Stars, They are such brilliant objects.So powerful, yet so beautiful. So far away, yet dazzling us in its light. Shreya Tanzin stared out of her bedroom window. The moonless sky was strewn with diamonds, whose sparkle obliviated her mind of all existence around her. The stars reminded her of the occurrences of the day a year ago. The same fateful day she had walked into the this celestial world of of glamour. She remembered every moment as vividly as if it was happening now. The events of Friday, the 13th of October, 2011.
"Stars! Fascinating objects, aren't they?" Madeline said matter-of-factly. "Surprising, how they dazzle us in their light, being so far away. Untouchable yet so alluring." Shreya stared at her, slightly surprised. Sitting in the marketing suite of Starlet Model Management, Shreya had expected to be lectured about how to become a 'star' or celebrity on Earth, and most certainly not about the amazing aura of real stars, as in the heavenly body, not the type whose careers Starlet manage.
"You know what, I think us humans are like stars too. Our talents could be hidden within the depths of our personality, yet, if properly nurtured, they could dazzle the entire world." Madeline, or Maddy as everyone called her at Starlet walked around in her office putting away stray bits of paperwork and fiddled with showpieces on the desk while speaking to Shreya.
"We, at Starlet, believe that talent always comes in the best of packages. We feel, we can help you nurture that talent and fascinate everyone." Maddy looked carefully at Shreya's face."You know you are beautiful, and we know you will successful. All you need is just that backdrop to shine against, and we feel we can provide it to you. So, do you want to be a model?"
Shreya felt herself shrink under the compelling stare of SMM's director. "Yes, " she said timidly.
"Wrong!" shouted Maddy, before coming closer to her. "You know,125 girls are born every minute, and out of them, 99% want to become a model at some point or other in their lives. I want you to be part of the remaining 1%. The 1% who I, and other top MM directors will meet and see. I want you to be a supermodel."
Shreya stared at Maddy, awestruck. Was she really saying I could be a supermodel? Like the ones in those big magazines and billboards? Really? Was I really so beautiful? Shreya had never really been serious about modelling. The only reason she had entered the Miss Teen Universe pageant was to prove to others that even she could be pretty if she tried. She had done it to stop the school bullies, who taunted her and called her nerd and dork. Ok, she was a tomboy and rarely wore make-up, but was that really bad? Did that mean she couldn't have feelings or hopes or wishes like a normal girl? Dream of being crowned Princess, everyone screaming her name. They all materialised when she won the pageant. Everyone in school now call her 'princess' and all boys admit having crushes on her. Yet, being the sweetheart of the school is far far smaller than being a supermodel.
"Don't be so sceptical." Maddy spoke again. "You are a rare gem, for talent rarely flourishes so early. Even Mikhaila was 19 when she won the crown." Shreya wished that she could explain that she had already realised how big it must be to be 16 and following on from supermodel Mikhaila Kahn, the reigning queen of glamour world. But, she didn't feel she could be as good as a model, oops, supermodel, like Mikhaila, who was such an unearthly talent!
"She is also very bright and brilliant. But she was way older than you." Maddy said, . "But, then again, just 3 years ago, no one knew Mikhaila, except for us. We took her from Starlet to Star. And we can do the same for you." She pulled out some legal-looking document from an envelope on her desk and handed it to Shreya. "So, would you, Shreya Tanzin, allow us, Starlet MM, to help you take center stage? " A fleeting glance at Shreya's nervous face, and Maddy added "You do not have to decide now. Decide over the weekend and contact us on Monday with your decision." She underlined her number on her card card with a long pink nail. "This is my number. Or you can contact my assistant if you please. See you later."
Shreya left Starlet's office and entered the nearest cafe to grab a quick drink. Just as she was about to leave, someone whispered to her: "So, do you want to be a model?"
Shreya instinctively replied 'yes'.
"Wrong!" the voice whispered, "You know,125 girls are born every minute , and out of them, 99% want to become a model at some point or other in their lives. I want you to be part of the remaining 1%. The 1% who I, and other top MM directors will meet and see. I want you to be a supermodel" The words came out as a raspy whisper.The message may have been Maddy's but the voice most certainly wasn't.
Shreya looked around to find the source of the voice. The cafe was mostly empty, apart from a young couple enjoying secret rendezvous It was afternoon and everyone able to afford the hefty price tag of a coffee at the Starbuck's were busy increasing their bank balance.
"Stars! Fascinating objects, aren't they?" the voice said, breathy."Surprising, how they dazzle us in their light, being so far away. Untouchable yet so alluring."
Shreya looked around again, before finally spotting a girl sitting at the corner table, face hidden behind the latest Panache, the cover featuring Mikhaila yet again. Shreya walked to the table.
"Excuse me?" she said hesitantly, "are you talking to me?"
The girl lowered the magazine and reached out to shake Shreya's hand.
"Hi, I am Fahtima," she shook Shreya's hand. " I work for Starlet. I am Maddy's assistant. Have a seat." She gestured to the chair opposite hers.
Shreya smiled and took the seat. "So, hi ... did, umm...did Maddy send you to talk to me?"
"Nope!" Fahtima replied. "I am speaking to you on my own initiative. You see, darling, pretty as you are, you are not smart enough to survive the glamour industry." Shreya looked at her in disbelief. She thinks I am dumb? Well, who cares about her opinion? She is just a measly assistant. Maddy, the director herself, feels I can do it, so who is this woman to claim otherwise?
Fahtima smiled. "I mean, come on, have a look at yourself! Inside, you are jumping around, squealing 'She thinks I am pretty! She thinks I can be popular! I can be a supermodel!!' " Fahtima faked a shrilly voice, before assuming her normal raspy voice. "Honestly, you think your starstruck self is prepared enough to enter this ruthless industry?"
Shreya listened silently, which made Fahtima give a controversial look. "There is a reason why this agency is called 'Starlet'." she continued. "They only want starlets...they take in the stars of tomorrow, use them to make money, and then dispose them off for new starlets. That's the reality, and I have seen it with my very eyes. You are very pretty and innocent. I don't want them to ruin you like that."
"But, " Shreya had suddenly found her voice. "What about her?" She pointed at the cover of Panache. "Mikhaila has been with Starlet for years now, and she is still at the top."
"She is different" Fahtima snapped. "No one can exploit her. Instead, she exploits Starlet." She glanced quickly over her shoulders, then came closer to Shreya and whispered, "Starlet owes her a lot. She made Starlet what it is today. She made Starlet international. But, even she is about to be replaced. They want you to be her replacement."
Shreya took a deep breath. Is this woman, who just called me dumb a few moments ago, really telling me that I am going to replace Mikhaila Kahn, the Mikhaila Kahn?
"No need to be so happy!" Fahtima said impatiently. "She is not being replaced because you are awesome, but because she is crap! Yes, Mikhaila has recently behaved really badly in public, and is almost psychotic after her long-term boyfriend shed her off like unwanted last-season clothing, and married some other girl." Then she added in her controversial whisper "She has been doing drugs and is usually late to shoots, and acts unnecessarily moody.She is so unstable that even Maddy can't handle her anymore."
"But, how does any of that concern you?" Shreya asked abruptly.
"Me? It doesn't concern me, it concerns you!" Fahtima said. "But, you are not prepared for this. So, I thought, it might be helpful if I started guiding you as a mentor and professional assistant. I know a lot about this industry, as I have been working at Starlet since I was 18, first as an intern and now as an assistant I know what happens here and how to deal with it. Trust me, you need my guidance to survive here!"
"I am sorry, but I must leave now, " Shreya said curtly. So your main motivation is to 'work' with me. You are just job-hunting! "someone is waiting for me. Thanks for your advice. See you later." She started to walk away.
"You have my number on Maddy's card. Contact me if you ever need me!" Fahtima called behind her.
Shreya had left that afternoon, convinced never to contact Fahtima, yet, what happened next wasn't very expected as well.
Shreya had returned home to be shouted at by her frustrated parents, who didn't like the direction her life was taking. They were a typical middle class family, with traditional values and orthodox thinking.
"You are late again!" her mum had complained. "I thought, I told you to return by 3!"
"I was busy with some work, Ma."
"Work! I bet it is some silly modelling work or something!" Ma grumbled. "It was not any of schoolwork or something useful like that. You do remember that your first priority is education, right?"
"Don't be such drags!" Shreya told them, already in a bad mood over Fahtima wasting her time. "Why does one study? To get a job, to get rich, to live a comfortable life. What if I can get that now? Would I still be studying?"
She had read all the paperwork on the taxi home, and her starting salary could be around 20,000-30,000 per assignment, which mean she could earn her father's monthly salary in a week. Shreya had already planned what she would do with the money: buy a car, move to a decent home, where she didn't need to share her room with her sister, get a resident-maid to do all their housework...Simply live the comfortable life all the snobs in her school lived. Sometimes life was so unfair! The snobs at school had dishonest parents, lacked intelligence or morals, yet enjoyed such brilliant lives! They never earned what they got nor will they ever need to earn anything. Shreya was determined to earn her way there though. She wanted to be rich and live a luxurious life, but she would be willing to shed blood and sweat for it.
"It's not always about money!" her Ma commented pointedly. "Some of us chose education to achieve enlightenment and respect, which modelling clearly doesn't bring!"
Enlightenment? what use it that if we cannot afford basic necessities most of the time! You and your morals are the reason why we are stuck in this Dombivali 2 bedroom-flat! If only you could care about your own lives not everyone else's, we could have been so much better off!
"Don't you get it? I don't want a life like yours!" Shreya felt her feelings coming to the surface, unrestrained. It was a strange liberating feeling, expressing to her family what she thought was wrong in their mindset. The only problem was that deep-down feelings are like water at a dam: once the wall is broken, no one, absolutely no one can hold it back. "University, job, marriage, kids and domesticated family life! I don't want this! I want to be the biggest and brightest star in the sky,so high up in the sky, that people appear as ants when I look down! I want to be something! Someone! I want to a Supermodel!"
She had to wait a moment to fully take in the horrified expressions of her parents. Did I say something so wrong?
"You can't be serious!" her mother screamed. "What will people say! They would think we are...we are...selling our daughter for money!They wouldn't respect us anymore"
Shreya's head hurt at the thought. People would not respect us anymore! Wow! My family cared so much about what others thought, not what what would make me happy!
"Oh God! So you prioritize what others will think over your own happiness! You care what people, society will think, not the fact that we could have lived a better, more fulfilling life, if only you tried to love yourselves, not those useless kultis, vamps of our society, who have nothing better than to put others down!But I don't want a life in this downmarket world of yours! I can enjoy the life of an upper-class socialite, while you stay trapped in this stupid middle-class world of 'high morals and low budgets'!"
Shreya knew she had crossed the line the moment she uttered the phrase 'high morals and low budgets'. The phrase turned her father, who had so far been a silent observer of the entire situation, walk towards her, and with lightning bolt speed, he slapped her.
Shreya's blood boiled, her heart racing at record speeds. Her entire frame froze, as she dug hard into her palms to stop herself from trembling with rage. She could have sworn that even her hair had frozen mid-air, while her cheek rested on the right shoulder.
"I will not tolerate any of this modelling non-sense under my roof!" Papa said coldly, emphasizing each word with a pause. "Go to your room and get changed. You will live exactly the life we planned for you. Education, job, marriage, kids, family. Nothing more, nothing less. By the time you have kids, you would have forgotten these petty ambitions and would have to raise them exactly like we raised you, learning to be satisfied with what they have." His tone was brutal, compared to his action, which had held far less force. He was determined to stamp her dreams out of her.
But Shreya had other thoughts. "I don't think so!"
She could feel herself blushing, but it wasn't due to the impact of the slap, but due to blood flooding her brain, turning her scarlet with anger. She moved two steps towards her right and called the watchman of the building on the intercom.
"Hail me a taxi!" she ordered."And make it quick! I will decide where to go when the taxi is here...I thought your job was to guard the building and run errands, not interrogating where we go and at what time! Shall I ask Chairman-uncle to look for a new watchman? ... Good, now make it snappy."
Putting down the receiver, Shreya walked off to her room. Her parents, shocked by her defiance and disregard, watched the scene silently. Shreya packed her things, mainly her wardrobe, jewelry, cosmetics etc won from her pageant, her winner's crown and sash, the documents of her bank account, which held 250,000 rupees: her pageants winnings, her passport, and the documents from Starlet into her Miss Teen Universe luggage.
Was it just her, or did her parents not move at all during the time she spent packing her belongings? Just as she had finished transferring her 3 suitcases out of her room, the intercom rang. Her Ma made a move towards it, but Shreya was faster.
"What, is it here? Great, could you please come upstairs and help me with my bags? Thank you."
Shreya opened the front door and started shifting her bags out of the house. From the corner of her eye, she saw the lift reading show that the watchman was coming up to 'their' 5th floor apartment.
"Don't you dare step outside this doorway, or our doors would be forever closed for you!" her father warned in the same voice, radiating cold fury.
Shreya glanced at the lift's indicator; 3rd floor.
"I would rather die on the streets than return to this jail!" She spat on the floor. The slap had not only been the utmost insult to her dreams, but it broke the final bonds which could have held her back. She was now a free bird, and nothing could hold her back in the nest, not with the whole sky to explore. She had slammed the door behind her when she had walked off.
The rest of that day had been a blur to her. She only remembered consciously calling Fahtima, asking her to prove that she could do exactly what she promised. From that moment onwards, Fatty had managed Shreya's entire career. She had checked Shreya into a hotel for that week, verified her Starlet contract and even managed to buy her the one-bedroom studio flat in North Mumbai's posh Andheri West for only 150,000 rupees, which was definitely a bargain for that area. The only condition Shreya had set was to make her enough to lead a posh life, and Shreya would make sure Fatty and her family led a decent life. Both girls had fulfilled their promises.
Shreya slowly pulled the curtains together, blocking the night sky. She must go to bed now, for tomorrow would be another new day, another new possibility to reach even higher. She would keep reaching higher, higher till there was nowhere else to reach for, till she was the goal which others pursued: Perfection...