ETWA | Ch3b: We All Fall Down

Photo by Ramakrishnan Nataraj on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. My first attempt at writing a novel, this is being written 1000 words a day through November as part of #NaNoWriMo2020. Hope you will read along as I write. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page.  

Mama grew dramatic that very second. She fell to the floor turning in the general direction of the pooja room praying, “Bhagavathy, save my child!” I didn’t think much of Mama being dramatic. She was known to be. I turned to Papa.

“What is the meaning of this?” Papa asked, unsure of his own question. I’ve never known him to be unsure.

“Papa, I like girls”, I said lifting a giant rock off my lungs and letting the lightness of disclosure fill me. “I like girls”, I say a second time with confidence. 

“Not in this house, you don’t”, he said, lunging to hit me. I ducked and he missed. But it was more than I could imagine in my wildest thoughts. Papa, my hero, raising his hands to hit me. My eyes were smarting again. And my ears were ringing as if he had actually hit me.

“Give me your phone”, he said. I complied. No phone, no TV and no Internet from now on. After dinner, I will move your desktop out of your room. Anyway, you have study holidays from now. In the meantime, your mother and I will decide what to do with you. Go to your room now. 

“But Papa…”

“No, don’t call me that, you filthy…” Papa ate a bad word.

By now, Mama had lit all the lamps in the pooja room with an accompaniment of incense sticks. She was picking up her prayer bell when Papa held me by the hand and dragged me to her. He placed my right palm over her head. 

“Promise”, he began, “promise on your mother’s life that you will not do such things from now on.” I stood there, agarbatti fumes waterboarding my nostrils. I didn’t know how to get out of here or to make them stop. Were these my parents? Did I know them to be capable of such drama? 

“Wait! Before you promise”, Mama intervened, “tell me first, how long has this chuttikali been going on for? How long have you gone behind our backs faking bloody dance practice and what not to sleep around?”

I couldn’t believe the things I was hearing. Words like ‘bloody’ and ‘sleep around’ coming out of Mama’s mouth. I’ve never ever heard her speak like this before. I was not even allowed to say ‘damn’ at home.

“Answer me”, she shouted, chiming the bell over her shrill question. 

“A couple of months”, I broke Siam’s rule again.

“Eeeshwara!”, Papa facepalmed, sinking to the floor next to Mama.

“You must have told Zara about this, no? And the others?”, Papa asked suddenly, as if he had just remembered this detail.

I had seen enough of this tacky serial. “No”, I lied.

“Don’t lie”, Amma countered.

“I am not lying. I don’t always tell them everything,” I lied again.

It felt so strange to lie to my parents. I had no experience with this kind of trouble before. Any kind of trouble actually. No wonder Zassies thought I was a kiss ass. This was all new to me.

“Good”, Papa’s face showed an uptick for the first time this evening. “So no one other than you and her know about this?”

“Yes.” 

“Good.”

I just wanted this to end. 

“What will I tell your brother? He will definitely say that it’s my fault, my carelessness that this happened to you. Did you stop to think for a second how your brother would feel when you were fooling around with this nashicha…” Now it was Mama’s turn to swallow a mouthful of bad words. 

“Who will marry you now?” she let the water works take over. 

“Calm down, Sreeja. This is our fate, nothing can change it.”, Papa consoled her.

“Is she Malayali?”, Papa couldn’t but ask. “No Papa. She is Bangalorean.” Mama started another string of prayers.

“Yes, but originally from where?”, Papa was a man on a mission. “Born and raised here in Bangalore.”

“Hmm, what’s her full name?”, he wouldn’t relent. 

“Madhumita Swaminathan”

“Brahmin then.”

“Hmm”, I said, my first ‘correct answer’ of the evening.

Bingo! That response seemed to appease them enough to let me go.

“Freshen up and come back in 15 mins. We’ll have dinner early. We have to move that computer out of your room tonight. No more Internet for you.” Papa warned me, again. 

I was so listless as I sat on my bed that I didn’t notice Achams walk across the room to the door, until I heard her. 

“What’s the commotion there? Are you playing the Vanambadi serial on Asianet?” she called out to no one in particular.

“Alla Amma. It’s err… nothing” Papa fumbled.

“Don’t lie to me, mone. Was someone here crying then? I thought I heard some background music I recognised well. Like bells ringing. Must be the serial, no?”

“You must have imagined it Amma. The TV is not even on. Dinner will be ready soon. Why don’t you freshen up?”, Amma was quick to step in to pacify Achams. 

“Okay, I’ll be out in five minutes”, she said, shutting the door gently behind her offering me some much-needed privacy.

Achams walked past me to her chair by the window. I logged into Zassy and typed in the latest code of choice—emoji. Kissed Madhu at Juice Centre. No phone, computer. Much drama. Help.

💏@🍊📵💻🙄🚨헲

A second later, Siam responded. 🙊🤝👮⛖💪📞👄🍭

Don’t say anything. Don’t agree to anything. They’ll interrogate you, just don’t answer. We’ll find a way. Stay strong. I’ll let Madhu know, don’t worry.

I looked over at Achams who had gone back to reading, completely dismissing how she had just played my parents. She was the best.

Sign up to get Every Thing We Are in your inbox:

ETWA| Ch3a: We All Fall Down

Photo by Jesse Stallworth on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. My first attempt at writing a novel, this is being written 1000 words a day through November as part of #NaNoWriMo2020. Hope you will read along as I write. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page.  

Madhu, it feels strange that I am no longer able to access my secret journal. But no one can stop my thoughts, can they? No yet, I suppose. So much has changed since I began This Coded Life back in 2016. In the first entry I had introduced my world as Samiverse and described everyone important as the five elements of nature. I had reserved ‘space’ for someone special. 

Madhu, I think you are my space. When I am around you, I feel weightless. I am floating. I am alive. I am aware. Present. It feels like you and I are the heartbeat of this universe and the rest of the world is here to upkeep our lub dub. 

When you are around, I lose all sense of time and place. It feels like you are a magnet and my cells are a million little iron filings. All I can sense is your proximity and the pinpricks of anticipation waiting to jump from your body to mine like electricity. When I am around you, I time travel back to our first kiss though we have had many more since. Still, that first kiss is the one my body remembers.

Remember how we hung out at Juice Centre so frequently that when he saw us cross the street, the manager would order us our orange juices?

I don’t know what came over me that day. I think about that evening a lot these days. Perhaps it was because it was the last day of dance class before study holidays for the board exam. And we wouldn’t meet again for a couple of weeks now. Maybe it was something else entirely, I don’t know. Anyway, we were holding hands as we crossed the road. At the Juice Centre, your hair had caught the light. In all its blazing glory the setting sun had shimmied its blinding light across your hair in waves, just to mesmerise me. Just then, you stuck out your tongue, shaking the glass tumbler, coaxing that last drop of juice onto your tongue as you always did. 

I am never supposed to be a creature of desire. And if I am not a creature of desire how can I act on it? Not in India, definitely not in public.

And I kissed you. Right there, the ending day as my witness, with the busy street sitting in judgement, I kissed you. And I felt the world pause like a tableau. I heard our lub dub shatter and fall to the floor, helpless, as the world cut us loose from its spell. I saw the Juice Centre manager, flick his eye at me for a nano second. He shot judgement from his eyes and it pierced our ribcage as if we were jelly. A man facing the counter, drank his grape juice with undue concentration. Another pair of eyes, stared at you with eyebrows convulsing with concern. It shot at us an arrow of poisoned prejudice, striking your shoulder bone like a violin’s bow.

Then there were the familiar eyes that bore into my back. I knew they were there. I didn’t know who they belonged to. I didn’t see them. But I knew word would get back to my parents. I just knew it. When I peered out of my head, you were right there next to me laughing but you knew as well. Our love was never going to be easy. I am sure you saw in my eyes the fear of being a girl in India. I am never supposed to be a creature of desire. And if I am not a creature of desire how can I act on it? Not in India, definitely not in public. 

With our juices done, we headed back to Nritya making out like rabbits in the changing room. We didn’t know what we were doing but we were desperate, weren’t we? We probably knew that we wouldn’t meet again for a long time, if ever. And we taunted the world’s rules by making a memory that no one could take away from us.

I walked into the eerie silence of my home. My parents were sitting on the sofa in the living room which was reserved for guests and solemn events like marriages. Clearly this was a solemn event.

Papa looked visibly upset but he didn’t say anything. Mama motioned for me to sit down on the couch. As I lowered my bag to the floor, she couldn’t stop herself. She slapped me right across the face. It was the first time someone had slapped me. I couldn’t hold back my tears. Taking a leaf from Siam’s tactics, I stayed quiet. This seemed to aggravate Mama more. 

“I don’t know at what wretched time, I decided to keep you”, she said. 

“What have we not done for you? Have we not given you everything you wanted? You do whatever you please. I don’t even ask you to help me with any housework”, Mama was letting it all out. 

She turned to Papa, “I’ve told you many times not to pamper her but you wouldn’t listen. See what’s happened now?”

Papa wasn’t looking at me. He just sat there. “Papa”, I said tentatively. He tried to look at me a couple of times but he was clearly emotional. 

After a couple of minutes he said, “Vaithi sir saw you kiss someone in the juice shop near Nritya. Was it you?”

“Yes”, I admitted.

Get fiction daily in your inbox:

Next episode | Ch3b: We All Fall Down

ETWA | Ch2b: Welcome To Samiverse

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. My first attempt at writing a novel, this is being written 1000 words a day through November as part of #NaNoWriMo2020. Hope you will read along as I write. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page.  

Fire is a short walk from school, Nritya I mean. I’ve been going to the Nritya Dance Studio, thrice a week since I was 7. It was Papa’s dream to make me a Bharatanatyam dancer and that dream has become mine over the years. I love to dance. I am good at it too. 

Papa is my biggest fan. He picks me up if practice sessions end later than usual. He goes on early-morning market runs for fresh flowers on performance days. He takes me to competitions. He used to have an embarrassing habit of making invitations for my performances and inviting neighbours and colleagues. I’ve put an end to that, thank God! He gets me an entire Death by Chocolate on our way back from every performance. He gives me foot rubs on the post-performance rest day. 

Mama constantly reminds him, “You are spoiling her. She has to go to another house someday.” But I am Papa’s pride and joy. He has all my trophies displayed in the living room. When people visit, he calls on me to perform for them. Papa is trained as a biochemist and he works in one of the oldest biotech firms in Bangalore as the Vice President of their research and development wing, along with Zara’s mother. I want to be a biochemist like him.

Papa and Mama had me a full decade after they had Chetta. They are the earth on which I stand. They are everything. Chetta’s real name is Siddharth, though I don’t ever call him that. He got married last year to Chanchal who is always called Chinnu by everyone. They are both software engineers and have recently moved to Sheffield in the UK. My Mama also holds an engineering degree but she has never worked. She was gearing up to find a job when she had me.

A regular day in my life begins with waking up to bells chiming as Mama prays in a hushed tone akin to gossip. By then, Papa would have gone for a walk with other uncles from the apartment complex. Every morning, Dawn would try to ignore their enthusiasm and hold on to ten more minutes of shut eye before breaking. Before I got ready for school I usually managed to practice an ashtapadi or tillana. 

School bus picks me up at 7 am and then I am in my element. At school, time always flies past. There is always more to do than there is time to do it. My zassies and I spend the whole day together usually pulling each other’s legs. Their favourite jibe at me is that my report card often says diligent or dedicated which is teacher-speak for kiss ass! Lunch is the most elaborate affair of the day. We spread out our tiffins everyday and collectively study the peculiar taste buds of our families. Evenings are for dance, homework and family.

“They can say whatever they want. My house was so ancient that it had even developed a hunch. It was just time for that house to go.” 

Recently, Papa’s mother, who I call Achams—short for Achamma—has come to live with us. She lost her friend Echmoom, who used to live with her, to cancer a couple of months back. Since then, Papa makes sure that she isn’t alone in her house in Kerala for too long. Either we visit her or fly her down to be with us. Echmoom is what I used to call her. The name in ‘the school register’ as she liked to say was Lakshmi. Achams and everyone else called her Echu. I was supposed to call her Echu ammumma but I coined Echmoom instead. I miss her a lot especially when I think of the old house on the hill in Kerala where Echmoom and Achams lived. As a child, one of the bed time stories Echmoom told me was how she moved in with Achams in the ‘85le pemari’ when her house collapsed under heavy rain in 1985. Every monsoon, Echmoom’s house at the foot of the hill collected water until she move into Achams house till the end of the season. Since she worked all day, every day of the week and went home only to sleep, she didn’t think much of fixing her roof or plugging leaks. Her favourite line in the story was when the village office cited ‘low pressure in the bay of bengal’ as the reason for all weather-related disasters. Her house hadn’t collapsed because of “bangal ulkadalil nyoona mardam”, she would say letting out a laugh. “They can say whatever they want. My house was so ancient that it had even developed a hunch. It was just time for that house to go.”      

Achams was awfully quiet and resigned. Since I knew she was grieving her friend, I let Achams be in peace. She shared my room with me even though Chetta’s room was empty, now that he had moved away. My zassy window would always be open, I would often be smirking at the screen or typing too interestedly, on the pretext of studying. As long as I ‘studied’, Achams sat up with me, reading. Never once did she ask me what I was laughing at. It was getting incredibly difficult to continue with this because guilt of tricking her was eating away at me.

One day I asked her, “Achams, don’t you want to know what I am laughing at?” 

“Not unless you want to tell me kutta. Do you want to tell me?”

“I could tell you. But if you were Amma, by now would have asked what was so funny in my homework.”

“Ithokke ororutharude private matters alle kutta? If I won’t read your letters, why would I read your messages? Same thing alle?”

I had never thought of messages as inherently deserving privacy. We had always fought against restrictions as a good to have and never as a right. I ended up telling her how Zara had made a fool of herself in front of the teacher she fancied. Achams listened to the story, commenting on how mischievous Zara was for fancying her teacher, “Aha, bhayangari!” And we laughed together, and I saw her face light up for the first time since Echmoom’s passing.

The fifth element—space—I’ve saved that one for love. Space has to be for someone special. Because not everyone gets to go to space.

Sign up for a daily dose of fiction in your inbox:

Next episode | Ch3a: We All Fall Down

ETWA | Ch2a: Welcome to Samiverse

Photo by Benjamin Behre on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. My first attempt at writing a novel, this is being written 1000 words a day through November as part of #NaNoWriMo2020. Hope you will read along as I write. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page.  

When I started This Coded Life, I was really at a loss for what to write about. Imagining that one day when I am much older, perhaps as old as thirty five, I would make this blog public and laugh at some of my adventures, I narrowed down on my first post. One of Papa’s favourite lines (he has many), “You will look back at this when you’re older and laugh about it” assured me that this will be the case. Mimicking the ‘hello, world!’ prompt that WordPress uses to remind you to send out your first post, I decide that it should be about my world, Samiverse!

Welcome to the Samiverse! I wrote. 

My world, Samiverse, is best explained using the five elements of nature: earth, water, fire, air and space.

School is water. I love school. I spend most of my day there. Like the water baby that I am; a Cancerian born on 3 July. I get to school early, by 7:45 on most days, though assembly is only at quarter past eight. I use that time to catch up with my friends—my Zassies. We update each other on what transpired in our lives from the time we last spoke, which was minutes before we met at school. I love my prefect duties at school as well. I am usually held up for an hour or so everyday past school time with those. But I love everything that goes on in school. I am part of the dance club here. I participate in debates though I would argue that I am not the best at it. I am a decent student. I love most of my teachers, my classmates and my friends. School is the best. 

“God made two [genders]: man and woman. Why don’t you face the wall all of today and think of the people who clap their hands at traffic lights?”

What makes school the best is of course my Zassies—Akira, Ayaan, Siam and Zara—ZASSY, get it? They are air. Akira is the doer. She is fantastic at minecraft and coding. She built us Zassy The Group, our main chat forum. That was to save Siam from a fix. Siam is the quiet one that perplexes everyone. He is handsome in a way unassuming people can be. Many have attempted and failed at getting him to break out of his natural silence. He sticks with us mostly because we let him be. Once he pissed off our biology teacher ‘lovely Miss Mathews’ in the first hour of class by asking her how many genders there were. She said, “God made two: man and woman. Why don’t you face the wall all of today and think of the people who clap their hands at traffic lights?” The whole class laughed and so did I. He just stood there, staring at the wall with a smile plastered on his face. The whole day, without uttering a single word!  

Ayaan or Y as he liked to be called, was the no nonsense one. He was preparing for IIT-JEE with a focus that was usually reserved for do-not-pet sniffer dogs in bomb squads. He was such a good boy that his parents often told my parents that they had nothing to worry about. He was smart but not smug. He was always formally dressed and well-mannered as good boys tend to be. He was definitely a nerd. Akira and him nerded out a lot when we were together. Y and Zara were childhood friends, neighbours and for all practical purposes, siblings. They bickered like cats and on principle disagreed on everything. 

Zara is my best friend. I met Zara in dance class when we were 7. We were thrilled for an entire month when our sections got shuffled in 4th standard and we ended up in the same class! I’ve known Zara for literally as long as I can remember. And by extension Y. I love my Zassies but I love Zara more. Growing up, in addition to being together at school and at Nritya, we also spent a lot of time in boring office parties and house parties because Zara’s mother and Papa worked together.

There’s another reason why my Zassies are air. Since we became teenagers, parents and garden variety adults of all sorts have increasingly placed more and more restrictions on us. We are given phones for safety but we are officially allowed to use it only minimally. In school, phones are not allowed. They will be confiscated if found. There is perhaps an hour’s window during commute to school or back when phones can be used. At home, there is a sliver of time between finishing homework and dinner when phones are allowed. In my house, I have to leave the phone with my parents after dinner. In Zara’s and Y’s homes there are randomised checks. Because they are neighbours, their parents follow the exact same rules as if they are siamese twins. Their parents can ask for their phones at any time without warning and check their WhatsApp and other apps. Zara’s mother tried to get Papa to do it with me but he said that he trusted me enough to let me have my privacy. Basically using the phone to chat was generally cumbersome. 

That and Siam’s father searched his room for a stapler once and discovered a woman’s underwear instead. They went berserk on him but he refused to spill the beans on where he got it from. Subsequent Internet combing revealed ‘milf’ in his search history. His parents were the most chill people we knew but they took away his phone, grounded him and sent him to counselling. And they put his computer in the living room under constant monitoring. 

This was the summer of 2018. That’s when Akira built us a communication mechanism and combined our names to call it Zassy The Group. It sounds so sassy and cool, doesn’t it? It was a web app built on Glitch. All we had to do was log into zassy.glitch.me and we could chat without being monitored. The coolest part was that it could be used without raising suspicion. The main page looked like an online student notebook. It was complete with notes on the genome or macro economics or a differentiation sum, something from our syllabus. It could fool anyone. But when I typed /michelleobama.html into the URL, it took me to a chat window where once I entered a pin, I could chat with Zassies. On the first Monday of every month, Akira remixed the overlay text and the pin. She shared the new pin with us at school or even on WhatsApp just to keep up a semblance of normalcy. We talked about everything on Zassy. It was our safe haven.

Support me as I write my first novel. Sign up!

Next episode | Ch2b: Welcome to Samiverse

Every Thing We Are | Ch 1b: Life in Code

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Every Thing We Are is a coming of age novel where Sam learns that every thing we are is not always on display. My first attempt at writing a novel, this is being written 1000 words a day through November as part of #NaNoWriMo2020. Hope you will read along as I write. All episodes of this series are available on the ETWA page.  

Long before those lips I devoured today talked to me in real life, you had liked a photo I posted on Instagram. It featured Sheru, the street dog at Nritya. She was grinning as I gave her a belly rub. I had refreshed the page so many times that day just to check if I was seeing this right. When you followed me on Instagram, I was finishing dinner with my family. We have a no-mobiles-on-the-dining-table rule. So I leave it on the chest of drawers behind my seat. I leaned over to subtly check the notification and legit fell off the chair when I saw the ‘MadU2001 started  following you’ notification!

Still, I would often remind myself that none of this is true. That you probably don’t even know that I exist. That it was far-fetched to imagine that you would fall for someone like me.  I remember what I was wearing the day you talked to me. It was a Wednesday and I was in my sports uniform which was once white. I was late and hurrying to the changing room while taking off my tie and shoving it into my bag when you came over. Frankly, I was annoyed. Of all the times you could have talked to me, you had chosen this one day when I was late. 

I lit up like someone had fired a flare gun at my face.

But you just stood there before me and said so very matter of factly. “Sam, shall we get a juice outside after class? I think I like you.” I lit up like someone had fired a flare gun at my face. I sat in aramandalam with great diligence. I prayed for the class to end early. I felt focused, as though my body and mind were moving in unison.

And just like that, there we were drinking orange juice at the Juice Centre across the road from the dance studio. Months of playing out scenarios in my head and in the matter of an afternoon, my life had tipped.

I must confess that I remember next to nothing of what we spoke off. My mind was preoccupied with your lips. They seemed like a thin, long line, a tightrope stretched across your cheeks. Below were a mouthful of teeth waiting for me to explore them. Further in there was a tongue, fierce and untrained, revving to go. You stuck it out as you shook the upturned glass to get the last drop of juice onto the tip of your tongue. I could feel my ears get hot and my toes get sticky inside my shoes. I wanted you so badly. I wanted to touch you. Feel those fluid lines that make your body. Dance with you, matching your moves, making you move. Together. Alone.

R olev blf, 

Ulivevi blfih

Sam finished typing her love letter, encoded it using Atbash, a simple reverse cipher that replaced A-Z in reverse order from Z-A. She and her friends had read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code last summer and were enamoured. They had spent a good number of days learning alphabets in the reverse order and practising reading and writing in reverse. They used it in all their text messages. They changed their ciphers every month as they expected to be intercepted by family.

This journal that Sam was writing in was private and no one knew it existed, not even her gang, Akira, Ayaan, Siam and Zara. This was the one big secret that she kept from them. They knew about Madhu and everything else, right down to the minute. The year she entered high school, her parents had read through her diary and confronted her about why she wrote that she hated ‘the lovely’ Miss Mathews, their biology teacher. That incident had made her extremely conscious of her journalling. It had also made her secretive. She had started a private journal on WordPress. This was in addition to the public blog she maintained as suggested by her father. Papa had told her that a blog was important to build her extra curricular portfolio online. She blogged avidly about her dance, her Olympiad prep, competitions in school, what she learned on holidays and even her favourite dog, Sheru. But for the private blog, called This Coded Life, she knew that only a cipher could keep her thoughts truly private. So in addition to a password, each of her posts were written in a different cipher and she spent a lot of time labouring over it. 

As she shut down the computer and got ready for bed, she recalled from her brain’s recent folder, the events that transpired this afternoon. She sent Madhu a smiley, just as she was stepping out of the conscious world.

Free fiction in your inbox.

Next episode | Ch2a: Welcome to Samiverse