August 01, 2019
This touching story, Yokozuna, talks about bullying, body-shaming and body-image issues. While the story and the message is deep, its tone is light and the piece is as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking. What happens when an overweight girl has a close encounter with her high-school bully? Does he apologise and does she forgive, or does something entirely unexpected happen? Read this story to find out.
The year was 2008. Christian Bale was still Batman; Leo hadn’t won an Oscar. Humans were still posting status updates on Facebook in third person. And Instagram was a distant, technicolor, cocaine dream
I was all of 18, in my first year of college. My greatest possession was a white and red Nokia 5300, because not only did it have FM Radio, but — hold your breath — memory space for 10 of my favorite songs.
I was bopping my head to one of them — Kabhi Kabhi Aditi — in the college canteen when my best friend skulked in behind me and pulled out my earphones.
Anisha dropped her bag and hoisted herself up on the blue Formica table right before me. She crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt, without even noticing one of the turned heads. I guess it was a bit like how people who live in sea-view houses don’t give much of a shit for sunsets?
‘Vaish.’ She broke the crisp summit of my samosa and dunked it into hot chhole, before shoving a spoonful into her mouth. ‘We’re going to do the SSC Fun Run.’
‘Heh?’ I stole the spoon back from her. ‘First of all, Fun and Run are not words that go together. Somebody needs to tell the Social Service Club that. And second of all. Me? Run a 5K in front of half our class? Fuck you.’
‘Forget the “rest of the class”. Run with me.’ She leaned in, pulling the mass of her dark brown curls over one shoulder. ‘It’ll be like showing him the finger.’
‘This isn’t about him,’ I said, viciously smashing the samosa with my spoon into a messy potato pulp while picturing the boy in question: Rishabh Mehta, idiot incarnate and new Vice Chairman of the fucking Social Service Club.
We had history – in that we went to the same school from the 1st to the 10th, where he reigned as Sports Captain, State Level Gold Medalist at the 500m sprint and King of Smug Assholery. Obviously, he was popular. The rest of our 7th standard class would swarm around his desk at recess and he would hold fort, mimicking teachers and making up nasty names for anyone he didn’t like. Including me.
‘I can’t run with you. I’ll look like a fucking potato running next to a kaathi roll. Ooo do you have thirty bucks? We should get a kaathi roll!’
She held my hand to restrain me from diving for my wallet.
‘You have got to stop saying shit about your body. I saw this episode of Oprah where she was like God gave us just the right bodies to hold our personalities in.’
‘In that case, I’ll take whatever personality Kareena Kapoor had in Tashan.’
‘Just come to the run. Devadiga is going.’
It was like a smile was dying to break past her lips, and she was shoving it back down and binding it in a leather corset.
‘Who?’ I feigned ignorance. ‘Oh, you mean Akshayyyyy?’
‘Shhhhhh!’ Violent pink blotches bloomed in her cheeks while she pretended to be mad at me. My best friend looked like a Muppet.
About a week and a half ago, I was hanging out with the rest of our French class at Marine Drive after a mandatory film screening of Paris Je T’aime. Someone put down a bottle of Sprite at some point and started a game of Truth or Dare. Varun picked truth and told everyone he masturbated thrice a day. Rohan lifted Meera on his back like a sack of potatoes and ran two rounds on a dare. Anisha was at home with the flu, so I texted her minute-to-minute updates at the great risk of exhausting my prepaid pack.
There was a lot of giggling when the bottle landed on nerdy-cute Akshay Devadiga. He pushed back his thick, black Clark-Kentish glasses, frowned and said, ‘Truth.’
That’s when Rishabh Mehta, who also happens to be Akshay’s BFF, grinned straight at him like he’d been waiting for this. He cleared his throat.
‘Who do you like in our class, bro? Who do you… Je t’aime?’
I emitted an involuntary shriek of laughter. Several people turned to look. Mehta, who had spent most of first year pretending I didn’t exist, stared. I covered my mouth with a hand.
Devadiga was pretty – my kind of pretty – and though I knew that he would never, in a million years, say my name, my heart had jumped a teeny-tiny bit when Mehta had asked the question. Maybe it was the concentration of so many teenage hormones in one place. Maybe it was the way the sea lashed against the tetrapods on Marine Drive that evening. Everything was telling me that something exciting was about to happen.
Devadiga glared at Mehta for a moment. I waited for him to evade the question and offer up some silly celebrity crush’s name as a consolation prize.
Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and locked eyes with me like it was obvious.
My heart jumped again.
The whole class hooted. Someone clapped.
‘Good choice,’ I said, trying hard to ignore Mehta while he surveyed my face for whatever he had seen there a second ago.
‘You want me to… tell her?’ I held up my phone.
‘Huh.’ Devadiga blushed. It made him look ten times cuter. ‘Like you wouldn’t if I said no…’
Which, honestly, was fucking true.
So of course I told her, later, when I could see her face.
‘Him? He likes – me???’
Even sick, she looked gorgeous. Her mane tamed into a bun on top of her head, one crooked top tooth shining as she grinned in utter disbelief.
‘Why are you shocked? Everybody likes you.’
‘Yeah but everybody also steals looks at my boobs when they’re talking to me. Devadiga usually just says hi and runs away. I thought he was too cool for me!’
I rolled my eyes and attacked her daal khichdi.
‘So um…’ She bit into a particularly stubborn hangnail. ‘What happens now?’
I put down the spoon. ‘What are you asking me for? You’re the one that’s dated people before…’
‘Yeah but they always ask me out. Like they come up to me,’ she explained, in case the concept was too alien to me, her best friend, who had already asked two boys out with disastrous results.
‘Hmmm… Maybe this one will too. Give him time?’
But Devadiga walked into class the next day with his head down and his face tight, like TruthGate had never happened. I was pretty sure this had something to do with Mehta, who began smiling at us in class and saying ‘hi’ in the corridors.
‘If we go to the run, maybe I can talk to him,’ Anisha said, leaning forward on our canteen table. ‘I read this study in our psych text where scientists found that if you ask someone out when their heart rate is already up – like on a roller coaster or a suspension bridge – their chances of saying yes are much higher.’
‘Yes, yes, good idea. But why do I have to go?’
‘Because I’m shit scared? Because I’ve never asked a guy out? Because you inspired me?’
That was a line designed to sucker punch me in the feels.
I sighed and dug into my bag for the form Mehta had handed out in class weeks ago. I smoothed its crumpled edges before writing my name down.
The night before what was going to be a distinctly Un-fun Run, I stole my mum’s laptop and Googled ‘Woman passes out at marathon’ – and while there were YouTube videos aplenty, it seemed to happen more often to skinny women than fat ones.
So naturally I googled ‘fat woman running’ next, and found the worst of the internet in a video titled ‘XXL Lifeguards’ – basically a parody of the Baywatch opening sequence with fat women in red bathing suits running on the beach. Running – and falling – because apparently, it’s hilarious when a big woman falls.
And then I made the mistake of reading the comments.
this is not sexy. ur disgusting.
Lolz. So good to see all the whales make it back to the oshunnn.
i’d rather drown. make a video of urself on a treadmill and keep it for urself. dumb fat bitches.
I closed the laptop shut and stared at the diet I had cut out of Bombay Times and pinned to my corkboard that summer. ‘The Secret Behind Kareena’s Size Zero Look Is OUT’ – the headline screamed, above a picture of the actress walking out of the water in a neon green bikini. At 4 p.m. every day, she ate a damn cube of cheese.
I rolled my eyes and opened up Google just one more time. In the search bar, I typed in the name I’d been carrying with me since school.
At 5.45 a.m. the next morning, Anisha and I met just outside the little shed on campus where the organizers had set up a makeshift office.
‘He’s already at the start line,’ she said, clutching her stomach.
‘Don’t.’ I pulled her hand away. ‘Akshay likes you. Half the work is done. You literally just have to tell him you do too.’
Inside, a bunch of skinny girls in tanks and shorts were handing out bibs to the runners. I tugged at the black t-shirt I had paired with black track pants and said a silent prayer to all the gods I knew to ensure that my jiggly bits were well hidden. Then I walked over to one of them and gave my name.
Like a flesh-eating plant picking up on the buzzing of a juicy fly, Mehta raised his curly head.
‘Hey Anisha, yours is here!’ he said, waving us over to his corner.
He put her bib on the table and pulled out a bunch of safety pins. Anisha fastened the bib to her tank.
He rummaged wildly through a box. ‘Gimme a sec, Pandya.’
I rubbed my chest in a pointless attempt to silence the dull pounding of my heart.
The music died on the rented loudspeakers outside and shrill feedback came from a mic.
‘Good morninnnnnnng everyone!’ A female voice squealed, with far too much energy for this hour of the day. ‘I hope you guys ate a big breakfast because we’re about to press start on the Social Service Club’s FUN RUNNNNN! But first a big thank you to our sponsors…’
All the other runners rushed out the shed.
Anisha stood at the door on the tips of her toes, trying to scan the crowd for one head, a look of total panic on her face.
‘Where the fuck is my bib, Mehta?’ I barked.
‘I swear it was right here.’ He tossed a few papers around, making the whole thing look scammy and suspicious. ‘I’ll go look in the back.’
I turned to Anisha the moment he was out of earshot ‘I don’t know what the fuck Mehta’s game is. But you should go and find Devadiga.’
She licked her upper lip. ‘I can’t do that to you, Vaish. You were so scared to even sign up.’
‘Neesh, you’ll make it up to me later. Go ask him out.’
Anisha kissed my cheek. ‘I’ll run really slowly. I promise. Catch us up?’
Fat chance. The whole organizers’ shed was empty. I’d be the last bitch over the finish line, if I even made it. I could already sense nervous sweat pooling in my underboob.
But I nodded and she and ran out toward the start line, while I spot-jogged to warm up.
Found it!’ Mehta yelled from behind me, minutes after the start whistle had gone off.
I turned around and grabbed the bib from his hand.
‘Uh… but we’re out of pins,’ he said.
At this point, I was ready to smash his face and use his flesh to superglue the damn bib to my t-shirt.
‘You can take mine,’ he said, in response to the look on my face.
We walked out the empty shed together as he unfastened his bib, one slow pin at a time and handed them out to me. I pinned the bib to my t-shirt, hiked up my tracks at the waist and broke into a steady jog. Mehta ran next to me, flashing his organizer badge when a volunteer tried to stop him at the start line.
I plugged in my earphones and let Coldplay’s Yellow numb the crazy ache that was already sending shooting pains down my shin.
Only two minutes in and I was breathless, while Mehta ran easily by my side.
Why is he still here anyway?
I pulled out one earphone. ‘You should – carry on – without me,’ I panted, trying to force some defiance into my voice. ‘I’m – going – to – take – my – time.’
I hoped it sounded adequately like a polite ‘fuck you’.
‘It’s okay, I don’t mind,’ he said, as though he was the kind and benevolent one here.
But I mind, you dickwaffle. Did you think my idea of a good day was to go for a run with my school bully???
I focused on my breathing, hoping – praying – I wouldn’t pass out from the horrible stitch that was starting to appear in my side.
‘So Anisha likes Akshay, huh?’ He nudged me a few minutes later.
I turned to stare at him. Was he spying on Devadiga’s behalf or…? Beneath the light stubble, his cheeks were flushed.
‘C’mon Pandya,’ he wiggled a thick eyebrow. ‘Spill the juice.’
Nooooo. Oh fuck! Does this dungball like Anisha? Is that why he was trying to delay her? And now that he’s failed, he wants to cozy up to me, extract the “juice” and upstage his cute, nerdy friend?
For a microsecond I imagined a perfect world where a heartbroken Devadiga and I got close, after hours, in a dimly lit aisle of the college library. But then I pictured Anisha walking into the canteen, holding Mehta’s hand but totally dead inside while he pranced about like he’d won the fucking Kohinoor.
My breakfast almost rose back up my throat.
‘I don’t spill on my best friend.’
‘I was just asking because I saw what happened the other day. When we were playing Truth or Dare. You thought Devadiga was going to say your name…’
I stopped in my tracks.
‘I – it wasn’t your fault.’ He held up both hands. ‘The way he turned to you… anyone would’ve thought…’
‘I didn’t think.’
‘C’mon.’ He gave me a patronizing look. ‘Your face went red.’
‘So? I was happy for Anisha.’ I bent down to touch my toes and do a little calf stretch, hoping to buy some time to ease all the parts of my body that were acting like stubborn, achy-hurty children.
‘So you don’t like Devadiga, then?’
‘Why is this any of your business?’ I shook my head and started jogging again.
‘I’m just casually chitchatting, Pandya. Why are you so mad at me?’
‘Seriously? I could write a thesis at this point! You made me late. I wanted to be with Anisha while… You ruined everything!’
I jammed both my earphones in my ears, looked through my phone for an upbeat song and ran, without looking his way. Halfway through Lady Gaga’s Poker Face, I grimaced at the pain in my calves, and there he was again, surveying my face.
‘There’s – I’ve actually wanted to talk to you about something for a while.’ He yelled above the music which, considering the days of mp3, wasn’t all that loud anyway.
I let both earphones hang around my neck in resignation.
Let’s get this over with, roachface. You can tell me you like Anisha and I can tell you how totally out of your league she is…
‘I don’t even know if you remember but… I was kind of mean to you in school and I guess what I wanted to say…’ He sighed and scratched the back of his head. ‘For about two-ish years now… is… I’m sorry.’
I could literally just hear birds chirping for a few seconds after. That, and the sound of my feet hitting the ground, while my heart pounded in my ears.
Now I’m not going to lie. I had fantasized about this moment a lot.
But my fantasies involved ludicrous scenarios where I lost a ton of weight, became a hot, award-winning actress rumored to be dating Ranbir Kapoor, while Mehta was a tubby, uncle version of himself – the kind of man who appears in a before-and-after ad for Dr. Batra’s hair tonics. He’d have to beg for my forgiveness only because he needed a job, managing my petty expenses.
So obviously the utter normal-ness of this moment completely threw me off.
‘Um. I have no memory of whatever you’re talking about…’
‘Oh.’ The tension on his face eased up. ‘That’s… great. I mean that works just fine for me.’
And then he went unusually quiet, leaving me with a thousand questions in my head.
When we stopped at one of the volunteer water stations, I finally gave in. ‘Why now? Even if you were mean to me, why are you apologizing now?’
He scrunched his mouth. ‘It’s a bit of a… story.’
Aha! Out with it, dipshit. What do you want?
I spread my palms out. ‘I’m literally not going anywhere.’
I ditched my water bottle in a bin and slowed down to a walk. I was done with this run two minutes after it began, honestly.
‘My niece Sara – my sister’s daughter – she had a fancy-dress contest in school.’
Okay, not the opening I expected.
‘My sister was travelling for work, so as a last-minute fix, my brother-in-law and I put Sara in a white tennis outfit, gave her a racket and told her to go be that year’s US Open Champion Maria Sharapova.’
He looked over to see if I was still with him and honest to god, I was rapt. I just wanted to know how this story had anything to do with me.
‘Sara – she was ten years old at the time – she’s dark-skinned. Like almost a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk brown?’
‘Ohhhhhhhhhhhh,’ I said, because my mind was so programmed to think worst case scenarios in any setup that involved schoolchildren.
‘Yeah.’ He nodded. ‘Her “friends” told her “You look like one of those ugly Williams sisters. The big, chunky one, whatever her name is” – and that’s a direct quote.’
I bit my teeth. ‘Wow. Those kids are dicks and racists.’
Mehta sighed. ‘Now my niece knows nothing about tennis. We just put her in the easiest, hack of a costume we could think of. She came back from school howling.’
He shook his head.
‘My brother-in-law – he’s like the most amazing dad you’ve met, okay? He YouTubed all the videos he could find and showed Sara how cool the Williams sisters actually are.’
‘Did it work?’ I asked, even though I knew the answer.
‘Not really. She was just stuck on that one word – ugly.’
I looked away from him. I didn’t even know Sara and I hated those kids.
‘I went back home and read up about it. The way bullying affects kids, especially girls. And I remember thinking – thank god this never happened to me. And then I thought – Oh, wait.’ He scratched his head again, all sheepish. ‘Since then I’ve been working up the courage to talk to you.’
I gave him a sharp nod. That’s all he was getting from me.
I picked up the pace. If I ran, I’d be in too much pain to think. But a zillion things ran through my head – things I wished I could say.
And then we arrived at the damn slope.
When we signed up, I had seen the route for the run. I knew this was coming. I had just forgotten how steep the incline was. My heart raced. My breath gave. I clutched my side and pounded on. I didn’t care that sweat from my forehead was quietly bleeding into my eyes. I didn’t notice the sizable ditch in front of me.
My ankle twisted. On a fucking incline. I could see myself, falling to the ground in slow-mo. My hands reached out just before my face could hit the tar, but my big fat butt had already made contact.
I heard a small laugh behind me. And then he was there – ‘Fuck. Vaish, are you okay?’
‘Are you fucking laughing?’ It hurt like shit to even try to get back up.
Nobody ran past us. We were that behind in the damn run.
‘No that was – I didn’t realize you were hurt. I thought you were doing a little jig.’ He crouched down to touch my ankle.
I hit his hand away. ‘A jig? Really? It’s funny isn’t it, when a fat person falls? Is that what you liked? When Yokozuna played his signature move throwing himself down on people? Crushing them with his weight? You laughed at that?’
‘Oh shit, Pandya.’ He covered his face with a large hand, and for a moment I spoke to the little skin that showed up between the slits of his fingers.
‘You know how many times I’ve gone back and checked my photos from that time? I wasn’t even that fat, asshole.’
He pulled his hand down. I looked away.
‘I think about it all the fucking time. What my whole life would look like if some asshole hadn’t told me I was abominable at such a young age.’
For a moment he held my gaze like he was waiting for more.
Then, he sighed. ‘Listen, I know that “sorry” doesn’t cut it. But I really am very sorry. You weren’t abominable. I was.’
There was no trademark grin on his face. No cocky smile waiting to spring up on you. Just earnest, unwavering eye contact, with his caterpillar brows all furrowed in what looked like genuine worry.
‘Can I help you up? We’re like five-six hundred meters away from the finish line.’
‘I don’t care about the fucking run.’
‘Neither do I. But we do have a first aid tent at the finish. I can tape your ankle up. Can I see if it’s swollen?’
He stretched out a hand even though I was basically wishing him death with my eyes. His fingers landed on my skin like birdwings, before gently tightening into a hold. He moved my foot at the ankle, slowly.
‘Looks like a sprain.’ He crossed his fingers and then spoke to my ankle. ‘Please, be just a sprain. Can you get up? Slowly?’
I realised a second later that the question was for me.
‘I think so,’ I growled.
He slipped his arm under mine and held up a palm against my back. I split all my weight between the one good foot and the hand on the floor to push myself up.
When I finally managed to stand up and hobble, half my body rested against his. It was the strangest feeling. The skin between us was warm, like it knew something that we didn’t.
‘Does your niece still feel weird about being dark?’ I said, just to fill up the silence.
‘Mmm? Yeah. A little. But this year, she’s really gotten into singing and rap. And she really likes M.I.A. – who’s brown, like her. So that helps.’ He frowned. ‘People in school still call her names, though.’
‘Yeah, I hope we don’t have to wait for all her bullies to have nieces before they grow a pair and apologize.’ I smiled, honey and acid in my voice.
He had the decency to look mortified.
He helped me down the slope until I could see the last stretch to the finish line where most of our class stood against the barricade, high-fiving, celebrating, taking pictures. No sign of Anisha or Akshay.
Rohan saw us first and yelled. ‘Pandya, are you okay?’
I grimaced and gave him a thumbs up.
‘We don’t have to go all the way,’ Rishabh said quietly into my ear. ‘I can take you out past that barricade. Short cut to the first aid tent.’
I looked at the rest of my classmates. Many of them hooted as we made our way.
‘Can we…’ I sighed. ‘Go past the finish line? If it’s not too much trouble.’
His smile was shaped like the Nike swoosh on his shoes. ‘Not at all.’
Anisha clapped a hand to her mouth when she first saw me. Then, she screeched. ‘Come on Vaish! Yesssss. Yessss. Yessss.’
They were standing right by the finish line, her and Akshay, wearing giant grins and cheering.
I asked her the question with my eyes. She blushed beetroot red. But Akshay casually raised their joint hands and blinked, all cute and coy.
I felt bad for Rishabh. He’d been an asshole. But this was going to be weird for him.
‘You okay?’ I asked.
‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
I pointed my chin at Anisha and Akshay, who were scrambling past the crowd – hand in hand – to stay level with us. He looked at them and turned back to me, confused.
‘You like Anisha, don’t you?’ I said, stepping on the black-and-white flex they’d put out to mark the finish line.
His face broke into the biggest laugh I’d ever seen. ‘You’re joking, right?’
‘No. That’s why you tried to delay her today. With your whole lost bib scam.’
Anisha came at us then, half-screaming with excitement. ‘Oh my god, you did it! What even happened to your leg?’
Rishabh deftly released his hold so Anisha could take his place, while still staring at me like I was an idiot.
‘I’ll have someone get you a crepe bandage,’ he said, before giving me a slow, very deliberate blink of his extra-long lashes. ‘See you around, Vaish.’
He walked into the crowd, the back of his curly head standing out among the others.
Anisha stared at me. ‘Um. Why was Mehta being weird?’
I let out a long breath. ‘No idea.’
Nikita Deshpande is the author of It Must’ve Been Something He Wrote, a romantic comedy set in the world of publishing. She’s also a screenwriter, poet and filmmaker-in-progress and has previously assisted filmmakers on movies like Fukrey & Mirzya. Her work has been featured in Buzzfeed, The Rumpus, Scroll, Daily O and Grazia, among others. She lives in Mumbai where she hoards stationery and competes with her partner everyday to see who makes the perfect cup of filter kaapi.
Read her pieces, here.
This of such a great read!! I wish I was reading a novel of yours!
Some writers you can never get enough of ❤️
Super story and wonderful writing. Nikita. I enjoyed reading it.