originally written in Tamil by B. Jeyamohan and translated into English by Jegadeesh Kumar
Lily spoke about it while changing into her light blue silk nightgown. He had not paid attention to what she said initially. He was looking through the last of the day’s emails on his laptop.
“I’ve decided to have the surgery in Singapore. That would be convenient for all.” she said.
The word surgery hit him only after a moment. “Surgery! What surgery?”
“Did you not hear what I said? You never pay attention! Just paying lip service. Sick”
Sick was a word she used often. Sam closed the laptop. “Tell me. Who’s having surgery?”
“My mother! We drag her out of heaven and do it… Okay?”
“I’m sorry. It was an important email… sorry again. Tell me now. I’m listening.”
“I’m thinking about having cosmetic surgery.”
“Didn’t you have one two years ago?”
“That was for my nose. And it was a perfect fit. There was absolutely no resistance. I’m going to the same doctor this time too. But he is in Singapore now,” she said, stepping into the bathroom. He looked at the black and white painting of Marilynn Monroe pointing a finger gun that stuck on the bathroom door.
Lily’s nose used to be prominent and too wide for her face. It gave her a childlike appearance. It was the nose of Lalitha whom he had gone to meet at Rockfort, Tiruchirapalli for the marriage proposal. He used to be Saminathan back then. It was her nose he had fallen for. He used to pinch her nose and fondly call her mookkamma. She felt embarrassed at his behavior and would always whine about it. “Stop doing that! That too in public! And don’t call me mookkamma! It may end up being my nickname then. I don’t like it.”
He did not believe her when she first said she was going to alter her nose into a European one. He laughed and made fun of her. Then he realized she was serious about it and had made her decision. He could not believe it and he felt his insides roiling. He considered it an insult.
“You’ve already made your decision! You’re just letting me know, right?”
“Why can’t I decide for myself? This is my body, you know?”
“Yes. But I’m your husband. Don’t I have any right to your body?”
“Nonsense! Who are you to have rights on another’s body?”
He could not answer her. He had never thought along these lines.
“Alright. Is my sexual taste being considered? I’m just trying to find some logic here.”
“Absolutely not! Should I change myself for the sake of your sexual tastes? If you ask me out of the blue to chop my nose off, should I do that? Your taste will keep changing. Does that mean I have to keep changing the way I look to match your tastes?”
“This is just a futile argument,” he said.
“It’s you who makes a futile argument. You don’t even understand the basics. Look, my body keeps changing. My face keeps changing. Your taste too must change accordingly. Otherwise, a relationship is not possible. What if I got into an accident and the shape of my nose got changed, what would you do? Divorce me?”
“That’s different …”
“You’ll adjust accordingly, right? It’s the same here. You have to adjust. Actually, what speaks through you is just male ego. Male arrogance rather. Once you get over it it’s all about getting used to my new look.
“Do we need this now?” he asked softly. He could never talk to her once she was provoked.
“I’m on the Board now. Have to attend a lot of meetings. They are all Mumbaivalas. Parsis, Marwaris, and White women. Last month Malini Daruwalla said she liked my nose. “Typical Dravidian nose!” she said. And Aruna Kaithan was nearby, goes, ‘So, nobody can give her a nosecut!’ Sick!”
She came back from surgery with a sharply chiseled nose. The nostrils looked like two perpendicular lines. Her whole face looked smaller.
“That childlike look is gone,” he said.
“And that’s why I got it done,” she said.
“Your college, your hometown Trichy, it was all there in that look.”
“Fuck off!” she said.
Just as she said, he got used to her face in a month. The old face disappeared from his memory. But Sam noticed something else. She had transformed into an entirely new woman in his mind. He could not imagine that she and the person before the surgery were the same. Like with the simple act of surgery, she had been carved out of the ‘old her.’
The difference seemed particularly stark during sex. It felt awkward – as if he was making love to a stranger. Then he got used to it, like getting to know an entirely new woman.
He tried to touch her nose once. She stopped him. “No…” she said.
He was taken aback and pulled his hand away.
“It’s too delicate. I need to be careful even when I’m taking a shower,” she said, and added, “Sorry.”
He never tried to touch her nose after that. One part of her body that he would never touch. He smiled thinking about it. That one part which always came to the forefront; laughed at him, got mad at him, and became her face, her whole identity.
She stepped out of the bathroom and patted her face dry with a soft white towel. She removed her contact lenses and dropped them into a tumbler. When she turned around, she seemed softer. When she slipped on the slightly blue-tinged contact lenses, it was as if another woman took possession of her body. Somebody who was one of the directors of an insurance company.
He asked, “So what is this cosmetic surgery for?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” she asked. Combing her hair, she said, “We can get it done in Singapore in just a week. Pooja holidays are coming up. And we’ll have four days off. We can extend it to three more days. Plus after three days, I can attend calls, check emails…”
“You still haven’t told me what surgery it is.”
“I did. You just didn’t pay attention. Chest development.”
“I don’t get it,” he said. He truly did not get it.
“Look! I’m forty now… for women at 40 the breast shrinks, sags. I did a laparoscopy after Raj was born. So that was a problem. But Deepa Kanna said this is quite common these days. She got the same surgery done four years back.”
He did not know what to say. He just sat looking at her.
“It’s called breast augmentation surgery. Otherwise called BAS. Half the ladies in high society have already had this done.” She added, “I don’t have sugar, blood pressure, or a heart problem. Also, I wasn’t allergic to cosmetic surgery on the previous occasion. So I should be fine with this one.”
He had to clear his throat to regain his voice. “Lily, why do you need this now? There are ways…”
“What do you mean? Pads? You can make it out. They are too stiff. Plus I’d be able to wear only closed tops. It’s not a fashion at casual parties these days. These days, three-fourths of my business deals are struck at casual parties.”
“Which means you want to show some cleavage… you want them spilling over.”
The irritation in his voice triggered her. “Yes. That is the fashion. That is the style required for a CEO.”
Sam shook his head.
“Why do you shake your head? You don’t like it?”
“What if I don’t like it? Would you even consider what I think?”
“I will if you suggest something sensible. But you are stuck in nineteenth-century grandma stories. Had I believed in them I would’ve been wasting my days now as an insurance manager.”
Sam heaved a sigh and picked up his laptop.
She raised her voice in indignation. “Look, This I-don’t-care attitude is what irritates me! It’s okay for you to have a paunch and saggy jowls for your broker business. Nobody cares for your looks. But I’m a CEO. I pay my physical trainer thirty thousand a month to keep my body fit. And fifteen thousand to my dietician…”
“And a beautician too.”
“Yes. A beautician. Because how I look matters. I need to look modern, confident and strong. If I look dumpy, I’d just be passed over as an old woman. This is a different world. A wild, competitive world where the real talent lies in hunting and killing each other.”
“I know,” he said.
“No. You don’t!” she yelled breathlessly and stood up. “You’ll never get over the thought that women are inferior. It bothers you when a woman goes up to become powerful, even if she is your own wife. Sick!”
“You see! What did I say now?”
“You said nothing. You are just cool…you just make fun of me. Remember what a big fuss you made when I had the nose surgery!”
“I was in a different state of mind then.”
“You still are in the same state. You still don’t believe that a woman can succeed by sheer merit.”
He was annoyed. “You do what you want to do. The moment someone criticizes you, you take offense at women’s rights. What kind of talent are you going to present by stuffing silicon jelly into your breasts? Are you going to perform at a cabaret?”
Her face darkened. The loathing in her eyes filled him with revulsion and he felt like he was being scratched by a sharp knife.
“So, you spewed your poison. You can only talk this way. You do not know any other way. You…”
“Male chauvinist pig! Right? What else would you say?”
“Yes. That’s it. That’s what you are!”
“Thank you,” he said, picking up his laptop again.
She grabbed the laptop from him and flung it away. “Now, tell me. What did you mean? What did you mean just now?”
“What did I say?”
“Something about a cabaret…”
“Yes. Only girls from strip clubs do breast surgery.”
“Aren’t you ashamed? Sit around a woman, make her strip and ogle her. And you have a name for it… Sick!” she said.
“Why do you want to go for that surgery? To get men to look at you, right?”
“That’s your fundamental thinking. You were just fudging around to come to this. If I have the surgery, other men would look at me. And you don’t want that. It’s pure jealousy…nothing else.”
“If you say so.”
“I am not doing this surgery for any man. To me, all men are just ‘hanging balls’ in this game.”
“That’s a good line,” he smiled at her.
“That men are just ‘hanging balls’ to you. Even in winter?”
“Shit,” she said. “Nasty joke.”
“OK. So if it’s not to get men to notice you, then why this surgery?”
“I’m a woman. My body has an ideal shape. I need that. That is the best expression of my body. Like my speech, my smile, my look, and my body are also one of my expressions. I’ll have to change to that ideal. That’s why…”
“The very design of the female body is to attract the male.”
“Maybe. If my body attracts someone, is it not the same way with my voice, my speech? Won’t my education, my culture attract? Why is only this different?”
“We can keep on arguing. But you know the reason very well.”
“You men have an image for women in your minds. You just keep promoting that. Can a man not find a woman’s intelligence sexually attractive? Does she always have to be dumb? What’s the difference between you and the people who argue that women need to be wrapped in black cloth?”
“Why the plural?”
“You are all one… the same voice.”
“You just want to argue.”
“No. There is only one basic question. Can’t a woman express herself or should she simply hideaway? If she can, she must express herself in all possible ways. She must express all her talents. If she has a need to appear strong, beautiful, and young, she must do it. You succeed only when you express yourself. You will only be a slave if you choose to hide…”
Sam heaved another sigh.
“Do you have anything to say?”
“You’ve brought in the polarization easily. The question is whether to choose this or that. You’ve already assigned me aside. You expect me to take that side and argue in favor of it… But I’m not playing this game.”
“Say something and when questioned, just back off!” she pursed her lips.
“Okay. Let me ask you a direct question. Aren’t you just trying to enhance your sex appeal? Is it a skill that your career demands?”
“No. This is to enhance my personality. There’s certainly an element of sex appeal in all personalities. That’s human nature. And men are no different. Why do you do hair transplants? Why do you get your teeth fixed? This is just like that. And not to turn on the men in my business. No man in my circle is aroused by appearances. If they need women, they can have international models.”
“Imagine I’m presenting a project idea. The very first thought everyone has would be whether I have the health and years in me to handle and complete the project in eight or ten years. When I present an idea, they wonder if I share the same wavelength as today’s youngsters. Whether I have the ability to bring together and lead a few thousand youngsters to complete a project is also a pertinent question. For that purpose, I need to be vibrant, healthy, and young.”
“Is it your true self or are you pretending?”
“You’re saying I pretend? That’s a nineteenth-century idea. I present myself. I express myself. That’s not a disguise! I might have fears, doubts, or confusion. But I needn’t show them. I’ll project myself as a brave, clear-headed person. That expression of myself is who I am. Nobody knows who I am in reality beyond that expression. That’s never important.”
“Isn’t it important who you truly are inside? Would a building be strong if you place wooden sticks instead of iron rods inside it?”
“This is not a building. This is my mind. I’ll slowly transform into how I express myself as a person. I will be brave if I portray myself as a brave woman. The real I is the reflection I see every morning in the mirror. That’s when I create myself. I take my created personality out into the world. That’s all.”
“I think we need to stop this now,” said Sam and went into the bathroom.
When he returned, she was in bed with the sheets pulled up to her chest and checking her mail on her cellphone.
When he got into bed beside her, she showed him an album, “The doctor gave me these models.”
“What model?” he asked. It was not an album. It was a huge tome.
“Look, boobs are not just two bulbs of flesh. There is a lot more to them. They can be classified into Asian, Indian, Arab, African, and European. By region…by race… they are different and each body type has a distinctly shaped breast.”
“Did a computer design all that?” he asked. He wanted to end that conversation, have a glass of wine, and go to sleep.
“No, no. We cannot mechanically make a decision based on computer designs. There are actually three phenomena in this process. The first one is biological. There’s a specific breast for each body structure. This is purely an anatomical view. They take into account the structure of the skeleton. Especially the shoulder blades and the ribs. With that information, they design the breast in a computer that’s ideal for a specific body.”
“Then what?” he sat up to sit cross-legged.
“There’s no big issue if boobs were just organs. In fact, even cosmetic surgery would not be required,” said Lily. “But there’s a cultural element involved in it. It’s the visual appeal. What appeals to us? Why does it appeal to us? The taste differs from Africa to Europe to Asia. In Africa, sculptures of women are carved with sagging breasts that hang low to their stomachs. Look at the European Venus. No boobs at all! They are quite small with just two dots for nipples. But the boobs of the ancient Indian sculptures are huge. With barely any space between them… Look, he has provided all sculpture models. He shows the paintings and sculptures of Greece, Rome, China, and India…This is Khajuraho. Look at the boobs of these apsaras! so large!”
“Yeah, I remember our trip there,” he uttered with barely any interest. .
“My body has Indian anatomy. Especially Dravidian. Based on my bone structure I have to choose only a Dravidian anatomy from the given choices. Within that, I have a lot of options. On top of that, there is also the cultural blend of my choice. But I don’t like the Dravidian shape.”
“Why didn’t I like the Dravidian nose? That’s why. We must imitate what’s successful right now.”
“It’s always been like that. To copy the winner… the guy on top is what fashion and trend are all about. South Indians aspire to look like North Indians. North Indians try to look like the Whites. When I was a little girl, it was trendy to have curly, wavy hair. We curled out our hair using curling irons. Right now China is a successful nation. That’s why American girls straighten their curly hair, and color it to make it look Chinese. What’s trendy in hairstyles right now is all Chinese.”
“So you are going for the Chinese model, huh?”
“No. The Chinese model is too small. Won’t fit shoulders of my size. They shouldn’t be too large either. I need a blend in between. I’ve been thinking about it for four or five days now. I’ve chosen four designs.”
“So you’re decided,” he said, yawning.
“But I’m confused. If I choose one, they’ll create a virtual model based on my choice. In fact, for a payment, they will send me a 3D model in plaster of Paris. We can then finalize.”
“How do they do the surgery?”
“There are two methods. Stuffing a sterilized saltwater bag inside. This is called the
Saline method. This method is preferred for small enlargements. Silicon jelly is commonly preferred. They will cut open a small slit, either under the breast or laterally, and inject the jelly.”
“Will it last forever?”
“I think it’ll last for seven or eight years. Then we’ll have to replace the filling.”
“Not much. But I need to be careful. Not too much pressure. Must be handled gently.”
“I can’t touch them?”
“No man can touch them. I told you. There’s no sexual purpose behind this.”
“Just a display?” he said.
“No, presentation. Haven’t I told you that already?”
He said, “Nice.”
She kept the album away and said, “Sam!”
“Do you really feel disgusted?”
“You are lying. You don’t look okay. Look! this is a new life. Even the next generation of middle-class women will do this. We’re from the upper class. We’re ahead of the curve.”
“I need this for my career. My picture appears in all company brochures now. An interview is published every month. I’ve to present myself. The current time demands just one thing. How are you going to present yourself? You can present yourself as an active, energetic, youthful person. Or a calculative, patient, and silent person…or an arrogant, aimless, crazy one. You can present yourself in whichever way possible.”
She wanted to gather all her thoughts coherently. The points that did not fall in initially when she argued, now gathered themselves together quite effortlessly.
“What’s social media for? It’s just to present ourselves. Does it not ask each of us to present ourselves in uniquely different ways? Two hundred million people do the same in India nowadays. Everybody is fictionalizing their own self in social media; he posts his pictures, posing on mountain tops, temple fronts, with family, laughing with his dog; some talk politics like revolutionaries; some pretend to be intellectuals. One shows himself as carefree, jovial, and rich. Some even show themselves as scoundrels and rogues. It’s not all lies. What he presents is only himself. Beyond that, he doesn’t have any real self. It’s a myth to say that there’s an unchanging self. We’re what we show ourselves to be.”
He knew she could keep on talking about what she had in mind and make it into a doctrine. He kept shaking his legs out of boredom and continued listening to her.
She said, “We’ve been doing the same for ages. They said clothes make the man. Those days, we sat on the porch and spoke nonstop to project ourselves. What we did in a street or a town is now staged for the whole world on social media…A man’s personality is what he presents himself to be. Beyond that, he is merely a being, a physical body, a biological entity. That’s all.”
“Good,” he said.
Her enthusiasm suddenly dipped. “If you don’t agree with what I say, do argue with me! Don’t just respond in one word!” she said irritably.
“Look! How do you think I should argue? If I disapprove of what you say, you call it male chauvinism, old-fashioned arrogance. But I still have to argue. You have to argue against me and win over me, right?”
“Why do you get irritated? Just think about what I say.”
“I’m not irritated.”
“Then? Don’t you have anything to say?”
“I do. But I don’t know how to put it coherently. I’m not an intellectual like you. I’m just a trader.”
“Say it. I’ll intellectualize it.”
“Alright. Doesn’t a man have any right over a woman’s body?”
“Right? What nonsense!”
“I’m talking about something else. A man’s sexuality is dependent on the woman’s body. A woman’s on the man’s. I have a right to my sexuality, right? If that is so, then I have a right to the woman’s body. I’m sorry, I don’t know how to put this. Okay, I’ll ask you this. Tomorrow, I won’t be able to touch one of your organs, your boobs. Over time, will it become impossible for a man to touch a woman’s body at all?”
Before she could reply, “Hold on! I didn’t put that right. Look, women alter their body parts without bothering about men’s preferences. Of course, men do the same. Then what’d be the nature of the relationship between a man and a woman? Will there be no sex between them at all? There might be technological ways to attain sexual pleasure. The world might be changed forever.”
“Maybe. So what?” she said. She had not expected that angle of argument.
“A man and woman can only converse through their bodies. I mean communication. That communication is deep. It has an evolutionary history of several million years. Will this conversation become extinct? When you claim this is your body it actually means you are closing the doors to that conversation.”
“I’m not talking about stopping that conversation. I’m just saying that that conversation is also one of my choices. I’ll decide which part of my mind talks to others. The rest is my private area. My body is no different. That’s all.”
He shook his head and said, “I think I’ve not made myself clear. I couldn’t. I’ll try another way. If my sexual desire has no reflection on the woman’s body then how would I communicate with her? It’ll be just a closed building.” Before she could respond he said, “Wait. This is applicable to men as well.”
“This is just speculation. There is no practical meaning behind your argument. The conversation you mentioned has been happening for ages. In the same pattern, same style. There’s exploitation in it. There’s slavery in it. I’m saying no to this exploitation, to this slavery. I’m not saying no to the conversation. All I’m saying is, there should be a different kind of conversation.”
“That’s all. I surrender. I don’t have words beyond this,” he said.
“Okay. Goodnight. I’ve to leave early tomorrow.” And she turned around, took out a tablet from a small box by her head, tore open the pack, popped a tablet into her mouth, and gulped it down with water from a glass jar next to her.
He said, “Goodnight.”
She puckered her lips as if to kiss him and said, “Love you.”
He sat looking at her, sleeping like a child, with the blanket wrapped around her. She moaned twice. Her eyelids were moving. Then her breathing settled into a steady rhythm..
He looked at her breasts. They really had shrunk. Over the last few years, her intense exercising and lack of sleep from frequent air travels had made her thin, made her skin dry, gave her dark shadows around her eyes, and were transforming her into a tired old woman. Her breasts would be out of bounds to him in a few days. The untouchables! There was a goddess who went by that name. Abitha Kujalambal. Yes. That is the one.
He walked up to the minibar, fingered the various colored bottles, and picked out his favorite wine. He poured some of the red wine into a glass. He held the glass between his fingers and twirled it around. The sweet bouquet that always filled him with exhilaration arose from the glass.
It was said wine glasses were modeled after the breasts of women. Breasts of young white girls. That was how the wine glasses were shaped in ancient Belgium, in the nation of Belge. Back then it was the land of the Gauls. He had heard that the breasts of the young Gaulish maidens were filled with intoxicating liquor. He remembered it every time he touched a wine glass. He always preferred large glasses.
Wine glass in hand, he walked over to the table and sat. He let his body relax and slowly sipped the wine. He took a gentle whiff, dipped the tip of his tongue in it, breathed in the aroma, and soon was fully engrossed in the process. He forgot his anxiety and relaxed. His tense muscles slowly loosened.
He went and picked up the big album. He shuffled through it slowly. A variety of breasts. Small, large, spherical, and voluptuous. There were sculptures, paintings; Greek, African, Gandhara, Indian, Thai and Bali sculptures. The porcelain breasts of the Chinese. Tiny paintings. Various actresses, porn stars, weirdly large breasts… Sipping his wine, he slowly thumbed through the pages of the album, while the steady buzz of the air conditioner joined with the shuffling noise of paper.
About the Authors:
B. Jeyamohan (b. 1962) is a Tamil writer and literary critic based in Nagercoil, India. One of India’s finest authors writing today, he has traveled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, and his work examines and reinterprets India’s rich literary and classical traditions. His best-known, critically acclaimed novel, Vishnupuram (1997), is an epic fantasy that layers history, myth-making, and philosophy. His works of fiction include the novels Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural (1999), Kaadu (2003), Kottravai (2005), and Vellai Yaanai (2013), and explore diverse themes ranging from ideological anguish following the collapse of Soviet Russia to the symbol of the mother goddess in Tamil cultural history to the great famine of Madras in 1876-78. A prolific writer, his output includes multiple novels, short stories, volumes of literary criticism, writer biographies, introductory texts to Indian and Western literature, books on philosophy, and numerous other translations and collections. He has completed his serialised retelling of the Indian epic Mahabharata called Venmurasu (The White Drum), consisting of twenty-six volumes. This is one of the longest novels in the world and certainly the longest in Tamil. His website can be found here. https://www.jeyamohan.in/
Jegadeesh Kumar is a student of eastern philosophy, Mathematics teacher, writer, and translator, raised in Southern India, now living in South Carolina, USA. He lived on the southernmost island of the Republic of Maldives for ten years, teaching Mathematics to high school children. Until a few years ago, he’d been writing prolifically in Tamil and got published in a few online magazines before he decided to go into hibernation. On his blog, he writes, both in English and Tamil, short stories, poems, and on eastern philosophy. He is currently working on a dystopian novel set in an imaginary Vedic land.