Boys don’t cry
by Sneha Gangadharan
I rubbed the ball on my trousers, trying to rub off the sweat accumulating on my palms. The green ball was patchy, showing traces of rough use.
No matter how hard I tried, my hands were behaving like clouds that showered the mystifying rain. But this was not soul quenching. The sweat was a reminder of what happened. A shadow of a man appeared in my mind. I tried to push the memory aside. “Focus on the match” – said a voice.
“Hey Ravi, are you day dreaming? We don’t have the whole day. Eda chekka, Just throw the ball”
There was hooting and screeching.
My heart skipped a beat, and I paced forward trying to do my popular spin. I skid before the ball left my slippery palms and it was as wide a wide could be.
“Enthaada pottaaa? – “You fool” shouted my team mates.
I walked away head hung, shoulders drooping. A well-deserved farewell. I took the satchel from under the mango tree and walked home-wards. My mind was clouded with thoughts. It felt like I had to drag my feet against its will to make that journey home.
Then it hit again. The heavy breath on my neck, that carried the smell of cigarettes and local toddy. It was an earthy, rusty smell. The hair behind my nape stood erect.
Those snake-like fingers pushing down my trousers, the other hand tightly pressed on my mouth. My helpless squeal never escaped those rough calloused fingers.
I shut my eyes and tried to shut out the memories, wipe it out like it never happened.
The stain on my trousers had to be wiped out too, there should be no evidence of it happening.
A nauseating sensation pulsated through my being and I ran to lean on a nearby tree. Bile filled my mouth and thrust out. My stomach lurched, the dizziness was overpowering. I just lay under the tree for a while shivering.
In that moment I wished to merge with the soil and disappear, hoping that it would erase all memories of what had happened.
I had dozed off under that tree, oblivious of time. It was past sunset, the sounds of crickets and mosquitoes circling over my body was what woke me up.
I sprang up and started a sprint. It was way past curfew, and I knew exactly what was awaiting me.
I slowed down when I reached the courtyard. Every step felt heavy again.
Achan was pacing in the courtyard, the tip of his lungi pulled up diagonally to show a significant amount of his frail thighs. He was tall and strong. He was not wearing a shirt, he liked walking around open chested. The hair on his fair chest was another sign of masculinity he liked to show off. There was a long twig in his other hand, the purpose of it I clearly knew. The chooral made its appearance every now and then from under the sofa. It was never misplaced, never out of reach.
The waft of the Nandyarvattam flowers and wild Tulasi from the courtyard was soothing but not enough to soothe my nerves.
What excuse will I give for being late, sleeping off under a tree is not believable by any standard.
“Evideyaayirunnu itra neram?” Ninne anweshich pokaan irikkayaayirunnu.”
[ “Where were you? We were planning to come looking for you”]
“Shankar inte veetil poyatha, korach notes edukkan undayirunnu.”
I crossed my fingers nervously as I made up this story of visiting Shankar the studious boy in class for his notes.
The familiar tune played on from Doordharshan, it was time for the Evening News. Achan nodded quickly and got in to catch the News Hour.
I heaved a sigh of relief.
Once at home the memories of the event seemed to fade for a while. It was not because home gave a sense of calm or warmth.
Home for me was shelter, where you get food and can sleep under a roof. Was that all that home was meant to be? I don’t know.
Amma called me to get firewood from the ‘attam’ or cellar. There is a traditional oven outside the main kitchen, and most of the food is prepared there. The smoke arising from the oven created a mystifying feeling. All parts of the coconut tree were used as firewood. Coconut husk, mattal which is the sturdy branches and ola, the long leaves were all used. Food always tasted better when it was cooked in this oven.
I liked standing near the fire, feeding the insatiable fire more wood. The fumes seemed to have a very easing influence on my nerves. The smoke and fumes were gliding like snakes, making shapes in mid-air and then disappearing the next moment. I hoped I was like the flames, burning strong and disappearing the next moment.
“Marapottathi..” The shrill abuse pierced his thoughts. I ran inside to witness a daily ritual at home.
Amma had served tea with some snacks. The tea lay on the floor, Achan was fuming – “Ninakk chayyakk etra kaduppam venam enn ithu vare manasilaayille.. Allengilum ninte ammakk adukkala pani padipikkan neram undaayillallo. Valya doctor aavan poya aalalle.. Kashtam”
[“You still don’t know how to make a damn tea. How will you! Did your mom have any time to teach you how to cook. Oh you were preparing to be a doctor, huh. Pathetic!]
She resigned to the kitchen stoically. It was hard to tell what she felt from her face. If only there was some trace of sorrow or anger or regret. If only I could see traces of any emotion that may make her more human. But I could find nothing.
Achan was already back in a good mood, laughing at the pranks of Rahul the younger one. He had a way of making people laugh, and surely was the favourite in the house. There was not a dull moment with him around.
I tried to join in, soak in a bit of the laughter. The snack for the day was some raw coconut pieces with boiled jackfruit seeds. It is a yummy combination. Also a good source of farts. Achan was even proud of his farts. He owned them, and farted in his living room proudly not giving a damn about anyone around. He made a joke of it, and said this is my home and my rules. If anyone has a problem they can leave. Rahul laughed at this and they both farted away. I made an excuse to visit the loo, and escaped. I was already nauseated and did not want another reason to puke.
But somehow I had realised this from very early. I had more resemblance to mom than him, and that was in some way my failure. He hated me for that, attributed my gentleness to a shame he couldn’t bear, referring to me as a side kick of my mom.
Not that mom was any kinder for that reason. She wanted me to toughen up, to not show my tears or weaknesses in front of him. Once during class reshuffle, I was separated from all my friends. I was heartbroken, but surely I could not let anyone know how sad I was.
I went home and confided in my mom, tears welling up in my eyes. She seemed to be afraid someone would listen to us. Joked how silly all this sounded and said none of this will matter in a few years, and asked me to wipe my tears. She was afraid someone would see it. “Boys don’t cry, quickly wipe your tears before dad sees you” and she rushed back to kitchen.
I have yearned for his love and attention, for him to look at me like he looked at Rahul.
I came back from the loo to hear Achan’s cackling laughter, showing his glistening golden tooth. He had a story for every occasion, a confidence that was elusive. He traveled the world and shared stories that no one else would have known to narrate. His years in Bahrain and Saudi as a truck driver had toughened him up. Achan did not have much education, but he made it seem trivial and unnecessary to succeed in life.
But I could not understand why he had a contempt for women. Specially successful, powerful women. It just irked and brought out the worst in him. I dreaded the visits by Ammamma. I loved her – her crisp cotton sarees, well kept hair, round rimmed glasses were all a soothing sight. But her visits never went down well in our household. It is an irony that we inherited this property from her.
One day when she came to visit us, straight from school where she was the Headmistress, dad stopped her at the entrance. Asked her to leave her shoulder bag and haughtiness outside before entering the house. I wonder how carrying a shoulder bag would mean haughtiness and what was wrong in being haughty anyway. But I hid behind mom and never uttered a word.
Mom’s face went pale too, but she stared into nothingness. Grandma didn’t stay for long that day. But I remember the way she caressed my hair when she was speaking with Amma inside the kitchen. Her hands smelled of curry powder and a waft of coconut oil emanated from her body. I soaked in the warmth that it carried.
I did not know whether I should share what happened at the tuition centre with Amma or not. I had enough. I did not want to go for tuition classes to that hell anymore, but I did not know whom to confide in. I felt like my heart was collapsing inside me, that the walls around me were shrinking and choking me.
I knew I had to muster the courage to share this with mom. She has to do something about it. But I did not know what I should tell her. Should I tell her that the tuition master slid his black snake like thing inside my butt, or that he made me hold it underneath the table. Would she be able to comprehend such gory details?
But I told her as I could not carry the weight of the experience anymore. When we were alone at night when Achan had gone out for some errands, I told her in the best way I could. Her eyebrows were raised in disbelief, she slipped a sigh, and a drop of tear escaped from the sides of her eyes. She quickly wiped it and made that stoic face like always and walked away from me. There was no consolation, no words exchanged. She just hid into the bathroom.
When Achan returned, I heard them talk in whispers. Mom was showing her displeasure in a muffled tone but I heard Achan growl. I don’t remember much of what happened afterwards. He stormed into my room with a chooral in hand, shouting at me.
“Aanum pennum kettavane”.. “Nee ente makan aayi poyallo! Nashicha janmam”
I heaved and sighed as he came on me again and again. I was numb after a few beatings. The pain was beyond what my body could take, but the words stabbed into my heart like a thousand thorns. I wasn’t sure why I deserved this. Why he considered me not man enough. Why this made me unworthy to be his son. He heaved in my ears – “ You are a wasted life!”
He heaved and stormed out of the room, exhausted.
Something froze inside me that moment. My attempts to seek for his approval, my life’s desire to be accepted by him as a worthy son just burnt into ashes in that very room. I bit my lips so I would not give away my tears. My lungs seemed to choke yet I breathed. I tried to keep breathing. More than my abuser my heart burned with contempt at my dad. Wasn’t he supposed to protect me? Why did I deserve more pain?
But I also felt liberated. It was like a veil just lifted from my eyes, and I knew I would not be safe in this house.
When the darkness descended outside, and the lone fox hooted in agony, I slid through the back door, tip toeing my way out. I had a satchel on my shoulder, with the bare minimum things. I took a few crumbled notes, that I had saved from last year’s Vishu kai neetam, and a photo of Rahul. A notebook from a dear friend, few sea shells from a visit to the beach, and a handkerchief of my grandmother.
I had to make it to the train station, before anybody finds out my absence. I had to catch the West Coast to Chennai. I had enough to take a general ticket. I was not sure how I would survive, but I had an urge to escape and hoped some higher power would take care of me.
15 years later:
I stepped in that courtyard after over a decade. The place looked worn out. The Nandyaarvattam tree and Tulasi still remained, and the familiar smell danced in the air.
My hands trembled as I entered that dreaded house. There was a shroud of darkness and negativity that overpowered you in that house. It immediately oozed out any happiness in you. Dhruv clutched my hands, and asked in a muffled voice –
“Acha, Achachanu enne manasilaavuo... ” Will he recognise me – I nodded to him reassuringly. Kavya was next to me, still unsure of this visit. I looked at her and sighed.
I could hear the troubled breathing, and the strained cough that vibrated through the rooms even before I entered the house.
My hands were sweating like old times. Dhruv hugged his favourite teddy bear. I had pledged not to raise him the way I was raised, and that meant letting him make choices and allow him to express his emotions.
But I was still worried what this man would say to him for carrying a teddy Bear. If I could, I would not have let him to save him from the humiliation. But he had strong opinions for his age, and I could not convince him.
Achan was frail, just a shadow of his old self. I stood at the door, unsure of whether to get in. My hate did not have a deserving recipient as my eyes scanned his weak body.
But as I was going to clear my throat and make my presence known, a rough voice broke the silence.
“Enthina ingott ezunnaliye…?”
[“Why have you appeared here now?”]
The tone was so familiar, a mix of arrogance and mockery. It reminded of dad from his stronger days. A muscular frame, with an unbuttoned shirt showing off his chest hair, and a lungi showing lean legs walked in from the kitchen. Rahul! His face had hardened, where once chubby cheeks had graced. Dark circles adorned his once shiny eyes. It now gleamed with contempt instead, and there was a certain hollowness to it.
As he made this hateful comment, Achan chuckled from his rocking chair. Pride emanating from his otherwise weak eyes.
Dhruv hid himself behind me. He sensed there was something unwelcoming about the whole situation. I saw a head peak from the bedroom, must have been Rahul’s wife. But a stern look from him and she shut the door and hid herself.
I was at a loss for words, and Rahul continued his monologue –
“What is in his hands – A Teddy Bear? You have raised your son just like you. Such a shame!”
I should have been annoyed, but strangely all I could feel was compassion.
Kavya was about to say something, but I stopped her.
I could feel the eeriness in the air, as my mom’s inexpressive eyes slowly peeped from the kitchen door. She came in and stood by his husband. He had her in his grip, no matter what she endured, she was still on his side, like a loyal slave.
Kavya and I held Dhruv’s hands and walked out. This time as I walked out of that wretched house, I was sure of the path I had chosen.