Multilayered

(A snapshot of the life of a studying teen in India)

By C. Dwivedi

Round and round and round. The ceiling fan, and my thoughts.

I hear the car horns honking, five floors below on street level, and the smell of vegetable curry floats through the air. Ma is making lunch. Maybe she’ll be too busy to ask me yet again if I’m studying.

I hold my physics textbook across my stomach, words facing down. I’m not studying it at this very second. I’m just watching the fan. The end of this scorching summer can’t come soon enough. We are waiting for the rains to arrive, our beloved Monsoon season. If only we could get that refreshing flow of water today. I tug on my tunic and push the short sleeves up and over my shoulders to feel more breeze.

There’s a knock on my bedroom door. “Neena beti, are you studying?”

Ugh. ”Yes, ma!” I shout. Beti she says, as if I’m still a small child.

I put the textbook over my face and let it lay there. I know I need to focus. I give myself a pep talk. You’re sixteen now, you can’t fall behind. These exams determine your future.

What I really want to be is a writer. Just because I’ve been pushed to excel at school doesn’t mean that’s my only interest. But not everyone has the luxury to choose careers like writing and still have a roof over their head. I am meant to study engineering. My father desperately wants me to be the first female engineer in our family. That is far better than if he did not want me to be educated at all. Since he only has me, and no son, I feel he puts expectations on me to fulfill the missing son’s role. After all, it is I who will look after them when papa is too old to work.

Today is Sunday and there is no class, but these textbooks haven’t left my side in a week. It might as well be just another school day.

“Neena beti, come help make roti,” ma calls through the door.

“Coming,” I say and throw my book onto the bed. Rolling the dough into round flat bread is not usually something I happily help with. But anything is better than staring at the same pages about theorems again and again.

My mother swiftly slaps dough between her hands and rolls it easily into perfect rounds. I’m much slower, making one roti to her three. And my edges are uneven, my bread looking more like a flattened flower, petals all sticking out, than a circle.

The tawa pan is as hot as the summer sun, sitting over the gas stove, ready to puff and brown the raw dough. I like the way roti looks at its most puffy moment, like a somewhat deflated ball or balloon. Then it flattens back out, off the pan, away from the heat. Maybe I will feel like the cooked roti one day. Multilayered and void of pressure.

Papa is reading The Times of Mumbai newspaper on the sofa. “Neena, if you continue your high scores, you may be able to attend one of the top twenty engineering colleges.”

I nod at him from the kitchen. Moving away to college scares me. But I’d also have the privacy to pursue my other interests—like writing. If I made income in engineering one day, I could write on the side for pleasure. If I have time. How much time will I have before I am expected to marry?

“What are you daydreaming about?” Ma smiles at me.

I smile back. “Nothing.” I don’t wish to start the drama that my thoughts might cause.

I scoop steaming cauliflower up with a folded piece of roti. The flat wheat bread compliments my mother’s curry well. The afternoon heat is intensifying, and I’m sweating at the end of my hot meal in this stifling apartment.

“Here,” papa hands me my mobile phone. My father kept it while I studied, usually, but he let me have it for part of the afternoon.

Back in my room, I quickly scroll through my apps. The topic is just about the same for all my friends. Messages and comments like: “this studying is mind crushing” and “these exams, ugh!” and “if I don’t score high, my life is ruined” and “students need to protest these examination methods!”

I pick up the physics book and half-heartedly scan a page. My eyes hang heavy while I sit on my bed. The thick air and my full stomach beckon me to rest.

The next thing I know, my eyes pop open from a knock on the door. I’m lying in bed, groggy, just wanting to sleep. The room is dark, the curtain is pulled shut across the window. The ceiling fan squeaks and rattles.

“You need to come,” Papa says through the door.

I’m suddenly nervous. I don’t think I did anything wrong today. And my thoughts about writing, those were not said aloud, right?

I rub my face to bring color back to it and twist my knuckles on my eyelids. “Coming, papa.”

I swallow hard and open the door. Ma is beaming with a smile at the window.

“You will want to see this,” Papa says.

I step over and peer out the window. Then I run out the door, down multiple flights of stairs, and into the concrete courtyard of our small apartment community. Children are playing and dancing on the grounds.

Water drips from the gray sky. I lift my hands and face and smile.

“Neena, I’m going to buy ladoo!” Papa’s voice yells to me from behind. He’s buying sweets to celebrate the first rain of the season. Ladoo is my favorite.

Summer is finally coming to an end, and I remind myself that soon my exams will be over too. Until the next round of studying, worrying, and then relief.

Round and round and round. That’s how this life goes.

Author’s note: I have visited India several times and my Indian born husband helped me with trying to accurately portray the thoughts in the story.  I did witness this sort of scene but I largely fictionalized it for this short story. You can find me at my blog: christinadwivedi.wordpress.com.