Sneha of Tindivanam had successfully moved to Chennai. She was starting a new job in the accounts department of a large company, she lived in a moderately sized flat with four other girls—or working women as they would get used to calling themselves. They enjoyed uninterrupted water supply and tolerated power cuts. They tried not to engage with the house owner who lived on the ground floor, who was always watching them come and go. The house owner had responsibilities of her own, such as making sure her child completed his homework, and ensuring the virginity of all the girls who were in her custody. Sneha had come to secure this apartment with three suitcases, a rolled-up mattress, two pillows, and her father. The house owner had prepared a list of questions for Sneha: age (24), number of siblings (none), place and type of work (accounts, 9-6, company in Teynampet), monthly earnings (22,000), phone numbers and photographs of parents. She answered each of these questions with decreasing patience. Her father kept smiling, to make up for her scowl.
Before Sneha left home, her mother extracted from her three promises: that she wouldn’t go around with men like nameless and shameless big city women, that she would go to church every week, and that she would continue to sing only devotional hymns. Naturally, Sneha was determined to live up to none of these promises, and she was eager for a chance to meet this new version of herself.
Sneha’s father lived in Tiruchi and called her twice a week. He had moved away when she was five, which was around the time her mother had become a devout Christian. This had meant many rules, including a total ban on television and films, and an insistence on scripture studies. Her mother and father weren’t particularly on bad terms, or divorced. They’d decided to live apart, which worked out better for everyone involved. He was soft spoken and needlessly proud of her.
Chennai overwhelmed Sneha initially, but she got used to it quickly. It could be gruff, dirty, but it wasn’t without its charms. Walking on the beach cost nothing, and there were always friendly women on the MRTS who said they’d watch your stuff as you nodded off. She found it a convenient city, overflowing with small shops and tired people; she found it a safe city, modelled after a parent who advised you to return home before 10 PM.
The new job was alright, it paid just about enough. The office had a cultural event once a year, so Sneha signed up to sing. The group practised popular Tamil film music. She never found a church to frequent, even though there were numerous crosses piercing the city’s skyline. She was surprised by how easy it was to shake off religion from her being, easier than parting with a much loved dress that no longer fit. Around this time, she ran into Prabhakar from the ninth floor, who smelt of deodorant and wealth, who was so sure of himself in every situation. He had a body that seemed to maintain its fitness with minimal effort on his part, and an endless collection of neatly pressed shirts.
All of the office gossiped about Sneha and Prabhakar, all of it was true. He had first showed up at her cubicle with a query about reimbursement. He kept coming back. They teased each other and touched casually, hoping to fool colleagues into thinking their flirtatious exchanges were still professional. They discussed their likes and dislikes with an urgency, eager to find commonalities to latch on to, and iron out any differences of opinion. They met outside work, and went everywhere in his car with tinted windows. He always dropped her off at the end of her street, watching her until she disappeared behind the gate, a shadow in the glow of sodium vapour street lights. The house owner kept note of their comings and goings, but there wasn’t anything they could do about it. Sneha liked Prabhakar in the way that one liked faraway figures. She might have been content to look at pictures, but it was too late to find out. She wasn’t especially interested in his righteous thoughts or his internet activism, but she learnt she couldn’t avoid those. She concluded that it was definitely pleasant to have someone to do things with, to talk about the day, to complain about minor inconveniences, to say “What else?” and exchange bored smiles.
One day, he suggested that she get a haircut. She had to admit it felt glamorous, as if she were selling revitalizing conditioner between the overs of a cricket match. Another day, he said they should go shopping for a party they had to attend. His friend was turning thirty and he said he wanted her to look sophisticated (“Not small town”). He told her to stop tugging on her clothes. The party was enjoyable for him; Sneha was mostly confused. She thought about the girl who had told her excitedly, “We should todally have a Christmas party! We can bake a plum cake!” Sneha wasn’t sure what that meant: was she in charge of the party, did she have to cook? In spite of celebrating Christmas for as long as her memories stretched, she had never been to a Christmas party. Her mother usually hung a star as November came to an end, they went for midnight mass, and there would be biriyani for lunch the next day. “Okay… Sure,” she said in response, wondering if her discomfort came from her perfect but bookish English, a case of knowing too many words but not having as many people to practise it with.
Prabhakar came from the kind of family that prided itself on being friendly. His parents teased him about the girls he spoke to, they knew Sneha came home when they weren’t around, and they didn’t mind this either. The few times she met them, they were so kind to her it made her feel guilty. She never forgot to enquire about their health. Prabhakar had taken it upon himself to educate her about the vast treasures of Tamil cinema. He found it hilarious that she had no opinions on film personalities, or notions of what made for good cinema. She didn’t understand any of his clever references, and he felt this must be remedied at once if she were to ever laugh at his jokes. Every time she went to his place, they drew the curtains and watched a not-so-new Tamil movie. Every weekend, they watched a newly released Tamil movie in the theatre. Thus began a crash course in film appreciation. When she found time for herself, Sneha decided to further her rapidly progressing education. She watched Tamil movies from the eighties onwards. She worked through all the names she had heard and ticked movies off other people’s lists. She never knew if she liked a film or not, but she liked how the hours disappeared.
Sneha thought of herself as the type to quickly recover from the hurt that people inflicted, and she counted this as one of her accomplishments. When she lived at home, she often had showdowns with her mother. Fights could be about anything: from the bed left unmade to the Sneha’s disinterest in praying. But she had the grace to think her mother didn’t mean to harm, it was merely frustration. And this was why when her mother came to her bedside in the night, after particularly nasty arguments, Sneha always asked her to forget about it. When Sneha was in Class 11, there was a girl in school who sat next to her and copied all test answers from her. Their Maths teacher had picked up on how similar the answers were, and had assumed Sneha was the one doing the copying. It was possibly one of Sneha’s worst days; she was called to the teacher’s desk and humiliated in front of the class. But when her friend came to her later with tears in her eyes, too embarrassed to apologize, Sneha had said it was alright, jokingly asking her to make small changes to the answers she copied.
It wasn’t as easy to move past the car incident, but Sneha gave it her best shot.
Like they always did, Sneha and Prabhakar went on a drive on that day too. Motivated by a number of things that worked in their favour—the cool weather, the succession of love songs on the radio, Prabhakar’s upbeat mood funded by his unexpected bonus—they decided to halt for a while under the shade of a tree on a sleepy looking street. Chennai wasn’t a city suited for lovers, Sneha thought. She might have liked to live in a hill station, where people blew warm air into their cupped palms and knitted sweaters in colourful patterns.
“I wish we were living in a cold place,” she blurted out.
Prabhakar laughed and came closer. “I can make the AC cooler if that’s what you want.”
Within minutes of necking, an elderly gentleman materialized. His rapid knocks couldn’t be ignored. Prabhakar asked her to stay quiet and rolled down his window.
“Who are you two, what are you doing here?”
“We…are just going on a drive,” Prabhakar answered.
“Really? You are not driving. You have parked here.”
“We are going.”
“Do you know this is a residential area? All this is not allowed.”
“Yes sir, we know sir.”
“Who is this girl with you? Who are you ma?” He raised his voice, drawing the attention of a few others on the street.
“She is my friend.”
“Oh? Do you know that tinted windows are illegal? I know why people like you need these windows.”
“We are leaving sir. We have to go.”
Prabhakar’s face had turned a curious mixture of fear and anger. He looked pale and ashamed, and muttered under his breath the rest of the way (“Can you believe these people? Who do they think they are?”). When Sneha got down where she always did, he said bye and drove away. She could feel the sweaty patches on her underarms, the inside of her thighs, her lower back. Everything was too bright and too loud. She observed herself from the outside: now she was climbing up the stairs, now she was taking off her slippers, now her roommate was waving at her.
“What happened? You look sick.”
“Nothing, leave it. What are you watching?”
A man with a mic went around asking people to recite dialogues from Tamil films. He was a good mimic, adjusting his voice and face to suit the actor he had picked for the day. The people he met were all awkward without exception: some of them took themselves too seriously, some of them couldn’t stop laughing, others went off script and made up their lines. Sneha figured she would soon return to normal; she would have to pretend until then. The silly man went about his antics, his victims were enjoying themselves too. She freed her jaw from the clench she had inflicted on it.
A few months later, a friend of Prabhakar was going on a holiday to Switzerland; her house on the beach would be empty for two weeks. She’d given Prabhakar a spare key. He planned to spend a day with Sneha there. They went on a Saturday, and Sneha tried to make herself invisible so the watchman wouldn’t see her. They headed straight to the guest bedroom. Prabhakar lost his erection as soon he wore a condom and this put him in a terrible mood. He asked Sneha to stroke him and to try different grips as she did this. He grunted and said she wasn’t very good at it. He fell asleep and she watched Love Birds on TV: Prabhu Deva was very good.
They had one more weekend at the empty house before Prabhakar’s friend returned. This time, he refused to wear a condom and his erection didn’t betray him. He also refused to pull out in time. Sneha spent the next several days worrying. She imagined what her roommates might say: two of the girls were single, and they had vowed to remain so (“I don’t have time for this relationship nonsense” “Love is wrong, my parents trust me”). The other two girls were both in relationships, but Sneha didn’t think she could approach them with confessions of unprotected sex. They pursued marriage with frightening focus, and had strict notions of what was acceptable and what wasn’t. Sneha frantically looked up emergency contraception online—iPill, Plan B, Unwanted 72—but she felt too awkward to go in search of it. What would she say to the pharmacist anyway? She wondered if she should buy a pregnancy test, but her period showed up and absolved her of decision making. She sat on the toilet and cried and prayed, asking for forgiveness from entities known and unknown, going so far as to reconsider the promises she had overlooked without remorse. She took the day off from work, and took her roommates out that night. “My treat,” she informed them, willing the expenditure to compensate for her errors. They ate chaat and ice cream and decided to go for a night show. Demonte Colony was playing in the theatres: the ghosts in the haunted bungalow appeared to be having a good time.
On the rare occasions that Sneha was alone in her apartment, she and Prabhakar had phone sex. When he saw her on video, he asked her why her nipples were very dark and very large. When she wore a borrowed tank top to meet him, he said he didn’t like her dressing like a slut, displaying her collarbones to unsuspecting passersby. He got upset when she cut her hair without informing him, she had to apologize and convince him she only did it because the ends had turned stringy. He advised her to turn down invitations to team outings since there were more men than women (“You never know who is thinking what”). He saved the contact information of all her roommates on his phone and messaged them if she didn’t pick up his calls. He had taken to checking her phone whenever they met, scouring her inbox for signs of interactions with unfamiliar men. She emptied her inbox before he showed up, removing evidence of all conversations, even the ones that simply said “Great practice today! See you at 5.30 pm tomorrow.”
Sneha decided to put an end to things and requested Prabhakar to cooperate with her. He smirked and called her a coward. For two weeks, he waited in his car at the end of her street, like a diligent investigator in pursuit of an extramarital affair. He phoned her and said he sometimes looked at naked pictures of her when he was horny, passionately declaring that he would never share them with anyone. He sent her numerous messages asking her to reconsider. “Please Prabhakar leave me alone,” she replied. She switched off her phone and watched Baahubali with one of her roommates: they agreed it was outrageous but entertaining.
Sneha found a job at another company. Her manager had offered her more money to make her stay, but she politely declined. She moved to a hostel that had several unreasonable and non-negotiable rules, she shared her new cellphone number with exactly twelve people. Her former bandmate, with whom she is on good terms, wants her to register on dating apps. She finds the idea so terrifying, she almost laughs.
Sneha is doing okay though. She goes to the theatre by herself twice or thrice a month, where she now watches films in many languages, accumulating words in Hindi and Malayalam and Telugu. She plans to buy a scooter. Recently, she watched Sigappu Rojakkal on her laptop, and the charming hero who is in fact a serial killer reminded her of Prabhakar. After two years in Chennai, she admits that the city has been kind to her for the most part. There is some loneliness, but the anonymity makes up for it.
About the author
Anusha is one of two people running this magazine.
Photographs by Karthik Krishnaswamy