Real zari?” Prema wanted to know, as she felt the border. I was about to tell them the truth.
“Girls for the welcome song, this way please!” That was the headmistress’s booming voice.
I couldn’t tell the whole truth about the blouse. The ceremony started.
I tried to look at the Inspectress. She looked quite happy. Cheerful.
Everything will be all right, I told myself.
The welcome song over, we dispersed into our classrooms. The inspection began. My class was the first target. Not just that. Needlework was the bull’s eye.
All the girls had displayed their needlework on their desks. All the girls except me, that is. I had nothing to display.
I could see two feet beneath the black border of a nine-yard saree. They were approaching my desk. My breath stuck in my throat.
My eyes threatened to fill.
“What’s your name? Stand up!” The words were familiar, but the tone was different, unknown.
“Vasanthi Deshpande,” I blurted out, standing up.
“Needlework?” The question was familiar. Not the voice that asked it.
I don’t have any, I gestured, shaking my head.
“Why not?” The question was again familiar. The voice remained strange.
“No money…” I answered, my voice just above a whisper.
I marvelled at my tears. They had not left my eyes. I was ashamed of myself. If only I could melt away, melt away like ice.
“Can’t afford it, can you? Can’t afford plain cloth for needlework but can afford blouses with zari borders, hanh?” it was the same unfamiliar voice, rude now.
My fear, my sense of shame, everything vanished. I looked straight into her eyes. When I spoke it was my mother’s voice that came now.
“You don’t know what the zari border is hiding,” I said. “It is the purple haze… Some children have lots of purple haze in their lives! Do you know that? How dare you make fun of it!” Abruptly, I stopped.
And walked out of the classroom. I ran all the way home and cried and cried.
The whole afternoon was spent in cleaning the house.
I collected some flowers in the evening. I spread a mat on the ground and sat down weaving the flowers into a veni. I was so deeply engrossed in it that I did not see Aai and the visitor she had with her.
I looked up. Instinctively, I stood up. It was the Inspectress! She was staring hard at the zari border on my blouse. And then she spoke. “So this is the house with the purple haze!” she said slowly.
From The Bell