OF BEAUTY

                             By Anjana Basu

The beauty business has finally hit Calcutta. Perhaps it was always there, but it went unnoticed: everyone was busy being conservative and pretending that studies were the "in" thing, two pigtails and a shoulder bag, walking demurely to school. But then Suzy Sen hit the Miss Universe headlines and the demureness was ruffled--after all, even though she was Delhi, she had the Bengali surname and relatives in Southend Park. And what Sushmita Sen failed to accomplish, Bipasha Basu did full force with her Ford Supermodel title in Mumbai. Suddenly beauty contests stopped being anti-cultural. Which brings us to the Miss India prelims--Calcutta's main taste of Mumbai glamour.

The first thing to do, of course, is get hold of a ticket. The word is out that the invitations have been sent and now you have to find out who you know who can organize you one. After all those parties around Christmas and New Year, this promises to be one of those things you shouldn't miss--at least, not if you want to be mistaken for 'somebody'.

It's such a small thing to make a fuss about, a blue card with a graphic white face and sweep of black hair, but it gets you into the third lap of the Miss India finals and that's the closest you're going to get to Miss India unless you happen to have contacts in Mumbai. Miss Beautiful Smile, Miss Personality and Miss Talent is what it says on the back, with cocktails starting at 6 p.m. Well, that's a terribly early cocktail hour, though it is theoretically after sundown, so you start scrabbling through your cupboards for a set of glad rags that aren't so well worn. The men have this notion that the dress is formal, which means doing the jacket and tie thing all over again, but everyone's willing to suffer a little for an evening of starlight and 22-year-old beauties. Especially the ones who went through Miss Beautiful Eyes at the Taj Bengal two years ago.

This time the venue is at a well-known country club instead of a five-star hotel. Chinese lanterns festoon the entrance, which is tucked discreetly down the drive so that curious passersby are not hanging outside the gates to see what's going on. I spent some time waiting for my companions near the club's Golf Shop so that I was able to take in a few unusual sights. Like a huge tourist bus which swept in and disgorged brown sweaters, children and shawl-wrapped wives. I kept peering into the bus, thinking that  surely a few would-be Miss Indias were tucked in the depths and that the whole thing was some kind of elaborate camouflage, but, no. Instead, more brown pullovers congregated at the entrance, until you began to wonder whether a monkey cap would soon appear and the whole proceedings be transformed into a Food Fair or some other kind of melee. 'Very middle class ', muttered a few people near me who were quite ostentatiously sporting their blazers and designer wear.

Anyway, we all trooped down the designated gate wondering whether the description 'glitterati' had been changed for the evening, judging by the monkey-capped crowds. The cocktails were a fight all around the seating area with hostesses frantically diving to look for liquor glasses hidden under their noses. 'No, Madam, no glasses in the seating area, please,' I was told. Others who held their glasses lower were more successful or perhaps they were just ignored. There were snacks with the cocktails, but each bearer was promptly surrounded by fifty pairs of hungry hands, so it was best, taking into account the warning announcements that told you to sit down before the lights were switched off, to just sit down and concentrate on the feast of beauty that lay ahead. The food smells tormented you, but there were Celene Dion and Barbara Streisand soothing you on the muzak.

Twelve judges were announced by an LA Miss India who glimmered dimly on a distant horizon decorated with more Chinese lanterns. Shilpa Shetty had the men murmuring and thinking that their evening was made--never mind if they didn't get to see the Miss Indias. There was also, in view of the fact that the contest was sponsored by Colgate, a dentist on the panel. Then the pictures of the girls bounced on and off the screens--25 of them into three--Swarnima, Pranamika, two Shwetas, poor things, one with a 'v' and one with a 'w', what were they going to do if one of them won--all aged between 18 and 22. 'You mean to tell me she's 18?' muttered the 26-year-old at my side. 'She doesn't look eighteen from any angle.' I told her it was the make-up.

The unstated theme of the evening was, 'Making the Calcuttans feel Important'. Reshma murmured a, 'Kaemon accheyn babumoshai?' ('How are you, gentlemen?') and went on to hint at Tagore's contribution to the Bengali psyche. There was talk of all the important sons of Bengal: Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Leander Paes and Saurav Ganguly. Remo Fernandes, with his Microwave Pappadum band, announced that he had rarely met more sensitive audiences than the Bengalis and so what if Calcutta didn't have the glitz and the granite, she had soul. Raageshwari, of MTV fame, coming on later with Duniya, parroted the Bengali phrases she knew, while her father stole all pullovered hearts with three bars of rabindrasangeet.

In the middle was the bouquet of beauties in purple gowns flashing leg up to the thigh. 'Why on earth are they wriggling so much?' demanded the 26-year-old watching a tightly swathed purple derriere advance and retreat. She was, of course, a she. The men were gaping, in between passing rude remarks. I remembered Miss Beautiful Eyes in Arabian veils two contests ago. She lounged on silken cushions in a desert tent while the judges gazed soulfully into her deep lustrous eyes, all fifteen pairs of them. What did they do to Miss Beautiful Smile? Did the dentist pull out his instruments and tap 32 ivories? However, that was another country.

Miss Talented was, as usual, a strain on the judgement. They danced, they sang, they emoted. Some of them choreographed their own dances and performed in red and silver outfits. 'Shilpa Shetty should be pleased,' someone muttered. In the meantime delicate drizzle descended on the lawns of the Tollgunge Club and before I could ask, 'Is this dew?' a female voice said, 'My god, she danced and it started raining. What'll happen when the next one starts singing?'

The rain started a steady trickle of people for the exit--there was only one exit. Anticipating a stampede, I joined the departure. Cell phones rang as we jostled. 'Yes, yes, answer that phone,' said one of the pullovers. The organizers were undecided as to whether to offer people the blue slips again so that they could get back in if they wanted to, though by the time I reached the exit I was lucky enough to be given one. But it was getting late, too late to have had no dinner, and the car and driver were waiting streaked white with crow droppings in the parking space under the trees.

(Anjana Basu  does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review,The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)