Sunday, November 12, 2006


I wore a veil once. Semanti and I fancied ourselves glamorous Egyptian beauties and tied little chiffony bits of fabric round our noses and posed for a photograph outside the Girls’ School at Lawrence, also known for various reasons as Red Fort. We were fourteen. We perched our knees stylishly on the garden bench and smiled bashfully into the camera. Semanti was gorgeous – she still is. My knees were stout and lumpy – they still are.
In those days, the bulky knees were a source of deep misery. You have to be fourteen and pasty looking, which I don’t suppose you are, to understand how acute this was.
In later years, I tried to convince myself that the fat had been, all along, just another kind of veil. Like any veil, it included elements of both protection and oppression, each encroaching on the other in a subtle dance – changing position, intertwining, first one sidling ahead and then the other.
The oppression, I told myself, (quoting from the feminist literature and pop psychology fashionable at the time) came from society – horrid, unsophisticated society – where thin was an officiously-defined aspiration. And the protection was created for a sad inner core which couldn’t bear to reveal itself and therefore sheltered under layers of fat.
Finally one day I faced myself with the sad truth that I was fat because I overate and if I stopped overeating, I would eventually stop being fat. Moreover, it was ok to be fat, you could still be loved and comfortable (and healthy) and all those other things that we wend this mortal plain striving to achieve, and if eating was such a great pleasure, then – well – what the hell.
Meanwhile, I had acquired the habit of scrutiny, of keeping a careful watch on precisely which factors of existence served as veils, and which ones were real.
Make-up, of course, was an obvious veil – but then so was beauty. One who projected beauty had the freedom to develop, underneath, in any way they wished – but were equally prisoners of the fact that not many would make the effort to uncover that reality.
Wealth, social position, and material achievement were, of course, veils. They protected one from hunger, cold, loneliness, crowds, dirt and other distasteful possibilities. But they subjugated one with insidious suggestions of conformity to norms laid down by others.
Conformity itself was a veil, suppressing your wants, your identity, your uniqueness, just so that you could feel you belonged even when you didn’t really belong.
Arrogance, snobbishness, superciliousness – even sophistication – these were veils that hid the trembling uncertainty within.
Friends were a veil to cover loneliness.
Maturity was a veil to cover the inadequacy of upbringing.
Even illness was a veil that cloaked despair.
Emotions were veils, too – they veiled each other like anything, anger covering up for fear, fear suppressing sadness, guilt masking resentment, fear of rejection masquerading as entitlement – and under it all a deep, deep sadness, the sadness of basic unlovability.
Was anything, then, real? Or was it true in the end that we were all so controlled, so dominated by that most delicate of all veils of existence, maya as the ancients named it, that no matter how sincerely we shone a torchlight within ourselves, no matter how rigorously we worked to uncover the One which truly existed, maya was a permanent fixture in the sidelines, engulfing us in subtle ways and duping us with images of individual immortality.
First appeared as ‘Veiled Meanings’ in Sunday Mid-day on 12 Nov 2006