Glance up, then down. Blink, blink, blink — a fluttering of lashes and teeth grinding unconsciously like they too had an opinion to share; an idea to impress people with but holding themselves back in uncertainty. Blink, lashes fluttering, stare at the notebook scribbled with somewhat-humans, hand clumsy. And, That's right, Aaratrika thinks, a few years ago, didn't that teacher say she was in awe of me, saying that while the rest of the class was noisy, I alone was quiet?
Aaratrika was so proud of herself back then, proud of doing good, of being good. It is simple: If she is good, then she is likeable. If she is likeable, then people will yield to her. Aaratrika gently brings her attention back to the classroom, like bees sounding their wings, the noises within the classroom brush her petal-like ears over and over. Still, she keeps her head down — overwhelmed with information. The scribbling on her notebook stops when the professor finally enters, then resumes almost lazily in the following quietude.
Introductions, introductions. Turns out, this professor is quite the huge deal. Aaratrika stares at the face of this elderly woman with the painted-on-smile who has to look at every other child in the classroom without bias, and hopes she ends up becoming the most beloved anyway. To heck with the rules. Break the rules. Like me the best. Like me, like me. Like me the best. A short minute has passed. The professor looks at Aaratrika as though finally settling on a recurring thought, and she asks jovially, "Are you sure you're supposed to be here?"
Are you sure you're supposed to be here? As in, Are you sure you're supposed to be in University?
Now, Aaratrika knows she looks younger than she is. This is not a bragging point — actually, she really is rather scrawny. Petiteness in women runs in her father's side of the family, still, while she feels a little embarrassed, this embarrassment is shamefully pleased. The professor has to remember her now. Yet, her cheeks warm up, her lip trembles slightly in shyness, and her hand curls into a fist in nervousness as though wanting to protect the soft underbelly of her palms. "Yes." Aratrika responds, nodding awkwardly.
"Okay." Saying that, the professor casually lets it go. She says a few more things coloured in inspiration before leaving. Aaratrika's new classmates start chattering again immediately. Almost in meditation, Aaratrika habitually falls into the silence of her mind.
"You." Someone calls, "Hey, you."
Aaratrika faces that voice. A thin girl with a wide smile sitting diagonally to Aaratrika beckons her. "You, girl. Don't you ever talk?"
Surprised into muteness, Aaratrika shakes her head. Then she looks down at her desk, wondering fiercely what else she should have replied with. That was too sudden — don't blame her. Aaratrika's doing what she can. Maybe that isn't enough.
The thing with schools — colleges, universities, whatever, the thing with them is exactly that. They are whatever. Aaratrika wasn't always good at academics, she is sometimes good, sometimes not. She has gotten Ninety-eights and Twenty-fives. Gotten you're so good at this — you're first in class! And also, Uh, what was your name again? Remind me?
But she has always done more than less. In University, she gets to choose her major, the subject she likes to study and coincidentally, is also good at. Now, this explains nothing. Why is it whatever if she likes it?
Aaratrika says, "I think everything is whatever right now."
Aaratrika's therapist is a middle-aged woman with a bright countenance. It is both intimidating and comforting. Intimidating, because Aaratrika cannot imagine herself being so unreasonably joyous — and comforting, because hey, at least someone is unreasonably joyous.
Therapist hums, acknowledging it. The clinic's room is tiny, but the desk between them is vast like the night sky, the syllables of their important conversations the makeup of lingering constellations to look back on. Aaratrika quite enjoys playing with the small opening in the corner that lets in wires.
Aaratrika continues to say, "People are whatever too. But for some reason I want them to like me even though I don't care."
"Well." Therapist says, "You clearly care."
"I think it's because my dad left me." Aaratrika jokes, and in doing that, dodges the statement.
Therapist smiles, nodding, "What do you like about other people liking you?"
Nails knocking soundlessly into plastic, Aaratrika's gaze runs away unconsciously. "Ah. You know — maybe. . . people won't leave me if they like me."
Without pause, the therapist asks, "But you just said you didn't care about other people?"
Aaratrika gulps. Instances like these, she doesn't understand why she puts herself through this. Ever since she's gotten diagnosed, truthfully, even before she's had a name for all her feelings, Aaratrika has been visiting her memories from the past, revelling within the comfort of carefree nostalgia. Childhood summers had Amamma hanging an old saree around a sturdy branch of the mango tree to make a swing, and Aaratrika would play on it all afternoon under the shade of quivering leaves — and things like fighting and struggling against monsters was allocated to the handsome princes in children's story books so that they could defeat them and woo the world.
Aaratrika thinks no one is going to be woo-ed by her simply existing. Actually, this entire issue of facing monsters wasn't so straightforward. Prince Aditya and prince Harishchandra in those panchatantra books had a divine sword in their hands and a vile beast in front of them to slay. Wasn't it all too convenient? Scoff, scoff. See, the only thing Aaratrika could point at with her puny kitchen knife was the smooth curve of her own lies-filled throat in the mirror's reflection. Therapist and her were detectives at twilight — because therapy sessions were usually in the evenings — who detangled all the falsehoods Aaratrika has led herself to believe about herself over the years.
Like this, for example. Awkwardly, Aaratrika smiles. Growing up wasn't all it was glorified to be. And she says, "Okay. I admit it. I am scared of people."
Isn't that why I want them to like me?
Aaratrika doesn't go to class most days. She doesn't have the zeal, the passion, the, the. . .whatever.
One morning, she discovers she is unable to get up from bed — her mattress has become a man-sized venus flytrap, its open belly red against Aaratrika's tender brown skin; its claws folding over Aaratrika's soft chest like a prayer, and Aaratrika shudders and silently cries as she struggles against its whims — against its desires. Tears fall down her nose bridge and fill into her lip, salty and warm — terribly alive. Yet she lays there unmoving while she's slowly consumed just like this.
Next day, it turns out, many people didn't go to class, and the professor from that first day asks them of their reasons for absence.
Sibling was sick, someone says.
My bus didn't come, someone else says
Silently, Aaratrika judges their trickery. Finally it's her turn. Proudly, she says, "I didn't come to class because I didn't want to."
Professor is stunned. Then she tells Aaratrika, "I appreciate your honesty, but you need to be diligent towards your education."
Aaratrika feels like she picked a rose only to be pierced by its thorn. She was as honest as honest can be, because people are only honest when they have nothing to hide, or because they feel like they have no choice other than vulnerability. Aaratrika bit her own tongue and bled for others, yet still ended up being misunderstood.
Who will understand how pathetic she is? Who will give her sympathy for her lack of interest in her own life? Please, she thinks, look at me for who I am, and it will save me.
She thinks, please save me.
Before she sleeps, Aaratrika always wishes for one thing that never comes true. But maybe her thoughts are filled with such things, because they bleed through into her dreams.
In these dreams, Aaratrika does all sorts of things. She eats pomegranate seeds until her throat is filled and nothing else fits; not even air, and red fills the between of her teeth. She sits under a rain of fiery shooting stars. But she never dreams about her dad.
For twenty years, she's told herself a lie. She told herself — I left my dad. But once Therapist said — You didn't leave your dad, he left you, it's like a switch has turned on in her mind. The worst thing about knowing something new is that one could never go back to a time when they didn't know. Humans exfoliated their old selves over and over and over like this — shedding the innocent, rubbing in the truths.
Aaratrika wants to blame someone for all that has become. She wants to blame her dad, but since she doesn't know who he is as a person, it feels unfair. If only there was a tally; like a book of accounts that gave each person their share of injustices caused in percentages. Aaratrika turns around a little uncomfortably in the belly of that venus fly-trap, closes her eyes, and hopes for no more dreams.
When she was younger, all the neighbourhood’s kids listened to her. To be completely honest, they followed her, eager to play. To all these people, Aaratrika understands she was charming for some reason.
She didn't mind when she fell down on Republic's day and scraped her elbows and knees bloody. She was afraid of injury, then immediately forgot about it. To the next-door-kid, she explained what she learned in music class, and to the kid living next to the next-door-kid, she had her way into roleplaying her favourite power ranger — the blue ranger — when they all played together.
Sometimes she wonders if the past misses her as much as Aaratrika misses her past, and her heart breaks tenderly. When did her shoulders start to slouch this much? Was she always aware of this distance between her and other people?
Truth be told, even in her silence, Aaratrika was charming for some reason. People in her class keep talking to her. Yet her gaze trembles and her jaw tightens; her fists unyielding. She is angry. How could someone smile when someone else was suffering?
She wants to talk about the venus flytrap and the pomegranate seeds; wants to tell people how those shooting stars have crushed her skin. But Therapist has told her not to do that, not to pander. Not to seek sympathy, it feeds the disease. Then how else should she be saved? How else should she justify her silence?
It's not like she doesn't want to. She wants to mould a garden sheer and cut off that carnivorous plant's neck. She wants to crush those pomegranate seeds into pulp. She wants to be able to swallow shooting stars and digest them. But she can't. Yet everybody's happy.
Everyone else was happy.
"It's not like I want to be happy." Aaratrika says.
Therapist nods, frowning. "You don't have to be."
"Yeah." Aaratrika agrees, playing with that plastic hole on the desk, eyes unmoving, "But I just don't want to feel like this anymore."
Their freshers' party is kind of exciting, kind of unbearable.
Half of the problems lie with the seniors in University being very unlikeable — passive-aggressive in all their supposed wisdom. The other half lies with the prejudiced disdain of the juniors, unwilling to submit to unnecessary social hierarchy. Aaratrika is well-dressed and smiling. She has a therapy appointment that afternoon, so she tells a senior she has to visit the dentist and leaves early.
Hallways are strange entities, only roads leading to destinations — yet nobody could do without them. This hallway is dim, and connects Aaratrika's classroom to both the exit and the staff rooms. In the middle, as she walks, she almost brushes shoulders with Professor who's walking in the opposite direction to her.
In Korean culture, there is a romantic saying: the strangers you brush shoulders with must be lovers from past lives. Practically, Aaratrika doesn't find this feasible. Can someone go anywhere in India without brushing some other person's shoulder? But she finds sentiment within this saying; because strangers could mean more than a faceless annoyance one has to walk around. Maybe such a forgettable act didn't have to be so arduously meaningless.
This time, Professor says something, words fluttering away like butterflies. Aaratrika stops walking and turns around, asking, "Pardon?"
Professor repeats herself, smiling familiarly, "Are you adjusting well?"
A pause. Aaratrika's voice trembles when she answers, the words as if a confession, "To be honest, I'm mentally unwell."
In hindsight, when she said this, Aaratrika didn't have any expectations concerning the response. She's been wanting to say words like these for a while now, unable to express her emotions — unable to be herself. Now she spoke her truth like gulping in a mouthful of air after being underwater for days.
Professor looks concerned and hurriedly invites her into the privacy of her empty office.
"Tell me, what is going on?" Professor asks.
Aaratrika explains, "I'm mentally unwell. I have a therapy appointment this afternoon, so I'm leaving right now."
Professor asks, "Is there a reason for you being unwell?"
"No. I don't know." Aaratrika shakes her head, "It's just like that, I can't help it."
Professor, unexpectedly, doesn't argue this. In fact, she acknowledges it, saying, "No matter. . . But you're so bright in class, you're interested in the lectures!"
Without thinking it through, Aaratrika responds, "Well, I like what I study. It helps to distract me. I use it to cope."
Immediately, Professor tells Aaratrika that there is a scholarship program that allows students who record lectures to receive grants. She says, "Why don't focus on this to distract yourself then? What is your favourite subject?"
Even without having to think, Aaratrika answers, her voice shaking — from excitement or nervousness, it doesn't even matter.
"Great!" Professor says. Aaratrika blinks. Professor tells her, "Aaratrika. Feel free to come talk to me whenever you feel the need for someone to listen to you, in case you grow tired of the usual people you go to. As your teacher, I think you're a very capable person."
Aaratrika thanks her, leaves, comes back awkwardly and asks her not to tell anyone about her condition and leaves again.
On the bus ride back home, Aaratrika realises that it has been a long time since she's had the consciousness to carefully listen to her own name being called — since she treated herself like a person — that she had the insight to separate her suffering from herself. This time, Aaratrika bit her tongue and held that rose, but she didn't get pricked by thorns, instead she was gifted with an epiphany.
She leans her head on the bus' window and dazedly stares at the drifting clouds in the sky, thinking how her heart feels the same, how she can breathe.
"I'm a person." She mouths those words, considering all her interests and likes. She recalls being called by her name, and says, "I'm Aaratrika."
When the song playing in her earphones changes, she glances down at her phone. In the end, what saved her really was the acknowledgement of who she was, but Aaratrika forgot that she was more than pathetic. And on her phone screen, there is a photo of a woman's arm, and on that arm is a tattoo that reads, To live for the hope of it all.