“I just feel so wrong.”
That was my favourite phrase when I was growing up and my friends learned to dread it. It was usually followed by my fervent wish that something would happen to get me out of the tiny town I was growing up in.
I had a list of scenarios that I considered romantic in my teen years. Favourite among them was the ‘You were adopted/left on our doorstep as a baby and in reality you’re actually a princess of an obscure country/heiress/alien life form from a much cooler and more awesome planet’ scenario. I was positively certain (with typical teenage conviction) that I was far too cool and far too different to be related to my family or destined to a life in – I typically spluttered here – Coimbatore.
I was right. I was different. I was nothing like the girls I grew up with. I didn’t want to get married as soon as I finished college and start having babies. I thought it was awesome to walk places and wear short skirts and begged to travel to Chennai (where I currently live) alone when I was fifteen so I could visit my uncle. (Coimbatore is one of those places where people talk a lot; I typically responded to ‘What will people say?’ with ‘Do I look like I care?’. This never impressed my mother, as I recall.) I did get to go visit my uncle in Chennai, but I got to go with my grandparents.
I also thought it was cool to talk to boys. I thought boys were interesting to talk to. I liked the way their bodies were so different from my own, their voices which broke interestingly, and their habit of looking at you when they thought you weren’t looking at them. But in Coimbatore even the mildest interaction between two members of the opposite sex is carefully monitored in social circles; a girl who spent any small amount of time alone with a boy was automatically labelled a harlot (her future marriage prospects were despaired of and she was talked about and berated behind closed doors and behind parental backs), and if you dared to talk to boys on the ‘phone (no cellphones in those days) you were in deep trouble and headed down a path fraught with social retribution and uncertainty. You could forget about dates (as in the social interaction, not the dried fruit), and kissing boys and other pleasures of the flesh (all of which I knew about, thanks to books).
It was confusing to be me in another sense because on the one hand my mum encouraged freedom of thought and expression and practically threw books at me; I became a vociferous reader and learned to travel to other countries and cultures through the printed word, but on the other hand she bought into that whole ‘Coimbatore mindset and lived in perennial fear of ‘What will people say?’. I learned later (after we left that godforsaken town) that she was conforming so that we (her daughters) wouldn’t be judged/censured/talked about. I always tell her that she shouldn’t complain about the rebel (me) when she helped create her (literally and figuratively).
When I was finally able to break free from Coimbatore I went a little crazy, as I recall. Drunk on freedom, I dated boys, kissed them, travelled all over the world alone, worked different jobs in different parts of the world, got into and got out of relationships, had questionable friends, went to parties that lasted for days, got lost in interesting ways, and had plenty of adventures. I left Coimbatore, and as I like to say it, I found life. It was wonderful, and it was everything I’d dreamed of. It wasn’t perfect, but anything was better than sitting in that tiny little town, wondering what the world was like.
I live in Chennai now, which when I compare it to London or Berlin or NYC, feels like a tiny town. But it isn’t. It’s a city, and nobody really cares what I do. Nobody’s standing around here wondering what everyone else is going to say because of something I did or didn’t do. My wardrobe choices aren’t the flavour of the week. My name isn’t spat out of people’s mouths in the most judgemental tones that they can muster just because I might have a boyfriend. In short, nobody here gives a rat’s arse about me, and I _love_ that.
I found a poem I wrote when I was in my teens that I recently found when I was re-reading my old journals from my discontented and rebellious youth. I have them all; one journal for every year of my life until my mid-twenties when I really just stopped keeping them. It’s a poem about Coimbatore and it’s called ‘Tiny Town’.
Tiny tiny town
Living and dying
Everyone talks about everyone.
Tiny tiny town
Nobody cares if you float or drown.
Someone save me
or I’ll spend my whole life
existing in this
tiny tiny town.