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Courage tries again, in vain, to explain to Eustace that his beloved Muriel is in danger.
Eustace kicks him muttering, “Stupid dog.”
Courage says, “Oh no, Muriel, I’ll save you.”
I’m watching Courage the Cowardly Dog and eating cornflakes. Courage lives in the middle of nowhere. Creepy things happen in nowhere. And the narrative always relies on him to save the day. I live on this small island in the Gulf with my parents. I could have been anywhere else but I’m still here. Stuck like Courage. I used to love how Courage always saves the day, saves his family. But I don’t think I do anymore. What if Courage could be free from the burden? Muriel and Eustace would be just fine without him. He could walk away anytime he wanted. But no, dogs are loyal. And so are daughters expected to be. Birds are not. We had birds before. I loved them a lot and took care of them. I opened their cage to test their loyalty. I was a fool. But they deserve their freedom … I guess.
“Eat your cornflakes before they get soggy,” Mom yells from the bedroom. Our living room is flooded with tube light even though it is 8am. Dad and Mom have forbidden me to open the curtains, for perverts lurk everywhere. They stare into homes, at young girls, using binoculars. Dad has left for work. Mom is almost ready. Her driver will arrive soon. Mom and Dad are hoping I land a relaxing job here after I finish my Bachelors at the university. They don’t want me to go through the rigmarole of Indian transportation just to get to and fro for work.
I can feel Mom run about the house getting ready for work, but I know her eyes are on me. I finish up the cornflakes before she leaves. She’s happy. As a good daughter, I do things to keep my parents happy. Mom watches Saavdhan India almost every day and makes me watch it with her. And every single time she says, “Thank God we didn’t send you to India. See what happens there.” I’m still not allowed to go to the theatre with friends. She says before leaving, “Don’t watch TV too long. You have to study, you know, right?”
When the lock clicks, I wait for like a minute before I change the channel to Star Movies. I remember to change channels twice before switching off the TV because I know Mom checks the previously viewed channel always. We don’t have internet at home. I don’t have a mobile phone. But I do read Sidney Sheldon. I switch on my PC and play the free Kellogg’s PC game. I toggle left and right to get the milk in the bowl. If I miss, I lose a point.
After the TV and PC fail to entertain me for long, I draw the living-room curtains with more force than I intended. A curtain ring breaks. I slap my forehead at my stupidity. I pick up the fallen ring and look out. No one’s looking at me. I look down at the vegetable shop opposite our building. A housewife bends over the array of veggies on display. She holds a brinjal, inspects it. Puts it down and inspects another. While her husband is out at work, what could she be doing at home? Her husband could have left her and the kids (if they have kids) in India. But he got them here, thoughtful of him. Many husbands can’t afford to keep their families here, and leave them back home. And what do those lonely men do to keep themselves occupied?
After the woman leaves, the shopkeeper lingers outside the shop and then he looks up. At me. And smiles. I duck and crawl away from the window. I sit on the couch looking at our window. My heartbeat races. The shopkeeper is one such man whose family is far away. He might as well be a bachelor. But he isn’t. All his money is saved up and sent home to his family. After having sent the money home, how do these men satisfy their desires? Just yesterday I read about this Indian man who visited India after twenty years and didn’t recognize his family anymore.
To avoid thinking about the shopkeeper and the lives of men like him, I focus on the window. The tape imprints on the glass are a reminder of the Gulf War. Of a time before I was born. Mom and Dad could have left. But they stayed. To provide this sheltered life for me. Maybe they should have left. Growing up in India makes one street smart. They wouldn’t have been able to restrict me there the way they do here. Not with all our relatives around. But not all born and raised here are as sheltered as I am. Some have had experiences. My friends have invited their lovers home when their parents are out. Maybe I would have done too, if I had one.
In school, I did get close to one guy. I go to my bedroom and take out my slambook. I leave the curtain ring on my study table. My slambook is full. Two pages are stuck to each other. I had glued them together for fear my parents would see what’s hidden in there. I slowly pry the pages apart. They do come loose but the impression of one lasts on the other. I can read a few words, though. I smile at his writing. He must be in India now. Like most of my friends. None of their parents cared enough to make their kids stay back. Higher education sucks here. All the failures in school who repeated classes for years are now with me in college.
I guess my only shot at love is if I leave this damn place. I might meet someone smart and mature who’s at least been with a few girls before and who would teach me things but also respect me. He would teach me to French kiss. David’s face comes to mind. David and I studied in different schools. But we met in college. He is my classmate. He is the only guy I talk to, maybe because he is not threatening. At least, he wasn’t threatening until yesterday. After our test, he had confessed his feelings for me. I wonder if I should tell him, about wanting to leave this stifling island. I’m sure he wants to leave too. He had confessed his feelings for me after the story. Does it mean he wants to stay and that he likes it here because of me?
The story was about a small boy who was born on this island, like me. And is now all grown up, like me. But he finds himself stuck on this island with his haunting past. David said I wouldn’t know what that felt like. I told him I wanted to know the boy’s name. He said he preferred if the boy was nameless.
He took me to the boy’s past. The boy is sent to the cold store, a little away from the boy’s house, by his parents almost every day to buy bread or milk or eggs or chips. The shopkeeper notices that the boy is coming all by himself every day and that when he engages the boy in idle conversation and when more time passes, no one comes looking for the boy. After a few months, he finds ways to bribe the boy with candies. The boy doesn’t know what the shopkeeper is doing to him. When he does realise, it’s too late. The man knows by now that he can use fear to make the boy do more. Much more. The boy grows up to have a feminine gait and everyone mocks him for it, in school and now even in college.
He paused, his voice cracked when he said, “It’s not really my fault that I walk like that. Do you think I walk like … like..?”
I looked away so that he wouldn’t see the rage in my eyes. “Where is that bloody shopkeeper now?” I said, still looking away.
“Forget I told you about it, okay?”
“Do you like men?” I asked, looking him in the eye.
I shouldn’t have asked him that but it just slipped out.
He looked shocked.
“No way. I … I like you, idiot. Why do you think I told you this? No one knows this till now. Not … not even my parents.”
“Maybe you should tell them, that it happened right under their nose. That they should have been vigilant. You are their child. Jesus. What?”
“Why are you so angry?”
“Oh please, do you expect me to dance?”
At night, he called me on my landline. Dad answered. He wasn’t happy that a boy is calling me.
“You can discuss whatever you want in college, no? Why is he calling here?”
“I don’t know, Dad. He’s a good friend. Maybe something urgent about our test.”
Dad raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t worry,” I said hurriedly, “he’s … he’s most probably … gay.”
“Nothing. Forget it. I’ll tell him not to call anymore. Sorry.”
I felt bad for calling David that behind his back.
I slept restlessly. I dreamt that I met the shopkeeper. He crossed my path on a dark road. I lifted a brick and flung it at his head. It missed. This kept happening. There was no dearth of bricks. I kept aiming it at his head. And I kept missing. Next, my foot was on his neck. He cried for forgiveness. He told me he regretted it and that he wished he could start over. He had no outlet for his desires and he couldn’t afford to fly home, not for a long time. And that it had made him a monster and the easiest target was the small boy. I pressed down my foot harder. He choked and died. Next, I was Courage the Cowardly Dog, in my living room. Mom looked just like Muriel and Dad like Eustace. Torn between staying with them and rescuing David, I picked David, but when I reached the shop … the damage was done. What happened next is exactly what Mom told me would happen if I left them. The shopkeeper raped me, saying, “You thought you could kill me? You can’t even defend yourself, let alone your friend.”
I woke up, screaming.
I keep the slambook inside my drawer. I fix the curtain ring with magic tape. I quickly pull the curtains and fit the ring in the ring hole. The rest of the day I try to study. But I’m restless, wanting to talk to David about leaving this place.
The next day in class, I tell David that I want to go to India and that I feel stifled here. I tell him he should go too and that he would finally be free from his past. I tell him I’m sick of my parents’ vigilance. And that boys here have no exposure. I would never find a partner here.
“Did you forget that I said I like you? We can go together, get admission in the same college. We will always be together.”
He leans forward and kisses me. I’m so shocked that I slap him. I blank out in the exam. The guilt makes me puke in the loo. I wipe my lips every five minutes.
At home, I try to pry my window open.
I’m a whore. I let the shopkeeper look at me and fantasise about me. I let him rape me in my dream. I let David get molested in my dream. I let him get close and finally kiss me. No one will believe me if I said he kissed me. Everyone thinks he’s gay. I even told Dad so. What if he will do something more tomorrow? I haven’t told him that I only see him as my best friend. I’ve just kept silent. How can I hurt someone who’s been through so much? I can’t let him down. I’ve let my parents down. I will never have to face any of them if I leave this place. Only if I learn to fly.
The window slides open, finally.