Mrs. India pageant shows Md. woman an eye-opening reality

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010

When Jyoti Mahajan was growing up in Surat, India, she always wanted to enter a local beauty pageant, but her parents wouldn't hear of it.

It wasn't until she was married and living in Frederick that she was able to fulfill her dream -- and then some.

In September, on somewhat of a lark, Mahajan, 33, sent an application to the Haier Gladrags Mrs. India pageant, a contest for married women in India. Of 3,200 applicants, she was selected as one of 20 finalists. But it was more than a one-night event: The contestants had to live together in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, for several weeks for a reality TV show on Indian national television.

"Okay, you've always wanted to do it," was the reaction of Mahajan's husband, Vikas, who stayed behind in Frederick. So she packed her two toddlers off to stay with her parents, invested in a new wardrobe, and disappeared into a world of primping, preening, catfights and therapy sessions, all caught on film and broadcast in Hindi and English to friends, family and anyone who tuned in to Indian television.

Some of the contestants were doctors, some were housewives, one was widowed. Mahajan said she was on the more-seasoned side.

"There were newlyweds, 24 years old, totally thin like a bamboo stick," she said. "I'm still working on my thighs, because after each child I was on bed rest for five months each."

While less ubiquitous than similar contests for unmarried women, "Mrs." pageants are held in the United States, South Korea and India, among other places, and contestants sometimes go on to international competitions.

But entering a pageant did not immediately occur to Mahajan as she struggled to adjust to life in the Washington area.

She arrived eight years ago after meeting her husband, a U.S. citizen, online and deciding to marry two days after he flew to India to meet her in person. She knew nobody in the United States, didn't know how to drive, and soon after arriving was told that she had Type 1 diabetes and warned not to have children.

Working with a doctor, she overcame that obstacle and this past week sat in her family room with her daughters, 4 and 2. Wearing a T-shirt adorned with pearls and beads, her legs folded under her, she clicked through episodes of the seven-week show, which was taped in November and December and ran concurrently on Indian television.

Tasks and critiques

As a heavy bass beat time, the well-coiffed contestants rushed to complete tasks -- cutting up old clothes to make new ones; driving through harrowing traffic (on the left side, British-style); shopping on a budget.

"They said, 'Okay, we're giving you all $20' -- which is nothing in Bombay -- 'Go find yourself a good dress,' " Mahajan recalled. On the TV screen, the women descended on a street vendor, trying to strike bargains. Then, wearing their purchases, they stood before the contest's organizer, Maureen Wadia, for critiques.

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