ETWA|Ch16b: Stimulus and Response

Photo by Karine Germain on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Samyukta aka Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I started this project as part of #NaNoWriMo2020 before I fell off the wagon. Hope you will read along as I get back to writing it. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page. Subscribe to my writing here.

When they got home, Achams was pacing in the living room. As soon as she sees Papa, she begins talking urgently.

“Mone, I have to go back home. Today. Book me a ticket.” she says still pacing. She holds on to me. Her hands feel papery and cold. 

“What? Why? Amma, calm down,” Papa replies holding her by the shoulder gently and making her sit down. I sit next to her holding her hand and stroking it.

“Sreeja, make some tea. Okay, let’s drink some tea and then talk about this,” says Papa in a comforting tone.

“No, I have to go home. Bhagavathy came to me in my sleep. See, I am still shaking from seeing her vishwaroopam. She was so radiant and commanding. Echmu was with her. I saw Echmu.” Achams closes her eyes, folds her arms in prayer and smiles in awe and gratitude. 

“I was reading on the balcony and I think I dozed off. Next thing I remember, I am standing in front of the sreekovil in the temple during thalapoli. I am alone. Can you imagine? Bhagavathy walks out holding my Echmu’s hand”. Achams closes her eyes again with a content smile as if reliving this recent event.

“And then?” she’s piqued Papa’s interest. Mama is standing by the kitchen door listening to the story. 

She says, “Bring me your little one. I’ll take care of everything. And Echmu says, I would also like to see her.” At the mention of Echmu, Mama retreats into the kitchen making a face.

“Bring me your little one. I’ll take care of everything. And Echmu says, I would also like to see her.”

“Thalapoli is almost here. I have to go and I have to take Ammu. We have to participate in the festivities. It will be a good break for her as well. And she can study from there. Here, take my phone if you want. The landline has been dead for a while. No one calls on it so I haven’t bothered to get it fixed. She wont have access to a phone. Anyway there’s no computer or Internet in my house. I’ll call you from your brother’s phone.” By then Mama was back with tea for everyone.

“Did you hear what she said?” Papa looks up at Mama. “Yes, most of it.”

“Amma, you keep your phone. We have also been thinking that a change of scene could do her some good. She needs to be back here in three weeks for an appointment but otherwise it’s entirely alright by us. Even if she calls her friends from there, they are not going to drop everything in the middle of their exam prep to come to her aid. I’ll get you a flight for tomorrow. Also she can do whatever she wants in these three weeks. We have found a way to cure her.” Papa tells Achams.

“Sreeja, you want to come with us?” Achams asks Mama.

“No, I can’t. We have Vaithi sir’s daughter’s wedding to attend. That’s a four-day affair. I could come after that. We’ll see, I think she will be alright there with you.”

The psychiatrist seemed to have done a stellar job of buoying her parents’ trust in her. Sam was careful not to let the news of freedom from house arrest settle into her brain and make her heart soar. She had become very wary of the machinations of her mind.

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ETWA|Ch16a: Stimulus and Response

Photo by Rinck Content Studio on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Samyukta aka Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I started this project as part of #NaNoWriMo2020 before I fell off the wagon. Hope you will read along as I get back to writing it. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page. Subscribe to my writing here.

“I think the women we met today were homosexuals”, Sreeja tells Vineeth as they get into bed. 

“What? No way.” Vineeth replies.

“One of them said that she was too busy with work to marry. And the other said she wasn’t allowed to marry the person she loved, so she didn’t. Doesn’t that sound strange to you?”

“You are overthinking this. That’s why you are seeing them everywhere you turn. Especially in that generation. There is no way.”

“Alla, I was thinking…” Sreeja continued.

Vineeth cut her short. “By the way, Vaithi sir and wife had come over to officially invite us for his daughter’s wedding. It’s the next weekend but he has also invited us to the engagement, mehendi and what not earlier in the week. The wedding card is in the living room.”

“What a fancy wedding card!” says Sreeja, returning from the living room opening the ornate paper box that contained four separate cards within. Vineeth lowers his voice though they are alone in the room, and continues. 

“He also mentioned something else. He suggested a doctor who could cure Ammu.”

“What kind of doctor? A psychiatrist?” Sreeja hides her face in her hands. When he hears her sniffling, Vineeth puts his arm around her and pulls her close, “But Sreeja, we have to try.”

*

They meet the psychiatrist at his plush home in Koramangala. They walk in through a side door that leads to a room that’s set up like a living room with two couches at right angles. Where you’d expect to see a dining table, is a desk with a computer and a swivelling chair. As they walk in, the doctor comes over from his desk to sit with them on the couch.

The doctor has one of those serious faces that unexpectedly transform into a friendly one when he smiles. The session starts with light banter and basic information about Sam. He peppers these with random questions. 

“Would you say you are closer to your mother or father?”, he asks.

“Father.”

“Do you have close friends who are boys?”

“Yes, two of them. Ayaan and Siam.

“Would you describe yourself as a tomboy?”

Vineeth answers this question. “She used to be as a child. That’s how we got her involved in Bharatanatyam. That seems to have helped.” He looks at Sreeja like a proud nerd. Sam feels like Papa just punched her in the guts. She leans back into the couch. Her years of training in Bharatanatyam was not to fulfil his wish to see her as a dancer. It was to make a ‘proper girl’ out of her. In that moment, the pursuit of dance seemed utterly pointless to her. 

The doctor was addressing me now. “…I am not surprised that you like women. It’s more common than you would imagine. Most women feel attracted to men because of otherness. There’s a mystery around how the other gender works. But when girls have close relationships with men—be it their father, brother or friend—they begin to identify closely with men. In such cases it’s possible that they start thinking of women as the other. And hence the attraction.”

But when girls have close relationships with men—be it their father, brother or friend—they begin to identify closely with men. In such cases it’s possible that they start thinking of women as the other. And hence the attraction. 

Turning to her parents, he said without emotion, “These could also be activities she has learned as a result of sexual abuse.” Her parents were visibly taken aback. 

Sam knew that conversion therapy, the official name for what was going on in this faux living room, was illegal. Not that that stopped anyone from doing anything in India. She also knew that no amount of treatment was not going to change how she felt about Madhu. But how was she going to get out of this situation? She felt the noose tightening around her neck. 

“Have you ever been sexually abused as a child?” he asked Sam nonchalantly.

“No”, came her reply, akin to the sedate muscle memory response to ‘how are you?’—‘I’m fine’. Her mind went back to the school bus driver in primary school who used to put her on his lap and let her “drive” the bus. She was not the only one. He played with most children on the bus. She remembers feeling uncomfortable with his touch. She zoned out of the conversation to consider how her parents would react if she told them what the guruji had done.

When she rejoined the conversation, he was saying, “There’s nothing to worry. This is very treatable. We can start with counselling to help her see the trouble with her ways and see if it is possible to replace her feelings with something more acceptable. If that doesn’t work there are more invasive techniques we could use.”

“What would that include?” Vineeth wanted to know.

“One way is to use aversion techniques like in alcohol addiction where we tweak the response to a stimulus. Here, it would help her unlearn homosexual urges by providing negative reinforcement. If that doesn’t work, there’s hormone therapy and other medications we could try. Electro-convulsive therapy is also an option in some cases.” 

He was spelling out the worst of Indian psychiatry to her parents. She had read horror stories online of queer folk forced into conversion therapy by their families. They were going to torture her till she ‘turned straight’. She shut out those thoughts by counting the six teal velvet cushions repeatedly in English, Hindi, Kannada and Malayalam.  

Seeing the parents’ worried faces, the doctor added quickly. “Especially in teenagers, counselling is enough to change their mind. They are usually very receptive to therapy.”

Glancing at the clock on the wall, he prepared to end the session saying, “This is a very good start. Let’s make an appointment in a couple of weeks.” He opened the calendar on his phone. Same time, three weeks from now. Does that work for you?”

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ETWA|Ch15b: Sam’s Day Out

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Samyukta aka Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I started this project as part of #NaNoWriMo2020 before I fell off the wagon. Hope you will read along as I get back to writing it. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page. Subscribe to my writing here.

From the outside, Ratna’s apartment looked old and unremarkable with naked blotches of chipped paint. Indoors, it was a different story. The woman who opened the door introduced herself. “Hello, I am Ayesha. Please come in. Ratna is with the dogs inside.”

I was awestruck by how elegant Ayesha looked with her salt and pepper hair carelessly knotted into a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore an impeccably draped printed cotton sari in mauve. Her kohl-rimmed eyes were bright and she wore beautiful silver hoops in her ears. Her bangles tinkled as she closed the door behind us.

The other woman, who I presumed was Ratna, was in the living room, holding a door slightly ajar. Three dogs peered out from behind the door. “They are very friendly. I just wanted to give you a heads up before letting them out.” 

“Of course”, said Achams before Mama could open her mouth. By the time she managed to say that she did not like dogs, the furries were among us.   

They were called Coco, Poppins and Jalebi. Ratna’s niece had named them. Mama sat still on the couch, her palm folded into a fist in her lap and her legs tucked as close as possible to the couch. Sensing her discomfort, Ayesha said, “Don’t be scared. Let them smell you once and then they will go away.”

Poppins, who was the most social of their dogs, approached Mama who held her breath. Poppins smelled Mama’s feet, wagged her tail and looked up in anticipation. When Mama didn’t show any interest, Poppins moved on to Achams who held up her open palm for inspection. She examined it and rested her chin on Achams’ lap. Achams broke into a smile and scratched her ears. 

Once Poppins approved us, Coco and Jalebi came over demanding to be petted. I was more than happy to oblige. And since we were in someone else’s house, Mama could not say anything. She glared at me but I avoided her eyes. I didn’t care. This was the happiest I had been in a while. “You like this, don’t you?” I cooed to Coco, scratching her snout. 

“How do you know each other?” Mama asked as we sat around the dining table eating piping hot poori aloo. The pooris were green in colour and that amused me no end. 

“Oh, the both of us moved to Bangalore in the 1990s. We met during a symposium we organised about microfinance. I was still in college studying economics and Ayesha was working in a nonprofit then. We moved in together when we realised that it would be wiser to pool our meagre resources.” Ratna explained. “Only once it was clear that we could get along without killing each other.” interrupted Ayesha, laughing. 

“Marriage?”, Mama thought nothing of prying.  

“Oh there was no time for that”, Ratna chuckled. “We were so caught up with work. My parents gave up once I got my PhD. There were a couple of proposals but the PhD made me overqualified to be a wife.” Ayesha laughed out loud in response. Mama smiled politely.

Soon after breakfast, Achams and Ratna headed out to the temple so that they could be back by lunch time. Ratna and Achams drove out of the apartment as we watched from the balcony. We decided to stay on the balcony, taking in the warm winter sun.

“What are you going to study after school?” Ayesha asked, turning to me. 

“Papa wants me to become a dancer but he also says that it will not be a viable career. So I want to become a biochemist like him and make time for dance.” I said, realising how much things had changed at home and how distant that dream felt now. 

“That’s great. What kind of dance do you do?” she asked.

“Bharatanatyam.”

“Super. What colleges are you applying to?”

“Only colleges in Bangalore”, Mama cut in. “We don’t want to send her out of station. You can’t be too careful when you have a girl child. Do you have children?” Mama changed tack, reading the room.

“Yes! Here,” she said pointing at the three mutts lounging with us on the balcony. Jalebi was keeping watch, low growling at a crow on a tree nearby. The crow did not seem to care. Coco was sprawled out in a patch of sunshine on the floor and Poppins lay curled up by Ayesha’s feet.

“I’ve never been married. If that’s what you are asking. I couldn’t marry the person I loved so I decided not to marry at all.” Ayesha said with a finality that told Mama to drop it.

“I’ve never been married. If that’s what you are asking. I couldn’t marry the person I loved so I decided not to marry at all.”

“That’s okay. You have such a good life now. It is all worth it.” said Mama, taking a sip of her cold tea.

Noticing Jalebi’s tail spinning like a helicopter rotor, Ayesha looked over the balcony to see Manjunath and his mother Rajamma sweeping the streets. Jalebi let out an excited bark and they looked up, and waved at Ayesha. “I first met them when we were working on a project to get all pourakarmikas like them ID cards. They work under such terrible conditions and the corporation keeps going back on its promises.”

“Why?” I asked.

“The corporation used to hire pourakarmikas on a contract basis through contractors. But these middlemen often delayed or withheld payment to these workers. Pourakarmikas protested to have this contract system abolished. The government agreed in June 2017. But they are yet to regularise the contract workers.” Mama seemed bored with our conversation as she got up to scan the plants in the corner. 

“Are those begonias? she asked, pointing at a plant with whorl-like leaves and no flowers.

“Yes. We have them in two more colours in the other balcony. Why don’t you take a look? Tell me what you like and I’ll make cuttings just before you leave”, she said pointing to one of the rooms which presumably contained the other balcony. 

She turned to me and continued, “Are you interested in this work? Let’s go into my office then. I’ll show you some more details.” I nodded and she got up to lead the way. Turned out the balcony she was pointing towards was attached to the room that doubled as her office.

I sat down on the earthy red couch while she fetched her laptop and a box of photographs. Mama opened the door to the balcony and took in the beauty of Ayesha’s much loved plants. Mama loved plants too. She walked about petting them and stopping to notice how obediently her vines grew. 

Ayesha told me about the struggles of pourakarmikas, who were predominantly Dalits and Bahujans. She spoke about manual scavenging, a practice made illegal by law but continues to be practiced. “I have lived my whole life in an apartment. And I’ve never once thought about what happens after I flush my toilet”, I said. “Well, you are not alone in that”, she said matter-of-factly. 

Among the photographs from the pourakarmikas’ protest, we found a set of postcards. “This was a project we did in the mid-2010s” said Ayesha, glancing over the postcards. “We had organised a photo exhibition around the transgender community and labour. “Flip it over. Each postcard carries the story of the person in the photograph”, she said.

Achams came back right before lunch time with some assorted flowers and sweets from the temple. She also got me an auspicious ring that would bring me luck. I felt disappointed that Achams was taking my parents’ side.

As we sat down to lunch, Achams said to Mama. “Whatever money was left from the poojas, I put it in the collection box there. Since it was money that we had earmarked for her, I thought it was best to offer it to the gods and not bring it back. Bhagawan put that thought in my head at the right time.”

“Oh, good. Nannayi. I hope it is all a part of his plan.” Mama replied.

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Next Chapter | Ch 16a: Stimulus and Response

ETWA|Ch15a: Sam’s Day Out

Photo by Devon Janse van Rensburg on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Samyukta aka Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I started this project as part of #NaNoWriMo2020 before I fell off the wagon. Hope you will read along as I get back to writing it. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page. Subscribe to my writing here.

Achams is the only one who noticed that she was shaken when she got home. Sam leaves her sweatshirt on the bed and heads into the bathroom. When she emerges a while later, Achams is seated on Sam’s bed, looking out of the window on the opposite wall. She turns around and smiles at her. Sam does not smile back. Instead, she averts her eyes and lies down on her bed facing away from Achams. Achams moves up to caress her hair and runs her hands over the side of Sam’s body. 

Achams was an affectionate person but not a good hugger. Achams’ best act of endearment was to hold Sam’s chin up and smile at her. Even when Sam initiated the hug, her hugs weren’t warm and effusive. But she let you know how much she loved you with her touch. When she passed you in the dining room, she would touch your shoulder or pat your head. She would hold your hand and pat it if you sat next to her. If you were lying in bed she would sit on the edge of the bed with her legs hanging off and stroke your head, arms, thighs and feet.

When she did this in soothing strokes, Sam turned around and as always wrapped her body around Achams, bringing her knees up and curling her head down so that her hair cascaded down the edge of the bed. She lay there, eyes closed, welded into Achams. Achams asked her,

“Do you know where Bull Temple Road is?”

“Not really.” Sam replied, with her eyes still closed.

“But would you like to go there with me?” Achams asked in a cheerful voice. 

“But I am not allowed to leave the house without my parents.”, Sam said, more as a question, opening her eyes to check if Achams was joking.

“Oh, we’ll fix all that!” said Achams, with a straight face. 

“Let’s go on a trip tomorrow. I’ll set it all up. I have to meet that old friend of mine I was talking about.” Achams had called Ratna while Sam was in the bathroom crying. She was in luck since the next day was Sunday.  

“Mone, she doesn’t know anyone on that side of town. What is the maximum she will do? Talk to her friends? It’s just for a day. She has no money, no phone, nothing.” Achams argued passionately with Vineeth. “What is your worst fear? That she will run away?”

“No, no, Amma”, Vineeth scoffed. “Where will she run away to? She has no money or any place to go to. But on the other hand, anything could happen. We have to be prepared for everything. My worry is that she will talk to her friends and make a plan.”

“Pfftt, in a day? We’ll be gone for barely eight hours. I’ll watch her. I’ll make sure she doesn’t talk to any of her friends.” Achams offered her guarantee.

Since Vineeth and Sreeja looked at each other, fidgeted and did not reply, she said, “If you are so unsure, send Sreeja with us. Three of us will go.”

Turning to Sreeja she asked, “How is that for a plan Sreeja? You can sit with her in Ratna’s house and I will go get the pooja done. You don’t have to let her out of your sight the whole time.”

Vineeth answered the question for Sreeja, “That sounds like a plan. I sat down with Mani anna and made a list of poojas to get done. This along with all that we got done with guruji today should put an end to her miseries. That was a really expensive affair today. Mani anna had warned me so I had carried one lakh in cash but the bill was around two point something. But it’s still a bargain to secure her future, no?” Sreeja nodded in agreement.

Achams opened her mouth and closed it without speaking.

Vineeth was asking Sreeja if Rs 25,000 will do for the next day’s pooja. “We should carry more, Rs 50,000 perhaps. Just in case”, she replied.

This time Achams couldn’t hold back, “Isn’t that a lot to pay for her bright future?”

“Haha, what world do you live in Amma? It’s less than her school fees for a year.”

The next day, Sam, Sreeja and Achams started from home early in the morning. They were expected at Ratna’s house for breakfast. Sam sat between her mother and grandmother in the back of the taxi. Achams held her arm loosely, patting it from time to time. As they left their lane and then their neighbourhood, Sam felt a lightness come over her. She felt as if she were breathing after a long time. In that warm taxi with all the windows rolled up, driving down empty Sunday roads, she felt like she could think.

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Next Chapter | Ch15b: Sam’s Day Out

Dear Reader

A very promising test cake

Happy Monday! I am taking a week’s break from writing the novel. So there won’t be any chapters to read this week.

I have a couple of things on my plate this week.

  • I am working on getting hard copies of The Dog We Stole published. I have got the book edited once more and I need to review changes.
  • I have published 3 back-to-back chapters with a trigger warning. I feel the story is in a really dark place right now. I want to take some time to think through the rest of the story. And we also happen to be in the middle of the book. Wish me luck!
  • My niece is turning 10 at the end of the week. It is one of my life goals to be her favourite aunt. So I am making her a fancy strawberry cake because she loves pink! Pictured here is the very promising test cake that I made over the weekend. Will post the final results here if it all goes well.
  • I have a couple of pending books in my to-be-read pile. I want to get through a couple of them this week.
  • I am a lazy writer and I want to take a breather. 🙂

Have a great week folks. Will be back with Chapter 15 next week!

ETWA|Ch14b: Planting Your Destiny

Photo by Charu Chaturvedi on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Samyukta aka Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I started this project as part of #NaNoWriMo2020 before I fell off the wagon. Hope you will read along as I get back to writing it. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page. Subscribe to my writing here.


Trigger Warning: This chapter contains mentions of sexual abuse of a minor. Reader discretion is advised.


The large hall has a high arched ceiling with a skylight that floods the room during the day. In addition to this, strategically designed hidden spotlights focus on the godman at all times making it look like he is glowing. There are thick fluted columns along the length of the hall. Five doors serve as access points to this hall and each door is flanked by a pair of windows.   

He is always surrounded by men and women in plain clothes. If you look closely, you will notice that the loose robe-like uniform of his disciples follows some kind of colour-coded organisational hierarchy. He looks like a simple man with no gimmicks about him. He does not have long hair or beard as commonly seen among godmen. He does not sport any accessory other than his constant smile. He hugs everyone he meets in long, comforting hugs that linger.

Every morning by eight, the hall is filled to the brim with devotees. Disciples sing songs in his praise. Some of them dance. Others offer water and flowers to those gathered. After nearly three-fourths of an hour of such adulation has passed, he appears on stage to a frenzied crowd in the throes of devotion. Then he regales them with one story. Once he leaves the stage, his disciples take over with more music and prayers. 

Sam sat through this morning’s session wondering how one went about booking an appointment with someone who seemed so impossibly unreachable. That’s when Mani uncle gestured to the family to get up and follow him. They go through a ‘Staff Only’ side door that opens into the dark wings of the stage. Through there, they enter another room which resembles a five-star hotel suite. As they enter, one of the disciples, ushers them towards the formal seating area. Sam can see him resting on a huge four poster bed at the far end of the room. Beyond where they are seated is a wooden dining table that could probably seat twelve. But only one ornate chair provides seating at this table. 

They get asked if they’d like tea or coffee to drink. But before they can answer, he is with them,  smiling that constant smile. He sits down and requests everyone to be seated. That’s when Sam notices that his seat looks different from theirs. He is seated on something akin to a two-seater throne. He looks really frail, seated on that humongous piece of furniture. He catches Sam staring at him and gestures to her to go to him. When she does as she’s told, he holds her hand and asks her to sit. She looks back at her parents who are pleased that the guruji has taken such interest in her. “What a fortunate girl! Do as you’re told, Ammu”, they encourage her to make the most of this opportunity. 

When she reluctantly tries to sit next to him on the throne, he moves up, making her sit on his lap. “Hahahaha”, his smile turns into a hearty child-like laugh. Her parents, Mani uncle and the disciples at his service, all laugh along making a joke of her discomfort. They are in awe of this mahatma going out of his way to put this little girl at ease. He hugs Sam close and continues his conversation. 

When she reluctantly tries to sit next to him on the throne, he moves up, making her sit on his lap. “Hahahaha”, his smile turns into a hearty childish laugh.

“I know, my child”, begins the guruji, addressing Vineeth. “A girl in the house is always a fire in the parents’ hearts. Mani has talked to me in detail about your problems. If atonement is what you wish for, it’s easy”, he says, handing them a list of offerings from the coffee table between them. “If you trust me, you can deposit the money at the entrance and we will get this done.” Handing the next sheet out he says, “This is a list of chants for the family. I have marked out the ones specifically for your purpose and the number of repetitions…like a doctor prescribes dosage,” he says, laughing at his own joke. “You can make copies of this sheet for free outside.”

Everyone in the room except Sam laughs along. Sam can feel his member through his thin, loose robe. It’s hardening below her, poking into her thighs. She tries to shift her position to no avail. She tries not to think of it. She hopes this ordeal will end soon. 

“Now, the pooja and the prayer can only clear the way for you. To actually root out the problem you have to take serious action. Here, take these birthstone pendants. There’s one for each member of the family. You can wear them around your neck or get them fixed onto a ring.” he says turning his attention to Sam.

“As for this little girl, let me have a word with her alone. Meanwhile, Mani will show you where to get all these errands done on the premises. Now please leave the room everyone”, he says, getting up. Her parents leave the room before Sam can call out to them. 

When they are alone, the godman smiles at her, still holding her hand. Sam is shaking. “Don’t be scared, my girl” he says, walking out of the room and towards the stage. “Let’s talk outside”, he says beckoning her to follow him. 

He walks right onto the stage and the crowd goes wild. In his soft, soothing voice, he says, “I have a young friend here who needs my guidance. May I request all of you to kindly clear this room. Thank you for coming today. Breakfast will be served outside”. In the meantime, someone has pushed Sam onto the stage too and she finds herself standing next to him. 

As the devotees leave the room in a well-mannered single file, he motions to his disciples to leave as well. When they do, they draw the curtains that frame all the doors and windows. She can hear people outside but they wouldn’t hear her over the din of their voices.

“See, we have this place all to ourselves now,” he opens his arms wide, as if he has performed a miracle just for her. He leads her off stage to the centre of the hall with the spotlight still following him around. He makes a performance of walking circles around her. Are you scared now, he asks. “No”, she lies. He lets go of her hand and says, “Walk with me then”. 

“True love is when one finds happiness in the happiness of their beloved, even if they are the very reason for one’s sorrow”, he recites a half-song, in his melodious voice, as they widen their circles around this rather large room. A couple of rounds later, he holds her hand again. He is telling her a story about gopikas—girls who unconditionally declare devotional love for Sreekrishna.

“Once, a visitor from Mathura goes to Vrindavan. There he meets some of Krishna’s gopikas who are still sad that they are separated from him. They take the visitor all over Vrindavan talking him through all of Krishna’s childhood antics. Then they ask, how is our beloved Krishna?” he twirls her around and grabs her back in a tight embrace.

“Why? He is living a happy life in Mathura. I don’t think he has any plans of returning”, replies the visitor hoping to elicit some jealousy or anger from them.

Sam is confused and scared. This is definitely sexual in nature. Is it not? But how can this be? He is a holy man. She squirms around in his embrace trying to get rid of him but his hold is tight.

He twirls her again. 

“But the gopikas are really happy for him. Oh, you say our Krishna is happy? That’s wonderful, they say, offering the visitor gifts for being the bearer of such incredible news.” 

Making her sit on his lap could have been for laughs. The erection could have been involuntary, right? But this certainly felt intentional. Sam feels like her feelings and thoughts are all jumbled up in her brain with logic and intention.

When he returns her to his embrace, he tries to kiss her between her breasts. When she wriggles, he squeezes her breasts hard. It hurts. Unable to process, she begins to cry. 

He twirls her again. 

This time she shakes him off violently and runs away towards the open door at the end of the hall.

Her effort throws him off his feet. As she runs away from him, he stands up and without flinching, laughs his child-like laugh.

Thank you for reading today’s chapter. As this is the first draft of the novel, I expect a lot of changes in subsequent drafts before this goes to print. I would love to hear what you thought of this chapter and how I could make this better. Hope you will leave your tips in the comments below.

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Next chapter | Ch15a: Sam’s Day Out

ETWA|Ch14a: Planting Your Destiny

Photo by pisauikan on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Samyukta aka Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I started this project as part of #NaNoWriMo2020 before I fell off the wagon. Hope you will read along as I get back to writing it. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page. Subscribe to my writing here.

“Good evening, Sreeja!” said Mani Anna barging into the house in his usual fashion as soon as the door was opened. “Good evening, Vineeth.” Namaste, he pointed his folded hands in the general direction of Achams who was seated at the dining table.

Mani Anna was a rather portly, short man. He looked like he ate curd rice daily, which he did. In fact, he liked his staple strewn with pomegranate pearls and fried curry leaves. He was a balding man who had the poise to keep it shaved. He proudly wore a long, narrow marker of his privilege on his forehead, proclaiming to the world in vertical red not to offer him food or water even if he were dying.

He wore shirts in shocking neon pastel shades, always with a pair of black formal trousers. You knew he was out ‘on official duty’ when his shirt was inserted. At all other times, like today, he paired the same shirts casually with a pair of linen shorts. 

Mani Anna was called so not for his age but his magnanimity. Like an elder brother, he took an interest in everyone’s affairs. He was the Secretary of the apartment association. He was one of those people who walked into a room feeling that the occupants of the room owed him an explanation. All his conversations started with “yes, tell me”. He also claimed to know something about everything. His expertise spared no topic of discussion including childbirth.

Over the years, he had built himself up as the person everyone turned to regardless of the nature of their problem. He had the casual air of someone who knew that people eventually fuck things up. Once they came to him and confessed their helplessness, he would take them under his wing, find a solution and then lord it over them forever. To his mind, success was having a world full of people who owed him.

“Yes, tell me…”, he looked around triumphantly for a couple of seconds and then continued. “Here, take this ladoo from Tirupati. He will make sure you are taken care of.” He said, looking at their pooja room in silent prayer. 

“I have brought you some saplings. Plants, as you know, can change the course of your destiny. Jasmine here, brings good luck. What direction is this?”, he said walking to the balcony. “Hmm, east”, he said, orienting himself. Walking back to the plants he pointed to Sreeja. “Place this jasmine near a south-facing window.” He handed the plant over to Vineeth who promptly offered it to Sreeja. She took the sapling from him, wondering how to break the news that there was no south-facing window in the house.   

Plants, as you know, can change the course of your destiny. Jasmine here, brings good luck.

“Next we have, Aloe Vera. Obviously, it’s good for the skin”, Mani Anna gestured benevolently at Sreeja to indicate that she surely knew this and continued, “but it also has healing properties. It cleans the air and spreads positive energy. Aloe Vera can go on the balcony”. Sreeja put down the jasmine plant and accepted the Aloe Vera sapling that Vineeth was now waving at her. The trio painted a funny picture, standing in the middle of the living room, passing around saplings.    

“You must have a thulasi plant, no? Where is it?” he asked, taking a few sure steps in search before realising that he didn’t know where it was. “Actually the thulasi used to be in this balcony first. But I had it moved to the utility balcony because it wasn’t growing well”, Vineeth said sheepishly.

“Tch…tch…That’s not good. Thulasi should always face towards the south-east if you want it to heal the problems you are facing. After all this is what happens when you work with half-knowledge and let women handle things”, he said walking through the kitchen to the utility balcony. Sreeja did not have time to be offended about his statement because Mani Anna was not done yet.

“Hmm, here’s a bigger problem”, he said, stopping to look around the kitchen. “See how the sink and the stove are next to each other? This is a big clash of energies.” He opened the tap and splashed some water on the stovetop, dirtying the counter. Sreeja prayed to all her gods to give her the strength to endure his tirade.

“What is Vastu Shastra?” he looked around condescendingly at Sreeja and Vineeth. Vastu is the study of how to build off of the earth’s energies. What is the stove? Fire. What is the sink?” he paused, waiting for an answer.

“Water?” Sreeja answered tentatively. 

“Yes, you have kept opposing elements next to each other. Also you have to face east while cooking. Is that the case here? Move this fridge to the south west corner. See if you can store all your grains in the south west part of the kitchen. This is not a well-planned house. Not vastu compliant. You say you are believers but you have to pay close attention to these things.” he said with a gesture suggesting that he was doing the best he possibly could, given the options available.

“Anyway, in all this I forgot what I came here for. I came to say that I have got an appointment with guruji this weekend. He will solve all your problems.”

Thank you for reading today’s chapter. As this is the first draft of the novel, I expect a lot of changes in subsequent drafts before this goes to print. I would love to hear what you thought of this chapter and how I could make this better. Hope you will leave your tips in the comments below.

Join my first readers tribe. Subscribe to my writing.

Next Chapter | Ch14b: Planting Your Destiny

ETWA|Ch13b: A Small Talk Tsunami

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Samyukta aka Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I started this project as part of #NaNoWriMo2020 before I fell off the wagon. Hope you will read along as I get back to writing it. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page. Subscribe to my writing here.


Trigger Warning: This chapter is about domestic violence. Reader discretion is advised.


Vimala returned from the wedding by Sunday afternoon. She sat next to Semmalar by the window, she sniffed on limes and puked all the way into the city. Bus rides never agreed with her. She was enroute a fitful, dreamless sleep when they got to their stop and had to get off the bus. She was groggy and dazed even when they turned into their street. She was looking forward to sleeping off the wedding fatigue.

“You think it’s normal?” Anban asked, softly as their house came into sight. Vimala’s sleepy brain scrambled signals to decode this. What did she think was normal that he didn’t approve of?

Their marriage was essentially a construction project. They had built a system of need-based communication that kept emotions out. Whenever she spoke to him, it was always after she had practised it in her head. On Sunday mornings, when she was at home when he woke up, he spoke to her cordially through his hangover. Even in that familiar banter, she was always careful to avoid spontaneity. Then what was this ‘abnormal’ thing that had slipped out of her mouth? She thought back to the wedding, as she opened the door to their house.

A kick sent her flying through the door.

“Ayyaa”, she screamed trying to hold on to thin air. She tumbled all the way to the far end of the room. He continued with his exertions until she was on the floor.

“You think it’s normal for girls to sleep together, you bitch!”, he spat out his anger in slow, sharp words. His voice was so low, it was almost a whisper. “Is this what you are teaching your daughters? Are you encouraging them to sleep around? I’m sure you’ll pimp them out too.” She tried to get up but he wouldn’t relent.

Something was different about this time. Vimala could use a minute to put a finger on it. But something was certainly different. Anban was usually loud and happy while hitting her. There have been times when she has laughed despite the pain because of how funny his dialogues were. But this was different.

Semmalar who was shocked at first by this sudden violence, steps in to help her mother off the floor. She is flung outward as if the walls were magnetised. She lands on the table fan in the corner, toppling it onto her feet. The impact of hitting the wall, gives her a shiny, round bump on the forehead. Her feet hurt, so did her head. 

Anban was looking around as the women gathered their wits. What was different about him this time? Vimala tried to jog her brain. What was he looking for?

She moved closer to Semmalar gesturing with her eyes for her to leave through the back door as always. When Anban noticed this, he grabbed the radio on the window sill and sent it riding the sound waves over to them. The radio hit the stool on which the table fan previously sat and broadcast itself all over the floor next to them.  

He was sober! That was it. Anban had always hit her only when he was drunk. Over the years, many times over, she had spent money she didn’t have to send him to church-run deaddiction centres and other therapies. Each time, on the last day of the program, he would come home drunk. It was as though she was paying to get hurt.

He was sober! That was it.

He was sober. There was now a new urgency in Vimala’s movements. She didn’t know what this beast could do. He was sober. He was looking to hurt. She made a lunge for the backdoor and shoved her daughter through it. She bolted the door and stood guard against it.

That’s when she noticed what his search had found that he now held in his hands like a weapon. This was going to hurt.

“What’re you doing? You’ve killed me”, she said before passing out. 

Anban walked out with the brass lamp and sat outside the house in silence. The lamp, hanging limp from his hands, was dripping blood onto the floor, keeping count of every painful second as it passed.

Amidst this confusion, Semmalar managed to limp all the way to alert the neighbours and get help. She was so scared for her mother that she was unable to speak.

In the hospital, Vimala is rushed into surgery. One of the neighbours arranges for the initial deposit. Another informs Selvi. No one thinks of Anban seated outside the house, motionless. When the anesthesia wears off, Vimala is inconsolable that she can’t go back to work for a minimum of 2-3 weeks. 

A couple of days after she is moved to the ward, Anban pays her a visit. He stands by the bedside holding a plastic bag of oranges in one hand and smoothing down the bedsheet with the other.

“I was angry. When I heard you saying those things to Vennila Akka, I was…anyway, you are out of danger”, he says, extending the oranges towards her. 

“If you kill me, my daughter has nobody. Let her finish her course at least.” she says quietly looking at her hands. 

He extends the oranges towards her again. She opens her palms and he places the bag into it. She thinks back to that first year of marriage when he used to buy her flowers every evening. This was the first time in years that he had gotten her something. A part of her was happy to be in that hospital bed. 
But then she laid back and closed her eyes because the rest of her was realising that this man standing next to her could actually kill her one day. The oranges continued to sit obediently in her palms.

Thank you for reading today’s chapter. As this is the first draft of the novel, I expect a lot of changes in subsequent drafts before this goes to print. I would love to hear what you thought of this chapter and how I could make this better. Hope you will leave your tips in the comments below.

Subscribe to my monthly short stories newsletter to support my writing.

Next Chapter | Ch14a: Planting Your Destiny

ETWA|Ch13a: A Small Talk Tsunami

Photo by Tia Saha on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Samyukta aka Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I started this project as part of #NaNoWriMo2020 before I fell off the wagon. Hope you will read along as I get back to writing it. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page. Subscribe to my writing here.

“Madam, when I go on leave, can you give me my salary in advance?”

“What are you saying, Vimala? It’s not even the middle of the month!” Sreeja sounded surprised that Vimala would ask for an advance.

“I know madam. It is my sister’s son’s wedding. I can’t go empty handed, no?” Vimala knew the drill. Sreeja would give her the money but only after she put her through the wringer.

“I hope you will show the same enthusiasm when it comes to repaying this loan”, Sreeja continued accusatorily.

“You can start cutting from next month only ma. But this month you tell Sir and adjust please.” Vimala pleaded.

“I’ll see what I can do. But you will have to come on Sundays to make up for lost time”, Sreeja bargained.

“Yes, yes madam. After the wedding, I will come as many Sundays as you want.” she promised, sacrificing her weekly offs for a noble cause. 

Vimala had taken three days off to attend her nephew’s wedding in Denkanikkotai. Her sister Vennila was a widow, organising the wedding by herself. Vimala, Anban and Semmalar were to head over there early to help out with the wedding preparation and to fulfil their duties as the groom’s aunt, uncle and cousin. Vimala and her sister had married Anban and his brother. They caught the Wednesday night bus out of the city. Selvi and her husband would join them by Friday evening. 

In a quiet moment in the afternoon before the frenzy of wedding preparations started up again, Vimala dragged her sister by the hand to the only room in the house. Locking the door, she showed her the gold chain she had bought for the bride-to-be. 

“I didn’t know what style she would like. So I bought this chain. Is this okay?” she asked her sister for approval. 

“This is perfect. She can wear this daily also. That’s more useful than gold jewelry you have to lock up, no?” Vennila was beaming. “You should give it to her on stage. No, no. I insist. You have to do all the ceremonies also. I won’t be on stage on such an auspicious day.”

“Hmmm, okay. Anyway, here, you keep this.” Vimala extended a folded bundle of notes into her sister’s hands. “This is around Rs 10,000. Use it for wedding expenses. This is all I could manage, Akka.” Vennila hugged her close. “This is all I need”, she said, her eyes wet. “He is our boy, no?” Vimala consoled her sister. 

Vennila hugged her close. “This is all I need”, she said, her eyes wet. “He is our boy, no?” Vimala consoled her sister. 

Vimala and Vennila were very close. Their mother had died young and their father had done his best to cope. But in truth, though he was the bread winner of their family, they had practically raised themselves. They didn’t live close by anymore but the bond the sisters shared had stood the test of time. When Vennila’s husband died in a freak accident at work, Vimala was the one who ran pillar to post to get the life insurance due to her from the company. It had taken her nearly ten years to jump through all the hoops and make it happen.

Since they were the groom’s side and he was marrying his neighbour, there was nothing much to do other than to dress up, eat well and sit around in a show of solidarity. The younger women and girls busied themselves applying henna on each other’s palms in beautiful patterns. It had been a year or so since the sisters met though they talked over the phone almost daily. They sat around the steps leading to the house, their feet dangling, dishing out nostalagia and catching up on each other’s lives.

“There is a girl in one of the houses I work in, Akka. She likes girls. Yes. Likes, likes. Semmalar and I were talking about how it is normal. How means she didn’t choose to be this way, no? I’ve been trying to look at her just as a young helpless child which is what she is”, said Vimala speaking up proudly, showing off to Semmalar that she had taken her advice. Semmalar who was distributing tea to everyone seated in the shamiana outside the house, looked up and smiled at her, giving her a thumbs up. 

“Poor thing, that girl. Her parents have locked her up at home. It’s literally a house arrest. No phone, no computer, no friends. They don’t even talk to her. Till last month she was the apple of their eye. Their lives revolved around her and her dance performances. You know, her mother used to grow turmeric in their balcony so that the girl applied only the best, organic product on her face. Suddenly. How fortunes turn, no?”

“Yes, life has a way of shaking things up when you least expect it” said Vennila. From the vacant look in her eyes, Vimala wasn’t sure if Vennila was talking about Sam or about the death of her husband when her son was only five.

Thank you for reading today’s chapter. As this is the first draft of the novel, I expect a lot of changes in subsequent drafts before this goes to print. I would love to hear what you thought of this chapter and how I could make this better. Hope you will leave your tips in the comments below.

Subscribe to fictionhead to read more independent fiction:

Next Chapter | Ch13b: A Small Talk Tsunami

ETWA|Ch12b: Are Eyes For Seeing?

Photo by Shawn Ang on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Samyukta aka Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I started this project as part of #NaNoWriMo2020 before I fell off the wagon. Hope you will read along as I get back to writing it. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page. Subscribe to my writing here.


Trigger Warning: This chapter contains graphic mentions of suicide methods, self-loathing and alludes to mental health issues.


It could have been me. It could have been me. It could have been me. It could have been me.

She repeated like a chant. This was a newly acquired habit. It numbed her brain. A pleasant feeling. She found it hard to stop. She had been cruel to Adil and John even though it could very well have been her. If it were her, a girl, her classmates’ reaction would probably have been worse. And yet, she had been cruel. I am horrible. I am horrible. I am horrible. I am horrible. I am horrible. I am horrible. Another chant formed spontaneously. 

What if I didn’t exist tomorrow? This whole body of disgusting, lesbian me. What if I were to vanish. Would they miss me if I wasn’t in my room? How long would it be before anyone even notices? They would perhaps be happy to rid themselves of this prashnam. One less thing to worry about. One less justification to make to colleagues, friends and relatives.

Achams was snoring lightly now, periodically. Sam liked this white noise, a relaxing ASMR experience. How would I vanish? She thought, lying in bed, staring out of the window, paying no heed to the din of the city.

I could hang myself from the ceiling fan. What would I need—a saree or a belt maybe? It’s very painful, she’d heard from Siam. Zassies were talking about how the films make it look so easy. Anyway, she’s not allowed to close her room door. Nor is she ever left alone. So hanging would be a difficult feat. 

I could slit my wrists like a helpless heroine. That would be very dramatic. I could do it in the bathroom. How long does it take to bleed out? Do they keep track of how long I take in the bathroom? They probably do. I’ll need a knife or blade that’s sharp enough to make a gash deep enough. Mama would notice right away if one of her knives were missing.

Another option is to pop some pills. Achams’ pillbox is by her bedside. She has diabetes, hypertension and a heart condition. Her pillbox could literally be lethal. I could collect them over a week. I could vanish in my sleep. Would the capsules make too much noise popping and rustling as I open them?

What’s the point of living anyway? There’s no point. There’s no point. There’s no point.  There’s no point. There’s no point. There’s no point. There’s no point. There’s no point.  My parents are not going to let me be. They will not allow me to go to college. If Chinnu is to be believed, they will marry me off in a couple of months to the first man who shows interest. Just to get me off their hands. They already want to cure me. Wouldn’t I be doing them a favour by disappearing?

At least they would be able to put this shameful incident behind them and be happy again. Up until a month ago, they were a happy family, right? I used to think I was lucky to be a part of this family. And now they are worrying so much because of me. It is my fault. I am the rotten egg here. I am making Mama-Papa fight. I am getting Chetta all worked up. I am even making Chinnu pick sides. I am the bad apple. I had to go.

But there was nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to run. They’ve made it impossible to leave the house. Even if I managed to sneak out somehow, where would I go? If I went to one of my friends’ houses, their parents would send me back for sure. Their parents would surely know about me by now. If I was to leave the city, where would I go? Where and how do I catch a bus out of here?

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. She shook her head to make the loop stop.

If I were to stay in the city, where would I go? Who could I go to? Who would listen to me? Madhu. Yes, I could go to Madhu, she thought for a moment. But what could she do? If her parents got to know she liked me, they would perhaps do the same thing to her. I have no money either. All the money I won in dance competitions I’ve given Mama for safekeeping. It was just simpler to cease to exist. Cleaner. Calmer. 

Cease to exist. Cleaner. Calmer. Cease to exist. Cleaner. Calmer. Cease to exist. Cleaner. Calmer. Cease to exist. Cleaner. Calmer. Unscientific as it may be, the head shake seemed to have made the loops shorter.

She tried to imagine them finding her body. She conjured up their faces. A cold shiver went down her spine. No, that was a truly scary thought. No, I couldn’t do that. She began counting upwards from 1001 again, desperately summoning sleep.

Thank you for reading today’s chapter. As this is the first draft of the novel, I expect a lot of changes in subsequent drafts before this goes to print. I would love to hear what you thought of this chapter and how I could make this better. Hope you will leave your tips in the comments below.

Subscribe to fictionhead to support my writing:

Next Chapter | Ch13a: A Small Talk Tsunami