I was 12 when I planned my first rebellion. Against Amma who had confiscated my school library books, ripped off the cover of my Sheldon, to scream into my ears: Ayye. Is this why you wake up early? To read dirty books?
At home, dirt was the mud my father’s feet carried in when he came home after work. As a construction site supervisor, who faced the drilling machine every day, Pappa collected dust and compliments in his hair and ears. The engineers and the site managers were envious of how relentless my father was. He could finish work caked in dust and smile in the heat knowing that he has saved one more real estate developer from falling behind his deadline.
But when my father returned home, the dust mixed with water and his poor attempts at being clean, was azhukku for Amma. When azhukku found its way into the corners of the sofa, the nooks of my sheets and finally to the ends of my mother’s searching broom, Amma would yell a guttural Ayye. Her throat would convulse in the scream and in her haste to sweep off the dirt, she would bang the walls with the broomstick as if everything needed a quick beating. Years later, I would know that my mother borrowed this cry from her beloved friend Lakshmi Subramanian, who refused to cross our gates, for fear that the beach smell and poor hygiene would give her an ookanam. At the end of the story, Amma would say that the gag reflex was a reminder to not “be azhukku pennugal” (dirty women).
So, when my Amma screamed Ayye and pushed me off the stoop I was reading on, I was seething inside. If I had to hold someone responsible for bringing dirty books into my life, I would have dragged my chechi by hair. It was on my sister’s bed that I discovered the first bound copy of Sidney Sheldon, wrapped in her old pink churidhar, hidden from my mother’s razor-sharp button-shaped eyes.
That afternoon, when I discovered the book under my sister’s embroidered white pillow, I traced my hand through the bold lettering of the title, Tell Me Your Dreams and wondered how pretty Sidney was. Was she blonde like the woman on the cover? Did she write a book to defeat her sister’s pettiness? At that age when I started reading the Sheldons and the Steels, I had firmly believed that Danielle Steel was a man and Sheldon a woman. Only women’s heads could produce pages of thrill that would make you sit upright and devour books. If Amma could make six puttus in one hour along with chickpea curry and run off to catch a bus to her school, women could do everything.
But, an hour later, I was cursing Sidney and her ancestors, ruing the day my sister goaded me into reading this dirty book with dirtier words. With my insides stuck to my panties and my stomach cradling a stone, I walked towards the bedroom my parents slept in. “Is this how you made me?,” I mimed. “You dirty monsters.”
Tell Me Your Dreams had all the smells of a thriller. A lonely woman fleeing from the gaze of an unknown stalker. The Nancy Drews I read had a quieter start where Nancy kissed Ned, chilled with her girls and discovered a mystery.
Until that moment, before I had run to the bed and found Sheldon, I had an asexual reliable woman narrator in my head who kissed (perhaps?) and solved a mystery. When the book ended, she would eat scones or drive her Mustang into the sunset. But Sheldon’s Ashley Patterson? Ashley was unreliable, scared and sexually charged. Every kiss with Ashley was a full-blown tongue to tongue atrocity where men would “dip” into her mouth and mix saliva. And then, just when I was making sense of what is now known as French kiss, words like tumescent penis would stick on me, reminding me of the day I dipped my hand into the sticky gooey atta amma made only to shriek at the stubborn mavu that went into my fingernails. Take it off, Take it off, I had screamed.
In The Getaway Car, Ann Patchett says she found her first adult novel, Humboldt’s Gift at fifteen. Although she admits to not understanding much of the book, Patchett says with certainty that she still remembers the imagery and emotion to this day. But how to live with the image that sex involves the dirty job of putting one susu producing organ into another? Everyone says your first is special. Amma said first children like my sister are special. But what if the first book that introduced sex was also a first book of French kiss, incest, castration, blow-job? How to feel romancham that erotica promises when the first experience of fantasy is soaked in dirt?
Remember, I was 12. It had only been a few months since that biology class when Naina Miss left us with “the sperm and the ova met to create the zygote” and asked us to quickly flip the page to sexually transmitted diseases without solving the original question: But how does the sperm meet the ova? After a year and a half of head beating around sex, I had thought that I knew the answer when I saw Mohanlal and Urvashi disappear into a bedroom for their first night on TV.
“The sperm flies into the air, meets the ova and becomes the baby!” I declared to my gang of girls. The declaration followed by a detailed demonstration where I taught biology to the entire class far better than Naina Miss. At the end of it, even with the rapid Q and A, I had scored a spectacular win among friends.
“But what about the vayaru squeezing? Why do they play with the belly button?”
“It is the hole for the sperm to enter.”
“Why do they drink milk?”
“Do you expect birthing a baby to be an easy process? Milk is necessary.”
I still remember that day with fondness. The sight of Nimisha looking up to me. The squeezes on my arm for solving the mystery that had haunted us night after night. Even when Anjitha, the eternal samshayam rogi, suggested the physical insertion of urinating organs as the way forward, I had asked her to urgently revisit her understanding of hygiene.
It is not that I was a good girl before Sheldon. By 6, I had written my first love letter to the silver-toothed Robin and asked him to kiss me during PT period. At 11, another love letter to a boy called Ranjith. But these fantasies were so clean that Amma would have said nalla vrithiyulla manassu (very clean mind) if she saw the white rooms adorned with white curtains, where I loved Roby or Ranjith, under the scent of Lizol and Surf.
Even when the other girls carried napkins into bathrooms, I was the sentry at the doors covering them from surveying boys. When they learned to sit with blood, I revelled in the protection that I offered to the girls in class. In this flat chest-no periods phase, I was flying through corridors, jumping over short boys, throwing my dupatta and climbing over perayka trees to catch red ants that attacked Nimisha. So, what will Patchett say when a fantasy breaks and the dirt of your first imagery seeps in?
But the body responds fast. This I learned after I took membership in the local library to find Sheldons. After knowing that my insides felt a strange gooey sticky feeling when Ashley had sex, I knew that I had always wanted a bit of that azhukku feeling. Yes, the dough that stuck to my fingernails was awful but the addictive one minute when I dipped into the dough, kneaded it with my fists and pressed it into shapes; how did I miss the sensuousness of it? How did I forget the love I gave to the cake batter bowl when I administered careful licks to pick chocolate and collect them all in my tiny mouth?
My story after this is like the fizz that pours out of the coca cola bottle. Whenever the week ended, I would hurry to the Sanmargadarshini library, ironically translated as the library that shows the virtuous path, to find a Sheldon and get dirty. Sometimes, dirty thoughts would leak into my schoolwork and make me destroy notebooks. Other times, they would find their way into my head when I saw my crush Moinuddhin walking towards me.
All of this felt good until Amma yelled Ayye at me before Moinuddhin who had come to borrow my Maths notes. In her Ayye, I felt her friend Lakshmi’s disgust, Amma’s shame and Moinuddhin’s embarrassment at seeing me squirm under my mother's humiliating Ayye. The secret joy of reading Sheldon and fantasising about Moinuddhin was now mixed with many unbearable historic layers of humiliations that my mother gifted.
I had not thought revenge against Amma until I noticed how my mother shied away from saying sex out loud. Once, when Amma was narrating the story of a movie, which had a rape scene, Amma said: And then …something bad happened. Whenever Amma said something bad, chechi and I would ask what again and again. But she would never say what that bad was. Like she would never say why she did not let us watch the song in Devaraagam where a moaning Sridevi was lying on the grass while a perspiring Arvinda Swami watched from above.
Yet I have seen her share covert glances with Pappa when they remembered their letter writing days. In their first meeting, Papa had fallen for Amma when she had come in with a saree that was threatening to fall off her waist. “Your Amma had the flattest stomach,” my father said with a guffaw when we asked why they married each other. But these conversations were a minute long and punctuated by throat clearings. When Amma once proceeded to explain how Papa had written a five-page long letter when they were newly married, there was a throat clearing frenzy and a quick teasing back and forth that did not give information. “Your papa is a romantic man.” With that Amma had ended that conversation with a smile and a nod.
Even Pappa who had happily given us a teaser to their romantic times, had the most kalla (shifty) look when we sat before the TV. Once, when the channel stopped at the song Kehdona Kehdona, You Are My Soniya, Papa saw Kareena Kapoor’s strap threatening to fall off from her shoulder while she was dancing with Hrithik. When I made a pointed remark on the strap’s flimsiness, my father had dived for the remote and changed the channel to Asianet news.
The plan was to stage a similar if not bigger humiliation where Amma would get a collective ayye from everyone around. So on the day when our uncles arrived from Gulf, when my father was seated at the table eating meen curry, I asked: Amma, you married Papa in 1981 but you had chechi in 1985. Why did you and Pappa have no babies for four years?
Like any good detective, I had noticed how my mother could not take unexpected questions before a public audience. Quizzing her on sex inside the kitchen would lead to a careful answer where she would say daivam thannila (gods did not bless us) or athinoke athintethaya samayam und (there is always a time for this).
But before my uncles, Amma and Pappa were caught off-guard.
“Athu pinne (That is..)”
“You could not have kids.”
“No, that is not it,” Pappa muttered with emphasis on it.
“You did not want kids.”
“No, no,” my mother says looking at my uncles.
“You did not …”
“No, stop. We, I mean we... Pappa was in Gulf no, soon after marriage. And he came for leave after four years...”
As my mother’s voice trailed off, the room had gone quiet. My uncles were now eating rice ferociously while my father was looking at the staircase with purpose.
“So, Pappa came in 1985 and chechi was born and then he came in 1987, I was born..”
“Kunji.,” my father began cautioning me as soon as he realised the ball was dropping.
“Ayye! You are saying Pappa and you had sex during summer vacay..,” the last of what I wanted to say drowned under my sister’s fingers and my uncles’s collective throat clearing. When I looked up, Amma had a hand on her throat and Papa had begun to inspect his plate.
Days later, when I woke up, the Sheldon was back on my shelf with better binding and a tiny inscription from my mother: Don’t read this when you have exams.
Deepti is an aspiring writer and a surviving PhD student.