I entered Usha Bakery, the name sounded familiar and the place was shabby but I didn’t mind. All I needed was a cup of coffee and a bit of peace and quiet anyway. This looked like the perfect place that I was looking for. Wasn’t it the same bakery that appa (Dad) used to buy puffs for us from when we were kids?
A smiling waiter came to me with the menu immediately. I like this about small places like these. When they think it is an unusual customer they try and go out of their way to keep the customer happy. Also, the place was empty and quiet for this time of the day, which is what I was looking for. The place smelt lovely with a mixture of fresh baked food and agarbatti (incense sticks) which must have been lit just a few minutes ago. There is some old Malayalam music playing on the FM radio and I actually recognise the song and hum along. It looked as though it was going to rain outside! I liked monsoon in Ernakulam. I actually like monsoon in any place. Rains were always a treat to all my senses any time of the day or year!
“Oru coffee, sugar separate please”, I say starting in Malayalam and finishing in English. It is so long since I spoke in Malayalam, I am not even sure if I would be able to have a proper conversation in that language anymore. Over the years, I had picked up about half a dozen languages and could speak all of them fluently, even read and write some of them.
I look around, Kadavanthara has changed so much, I can’t even recognise this place. A place in which I spent four full years. That was nearly twenty-five years ago. It was the late 1980s and I was a very shy teenager. I had stepped into Ernakulam full of dreams and fear. My father’s new job brought us here. Till then I had lived all my life in Chennai and all I knew were Tamil, English and a little bit of Hindi.
I failed my entrance test in the most famous co-ed school then, TocH Public school and somehow managed to get into the most famous girl’s school in town, St.Teresa’s Convent! My brother was smart enough to get into TocH. Amazingly, the two of us have never gone to the same school together. This gave both of us the freedom to do what we wanted in school and not be monitored by one another!
The coffee arrives and I suddenly remember the driver. I hate having to travel in a car with a driver, but I can’t drive. Well I can technically drive and I even have a full driving license but I cannot concentrate for more than fifteen minutes to half an hour on the road so it gets dangerous for everyone on the road and myself so I don’t drive. I have told my husband many times I would take an auto but he doesn’t understand. I call the driver and ask him to take a “chai” break and come back after an hour.
Akshat, my son, his music practise will take all evening anyway. So I am free for the next few hours. I want to have my cup of coffee and walk around this area. I sit there quietly sipping my coffee when I see someone walking in and ordering something at the counter and waiting for his order. He looks familiar. Everything about this place is familiar, yet I cannot connect to it. He turns around while he is waiting and he sees me.
It didn’t take me long to recognise him, after all, he followed me for four full years, how can I forget his face? He has put on some weight since I last saw him, but otherwise, nothing much has changed. He walks to me and stands not knowing what to do. I smile and show him the chair opposite to me and he pulls it out and sits down.
“Vinodhini alle?” He smiles. (Vinodhini isn’t it?)
“Adhe” (yes), at least, I wasn’t running away this time!
“How are you? Where do you live now?” I smile at his heavy Malayalam accent.
“I am fine Vinod, I live in Mumbai”
“Married?” He asks and scans me from top to bottom. Though logically the question shouldn’t have been asked in the first place, I guess he asked me because there was no visible sign. No sindoor, no thaali / mangalsutra – just a small thin chain with a beautifully crafted Krishna locket, a teeny weeny ring with a heart which I had been wearing since school days and my feet were fully covered in a black slip on so he could not guess anything from my appearance. So the next obvious thing was to ask. (Depending on the region/religion/community in India, married women wear sindoor – which is vermilion on their forehead, thaali/mangalsutra – which is a chain with a particular kind of locket, rings on the finger and toe rings.)
My cheeky self came out and wanted to tell him no. But I smiled and said “Yes, and I have a son”
It was a one-way communication, he was asking all the questions and I was answering and till now I hadn’t asked a single question. I’ve always been like this with him, even the four years I knew him, I had never asked him a single question.
He was being his usual self and he started talking. “Vinu, I am married and I have two daughters”
“Oh ok” I nod.
My mind wanders. It always wanders off if there is nothing interesting going on around me.
I remember the first time I came to Ernakulam. I knew nothing about this place, I didn’t know the language, I didn’t have any friends, nothing! On day four to school I noticed someone was following me and that continued as long as I lived there for the next four years. He was slightly taller than me, thin, fair and always well dressed. That was Vinod. Somedays he would be alone and some days he would be with his friends. Over the years I realised that he did not live in that area, he lived somewhere else but spent most of his time in the house opposite to mine, which was his friend’s house. There were two boys of his age or probably slightly older and their mother. From what I could see the mother went to work and I had no idea what the boys did. But they would be all there when I came back from school and on weekends. I used to wonder if they had nothing better to do than follow me.
I hardly spoke to anyone, language barrier was one reason and my mother’s strict instructions not to talk to anyone was another. She never liked us to go to anybody’s house, because of which we hardly had any friends. It suited me perfectly fine as I wasn’t a big fan of socialising anyway. Socialising completely drained me.
A few days after he started following me to the school bus stop, he stopped me one day and asked me for my name and I ran away. I did not have the courage to stand and talk to him. Strange it was, as till then I was a tomboy! All my father’s friends had only sons so I grew up with boys and it was surprising when I couldn’t face up to a guy and even tell him my name.
In the next four years he had made friends with my brother, my friends, my tuition friends, etc but could never get me to talk to him. He had all the information about me. He once sent me a card for new year. The card said”Dear Vinodhini, Happy New Year, your’s lovingly, V.N.D.” Even then I did not know his name. He would walk beside me some evenings when I was coming home from music class and tell me all about himself. He started by telling me his name, then he said he was one year senior to me and that he was studying in a particular college beside my school. He told me what subjects he had taken. He told me about his aunt who lived in Chennai in T-Nagar and how he spent his holidays there. But these occasions were rare as I would change my route everyday randomly so as to avoid him. I had found my own solution to my problem without having to ever tell my parents about it.
I always used to wonder, “Why me?” In the four years I had put on weight and looked slightly plump, but was still short, I had not grown taller, at least not much anyway. I was clumsy and was not the one that gave importance to clothing. My long wavy hair was my plus point but I hardly left it open, it was always well oiled, tied up in two braids and there was nothing that distinguished me from others. Once I wore my uniform, I was just another girl going to school, and that too a chubby, clumsy one! I knew I didn’t fit into the “normal” box, but I also tried my best to fit in!
Suddenly I was brought back into the present by the waiter arriving at our table. Probably seeing Vinod at the table he thought I might like to order something more. I asked Vinod if he would like to have something.
“Oru chaaya” he says.
Typical Malayali and his chaai I think, but don’t say anything. I wait for him to talk.
“You haven’t changed much Vinu, you still look the same, thin, long hair, no makeup, but you just look prettier and smarter.”
I look down and I notice that I am wearing my favourite black kurthi with red and yellow bandhini design and a red palazzo to go with it. I always forget what I am wearing, if you were to close my eyes and ask me what I am wearing, my answer always would be “I don’t know!”. My hair is in a single braid and tied up in a funny way to look as though it is neat but yet messy! He is right, I have no makeup on. I hate makeup and the only thing on my face is the eyeliner and a bindi that I have painted with the same eyeliner. For some reason I remember how one of my aunts used to call me “Ugly Duckling”, she always said I looked prettier now than as a child!
“Thank you” I manage a smile.
“So what brings you here?”
“Well, my son is in Music school and his group has a concert here tomorrow, so we are here for that.”
“Oh, how old is your son?”
“You don’t look a day older than twenty-five and I cannot believe you have a fifteen-year-old son.”
“You do know how old I am Vinod!”
“Yes, I do” He smiles. “My older daughter Namita is fifteen too and the younger one Sunitha is thirteen”
“So did you do your engineering after you left from here?”
“Yes, and finished my MBA too and got married to my cousin Krishna as I had told you I would.” I say that while fidgeting with the Krishna locket in my neck. My Krishna!
“Nah, I quit my job when Akshat was a year old. I wanted to be a stay at home mom”
“I thought you wanted to work”
“Yes, but when I saw my child all I wanted to do was to be with him” I was telling him the partial truth. Yes, I wanted to work, but when my child was six months old I noticed something was wrong. My mother’s instinct told me that my son needed more attention than other children. He was way too smart but there was something that I could not pinpoint. He started school when he was three and by the time he was five I knew what was wrong, he had Aspergers. I also discovered something else, I too, had Aspergers! That answered a lot of questions.
All my teachers in school would say I was a very bright student but somehow they could not understand why that didn’t show up in the mark sheets! Well, I had some kind of dyslexia too! I would write 18 in the working column and by the time the answer came to the main sheet it would have become 81. The teachers who corrected 60 papers didn’t have the time to check the working columns, so my answer would be marked wrong. I also had the habit of swallowing words while writing because my brain was working quicker than my hand. So I was always a borderline case in school and even in college. I had managed to get 75% in all my board exams which was enough those days to get into engineering.
Those days people did not understand autism. If someone had low IQ they would have been caught and assessed and helped, someone with a very high IQ always fell through the gaps without anyone ever noticing anything and that is what happened to me.
I got assessed when my son was assessed and I got my answers then. All the tomboyishness, no interest in dressing up, the fussiness about clothes that I wore, the lack of concentration, being asexual, dyslexia and the high intelligence, it all added up.
The waiter brought Vinod’s chaai and also my mind back to the current situation.
Vinod was rambling on about his family, his wife, daughters, friends that he thought I knew, my own friends that he had made friends with, etc. I was there physically while my mind had phased out again.
When he first saw me, Vinod had taken me for granted, my looks probably told him that I was not that smart! I don’t know what in me he liked, but he sure thought I would take his word for granted. He was right in a way, I wasn’t even assertive, forget being aggressive! So I wouldn’t have fought or argued, but my brain was wired differently. My instincts were sharper than others though I rarely showed it.
When he told me that he was just one year senior to me, I thought about the first year that I was there, I was in the ninth standard and he must have been in his tenth, but I have never seen him in a school uniform. I knew he was lying straight away! When he told me that he studied in the college beside mine, I sent him a letter to his college address, It was just an empty envelope addressed to him and a blank sheet with just my name written on it. If he was really in that college then he would have got it. But there was no mention of it ever! I never confronted him about his lies. Neither did I have the courage, nor did I have the need to ask him anything.
A lot of little things here and there would not add up and I knew he was lying to get my attention. Things other girls would not have noticed, I saw it the very first time he told me. Luckily for me and unluckily for him, my Aspergers showed me the way. I finally got the courage one day before I left the place to tell him that I did not want to waste my time and energy in all these love affairs and I already had a love, who was my cousin Krishna. I told him I wanted to do my engineering and work. I had no intention of getting married halfway through my studies and sit at home through the rest of my life. He did not expect that from me.
“Vinu, my wife is from your school, she was your junior by a couple of years and my daughters are also studying there, I am sure you will remember my wife” I heard him say.
“Sorry Vinod, I can’t even remember any of my classmates, forget any juniors.” Another white lie. I did not want to connect to him in any other way.
The whole sitting there and listening to him was tiring me out, I wanted to get out. Thankfully the driver called asking if I was ready to be picked up. I called the waiter, paid the bill and said goodbye to Vinod.
“Will you not come home Vinu?”
“Sorry Vinod, some other time. My driver is here and I do have to pick up my son and head to bed early. Tomorrow is a long day for me”
I turn and walk away without looking back before he could catch me and ask me anything else. I go close to the car and I can see his reflection on the window, standing there and staring at me.
I am not sure if he would have ever understood autism and what would have happened if I had fallen in love with him and married him. All I know is that it would have been difficult for him to understand my condition and my child’s condition and maybe it would have all ended up in a mess. I am happy I did what I did and I close my eyes and enjoy the music coming from the CD player in the car and the rain that just started lashing.
PS: This story was written for the World Autism Awareness Week – 2nd April to 8th April 2016. Autism is a huge spectrum and it is not like you have seen one and you know about every other autistic person. A lot of time people with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t even get diagnosed and even then, it is difficult for people to realise that women with AS are not the same as men with AS.
In countries like India, even in big cities, even now, it is very difficult to find out if you have Asperger’s as most doctors are not trained to do an assessment for it. Specially for girls, it is very difficult to get them assessed and get a proper answer! And if they do get an assessment done, most families ignore it saying,” you are fine, that is how children will be, get on with your life and stop making excuses” I hope there is more awareness in the future.