i swear i felt like a man on those days. when they would stand huddled up in twos or threes and when they would fall into a sort of sleepy heap at night; when we talked about one girl’s fight with her mother, another girl’s lonely time at a party, or another girl’s legs being full of razor cuts; when their sad stories would blend into a sort of trail of laughter – i swear i felt like i have tricked everyone into thinking that i belong there. when i opened my mouth amongst all of this, when we met my parents’ colleagues or their parents’ relatives together, or when in the middle of our nights together we sat with my father on the dinner table – i swear i felt like i had been exposed. found. an infiltrator, caught.
but when i was alone, on that same dinner table, or on the playground, or in the classroom – i felt real again. when i was nine years old and N. Ganesh wanted to feel like coming to school was worthwhile for him and that he would follow in the footsteps of all the men in his family who were hotshot scientists, he would adjust his glasses and gather a bunch of his friends, and come up with a question to which he knew the answer. one by one, they would ask me the question, as if it was just a doubt, as if they just wanted to know what i thought. and the others would listen on, waiting for me to falter. they would run up to me during lunch break and ask me my marks and punch the air if i got half a mark less than them. knowing whether the picture on the cover of the science textbook was of a satellite or of a drone didn’t mean shit to N. Ganesh if someone else also knew what it was. i wonder if his uncle was one of the tambrahms who made the bomb that killed all those people, i wonder what they talked about at home, i wonder if he cared about any of it beyond what made him better than other people. they would hoot when i walked up to get my paper and giggle when i tripped. i had to love science that year. you have to learn to love flying when people keep trying to push you down a cliff.
when i was ten years old and Piu and i went to play badminton, Rohan, the fast-cycler, the trouble-maker, started circling around us and started shouting look here, look here. and when we looked up he showed us the middle finger and he kept shouting fuck you bitches fuck you bastards fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. i felt dirty but i couldn’t tell anyone why i felt dirty because i was not supposed to know what these words meant and i wouldn’t have known if last summer Babai dada had not taken me to his room and asked me to go through the parts of the dictionary he had marked out. and he knew i wasn’t supposed to know because he would keep whispering the words to me in front of my parents so that i would feel dirty and scared all the time and he’d get me to do him favours in return for not telling everyone the truth about me. i knew no one would believe me if i said it was him who told me, and years later, Antara would know that no one would believe her either. when the boys in our class were sending each other messages saying, i think she washes her pussy twice everyday when she takes a bath, she would know that it was her who was dirty, and not them. it doesn’t matter that they said it. and so, we would tell Lata ma’am to change our seats but she would never do it because we would never be able to tell her what the boys said.
and then i was eleven. we were trying to look for dress up games to play on our uncle’s computer, me and Kutti, on one of our fabulous, endless afternoons. we went from website to website and forgot the last website we had been on and we opened the history page and we found links which said father fucks stepdaughter and Bhabi fucked by neighbour and Kamwali Bai raped while cleaning floor, and we closed everything and didn’t speak to our uncle for five days. later when she came to my home and we took a bath together, instead of playing with water like we used to, we looked into the mirror and practised pulling our sleeves down slowly, while batting our eyelashes, and giggled. our reflections in the mirror, dangerous and grown up. later the face would become red and fuming, when i would come in and lock the door, and strain my throat to the point of rupture. my face stretched from the force of keeping quiet as i sobbed with uncontrollable rage before joining the dinner table again with red eyes and smiling mouth. and then he would call my mother a stupid oaf and the plates would come crashing everywhere and instead of saying something i would shut up because i knew i was a stupid oaf too. the reflection i had left behind in the bathroom next to the heaps of his dirty laundry, and the face i wore when he asked me why i was lying even when i wasn’t, just to make sure i was scared all the time – these things felt like me. when Kutti and i practised being like the girls on youtube, i felt real.
i stopped paying attention in science classes soon but i put myself in many tables where more people like N. Ganesh tried to get me to fail and more people like Babai dada made me feel dirty and more people like my father made me feel like a lying stupid oaf. how else would i, with all that danger in my heart, feel like i did exist? every girl was putting needles in her face and then after a point, if those girls existed, like they seemed to, and you didn’t feel any needles, then maybe you didn’t exist. Kutti and i would talk about all of these dangerous secrets at night, and in the dark i would not feel dirty anymore. and Piu and i would consider if we should try kissing to see what its like and she would tell me what fuck means and why we should run away and never talk to Rohan ever again and somehow, i think they caught on to it.
i think it stung them that there was no way they could beat our secret world out of me. no matter how much my lips shook and my eyes teared up when i didnt mean them to and no matter how weak or dumb or quiet i looked, i had Kutti and Piu and others to go back to and they would never know what i was like. it must be such a waste to spend all your life pushing someone into a corner only to find that they dug a hole through the wall behind them and held someone’s hand in the next room. and so he would look at us in a particular way, when we were talking to each other and it was me telling Kutti things and Kutti telling me things, and the two of us fighting like they fight and playing like they play, and he would make this particular face. later he would ask Kutti, a little quietly, loud enough for me to hear but not loud enough for me to speak, and he would say, why doesn’t she let you say anything? and he would take her to a corner and say, i think if anyone is not a stupid oaf it is you. and when we sat down together, he would never ask her why she is lying and i would know that maybe it is just me whose entire being is untrustworthy. and then when Kutti and i would withdraw into our secret world at night, i would feel too big and too loud and i would not tell her anything about his secrets because i did not want to not let her say anything and i didn’t want to be a stupid oaf and i didn’t want to oppress her with the heat from the fire i kept trapped inside me when she was not there.
and then when Shyamal sir would not let me speak in class and i would go and talk to Hiya and he would feel like i am digging a hole in my corner again, he would make that particular face with that particular look, and he would call her aside, and ask her quietly, loud enough for me to hear, but not loud enough for me to say anything, if i was too much for her. and then when we would be sitting together, in twos and threes, i would try to think of the real me so that i could make sure i was not too much for her.
i would think and think and it was nothing but a hand going up and down like a tic, first adjusting my hair, then adjusting my skirt, hair, then skirt, hair, then skirt, a diseased hand going back and forth trying to fix everything not knowing what they were sniggering at. it was nothing but the shoulder i was stroking, in an empty bathroom, trying to ease into the fact that i have to be a good fuck at some point. it was nothing but the sound of a guilty giggle when his parents had gone out and Babai dada stroked his younger brother’s penis to show me what happens when you touch it, and the sound of my uncle saying chhi chhi when i told him what happens. it was nothing but my hands typing that i don’t know what to do because i don’t want to say it out loud when Antara and i were trying to decide what to do about the chats she had seen between the boys in our class. it was nothing but the dull pain between my legs when Aditya had said he was trying to tickle me and had reached for something under my skirt. it was nothing but my chest hurting, and my eyes burning, and my throat soundless. and i remembered that when i was talking to Hiya and i did not feel like this, not scared, not dirty, not stupid, not hurt – how could i not have been a fake? i couldn’t have been like her. i knew i was an oppressive force – an infiltrator, an eye looking from up above, a hand too callous, a voice too loud. and Shyamal sir had seen it. and they were just trying to save her from me. and i knew i did not want her or Kutti or Piu to get caught up in my world, with all its filth and all its anger and all its uncontrollable danger. i am sure she would have been much more sheltered and cared for in his world – whoever it was that could take care of her and teach her the rules, and protect her from me. i swear, the way he looked at me when i spoke to her, i felt like a man. and so, i let him save her from me. it was for the best. i know what men are capable of.
Tambrahms: Short for Tamilian Brahmins, the caste group with highest ritual status in south Indian states, known to dominate fields of science.
Dada: Bengali for ” elder brother”, but is used to refer to any older male.
Kamwaali bai: A derogatory term used to refer to domestic workers.
“chhi chhi“: Common expression in Bengali to denote disgust.
Damayanti is a 20-year-old Sociology and Film student in Pune, India. She loves writing, although her writing periods often coincide with the sight of actual steam coming out of her ears. At other times, she can be found trying to get the attention of emotionally distant cats, or appreciating a good cup of tea. This is her first publication as a fiction writer.