Salaam, Paris - By Kavita Daswani


Given that I have never so much as exposed my arms in public, and that until just a few minutes ago I had been concealed, cosseted, and cloistered for most of my nineteen years, I should be leaping out of my chair and running for my life.

But I am too stunned to move.

I am behind a dressing screen, in a back room at a nightclub in Paris, a nude thong barely covering the area that only my future husband is ever meant to see. Apart from that, and two small, circular Band-Aid-type things that have been stuck onto my nipples, and which I am later told are called “pasties,” I am naked. The other girls around me, all either blond-haired or black-skinned, are smoking cigarettes and sucking from miniature bottles of champagne. A hairstylist has backcombed my long black hair with such ferocity that I fear I will never get the knots out. Someone else has applied dark purple lipstick to my mouth and slathered pale white foundation on my face, making me look like I am in dire need of a blood transfusion.

I am alone in Paris, almost nude, looking like a corpse, surrounded by smoking, drinking sinners.

I am a Muslim girl, culturally more accustomed to a black veiled burka than this wisp of a panty that is lodged in my backside.

If my elders were here, they would surely impose a fatwa on my head. It happened to Salman Rushdie, I remind myself, for a lot less.

Someone tugs a skinny sweater over my head, instructing me to purse my lips to prevent the purple from staining the white knit. Despite the pasties, my nipples poke through the thin fabric. Someone else squeezes me into a pair of pink leather hot pants. Sparkling high-heeled sandals are thrust onto my hurriedly varnished feet. A wooly coat is thrown on me; a poodle that has been dyed pink is shoved under my arm.

On the other side of the screen, I hear loud, throbbing music. I am pushed toward a short hallway, someone barking in my ear, “Allez! Allez!” Staring straight ahead, I see only white-bright lights up high, strange faces reflected in the dark.

I teeter toward them. The poodle pees in my hand.

I hear clapping, whistling, and deafening music.

This is my moment.

Chapter One

If there had ever been such a thing as a Miss Muslim contest, all but one of the women in my family would have won it.

My great-grandmother was named Sundari—which means, simply, “beautiful” in Hindi. Her daughter, my grandmother, was blessed with the moniker Abha, which translates even more vividly into “lustrous beauty.” One aunt is Gaura—“fair-skinned” and another Sohalia—“moon river”—to describe the luminescence of her face. They were the beauties of their eras, each one sought out by a man who was prominent and powerful enough to win their hearts.

All of them, except my mother.

Had a Miss Muslim contest ever existed, the beauty-pageant baton that would have been passed on from generation to generation would have stopped at her. Which is why when I was born, Parvez, the midwife who had delivered me at our home in the Mumbai suburb of Mahim, went running through the streets of our neighborhood, joyous and jubilant.

“He has listened!” Parvez yelled out to all. “Allah has visited his blessings on the Shah family once more! This child is most divine!”

They decided to name me Tanaya—which means “child of mine”—and the choice of which came as a great surprise to our relatives. After all, most of the women in my family had been graced with names that signified good looks. And here was I, signifying nothing but ownership.

“Evil eye,” my grandfather muttered when my aunt Gaura wondered out loud why I couldn’t be named something more symbolic. “Yes, she is fair and dimpled and sweet. But we have been cursed before.”

My mother, I was told, sobbed and turned her eyes away as I tried to suckle on her breast. But she instead handed me over to Gaura who had borne a son just eleven days earlier, and who would breastfeed me instead of my own mother.

As a young girl, I had no concept of being attractive. When I looked in the mirror, I saw only a girl who had few friends, a strict grandfather, a grandmother I had loved dearly but who had died when I was not quite seven, a mother who seemed sad most of the time, and a father I had never known.

It wasn’t until I was thirteen that I began to