Uma noticed it first when she was five. Yes, she had seen it before too, many times indeed. She played with it when she was a kid, but it first struck her as unnatural when she was five.
Her parents thought she was a narcissist. But little girls with pretty frocks were allowed to be narcissists in the earlier phases of their lives, so they did not bother her. Her cousins scoffed at her because she seemed to spend her entire day in front of the mirror. On her first day of class, while her mother made special efforts to make her look pretty (because she assumed that her daughter cared about looking pretty), Uma noticed something unusual.
While her own picture in the mirror stared back at her, completely immobile, her mother’s picture moved around exactly as her mother did. She found this extremely unnerving. Not once did her mother’s picture stare back at her and smile. She assumed that her mother never looked into the mirror directly while she fussed with her hair. Uma turned around to hold her mother still for a moment and turned her face up to face the mirror. She turned around to check.
Yes, now her mother’s picture did look back at her, but it did not quite seem natural. Her own face always seemed to look at her; her mother’s face did nothing but look bewildered. It was almost as if the mother in the mirror was anyone but her own. She looked at her mother suspiciously and turned her face left and right to check.
Suddenly her eyes found something yet more unusual. Her picture in the mirror seemed to be trying really hard to imitate her, follow her actions, and smile. It had never done anything of this sort before. The picture did follow her eventually but languidly. It could not catch up with her at least for three or four seconds. Uma knew it wasn’t quite right. When she was three, she would practice her dance lessons in front of the mirror. Since her picture followed her actions a while later, she had time to admire herself. It was a game of some sort. She smiled; after a while, the picture smiled back; she had time to think about whether she looked pretty when she smiled or not.
But she had never seen her image act this way. While her mother’s picture followed her mother effortlessly without missing even a second, her own picture seemed to try hard and fail miserably to catch up to her. Its actions seemed erratic, not as graceful as she had always known. Unconsciously, she found herself slowing down to see if that helped her picture to follow her better. She did not understand what was happening.
The dinner time conversation was tense. She could feel her parents’ anxiety even if she could not understand half of the words. Her mother had intended to break the mirror first until she suddenly remembered something and pressed her hands to her forehead.
‘Breaking it does not necessarily secure eight (or was it seven?) years of bad luck, but what kind of a message will that send to her? Also, do you think she will never come across another mirror in the whole world?’ her father reasoned, ‘children have strange obsessions. When I was a child, I used to think that homeless people ate children and…’
‘Yes, yes, I married a brilliant man,’ her mother interrupted with an animated glance at the open door of Uma’s room, ‘but what should we do? It’s not normal. She told me that my reflection made her reflection act strangely. What on earth is that supposed to mean?’
‘Does she even understand what reflections are? She is five…’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, just because you don’t understand a cat is a cat, you won’t start asking if it had built a tent!’
Her father looked at her mother for a while. Uma wondered where the silence would lead to until she heard laughter erupting in the dining room.
‘She’ll be fine. She had got us as parents. What else can you hope for?’ her mother’s voice was muffled by her giggling.
Uma slowly crept back into her bed and lifted the shiny new pencil box that her parents had got for her for the first day of class 1. In the pale yellow of her night lamp, the ‘reflection’ was not as clear as it had been in the mirror, but she looked intently at it anyway. The ‘reflection’ was trying hard to blink along with her, to imitate her smiles but failed again. The smiles were distorted, the eyes terrified. It may have been her own fear reflecting in the shiny surface, but the reflection’s terror seemed a bit more genuine. She kept back the pencil box and decided to stay away from her reflection from that day onwards.
Two years had passed since that day when she was forced to look at her reflection again. She now understood what reflections were. It had terrified her the first time she realized that reflections were not supposed to have a life or mind of their own. Her mother’s reflection was the rule, and her own was the exception. Avoiding mirrors was not easy, but she had done it for the past two years anyway. At her request, her parents had removed the mirror in her washroom. They adjusted all the other mirrors to be high up in the walls, and she couldn’t see herself in one of them.
She was seven when she looked at herself again. She had seen herself in the photographs, but it was easier to see herself that way. Frozen and still. She never saw that frozen terror in her face when she saw the pictures. She had still not forgotten about the expression on her reflection’s face in the dim yellow light that night, two years ago.
This time she was forced to sit in front of the mirror so that her best friends could do her make-up. They knew she hated anything related to her face, so they had promised to make her look pretty. With Tani’s new make-up kit (which, Uma thought, looked like a fancy version of molten crayons), they started painting her face. As far as the skills of seven-year-old make-up artists go, the product of their efforts was not completely conventional. Uma had sat with her eyes closed throughout the session (which was needed because they had to paint her eyelids, too), but now they forcibly made her open her eyes to look at herself and rejoice.
The first reaction was that of shock. With blood-red lips, green eyelids, and blue cheeks, a girl has every right to be shocked, but the next reaction was unexpected. It was rage. She threw down the make-up kit (which bounced off and settled peacefully at a distance because it was made of plastic) and ran out of the room.
Tani and Bonnie followed her to the next room and saw her sitting silently in a corner. The rage had passed as soon as it had come.
‘It was not that bad, you know?’ Tani said morosely.
‘You could have told us if you did not like the blue rouge. Tani thought it looked good,’ said Bonnie, while considering how she could blame Tani for the entire thing. If she had to choose between her two best friends, she would choose Uma. She was a lot more interesting and clearly shared her disgust for blue rouge.
‘It could have been worse,’ Tani said after much consideration.
Uma finally looked up, and her friends could see as clear as daylight that something was bothering her.
‘It spoke for the first time. It said ‘two hours back.’ Does that mean anything? Two hours back, what? It never answered me.’
Tani and Bonnie saw Uma’s mother’s expression change when they told her about the incident. Her mother gave them a pained smile and said, ‘We will buy you a new make-up set. We’re sorry.’ Uma mumbled all the way back home.
‘Two hours back what?’
In class V, Uma’s parents allowed her to take the school bus again. Tani and Bonnie had no idea where she had been for these three years, and their parents had forbidden them from asking. Everyone in the school bus looked at her as though she was a strange insect when she took her seat behind the driver. That is where she used to sit in class KG.
She spoke to no one and looked straight ahead. Tani was a bit concerned, and Bonnie had a million questions. After five minutes, they could tolerate no more of Uma’s silence and tapped on her shoulder. When she did not turn around, they followed her gaze. She was looking into the rearview mirror. As soon as their reflections joined hers, she jerked her head around and made Bonnie and Tani jump back at the unnatural calmness on her face.
‘She meant ‘go two hours back.’ She wanted me to follow her, not the other way around. Time was supposed to slow down with her. She wanted me to go two hours back because two hours later, time stops.’
Bonnie opened her mouth to say something but couldn’t complete it.
She was in the eleven o’clock news. Bonnie’s parents did not see it; they were trying to locate their child in the morgue. The whole bus was in the eleven o’clock news.