As a small kid, I yearned for an elder sister. I did have cousins who were in their late teens. But they lived in the village and we could afford to visit them only once a year- during the summer vacation. Summers in rural Odisha during the early ’90s when inverters were yet to become a thing was particularly difficult. But even the Sun God could not discourage this 7-year old stubborn city girl from exploring the treasures that a village holds. From hiding behind the haystack to sleeping under the mango tree, from arranging a wedding ceremony for our pet hen to teasing the cousins and prophesying that they would get married to dogs, summers in the village were fun.

My favorite time of the day was the afternoon when I took my bath and ran off to meet my cousins. To be honest, it was the scariest part of the day as well. There wasn’t any proper bathroom with taps and showers installed. Instead, it was just 3 walls and a door with no roof and my grandfather had unwittingly planted a coconut tree just beside the so-called bathroom. The entire time my mother used to bathe me, I would just watch the sky and pray to God not to make a coconut fall.

My cousins loved decorating me like a canvas. All the make-up hacks and beauty procedures they had learned on TV and magazines was experimented on me. They would giggle among themselves and tell me very seriously, how pretty I looked. They taught me how to inspect my face in the mirror before I got out. Look straight, turn your face left and right, up and down. Smile and frown- if you like it, you have done it right. After coming back from vacation, I always tried to recreate that magic. I would spend hours before the mirror but I could never like my face. My mother was so worried about my obsession with make-up that she gave up her kohl and lipstick. She told me- “You are a child, you are beautiful without make-up.” Did I agree with her? I don’t remember.

About eight years after the incident, I was again standing in front of a full-sized mirror. Wrapped in a beautiful Sambalpuri saree, decked with silver ornaments, wearing make-up. When I saw myself in the mirror, I could not believe. I looked so beautiful. Eyes carefully lined using black kajal shaped like lotus petals, foundation and face powder made me look fairer by 2 shades, my lips looked red like wine and there was a nice red bindi on my forehead with white dots around it, making it more prominent. When my parents saw me, they were so proud that they cried a little bit. Yes, it was my first stage performance as a trained Odissi Dancer.

I have been told many times- a woman doesn’t apply make-up to attract men, she does it to look beautiful and her beauty gives her confidence. Perhaps, it was the same confidence that gave me the courage to fight my nervousness. I was waiting for my performance in the green room, still looking in the mirror. I was the star of the day. All eyes were on me while I walked from my class to the backstage. People were trying to get a glimpse of the girl who was dressed as a dancer. But I could not think about dance. All I could think about was my costume. While I struggled to focus, my teacher came to me to share a piece of wisdom.

“Your look is incomplete.”

“Did I miss some ornament? Do I need a touch-up?”

“No, I mean your smile. Where is your beautiful smile? This make-up and costume make you look pleasant to look at but it’s your smile and expressions that would make the audience love you.”

Smile! I never thought that it’s that important but that night, I watched my seniors performing and I understood what my teacher taught me. The best performers were the ones who had the most honest smiles. A smile does make things easy. When you meet a person, his/her clothes might intimidate you but when that person smiles at you, you just drop all your inhibitions. When you smile, you allow people to know you beyond your appearance. Even if no one else smiles at you, smiling at yourself while looking in the mirror is so therapeutic!

So, smile my friend because a smile is a curve that sets everything straight.

About the painting: I painted this one when I was at my lowest. I was on anti-depressants and their side effects made me numb. I was unable to see any good around me. I could not even smile at myself in the mirror. It was then I painted these imagining hundreds of smiling faces.

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