When she finally shot the ball into the basket for the first time in days, she couldn't help crying out, “Oay! Yes! Yes! Yesssss!” She clapped and twirled. The others on her team who barely ever acknowledged her presence, congratulated her half-heartedly, in a half-surprised, half-snickering way.
At the moment she shot the ball into the basket, a boy at the construction site next to the basketball court was lifting a basket of sand onto his head, and turned to stare at her.
In the moments that followed her first successful shoot, his gaze met hers. She had never noticed this boy before on any of her mornings at the court. It was a cool morning, the last one in October, and Diwali, the one time in a year when Mummy never yelled at her for eating too many sweets, was just around the corner.
The boy was dark and thin. Very dark. Very thin. His sleeveless vest was more holes than vest and his dirty shorts hung very loose around his thin thighs. His thinness repelled her, yet filled her with envy. His stick-like legs were dust-coated and dark, and plunged like daggers into her shame-swelled heart. He was skinny and nimble, and almost weightless, like a butterfly.
She, who was teased as Fatty by the bullies of her school who said they were only joking, longed to have skinny legs like him. Not as dark, but as skinny, because then they would stop yelling Fatty, Fatty.
“Beta, boys don’t want to marry fat girls. Nobody will marry you if you don't lose weight,” Mummy repeated this warning on most days and throughout the long, tedious summer vacations when she often found her visiting the refrigerator several times a day.
Mummy would always catch her at the wrong moment. “What are you looking for inside the fridge again? You just had breakfast. Have some shame, girl!”
The boys in her salsa class were reluctant to partner with her. “Nobody wants to be my partner. It’s because I'm fat,” she snapped at the instructor when he asked her why she didn’t have a partner, and finally he took matters into his own hand. ‘I will decide who'll partner with whom in class,’ he said. She shrugged and concentrated on her steps, pretending to ignore both the instructor and the boy the instructor foisted on her. The boy didn’t seem to acknowledge her presence either.
Mummy's words poured like lava into her. Louder. Louder, “Boys don’t want to marry fat girls. Boys don’t want to marry…” Or dance with them.
After the game was over, she walked over to the sand piles. Next to the boy an old man was shoveling sand into jhawwas. A radio atop the sand pile was playing bhajans. The skinny boy had just returned and was waiting for the old man to refill his jhawwa.
“Why are you working so early in the morning?” she asked out of curiosity.
“We have to carry 100 jhawwas before 8. The thekedar's orders,” the old man replied without lifting his head. “We start early so we can eat. Then we start again after breakfast and go until 5.”
“Don't waste time talking! We have so much to do,” the boy with stick-like, chocolaty legs reprimanded the old man.
The older man snapped. “Who's wasting time? She’s asking questions. I’m talking but have I stopped working?”
The skinny one grew impatient. “Why does she have to bother with us?' he muttered. “I know what this is all about. It's just because the story needs to go on. It's her fault for interrupting us,” he remarked disdainfully, lifting and placing the filled basket on his head.
“Whose fault?” the old man asked.
“Oh, the writer.”
“I wouldn't worry about her.”
She tried to follow their conversation but she couldn't understand who or what the old man and the boy were talking about. All she wanted was to ask if she could try just once, try carrying one of those jhawwas filled with sand, just like the boy was doing, to see if she could walk with a heavy load on her head, but she felt too afraid she’d be rebuked by the boy.
Then as the skinny boy was returning with his empty basket, she grew bolder. She had time to study his feet in his worn-thin rubber slippers and his narrow chest and the many holes in his vest came in closer view. He wasn't somebody she needed to be afraid of. He was poor, and wasn’t even much taller than her and may be not much older. And though he was bad-mannered, his rudeness was not something she had to take seriously. His legs entranced her. She sensed the longing for legs like his. There was music in the way he swung his legs as he carried the basket of sand, and she liked that very much.
As he started to walk with musical strides towards the building under construction with another load of sand, she caught up with him. The bulge in his skinny calves, his thinness, his neediness, all of it emboldened her. “Listen, can we talk?”
“I have work. We have to carry 100 jhawwas before 8. I don’t have time to talk.”
“I know. This won't take long. Can we exchange legs? You take mine and I'll take yours.”
“What? Why? Of course not!”
“Why not? Won’t take long. All we need to do is exchange legs.”
“Why should I? I don't know what it would be like to have your legs.”
“I think you would like my legs. Look! Feel them! See how soft they are. You could turn them into muscle in no time because you walk so much every day. You need to give your thin legs a rest. They look tired and won’t last you very long.” She decided not to elaborate on the benefits she would gain from getting his legs.
The boy looked suspiciously at her. “Why do you want mine? What if I don't like yours?”
“Try them out for a week. If you don't like them, I'll take them back.”
“You're not trying to trick me, are you?”
“Do I look like the kind of person who would try to trick you?” she said with an innocent-sly look.
“Why do you want my legs?”
“I want to help you.”
“Will you bring me back my legs if I don't like yours?”
“Trust me. I promise.”
She couldn't believe how easy it was to convince him and make him give her the legs she longed for. Why hadn’t she thought of doing this before? Under the large and leafy peepal tree they sat and exchanged legs. The sun had climbed higher by then and the sky was losing its early morning orange glow and it was time to head back to the main building just in time for the breakfast bell. She snapped on his legs at the hips and gladly parted with her own. She pranced back to school. Running with her borrowed legs was such a delight, it was sad she had to keep them hidden under her shalwar.
Back home that afternoon, she buried herself in her room with her tattered old childhood blankie, ecstatic with her newly acquired legs. She was in such a state of dreamy disbelief that even after several hours, she still had to touch and stroke them repeatedly to believe they were hers. Their brownness was several shades darker than her own much lighter skin. She sat on the toilet seat and soaped her new legs lovingly and shaved the tough, black hairs. She would start applying Fair & Lovely on them to lighten them. She pulled on her cream-colored tights to conceal the brownness. Afterwards, in front of the mirror in her room, she practiced her salsa steps, lifting her skirt above her knees to show off her thin new legs, while balancing a bowl of warm, syrupy gulab jamuns in the other.
There was no question of returning the legs now though she vaguely remembered she had promised the boy she would return them if he didn't like hers. But she liked his so much. That’s what mattered anyway. He wouldn’t dare force her to return his legs. She could always complain to the school guard that the boy was trying to harass her and that would be the end of his job on the school premises.
Now if only she could find ways to rid herself of her other body parts that filled her with so much shame and hatred.
Nighat M. Gandhi is a mental health counsellor and writer based in India. She is the author of Ghalib at Dusk and Other Stories (Tranquebar Press, 2009)