Zaara's encounters with the mirror were pretty frequent. She loved to spend hours twirling her hair with the roller, trying different shades of her mother's lipstick and draping one of her dupattas as a sari when no one was watching. She loved the way the girls danced in the rain in the movies. She tried it out too; on some days when nobody was at home, she'd rush to the terrace and run in dramatic fashion with the dupatta in her hand, holding it high and letting the wind form tiny waves in it as it flew.
'Oh, I am beautiful', she thought to herself. When she used to study at her table, she was often distracted. If she turned slightly to the right, she could catch her reflection in the tall mirror and no matter how hard she tried, she could not resist the temptation to admire herself. Zaara was ten and her understanding of beauty was as innocent as her age; a little bit of rouge, a pair of pretty earrings, a flowing dupatta and a sparkling smile could do it all for her.
She was a cheerful young girl. She scored all A’s in her classes, played basketball in the evenings, had a lovely group of friends, loving parents and a beautiful elder sister. And, sometimes when she finished her homework earlier, she would rush to the mirror and play 'dress-up'. There is this strong connection between beauty and femininity which develops at a very young age. In Zaara’s case, she grew up believing that she was beautiful.
As the years passed along, the girls around her became more conscious of the way they looked. The length of the skirts became shorter and the blouses tighter. The hairstyle was suddenly so much important; combs, lip balms and creams were sneaked into the school bag and long queues were made in front of the washroom mirrors during the lunch breaks. Every time she looked into the mirror, a beautiful young lady stared back (at least Zaara thought so). Her mother also told her she was beautiful and she chose to believe it. You don’t really know that you don’t look conventionally beautiful or have the set of physical attributes that determine beauty, unless someone points out in you the lack thereof.
She was told one day by one of her friends that Faraz would never like her back because she’s not pretty enough for him. She learnt that day that sparkling big eyes, chiseled nose, beautifully defined slender lips and high cheek bones are the main parameters of a magnificent face and that she lacked not one, but all of them! She cried to herself all night in a long, long time. She kept wondering about all the possible ways she could make herself worthy of Faraz.
She would apply thick kohl around her eyes to make them appear more prominent and every day when nobody was watching, she would try to squeeze her nose a little with the hope that it would pick a better shape with the continued pressure. Maybe then, Faraz would not mind liking her back, she fondly hoped.
She was in the ninth standard now and the obsession with beauty steeply grew for most of her peers. The queues in front of the washroom mirror became longer and the cosmetics sneaked into school grew in number. There was a certain kind of attention that all her ‘beautiful’ friends started getting which the unusually talented Zaara was used to a few years back. Faraz would be surrounded by all the pretty girls who would flirtatiously talk with him the whole time in the recess and gradually, unnoticeably Zaara was pushed out of the scene. She started ignoring Faraz over the days that followed; she thought it’s better to let go of him herself rather than going through the pain of being shrugged off by him.
She could hear the girls raving about Faraz, about how irresistible he looked with his new ear piercing and the crew cut hair style. It would crush her heart and burn it to a charcoal black every time she would hear them talk about about Faraz. There is strong feeling; a strange mix of envy, admiration, covetousness and hatred that ordinary looking girls feel for gorgeous girls; and Zaara felt it every time, every time for all of them. How the world seemed to just revolve around them and all they had to do was to just pass one of their smiles which were capable of killing with the magnanimity of their beauty to get things done! She would question it sometimes, the unfairness of this treatment, only to realize the futility of her questions. The world was not a fair place; life is unfair and she knew it all along. The only difference was that now the unfairness started hitting her in the face; as long as it was favouring her, she did not mind the unfairness at all. How fair it was after all that she was just born brainier than the rest of them, had an athletic built which made her stand out in sports and a melodious voice which won her so many admirers. Had she ever questioned their admiration for her intellect or her talents? No, she hadn’t, she just felt she deserved it. “I have worked hard to polish that intellect and voice, worked out every day from 5 in the morning to grow my athletic abilities; I did not just magically wake up one day being all smart, athletic and melodious”, she would try and reason out with herself. She could not convince herself entirely though.
She started living indifferently and started hanging out with people whose behaviour and interests did not dramatically change with the onset of puberty. She would look with disdain at those pretty girls, somewhere inside secretly wishing to be one of them. Her own hypocrisy would make her look down upon herself sometimes. She was failing to admire herself like before and she had no idea about dealing with it. She just cut herself off from the Faraz in the hope that the lesser she sees of him, the lesser it might hurt. And, how she failed miserably; every time, every time!
Faraz cornered her one fine day, held her hand and pinned her to the wall in utmost fury contrary to his usual calm and composed demeanour. “Why are you doing this to me, what have I done to deserve your coldness. You shouldn’t have come this close to me, if you just had to leave one day without reason or explanation.” He realized as his breath calmed down that he was holding her hand way too tight. He let go of her and apologized. Never had his fury and grief been a cause of her happiness. This time it was; she felt so elated that she did not even feel the pain of his hand gripping hers so tight. The rage in his eyes never pleased her so much. “I need to know Zaara, I need to know. Tell me what happened”, he exclaimed. “I though you don’t like me anymore Faraz. I am not beautiful like those girls you hang out with. And you’re beautiful Faraz, you are way too handsome. I know I am not good enough for you. You started hanging out with those girls; they were beautiful, all of them and I knew I didn’t stand a chance so I just went away”, Zaara let her emotions out. Faraz looked at her in disbelief. “You’re not good enough for me, did you say? Are you crazy? You’re the most beautiful girl I have ever come across and I could write an entire book about how smitten I am with everything from the way you play with the tiny strand of hair that falls over forehead to the way your smile arrests my breath every time you stretch it all the way to your eyes. Yes, I don’t like you Zaara because I insanely, passionately and deeply love you”, Faraz said out loud in the outburst of love and fury. Both of them stood silent in the heat of the moment, consuming the gravity of the emotions that just overflowed. Breathing hard and with tears rolling down their eyes, there under the school staircase, spellbound, they kissed for the first time.
“What is beauty”, Zaara asked herself many times after that day, and how much ever hard ever she tried, she could never get a definite answer.