Tall Tales

Questions of height come back to trouble Fayes T Kantawala long after he thought they were resolved

Tall Tales
The last time I remember being small – in the sense of diminutive – I was at a dinner party that my parents took me to when I was four. I don’t remember where it was or even when exactly, but I do remember playing hide and seek with some other kids there. We were running around weaving between a forest made up of the guests’ legs. We probably irritated too many people, because at some point someone swooped me up in their arms and kept me there: aloft and helplessly out of the race still raging on the forest floor below.

“I can’t wait to get bigger,” I thought. “No one will be able to pick me up.”

Be careful what you ask for, because as it happens I did grow over the next several years – just not as vertically as I would have liked. For most of my childhood I was average height, which is perfect for when you’re in middle school where nothing is worse than attracting unwanted attention for either the tallest or smallest kid in class. But I was fat. Rosy cheeked and charming, but quite decidedly fat. I never felt particularly unhappy being fat, unless a teacher poked at my belly asking me why I didn’t play sports more. (“I don’t know Teacher Asma, why do you have only one long eyebrow and smell like karma and repression?”)

Poking aside, I was lucky because even though I was fat and round, I was in the same class as a boy called Muhammed Bin Ahmed, a child of such planetary proportions that his sheer mass eclipsed me like a dwarfed but grateful moon. In an early discovery of Insta-shaming, I used to insist on standing next to him for school photographs so that I looked slimmer in comparison. (alphabetically I was meant to stand next to a pap-smear called Hassan Kashif, a boy so painfully thin that he had to burrow extra holes into the smallest belt). You can still see me in that class five picture, beaming cherubically next to a surly but sturdy M Bin Ahmed.

'Standing Tall' by Danielle Peleg

Another advantage of being larger is that you don’t get physically bullied as much and although it wasn’t something I actively used, I did realize that as a reading non-sports-playing boy with fat cheeks, a colonial accent and a slightly effeminate hairdo (Odeon Barbers, serving bowlcuts since 1989), I was a target.

And so all my classmates grew up, and I noticed their chin hair become beards, their fuzzy mustaches become stubble and their lanky limps grow longer. Although I remained fat, I was still a pretty average height. Then one summer I went to America and stood in a Filene’s Basement changing room with 360-degree mirrors, and I don’t think I’ve been the same ever since, to be honest. After that summer I came committed to a new diet but also with such epic growing pains that I thought the rest of my life would be spent doubled over in bed. I walked into the new school year a full four inches taller, and over the next few years kept adding height until I reached over six-and-a-half feet.

Being tall requires a certain adjustment in both mind and spirit. Nothing fits. You have to slide into most seats with your legs crossed under your chair like a polite princess because any other way will crush your knees. Then your knees stick out sideways and you get bumped by passing leg traffic or that stupid trolley that they have on planes. Traveling is a painful experience second only to shopping. You have to crouch for practically everything you do from cutting an onion to checking yourself in a mirror because nothing in this world is made for you. As a result you will spend a lifetime hunching over, so as to diminish your size. And in related news, you will always have a backache. As you grow older the questions will only change slightly from “Are you playing basketball?” to “Where are you playing basketball?” to “So do you still play basketball?” There isn’t much you can do about it, and nor is it necessary to do anything about it, because there are worse things in the world than people assuming you play sports even though the closest you got to a basketball was watching Space Jam. You get used to it.

So used to it, in fact, that when, like recently, someone much taller comes into my orbit and makes me feel small again, it feels decidedly weird. Abid came to my place last week on a trial run as a cook and had been referred to me with a long list of references and compliments, so I asked him to start on Monday. But as he had to duck to fit through my front door and slowly rose to his full height, I felt suddenly and deeply intimidated based on nothing else but his size. Suddenly I was four again, running between a forest of legs and the discomfort was real. But isn’t that size-ist, to judge someone poorly based solely on an attribute that is completely out of their control? He was polite, kind and qualified. It’s not like people can decide height. If he makes me feel small and weak in front of him, isn’t that my problem?

While I was considering these things, I went to drape a shawl around myself so I would appear broader and hunched to see my reflection in my short mirror. I chuckled, because I was being so absurd.

So we welcomed the looming presence of Abid into the house over the past week, and when he isn’t banging into the furniture he has proven himself to be a gentle and hardworking man. As Teacher Asma used to say in between fat-shaming pokes, “there is no problem without a solution”. In this case I get to feel both smug for not being sizeist but more importantly grateful that he makes me look like a twig. Win win.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com