ETWA | Ch9b: A Power Play

Photo by Himanshu Singh Gurjar 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.

“Vimala…”, came Sreeja’s call from the kitchen, where she was beginning to prepare dinner while eavesdropping on their conversation. She knew the servant’s place in the family hierarchy. But she also acknowledged that Vimala was a mini her. Vimala was here everyday, taking care of her family pretty much how Sreeja herself did. Vimala was almost a wife. She was also Sreeja’s conscience keeper.

Vimala walked into the kitchen tackling the topic head-on, “Madam, Sunday I am going to muthumari amman kovil to pray for Ammu. Don’t worry madam. Young children, no? Mistakes happen.” Vimala knew very well that no conversation in that house was private. 

“I don’t know, Vimala. Sometimes I think, is it something I did wrong? What could I have done differently to stop this from happening? You’ve seen her since she was a baby. What could I have done differently?” This was a rhetorical question and Vimala knew that. 

“Madam, girls are always a problem. Boy means he will find his own way. But girls, too much problem. We can never sleep properly with a girl in the house. I have two at home no? I know.” Vimala was a soothsayer.

We can never sleep properly with a girl in the house.

Sreeja and Vimala shared a precarious power dynamic. While as employer Sreeja had the appearance of absolute power, Vimala was a treasure trove of family secrets besides being a great employee that the whole family approved of. Over the years, Vimala had taken many liberties that Sreeja had expertly brushed under the carpet in exchange for her exemplary service. When Vimala didn’t agree with a family member’s action, she was taken to dropping hints to let Sreeja know how she really felt.

“Remember, I used to say Ammu is wearing short clothes and going out. She is watching strange things on tv when I am cleaning the room. Then you used to say Vimala, she’s a child. Vimala, mind your own business. All this adds up ma. We have to be very careful while bringing up girls. One wrong step and it’s over.”

This confessional was turning into a game of chess. One had to be careful of how close to the queen one let’s the knight advance. Sreeja decides to nip Vimala’s snide remark in the bud. 

“I know what Ammu needs. But her Papa won’t let me do it. There’s nothing a good caning won’t resolve. It will clear things up much faster than any of us can.” Sreeja said without feeling.

There’s nothing a good caning won’t resolve. It will clear things up much faster than any of us can.

“Abababa Madam, don’t do that. You can say whatever you want to her. Use bad words, shout, threaten. But hitting madam, will crush her soul. You know that my husband hits me on most days. The physical pain is something you can learn to live with. But in your head, it’s very difficult madam. You feel like the world has let you down. It makes you so diffident in life. And there is no coming back from that. It is no way to live.” Vimala pleads with Sreeja.  

“Okay, okay. Talking this and that you have forgotten about the coconut you’re grating. It needs to go into this curry ma. Coconut won’t get hurt. Do faster.” Sreeja reclaims her position.

“Yes, ma. God bless you, ma.” says Vimala avoiding conflict and refocusing on the task at hand.

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ETWA | Ch9a: A Power Play

Photo by Carolyn V 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.

“Putta, come eat ma”, Vímala coaxed Sam. It was almost tea time. Sam had started skipping meals on the pretext of board exam prep. “You carry on Mama. This is a timed prep test. I’ll eat once I am done”, she would say. And her parents let her make excuses so that they could all avoid the awkwardness at the table.

“Vimala, I’ll finish this chapter and then eat”, when Sam started with her excuses, Vimala, their house help, would shut her books announcing to the room, “How much will she study? So many people have written these exams. Nothing to worry”. She had been working with Sam’s parents since Sam was a baby. She was well versed in all of Sam’s moods and mechanisms. Six days a week, Vimala came early in the morning, helping Sreeja with the chores. Once she had breakfast around 1030 am, she headed over to Sudha’s house next door. By tea time, Vimala would be back here to clean up and help with dinner. And by 6 pm she left for Sudha’s house again to help out there. 

In a house, the kitchen is many things at once. It’s a battleground and a prison. But it is also a haven and a confessional. No part of life is out of bounds in a kitchen. Everything gets discussed here. And the kitchen was Vimala’s office. Whether they liked it or not, she knew everything about this family. Vimala was around when Sreeja and Vineeth got pregnant with Sam and were deciding whether to keep her. She was here when Sam took her first steps. She remembers missing Sam at home when she started school. And Vimala was washing dishes the other day when Vineeth came home and broke the news that changed Sam’s life. This was her workplace and she took pride in knowing the ins and outs of this family. 

“Come, come, come. First eat, then work”, she insisted before Sam could protest. She turned to Achams, “Amma, you tell her. You need strength even to worry, no?”. Vimala had a way with people. She was a middle-aged woman in a neatly pinned up sari with a severe bun that pulled her hair away from her face. She wore a red rose flower in her hair everyday and had a smile that lit up her eyes. “Good morning ma, how are you ma?” she would greet everyone in a single breath.  

As Sam sat down at the table, Vimala served her rice and sambar. When she began eating, Vimala presented her with a card. It had a picture of the goddess Mariamman. “Keep this under your pillow. She will protect you”, she said, turning the card over and pointing to the hymn inscribed there, “Pray to her everyday for 14 days. She will take care of you.”

…don’t buy flowers today ma, your husband has bought’. Then only I knew something was wrong. In these many years, he has not bought me a safety pin. Aaahaha, flowers it seems!

“I’ll tell you a story. My husband and I got married so long back that Rajinikanth still had his natural hair then.” Both Vimala and Sam knew that this story would make Sam laugh. She had heard it a thousand times from Vimala and laughed out loud each time. But this time Sam flashed a thin, vague smile. The effort made her sigh. But Vimala continued, “When he first started hitting me, it was to the tune of ‘naan autokraaran’ from Rajini’s film, Baasha. Do you know this song?” Sam shrugged in response. 

“First I thought that he hated me, auto drivers and Rajini. But with time I realised that he was crazy about Rajini, dreamt of being an auto driver and didn’t really care about me. He hit me when he got very drunk. And he got very drunk when he bunked work and went to watch the first day first show of Rajini films.” Sam was smiling now. 

“How did he hit you?” Sam asked, as was expected of her in this familiar sketch.

On cue, Vimala hitched up her sari and broke into a performance, “naan autokaaran autokaaran naalum therinja route kaaran, nyaya mulla rate kaaran”, imitating the thalaivar’s moves. Achams looked up from her book briefly and smiled. Sam laughed for the first time in days.

Once she was done, Vimala hunched closer and in a conspiratorial tone, continued, “A couple of years back, my husband had another woman”. She looked around to make sure no one else was listening. “I got to know from the akka near the temple who sells flowers. One day when I went to her as usual to buy flowers for my hair, she said with a naughty smile, ‘don’t buy flowers today ma, your husband has bought’. Then only I knew something was wrong. In these many years, he has not bought me a safety pin. Aaahaha, flowers it seems!” she scoffed. 

“That evening I prayed to Mariamma, told her all my worries. And she made that woman leave him in one week’s time. I am serious. One week! She told him that Amman came in her dreams and asked her to stay away from him. One night when he was drunk, he only told me ma. Believe me. Amman will take care of you”, she insisted, folding her hands in prayer. 

“Coming Sunday, I will go to the kovil near HBR layout. Little far it is. It will take time. Not possible on other days. But I will go and pray for you, ma. Don’t worry.” she said quickly as if she were running out of time.

“Vimala…”, came Sreeja’s call from the kitchen, where she was beginning to prepare dinner while eavesdropping on their conversation.

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Next Chapter | ETWA | Ch9a: A Power Play

ETWA | Ch8b: Insubordination

Photo by Chris J. Davis 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.

For the first couple of minutes, she walked through the English winter in a blinding rage. When the prickly numbness poked through her outrage, she turned back to where their car was parked. Once the warmth of the heating enveloped her in its arms, she held the steering wheel and let out a low, long frustrated growl through her gritted teeth.

Too much. It was all too much today. Being married, on a dependent visa, with no job, in a foreign country and now this. They were planning to get that child married off. How will Ammu manage? She knew that as an adult there were times when she couldn’t handle being married. Right now, she didn’t know if she was putting pressure on her marriage or if the marriage was putting pressure on her. It’s always been the little things until now. How he glared at her when she swore, how he expected her to be a good cook, how he laughed at wife jokes. Were all marriages like this?   

Was it too much to expect Siddharth to be on the right side of LGBTQ rights? Was she making a mountain of a molehill? How exactly did this issue matter in their relationship? In theory, she believed that it was possible for two people with differing opinions to live under the same roof. But her theory had discounted the inherent power structure in a marriage. You need breathing space to be able to disagree. How was she going to stay married her whole life? Was she to tow his line because she was married to him? If she didn’t have an income, do all the decision making rights in the family automatically revert to her husband? She had been collecting doubts about her marriage for a while now. But today her doubts bounced off the walls of her head like the stack of cards when you win a game of Microsoft Solitaire. She drove mindlessly until her muscle memory took her to Caffe Nero, a coffee shop she frequented. 

When she got back, Siddharth had already left for work. He must be pissed that I took the car, she thought. When he brings it up, she made a mental note to remind him that it was bought with her savings. It was the least she could do to needle him for what he was getting her to do. She idled around the house, google searched ‘how to earn money on a dependent visa UK’, cleaned up and fixed herself some lunch. When there was nothing left to do but call Ammu, Chanchal calmed herself down with a deep sigh and dialled her number.  

Imagine all the made up rules together are the sun and we are planets that revolve around it.

“Ammu, how are you?”

“I am so glad you called, chechi. It’s horrible here. Mama-Papa don’t talk to me. They don’t let me meet my friends or go out. I am trapped. They talk about me as if I were invisible or dead. They’re planning to take me to some guruji to ‘cure’ me. I think I will go mad here.” Sam was relieved to speak to her.

‘Aeey…don’t say that Ammu. I’ll make sure that no one cures you. Trust me, I know how you feel. When I was your age, I used to feel that I am an individual who could choose the life I wanted to live. We are also brought up to believe that, no? But the truth is that we are bound by society and its made up rules. That’s what keeps us from total chaos.” she said, keeping it vague.

“But society does change. It has to. Otherwise we would have all been stuck in the dark ages.” Sam countered.

“Hmm. Are you sure it’s society that’s changing?” Chanchal sharpened her argument.

“Imagine all the made up rules together are the sun and we are planets that revolve around it. And our lifetime is one revolution. But like the earth we also rotate on our own axis. What’s changing is our orbit around the sun. It makes us believe that society is changing. Take marriage for instance. Yes, divorce is acceptable now. But we still consider marriage to be sacred. Or women at work. Socially, yes, it’s acceptable for a woman to work, but that’s provided she takes care of her family first. 

Ammu, all I am saying is this. Your love for Madhu might seem harmless to you now. Why should the world care if I love a girl, right?” 

“Right…”, Sam agreed tentatively sensing a ‘but’.  

“But that is not how the world works. This will affect your parents’ future, as much as it does yours. Society will brand them as bad parents who couldn’t keep their child in line. They will lose respect in their social circle. Their neighbours will speak ill of them behind their backs. And their extended family will forsake them. I am sure you don’t want to see your parents hurt. Chetta worries about you. He worries that your family will be an outcast if this news gets out.” Chanchal said, pouring all her bottled resentment into this task.

“You could get married as soon as you turn 18 in July.” 

“No, I don’t want them to get hurt. That’s not my intention at all. I can go away to college and they will not be troubled by me.” Sam reasoned. 

“This is not a problem that simply goes away, Ammu. Can’t you see that? There is only one way to save your family. It’s a bit extreme but it’s still better than being cured.” Chanchal swooped in for the kill.

“What is it?” said Sam, her voice perking up with hope. 

“You could get married as soon as you turn 18 in July.” 

“What? No! What are you saying? But I have to go to college.” Sam blurted out, unthinking.  

“Come on! Marriage doesn’t mean the end of life”, said Chanchal, feigning high spirits. “You can still study after you get married. Once you’re married, your parents can breathe easy. And in time, everyone will lay off your back. It’s the perfect plan if you ask me”, she added for good measure.

“But I like women, chechi. I don’t want to marry a man”, Sam said, feeling this loopy conversation tightening around her neck.

“Well, that’s where society comes back into play, isn’t it? In our society, that’s simply not an option. Maybe in another 50 years it would be. But right now? I am sorry to break it to you. But there is no way that’s going to happen”, Chanchal waltzed into morbid reality.

“You don’t need to make a decision right now. But think about how marriage can make your life easier. If you agree to it, it will end all these knots in your life. Don’t think of why you shouldn’t get married. Think of how marriage will make your life easier”, she said matter-of-factly, spinning the narrative on its head.  

“Chechi, I thought you were on my side.” cried Sam, in confusion and disbelief.

“I am on your side. I don’t want you to go up against a giant you can’t crack. It will chew you up, spit you out and make you wish you were dead. There is no winning against society. Not for a 17-year-old like you”. That final jab was meant to decimate any resolve Sam had left.

There was silence on Sam’s end. Chanchal continued.

“Ammu, I am on your side. But I really don’t see how you can pull this off. Your family is against you. You have no money. No employable skills or qualification to find work. Humpfh… You don’t even know if Madhu would want to leave with you. You don’t have access to your phone. Take 24 hours. I’ll call you tomorrow. If you can tell me a safe way to get out of home and live independently with Madhu, I will support you”, she said knowing very well that someone as mollycoddled as Ammu, with no real experience of how the world worked would not be able to devise a plan by herself. 

She was right.

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Next Chapter | Ch9a: A Power Play

ETWA | Ch 8a: Insubordination

Photo by zain raza 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.

On Siddharth’s end of that long distance phone call, his wife Chanchal, though seated at the dining table next to him, was far away in her thoughts. Midway through the siblings’ conversation, she had drifted away to her wedding day.

Their wedding reception had been a grand affair hosted by Siddharth’s family. Both families had brought their own photographers to make sure the wedding was adequately documented. Her entire team from work was there—a boisterous bunch turning heads of all the guests. When it was their turn to greet the newlyweds, Siddharth’s photographer suggested that they do a classic wedding photo. One where all the men pulled her towards them while she tried to hold onto Siddharth using her other hand. Her colleagues obliged and for 15 minutes or so they lit up the evening with their shenanigans. They played their parts with panache, clutching their broken hearts and cracking up the guests with an agreeable dose of corniness. Once the performance was done, they hugged her and took their party off stage.

Much later in the evening, when the rush of guests had subsided, they got off stage to get dinner. Siddharth turned to her and said, “You know…I am a modern, liberal guy. Tonight was fine but now that you’re married, I hope you will keep a respectable distance from your colleagues. They are men afterall. You know what people will say.” That was odd. But she had smiled and let it pass because she didn’t want to start the marriage with a fight. She did stop to smirk at his odd choice of words though. “It’s not just me that’s married. We are married”, she thought to herself.

She was definitely not happy with how Siddharth was taking the news of Ammu’s affair. Their arranged marriage was a toddler, learning to walk in a child-safe living room in the UK, bumping into arguments, finding its feet. She was thankful this was happening far away from the watchful eyes of their families. Turning to Siddharth, she said,

“Why are you so mad at Ammu?”

“Why am I mad? Are you serious? He replied, answering a question with a question.

“Yes, I am serious. I would like to know why you are mad.” Chanchal took the bait rather purposefully.

“Okay, I am mad because Ammu is my sister. I want her to have a good future. Her actions have consequences not just for her but also for our entire family.” Siddharth explained.

“What world do you live in? Even if you go by the law, it’s been decriminalised in India. That means even the most regressive folks who run the country, think it’s time to accept homosexuality. You might say it’s for votes. But even then. I mean, it’s the most natural thing, isn’t it?” Chanchal said, wondering how they had never discussed homosexuality before.

“Have you stopped to think what your parents would say if they got to know?” most of their serious conversations usually circled the family-culture drain.

“How does it matter? They are my parents. How does their opinion matter in your sister’s life?” She knew that using logic against this cultural reasoning was always a bad move.

“What world do you live in where your parents’ opinion doesn’t matter? Maybe it doesn’t matter to you. But it matters a lot to me. What they think of me and my family matters a lot to me.” Indian culture was always his trump card.

“What world do I live in? A world where you are not the centre of my universe.” She would not back off this time. This was important.

I would say keep your feminism to yourself. Or maybe you could go back to India and make your independent decisions there?

“Haha, what an independent woman! Err…without a job might I point out. Oh, and don’t forget about your dependent visa!” he scoffed. When his work allowed him a transfer to the UK office, she had quit her job and moved with him. Back in those early days of marriage and romantic hope, she was sure that it was the right thing to do.

“Well, it’s only a matter of time before I find a job. And stop being so petty.” She refused to lose this argument. This insubordination would definitely make her mother cringe.

“Oh that’s good. So until then, I would say keep your feminism to yourself. Or maybe you could go back to India and make your independent decisions there? If I had known that you were so forward, I wouldn’t have married you. All I wanted was to marry a nice, simple girl who would make my life easier. And don’t you dare stuff my sister’s head with this rubbish.” Siddharth presented a veiled threat.

“I will talk to your sister if I want to and there is nothing you can do to stop me.” Chanchal was defiant.

Siddharth wanted so badly to slap her. How dare she make light of such a serious issue? But thank goodness for his presence of mind. He remembered that slapping your wife might have legal consequences in the first world. Just for this freedom, how he wished he lived in India. Anyway, as long as she didn’t have a job in this country, he could keep her on a tight leash. 

“Let me tell you what you will do. You will call Ammu and calmly convince her that she needs to get married when she turns 18 in July.” he said, having regained his composure.

But before he could continue, Chanchal put on her coat, grabbed her keys and stepped out of the house.

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Next Chapter | Ch8b: Insubordination

ETWA | Ch7b: The Unravelling

Photo by Chris Hardy 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.

Chetta and I are thick as thieves. He has always been on my side. Once, when I was ten, I knocked over and broke the TV while trying some hip-hop moves in the living room. When our parents found out, Chetta took the blame for it. He said that his hands were full, he wasn’t watching where he was going and had stumbled onto the TV by mistake. Our parents weren’t impressed and he got into a lot of trouble for that. But whenever I get into trouble, Chetta is my parent whisperer. He listens to our parents, agrees with them enough to pacify them and then reasons with them on my behalf. And he always comes back with a reduced sentence.

“Have you lost your mind?” he said in reply to my hello.

“Haha, good one”, I replied.

“What you need is one tight slap!” he was acting furious.

“You really sold this to them, no? Did they buy into your ‘outrage’?” I chuckled. 

“Are you serious? You want to joke around about this?” he sounded angry. 

“…huh?” I was confused.

“What the fuck do you think you are doing?” he was definitely angry. 

“I…errr…I didn’t think…” I was at a loss for words.

“Yes, that’s right, you didn’t think. You never do, you spoiled piece of shit!” he spat out.

“Chetta, Mama-Papa have been horrible to me all week. I was hanging on, hoping that you would help me out of this…” I gagged, tears streaming down my face.

“You will have no contact with this girl, ever again. Do you hear me?” Chetta’s voice was trembling.

“But I love her, Chetta…”, it seemed pointless to say anything more.

“You fucking listen to me, you dimwit. You are no longer a child. What you do has repercussions on other people’s lives. Have you ever stopped to wonder what Chinnu’s family would think of this little affair of yours? Why would you, when you cannot think beyond your own nose. Do you understand the mess you’ve put me in? I have worked very hard to be in a respectable position in my life. I will not let your little romance ruin things for me, understand?” he shouted as I hung up. 

I wished that this was one of those situations. But it was becoming abundantly clear to me that there would be no more ‘one of those situations’ in my life.

When Mama and him had that explosive conversation about me, where he said all those horrible things to her, I had assumed that it was his way of diffusing the situation. He has always had a plan. And he has always been on my side. And a part of me had been waiting for his plan to set things right. 

I was in 8th standard when I broke the brand new phone he bought me. It had fallen off the balcony, all the way down five floors of the building. I had immediately let him know. And he promptly informed our parents not to shout at me. He said the phone—a birthday gift from him—was a matter between him and me. They were not to give me a hard time about it. And just like that they had laid off of me, fearing his disapproval.  

I wished that this was one of those situations. But it was becoming abundantly clear to me that there would be no more ‘one of those situations’ in my life.

I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. My ears were ringing as if a train were whistling down its tunnels. I had run up a thousand steps for his approval and he had upset my stride with an unexpected shout. I fell in a weightless, unseeing spiral, down a dark shaft with stale air. I couldn’t breathe. I was confused. Does ‘Ammu have a prashnam’ as they say or am I the prashnam? I was beginning to believe that I was the prashnam. I was unravelling.

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Next Chapter | Ch8a: Insubordination

ETWA | Ch7a: The Unravelling

Photo by amirali mirhashemian 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.

“Mone”, Achams began, as Papa sat by her bedside. Since the night of the black coffee expedition, this had become a nightly routine before he went to sleep. Papa had practically stopped talking to me. In order to sidestep the awkwardness, I headed to the bathroom as soon he entered our room. Ten minutes later, I was in bed with my eyes shut to the world, though sleep was nowhere on the horizon.

“The other day in the newspaper, I read an article about Kudumbashree by Ratna Biswas. Remember her?” Achams was making small talk. Kudumbashree was Kerala government’s community network programme for women, aimed at ending poverty. 

“Yes, yes…she was staying with you during her PhD research, no? What year was it? 1999 or was it 2000? I remember it was before Ammu was born.” Papa chimed in. 

“It was 2001 March. She was part of the ILO team evaluating the rollout of Kudumbashree throughout Kerala. She was going to work out of our village for 3 months. And the Registrar brought her over to stay with me. Anyway, she lives near the Nandi temple. I spoke to her today.”

“How did you get her number?” Papa was amazed.

“Oh, first I called the newspaper but that was a deadend. So then I called the Registrar and he got me a landline number. We weren’t sure it would work. But that number belonged to the organisation she used to work for. I told Leena, their receptionist, how I knew Ratna and how I was in Bangalore. And she got me Ratna’s mobile number from the organisation’s founder.” Papa made a sound that accurately expressed his surprise at his mother’s competence.

“[…] I will make sure that all the obstacles in her way are removed.” Achams assured Papa.  

“She has given me her address in Basavanagudi. But I was thinking I could take Ammu along because I am not so sure of the roads here.” Achams said to my delight. I hadn’t left the house since the showdown. It had been over a week. 

“Sure, she can go with you. I was thinking, if possible, could you stop by at the Dodda Ganeshana Gudi? It’s a ganapathi temple close to the bull temple. I’ll make a list of poojas to do there. Actually, I should come along with you. That would make things easier. I am a little busy this week. Can we do next week?”

“Ayyo, she is going to America next week. Don’t worry about it. Ammu and I will go. I will make sure that all the obstacles in her way are removed.” Achams assured Papa.  

The sanctions I was threatened with had promptly set in last week. They gave me two choices. I could study or I could help Mama with housework. It wasn’t a choice really. If I wasn’t studying, they expected me to be doing chores. For the most part, I pretended to be busy studying so that I didn’t have to speak to them. Also, my board exams were only a couple of months away. Studying, it turns out is both a good excuse and a good distraction. As long as I was huddled over a book or the computer, my parents ignored me. And I didn’t mind studying at all. Infact, I loved it. 

I woke up early, studied all day, did my chores and got into bed early. But I slept very little. And I couldn’t bear to dance. Actually, I couldn’t bear to even think about dance. That meant I couldn’t think about music too. Anyway, I had put a lid on all of these painful things and shoved them down, somewhere difficult to reach. Whenever I felt them try to break free, I hurried into the bathroom. I had picked up a new bathroom habit. I chewed my nails in the bathroom, as I waited for the feeling to pass. As I chewed on them, I saw a montage of my parents’ horrified faces. Biting your nails was a filthy habit I was told as a child. Now as they mouthed those lines, I said, “You said I was filthy, so how does the habit matter now?” These were just my fantasies of course. Neither of them noticed my chewed down nails.

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Next Chapter | Chapter 7b: The Unravelling

Pathu In The News

Pathu knows that she is destined for great things. One of those small wins came to pass this week. She has been featured in The News Minute, where they published an excerpt from our book, The Dog We Stole. To her absolute delight, she has been featured in the article, sitting pretty on Echo’s mat, as if it were her own. The Dog We Stole is also now available on Google Play Store.

You will find The News Minute feature here: How we stole a dog during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Meanwhile, I am onto my next project, Every Thing We Are. It is my first novel and I am writing it daily as a series of blogposts. Hope you will subscribe to my blog and read along.

ETWA | Ch6b: Universe, A Bollywood Movie

Photo by Amaury Gutierrez 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 morning Mani anna! Let me get you some coffee”, Sreeja said, unable to contain her appreciation for the Universe. Help had arrived.

Mani was not a diffident man. Diving right in, he proclaimed to her husband with enthusiasm, “Vineeth, I am telling you. There is no need to worry”. He did not bother explaining how he had heard the news or what he was referring to. Sreeja could not have asked for a better morning.

“We can cure her. Have faith. Give me a couple of days. Once this upcoming eclipse is over, I will find an auspicious time to speak to my guruji”, he said, turning his eyes up to the ceiling in reverence, at the mere mention of his guruji’s name.

“But how can the guruji help?” Vineeth was not sure.  

When Sreeja handed him his coffee, Mani was saying, “…the operative word here is to believe that guruji can help. What he offers is a way of life. It’s not a pill that we swallow that sets our life right. In his philosophy, a solution exists for all of our problems. All we need to do is to find it. And when we are unable to find it, he nudges us towards it.” Mani took a long pause to savour his coffee.  

A godman who could fix Ammu would be just the medicine the doctor ordered.

“A genius like guruji could have owned the world if he so wished. But here he is among us, helping us live our measly lives by solving our mortal problems. That for me is the greatest proof that he is not a fraud. I think of myself as a rational man. I am not going to fall for a swami type who makes the blind see or the mute speak. I have read most of his works. And I think the way of life he suggests could be one of the ways to live a successful life.” Try as he may to make his coffee last, Mani was unsuccessful. Finally, he returned the empty cup to Sreeja.  

“Anyway, I will get back to you as soon as I get in touch with him. Again, don’t worry!” he laughed a hearty Santa Claus laugh as he headed out of the house. 

Vineeth shook his head in agreement. A godman who could fix Ammu would be just the medicine the doctor ordered. With lifted spirits he headed to his room to get ready for his workday. 

Unfortunately, the hope that Mani had instilled in him did not last very long. Barely a day or two had passed before Vineeth found himself deflated. He decided to speak to his mother about the prashnam looming large over his life.

He found her on the balcony, engrossed in a book, “Amma, I wanted to talk to you about Ammu. She has got into some bad company.” 

“What kind of bad company?” Indira was the queen of downplaying her intelligence. 

“It’s a small prashnam. Nothing that can’t be fixed”, he tried to evade her question. 

“But what is this prashnam?” She was a dog with a bone.

“Amma, what have I not done for her? I’ve pampered her too much I think”, he was pouring his heart out. But she was eyeing the finish line. “That’s what you are expected to do as a parent”, she prodded him.

“To pamper her?”

“No, to help her deal with the prashnam”, she said with a hint of a smile. She had flipped that conversation like a masterchef. And just like that it was Vineeth who was being questioned.

“So this prashnam, do you think it’s a prashnam or does she?” she began.

“She doesn’t know what she’s doing, Amma.” Vineeth was flying blind.

“If she doesn’t know, then how do you know?” Indira was being deliberately obtuse.

“You know what I mean, she doesn’t understand that, what she is doing, is wrong”, he clarified.

“But what is she doing?” relentless should have been her middle name.

“How do I tell you, Amma?”, said Vineeth looking for a way out of this conversation.

Sadly there was none. “If you can’t even tell me, how will you help her deal with it?” Indira was gutting him mercilessly.

“Hmmm, she likes girls, Amma”, he recoiled from the sound of his own voice as he said it out loud for the first time.

“Is that all? Actually, girls are easier to like. They are much more sorted than boys”, Indira laughed silently.

“That’s not what I mean Amma. She likes girls. She has been spending time with a girl. My accountant, Vaithi sir, saw her kissing a girl the other day.” Vineeth was now questioning his decision to talk to his mother.

“Oh!” Indira fell silent. “Hmm…kissing a boy would have been worse, no? Or is it easier to explain away kissing a girl? Who knows!” she said to no one in particular after a long pause. 

“Anyway, how are you going to deal with it?” she was doing her thing again. Her thing where she blows hot and blows cold before putting him on the spot. 

“I don’t know yet. But I was thinking we should do a pooja…a ganapathi homam perhaps…to save us from whatever this kashtakaalam is”, said Vineeth hoping his bad fortune could be banished with a ritual.

“Aaanh…”, she said producing a sound that could mean either agreement or disagreement based on the listener’s temperament. “It is pointless to waste money on indoor fires, coloured powders and overpriced snacks. But if you must do it for your peace of mind…”

“I am too old for these things anyway. I have one foot in the grave already. Do what you think is best. I think I will lie down now”, she said ending the conversation in one deft move.

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Next Chapter| Ch7a: The Unravelling

ETWA | Ch6a: Universe, A Bollywood Movie

Photo by Kristina Flour 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.

“What can you do, ma? You hug her tight and pray that she doesn’t have bad thoughts. I will also pray for you”, said Sudha upon hearing the news. She was Sreeja’s best friend and neighbour.

She found Sudha’s response to be incredibly calming. It was precisely the kind of response Sreeja was looking for when she rang her doorbell. A practical response though Sudha was not a realist by any measure. She believed deeply in the supernatural, was devout to a fault and inclined to mysticism. She believed and therefore she was. 

Sudha’s response might seem non-committal to the untrained eye but it was precisely the balm Sreeja was looking for. It was the kind of reaction that both her husband and her son were unable to give her. An assurance that Ammu’s prashnam was the result of a larger scheme of things, much larger than her 1400 sqft world. An iron-clad surety that whatever had come to pass was as per the divine plan that ran the world. An unwavering faith that in the end, everything would turn out well.

The unexpected incident, much like a gust of wind on a clear day, had landed her right in the middle of moral outrage territory. 

It had been nearly 24 hours since the prashnam had surfaced, turning her head into Shivaji Nagar during St Mary’s feast. The confrontation with Sam had given her a solid headache. The subsequent late night argument and fitful sleep had only made it worse. She had put on her brave face in the morning but it was her child at the epicentre of this fiasco. The unexpected incident, much like a gust of wind on a clear day, had landed her right in the middle of moral outrage territory. Panicked and surrounded by emotional outbursts, she was unable to orient herself and had lost her way back to love. 

The call with Siddu had stuck a knife in her and twisted it. Her conversation with him had gone as expected though he shouted at her a lot more than she had accounted for. At one point he said, “You are mad. You spoil her silly and then complain that she is going off track. You know nothing of the real world.” Sreeja felt a twinge of resentment as he twisted the knife further with more jibes. “Staying at home has made you rotten”, he had said. He was also her child. He had come out of her. She had not realised when he had taken on the role of her guardian.

By the time the conversation with Siddu had ended, Sreeja was at her wit’s end. Both father and son had blamed her for everything that went wrong. As if they had no role to play in Ammu’s upbringing. As if a solution would appear out of thin air if they argued enough about it. If only father and son would harness the enthusiasm with which they shouted at her, into finding a solution, they would be halfway there already. Maybe we should all just let Ammu live life the way she wants. And fend for herself. Sreeja smirked at that laughable thought. 

When she realised that she was sitting alone at the dining table, smirking to herself, she decided that she had to speak to somebody about this situation. That’s how she ended up knocking on Sudha’s door even though they had decided as a family that this news would not leave the house. But it was Sudha. It was just a matter of time before she got to know. If not from Sreeja, then from their maid or from the atmosphere itself. Both Sreeja’s husband and her son seemed to think that secrecy was the only way forward. Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to find you the peace you’ve misplaced in the house. And everyone knows that you need a calm mind before you can apply yourself.

Justifying her actions thus, Sreeja found herself knocking on the neighbour’s door in the post-lunch lull before the hustle and bustle of the afternoon coffee began, offering up the news. And Sudha in turn opened the door into her sanctum sanctorum, graciously gifting her that merciful short sentence. I will pray for you. 

Sreeja instantly felt better. Unburdening her concerns had made her forget her headache. She felt her vision clear in the knowledge that someone other than her knew the secret. By watching Sudha’s face mirror her feelings, she felt validated. For a fleeting moment, she felt that she was not alone in this. Someone else was listening. 

All along, Sreeja was hoping that Sudha would tell her husband, Mani, about it. Mani and Sreeja’s husband were colleagues, morning walk buddies and car poolers. One half of her hoped that her best friend would keep the information to herself. The other half wished that Sudha’s husband would bring it up with her husband. Of course she knew that if her friend told her husband, she would tell others. But it was a risk she was willing to take. 

Sreeja knew that her husband was drowning in the aftermath of the news. He was flailing in anger, making it difficult for help to reach him. And he would never hold on to her for support. Help had to come quickly, from another man he respected. Mani was the perfect candidate. But if word ever got around that she had made it happen, they wouldn’t call her resourceful. They would call her a manipulator. Sreeja had to be discreet about it. And if things went south despite her plan, she would play her designated role as the helpless housewife.    

The universe is a Bollywood movie. For the most part it is predictable. There’s action, drama, romance… something for everyone, wrapped up into a short time period, and perhaps a packet of popcorn and a loo break. And yet again, the universe did not disappoint. Departing from their daily routine, on the way back from the morning walk, Mani anna walked right into their living room.

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Next Chapter | Ch6b: Universe, A Bollywood Movie

ETWA | Ch5b: What’s Happening Here?

Photo by Sarah 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.

“You will sit down and finish your breakfast. I don’t want to hear another word”, Papa pointed at the lonesome idly idling on the plate. That’s when I realised that I was no longer sitting at the table. I had no memory of getting up but I was now standing on the opposite end of the table. I had no idea how I got there. I stared at Papa, unable to process.

I sat down as instructed. I focussed on my plate. When did I get up from the table? I remember drowning my idly in chutney, just the way I like to eat it. I remember Papa saying that no boy will marry me. What happened then?

Papa was not finished. Taking my devices away was not going to be enough. 

“You will not go anywhere without one of us with you. You will not talk to those useless friends of yours. You will prepare for your board exams. You will score above 90%. And I will make sure that you have a bright future” he said.

“And you will help out with chores around the house. No more dancing. No more watching TV. I’m done being your slave.” That was Mama. She had returned as soon as Achams got back to our room. 

It was as if at the end of their life, Chetta would give them a certificate of merit for outstanding performance as parents.

I knew from the face she was making that Mama was worried about the impending phone call. Chetta called Amma everyday at noon. It was their ritual. She would tell him of all the little things that happened here and he in turn would talk about his plans for the day. And today it meant that in a couple hours, she would have to tell him about me. I’ve always felt that my parents looked up to him for approval. It was as if at the end of their life, Chetta would give them a certificate of merit for outstanding performance as parents. They also refused to call it my ‘relationship’ with Madhu. They referred to it as a ‘prashnam’, meaning problem. 

“When Siddu calls…”, Mama sounded unsure. “I don’t know what to say to him. I can’t lie to him. Can I? He is so far away. To tell him about this prashnam. I don’t know how he will react.”

I focused intently on my idly, squishing it into a paste, moving it around the plate. The lump in my throat wasn’t letting me eat.

“I mean, when he hears about this, at first, he will definitely get angry and shout at me. Once he calms down, he will perhaps say, I’ll come back and deal with her. I’ll show her what happens to children who go astray. Alle?” she turned to Papa for approval.

“When I think of how Chinnu’s family will take it, ayye! The shame makes my skin crawl”, Papa was worried about my sister-in-law’s family’s reaction. “Imagine us going to a wedding in their family. How will we face them? She has stripped us of all dignity. Che!” Papa shook his head.

It was as if they had forgotten that I was there at the table with them. As if I were invisible. They couldn’t see me and I didn’t matter. 

“What do we do, Sreeja?” Papa sounded desperate. Mama looked up, confirming that we had both heard the desperation in his tone. “We should not have come to Bangalore. I thought the city would offer our children the best opportunities. But I was wrong. It’s ruined us!”

Mama was never without a response. “Shall we send her away? Maybe to live with Siddu in the UK. Better opportunities for her as well.”

“Are you mad? Papa lashed out. “If she does this here, god knows what she will do there. Also, between the home loan and the loan we took out for Siddu’s wedding, we won’t be able to afford it. Who else can we send her to? You can’t send her to my brother. How about your youngest brother? That could be a good option. Let’s think about it a little. I am sure we can find someone to take her.” 

They were trying to wash their hands off me. Palm their ‘prashnam’ off to someone else. I couldn’t hold it in anymore. My tears breached the eyelids and tumbled down to their death. Hopeless. 

I’ve been toying with the same idly the whole time. Not that they were noticing it. But if I didn’t finish it, they would definitely hold that against me. I don’t want to put myself in that position. Not right now. My food pipe was still closed to traffic. I continued to chew on my mouthful.

“You know who I was thinking of? Mr. Roy’s son”, Papa begins and both of them laugh out in magic unison. I look up at Mama and Papa. They seem to be genuinely happy.

“What was his name? Ashok? Or was it Alok? Pch, something like that. Amogh?”, Mama is sure this time. “No no, something with ‘S’, I am sure” says Papa.

“Wait, wait, wait…got it”, it’s on the tip of her tongue.

But Papa beats her to it. “Pratap!”

“Yes, of course! Pratap with an S!” They both laugh again.

“What a name for a pansy fellow! Hijra he wanted to become it seems. After attending IIT—IIM. His entire family’s hopes he wanted to crash. Mr. Roy knew what had to be done. Got him married asap. You remember how he used to open the door and say…”

Papa got off the chair and opened the imaginary door, pushed his imaginary hair behind his ears and said coyly, “Hello Mrs and Mr Nair. Good evening! Your earrings are stunning! And your tie…”

“I can’t!” Papa sat down laughing uncontrollably. Mama was too. 

“You should have auditioned for Chandupottu. You would have been brilliant”, Mama said referring to a Malayalam movie from the 2000s with an effeminate hero.

Papa gets into character again repeating a rape joke from the film. It’s a wordplay joke where the effeminate hero is accusing the rather manly heroine of ‘raping’ him everyday since they met. “Allengilum njan ivide vannappo muthalu Rosy enne ivide ittu peedippikkale?” 

What is happening here? I keep asking myself. They are beside themselves with laughter. They don’t notice when I put the final piece of idly in my mouth, gulp it down forcefully with water and leave the table in tears.

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