The window opposite mine opened. A hand poked out tentatively, as the owner felt the temperature outside. Satisfied, a clothesline was strung out, and various items, freshly laundered, were hung out to dry.
That was my first acquaintance with the Woman in Red.
The Woman in Red had moved into our colony a year back. She was immediately given her epithet because she only wore red saris and salwar kameezes; favoured red cosmetics; and all her trunks were clumsily hand painted a bright, lurid red.
All this would have been fine, but for the fact that, one day, a red cat came out of her door.
Hullabaloo erupted immediately. Mrs. So and So threatened to call the police. Mr. Cat Lover screeched that he would dial the direct number Maneka Gandhi had given him (out of gratitude and many years ago, for something that even he had forgotten). The under-10s merely giggled.
Our colony prides itself on being truly Gandhian. A few years back, enough money had been collected to finally come out with a little booklet stating Our Way of Life. This included a vow to lead an austere life, and various sub-headings defined ‘austere’. Needless to say, the enthusiastic core committee was soon the only ones eating watery dal, no sweetmeats, and abstaining from marital sex that had no intention to produce the next generation. However, one thing that was followed was a modified panchayat system.
The Sarpanch sat down with the core committee to discuss this new inhabitant. Such was the interest generated by her that a quarter of the colony had turned up for the session. It must be admitted that half of that quarter came because they had heard free tea and home-made biscuits were being served, but their numbers were successful in elevating the status of this particular meeting.
What was to be done about the Woman in Red? Can’t evict her; we do live in a capitalist world. Can’t boycott her without provision. The panch sat with their chins in their hands. A little boy spoke up.
“Why do we want the Red aunty to go?”
Pertinent question. Why did they have a problem with the ‘Red aunty’?
Smack! That was the mother of the boy. He was soon evicted from the room.
“No, no, the boy has a point. What are we reacting to? Her obsession with red?” asked a young woman of twenty.
Eyebrows were raised.
“She dyed a cat!” hissed the possessor of Maneka Gandhi’s phone number.
The Sarpanch coughed. The meeting was getting out of hand. He had spoken two sentences to the three of the audience.
“That is not the point. We are a decent society, and we cannot afford to have an unmarried lady wearing so much red. It sends the wrong signals.”
“What!” exploded a twenty year old (A boy. The author does her best to equally represent both genders) “How do you know she’s unmarried?? How does it matter??”
“Silence! The rules state that no one may interrupt the Sarpanch.”
“But you were done talking! There was a distinctive pause after ’signals’!”
“Pause, my boy, pause. A pause indicates that there is more to come.”
The audience waited. More didn’t come.
The Sarpanch coughed again. “One of us will have to tell her that she’ll have to mend her ways. This can’t go on.”
Heads nodded all around. If the Sarpanch would have had a hookah, he would have given a satisfied puff to note the support. His eyes roved, and found me.
“You shall do it.”
I looked left, and then right. There was no one around me. I was the one he had addressed that sentence to.
“Because she lives opposite you. And you gave away the secret way of drying clothes.”
Two youthful snickers could be heard.
The ’secret’ way of drying clothes was something the society had longed to patent. One enthusiastic clothes washer had discovered that if you hung the clothesline at a particular angle at four in the afternoon, you could dry a lot of clothes in half the normal time. The panch had felicitated her with a plaque that proudly adorned her mantelpiece.
So it was to be upon me to tell her to change her colour of preference. Fine. I was rather curious to see the inside of her home, anyway.
I rang the bell. I half expected it to sing out ‘RED’. I don’t know why.
The door opened, and the W.I.R peeked out. She had a red face pack on.
“I’m sorry, is there something you wanted? I’m rather busy now.”
I didn’t know where to look. I’d been brought up in a conservative middle-class family that believed that one’s toilet ought to be confined to the toilet.
“Er, I’m sorry to interrupt your, er, um, aah, good self. I had a request to convey from the panch. Perhaps I’d better come back later…”
“No, no, it’s all right. Come in, come in. I though you had come to sell raffle tickets. I never buy raffle tickets…against my principles.”
I was ushered into a red drawing room and offered tea. Rather afraid that the tea would not be its normal colour, I declined.
She sat down opposite me.
Not knowing where to begin, I decided to jump right into the issue.
“Red? Oh it’s just something the astrologer recommended. He said if I surrounded myself with red, in three years time I ought to get married. Otherwise it will take me seven. And I can’t be thirty when I marry!”
“Why not?” I ventured.
“Why, because that means I’ll be a virgin till I’m thirty!”
I blushed. The middle-class upbringing doesn’t allow for casual, nay, any, discussion of sex. I floundered, regretting my decision to come. The pause in the conversation allowed me to note that the Woman in Red, Madhuri, she told me, was dressed in her nightie and nothing much underneath. I asked her if she’d rather I went away and came back when she was dressed and comfortable.
“Oh, no, its fine. I am dressed. Oh, you mean the bra.”
I blushed furiously, but she went on.
” I don’t wear a bra. It’s so constricting. I don’t believe in all that.”
So was she was a feminist, I ventured.
“Of course. The bra is for the un-enlightened.”
If she was a feminist, then why…*cough* was she waiting for marriage to end her virginity.
Madhuri looked slightly shocked.
“But of course I can’t have sex before marriage!”
The conversation was making me highly uncomfortable, so I left. I didn’t know how I was going to make my report to the Sarpanch. Most unfortunately, I met him just as I was about to enter my flat.
“Did you speak to her?”
“Yes, I did.” I blushed yet again.
I saw there was no way out. The quicker I told him, the quicker I would be able to escape.
“She has been asked by an astrologer to…”
“Oh, oh, an astrologer, eh? That’s alright, that’s alright then!” The Sarpanch let out a relieved sigh. “Listen, why don’t we invite her to the next society function? Bittoo! Bittoo!”
Bittoo was the boy who was smacked.
“Bittoo, go over to that new auntie’s house and tell her that the society is holding a special welcome party for her this Saturday. She must come.”
Bittoo scampered off.
And in the park, the twenty year old youth nuzzled the twenty year old girl.