and held up his two crystalline chrysanthemums for “Outstanding Art Direction” and “Outstanding Editing”, the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief found herself willingly acknowledging her adversary’s contribution and work. Her applause was soft - gentle and genuine as her smile, and she slipped outside unobtrusively into the night air, solitary by the shimmering pool.

Shaista let the sweet breeze displace her wavy hair (having deliberately opted out of her customary propah French updo), and flirt with the hem of her seven year old olive green chiffon dress. Its bias cut flattered her newly acquired plus-size body that had surrendered itself to chronic PCOS (Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome) that year. The voluminous bishop sleeves and the sharp V neckline conferred a new attribute onto her: elegance. The only bling she wore that evening were a sequined bow tying up the deep of her back neckline in pure 70’s chic, and a pair of square toed ballerina pumps - Prada’s newest offering - in glitter green.

Shaista had shed her masquerade for the evening. Losing its weight liberated her.


Earlier in the week, Shaista had coyly looked at her naked face in her dresser mirror and the reflection had stared back at her - the unfamiliarity sort of unnerved her, but it was a fascinating introduction. She had observed the greying shadows under her eyes, the asymmetry of her nostrils, the thinness of her lips, her rounded jawline, and the little indents that scarred her left cheek. She had touched her reflection, tracing its outline with her fingers. Her shoulders were heavy and her under-chin hung looser than what she had assumed.

For the very, very first time, the stranger had realized her eyes were brown, a shade between a fiery amber and dark chocolate. She had fallen in love with them; she had fallen in love with their light.

She was falling in love with herself.

Shaista would attend the annual gala as Shaista, "the reflection". No fakings.

She had pulled out two evening ensembles from her antique wooden wardrobe. The warm green cocktail dress was a classic retro silhouette that completely misaligned with the fashion magazine’s official trend predictions for the season. O! But the color! It brought out the amber of her eyes, and the style allowed her body to breathe naturally.

The black bralette ensemble designed by Jewelline was encrusted with sequins and crystals in polished, glittery, and iridescent black. Its construction squeezed her ribs in and uplifted her breasts, molding contours into her ‘imperfect’ body shape. The outfit’s floor length satin sarong carried the bling in all over clusters, and a tastefully done overlap slit ran suggestively high. Paired with the sophistication were pointy-toe stilettos with a rhinestone bow. The fashion look was a centre-spread feature in the magazine’s soon-to-be-released issue. Shaista had calculated the extent of media noise her performance of wearing an unreleased forecasted trend would make. It had justified the extravagance of her buy.

Olive or black crystal? The choice was obvious.



Shaista had re-wrapped the black outfit in its original packaging: soft tissue and black and gold box, then an ordinary brown paper bag, and drove it to the Sacred Heart for Women Charities.




"To men and women who want to do things, there is nothing quite so driving as the force of an imprisoned ego.... All genius comes from this class." - Mary Roberts Rinehart


Monica sifted through the small rows of clothing racks.

They eagerly hoped for a good find this time at the Charity house’s annual flea market. This was a one day event organized for the lower, and lower-mid strata of society. The achche log (good people) at the Sacred Heart for Women Charitable Institute accepted articles donated by bade ghar ki madams and sahebs (affluent madams and sirs): utensils, bed linen, curtains, clothes, bags, footwear, spectacle frames, books, school paraphernalia … The ones in disrespectful conditions were discarded (what are the donors even thinking!) and the saleable ones were up on display, tagged at prices that were a mere formality: 35 rupees for a leather purse or 40 rupees for a non-stick pot - pricing urged the shoppers to value their purchases.

Monica could never get used to the silent rebuke they received every waking minute of their thirty-five year old existence. Humans shamelessly cleared a thin perimeter when Monica walked amongst crowds; why would today be any different? In fact, the discriminated shopper was grateful for the breathing space in the over-cluttered exhibit hall of the charitable institute- they had two more rows of clothes to browse through. There has got to be something here for me!

Midway through the second, a black shimmer pulled them. A bustière made with very expensive black crystals and other shiny things was slung on a hanger. It had an underwire cut like a bra. The skirt was a long satin wrap-around with glittering sparkles all over. Monica took the hangers off the rack and hugged them, declaring their ownership, and their eyes glistened with exhilaration. They daren’t see the price tag at first - 600 rupees - Monica’s weekly earnings or for some, the price of an 11" pineapple pizza from Domino's. Absolutely worth it!

Monica’s dreams deserved the exorbitant splurge. Cinderella had a dress for the ball!

Monica was made different from “normal”. They, and their brethren yearned for their right to live respectably, their right to equal opportunities in the largest democratic country in the world (so touted): India. They lived in close knit communities, secure in the familiarity and love of their kind.

Monica was a hijra (eunuch).

Dark skinned with narrow, deep set eyes and an aquiline nose, Monica cut an attractive figure at the main traffic intersection of North and West Ave. in Mumbai’s aristocratic South suburb. The prized location was assigned to the fashionable hijra, an immaculately dressed vision at the traffic light, in vibrant printed saris - never a pleat out of place, with jasmine flowers around their fake hair bun, a nose pin, kohl eyes, and a large, colored bindi (dot) pasted on their forehead to match their sari.

Monica glided through cars, motorbikes and autorickshaws that awaited the stop light to change. Most faces were regulars: students, office travelers, chauffeurs and rickshaw drivers. Monica asked for alms in return for their blessings on their benefactor: “May you be successful”, “May your relationship live forever”, “May you beget healthy children”. Indian culture rested superstitious faith on the blessings or curses uttered by a hijra - their words bore consequences. People obliged and willingly offered their monies - from small denomination coins to handsomer green bills in times of desperate requests for blessings. Monica and their kin have earned big at weddings and births.

Monica hated begging. Hated being a sex worker. Disturbingly, these have been the only “career” pathways for the hijra community for decades.

How they longed to study normally in a school, have normal jobs, pursue normal careers, have normal experiences at malls, cafeterias and movie theaters! (How we neglect our privilege to exist normally!)


Two years ago, Monica, Anita, and Jyothi had hesitatingly (very nervous) joined a collaborative: The Third Nature - an initiative by upcoming Indian contemporary artist, Dev Roy. The thirty-three member group of eunuchs from all over Mumbai created hand-quilted blankets and wall panels, sewing art patterns drawn by the artist.

Dev included their works in his shows, exhibiting at prestigious art galleries all over the country. The Third Nature received occasional mentions in art columns of magazines and dailies. Monica even had a headshot with their group featured in the events section of the morning paper. What they created as The Third Nature was not a regular income source, but it was a milestone closer to achieving respect and recognition as humans.

Last month, the One World art festival in Los Angeles had displayed Dev Roy’s abstract works amongst canvases, installations, and AI generated artworks by renowned artists world over. Dev had carried thirty five mixed media works that portrayed everyday relationships in his signature geometric strokes, and twenty wall frames of his geisha collection in black and orange created by Monica and their friends. Dev sold forty two works in all, took commissions for larger pieces in oil and charcoal, and embroidered panels for a modern art museum, and positioned himself and The Third Nature in the international art scene.


A phone call from Dev and a vibrant card made of expensive paper invited Monica and their colleagues to a private congratulatory dinner hosted by their “human” friend. Dev had reserved the Deck, a small banquet room on the terrace floor of the gated, snobbish club, Xanders.

Monica was visibly restless and distracted since the invitation, anticipating the evening - they would walk on floors that click-clicked with heeled footsteps, eat exotic preparations in plates probably made of silver or glass, perhaps there would be dancing … press photographers Dev had mentioned … The place itself was exclusive to the bade ghar ki madams and sahibs … Monica would be there …

Monica would never wear their own skin there.

One could perceive it as a disguise, a stage costume, a falsity if they preferred, but the black crystal outfit was Monica’s ego, their confidence, their right to be human, even better than common human - someone special … their right to be the Monica they envisioned.

The illusion would alter their reality. Forever.



Dear Reader,

It seems unimportant to label this write as fact or fiction. The stories are as true as the connection they have with you. I do however claim that all names and locations mentioned here are a figment of my overindulgent imagination.

Hope you enjoyed the read! Have a lovely day x