I. Opening Day
They stood in front of the college notice-board, hesitant as a charm of hummingbirds growing into their iridescence. They were teenagers, all of eighteen and nineteen, their pubescent blend of yearning and nonchalance hanging thickly in the air above their heads.
Some of them had sharpened their desire down to a fine tool that they kept well hidden, their disinterest evoking awed looks and hushed praise from their peers. They would go on to be the popular ones.
Others wore their apathy as a loose, inadequate raiment that the yearning poked holes through. They would go on to be the artists and the punks and the Periyar-Ambedkarites and the theater and the Bharatanatyam stars—less popular, but admired all the same.
And still others couldn’t mask the yearning at all—it coated their skin in a sticky residue, it leaked from their pores, its keening shattered eardrums. These were the ones to avoid at all costs; their loneliness and need were a contagion that spelled social damnation.
But all of them had personalities that announced themselves when they entered a room, that took up an enormous quantity of space, that made everyone want to straighten their unwilling spines. This would prove to be a problem.
II. Girls, Girls, Girls
When Girl 1 walked into the classroom clad in a half-saree that swirled with the murky blues, greys, and greens of the sea against her skin that was night, her classmates forgot to inhale.
She arranged herself at her desk with a crinkling and a bustling and a whooshing, the waters of her skirt moving against her limbs as they caught on her callused heels. Symmetrical pit stains under her arms whorled outwards, forming salty tidal pools on her blouse. Husks of dried jasmine buds fell from her hair and filled the air with its narcotic smell.
As they continued to watch her, some polyester pants began to feel tighter. Some blouses and shirts and tees felt oddly constricting.
And so it was with Girl 1 and her half-saree that was the sea, and the star in her nose against the deepening dusk of her skin, and the smell of sweat and wilting jasmine that clung to her, always.
And so it was with Girl 2 and her buzzed scalp, and her dainty feet sandaled in fraying leather, and her cotton tank that her clavicles cut through, and her Mizo Puan in vivid greens and pinks as though woven through with a down of rose-ringed parakeet feathers.
And so it was with Girl 3 and the bands of sacred ash cutting transverse streaks across her body, and her lips mouthing devotional songs to the god who was a beauteous six-headed boy, to the god who was a youth who was war.
III. Boys, too
A spider-web unfurled across Boy 1’s legs, from one calf to another, from his gastrocnemius to his soleus muscles—a palimpsest of ink, sweat, a dare, a roadside tattoo stall that prided itself on its fifty-rupee-masterworks of C-Grade actresses, ganja, kallu wine, his father’s scooter, and two missing days.
Boy 2 were a pod of boys who lived in a Bachelor Mansion where the rooms fell into one another in a mess of newspapers, chappals, water-packets, day-old biriyanis, rum, rubbing alcohol, and a single pair of jeans. They gelled their hair with Brylcreem and wore rice-gluten starched shirts that they stole from their fathers who stole it from their brothers who stole it from their sons.
Boy 3 were two boys from a sister-city whose ears glimmered with a constellation of piercings. Other girls and boys blushed and trilled at the familiar-unfamiliar cadences of their sister-language, at their insouciance, at how they only seemed to be made of elbows and smoke from expensive cigarettes.
IV. Boy-Boy okay, Girl-Girl okay, Boy-Girl not okay
Their engineering college was a moody cluster of salt-streaked buildings wedged between a nondescript highway and the sea. Swarms of rumors about everything and nothing at all flew around the perimeter of the campus and blanketed the classrooms, the staff lounges, the boys’ and girls’ hostels, the canteens, the entire length of staircases and corridors.
When the rumors reached the college administrators, they were all in agreement that something had to be done.
And so, they informed the Chairman.
The Chairman was a man with no edges. His face was perfectly symmetrical and perfectly forgettable. He only donned linen suits in a pastiche of browns and taupes—smearing right into the wood-framed doorways, the classroom desks, chairs. He dissolved into the opinions of those that held more power than him, of which there weren’t many.
Soon, an announcement appeared on the notice-board.
Boys and Girls!
Henceforth as of today, you will not talk to each other. Not through mobile phones. Not in classrooms. Not in corridors. Not in hallways. Not in the canteen. Definitely not in the hostels. Not through your mother-father. Not about exams or studies. You will be separated by a rope in the buses. Do not cross that rope. Only talk to your wardens and floor-managers.
Also, these items will be detained: narcotic and alcoholic substances. Beedi. Loose cash. Two-wheelers and four-wheelers. Fancy jewelry. Fancy shoes. Fancy watches.
A silence, weighed down by the boulder of the Chairman’s notice.
The boys and girls were baffled at first. But they were soft and pliable as the young often were, so they began arcing around the rules instead.
Very quickly, Boy 2 began kissing. Gently at first, then furiously, twisting and settling around each other’s legs like wet towels. Nobody knew where Boy 3 began and where they ended, the smoke of their bodies swirling into one. Girl 2 moved through every other girl in the hostel (and some wardens too), smearing the walls with trails of saliva and broken hearts. Girl 3 sank further into the fervid hollow of her devotion until every surface of her body was subsumed by sacred ash, her presence a pale rictus of pain.
V. The no-no-no’s
A new announcement appeared.
Nobody knew how it happened. A heartbroken warden, perhaps.
No jeans, jeggings, leggings-weggings. No dresses, shorts, skirts, skorts. No string-bikinis, all bikinis, swim suits, jump-play suits. No salwars, kaftans, saris, half-saris.
No strappy sandals, heeled sandals. No jhootis, kholapuris, khusas. No low-high boots.
No loose-loose hair. No streaks, colors, bleaching, two-color hair.
No tee-shirts, loose shirts, kurtas. No chappals, no open sandals that show all toes. No stylish watches or colorful bracelets. No piercings. No red shirt, pink shirt, green shirt or any bright shirt. No long hair, no hair coloring.
For Boys and Girls!
Any hair modifications will be rectified by barber on campus.
VI. Girls, reprise.
With the new rules, the girls had nothing to wear.
So, they started wearing each other.
Some girls demurely eased out of their skin and fitted them onto others. These ones were the role-models, paragons of gormless obedience. They luxuriated in their newfound hegemony — tasting the misery of their peers on their tongues; its sulfuric flavor burning their lips, the roof of their mouths. To them, it tasted something like happiness.
Some girls exchanged limbs and torsos, an errant neck. They lurched into classrooms in a panoply of mismatched knees, armpits and ill-fitting heads. In the places where their temporary parts came together, the joints ballooned into edemas. Weeping infections began to fester and bloom in lesions across the limbs that were and weren’t their own.
The girls began to worry then. About their classes, their attendance records, their academic performances. About their greying parents with the tired eyes and monochrome dreams of steady husbands and steadier salaries.
Enna pannalaam? What shall we do, they asked.
I can come up with an idea, but I can only think when I walk, said one, with a gangrenous leg that wasn’t hers. A metallic stench of fecal matter, rust, and phenyl hung lightly over her.
Well, someone has to take notes anyhow, said another.
Seri, I have a plan, said a third one. The girls turned towards her in a single, swooping movement. Her neck and head were her own, and they felt comforted somehow.
They dragged what was left of their bodies to their classrooms. They collapsed together on the floor in exhaustion or love, they did not know. It did not matter.
Then, they got to work.
The only hairstyles that were safe under the new notice were braids, so they ran nellikai oil through the knots in each other’s hair—conjoining their heads to one another in a yoke of support and defiance.
When the boys found the girls, there was almost nothing left of them, except an intricately woven coverlet of hair. They arranged themselves under its supple layers, basking in the clammy, talcum reek of the girls’ that was grief and contentment and a diamond-hard fearlessness, basking in the promises and fevered secrets hidden amidst its oily knots.
Suddenly, a slippage. Boy 1 felt a pair of lips near his ear, a whisper of a sound that might have been a girl or a scrap of hair in his collar.
Suddenly, a narcotic jasmine smell and Boy 1 felt Girl 1 jostling under his skin, hers, theirs. She felt his calves against her calves, the tattoo webbing across her legs. She smiled her smile with his mouth, the mouth she had always known would be hers one day.
M. L. Krishnan originally hails from the coastal shores of Tamil Nadu, India. She is a 2019 graduate of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, and she currently lives and works in the Midwest. You can find her on Twitter as @emelkrishnan.
Photo by pijush_barik on Instagram.