The Ghosts of Our PastI know why I became famous, and it had nothing to do with my content and everything to do with how I looked. I was catering to a demographic of old geezers looking to get it off to a young teenager
By the time I arrived, the guests had already made themselves comfortable. The brightly lit hall glimmered like a sea of diamonds while people dressed in crisp suits and extravagant sarees formed groups, each engaged in their own private conversations. Some were family, brought together after years apart; some were uncles with bulging waist-lines and drunken slurs to their speech. Some were worried wives watching their husbands from the corner of their eyes. The warm yellow light reflected from heavy chandeliers as graceful servers efficiently found crevasses to move about in, dodging the occasional hand jerks and ass bumps. The dense murmur felt like it got heavier as I moved around looking for her, the occasional judgemental relative throwing an offward glance.
She was dancing when I found her, her arms around the groom and his neat white collar that peeked out from inside. The band was playing an acoustic cover of ‘Can’t help falling in love’, and while the couple slow danced together, a group had formed around them, some adoringly watching while others joining in with a partner of their own. The dance floor was dimmer than the rest of the hall, and a soft light fell on the couple, both lost within each other.
Her hair was made up in an elaborate bun with countless silver and gold ornaments tucked neatly inside; her arms were covered in gold bracelets that jangled every time she moved. Similar ornaments to the ones in her hair adorned her dress, capturing light at the right angles only to throw them out into a splendour of tiny specks. I watched as they moved together, holding each other’s hand and her smile illuminating like the moon in the darkest of nights and his awkward moves as she guided him along. She laughed from time to time, when he messed up, when he couldn’t follow, and when he stepped on her toes. She looked at him and giggled like a young schoolgirl falling in love for the first time, and he laughed along with her, his eyes full of warmth.
The crowd burst into applause, some drunks hooting and hollering, after the song was done. The couple bowed in thanks. She saw me. She smiled at me, tapped her husband on the shoulder, whispered something in his ear that he nodded in understanding to and turned around to join his friends. She walked over to me, pulling up her long heavy gown.
“Congratulations,” I said as she got closer to me, handing her a red envelope.
“Late as always, I see,” she said, grabbing the envelope and examining it from all angles, “What’s this? So formal, huh?
“Well, being an adult comes with responsibilities, I guess. Can’t come empty handed now, can I?”
She laughed, “Buddi palaudai raicha tero,” she reached up and whacked the top of the head a couple of times.
“Me? Look at you, dancing like a pro. You’ve gotten fairly better than your YouTube days.”
“Ugh, shut up la. I’ve always been good,” she said, slightly irked. I laughed. We were interrupted by two of her aunts. They congratulated her and commented on the dula’s performance on the dance floor, throwing cryptic insinuations on his performance in other aspects. She smiled awkwardly, thanked them respectfully and excused herself.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said grabbing my hand and leading. “It’s suffocating in here.”
I followed the jangle of her bangles as she struggled to walk in her long dress. She took small quick steps while ignoring everyone wanting to speak to the bride. I searched past the crowd for the groom but he’d already joined his group of friends and had started pouring himself a beer. By the time I found my bearings again, we were already outside and the cold night breeze stung like nettles after the warmth inside. She finally let go of my hand, her warmth still lingering on the insides of my palm. She tugged on her long gown that had managed to sweep up some debris on the way out. She gently tucked some stray hair behind her ear, her long slender hands adorned with intricate artwork of dried henna.
“Let’s find somewhere to sit,” she said, “It’s impossible to walk in these things.”
Through the darkness, we walked beside each other towards the garden. The hotel had a well-manicured garden with trimmed grass and healthy flower patches. In the middle of the garden stood a solitary gazebo, it’s arches gleaming silver against the light from the moon. While the gazebo flaunted some intricate designs outside, the inside was bare. It didn’t have a place to sit, so we made ourselves comfortable on the floor. Her long gown flowed outward, throwing specks of moonlight across the ceiling.
She struggled with the clasp of her high-heels and finally managed to pry them off. She wiggled her toes free and stood her heels next to her. She let out a sigh of relief, threw her head backward and watched the stars float above. Lost in her thoughts, she didn’t speak. A deafening silence surrounded us, the chirps of crickets had long since died, the noise from the party inside had muffled itself inside thick walls and prying aunts kept their thoughts to themselves.
“Can you believe it? Arpana Sharma, married!” she said, as if trying to convince herself of her position. “I’d never thought this day would come and now that it’s here, it feels weird… scary… daunting in so many ways,”
“It was bound to come, this time or the other,” I said. “With your parents, I’m surprised they even waited until now.”
She gave an uneasy laugh, “It wasn’t easy, believe me. The emotional blackmail, the constant looks of disappointment. I guess I had to give in sometime.”
“You looked so happy back there though, happier than I’ve seen you in a long time.”
“I am,” she said, “Happy, that is. Sobhit is a great guy, I feel all gleeful when I’m with him, and he makes me smile with his clumsiness and boorish sense of humour. He’s a great guy, a little stupid but great.”
She sat upright and stretched her arms and legs. A drunk stumbled out of the party screaming obscenities to none in particular as his wife lectured him to behave.
“I snuck in some beer,” she said reaching inside her dress and fishing out one can of beer from a secret pocket she’d managed to hide from her parents. She smirked mischievously, “My father would be furious if he saw me drinking, but it’s my wedding, man, gotta drink on my wedding night, right,” she said as she popped the can open.
We drank in silence for a while, synchronously drinking one after the other, sharing a can like we used to do in the old days. I wondered if she was thinking about those days too, but she looked like she had drifted far too deep into the past. I also had started to wonder how long she’d been carrying the can inside her dress? Was she dancing with the can hidden inside the folds of her dress? How had she even managed to cut open a slit for a beer can to fit without showing a bulge? I remembered that Arpana had always been smart and had always found ways to get her way, no matter the obstacles.
“Remember back in the day, I used to make YouTube videos?” she asked without expecting an answer. “I got quite famous for my videos, didn’t I?” she laughed. “It all seems irrelevant now; an overenthusiastic teenager trying to show the world that she was good at something, no matter how obtuse it may have been.”
“Hey, I thought they were cool.”
“Of course you would think that,”
“Many other people thought that, too. At one point you had like a million subscribers. All those people wouldn’t follow you for kicks, no?”
“Come on, I was making make-up tutorial videos and most of my audience couldn’t even identify the back end of a brush. I know why I became famous, and it had nothing to do with my content and everything to do with how I looked. I was catering to a demographic of old geezers looking to get it off to a young teenager from an ‘exotic’ Asian country.”
She reached out and took a long swig from the can. She stayed silent for a while, watching the stars on the ceiling dance to her slight movements. Nothing stayed still, everything moved, constantly. I took some smokes from the inside of my jacket and she asked for one, too. She lit hers, I lit mine and we watched the smoke fade into the sea of stars above. The silence lingered for a little too long.
“You know, I started making those videos to get away from myself,” she said finally.
“You know my parents. They were always breathing down my neck. I had to be the best in school; I had to be the best in tennis, and I had to be the one the teacher always selected as a school representative. My whole life, I’d spend working, earning their approval, and in some ways their love. I never got to let loose; I never got to be who I really wanted to be. I was always trapped, inside my own home, with my own family.”
She flicked her cigarette and took a long drag. I drank from the can.
“On the internet, none of that mattered. It didn’t matter what kind of family I came from; it didn’t matter what my parents thought, and it didn’t matter what my friends thought. I could be who I truly wanted to be; I could feel like a normal girl on the internet, a girl who liked feeling pretty, a girl who wore the dresses that she wanted, a girl who had finally let go of her inhibitions. For the first time, I finally felt like I could be who I want to be, not what my parent’s had wanted me to be. So I started making more and more videos, amassing more and more followers, and strengthening my mask more and more.”
She moved her hands unconsciously to her face and felt for an invisible mask.
“You remember my videos? They were all so happy. Happiness that I couldn’t find at home, I would manufacture for my audiences. I would show them just how happy I could be. But like all masks, there comes a time when it starts to crack. For me, that time came when I failed the mid-terms in ninth grade. Remember that? Everyone was shocked how I could fail. The star student. It was surprising for me, too, but it was even more surprising for my parents. They were furious, they threatened to disown me, threatened to leave me at a boarding school. I was devastated; I was caught between my studies and my videos. I was caught between my imprisonment and my freedom. Unfortunately, my freedom was forcefully taken away from me. My parents took all of my equipment, my computer, my phone, everything. I was a disappointment to them, I had to earn my love back.”
She took another long drag, blew out a cloud of smoke that lingered. She took another drag and coughed a little before taking a sip from the can.
“I was back to my old self again after diving back into my studies. My straight A’s started coming back and with that, so did my stuff. After months of not creating content, I had thought that I’d lost all of my subscribers, my fan-base. But as I checked my account, my fans weren’t just loyal, they’d constructed an elaborate theory that I’d been kidnapped. My comments were filled with messages of support. Some asked me to reach out to them, they’d try to help they’d say. Many people had sent me direct messages and when I didn’t reply, they’d used my absence as fuel for their theories. I don’t know if you followed me back then, but people made videos analysing my videos for proof of my abduction.”
She clambered up and leaned against the railing of the gazebo. Lights shone in the distance, headlights and sidelights from cars leaving with the party guests. Many people had started to leave, it seemed, the roar of engines grew louder with the number. Arpana didn’t seem to care, she balanced herself on the curves of the railing and rocked herself back and forth, her long flowy gown dancing alongside her. She took one last drag from her cigarette and flicked it out into the vastness of the pristine garden.
She turned around to face me. I was still on the ground and from my vantage point, the silver of the moon perfectly outlined her silhouette against the inky blue of the night sky. “I found it funny at first,” she gave out a short laugh. “It boggled my mind how people had jumped to such an absurd scenario so quickly. I tried to dispel the situation, I replied to DMs and said I’d just been on a hiatus. I felt good, I felt like if no one else, my community still cared about me. There were still people out there who’d loved who I was, unfiltered and undiluted. Well, that’s what I thought. As I started defusing the situation, I started losing subscribers. I started getting hate mail, people called me a fake, they called me an attention whore. They called me all kinds of nasty things and I was devastated. I didn’t know what I did wrong, I didn’t know why they were reacting like this. It got so bad that I deleted all of my social media after that. I had lost the one place that I had found freedom in.”
From underneath her gown, she started fiddling with the straps of her heels. I passed her the beer and she drank from it, passed it back. I didn’t know what to say, I knew she’d been big on YouTube but I hadn’t known about all the controversy. I wondered just how engaged in her videos I really was. Maybe I wasn’t, it was too far in the past to remember.
“But I wondered, you know. What was it? How did I lose everything I had? And the more I thought about it, the more I started realising that my fans weren’t fans of me. They’d been addicted to what I was showing then, a happy-go-lucky girl untouched by the harshness of the world. The moment that illusion was broken, they had nothing they wanted from me. They’d be more concerned about their theories of my safety than my real safety. They didn’t care if I was kidnapped or not. They just wanted to believe that I was, they just wanted their internet controversy. They wanted another illusion, an illusion that had no space for the real me. My castle in the sky had been stormed, others owned it now, and I realised it was never mine to have.”
A shadow stumbled in the dark came approaching towards us. It was a man, one of the guests, he called out to Arpana. He said her parents were looking for her; they wanted one final photo with the groom. She said she’d come and sent him away. She helped me up, chugged the last of the beer and carried her heels. As she made her way to the party bare-feet, she said, “Remember, the ghosts of our past never sleep.”
As I said goodbye to Arpana that night, she waved goodbye to me without turning back. She entered a new life, far from the clutches of her parents, from the clutches of her friends and far from the prying eyes of the internet. Everything seemed so real that night, and so surreal at the same time. And as she disappeared inside the door, I wondered if I’d meet her ever again.