The flares of Nikita’s gown swished as she cat-walked her way to the spotlight in front of the judges. Her gaze swept across the audience, favouring each member with a dazzling smile. Nikita looked stunning. She knew it. So did the audience, given their rapturous applause. Now if only the judges would agree.
Karan Bhatia said, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for the brave Nikita Aggarwal.”
Brave? Was that how they described her these days? Her cheeks reddened with rage at the simplicity of it. What happened to the grand title the media had bestowed on her earlier — the ‘Harry Potter of the Indian modelling industry’?
“Coming up is the final round of the evening – the Question Round. Our fair maidens will face the task of fielding tough questions posed by the judges. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back after a short break.”
“We’ll meet after a short break,” Ritesh had said, snapping his fingers VJ-style. Her younger brother took off on another road trip with friends. In her mind’s eye, Nikita saw her twenty-year-old self closing the door on Ritesh’s haversack, then moving to her bedroom where she sat facing the mirror, applying blusher on her cheeks with delicate strokes.
“We’re back live at the Andheri Stadium in Mumbai where tonight one of these gorgeous women will be crowned Miss India Universe. A round of applause for these talented beauties, please!”
How beautiful she looked then, her creamy complexion glowing with the MAC foundation her cousin had brought for her from America.
“Contestant number seven, please pick your judge. Ah! She has chosen the heartthrob of the nation. Let’s see what our hero has in store for you!”
She had tweezed the last stray hair off her brow when the doorbell rang. Had Ritesh left something behind and come back to collect it?
“Contestant number twenty-three has chosen Pankaj Dubey.”
She went to the door and peeped through the keyhole. The blurry image of the laundryman (or the Iron Man, as Ritesh called him) glared at her. His hands held up a stack of ironed clothes wrapped in newspaper and tied up with string.
“Contestant number nine — Nikita. Nikita, how are you feeling this evening?”
She opened the door just enough for the man to pass her the clothes. Placing the stack on the sofa, she asked about payment. “Four rupees, madam.” His bloodshot eyes devoured her as he rubbed his stubble with mottled fingers.
“Nikita, how are you feeling this evening?”
The little brown purse where Mummy kept all her small change rested on top of the shelf at the corner. Nikita sauntered over to extract some coins from it, when the door banged behind her. She turned around to see him standing within touching distance.
Nikita’s eyes opened wide. Had her turn arrived already? What was the question? Why was the host staring at her with pleading eyes? She did her best to answer the question she hadn’t heard.
“Yes, of course,” she said.
Before she could even draw in her breath, he threw her onto the sofa and ripped at her purple shirt. Spread-eagled on the couch, crushed under the tall, hefty brute, Nikita’s will to fight nearly drained from her. She steeled her muscles, let out a war cry, and rammed him in the stomach with her legs.
Karan Bhatia turned to his co-host, Carol. She came to his rescue.
“Of course, Nikita must be feeling great. Aren’t you, Nikita?”
He staggered backward. She sprinted to the door, but by then he’d recovered enough to grab her by the hair and punch her in the face. She landed on the centre table, throwing the potpourri-filled tray onto the floor with a crash. Her painted cheeks throbbed as she hit the wood hard on the left side of her face.
“Yes,” she said, “I’m feeling great.”
Carol proffered her the bowl of chits. She picked out a neatly folded one.
He pressed his body hard onto hers. The alcohol in his breath suffocated her. It was do or die now. She sunk her talon-like nails deep into his cheeks. Blood spurted from the punctures in his flesh like a leaking fountain pen. She closed her eyes and scratched at his face once more. He roared in agony.
“Nikita, you’ve chosen Arvind Sathe.”
Arvind Sathe, the people’s saffron-robed politician, asked his question, “What can we do to reduce crime in our country?”
One of her nails had injured his eye. He groped for her blindly. She grabbed the one weapon in the room that would end this nonsense.
“We must fight,” said Nikita, her voice quivering.
She swung Ritesh’s brand new cricket bat hard into his knee. He collapsed.
“We must fight criminals. It is our responsibility to make sure they never get away. We must capture the culprits, and throw them in jail. By all legal means possible, we must ensure that justice prevails.”
One more well-aimed swing, and his right arm broke. She left him bleeding on the drawing room carpet and ran out of the house, screaming for help.
The question round ended, and with it the contest. Nikita exhaled. Her knees felt weak as she walked the ramp along with the other contestants for the final time that evening. This was a mistake, she said to herself. Three years wasn’t long enough for her to overcome the trauma.
A prolonged battle in the courts, but at least a positive result. The judge dispatched her assailant to prison for twelve years, the attempt-to-rape charges one among four other crimes he was found guilty of.
Karan Bhatia declared the judges’ verdict. Nikita’s name stood first in the list. Second runner-up — not bad, she thought. As she paraded the stage wearing the sash, Nikita felt a sense of pride. After all, never before had a Miss India finalist flaunted a snake-like scar running down her left cheek.
Gargi Mehra is a software engineer by profession, but a writer at heart. Despite the best efforts of her family and friends, she writes fiction and humor pieces in a determined effort to unite the two sides of the brain in cerebral harmony. She has been published in Writers’ Notes magazine, Absolute Write and prestigious Indian magazines and newspapers. Samples of her writing are available at http://gargic-ivil.tripod.com/writing.html.