A Class of Cows

It was a kurta the first day. Just in case.

The previous day there had been vomiting and diarrhoea. It was food poisoning. Nasty food poisoning with red carrots and black bile falling into a white loo.

But it is fine the next day. The first day. When I wear a kurta and comb my hair back and feel so out of place in the auditorium. Then they have a reading from the Koran, a reading from the Bible and a reading from the Vedas and I feel less out of place, less vulnerable. There’s a connection to this place, a connection like that of the interview. And I am struck with the knowledge that I want this, that fear will be there, will always be there, but I want this.

Write about a person in class who interests you. Who should I write about? Who was I obligated to write about? I choose to write about random people. “I could write about Potter who reminds me of the perfect gentleman, or Rachel who talks to everyone or Rahul who reminds me of my brother or Simran who I became friends with because we both did not want to cause an inconvenience for anyone else but I am scared of making judgements. I know I can be wrong. Maybe, I’m not interested in people enough.”

EJP 2017 on Sports Day

This paper is submitted with everyone else’s. “I didn’t really follow the prompt properly,” I apologise. Professor Arul Mani smiles. “It’s ok.”

Kurtas are not important anymore because I am no longer scared about wearing t-shirts. I desperately want a Harry Potter t-shirt. One day. Someday.

“Do you think we will ever feel like we belong here?” I eavesdrop on this conversation and feel surprised because this person is always surrounded by friends. How can they feel alone? Not alone like me. But then there is Simran. Simran who becomes my close friend quickly. Simran, who I am with, every hour of college.

Mama and Papa phone everyday. When they talk, their voices are warm like honey, and sitting on the terrace, goosebumps erupting on my arms as the wind brushes against me, I feel less alone. I send them what we have written in class. “Write lovingly about a bad smell.” And I write about cow dung. Rishi laughs when he reads it.

It is the smell of some of the streets in my town. It’s the strong but strangely satisfying smell of cowdung. The source of the smell is something most people try to avoid but learn to love. Ranging from yellow to black but normally brown, each pile of poop is perfectly shaped. So tempting is the smell that even flies cannot keep themselves away. Other smells try to overpower it (The smells from the biriyani shop and the kabab shop) but to no avail. It is the fresh smell of what is truly part of nature. Nature gives animals food and they give back shit. It brings back memories for people – for some it’s their own shit and the times they’ve spent on their toilet reading a book which has made a difference to their lives, but for me it brings back memories of walking through the streets of with my friends attempting to avoid stepping in the dung but staying close enough so that we can still smell the smell that truly defines our town.

 

Moana is the other person who phones every day. She looks for my classmates on Facebook. “Hey this guy looks really cool.”

“Yeah, he seems quite nice.”

“But I’m still the best, right.”

“You’ll always be the best.”

When did we start to hang out with Quillathe and Niomi? How? Some questions are difficult to answer. But it was because of we sat in the second row. Why the second row? I like backseats and Simran likes backseats. Simran says one day I called her to the second seat. Why was I sitting there? Someone else called me. But who? Another question that is difficult to answer.

“Shefali and me always talk about books and food,” Quillathe tells her mother on the phone one day and I grin at her. These have always been Shefali’s biggest interests. Back at home Rishi gets detailed descriptions of all the food in and around Shanti Nagar – “Do you talk about anything else?”

“No. Now, the biriyani in the military hotel is…”

“Shef, please stop. I’m hungry.”

“… just 8o rupees and it is quite good but…”

Shef!”

For research seminar this year, we are told to talk about a book we really love and I talk about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The whole year Simran and I have worried about this day when we would have to stand in front of the class and talk. But it goes better than I anticipated. I’m not as scared as I thought I would be, I am able to answer most of the questions people asked and I am talking about something I loved. Life is good.

Professor Arul Mani tells me to be on the Rohini Mohan panel discussion for Meta. I repeatedly try to tell him that this is not a good idea and that I will probably say something really stupid to this writer who wrote such an amazing book. He tells me that if I want I can apologise for that later. And I am scared about the panel discussion but I go and it is fun. This is my first time at a Literary Fest and I love it.

In second year our classroom changes and this upsets us because we move from a big open classroom to a small dark room. I generally dislike change. We stay in the second row.

We are told that we have to put up blog posts and I feel my hands grow cold and my stomach twist around. I spent first year hiding what I wrote, how can I put things up for the world to see how badly I wrote? People shouldn’t know.

We are told to attempt a fiction piece. But how would I write a fiction piece? I had no talent for fiction. I remember a story I wrote when I was eight years old, about a girl called Mary and her friends who solved a mystery that wasn’t a mystery. Stupid stupid story. But I desperately want to write fiction because I have never done this properly. For a while I stare at my laptop. I decide to write about blue frogs. But what could you write about blue frogs? I decide to write two stories and I allow both stories to follow a similar tale. I start the story the way I’ve always wanted to start a story – “Once upon a time there was a frog named Akash.”

I have a love-hate relationship with this story but when I write it, I like it. It has a blue frog. This is such a rare and precious moment that I send it to D. She is not impressed. For some reason, this makes me cry.

People start to tell me that they like things I’ve written. And writing matters. It is stupid what I write. But it matters. I write like I’ve never written before. Not even when I first started writing. And I put it on the blog for better or for worse. I learn to deal with constructive criticism. That’s important.

I do two weekly challenges. One week I write fantasy stories every day and whenever I can, I bring in the colour blue.

When the Blue Dictator was born no one really cared because no one really knew. He grew up in a corner of this ellipsoid earth which is probably why they found him so late – they assumed earth didn’t have corners.

When they finally discovered him, he was already fifty years old. As far as trees go he wasn’t very tall – just the height of an average temple tree. But his bark was a dark blue, the colour of the sky when more than half the stars have shed their invisibility cloaks, and his leaves were a light blue, the colour of the sky on a fine afternoon – when the sun, stars and clouds all hide behind their cloaks.

That is the beginning of one of these stories. Another week I spend just writing about Harry Potter and on the last day of this challenge, I write about how inspiration had left me and so I talked to Dumbledore for help.

Finally I contacted Dumbledore. “You’re wise,” I complimented him. “What do I write about?”

Dumbledore thought for some time before saying, “Why don’t you write a story about me?”

“I thought about that,” I agreed. “I even had a brilliant first line but I don’t know how to write fanfiction.”

“What was your first line?”

“It all began the day Dumbledore lost Dobby’s socks,” I told him, proudly.

Silence.

“Why would I borrow Dobby’s socks?”

Second year is nice. We get over early so I buy tasty lunches. I read more. I write more.

“You’re so lucky you don’t have that many classes,” Rishi says.

“Yeah, I know, but I actually like my classes.”

Papa looks at Mama and they both smile at each other. “That’s a nice thing to hear,” one of them says.

And I grin because I love everything.

Pranithi, Simran, Quillathe and Arvind surprise me after my birthday by celebrating it in Lal Bagh.

How do we become friends with Pranithi? Another difficult question. Through Simran, I think. Because they both have German classes.

Sometimes, when we are all sitting together a hazy memory floats in front of my eyes. One day, I ask Pranithi, “Was that you?” She nods.

I was half an hour early for my first French class and I did not know where to go. I saw a girl who I thought was in my class so I asked her, “Are you doing French?” She shook her head. “German”. It is a small memory, an insignificant memory but important because I did not realize we would become friends.

Professor Arul Mani suggests I do a causerie on Fanwork for Meta. The topic is so wonderful that I want to do it but I am still nervous. “I’ll mess up,” I tell Sir. And he tells me what he always tells me – “You can apologize for that later.”

When I walk up to the stage I realize that I am too short to reach the podium so I apologize for being so short and stand next to it. I mess up sometimes. I am pleasantly surprised to see one member of the audience and without thinking I stop mid-presentation and say hi to her. Everyone laughs and I cover my face. “I’m sorry, I’m so dysfunctional,” I say. But I have so much fun because I love what I am talking about and because I have an audience I know.

I think that I should try writing for the Barbra Naidu Personal Essay Contest because the topic is Finding Family and family is the most important aspect of my life. I do not like what I write and so I think maybe it is better not to send it but Mama reads it and makes me send it. I get the Best Essay and I am slightly stunned when my name is called. When I come back to my seat, my fingers are trembling. Mama and Papa are thrilled when I tell them. I can’t stop smiling. Second year is good.

In third year, we sit in the third row. Second row is too close to the front. Third row feels like the second row in our other classrooms.

As anyone who wants to write knows, sometimes it can be impossible. There are days when words can leave us, slipping away, and we do not know what to say or how to say it. Once in a while, I write nonsense because I love nonsense. I try to be as random as possible, I write multiple first sentences and I try  different tactics, each more ludicrous than the previous one. Sometimes I stare at notebooks and sometimes I stare at my laptop screen. I write a line. I delete it. Again and again and again. Please come, inspiration. Please.

Do not start with a quotation. A line repeated. The Oxford dictionary defines a “strong female character as…”. Stop.

It is always the first sentence. Everything depends on the first sentence. Say something. Something wise. Something smart. Say anything. No don’t say anything. Say nothing stupid. But everything is stupid. Say nothing. But that doesn’t work either.

Say something poetic. You don’t need to know what it means. Nobody does.

–                 It’s like a butterfly

–                 What is like a butterfly?

–                 Life

–                 Excuse me?

–                 Life is like a butterfly

–                 Alright. *Sigh* Why is life like a butterfly?

–                 I don’t know

I see wind. It’s green. It’s blue. It’s red. And it swirls and it curls and it blows the house done.

–                 Oh, like the big bad wolf?

–                 No

Write the first thing that comes to your head. Purple flowers in green milk.

Why is that the first thing that came to your head? It wasn’t. It just sounded cool.

–                 It sounds disgusting

–                 Shut up

The oxford dictionary defines nonsense as.

Once. Twice. Quiet little person.

Those stories left untold. Those sentences never finished. Those whispers never heard.

–                 Do you understand what you have written?

–                 No

I find a tiny Darjeeling place and it becomes my weekend restaurant, I eat Meghana’s biriyani for the first time, Arvind makes unbelievably good gulab jamuns… It is a good food year. Rishi has to deal with lengthy descriptions on the phone.

By now, I have so much fandom merchandise. Sixteen year old Shefali would be so happy because she spent hours online looking at all of this. By now, the class feels right. I remember the conversation I eavesdropped on. “Do you think we will ever feel like we belong here?” Yes, yes, we will. In the times I fade into the walls, in the times I am talking to everyone, in times of lunch and times of work, we will belong.

This year I take Papa and Rishi for comic con and Papa cannot believe that there are so many people who are obsessed with fandoms. Quillethe, Mathew, Luna, Keerthi, Arya and I start to play Dungeons and Dragons this year. My character is a Halfling who goes by the name Cora Tealeaf. Luna goes by the name Somebody Frostbeard. We have fun.

For our Sports day T-shirt, Mathew designs a cow being abducted by an alien because Sir calls us space-age cows. I watch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them twice. Life happens.

“When we come for our reunion, what do you think we will be like?”

“When we come for our reunion we will probably be talking about the chicken curry.”

“When we come for our reunion”

We use this phrase so often. It’s a fun hypothesis. It’s a scary hypothesis. So much can happen after this. What if we lose touch? What if we have nothing to say to each other? Like with many of my school friends – we only talk to the people we were really close with.

But I know one thing. When we come for our reunion I am still going to be a space-age cow and I am going to be proud of it. I have a t-shirt to prove it.

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Shefali Mathew

Shefali likes dogs, Harry Potter and anything blue. 

Latest posts by Shefali Mathew (see all)

Shefali Mathew

Shefali likes dogs, Harry Potter and anything blue. 

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