Love In An Age of Taxonomy

    by Anil Menon

    Shyama got up around six, poked the curtain aside with her toes. Smiled. Another Chennai morning, sparrows squabbling, gentle wind, fragrant wood-fires, dear old sun, et cetera. The morning view was like the smiling face of a beloved relative. Nice line! She sat up, reached for her glasses on the side-table, then her writer’s notebook, wrote down the thought, noted the date.

    Stretch, yawn. Now, carpe diem, Shayma! Stumble to bathroom, do her ablutions, fifteen-minute Yoga, make the bed, stash clothes for laundry, take a shower (cold water, of course), pray to Lord Shiva, run downstairs, hug Amma, touch Appa’s feet, nod thoughtfully as he read out Times Of India’s Thought For The Day ( “There is no classification of the Universe that isn’t arbitrary and full of conjectures.” – Jorge Luis Borges ), have breakfast with parental units, run back upstairs, uniform, knapsack, downstairs, helter-skelter, through the door and into the car.

    “I’ll be late today,” said Appa, but Amma had finished nodding even before he’d begun to speak.

    “Don’t forget the onions,” said Amma. She smiled at Shyama, closed the door.

    As Appa drove, Shyama made her father listen to the latest club number from her favorite K-pop group, Kiyo Butterfly. She smiled as he weaved his balding head to the beat. Appa was so uncool, he was cool.

    The new student walked into the classroom in the first period. Shyama was engrossed in checking the science homework, so she didn’t notice the arrival. The newbie sat down next to her.

    “Hi.”
    “Hello,” said Shyama. The new girl smelled nice. Then Shyama realized the item was a boy, not a girl.

    “You can’t sit here,” she hissed, grabbing her compass box. “This is the girls’ section.”

    “And I am a girl.” The boy nodded pleasantly. “Chandra.”

    Shyama looked around; everyone was also shocked. What a cool cucumber. S’okay, sit here, who cares? Murali-sir had no patience for tomfoolery of this sort. She cast a sideways glance at the cheeky fellow. Nice long-long curls, rosy lips, smooth skin. Hmmph, a model or what? He was searching for something in his foreign-looking bag. She spotted a drawing pad. As the boy rummaged away with some violence, something jiggled under his shirt. Suddenly, Shyama was unsure. Perhaps this modern party was a girl after all. Now, this was why everyone laughed openly at Mount Mary’s uniforms. Male uniform: pant-shirt. Female uniform: pant-shirt. A uniform should clearly distinguish between boy and girl, no?

    “Got a spare pen?” Chandra had taken out his/her notebook, opened it to the first page. It was very white, very unwritten. “What’s your name?”
    “Shyama,” she said hesitantly. Of course one had a spare pen. One had a spare pencil, spare eraser, spare pencil-sharpener and several spare pens. She handed him a spare pen.
    “Thanks.”

    Oh my god, such cute dimples, truthfully. Shyama shifted back towards the center of the bench, returned the smile. Seemed like a sweet girl, this Chandra.

    “Please excuse, Chandra. I thought for a minute— The boys here are real rowdies. Are you NRI?”
    Chandra was and she wasn’t. She was from Dublin. Yes, Delhi. She was from Delhi. Chandra’s accent couldn’t be pinned down. She was Tamil. She was Sindhi. She wasn’t Punjabi. She wasn’t from Delhi. Oh I said, Dubai. She wasn’t Tamil, but Konkan. She was from west of here next to nowhere. Tara and Supriya from the seat just behind leaned in to listen and question. Very annoying. Other girls were beginning to come out of the woodwork.

    “Girls! Return to your seats!” Shyama used her class-monitor voice.
    Then Murali-sir, M.Tech (IIT BHU, ’82), walked in. The Maths-sir had fought with his wife this morning, that much was clear.

    “Go and give him your card,” whispered Shyama.
    “What card?”

    “Your admissions notification card. It’s proper procedure. You went to the principal’s office and got the registrar’s signature, no? He should have given you a card—”

    “SHYAMA, please be so good as to SHARE your gossip with the REST of us!”
    She shot to her feet. “Murali-sir, I was just telling the new student she had to get an admission notification—”

    “Yes, yes. Next time you should…” Murali-sir couldn’t suggest a better alternative. “Sit down Shyama. Stand up, new student.”
    Chandra got to her feet. Shyama sat down.
    “Why are you sitting in the girls’ section?”
    “Because I am a girl.”
    Murali-sir once again had no answer. Fortunately, some rowdy boy snickered and Murali-sir set off in pursuit

    Chandra disappeared during the mid-break. A sixth sense prompted Shyama to go in search. She found Chandra backed up against the playground’s solitary tree, volleyball in hand, a circle of boys pressing ever closer with questions, offers, leers. The air was thick with an oppressive odour.

    “Chandra!” barked Shyama.

    The new girl, her dimples appearing and disappearing in what had to be fright, used the small gap that opened in the circle at Shyama’s bark to run over to her side. Shyama led her away.

    “What was that all about?” asked Shyama.

    “They were playing volleyball. They let me join and then they suddenly went weird.”

    “Why did you join their game!”

    “Because I like volleyball,” said Chandra, looking puzzled. “I told them I liked playing with boys.”

    Shyama wondered if her new friend was mentally ill. Then she decided it couldn’t be. Chandra was nothing like her cousin Mental Mani. Chandra’s eyes had a twinkling awareness that Mental Mani’s lacked. But still.

    “Very different in Dubai, I suppose?” said Shyama, doubtfully.
    “Oh, loads.”

    “But this is Chennai, not Dubai. I’ll show you how things work here, if you like.”

    Easier said than done. Chandra wreaked havoc with the smoothly running machine that was her life. Chandra said she’d come at six to do homework and turned up at seven-thirty. She promised to get A2 sheets for the geography project and instead arrived with a half-a-dozen drawings and a plan to make a six-minute movie instead. Too much! Chandra said she wanted to learn how to wear a sari, but when the time came the room would end up a riot of colors and cloth and silly enactments of Hindi songs. Chandra said she wanted to study together for the biology exam, but she asked one question about taxonomies, then a second, then a tenth, until one ended up learning a lot but little that was useful for passing the exam.

    In the delirious pages of a certain ancient encyclopedia, commissioned by an well-meaning but irresponsible Chinese emperor, it is claimed that every animal can be corralled— squealing, neighing, honking, warbling and grunting— into one of N categories. Obviously, the Chinese had never met Chandra.

    How is one to study when there is a creature ballroom-dancing in one’s room or trying out one’s scarves or wheedling to go to lousy French film festivals or sitting on the bed reading Siddharth, cross-legged like a fakir, a fakir, that is, with hideously red lipstick? How can one study? No one can study. No one can study under such conditions. Studying suffers when hours are wasted arguing whether zombies could form societies.

    And she was so physical! A very affectionate girl, that was the only way to put it. Anything was an excuse for an embrace, tickle attacks, soft kisses, putting skin next to skin. One problem had to be nipped in the bud.

    “Chandra, you need a bra!”

    “I do? For these mosquito bites?” Chandra flattened the shirt-front, then pulled the white shirt up, revealing her slender torso and small pointy breasts. “I keep squeezing them but they never grow. I want massive ones like yours.”
    “They’re not massive, you’re an A-cup, so you feel that way. And we’re all the right size.” Shyama calmly pulled the girl’s shirt down. “I’ll speak to Amma and if I know her, we’ll be going shopping.”

    She spoke to her Amma and that was exactly what happened. Amma quietly informed Shyama’s father she was taking over certain feminine responsibilities for Shyama’s motherless friend and Appa had nodded and returned to his paper. Shyama was very proud of her modern-minded parents. Such discussions would have been impossible in many a Chennai home.

    A day after Amma had instructed Chandra in the menstrual cycle, proper hygiene and the dangers of smoking, Chandra didn’t turn up for school.

    After returning from school, Shyama called Chandra’s home but only got to speak with a man who sounded hoarse and angry. If it was her dad, he certainly didn’t sound like he was a big-shot executive from Dubai. No Chandra on Day Two. Day Three. Day Four. A whole week passed. Then two. Calls to the house rang and rang. She approached the school registrar for information, but all her power as a class monitor failed to move them. She went to Linkedin and searched for Chandra’s father, hoping to find his work address, but there were at least a hundred executives with the same name in the city.

    “I can’t believe you don’t have her home address!” Amma was angry because she was worried. “I thought you were her best friend.”

    I am, thought Shyama, miserably. I thought I was.
    It was very quiet without Chandra, both at home and school. No, not quiet. Dead. When Chandra was there she was so there, her not being there was unbearable. Shyama traced a finger over her skin but it merely felt like her own bony finger, not Chandra’s soft electric touch.

    How could she have disappeared so suddenly? Not one word, one consideration. Perhaps Chandra had gotten tired of being barked at. One had only meant well. The girl was so innocent, she was a hazard to herself. She probably didn’t even realize the havoc her disappearance had wrecked.

    It was this not knowing, that was squeezing one’s heart. But you knew, Shyama. You knew something was wrong. A girl like Chandra comes along simply or what? There had been many signs. The way she tried to avoid going home— she practically had to be pushed out. The confusing manner in which Chandra talked about her home life. Or about where she’d lived, studied. Her reluctance to talk about the past had been a sign something was wrong.

    Signs, there’d been plenty of signs. She should have seen Chandra had been suffering.
    How? It was so hard to know what the girl was thinking. So full of secrets, it was maddening. Two tight slaps, that’s what she should get. Wouldn’t matter though. No matter how hurt Chandra was, she’d cover it up with that dimpled smile. Happy? Smile. Sad? Smile. So how was one to know? One wasn’t psychic.

    Stupid girl, said Shyama softly to the empty room, thinking of that smile, aching to caress the face she’d pushed away so often. Stupid, stupid girl.

    Chandra probably had a new friend by now. There were plenty of morons who went around carrying spare compass boxes. That would be all right. As long as she was happy. If one could only be sure of that.

    Shyama could hear her parents quarrel. They were worried. She knew she should please them, go back to being normal. Perhaps all quarrels were about what was normal.

    It was normal to study. There was loads to study— Shyama’s eyes sparked with tears; ‘loads’ was one of Chandra’s favorite words. Loads of fun. Loads of boys. Loads of girls. Loads of homework. Loads of cool.

    She tried to study how Chandra would have. Let’s have some fun. Ooh, ooh, I know, imagine this. What if. You know, I bet we could. I’ve always wondered. But without Chandra the method felt unwieldy and weird, as if she were cavorting in someone else’s brilliant clothes. But when she tried to study how she used to, her mugging embarrassed her. She listened to music, read, watched TV, but nothing she did would ease the heartache.

    If I could spend just one more minute with her, she thought. Just one more minute.

    She thought of Appa and the bored expression he had whenever Amma launched into how her day had been. It struck her that love was the desire to spend time with someone. There was no need to blather about moon and hearts and what not. You just had to observe how much time you wanted to spend with someone.

    Super! What an original thought.
    She opened a new file on her computer, began to type, then paused. Too unreliable. She found a spare notebook, signed her name just under the white label which said: ‘Relax Please.’ She opened to the first white page, began to write, but then stopped, again overcome by tears.

    Tore out the page. Tore it into little pieces. Let there be a hundred such thoughts. A million. Let there be myriad poems, plays, great novels of heartbreak waiting to be mined from her grief. None of it would ever see the light of day. No response could be more befitting to what she felt than utter silence. Words were for liars. She carefully deposited the pieces into the trash bin.

    One morning her mother came into the bedroom without knocking. Picked up clothes, sighed, opened a window or two, sighed, poked. Shyama knew she couldn’t continue faking sleep.

    “Why aren’t you up already?”
    “Leavemealone, Amma.”
    “You have to do Yoga, get ready for class.” More puttering around. “Shyama? Kondai?”
    “What?”
    “Sit up!”
    Shyama sat up sluggishly.“What do you want?”

    “Now listen to me, Shyama. Your friend has gone away, maybe for a short while, maybe for a long while. Whatever it is, this kind of behavior is not appropriate. It’s not like you have lost a family member or something. You’ll make other friends. That is life.”

    “I don’t want other friends, I want Chandra. Amma, can you call—”

    “I’m not calling anybody. You have other friends. Tara and that other girl. What’s her name? The one who came here for your Chemistry notes?”
    Shyama lay back on the bed.
    “Shyama, get up at once. This is pathetic. Don’t create mountains out of molehills. You didn’t know this wretched girl two months ago, now you are acting as if you need a heart transplant. Ridiculous. We’ve been too liberal with you, that is our mistake. You don’t understand—” “No,” shouted Shyama, lifting her head. “You don’t understand. You don’t want to understand. I’m not going to recover. And I’m happy I won’t. I may be unhappy forever but I had something precious. If you and Appa were in love and not just faking it, you’d understand.”

    Amma flinched, fell silent. She smoothed a corner of the bed sheet.
    “I didn’t mean that,” said Shyama, miserably. “I’m sorry.”
    “I know. Now get dressed.”

    She got dressed, went to school, returned, did her homework, got dressed, went to school, returned, did her homework, got dressed, one day after another, until six weeks of mind-numbing routine finally scabbed over the hurt. It wasn’t hard to fake normality; nobody knew what normal was except it was what they’d always known. Occasionally, in the still silence of her room, she poked the scab and when nothing stirred wondered if she had faked so well, she herself could no longer tell the difference. Until Chandra returned to the class.

    Murali-sir had barely begun when Chandra appeared at the doorway. She had lost weight, there were shadows under her eyes, her hair was cropped much shorter. She wore a boy’s uniform. She wasn’t smiling.

    Murali-sir paused, peered short-sightedly at the interruption, his lips twisting in irritation. He seemed about to say something, then changed his mind as if he’d remembered something and merely pointed at one of the empty seats in the boys’ section. The students gave each other amazed looks. Whispers roiled around the classroom.

    “Silence!” roared Murali-sir. “Go and sit down, boy. We haven’t got all day.”
    As Chandra quietly walked to the seat, he lifted his head just once to look in Shyama’s direction. She looked down, hands trembling. Murali-sir’s words curved towards the horizon. It was as if she’d put her head to a conch shell and all that could be heard was the echo of an ancient sea.
    At mid-break, she continued to sit at her desk in the rapidly emptying room, pretending to prepare for the Chemistry class. She sensed Chandra’s presence; she kept her gaze on the page.

    “Shyama.” There was something wrong with his voice.
    She turned a page.
    “Shyama.”
    His voice, now so strange, appeared to tremble. There were rules for chemistry. You couldn’t build any damn thing with chemistry. Shyama’s neck hurt from the effort not to see whatever it was he was trying to show her. The molar approach to reaction rate calculations would definitely be on the test. Mrs Waghle had spent a lot of time on the molar approach. Then her resolve broke and she lifted her head. But Chandra was gone. Shyama rushed out of the classroom.

    “Have you seen Chandra?” she asked Tara, grabbing her by the arm.
    “Your girlfriend’s using the boys’ toilet,” said Tara and the group around her burst into laughter. She ran towards the restrooms, indifferent to the jeers, the need to see Chandra spreading in her like a forest fire. See her, touch that dear face, feel her new curls. Then give her two tight slaps. If she’d only said one word, given one hint, then one could have helped. One could have planned, strategized. But no. How she must have agonized, worried. No, that was unlikely. Most probably she’d drifted from one silly decision to next, happy in the moment, pondering who knew what, blissfully unaware about how unforgiving the world could be. What was the use of being angry with the silly girl? Accept her. There were no spares for some people.
    She saw some boys milling like ants outside the restroom. A boy peeked his head in, withdrew it with a frightened expression. As she approached, relief seemed to make them resolute. A flurry of indignant voices.

    “Chandra is in there, Shyama,” said one boy, pointing.
    She rushed in. Chandra lay huddled in a corner, naked from the waist-down, her legs tightly clamped. Her trousers lay half-crumpled in the sink, dangling loosely, as if it had been trying to escape through the drain. Shyama rushed to her side, half-sitting to better support Chandra’s sagging weight and removed the underwear they’d made her wear as a cap. There were bruised rings around her ankles.
    “Are you hurt?” she whispered, breathless with fright. “Are you hurt?”
    Chandra shook her head. “I’m sorry I couldn’t call.”

    “Never mind that now. Are you hurt? Are you hurting anywhere at all.”
    “Father wouldn’t let me. There was a doctor from Delhi; he told my father there was a way to make me a boy.”
    “Close the door!” barked Shyama at the curious heads clustered near the toilet’s door. They called themselves men or what! Gutless cowards! When the door closed, she turned to Chandra and said gently: “Let me see if you’re hurt.”
    “I’m not hurt,” said Chandra, her dimples appearing and disappearing, as it did when she was agitated.
    “Let me see.”

    Something shifted in Chandra’s eyes. She leaned further into the half-embrace and let Shyama inspect her. Her expression turned languid. She touched Shyama’s eyes, her nose, her chin, her lips.

    “You’re only bruised a bit.” Shyama sighed with relief. “Let’s get dressed.”

    “I am a girl.” Chandra refused to let her move.

    Shyama pressed her cheek against Chandra’s. There were so many things to decide. Her Amma would need to be involved; she would understand, she always did. Appa would fall in line, eventually anyway. But the school and everything else? She savored the fragility of the frame she cradled. It wouldn’t be easy. Far from easy. In fact, one’s heart quailed at the magnitude of the task that lay ahead. However, one thing wasn’t in doubt. There was no need for one to spell it out. One could take comfort from its certainty. She helped Chandra to her feet.
    “No worries. We will get your admissions card corrected.”

    Anil Menon’s short fiction have appeared in a variety of international magazines including Albedo One, Interzone, Interfictions, Jaggery Lit Review, Lakeview Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Strange Horizons. His stories been translated into Chinese, Czech, French, German, Hebrew, and Romanian. His debut YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Zubaan Books, 2010) was short-listed for the 2010 Vodafone-Crossword award and the Carl Baxter Society’s Parallax Prize. Along with Vandana Singh, he co-edited Breaking the Bow (Zubaan Books 2012), an anthology of speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana. His most recent work, Half Of What I Say, (Bloomsbury, 2015) was shortlisted for the 2016 Hindu Literary Award. He currently resides in India and can be reached at: iam@anilmenon.com

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