ETWA|Ch21a: Trust Begets Trust

Photo by Quino Al 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 Nandan uncle came home in the evening, he said, extending his phone towards me, “Chinnu had called. She wanted to speak to you. You should give her a call.” As we sat down at the dining table, I texted Chinnu from his phone asking if I could call her after dinner.

“Nothing much”, she said, as we began our conversation. “I haven’t heard from you in a while. So thought I would check in on you. I just got to know today that you are with Achamma. How are you doing? How is she?” It made me happy that unlike my parents and brother, she cared enough to check in with me. However, I didn’t tell her that. Instead, I told her what I thought she wanted to hear. “We are fine. Being here is a good change of pace for me”.

“That’s good to hear. I have found some volunteering work at a charity here. Couple of hours a week. It’s just something to do for now. I get to meet people. I am also applying to jobs in India.” 

“In India? Are you guys planning to come back?” I guess my surprise was evident in my tone.

“No, no. I am applying to all the jobs I can find. It’s really important right now that I find a job. Also I think we might do well with some time apart.” It seemed like my surprise had made her unsure of sharing her news with me.  

“Time apart? Is everything okay?” I said latching on to some keywords. Anxiety and I were new friends. She’d turn up uninvited and sit uncomfortably close to me, sipping my drink and drowning out my thoughts.

“I don’t know. I’m hoping to take some time to figure things out.” Though her words were tentative, the way she said it sounded like she had made up her mind.

In the awkward silence that followed I think of how much I like her. If they get divorced would I lose her? Who will I talk to about things I can’t tell my parents? Definitely not my brother after his recent reactions. Chinnu chechi was my idea of cool. The sister I was proud to show off. She taught me how to wear winged eyeliner, how to style plain t-shirts, how to pose for photos. She let me borrow her jewellery. And if I were to have sex, she said, I had to insist that the boy use a condom. This was before Madhu. 

Though her words were tentative, the way she said it sounded like she had made up her mind.

How do you form lasting relationships? What’s the binding material? I think it’s trust. You trust without reason that they are on your side.

“How come you went down to Kerala? I thought Achamma was going to stay with you from now on?” said Chinnu trying to skirt around the silence.

“Actually Chinnu chechi, I have something to tell you. But you can’t tell anyone. Okay? They took me to a guruji who grabbed me and touched my boobs. He wanted to do more but I somehow got away.” I said before she could stop me.

“What? Did you tell your parents this?”

“No. They are the ones who took me there. They also took me to a doctor for conversion therapy. I have another appointment in 3 weeks.” 

“Are you serious? This is unbelievable.” I imagined her nose flare as she said that.

“Do you want to talk about it? How it’s making you feel perhaps? It must have been really scary to go through. I’m sorry it happened to you, Ammu.” See, this here is why I love Chinnu chechi. She always knows what to say. How to say just the right thing.

I tell her the whole ordeal. Right from that fateful kiss all the way to the nightmares. Somehow I stop just before we get to my suicide attempt. I don’t feel like telling her about it. More like I can’t. When I think about it, I feel a sudden wheeze knock my breath out, a well-hidden panic sweating in my armpit, a shuttering down of my jaw like shops on a bandh day. Is this what shame feels like? Or is it how guilt manifests in the body?

I tell her the whole ordeal. Right from that fateful kiss all the way to the nightmares.

Turns out, secret keepers reciprocate with tales of their own. Trust begets trust, binding and strengthening as they build.

“You are the first person I’ve told about my plan to spend some time away from Siddharth. I am not just applying to jobs, I have a final interview lined up next week for a job in Hyderabad. If I get it, I plan to move back for a while.”    

“What about Chettan?”

“What about him? He is an adult. He should be able to fend for himself. Anyway I am not his keeper.”

Even as she said it, Chinnu knew that it was not true. If she moved back to India, Siddharth would whine and sulk and probably get his mother to move in with him. Siddharth was not brought up to be an equal partner. She had spent an inordinate amount of time negotiating the division of housework. What really drove her crazy was when he treated her like an assistant. Could you get me a glass of water? Sure, if I am in the kitchen or near a bottle of water. But why when we are both sitting on the couch, watching the same movie. Why should I? She thought to herself.

To him, being married was a status; a tick mark on a form. He didn’t believe that a good marriage was hard work. According to him, a good marriage was her fitting seamlessly into his life. Embracing his friendships, interests and lifestyle as her own. For all other purposes, she was a squatter in his marriage taking up space—a liability and now an expense. But what made his choices the better ones to follow? Why wasn’t he expected to fit seamlessly into her life? Why did they have to fit seamlessly? Could they be their own selves and still have a marriage that works.

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ETWA|Ch20b: Courage As Habit

Photo by Vivek Sharma 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.

“This is the first snack Echu and I made together in this house. She moved in soon after my mother-in-law passed away and I was alone with the children. She and I would wake up early. We still had a wood-burning stove back then. We’d put rice on the stove and go for a walk around the house at dawn. We’d look at our garden patch for vegetables. Walk around to the back of the cowshed and pluck a couple of chillies for the day. We’d strip stalks of curry leaves that were growing as hedges. We’d walk through the tall coconut trees looking for fallen coconuts. We’d look at the kingfisher’s babies who lived in a hole in the walls of the well. At that time of the day, they’d always be crying, peeking out as they waited for their mother to bring them food. Except in monsoon when it rained in the mornings, our morning escapades were never missed. Before the children woke up, we would tie a towel around our heads to resist the nip in the air and go for a walk. It was our time to be together. 

“But you were always together, no?” I ask, trying to think of a time when they were apart.

“But once we got back, we’d get busy with chores just as we had practiced all those years when my mother-in-law was ill. We’d finish all the housework before we headed to work—sweeping, mopping, washing dishes, cooking.” Achams sighed, probably thinking back to all those years of work. 

“Why did you have to sweep and mop everyday?” I ask and Janu chuckles. 

“There was no reason to do it but we were creatures of habit.” says Achams before continuing.

“Though it was a family-run school, it took a couple of years for my position to be regularised. It was a crazy couple of years till I completed B.Ed and secured a government school job. It was possible only because Echu took care of everything else. All I had to do was wake up, study and go to work. She managed everything else—house, children, the property. All while holding down her part-time job as a cook at the local anganwadi. 

Achams falls silent for a while. Her silence is broken by the loud crunching of pappada vada. “Nannayind”, Janu tells Achams, commenting on how well their pappada vada turned out, essentially to pull her out of reverie. I’ve noticed that between Achams and Janu, many of their conversations run parallel. This one too continued without Janu getting a response. 

“I don’t remember so many of these details anymore. What I do remember is the first trip we took to Athirapally waterfalls. It was raining cats and dogs but that’s the best time to see a waterfall, isn’t it? It was a daytrip. We took the first bus out, changing buses at Thrissur. We could hear the thunderous roar of gushing water from far, far away. The closer we got to the waterfall, the cooler it became. Achams hugged herself as if the misty coolness of that memory had wrapped around her in this muggy afternoon. It was the first time all of us were seeing a waterfall. It was so majestic, just leaping out with such power and grace. 

You remember how Echu was always full of stories. She told Vinu that the waterfall was actually made out of milk. Those days, getting Vinu to drink milk was nearly impossible. She told him that there was a giant cow who lived in the mountains. She even had a title for her story. The calf of Western Ghats—paschima ghattathile paikutty. The cow had given birth to many, many calves who loved drinking her milk. But her youngest calf was a naughty little fellow. He ran around in the thicket all day, chasing butterflies up and down the mountain and making friends with tiny birds. But when it came time to drink milk, he would make excuses. 

She told him that there was a giant cow who lived in the mountains. She even had a title for her story. The calf of Western Ghats—paschima ghattathile paikutty.

I am not hungry. I don’t want milk. My stomach is hurting. Everyday it would be a new excuse.

And everyday the cow tried her best to make him drink milk. 

Milk will make you strong. Don’t you want to be a good boy? It’s really tasty. 

But the calf was persistent. One day the cow got very angry. She said, “Okay. Don’t drink the milk. I’ll throw it out. And she threw out all the milk that the calf was supposed to drink. It came down the mountain in huge crashing waves and became this big waterfall.

“What about the calf? What will the calf drink?” Vinu asked, ready to cry. “I don’t know. You tell me. What do you think happened to the calf now that it had no milk to drink?” Echu answered with a question. He burst out into tears then but since that day he began drinking his milk everyday.

“Janu, pappada vada nannayindu lle? Save some for Nandan and pack some for yourself before you put the rest in the store room.” Janu nodded at Achams’ instructions, tipping the last of the tea into her mouth and popping in the last of her snack.

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Next Chapter|Ch21a: Trust Begets Trust

ETWA|Ch20a: Courage As Habit

Photo by Mohd Aram 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.

The house on the hill was a temple of routine marked by meals. Breakfast was a hurried affair at 8 am everyday including Sundays. It was not mandatory that this meal be eaten together. The meal would be laid out on the table and everyone helped themselves to it.

By contrast, lunch was a more laid back event that stretched for a couple of hours starting at noon. Achams ate at 1 pm and I ate with her. Janu ate with us on most days. Dinner was the longest meal with conversation and fruit for dessert. While I was with them, Janu and Achams spent a lot of their time planning, sourcing, prepping and making my favourite dishes at all these meals.

Tea, though not considered a meal, was still an event. Tea would never be served without a snack in Achams’ house. It could be something simple like flattened rice mixed with coconut and jaggery to a deep-fried multi-process production like sukhiyan—steamed lentils sweetened with jaggery and batter fried. And come rain or shine, tea would always be had on the north-facing veranda of the house. It overlooked a well and beyond that an orchard of fruit trees. A light breeze blew in for tea time having quickly dipped its feet in the well that never ran dry. It brought with it birdsong and the sweet smell of ripening fruit. When Echumu was alive, tea time was chatty and boisterous, with her holding fort with the workers they employed. 

Tea, though not considered a meal, was still an event. Tea would never be served without a snack in Achams’ house.

But now it was just Achams, Janu and I on the veranda. I used the comfort of this routine as a crutch to rebuild my courage to live again. I suspect Achams did the same. Maybe these stories she told to fill the silences that filled this house, were to help her cope with the loss of Echumu. Because the Achams I knew was not a teller of stories. She was a reluctant speaker. Maybe she missed Echumu too much. Eitherway, in the days leading up to my recovery, she told me the greatest stories. 

Today’s snack was pappada vada. They had been preparing for this mini event since yesterday. Achams had called up the neighbourhood grocery store for some papadams and black sesame seeds to be sent over whenever they found time. On her way back from the rice mill, Janu stopped by to collect the supplies. Achams and Janu picked out a large heavy bottomed wok and cleaned it out. They debated about whether or not to use store-bought coconut oil and finally settled on it for lack of time. Post lunch siesta was wrapped up early today and soon the house bloomed with the inimitable scent of batter-dipped papadoms swimming in hot coconut oil.      

As I sat on the threshold eating my strongly spiced maroon-coloured munchie, occasionally sipping on my sweet milk tea, Achams began.

“I learned to make these from Echu. She learned it from her youngest uncle, Krishnamman. He used to run a tea shop for a while where the canal turns left. When your father was little, Echumu and sometimes Achachan would bring these for him. He used to love it so much. That’s how I learned how to make them.”

“I love it too.” I say in between loud, crunchy bites.

“Your Papa used to be like this too. He could eat these everyday. Remember?” said Achams, turning in her chair to gesture at Janu who was seated on the half wall of the veranda. Janu nods, blowing on her glass of tea to cool it down.

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Next Chapter| Ch20b: Courage As Habit

ETWA|Ch19b: A Slit In Time

Photo by Salmen Bejaoui 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 Nandan returns, Achams takes him through the events of the day. “She’s been sleeping since morning. I woke her up at lunchtime and gave her some kanji. She barely ate. At tea time I forced her to eat two slices of bread dipped in milk. Paavam. In her sleep, she’s been mumbling, “don’t tell Papa”. She is very scared.

“Ennalum, conversion therapy, has he lost it?” Nandan asks, unable to process what Sam’s been through. “I’ll talk to him”, he says, whipping out his press-button mobile phone.

“Venda, we need to be careful how we handle this. Nothing should blow back on her. You wouldn’t believe how they were treating her. They accepted plants from their neighbour to ‘change the energy of the space’. If Vinu gets to know about today’s incident, they will definitely take her back there. We can’t let that happen. Let’s just hold onto this information for now. I will tell Ammu also. We’ll tell him but not right now.” Achams intervenes.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Amma. We have no business keeping such information from him.” Nandan tries to reason with her.

Just then Ammu walks in groggily, holding the wall for support. Janu rushes to her side to lead her to the dining table where the argument was in progress. 

“I know.” Achams continues turning to Janu who serves them tea before pulling up a chair to drink hers. “But do you have a better idea? I’ve bought her some time claiming that I saw Bhagavathy in my dream and that she said she’ll take care of Ammu.” she chuckles. 

Nandan chuckles with her. “Sometimes he is too easy to fool”, adds Janu. Remember how he tried to make our ganapathi vigraham drink milk after that ‘miracle’ in Delhi? Next day, I had to perform a gamaxin abhishekam to get rid of the ants covering the idol. Janu says, laughing at the memory.

“You were lying?” Sam stares at Achams. “Of course. Tell me when’s the last time you saw me go to a temple?” 

“But you went to the bull temple recently with Ratna.” Sam is confused.

“Did I? Or did I just leave the house with her while you stayed back?” Achams asks patiently.  

“But you observe all kinds of festivals and rituals—thalappoli, thiruvathira, ekadashi, vela.” 

“Oh yes, I do. I also do believe in Bhagavathy. But not as a figure who can be bribed to grant wishes. To me, she is someone to talk to. Someone who makes me believe that everything will be alright. Faith is like hygiene—your personal business. And I don’t need to go to a temple to do that.” Achams does not mince words.

Faith is like hygiene—your personal business.

“You are crazy”, Sam says with a weak smile. She agreed that telling her parents right now would not be the best move. They would explode if they found out what she had done. Even through her confusion and fear, she knew that involving her parents would backfire.

Sam felt her mind whipping up a strong whirlpool. She couldn’t think straight. Her thoughts were racing. Her heartbeat was elevated; palms clammy. She had phrase loops and sentences whirling around dangerously in her head. She would never fully realise the importance of what these two misfits were giving her. Space. They were giving her the space needed to calm down to be able to think for herself. In the coming days, they would put themselves on a collision course inorder to put some distance between her and the rest of the world.

All her life, she had lived a regimented life overseen by her parents. Her mother had been her first playmate and later chosen who she could be friends with. Literally hand picked them. Her father decided what worthy subjects she would concentrate on, which hobbies she would be interested in and what her future would look like. Her brother had told her which books to read, policed what clothes she wore and what gadgets she was allowed to have. When she upturned her world one fine day with a kiss, she had put a spanner in the works. In the natural order of things, she would have gone on to be a highly qualified, young stay-at-home mother dependent on her ambitious husband. The family would have made sure she did.

But here she was, having taken what her Papa had called ‘an unforgivable misstep’ and her grandmother and uncle were just letting her be. They were feeding her, talking to her, protecting her but just letting her be. They didn’t make her feel like she was committing a crime. They didn’t push her to be someone she couldn’t be. Could life be this simple?

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Next Chapter| Ch20a: Courage As Habit

ETWA|Ch19a: A Slit In Time

Photo by Charlotte Harrison 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 suicide methods. Reader discretion is advised.


The next morning, Achams busies herself in the kitchen making Sam’s favourite breakfast, vellayappam and potato stew. She makes the appams extra sweet, making its delicate, lacy edges turn golden just how Sam likes them. She ladles the fermented batter into the hot cast iron pan, swirls it around in the concave contraption, ignores the escaping air bubbles making hakoba prints towards the edges and steams it on low heat with a flat lid.

As she began making the appams, Achams had seen Sam head to the bathroom outside the house. “Come quickly if you want to eat them hot”, Achams shouts in the direction of the bathroom behind the kitchen. As the appams pile up she shouts again, “What’s taking you so long? Are you digging a pond to bathe in?” Achams asks in jest.  

It’s still early in the morning and the workers cleaning the house have not yet arrived. Janu’s rhythmic sweeping of dry mango leaves in the yard adds to the morning calm. It’s time for the fishmonger to pass by the house. She can hear his ‘pooooi’ at a distance. Mumbling to herself that Sam could eat hot appams only if her fate permits, Achams turns off the stove and heads to the front gate to intersect him. 

“Kanna, chemmeen undo?” She shouts at the passing motorbike waving a earless old wok at him, to catch his eye. Her call is so loud that it spooks both the fishmonger and the dead prawn she’s asking after. Named after Sree Krishnan, Kannan’s style is at odds with the messy business of selling fish. A middle-aged man with his hair parted neatly down the side like a school boy, Kannan’s forehead is marked with sandalwood paste—an indicator of his devotion to one or more Hindu gods. He wears an ironed faux-khadi shirt with its crease lines intact paired with a pristine white mundu. 

“When did you get back? I thought you weren’t here. Do you have guests? Buying fish during mandalam season”, said Kannan as if continuing a conversation from the past. He parks his motorbike to the side of the road, beyond the gate. Cats who got the memo are assembling on the wall and crossing the street to be available for scraps.

“Ammu came back with me. She loves prawns. All this is possible only when the kids are here. Ayyappan will understand.” Achams indulges all his questions. She gives him specific instructions on what fish to deliver for the rest of the week. When she gets back with a wok full of prawns, the appams are on the table just how she left them.

“Ammu”, she bangs on the bathroom door. “What are you doing in there?” The door to this outdoor bathroom is built like a stall door with space above and below the door. Bathing in there, in the company of lecherous lizards and hairy legged oorambuli spiders is not for the feeble hearted. On getting no response, Achams grows suspicious. She peeps under the stall door to see Ammu lying on the floor.

“Ende Bhagavathy,” she cries out before trying to break down the door. Janu comes running as she hears the commotion. She’s holding the broom like a weapon in one hand. When she sees Achams banging against the door, she breaks it down without waiting to hear what’s going on. “Ayyo, I’ll bring her in. You call nandanchettan,” she says. 

“Mone, come quickly. Ammu fell in the bathroom. She’s unconscious”, says Achams dialling his number. That’s what Achams thought till she headed back to the dining room where Janu showed her the kitchen knife Sam had used to slit her wrists. The women covered her in a dry sheet and sprinkled water on her face and tried to revive her. They held up the wounded arm to stem the bleeding and put pressure on the cut. They rubbed the palm and soles of her feet in order to warm her. 

Just as they heard Nandan open the gate and drive up the driveway, they saw Sam’s eyes flutter. “Bhagavathy kaatholane”, Achams prayed for a safety net.

Achams got up to meet Nandan in the living room after instructing Janu to get Sam into some dry clothes. Nandan is Achams oldest child, Vineeth’s elder brother. He is the one who left IAS to teach in the local government school. She tells Nandan about the knife they found in the bathroom. “Let’s take her to the health centre to get her fixed up.” he says.

“No. At the PHC, they will register a police case, and because she’s a minor they will call her parents. That won’t do. She can’t have that right now. She told Vinu that she likes girls and they are making life difficult for her”, says Achams explaining the situation and thinking out loud at the same time..

Nandan looks at his mother unbelievingly. “It’s true. Someone they know saw her kissing a girl and they have been torturing her ever since. They took her to a fraud swami who looted them of some two lakhs. They stopped feeding her meat saying it causes hormonal imbalance. Now they are taking her to conversion therapy in three weeks. Let’s talk about this later.”

Nandan and Janu help Ammu into the car. Nandan calls a doctor friend to see how to proceed. He advises them to bring her over to his clinic. There he dresses the wound and puts her on a drip. He asks them to keep her under observation for the next two days. 

Back at home, they let Ammu sleep it off. Nandan heads to work, promising to be back early in the evening and to stay over till she gets better.

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Next Chapter | Ch19b: A Slit In Time

ETWA|Ch18b: It’s A Beautiful Day

Photo by Fallon Michael 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 run. With purpose, as fast as I can. But I am not making progress. You’re following me. No, he is following me. They’ll say I hugged you first. They’ll say it’s my fault. They are right. It is my fault. You don’t go around hugging someone you barely know.

“Don’t run away from me. I’ve missed you. I love you. All I can think of is for us to be together. I want to hug you so tight, you can never leave.” Coming from this dual person, these romantic words are an assault to my ears.

I crouch behind a big banyan tree where I am sure they won’t look. In a heartbeat I hear them near me. I don’t look up but I know they are there. My ears are hot. A cold, tingling sensation runs down my arms. As I get up I stumble. I look down and see that I am wearing the loose robe-like uniform from the ashram. I gather my garment and run. 

Suddenly the park is crowded. Many of my classmates are here. Lesbo Sam, Lesbo Sam, Lesbo Sam. They jeer as I run past. Ahead, my teachers are lounging on a park bench, popping peanuts. “Good Morning Ma’am” I approach them for safety, meaning to complain about my classmates. But someone behind me says, “My girl, you’ve completely lost the plot.” It’s principal ma’am, a terror on a regular day. “Your classmates are not wrong, are they?”, she leads with a question. And instead of answering her question obediently, I bolt. 

I begin looking for Zassies. There’s no way that my entire class is here without them. I look under rocks, within hedges and even in storm water drains. I find them huddled on a flight of steps. As soon as they see me, they start apologising. “We tried everything. Sorry there is no way out of this. We can’t help you.”

Okay, I hear myself say. I am on my own. What do I do now? 

Suddenly, I am climbing a tree. Higher and higher. They can’t catch me now, I am repeating to myself. The branches get thinner as I go higher. There’s a sinking feeling forming in the pit of my stomach, an ache in my arms, a tightness in my chest. But I climb. 

They can’t catch me now, I am repeating to myself.

Finally, I am sitting on the last leaf of the tallest tree in the park. Below me, Cubbon Park is an insignificant speck of green in this carbon city. There is nowhere to go from here. I look around and as my vision clears, I see them—Madhu with Guruji’s face—walking up to me.

“Where’s your poster bed, Guruji? I hear myself say in an appeasing tone. “You have cured me, Guruji.” My confession sounds sickly sweet and naive. “Who said that? I try to scream but no words come out. That’s not me. I still like girls. Do you hear me? I shout in my head. But no one hears.

“True love is when one finds happiness in the happiness of their beloved, even if they are the very reason for one’s sorrow”, I hear myself say.

I wake up crying. I am covered in sweat. Achams is by my side in a minute with a glass of water. There is no way out. There is no way out. I hear myself chant as she shushes me. She strokes my arm and back with one hand as I hold on tightly to the other. I manage to go back to sleep only after she lies down beside me, her body enveloping mine.

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Next Chapter | Ch19a: A Slit in Time

ETWA|Ch18a: A Beautiful Day

Photo by Lucian Dachman 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.

It’s a bright, sunny winter day in Cubbon Park, the kind of day that would have produced washed out pictures once upon a time. A peppermint coolness fills the air, offsetting the sunlight bouncing off the out-of-control trees growing into the sky, the orderly plants standing in a line and the wilful grass growing with a purpose. A perfect blend of warm and cool that makes you look up at the sun and smile. I reach out and pour myself a steaming cup of coffee from the thermos flask. Perfect.

The park is practically empty like it was mid-morning on a weekday. The tabebuias are in bloom. I walk up to the tree proudly bursting with its annual pink flowers. No photograph can ever capture the joy of this bloom. The soft, caressing rain of their aging flowers. The faint, warm stench of decomposing flowers afoot. I hug the trunk tight and say, you’re beautiful. 

A movement around my feet distracts me. It’s my favourite park dog, Marble Cake. He is a wobbly old fellow barely able to see or walk. But he always makes time to say hello. 

“Wello der mah bay-bee-boo. Howsh mah bay-bee-doo doin’?” As I say that, his brown and black chocolate drizzle body melts onto the floor in slow motion, paws in the air, begging for a belly rub.

“Hoosh feeling friendly today? Hoosh that puppy face?” I coo, petting him and looking around to see if Mama was looking at me. She would throw a fit if she saw me petting a stray dog. Cubbon park visits were a Sunday ritual for the family. I look around once more but there is no one else around. That’s odd, I think momentarily before going back to intense petting.   

I walk on, skipping past piles of dry leaves and squirrels going about their day. Mynahs are congregating on a Penguin-shaped dustbin. A crow refuses to share a dead rat with his family. Pigeons mill about pretending to exercise. Jason Mraz is on loop in my head, “soak up your life, your beautiful light, you’ve got a paradise inside”.

In the bamboo grove, a group of theatre enthusiasts are practising for a play. I go over to them and sit down on a rock. One of them carries a cat around, who turns out to be a pivotal character in the play. The playful cat essays its role to perfection. She’s hilarious. I laugh loudly at the cat’s antics but nobody seems to notice.

The smell of warm and spicy fire-roasted corn fills the air. Someone hands me one. I blow on the cob to cool it down. Closing my eyes, I take a bite, smacking my lips after. It’s tangy and spicy. When I open my eyes, I am on a slackline. I am grinning ear to ear as I walk across the taut rope expertly while still taking bites off my cob of corn.

When I fall off the slackline, I cover the short distance to the floor in slow motion. In time I hit the grass which feels like a comfortable spring bed and bounce gently. I turn over to the side, still smiling, and bring my knees up into a curl. Is the grass glossier today, softer even? Someone calls out to me. But I feel like I’m in that moment when you are awake but not ready to open your eyes to the world. When you want to linger in the certainty and warm comfort of your bed. “Come quickly. You are going to love this. Come on!” They call out to me again.

When I fall off the slackline, I cover the short distance to the floor in slow motion. In time I hit the grass which feels like a comfortable spring bed and bounce gently.

I look up and see your silky straight, soft hair, Madhu. I hadn’t paid attention to who was calling out to me because it didn’t sound like you. Now that I see it is you, I am up on my feet, running to you. Though it seemed like you were standing right in front of me, I now realise that you are a way off. You are turning away from me. It’s been so long since I met you. I want to hear you laugh and smell your hair. There is so much to tell you.  

When I get to where you are standing, I hug you from behind and breathe in your hair. It smells like joy. Everything will be alright, as long as I have you.

I hug you tighter and you burst out laughing. I’ve heard that laugh somewhere. You grab my arm. I am too happy to care. My face is warm, grinning ear to ear. You turn me out in a twirl. I fall back in horror but you twirl me back into you. 

I am running. 

Your face, your face is not yours. 

Yes, you’ve got your hair and your body and your clothes. 

But your face. It’s his face. Guruji’s.

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Next Chapter | Ch18b: A Beautiful Day

ETWA|Ch17b: Chaperoning Change

Photo by Jametlene Reskp 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.

“Has it though? What about that incident at Papa’s wedding?” I suggest as casually as I can. Achams gives me the side eye knowing that I am tricking her into extending story time.

“That’s true. I’ll rephrase. I have changed so much since the time I was 16. But yes, on your father’s wedding day I realised that outside my bubble, nothing much had changed. It was ridiculous. By then, Echumu had been living with me in this house for years. She welcomed the bride at the entrance with the traditional lamp because I thought a spinster would be more auspicious than a widow. Oh, I definitely thought wrong. I’ll remember that feeling till the day I die. There were around 50 people there but as Echumu came out onto the portico with the lamp, silence fell. To your mother’s credit, she took the lamp from her and entered the house. But then that growing silence imploded with a great hollow boom. 

They called her inauspicious. They called her much worse. They said I was sabotaging my son’s future. That this is what happens when men don’t run the household. That they would reconsider the alliance.

“What did you say?” I asked, though I knew this story inside out.

“Nothing. These things have a way of working themselves out. I lived on property that belonged to me as per my husband’s will. I had lived on my own without a male shadow since your father was little. I had brought up two boys capable of making their own decisions. And most importantly, I still earned a salary. I didn’t owe anyone anything. The only person I told off was your mother’s father who used some vile caste slurs against Echumu. 

I told him politely that he couldn’t do that in my house. And that if he wanted to reconsider his daughter’s marriage based on my actions, then he should definitely do that. I believe he had never before heard a woman speak up. He stared at me for a while before walking away. That was just the beginning. Anyway, all this was nothing compared to my days as a young unemployed window without a future to look forward to.  

I told him politely that he couldn’t do that in my house. And that if he wanted to reconsider his daughter’s marriage based on my actions, then he should definitely do that.

After your uncle was born, I had two miscarriages. I was so anaemic that I looked like a ghost. Your uncle would sit on the mat next to me and make baby noises. I didn’t even have the energy to take him in my arms. That’s when Echumu first started entering the house—to care for the baby.

Achams pauses, deep in thought. “Your father, he really brought me back from the dead.” He brought such joy to my life. Your grandfather doted on him. At dinner, he would seat both his sons on either side of him and feed them mouthfuls of rice alternately.

Having heard these stories many times before, I knew that it wasn’t long before she succumbed to a painful memory from the past. I quickly changed the subject. Tell me about that time when Achachan caught Papa with the cashew plants.

“Hahaha, atho”, she laughs, her eyes twinkling. Vinu was still very young, three or four maybe. Achachan had brought home cashew saplings for planting on the property. There were 5-6 of them sitting on the side of the house, arranged in two rows of six. When Vinu asked him about it, Achachan had said that he was waiting for their roots to grow a little bigger before planting. 

A couple of days later Achachan noticed that the plants were looking sickly and drooping. He watered them and moved them to a cooler spot. A couple more days went by before he noticed that one or two of them had completely dried up. On close inspection he found that the soil around the saplings had been disturbed. Who could be doing this? A bandicoot perhaps or maybe a thief? He wondered. He decided to pay closer attention to his saplings and told all of us in the house to keep an eye out. 

The next day, Echumu was the one who found it and called all of us to come quietly and see what was going on. Your Papa was uprooting one plant at a time and looking at its roots. Achachan ran up to him with a stick and chased him around the yard in mock anger, “What are you doing?”

“I am checking if the cashew roots are growing” your Papa said innocently. Achachan picked him up in a hug, laughing.   

“Achachan and Echumu were friends?”

Hmm, I wouldn’t say that. But he often argued with his mother about how she treated her employees, Echumu in particular. His mother did not take well to anyone meddling in the running of her household. Having said that, Achachan was her only child that had survived and she loved him dearly. When he died so unexpectedly, she was devastated. They say she died of diabetes but I think she died of heartbreak. 

After Achachan passed, it was just her, me and Echumu in this big house. She was inconsolable. She just didn’t have the will to live anymore. She barely got out of bed. Sometimes I think I should have done more to help her. I know how hard losing an unborn child can be. But I cannot imagine outliving your adult child. She didn’t even give herself a chance. She lived for another five years, bedridden for the last two.

How did you manage with the kids, the job and everything?, I asked, beginning to feel sleep knock on my eyelids.

I had a lot of help. Echumu and I would wake up early, cook meals and bathe his mother. She was a well-built woman and it was particularly difficult in summers. My job was in a school started by someone in Achachan’s family. So I had some leeway there because I was related to the administrators. But so many people said that I should stay home and take care of his mother. It was a good thing that his mother didn’t care about anything by that point. And I am so glad I didn’t listen to anyone. It made all the difference. My first salary was Rs.100. But still it meant so much to me to have that.

“Man or woman, having a job makes you interact with the world based on your capability. True that I got the job because of my family name but it was me that taught with all those children…” I heard her say as sleep carried me into the realm of dreams.

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ETWA|Ch17a: Chaperoning Change

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński 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 and I arrive at her house on the hill by around dusk the next day. In the veranda hugging the front of the house, Registrar Kurupettan straightens up as he sees us approach. Resourceful as ever, he has arranged for the house to be cleaned before we arrive. “Your room and the common areas are done. Cleaners will finish the rest of the indoors tomorrow”, he says to Achams in small talk. 

“Hmmm, all well at home?” Achams asks in response. Registrar nods. I stop to consider how efficient this conversation is. It’s asking the right question but with a yes or no answer. 

“Janu has made kanji for dinner. I’ll come by tomorrow morning then”, he says stepping into the growing darkness of the evening. “Rathriyil yathrayilla”, he says pointing the feeble light of the torch ahead of him more for confidence than sight. The phrase is both good night and a way of warding off evil, literally meaning no travel in the nighttime.

“Aangh”, says Achams, making an ambiguous noise before heading indoors. Living alone with her in the following days, I’ll come to realise that a lot of her conversations are mere sounds. I stay on the veranda smiling at him but he can’t see me in the darkness.

I hit the bed in Achams’ room soon after dinner. It’s been a long and tiring day. But Achams sits at her spot by the window in a cane chair. There’s a pile of books and magazines on the window sill and she’s opening one of them to read. The wall opposite her chair holds an old black and white photograph of Echumuma. She’s young and vibrant here, dressed in a sari with a smile that’s radiating outwards like a Ravi Varma painting. Her smile is naughty, hearty and unbridled.

She’s young and vibrant here, dressed in a sari with a smile that’s radiating outwards like a Ravi Varma painting.

Before she can get engrossed in her book, I ask, “When was this photo taken Achams?” Both of us stare at the photo for a while and feel the beginning of a smile on our faces. Such is the photo. This is not the Echumuma I remember. I remember an old lady with missing teeth. Her hair was jet black till it started falling out due to chemo. When I was young, she used to wear a plain blouse paired with a coloured length of cloth usually printed in checks. She covered her breasts diagonally from shoulder to hip with a cotton towel that had once been white. In the last five years or so since she befriended cancer, she wore a button down nightie which was easier to get in and out of. But her smile—it was always like the one in the photo—bursting with life.

“This was taken at my wedding. The day we first met. Echumu must be 19 here. She was wearing a bottle green sari that belonged to my mother-in-law. Everyone in Echumu’s family worked for my mother-in-law and Echumu was to be my chaperone. I was 16, marrying a stranger and moving into his house but her smile soothed my nerves and gave me confidence to get through the day. This photo was taken by your grand uncle who spent his entire month’s salary on photographing the wedding.

“Chaperone! What does a chaperone do exactly?” I asked, holding out my arms like a baby asking to be carried till Achams came to sit by the bed and stroke my arm.

“At first, she would just follow me around. She would come with me to the pond where I went to bathe. She would apply oil in my hair and pluck hibiscus leaves to make a paste for me to use as shampoo. She would wash my clothes. She would walk with me to the temple. She would sneak around to meet me when I was on my period and not allowed to meet anyone. Back in those days, she was not allowed inside the house or allowed to touch me once I had had a bath.

“That’s horrible. But you were best friends. How can you not touch your best friend?” I wondered out loud.

“Yes we were. I said we were not supposed to touch each other. But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t. We were together all the time except when I went upstairs to sleep at night. Echumu went home only to sleep too. She ate all her meals at our house. At mealtimes men and children would eat first. Only then would the women eat. Since we ate in the kitchen, Echumu would sit on the steps leading out of the house and talk to me while I ate. I would sit as close to the kitchen door as possible and eat as slowly as possible until my mother-in-law shouted at both of us. She had a frail voice but she packed a punch with her words. And how she shouted at us. But so much has changed since then.

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Next chapter | Ch17b: Chaperoning Change

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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Next Chapter | Ch17a: Chaperoning Change