Spoiling Veena

by Keyan Bowes

The snow thuds down like brickbats.

Instead of a soft and beautiful blanket, it lies on the grass in shards of ice. The party is ruined. It had sounded like such a good idea, snow in Delhi. Shalini should have known better than to trust Party Weather Inc. They haven’t been able to deliver. She herds the children into the veranda, out of the way of the pounding white chips.

“Let’s bring in the cake, shall we?” she says, as the clatter of the hail on the cars parked outside distracts the children.

“Oh, can’t we go out in that, Aunty?” It’s a young boy called – Ajay, that’s it, Ajay Zaveri.

“It’s too hard, Ajay. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.” Or your lawyer mother to sue me, she thinks. India is becoming just too much like America since cable and satellite TV. She has releases of liability signed by every custodial parent, and still she worries.

“Maybe after the cake, Aunty, if it stops falling?” asks Preethi.

“Maybe,” she says. The cake is meant to resemble the castle of the Snow Queen, from the Andersen fairy tale, but the confectioner has built the Capitol. Shalini hopes the children won’t know the difference. She also alerts Jayesh that she needs reinforcements; her husband is hiding out in his study upstairs.

“I’ll get on the phone,” he promises. “Hang on. Don’t let it spoil Veena’s day.”

“Cool! The Capitol!” says Rizwan, “Just like Washington.”

“It looks like Rashtrapati Bhawan,” says his twin, Ria, “but white-washed.”

“It’s the Snow Queen’s palace,” says Shalini faintly.

“The Snow Queen can copy the Capitol,” says Preethi, politely coming to her hostess’s defense. “Maybe she got bored with towers and turrets and stuff and wanted a dome. It’s ice, right? It melts. She can have a different palace every year.”

Shalini nods gratefully, then tucks the pallav of her sari out of the way and lights the dozen candles. The children crowd round.

“Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday dear Vik-rum
Happy birthday to you.”

Vikrum? Shalini looks at Veena, angelic in a snow-white taffeta dress that comes below her knee. She seems quite okay with what the children have sung, and blows out the candles in three tries. The single diamond, her parents’ birthday present, glitters at her throat. Sparkling holographic snowflakes in her headdress reflect the myriad tiny lights with which Shalini has decorated the house and garden. Sweet tendrils of dark hair escape to fall down cheeks that are pink with pleasure.

The door-bell rings. Jayesh has pulled it off: Here is the Snow-Queen, a whole hour early, to take over the party from her. The lady makes a magnificent entrance, swirling in through the front door in a scent of roses, greeting the birthday girl with an exquisitely wrapped present, and then magically making brightness fall out of the air onto the other children. There are oohs and aahs. They are the latest thing in cool fireworks from China, perfectly suitable for a crowded room on a gray day.

“Your majesty, can we go out? Before it melts?” asks one of the children. Shalini looked out to see that the “snow” has stopped, and the ground is covered, inches deep, with ice chips.

The Snow-Queen smiles at the eager girl. “First let me try it out. Also I need to check the paper-work. Do you have a warm jacket?”

Relieved, Shalini gives her copies of the releases, and waits while the lady takes a roll-call of the children to ascertain they are all listed. She isn’t sure why organizing children’s parties is so much more difficult than running a laboratory. Perhaps because they mean so much to Veena, perhaps because she herself is a bit shy – a trait she made sure Veena did not inherit.

Certain now that everything is under control, she slips upstairs to tell Jayesh about the failed snow-fall and the strange birthday song. And have a cup of tea. Or maybe a whiskey.

#

The Snow Queen is a pro; she is a school teacher who does this on weekends. She’s invented games, dared what Shalini wouldn’t and sent the children out into the garden in small groups, explained why ice floats, and kept them busy and happy. Eventually they all crowd round the large-screen TV for yet another dubbed-into-Hindi episode about the Celtic hero Cernunnos (now re-named Kanoon, the Hindi word for law) and his great wolfhound. The program’s into its fifth season and seems entirely likely to continue for another five at least. After the party, the Snow Queen has silvery crowns studded with glittering icy jewels for the departing girls; and for the boys, spheres that spurt magic fire when you press them.

Shalini unwinds over another whiskey. Party Weather & Co calls to apologize, arrange a refund and explain that a virus corrupted their programs. Jayesh has built a real fire in the fireplace in the study, giving it a romantic smell of wood-smoke. The ice-storm chilled the surrounding air, so they can get away with it even in though it is not winter. Her mother, known to all as Mummy-ji, looks serene and silver-haired in the comfortable chair in the corner as she chats with her favorite son-in-law. Just look, thinks Shalini, it’s like a story-book.

Shalini gazes at all the pictures of Veena that cover the walls, marveling at how quickly time has passed: There is Veena, a few months old, wearing a fluffy pink dress and a darling wreath of pink roses on her head. There is Veena in an embroidered blue silk lehnga and choli, toddling toward the camera at her uncle’s wedding. There is little Veena in a sari, dressed up for her school’s annual play.

And here is the actual Veena coming up the stairs, twelve years old already, tall and lovely in her wonderful white dress, her long dark hair coming undone from the chignon in which Shalini had put it up. . ..where did the time go? How did we make a beauty like this child? She smooths her own unruly curls, and looks adoringly at her daughter.

Veena’s brought her presents upstairs to show her parents. From the Snow-Queen, a brilliant snow-globe, beautifully made. In the center are two polar bears and a fir tree. When Veena shakes it, it plays a delicate tune. Something Western classical, Shalini thinks. Maybe Schubert? Then there’s a remote-controlled truck, with a small GPS installed. A pin with a built-in cell-phone; Star Trek is enjoying a revival. A battery-powered holographic game that fills their living room with enemy soldiers for Veena to shoot at..huh? Shalini picks the box off the floor. The card attached says, “Happy Birthday, Vik.”

“Vik? Veena, why are your friends calling you Vik?”

“They don’t. Only Ajay, he’s my buddy. The others call me Vikrum.”

“What’s wrong with Veena?”

“It’s a girl’s name.”

“Aren’t you a girl?”

“I am! But why?” she demands. “Who decided?”

“We did,” Shalini says after a pause. She remembers their decision, to choose their baby. She and Jayesh had mulled it over, considered the expense, considered the payoff. They wanted a designer baby. It’s the most important thing we’ll ever do, Jayesh had said. Let’s get this right, and damn the expense. This is an opportunity our parents never had, tweaking DNA.

She remembers the hours and hours they had spent with the specifications. Sitting in front of the screen, calibrating, raising this and lowering that. The massive spreadsheet with all those linkages to be considered. Physical specs, pre- and post-puberty. Talents. Temperament. Which part of it was causing this dissatisfaction, this questioning? Was Veena doomed to go through life never quite happy in her skin? Was it their fault? What had they done wrong? She says nothing of this to Veena. Instead, she says, “We wanted a little girl. We got you. We were thrilled.”

Veena rolls her eyes. “Okay for you, Ma, but what about me?”

“Would you rather be a boy?”

“Duh-uh.”

Shalini looks helplessly at the other two adults.

“I told you not to select the gender,” says her mother, “Something like this was inevitable.”

“Darling,” Jayesh says to Veena, “Wait until you’re eighteen and then you can choose.”

“I want to be a boy now!”

“How long has this been going on?” asks Jayesh.

“Always. For ever.”

“Your friends called you Veena last year,” says her mother, “Or Vee. It wasn’t that long ago you only wanted to wear pink. Remember when you wouldn’t talk to boys?”

“Mo-om! That was years ago! I was a baby! I’m grown up now. I told them to call me Vikrum. They have to get used to my boy-name.”

Shalini and Jayesh look at each other. “Sweetie, we can’t just shift your gender like that,” Shalini says, “It’s very expensive. Universal insurance doesn’t cover it. I don’t know how we could afford it.”

“You know,” says Mummy-ji from the background, “Gender selection never should have been allowed in India. First we had a huge number of boys being born, and hardly any girls. Then girls and hardly any boys. Now, confusion.”

“All the other kids’ parents let them,” says Veena.

“All your friends are changing gender? Ajay’s always been a boy, as far as I know.”

“That’s just Ajay. But what about Preethi? She was a boy before.”

Shalini sits down heavily on the floor. “Why?” she asks Veena. “Women can do anything they want. Even years before you were born, India had a great woman Prime Minister.”

“Oooh!” says Mummy-ji, “How can you admire Indira Gandhi? What about the Emergency?”

“That’s not the point, Mother!” says Shalini. “Besides, she herself lifted the Emergency.”

“I don’t want to be Prime Minister,” says Veena, “Anyway, not now. But boys get all the cool stuff. And they do all the cool stuff.”

“I told the Parliamentary Committee,” says Mummy-ji. “I said it would worsen the gender divide, polarize the genders. Dr Mukherji, they said, thank you for your testimony, and just went ahead anyway.”

“Girls can play with cool stuff, too, and do all the cool stuff,” says Shalini.

“But they don’t.” Veena picks up her toys. “I’m going to my room.” She stalks off.

“I’m sorry, darling,” Shalini calls after her. It’s a wretched end to the birthday.

Jayesh busies himself with putting out the fire. The ice outside has melted away, and the temperature is rising again. He turns on the air-conditioning.

#

Veena is the only girl wearing jeans. In the two years since the snow-queen birthday, she has stopped wearing dresses altogether. But instead of graduating to the tunics and slender pants of the Punjabi suit, or even to saris, she only wears jeans or slacks. Her hair is clipped short, and she’s already running around with a group of boys, all engrossed in a new Alien Splatter holo-video game released in Japan only this week. They are shooting at the escaped alien monsters that run across the park.

Veena races ahead of another child, dodges round a tree, crouches and fires. A huge green creature with horns running from its forehead down its back and sides rears up on ten legs to twice the height of a person, and then falls heavily sideways, spurting fluorescent purple gore. Behind it, an even larger crimson thing with eyes on eye-stalks shifts in and out of invisibility. “Vik! This way!” someone shouts, and Veena runs to the next tree to reinforce the attack.

The girls, dressed in designer Punjabi suits, watch and cheer occasionally as someone scores a particularly good splat. Some of them wear short white lace gloves, the latest fashion. They are waiting for the last guest before they take off to their own games in the clubhouse. The birthday twins have split up: Rizwan is killing monsters, and Ria waits with the girls for the friend delayed by traffic. Her party’s theme is Fashion-show. But what Veena has joined is Rizwan’s party, Alien Monster Safari.

The parents stand around under the trees, signing off on releases that limit the hosts’ liability, and watching their children play. Shalini dreads the questions she knows she’ll get about her daughter, but can think of no polite way just to leave. Sure enough, Ajay’s lawyer mother, Mrs Zaveri, together with Preethi’s father, bear down on her.

“Shalini, why have a girl if all she wants to do is dress and play like a boy?” Mrs Zaveri says. “I just cannot imagine making my child to remain the wrong gender. If I can afford to change it.”

Fine for you, thinks Shalini. Your Ajay’s not agitating to be a girl. “Veena is going through a phase of exploring her gender identity,” she replies stiffly.

“It might warp their personalities,” says Preethi’s father, as though Shalini hasn’t spoken. “Once Preetam wanted to be a girl, I told his mother, ‘Even if we have to spend for it, we must do it.’ Otherwise it is just child abuse.” Preethi, the former Preetam, is with the group of girls in lace gloves.

The crimson monster goes down to the combined fire-power of the attackers in one of its brief moments of visibility, falling over with a roar and a gush of brilliant green blood. Immediately, a massive black alien rolls into the field. It extrudes tentacles, seemingly at random, but as it comes closer to the trees where the boys shelter, they reach for the young hunters. Veena, Ajay, and Rizwan the birthday boy race around to get behind it. It rolled ponderously, but its tentacles are nimble. One darts out for the trio, and hits Ajay on the shoulder. He goes down, and the strike badge on his shirt turns black. “Shit! I’m hit. Ten minute time-out.” He retires to the edge of the field while Veena blasts the creature with her weapon. It shrieks loudly. Rizwan and Veena dance out of range of its tentacles. Another group of boys take advantage of the distraction to score another hit.

“What I don’t understand is why you are thinking gender confusion is good?” says Mrs Zaveri.

Preethi’s father nods in vehement agreement. “Veena should. . .”

“What is all this gender-switching like Broad-barred Gobies?” interrupts Mummy-ji. “It is not human to choose the sex at all. And then change if someone doesn’t like it? Why?”

“Mother!” says Shalini, not appreciating this parental assistance, “We can talk about it another time!”

Fortunately, a car stops near them and disgorges another fashionably dressed youngster. Shalini grabs the opportunity to wish Ria a happy birthday, and leave with Dr. Mukherji before the debate becomes any more heated. “Mummy-ji,” she says as they walk to the car, “You know their little girl started out male.”

“I know that very well,” says Dr. Mukherji. “That does not make it right. Just look at that park. It’s like the 1960s. Demure girls in pretty kameezes. . .”

“Mother, I wish you wouldn’t get into these arguments.”

“What if Veena wants blue eyes? Or augmented quick-twitch muscle fiber? Are you just going to keep doing these changes?”

As they get in the car, they hear a huge cheer of Shabash! Vik! Score! Apparently she’s brought down the last alien.

Shalini had been concerned about spoiling Veena if they gave in on the gender change. But now, she feels she must to talk to Jayesh. Was their decision abusive, as Preethi’s father had implied? Maybe they can break into the money they’ve kept for Veena to go abroad for further studies.

#

Nowadays, Shalini suspects that Jayesh would secretly have preferred a son all along, but had gone along with her desires. She looks out of her window to where Vik stands tall beside his dad, directing the workers who are stringing party lights in the two gulmohar trees by the front gate. A wonderful camaraderie has developed between them over the last two years. They watch cricket together in season, and he’s begun to take an interest in his father’s business.

The expense was worth it. They’ve forgone all the little luxuries, the overseas trips, the new car. Of course they kept up appearances, but only she and Jayesh know how much debt they took on when she took six months’ unpaid leave to help Veena through the transition.

Shalini wishes, momentarily, that they could have afforded two children. It would have been nice to still have a daughter. Girls are closer to their mothers, like she is to Mummy-ji. If they’d also had a son right from the start, would Veena have wanted to be Vik?

She brushes away these thoughts as disloyal. Vik is as handsome as Veena had been pretty. The girls love him. Yes, he seems more substantial, somehow, than Veena. She realizes she’s said it aloud when her mother joins her at the window.

“It’s the same person,” Dr Mukherji says, looking out at her grandson. “Veena, Vik, what’s the difference? He’s a good child now and he was before.” She points to a van entering the driveway. “Look, the people from Flowers & Phool are here. You get ready, no? Some of the guests always come early.”

Shalini nods. Some Westernized people actually will arrive at seven thirty as invited instead of eight or eight-thirty. She goes to change from jeans into a heavy silk peacock-blue sari, her birthday present from Mummy-ji.

She pauses at the mirror. Just for a second she visualizes a male self, Shailen: a distinguished man with short hair graying at the temples. She imagines dominating the weekly research meetings and drawing covert glances from the young women scientists in her lab. Then what would Vik and Jayesh think?

Smiling to herself, she dresses, adjusts the drape of her sari, and goes down to deal with her birthday flowers. When Jayesh asks what is amusing her, she doesn’t tell.

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