As she made her way through the crowded railway station, Maya tried not to notice the stares that surreptitiously followed her every move. She was used to these stares. And over the last 18 years, she had experimented with many different responses to them. Initially, she had wondered why people were staring. After all, they did not stare at her cousin Neha when the two of them played together. It was only after a few years that she began to understand that she was different. And her initial reaction was anger. She began to return each stare with contempt, enjoying the power she felt when the other person averted his or her eyes. But the innate gentleness of her nature did not allow this anger to embed itself in her soul. Over time she began to see the stares for what they were - merely expressions of the curiosity and pity that are humanity's common reactions to those we consider 'less fortunate'. And now, though the stares no longer troubled her as they had done in the past, she still could not ignore them. For each glance thrown over the many shoulders, each reminder of her ‘condition’ was like a thin but long needle that pierced right through to her soul. And though that soul had been armoured by many years of constant abuse, it was still delicate and fragile and she feared it would always remain so. For the boiling water she had spilled on herself in the kitchen that fateful day 18 years before had damaged much more than just her skin. Over time and after many operations, the external wounds had healed leaving in their place the unsightly scars that were the cause of all the stares. But the deep wounds to her spirit that medicine had been unable to cure were still open and bleeding and she despaired of ever escaping from the shackles they placed on her.
As the train pulled into the platform, a quiet sigh escaped her lips. She was not looking forward to the next few weeks. Most of her adult life had been spent escaping her home and the pressures that assailed her whenever she returned. From the time the accident had occurred, she knew he parents felt guilty that a 10-year-old girl had been allowed to play in the kitchen without supervision. And she also knew that every time they looked at her, the guilt resurfaced, colouring all their responses to her. Her childhood had been highly sheltered in their attempt to shield her from the unkind world around her. It had been against their express wishes that she had asserted her independence at 18 and left home to study in a college far away. And since then, she had been able to ration the time she spent with her parents, returning only when it was absolutely necessary and she had no more excuses to give. But few though those visits were, their awkwardness and embarrassment would remain with her for long after and it was thus with trepidation that she boarded the train that would take her all across the country over 3 days to her home.
She found her berth in the AC compartment and was just entering the coupe when she did a double-take. For sitting in the seat adjacent to hers was a young man, the likes of which this world is blessed with only rarely. Tall, handsome, fair, his presence caused her heart to miss a beat and then several more. In her recollection, she could not remember having met so fine a young man. In a moment, feelings she had suppressed for many years, knowing that love and marriage in a position like hers were all but impossible, resurfaced as she gazed upon the fine specimen of humanity who sat there before her. Her reverie may have been much longer, had he not interrupted it to ask her where her berth was. Shaking her head as if to shake off her prior flight of fancy, she entered the coupe and made herself comfortable, hoping that her rapturous appraisal of the young man had not been noticed. In the round of introductions that followed, she found out that the young man and his parents (who spoke no English) were travelling to the same place she was going to. As she stowed away her luggage and made herself comfortable in the coupe, she noticed a strange thing. The young man was interacting with her as if he did not even notice her scars. He was looking at her when he talked and even when she looked back at him, he did not avert his gaze. It was something she was not used to and it puzzled her.
As the train meandered its way through the heart of the country, Maya spent some of the happiest moments she could ever remember. For the first time in her life, she found herself involved in a conversation that had no element of pity or sadness to it. For the first time, there was no mention of the horrible scars or the reason for their existence. For the first time, she found herself opening up to this complete stranger and sharing the wonderful journey her life had taken after she left home. Of her decision to train in social work so that she would be able to offer something, however small, to people for whom life was not always fair. Of the inspiration she received from Sunita Krishnan whose story of overcoming personal pain to help others had changed her life. Of her own faltering steps 3 years ago into the campaign against human trafficking and the amazing things that had happened since then. Of the many young girls she had rescued from terrible conditions of abuse and deprivation who were now on the path to a normal life. Of the many threats and verbal abuses she had received from the influential and wealthy people who ran the trafficking rackets. And of the awards and acclaim that had come to her as she stood up to those threats at great risk to her own life.
As she opened her life to the young man on the train, she found herself wondering why he seemed so interested. Never before had she held a conversation for very long without an uncomfortable silence breaking in. Never before had her accident not even come up after such a long time of conversation. Never before had her life been more important than her scars.
As the third day broke and it was obvious that their time left together was short, Maya began to feel pangs she had never felt before. How would she ever say goodbye to his young man who had stolen her heart in three short days. Was this just a fond memory she would live with forever – three days when she felt normal and her scars were nearly forgotten. Was the deep interest and obvious pleasure the young man was enjoying as he listened to her stories just another experience in the course of his life that he would file away and soon forget. But then, who could blame him. Fine specimen of humanity that he was, both outside and in, how would he ever consider someone as ugly as her more than just a casual acquaintance? It had been a wonderful 3 days, but she knew that it would shortly come to an end.
As the train pulled away from the final station before their destination, the young man suddenly turned towards her. He began to move his hand that was was resting on the seat towards her. Wondering what he was doing, and hardly daring to hope, she put her own hand in its path. As their fingers entwined together, she felt the waves of joy welling up from inside her. And then he spoke. ‘Maya, you are the most beautiful person I have ever met,’ he said. As his words registered, the feeling of confusion that she had been trying to suppress suddenly burst forth. ‘Why do you call me beautiful,’ she asked him as she withdrew her hand from his, ‘when both of us know how truly ugly I am?’ He sat silently for a while before his hand began to search for hers again. ‘Maya,’ he said. ‘For 3 days you have told me the story of your life. For 3 days I have been wondering how any person can give so much of themselves without asking for anything in return. The world may consider supermodels and actresses to be the epitomes of beauty. But for me, it is the inner beauty that is so much more important. And your life is suffused with this beauty which has touched me deeply in the last 3 days together. For yours is the real beauty that will never fade away. And that is so much more important than what we are on the outside which so often is just a façade. I meant what I said. You are truly the most beautiful person I have ever met.’
As she pondered his words, Maya had no idea what to think. He seemed so sincere, but then, was it possible to ever forget the ugly scars that had marked her face and changed her life? His hand found hers again and took it. ‘Maya,’ he said. ‘Look into my eyes. Have you not noticed something?’ Many years of averting her face had not prepared her well to do what he asked, but she complied. As she looked into the depths of the light brown eyes that looked back glassily at her, many things occurred to her all at once. How every movement of his was steady and measured, even slow. How he would always go to the bathroom with his father. How he always knew someone was passing by and would be looking at the door to their coupe well before she had seen or heard them. Her grip on his hand tightened just a little as realisation dawned upon her. ‘Maya,’ he said. ‘I have been given the special gift to see beauty that is more than just skin deep. For I was born blind.’
This story came from a reflection on what real beauty is all about. In terms of real beauty, the Mother Teresas of this world would score over any of the conventional portrayals of beautiful women who fill up the magazines and billboards. The challenge is ours, to see beyond the exterior to the real beauty that lies within. Especially for women like Maya.
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