I looked at my sister sleeping in her bed in between her heavy books with worried creases on her forehead. She had asked me to wake her up early in the morning. I had overslept. I can only compensate by making her a coffee. The milk and coffee expenses had hit the roof ever since she started preparing for this competitive exam. To me, she is just a kid. Her higher secondary marks came just a week before and I can count the number of hours she had slept since then with my fingers. I heated the milk again. My parents are on their yearly religious trip to Tirupathi. “Now? When she is giving exams?” I asked them. “Particularly now. When she is giving exams” came the reply. I had to stand by the stove when the milk got warm. I will never take chances with our stove or our milk. They have this naughty temptation to overwork when I am away for a second and run over the kitchen counter. My mother would kill me if she finds out. And cleaning up is just too much of work.
I wondered whether I was this same when I finished my higher secondary. I didn’t bother giving competitive exams or to get into the most hip campuses in the city. I just did my architecture in a presumably dull building but with great professors and peers. I am doing good now with a car to my name (the EMI was done with last month.. Oh that feeling), and a respectable name in the industry. But somehow I was not able to satisfy my father at all. To him, a degree in IIT is different from the degree from any other college. I couldn’t brush aside the feeling that my sister wants to one up me. Thankfully my train of thoughts didn’t distract me from the switching off the stove at the right minute and prepared coffee for both of us.
Ten minutes later, I was left confused. I didn’t know if my sister got mad because the coffee was bad or I woke her up late. She said “I still have two books to revise and I have to find a bra without metal hooks in it. You will never understand my struggle.” I didn’t understand the metal hooks part? Is it a new rule? When I went to write the exam in one of the Hindu schools in the city, my mother made me drape a saree and attached 200 safety pins to keep the saree in its place. If I had crossed an MRI scanner on that day, I was sure I wouldn’t have come out alive or they would have a hard time peeling me off the machine. In another half an hour we both were in the car and were shaking. I was shaking because of the illegal bike racing and the egotistical bike and auto drivers and she was shaking because of the anxiety.
“It is okay. You are going to do well.” I tried to be supportive.
“Just promise me you will take me there in one full piece” Little sisters are cruel. I knew she was camouflaging her anxiety with such insensitive remarks. But it still felt like a pinch. When we were almost at the entrance of the exam center, she almost shat herself. She was shaking so much that I wondered if I have to take her to the hospital first. A hospital without AC may be. And without a warning, the waterworks started. “I am so scared,” she said. I decided to listen after her remark in the car. She looked at me as though looking for some comment from me. “I will get the water for you from the car,” I said and left the place immediately. When I came back with the bottle of water, it looked like two women manhandling my sister. The mojo of the karate classes I took when I was in my sixth grade kicked in and I rushed towards them only to find the three of them holding hands and the eldest one was praying. “Our Heavenly Father, please guide these little sheep to their destiny as you had always done. May the earth, sea, and mountains sing your glory for the years to come. Our dear father in heaven, you are our only hope and confidence.” If listened to the chants with eyes closed it was straight out of Sunday night Biblical program on TV but I could see the prayer’s effect on my sister’s hand. Her trembling stopped, she had stopped crying and was relatively Ok than I had left her. The one who was praying then tapped the shoulder of the other girl who was smiling and if I may pinch back my sister’s comment, looked confident about the exams.
“Thank God you came soon,” my sister said. “These people have come from a village near Madurai. Our Hall tickets are in the same hall.”
“Oh that’s nice,” I said looking at the girl. “I need a help from you,” my sister said. What? Help? Her Highness had always ordered me to do things. It was weird for her to request. But I waited for her to continue. “She and her elder sister” my sister pointed out the one who was praying “came in morning train and they don’t have a place to stay. And they are planning to leave as soon as the exam is over. Can you keep company with her till we finish the exams?”
I thought about all the frozen desserts I had stored in the refrigerator the day before looking forward to some alone time with ice cream and Netflix. Now that has gone for a toss “But I…”
“It is okay. The campus looks like our village. I can just roam around here” the elder sister pitched in.
“That’s great,” I told almost immediately only to get angry glares from my sister. “Just be a good person and take her around no. This is the first time in the city of both of them it seems” I just went to take water and now she talks like she had known the sisters for years. We watched both our sisters go in to give the exams. That is when I took a good look at the elder sister. She smiled at me. “Anu,” I said extending my hand. “Teresa,” she said and took it. We walked to my car while I was contemplating where to take her and importantly what to talk with her. She had salwar which was most probably the bought from a platform shop. It had discolored and almost in the verge of becoming the rag cloth we use to clean the house. But she had something in her which made her strut around confidently with such a garment on her. I asked her to wait and took my vehicle out of the parking area. She couldn’t contain her excitement to see me drive the car. “When did you learn to drive a car?” she asked like a cousin visiting me. She placed her hands over the AC vent and then took her face close to it as if she was about to kiss it.
“What are you doing?”
“It is so sunny outside”
“Yeah. You can just sit back and the air will reach you.”
“This is great”
“Don’t tell me you have not traveled in an air-conditioned car before.”
“Yeah, we have. It is not a car though. We are a big family and if we had to go anywhere we hire a van. Our cousin brother recently bought a van with AC in it. But he wouldn’t switch on unless we force him to.”
“How did you come to Chennai?”
“Train. How else?”
“There was no AC in the train?”
“We can in the general compartment. The air was cooler though.”
“What is a general compartment?”
“For a lady who wears pants and drives a car, you are far too ignorant. The general compartment is where we get at the last minute without a confirmed seat. It won’t even have cushions in seats, let alone AC”
“Then how would anyone know where they are supposed to sit?”
She gave me a look which had striking similarities to the look which my sister gives when I ask her about her examination. One would think that I would have grown immune to the questions in the look, but I didn’t.
“We don’t. We sit in whatever place which is available and try to nod off and be fresh when we get down.”
I couldn’t believe people still travel like that. There should be a better way to do it. I haven’t traveled in a general compartment, for that matter even in a sleeper coach. Father always booked a Second Class AC at the worst case. I had grown comfortable to travel in flight to the nearest airport and then take a taxi to go wherever I had to.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked Teresa.
“Where do you want to take me?”
“Have you had your breakfast yet?” I asked her.
“There was a roadside shop as soon as we came out of the railway station. We had two idlies each there. The autos here are fleecing us. We had to spend as little as possible.”
“I am hungry. Can we stop somewhere?” I asked. She nodded as she enjoyed the cool air coming out of the AC vent in the car. There was still three hours to go. I had nothing to talk with the girl sitting beside me. Worse was, I was uncomfortable taking her to a restaurant. The Monday brunch crowd will surely see me with a judgment eye. I didn’t want to go through the humiliation.
“Can you sit in the car for a while if you don’t mind? I will go in and grab a bite.”
“Sure,” I said. I looked at the back seat and found a bag of chips. I handed it over to her and said,
“You can listen to the songs and have something to munch. I will be back in no time.”
I ran into the restaurant. With all the preparation for exams and helping my sister, I hadn’t had a decent breakfast in few days. But there was nothing I could do. “English breakfast with tea please,” I said to the waiter. It was the fastest meal they could put together. “Oh and no sausages. Replace it with salads” I said to the already disappearing waiter. The restaurant was busy than usual and I am sure the waiter would mess up the order. Like all civilized, educated people in an upscale restaurant do, I unlocked my mobile and started looking nothing at particular. I sensed someone was moving around in front of my table. The waiter couldn’t have brought my brunch that fast. I looked up to see Teresa trying to get my attention from the door. I got up and walked hurriedly towards her.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Teresa said. The cafe had a unisex bathroom. I pointed out the direction to her and went back fiddling my phone. It was more than twenty minutes before the waiter came to me. I was expecting my toast for the day but his hands were empty. “Your friend is not coming out of the restroom madam. Our patrons are waiting for her to come out” There was a mother who had a hard time controlling her wailing kid. I went over to the door and knocked it a couple of times before she came out.
“I am sorry. I nodded off.”
“What? Why didn’t you finish your business elsewhere?”
“There was no space to walk in the train even to the bathroom. And the pay and use one in the railway station was closed. I thought I could manage.” As I had expected there were heads turning at us. I asked the waiter to pack the breakfast. I couldn’t stand the curious looks of the crowd at the restaurant. We were in the car again in another ten minutes. She was waiting for me to finish stuffing the bread in my mouth.
“I am sorry. You weren’t really comfortable sitting with me in the cafe.”
“No, it is nothing like it. Would you like to go to some malls and get some clothes for you?”
“What is wrong with my clothes?”
“Nothing. Nothing is wrong with your clothes. It is just that I want to thank you for calming down my sister.”
“I am not buying pants like you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I am very comfortable with my clothes, Thank you.”
“Well. We can’t sit around in a car like this the whole day. Everybody is going to stare at us if we are going to any place decent because of your clothes.”
“I don’t have to buy clothes to make other people comfortable. I think I should buy clothes when I want it.”
“Oh my God. What are we going to do?”
“I don’t have enough money. We just have money to go back home. My father would be very angry when we reach back home. He will anyway whip the hell out of me and my sister. I will buy a new set then.”
“Why would your father be angry?”
“He didn’t want us to come to Chennai. We came here anyway. She wanted to give the exam. I have saved some money by rolling beedis. It came handy.”
“Why wouldn’t he want you to give the exam?”
“He says if my sister stays in Chennai for long, she would start wearing pants.” She said looking at me. “That is not a bad thing”
“Your tone tells otherwise. What is wrong with wearing pants?”
“I don’t know you have to talk to my dad.”
“I have no intention to do that.” I got out of the car and dropped the parcel and tissue in the trash can. I had no clue what to do for another three hours with a woman to whom I couldn’t relate to at all. We had nothing in common to even talk about. She refused to go to a mall and that is the end of it. I got back in the car. At least it had the air condition going on.
“Look. I don’t know what to do or where to go. If you have any place in mind that we can go without grabbing eyeballs then I am with you.”
“Do you mean to say, there is no place in Chennai you can think of where they don’t judge you by clothes?”
“We can go to the beach. But it is too hot.”
“Why don’t we drive around then?”
“Sure master. I will do that for you for I am your driver for this day.” I was not sure if she got my sarcasm.
“There. There.. What is that building?”
“That is Anna Centenary library.”
We had been driving around for half an hour. I hadn’t installed a radio in the car and she didn’t understand any songs that I played in my phone. When I said there was no radio in iPhone she scoffed and showed off the sound quality in her china mobile. And then she switched it off citing the low charge. I was going bonkers.
“Do I have to dress like you to go in there?”
“No. We can go in there”
I drove to the parking spot. The library was huge and had a decent air conditioning. The first floor was for the people who were preparing for government exams. They were immersed in their books and she looked at them with so much affection like they were all his siblings.
“We didn’t have such place in our village. My sister used to go to the government school early in the morning for such group studies.”
“Oh, they all prepared together. Nobody else came?”
“No, they didn’t even know that the exam dates were announced. It was in the English newspaper. But there was nothing in the Tamil newspapers. With our government going back and forth with chief ministers no TV told this too. We came to know the only day before yesterday. We took our cycle and tried to bring more people to write exams. But it was too short notice to get the money ready for most of the people.”
“How much is the train charge?”
“One hundred and forty-three rupees. Per person, one way.” She said and walked without waiting for me. The morning breakfast set me up behind four hundred and fifty rupees.
“I don’t believe you,” I said as I ran behind her.
“What is there not to believe?”
“Can’t they spare 500 rupees for the future of the kids?”
“It is difficult to convince parents of the importance of this exam. Even my sister knows only that if she clears this exam she can study in that red building with the lot of gardens and deer. What would happen after that? Nobody knows.”
“How can you not know? That is IIT. A lot of people who run the world today are from that college.”
We walked to the sixth floor where they had stacked the Tamil books and coincidentally it was the most deserted of the whole building. “We had no one to tell these things to us. My sister is very curious. My father allowed her to have a mobile phone. Some person in WhatsApp group told about this exam and here we are.”
It looked like my sister was preparing her whole life for this exam and then there were people who didn’t even know what this exam meant. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know such people existed. I didn’t know what to say to her. She had this nonchalance about her as if she was enjoying their poor status and ignorance.
“Don’t worry. The government is on your side. Your sister will get into the college through the reservation.”
She smiled. “Maybe you are right. But I have heard bad things about the reservation.”
“No.. Don’t believe all those things. Reservations are good.”
“I don’t know. There was one of our villager’s son died in this college. He had committed suicide. They said it was because of the reservation. People humiliated him because that he had got in through reservation. They spoke as if he stole somebody else’s seat. Can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” Was all I could say.
“If my sister gets in the college with the reservation will they give extra marks in every exam?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So there is no advantage other than having access to that college?”
I didn’t know what to say when she put it like that. The educational institutions should be accessible for every citizen in the country. I don’t know when it became privilege offering to certain people and then berate them for using it.
“It is not only exams. Your sister came to the city by herself. She found out about the exam by herself. That is what makes one successful.”
“I hope the other kids in the village don’t have to go through the same hardship next year. Hopefully, my sister will help them out.”
“I think she will. If she is not too busy with exam and assignments.”
“Or if she didn’t die because of the humiliation.”
“Why do you talk like that?”
“I am sorry. I thought she will do well in the city until today morning. But when I saw you didn’t take me to Cafe, I now got my fears.”It felt like a hard slap across my face. I didn’t have anything to say. It was not entirely my fault.
“And at the same time, I have some hope too. You said they will judge me by clothes in the mall, the theaters or cafes. But see when there are so many books around, nobody cared about what we wore or how we walked. I think my sister will survive.”
She read some Tamil poetry for two hours while I walked through the architecture section. The collection was amazing and I found some rare books too. I checked on her now and then but Teresa assured me that she was very comfortable. She had still switched off her phone but I knew where she was sitting. I was reading a floor below her. She was sitting right above me.
My sister was happily surprised when I picked her up after the exam. Teresa’s sister and my sister were exchanging and discussing the answers they had written. It looked like both of them did well. Teresa was on cloud nine. She didn’t mind getting a couple of whipping from her father after her sister’s performance.
I had a hard time convincing Teresa when I bought six sets of dress for her sister. My sister got to pick up three sets of dress for her own too. I still felt I was not doing enough. We dropped them in the station. I parked the car and joined them in the long queue which was in front of the train whose door will open in another forty-five minutes. I didn’t know what to say. I just stood with them. After chit chatting for half an hour, there was an announcement that the doors will open shortly. The sisters from the village grabbed my hand and my sister’s and started praying.
“Dear Lord God in the heavens, we thank you for introducing two lovely sisters who were kind. We got a glimpse of your truth from the sisters as they guided us and took them under their wings. They held our hands and didn’t let us stray. We are thankful for the love, respect, and opportunity. We pray for Sister Anu to be happy forever and drive bigger cars and wear pants she likes and her sister gets to study in the big red school. Bless us. Praise you, Lord”
I couldn’t control the dam that burst in my eyes and the tears that flowed. I hugged the startled Teresa before we left. It took me few seconds to gather myself.
“I think she got it all right. And reservation is on their side” my sister said. I didn’t reply.
“And thanks for the dress. It felt more like you bought it out of guilt. But I don’t mind.”
Maybe I had spent because of guilt. But guilty of what? I didn’t know and I didn’t want to think of that.