Premalata is a 23- year-old MBA graduate from Telangana. I met her on Day Two of the Dalit Women Speak Out conference in Pune, 20 Dec 2017.
When I first saw her, she was angrily untangling the beads from her dupatta. She had just ended a very upsetting phone conversation. She snapped the phone shut and jammed it inside her bag. On the other end of the phone, I had heard a man who was persistently asking her where she was.
Poooonaaa, pooonaaa. Pooongaa alla pa, thooo. Poooonaaaa, she’d screamed. After she noticed me, she smiled apologetically and began straightening the creases on her orange Anarkali salwar-kameez.
– Appa? I asked, pointing to the phone now recovering in her bag. Father?
– Illa. Mera Maama – Morning se phone karta. No, my uncle. Has been calling since morning.
This girl was my heroine. She’d refused to give the annoying uncle any bhaav, and now she didn’t want to waste her time talking about him.
She saw my open notebook and asked if I was writing about the conference.
Yes, I tell her but I want to write about her. Is that ok?
She giggled and said, “Main itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” But I’m not a big man.
“Main bhi itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” I’m also not a big man.
She smiled and I was distracted by the calm in her eyes. I didn’t know Telugu and she didn’t know English so in our garbled Hindis we continued to talk.
She said she was fighting with her family because they didn’t want her to work. And that she was seeking an NGO’s help to negotiate with her parents.
When she thought she’d said enough she began interviewing me.
– Tum kya karta? What do you do?
– Main English teacher. I teach English.
I thought back to what I knew about Telugu and grudgingly arrived at fair-skinned heroes against shiny backdrops of big temples; and bubbly heroines with flowing hair. But I’m wondering what her version of the language is.
So I asked her the most personal, most important question in my life.
Tum picture dekhta? Do you watch films?
She nodded wildly and her eyes looked like they were swallowing me along with the entire room.
– Tumko heros main kaun pasand? Who is your favourite hero?
– Ram, she blinked.
– Kaunsa Ram? Ram Charan Teja? Which Ram?
Cheeee! Her face tightened up with disgust and my eyes widened with surprise.
– Toh phir kaunsa Ram? Then which Ram?
– Ek hain Ram karke. Ready main bahut acha acting kiya woh. Ram has done super acting in the film Ready.
I felt slaughtered. I was desperate but equally dreading her answer to my next question.
– Mahesh Babu pasand? Do you like Mahesh Babu?
Cheeeee! She squirmed again.
– Kyuu? Sabko pasand hai na Mahesh Babu? Why? Everyone loves Mahesh Babu no?
– Agar sabhi log Mahesh Babu ko pasand karenge, toh Ram ka kya hoga? (I don’t want to translate this sentence. English doesn’t deserve it)
My shame shame -puppy shame evaporated because I had fallen in love with her. I was too unsettled to say anything but her eyes were calmer than ever as she stifled her guffaws behind the beady orange dupatta.
Even before I could ask her the next question, she had answered– “Genelia girls main pasand.” In girls, I like Genelia.
And then she blushed like red balloons.
– Tum idar kaisa aaya, she asked me. How did you come here?
– Akela? Alone?
– Tum bahut daaare, she said, giving the English word the lift of a plane taking off. And with a thumbs up in my direction, her eyes drank all of us in again.
Premalata gave me more moments to live in than all the waste Telugu friends from college who gave me nothing more than dabba fair heroes to remember them by.
I think of her occasionally and every time I do, I wonder why I didn’t ask to take her picture. Then I tell myself that it doesn’t matter. You can’t trust cameras for moments like these.
As I left the room after saying bye to her that day, I fished my phone out and began looking for Telugu actor Ram. Google showed me pictures of Ram Charan Teja. I rolled my eyes.