All Kinds of Ugly

I want to start with an image.

It is evening and all of us – my grandmother, my parents and I – are in the middle room in the E-shaped house we lived in then. I was 11, but was told I looked much older.

The grown-ups had just opened a packet made of sellotaped-old newspapers, which had come from the tailor. It contained my new school uniform ‘blouses’ – as the tops we wore under our school tunics were called – that I needed as I was moving to a higher class.

My mother shook out the blouse and held it up. My grandmother asked, “Why does it have to be so shapeless?”

It indeed looked like a big, square box – more like a pillowcase.

“That is what your granddaughter looks like,” came my father’s mocking reply.

I laughed along with everyone else, before I returned to the radio. I was always listening to the radio those days. I heard the announcer’s crisp voice and tried to forget how my father had sounded. His eyes had lit up with a joyous cruelty, fixed on the shapeless, frumpy blouse tailored to my measurements. His voice had rung clear across the room.

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There were other times when my ugliness made my father look at me in pity. Or despair. And there was no way I could get away from my ugliness. There are only a few photos of my childhood. All this, and what everyone at home said, made me learn very early how I looked different in every way.

I was very young when I picked up a certain detachment about myself, as I came to realise that I would never be pretty, thin or fair like many of the other girls – those, whose pictures I saw in magazines, or the children of my parent’s friends, as well as my own classmates.

I got used to this thought fairly early, especially because my sister too was like them. She was pretty, and I was told very often during our childhood that I should never stop comparing myself to her and that I ought to feel ashamed of myself.


What compounded the matter was that I wasn’t ugly in just one way. I mean you could be dark and thin. You could be fair and a little plump. I had seen pictures of girls from up north with their rosy cheeks, long earrings jangling against their faces as they smiled and danced, dressed in flowing kurtas. And if you were clever, gifted or talented in some way, everything was forgiven.

I was none of these things. I was, as I called myself in secret, totally ‘FUDS’: fat, ugly, dark and stupid. I was especially bad at math.

My response to all this was just as it had been when my father had laughed at my shapelessness. I had managed a smile then. Hunched low in the straight-backed wooden chair, my ear against the radio, I smiled, half shy, half defiant. It was easy once it came to me, spontaneously and naturally. I could even laugh, softly, mirthlessly, at the scorn I evoked. I could look on expressionlessly, as I did the time my mother, ashamed and frustrated with me, wished me dead, saying out loud how I ought meet a fate similar to that of an older cousin who had died of cancer.

I shrugged things like this off. Just as I did the time a teacher pulled me up in front of everyone. She said I was dirty, that I smelled, that it was obvious I never bathed. Another time, she called me a liar.

She was also the sports teacher and despite my putting up a good performance, she did not include me in the athletics event scheduled for the school’s sports day. I remember standing before the noticeboard, and becoming very still as I looked for my name to not find it.

It was this kind of hurt – the easy dismissal, the power most people held over me – that was made visible by such quick, sweeping gestures like my name being missing from a school noticeboard, that I would get used to.


I became more defiant over time. And continued doing things that I liked. I listened to overseas radio broadcasts of the BBC and picked up news no one really cared about. I played cricket all by myself. I used an old tennis racket and a ball that I threw repeatedly against a wall, hitting it as it rebounded.

The things I knew then — news about the world and cricket, the latest pop hits — made up all the stuff I could never talk to anyone about. It was all so un-girlish and so unimportant when it came to the goal of ‘passing exams and doing well’.

My brazenness and ability to laugh at all the mockery and insults that came my way made my classmates laugh. And it was easy to play the joker. I tried to look as untidy, as slovenly as I could, to make people laugh. For instance, I cut myself an untidy fringe one time, and smeared ink on my face another time. I was cheeky on occasion with the teachers. I gave funny answers, sometimes deliberately wrong. This would get me into trouble, but my perceived indifference amused my classmates.

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The little attention I got went to my head. It made me forget everything, and become altogether defiant of my ugliness and other people’s — especially at home — reaction to it. I was always looking for the next moment to be funny and was thinking up funny answers to amuse everyone. I think later that had I not been so very ungainly in every way, my insouciance and insubordination would have been dismissed more easily — as it happened with a classmate who later left for Australia.

There was the time a teacher in Class 7 asked us about our ambitions. Every girl — it was an all-girls’ school — took turns to answer, standing up in their places as they did.



I remember how overwhelmingly everyone seemed to opt for ‘doctor’. There was one lone voice that said, ‘IAS.’

I sat almost at the end, in fifth row away. I could hardly wait my turn. When the girl next to me sat down, I sprang up and said in a loud, clear voice, ‘I would like to be a cricketer’s wife.’

Of course, everyone was shocked and amused. I had mentioned the unthinkable and talked of two things in the same breath: marriage and cricket. I’d learn soon enough that marriage was a taboo subject. It made my classmates giggle secretly, sometimes blush, just as they turned away embarrassed when romantic scenes took place in the middle of a Bollywood film. They also followed cricket just as I did. Being the biggest sport in the country, this was inevitable, but their interest, their following of sports personalities – like the handsome Imran Khan, or the dashing Kapil Dev – was all very discreet.


Years later, my classmates still remember that response. Only one became a doctor, and the few that did graduate from engineering courses moved onto other careers. Most became teachers. All became homemakers. Things had changed from our mothers’ time, and yet not so much.

I changed in other ways too, and quickly. One evening, I was punished brutally for my brazenness, for not being a good girl, for being everything that made my parents so ashamed of me: rude, brazen, ugly and fat. I was pulled by the hair — unkempt and untidy as it just below my shoulders — and my father proceeded to rain blows on my back and slapped me repeatedly. My skin tingled and my face burnt. My hair and head hurt, as if I had been scalped.

The reason: I’d insisted that my brother had stolen some of my books and I wanted them back. That hiding must have lasted several minutes, but the look on my father’s face became forever imprinted in my mind.

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The brazenness, I think, went out of me that every evening. I became quieter. But much like before, I learnt to hide everything. I never laughed openly again, and I became careful to not draw attention.

Years later, I often see my old friends and classmates on Facebook. Sometimes they share old pictures, the smoky black and white ones of childhood, or even fading coloured ones. I dare not share the ones I have; of a far uglier me.

I dare not tell them how I soon came to hate being fat; that for a while, I was anorexic and even bulimic. I read their comments now about their happy and carefree adolescence. And I take long walks by myself, thinking over story ideas.

I think about them too, and their ambitions from that long ago day about becoming doctors and engineers, and I wonder how my old friends from school would react to my being a writer. Or would they still remember my strange, funny response about being a ‘cricketer’s wife’ and laugh in shared remembrance?

Adity Kay has published three works of historical fiction with Hachette India: Emperor Chandragupta, Emperor Vikramaditya and Emperor Harsha.

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty