Editor's note: Writer and former journalist Gauri Sinh's latest book — The Miss India Murders — offers a view into the world of pageants; the author was once a model herself. The story begins with Akruti Rai, 'India's sweetheart' and reigning model, watching her young niece Niamat prepare for a beauty pageant. Rai is reminded of a horrific murder that took place years ago when she was competing in a pageant herself. While walking the ramp, her co-contestant Lajwanti, also known as Lajjo, had lost her balance and fallen into Rai's arms — dead. Rai finds herself in the midst of the murder, and tries to solve it. Here's an excerpt from the book, published by HarperCollins India.
‘BEGIN,’ Avi called out, imperious, and the music streamed through. It reverberated across the stage, thunderous in the open-air auditorium. Lajjo, uncharacteristically, had already begun walking towards me from her position at base ramp. She was almost at midpoint, though her walk and the music should have commenced simultaneously. It was unlike her to be so eager, to defy Avi’s meticulous cueing and choreography.
She swayed to the sonorous march, jerked once. A trifle ungraceful, that movement, but her catwalk was still sensuous. She sashayed up the ramp to join me at the very top. As she passed the ramp’s midway point, I turned, backing her advance, facing the audience seats now.
The nineteen other contestants held positions as she passed each, edging both sides of the long ramp in formation. I was alone right at the top, ‘head ramp’ in fashion parlance, waiting with the rest. Lajjo deliberately stretched time, using it to call attention to herself. Slow, languorous, her advance. Both she and I knew how precious time on centre stage could be. The lights had faded on cue to be replaced by a lone singular spotlight on her as she walked.
Finally I heard her step behind me. It was precisely timed, though my back was to her and I faced the audience—I needed to sense her arrival, turn automatically to join her. Do this without missing a beat, as if I had eyes at the back of my head. A complicated ramp move, only very experienced models got it correct. Avi, master choreographer, had immense confidence I would not fail him in this, and so far, at every rehearsal, I had proved him right.
Now too, I heard her arrival, over the beating drums of the musical march, though today it seemed a bit misplaced, her timing. I turned to face her. We were to match steps. But instead of turning with me, to peel away from centre as we had been taught, she stopped abruptly. We stood facing each other for a split second, centre stage. Bathed in the spotlight, my heartbeat echoed the drum roll of the music in that moment, every sense on high alert. What was Lajjo upto?
I can see her now, as she looked at that moment—face a mask, eyebrows arched, as if startled. I was taking it all in as if suspended in time. A moment of acute, febrile intensity because she was behaving so oddly: her surprised face, the sweat-patch dark and sticky on the front of her red velvet gown. ‘What she’s wearing is much too tight, perspiration shouldn’t be showing so severely on it,’ I had thought, slightly repulsed at the sight.
Then, as if in slow motion, her body toppled forward, collapsing onto mine, heavy in fall despite her slight form. I held her as she fell, my reaction automatic, noting in deep shock my hands reddening where they touched her bodice as they extended to catch her. That’s when it hit me violently, the stark horror of it—that wasn’t sweat on the front of her dress. It was blood, masked by the deep red velvet colour of the gown.
‘CUT the music, spot. FULL LIGHTS!’ blared Avi from the sound console a distance away, clearly in a rage because his stars hadn’t come through, obviously unaware of what had just occurred in the very midst of his precious sequence.
That was when I saw the blade. We all did, flashing silver in the harsh glare of the just-turned on stage lights. So thin it looked like a paper cutter, the light glinting off its metallic grip-edge. Only the handle showed, intricately carved, quite breath-taking as weapons go, I thought later. I couldn’t help thinking I’d seen that handle somewhere, but at that moment, it escaped me. The rest of the blade was in Lajjo’s back, driven clean through her with great force, so it had nearly come out the other side, causing the blood to flow with such abandon that I had thought it sweat.
Lajjo, beautiful sensual Lajjo, the contestant labelled ‘Hot Chocolate’ for her lovely colour. The contestant I once thought most likely to win the crown if I didn’t, had now toppled over, lifeless on head ramp... Just moments back, Avi, in great admiration, had declared how her grace ‘killed’ him.
And here she was now, in grievous juxtaposition to his words, actually killed. Slain in a horrific, gory way, as in a bad horror movie. Audaciously, theatrically killed, with a carved silver blade in her back and blood all over the place. ‘Murder? At the Miss India pageant?’ I remember thinking, incredulous, as I held on to her, even in deep shock. Then pandemonium broke loose.
Published Date: Feb 23, 2018 16:27 PM | Updated Date: Feb 24, 2018 14:36 PM