I didn’t know an Annapurna Somasundaram. I didn’t even know an Annapurna.
I wondered if the postman had slipped it into my box by accident. Then I noticed my name listed as the recipient.
I plucked the envelope out of the mailbox and ran into the house. Finally, my little beauties had arrived! I felt silly for not remembering the details of the auction I’d won on eBay.
Inside were 30 different packages of bindis; She-N-She, Petals, Bhoomi, and Priyanka. I sorted them by color on the kitchen table. Someone had tried to outbid me in the final seconds of the auction. Lucky me, my competitor didn’t feel “Beautiful Bindi Pottu Collection Must See!!!!” was worth more than a Lincoln. When the timer rolled to all zeros my bid of $5.75 held.
It was the easiest purchase I’d ever made.
There are much harder venues for successful bindi purchases. Anyone who prides themselves on negotiating should make a trip to Devon Street in Chicago. The first things I noticed on my visit were the signs in every shop window: “No bargaining;” “Prices are fixed.” The keepers weren’t entertaining offers on merchandise but I couldn’t stop haggling. An orange-haired auntie pointed to the bindis and said, “Twelve dollars.” “Twelve dollars?” I choked. “You can buy bindis like these online for three.”
Auntie gave her younger sidekick a look only a mob boss could perfect. The girl took the sheets from the case and set them on the counter. “These are real stones; Australian crystals. Twelve dollars is a good price.” I walked out. I was glad to go back to my computer and await its congratulatory salute for auctions won: arguments unnecessary. When I got to the door I heard a raspy voice yell, “Ten dollars!” I smiled and waved goodbye.
I haven’t always been such a savvy bindi buyer.
My rookie year consisted of bindis in aluminum cases selling for 10 dollars a pop on websites that shipped Indian groceries to civilization-challenged locations like Death Valley and Kansas City, Missouri. Most had the circumference of a dime and were studded with enough plastic gems to blind someone if they stared long enough. They were gaudy stock from an online grocer in Jersey. So what? Any design would’ve worked. I wanted to get noticed. I wore them to Wal-Mart with t-shirts and jeans. I still remember the auntie who crashed her cart into a display of fruit juice in an attempt to figure out who, or what, I was. Bindis the size of satellite dishes were beautiful but unless I was planning to shimmy down the detergent aisle in a designer sari I needed to keep them in their cases and as far away from sunlight as humanly possible.
Deciding my online grocer couldn’t satisfy a modern woman’s needs I started buying bindis directly from India via international post. This would have been entrepreneurial perfection if it hadn’t been for two things: websites with the ordering efficiency of a McDonald’s drive-thru speaker and a mail system that generously termed arrivals of one to three months “express delivery.” When the packages did arrive the only thing holding them together was thin netting along the laminated walls. They were ripped, half-shredded—like they’d been attacked by a gang of Dobermans on crack cocaine. Then there was my mailman, who didn’t understand the concept of opening a storm door and dropping a package. He always dropped it in front of the glass door and always just before it rained. There had to be a better way.
There was, but I was too afraid to use it.
Behind the counter at Ambica Foods, in Overland Park, Kan., were a ton of bindis hanging in plastic organizers. Each week I’d go in and buy packets of powder and a pound of murrukku from the plastic-lined cardboard box next to the register. Did I ever ask the shopkeeper for “sticker kum-kum?” No way! I told myself it’s okay to eat food everyone else eats, but requesting something reserved for Hindu ladies—he’s just going to think I’m wrong or weird, or both.
Weird and wrong were two things I didn’t want my desi friends to label me. They held a steady stream of birthdays and potlucks filled with acres of organza, sequin encrusted silks, and hand-embroidered peacocks dancing along metallic hemlines. My attire: one standard issue dress from JCPenney: 35 percent polyester, 65 percent BORING. After the meal, the men invariably congregated on the deck while the ladies sat in a circle on the living room floor. I couldn’t follow their conversation and didn’t recognize names of Bollywood heroes and heroines whose details flew in a barrage of Hindi and English. If they smiled, I smiled. If they laughed, I laughed. Only the girls I knew from school talked to me. Was it because no one liked me? Did they see me as an outsider? Were they waiting for me to leave so they could talk about my dress? The collective answer was no; it wasn’t about liking, it was about relating. They didn’t know what to say or what not to say to me. How could I become less foreign and more approachable? I was damn sure I wouldn’t find any dancing peacocks at The Mall of the Great Plains. But the colorful mini-works of art I saw between their eyes held promise. I mean, they were stickers after all—and I had collected stickers since I was a kid. How hard could it be to wear one on your face?
I wore a maroon bindi with a gold outline to the next event. Girls who’d previously been indifferent toward me asked where I was from, what I was studying in college; each agreeing my bindi looked splendid. The more Sneha insisted I wear a sari to the next party, the more Priya said I looked like her sister, the more I scanned eBay for bindi auctions. I spent so much time patrolling eBsay I was sure they’d ask me to join them in San Jose as a buying specialist; private cubicle guaranteed.
I dined in crushed velvet and danced in glossy faux pearls. I attended baby showers in gold flowers and graduations in silver teardrops. But there was only one style that suited my visits to the temple: Evetex Pallavi Kumkum. Teeny-tiny circles that required a sharp fingernail and a steady hand. When I needed to regain my focus I’d sit in the hall, eyes closed and push all thoughts out of my mind. Somewhere among hushed prayers and the echo of ringing bells my body sat motionless while my soul filled every corner of the room. This didn’t require anything fancy. A speck of felt channeled the connection; granted permission to let everything go, to belong.
At last count 87 packages sit in the basket next to my desk. I still wear them for camera-friendly celebrations. My daily dose remains Evetex; too many to count on the bathroom switch plate where they retire after a long day of sidewalks and coffee shops. It’s only when someone points or asks for an explanation that I become conscious of the dot in the spot; rub my finger over its fuzzy outline.
No longer does it scream, “Look at me! Accept me as your own!”
It quietly whispers, “I’ve accepted myself.”
Cristina Chopalli’s blog can be found at http://www.cristinachopalli.com.