Originally published on 15 May 2017.
When I was in fifth standard, I tore Deepak’s shirt. The buttons popped and flew out, and he was left clutching at the flaps of his vellai chattai, gaping a bit to show his vellai banian. The next day his mother asked for me during recess, and gave me a dressing down. We had been playing and I had to catch him, you see, I explained. I don’t think his mother understood.
Not many do.
Perhaps it was because the way I look. Even as a child, I was what you would describe a serious person. As a friend named the likes of us, ‘precociously middle-aged’. On seeing what I chose to wear for the third cousin fifth-removed umbilical cord cutting ceremony, it would move even her to award me the epithet of ‘behenji’. Such was her despair quotient. Plus my mother is most definitely no behenji. But that is another story.
People assume all sorts of things about us behenjis. After another game of kho-kho, when I walked back home clutching my blue skirt because I had ripped it wide, someone thought I had gotten my period and was hiding the stain with my clutched fingers, though she could see my dirt-streaked and sweaty face. She sympathised. I just stared a bit, and then nodded.
Or the time when I was in a school bus in Mumbai. We had just moved there, and I was the new girl. Everyone was playing antakshari. Someone sang, ‘Tere mere milan ki’, from Abhimaan. I sang along, in relief, eager to prove that I could fit in, and knew these songs too. Immediately, a friendly girl said, “Mujhe pata tha, pata tha!” (I knew it! I knew it!) “Er, what?” my face asked. I was still reluctant to stop singing. Who knows what the next song would be.
Newly enlightened about my character she was keen to enlighten me too. “Tumhe yeh type songs acche lagte hai na? Abhimaan, you know, Binaca geet maala type?” I stared again and then nodded. I wanted to tell her I could sing “Chad gaya upar re, atariya pe lotan kabutar re. Gutar gutar,” with a full-on Mithun fervour going. I didn’t.
Or the time when I was in college and this guy called me up on Valentine’s Day. My first phone call from a senior on Valentine’s Day. I said my best hello. He said hello. Then he asked, can I get your friend’s number. He went on. He told me that he was sure I would understand him and his love, since I was a wise old soul. I was not sure how he got my number. I stuck my tongue out at the phone, stared at it a bit, and said I’d get back to him. I never did.
Or the time when I was walking, looking at the line where the footpath dissolved in and out of the road. A man approached me from the other side, who looked like a teller in a government bank — oiled hair, faded cream half-sleeved shirt, and pressed trousers with sandals. His tongue whispered obscenities as he walked past. I stopped for a bit. And then ran behind him shouting and screaming. He walked, at the same pace, as though I was ranting at someone else. I continued to trudge behind him screaming, till he turned and there were a lot of people standing outside a building, presumably his workplace. I continued to scream till he entered those gates, and everyone around kept staring at him as he disappeared inside.
Or the many, many times certain men talk about their place in the world. How they said this irreverent thing to a major industrialist and put them in their place, or how they ran and ran and ran across mountains and deserts, or how they would never drink a coloured drink with tiny umbrellas. They are all serious men. I listen with my patient behenji face on, and imagine giant penises swinging about and me running through this long corridor, this intrepid explorer trying to escape untouched.
People tell us behenjis their stories. Between Andheri and Bandra stations, a woman told me about how she has to get off at different stations and go to the loo because she had a urinary tract problem. Her partner was away in Dubai, and she had to fetch her kids from their school every day. She got down at Bandra for her pee break. I didn’t need to reply the entire time.
In a training programme that went on for three months, one guy joined a month later than the others. On his first day, during the tea break he told me his heart was broken. He had met a girl a few months ago. They both gone around for a while. He had to go away for a conference, and she called him up from her parents’ place and told him that she was pregnant. He bought her a giant teddy bear, and a ring — he wanted to marry her. From the airport he called her up, and said he was in town. She asked why. He said he wanted to meet her, meet her parents, and start the happy forever. She said, she was not too keen, and that there was no pregnancy anymore. He dumped the fur toy in a bin nearby. I kept wondering about a bin near the airport stuffed with a giant teddy bear.
Growing up, I was unhappy being called a ‘behenji’. In between, I tried to streak my hair, get piercings, and refused to wear a dupatta — just to beat that label.
Now, I have accepted it. I see others like me, and we nod at each other. We behenjis do that a lot — stare at the world around, and nod. We nod off. When we get bored, we have fun. After all, Savita Bhabhi is one of us too.
Sruthi Krishnan is a writer and researcher at Fields of View.