Playing Nirmala

Diya Parial

The role of Nirmala, the school principal, has challenged me in unexpected ways.

In early rehearsals I decided that playing Nirmala was not going to be my most formidable challenge. I’d ease into it, I said to myself, no problem. After all, as a mother of a soon-to-be teenager, I had handed out my fair share of admonishments and often played disciplinarian not just to my child, but also her playmates when they came by. There had to be significant parallels with that and being the principal of a convent school in Chennai. Growing up, my school felt very much like the one Nirmala presides over. No worries, I said. I would channel my inner Nirmala with ease. I practiced haughty glances, I strutted. 

As we dug deeper though, another Nirmala emerged. One that I hadn’t expected, hadn’t contended with. Lurking behind those riveting stares and her regal nonchalance was a little girl. Standing outside, she was looking in, longing to belong. 

She wanted to join the gaggle of PTA moms that so unconsciously flaunted their married status with their taalis, whose motherhood was on display with their casually held lunch dabbas. She wanted to gossip along with them – but she didn’t belong in that invitation-only club. She didn’t have what it took to join those ranks, she’d missed that bus.

She doesn’t let that bring her down, of course. She had turned her disadvantage into her advantage, hadn’t, she? For she towered over these women, with her stature, her place in the world – and yet, she still looked at them wistfully, wondering what might have been. 

She even envies the older girls on her school. These girls, on the brink of womanhood remind her that she once was a girl; and she chosen a different path. Should she have stopped and enjoyed the occasional giggle-snort her school friends indulged in, the ones she scorned for their naiveté? Maybe life would have been different, then? 

Malini and Deepa drive home that veiled insecurity, and Nirmala oscillates between so many emotions. It’s tempting to give in to some derision for the women she envies and whose fate she now controls. But that goes against the very grain of her existence. She struggles with being firm, yet not petty and vindictive; with being compassionate, yet not acquiescing. This Nirmala, gives me pause as her thoughts hurtle past her mind, and mine. 

When you come watch, a few of you may see yourself in Nirmala. But if I had to venture a guess, I’d say most of you won’t. You will see someone, though. You may see that vice-principal from your school back home; the one with the stentorian voice you avoided by ducking into the dark recesses of your school when you saw her walking down. The one whose quiet presence was unexpectedly comforting when you waited with quaking boots outside the principal’s office for what felt like a grave misdemeanor back then. You may even see her in the leathery face of your old spinster aunt, who never cracked a smile at you, but gave the most generous holiday gift of all your relatives. 

I’m sure Nirmala will surprise you. It may even be as much as she has me?

– Diya Parial

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