“Akka, can I come in?” Ranjith said meekly. He varies between two extremes: either attaching himself to me as if we were best friends or being intimidated by my very presence. I prefer the second.
I continued sketching.
About thirty seconds later, he asked again, “Akka, are you there?’
“Mmmm,” I mumbled.
He opened the door apprehensively. I didn’t look up from my drawing but I stopped sketching and put my hand down on the page.
I could feel him staring at me from the doorway, waiting for me to acknowledge his presence.
I sighed and looked his way. “Yes?” I asked, barely concealing my annoyance at his intrusion.
“I brought you dinner,” he said, beaming.
He had changed into blue shorts and an old white shirt that had some logo on it. His shirt looked slightly wet, probably because he had just returned from his tennis class. He’s extremely good at tennis, as if he doesn’t give my parents enough to gloat about. In the seven years he’d been attending these classes, I hadn’t seen him miss a day of practice. I hated how I had to admire that about him.
He was carrying a white ceramic plate, with two chapatis and tomato gravy. Not my favourite, but I was too hungry to care.
“Amma told me you’re tired,” he said. His concern seemed genuine, but unlike everybody else, I saw right through him and his impeccable, caring attitude. No one, and I mean, no one can really be as morally upright and loving as my brother showed himself to be.
“I’m fine,” I said with a tight-lipped smile. He smiled back broadly, but he had lost some of his earlier enthusiasm.
He put the plate on the bedside table. It was a rule. I hated people putting it on my lap or handing it to me, and no one dared to do it after the riot I created the first time around. Not at home and not even at school.
I took it from the table and placed it on my lap. The pencil rolled onto the floor, which I barely acknowledged, but my brother walked over to the other side of the bed to pick it up and put it back in the drawer, closing it dutifully. I rolled my eyes, too tired to respond with a sarcastic comment.
He stood next to me, and so I couldn’t touch my food. I hate people watching me eat. It unsettles me to the extent where I can’t even watch infomercials on TV while eating – the ones where the model stares into your eyes as she recommends something like the world’s most silent and efficient vacuum cleaner in the fakest way possible. I truly think that someone someday should break into one of their homes just to see if they even own the damn vacuum cleaner. Wait, I should so add that to my bucket list.
“What do you want?” I looked at him.
“Don’t you want to know how school was?” he asked nervously.
I snorted, wondering if he was joking.
“I’ll take that as a no,” he muttered and scuttled out of the room.
“Shut the door,” I reminded him as he was walking away. Peace at last.
I wondered how school must have gone. Probably the usual, because if anything interesting had happened Preethi would have called by now. I had told her I was sick because she wasn’t exactly the most convincing liar in the world, which would prove to be disastrous if any of the teachers decided to question her on my absence.
I had taken a lot of leave last year, at which they had never even batted an eyelid; this year they seemed more concerned.
Plus, I strongly suspect my parents had had a word with my teachers about my negligence; probably just my father actually. I couldn’t care less though – it wasn’t going to change anything. Neither he nor my teachers had the courage to stand up to me and tell me what they really thought. And as long as that remained, I could continue feeding off it.
I tore off some of the chapati and dipped it in the chutney. It was spicier than usual. A little chutney got on my cheek by accident. I reached for a napkin, and realised there wasn’t one within reach. I wiped it away with the back of my hand. When I was younger, I had mild OCD when it came to germs and dirt and things, but I’ve had no choice but to get over it, or lead a harder life than I already did.
I savoured each bite. I hadn’t exercised in almost two years and it was starting to show. A few years ago, if I could have seen how I look right now, I would have been disgusted with myself. I had never been a fitness freak, but I had always made time for sports – tennis, badminton, throwball, basketball, football, you name it; I had been on all the school teams.
The bell rang. I checked my watch, it was 9:00 pm, on the dot. It never failed to astonish me how punctually my father reached home every day, considering how unpredictable Chennai’s traffic was.
I could hear him talking to my mother and Ranjith in the hall; his voice was so loud that the sound travelled even when it was just normal conversation. I heard my parents laugh at something Ranjith said. He seemed to be able to make everyone laugh except me. And on the rare occasions I did laugh, it was not so much with him; mostly at him.
I could hear my father make his way towards the stairs; his walk was twice as loud with bare feet as my mother’s was with slippers. The question was, would he go upstairs to his bedroom or come to my room? The sound of feet came closer. Drat, he had to be coming to see me. I looked down sadly at the morsels of chapati left on my plate; I just wanted to eat in peace.
The door opened and my father strode in. I didn’t dare order him to knock, however much I wanted to. I hated giving him the satisfaction of having any sort of power over me.
He was wearing one of his few fancy suits – dark grey and neatly pressed, his black hair combed with a parting to the side, revealing quite a few grey strands. I stifled a chuckle – the grave look he was going for was at odds with his bare feet and trousers folded above his ankles. His feet were wet; his evening routine included washing his feet in the bathroom by the hall as soon as he came back.
Although I had to ignore his disregard for my privacy, I certainly wasn’t going to acknowledge his entry. I stared at my plate and picked at the food. Ignoring him would be much easier if I could actually eat with him watching. I noticed a chip at the edge of the plate and fingered the contour gently, fixating on that instead.
He walked over to the foot of the bed and stared at me until I felt uncomfortable. A few more minutes of awkward silence passed until he sighed and said my name.
I whooped inwardly at having won our little game. I looked up, pretending animatedly to be startled by his presence. “Yes?’
“Amma told me you didn’t go to school today,” he said, looking at me with steely black, unnerving eyes. His look demanded attention, if not a response. I gave him neither.
“She told me you’re sick, but you look fine to me,” he added.
I couldn’t afford to push my luck. My father’s patience wore out easily but his temper tantrums never did.
“I was sick in the morning; I’m fine now.’
“Great, so you can go to school tomorrow,” he said. It was clearly an order.
“Not if I’m sick again,” I responded.
“I doubt you will be,” he said casually and left the room.
I had no idea what that sentence meant but I wasn’t stupid enough to want to find out. I sighed and went back to my food. The chapati was cold and almost rock-hard now but I ate it anyway. Going to microwave it would mean seeing my father again – I’ll take cold chapati over that any day.
I heard voices coming from my parents” bedroom, which was directly above mine. The stairs led up to a small landing; on the left was my parents” room, straight ahead was my brother’s and on the right what used to be mine. Now I was in what had earlier been the guest room downstairs, and my room upstairs had been converted into the guest room.
My mother and father seemed to be having some sort of heated discussion. Uh-oh, this was never a good sign. Their voices rose in a steep crescendo.
I sighed and finished the rest of my cardboard-like chapati. I grabbed the nearest bottle of water and washed my hands over the plate – it was disgusting but I had gotten used to doing it. It beat having to go to the sink each time. I set the sloshing plate aside, drank some water and dried my hands on my track pants.
The voices became louder, especially my father’s. When my mother started shouting, which was rare in itself, her voice became high and squeaky. It was like listening to an elephant and a mouse. I use that metaphor because despite being small, sometimes my mother had the advantage. Hers was the kind of voice that breaks glass and makes your eardrums hurt. Luckily, I couldn’t make out most of what she was saying. My father’s words, however, were as clear as day.
“She’s becoming lazy! Full of excuses,” he thundered.
When we were little and our parents had one of their rare fights, Ranjith and I would huddle under the covers and talk to each other for comfort. When the fights became more frequent and longer, as they had in the last year, our concern had depleted. Not that Ranjith would dare to come to my room for comfort, anyway. I heard his door shut; he was better off alone. Knowing him, he was probably getting started on his extra credit homework.
My mother squeaked something back, at which I winced.
“She’s had enough time to accept things! Now she’s just taking advantage of everything. Can you really not see that?” my father boomed.
The squeaking died down; I couldn’t make out exactly what my mother was saying. “Something daughter something condition.” That was all I needed to hear.
A while ago, I might have cried, I might have been sad, or angry – angry at my parents for being inconsiderate and for labelling me, just as the rest of the world did. But now, I really couldn’t care less. I mean, I’ll never be enough, so why try? As for my mother, her pity sickens me. Sometimes, I debate whether to be nice to her because she stands up for me, but I don’t. Because if I do, I’ll be inviting more sympathy that no doubt would be accompanied by bountiful love and affection that I knew wouldn’t solve the difference of opinion between her and Appa.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” I said, too tired to make Ranjith wait. I knew it was him as I could still hear voices coming from the bedroom upstairs.
He opened the door and looked at me for a split second. For that brief moment, I almost felt sorry for him, his eyes were glazed as if he was trying his hardest not to cry. He took the plate and went back to the door, not throwing a cheerful comment my way as he usually did. I almost felt I should say something but I didn’t, suddenly realising that he had no right to be upset, this fight was about me! I was angry all over again. Pity-seeking little fool, I thought to myself. What on earth was he upset about?
I grabbed my iPod from the bedside table, and set it to my metal playlist. I had three others—rock, random and Tamil— none of which seemed appropriate.
Feel waters rise, Sink down below, Kneel and obey, Breathe deep the flow ...
I fell asleep to the dark lyrics of Fates Warning. It was an appropriate end to another dark day.
Excerpted with permission from Unbroken, Nandhika Nambi, Duckbill Books.