Authors: Laxmi Hariharan
To receive a copy of the bestselling
The Ruby Iyer Diaries
(Ruby Iyer Series, Book 0.5)
subscribe to my newsletter
The First Life
Ruby Iyer Series
By Laxmi Hariharan
From the author
This is a standalone book in the Ruby Iyer series. A gateway to Ruby's world through Vikram's eyes.
To receive a copy of the bestselling
The Ruby Iyer Diaries
(Ruby Iyer Series, Book 0.5)
, subscribe to my newsletter
PART 1: BOMBAY
I hate this.
"S-E-P-T-U-A-G-E-N-A-R-I-A-N." I spell the word. I feel it too. Feel old. Seventy years old. Instead of just the ten-year-old I am.
Mum's watching me from the front row, tawny eyes sparkling with nervousness. She's following my every move. But I don't want to meet her eyes. Don't look at her. Look away now. Ah! What's this? A pigeon's just flown in through the open window. It flutters across the half-full schoolroom to alight on a wooden beam in the far corner. It bleats, cocks its head as if it's a robot, turning first the other way, then towards me. It looks lost. Hey bird, that way, you want to go back the way you came. And steer clear of the fan or else you'll be hurt … No,
way, fly away, pigeon.
One of the girls in the audience notices it and screams. Her voice is shrill, squeaky, like the scrape of chalk on a blackboard in school. It makes my hair stand on end.
Her parents soothe her, but she's scared the bird enough that it flies out the nearest window.
Can I come too? Please? Spread my wings and fly high above the city, ride the air currents. Be free. Instead, I am stuck here at this stupid spelling competition.
The moderator checks the card in her hand, her spectacle chain dangling over her neck. "That's right," she says. "Congratulations, Vikram, you made it into the finals of the Interschool Spelling Championships."
Big surprise. I should have pretended not to know some of the answers. Yes, that's what I'll do next time.
Mum springs to her feet and applauds. She's so happy. She's smiling wide so her face is all lit up. Mum looks so beautiful when she smiles.
Some of the people in the crowd follow her lead. Their claps are slow, hesitant, as if they are unsure what they are clapping for. They are not happy their child didn't win. Hey, I'd be happy to trade places with one of your kids, you know? A couple of them tap their hands on the table. Mum's claps ring out above the others, like drum rolls.
I suppose I'll have to appear at the finals of this stupid competition. I don't know what the big deal is though. I won this round. So what? I just like words. They're easy to remember and fun to spell out. Until now.
"See all of you here next week, same time, for the finals." The moderator wears a wide grin. Her teeth are all crooked, with the double tooth on the side making her smile seem all wonky. "Let's find out which of these bright young kids is going to walk away with the prize, shall we?"
Mum comes on stage to hug me. I stand still as the moderator pats me on the head. When she leans down to hug me and kiss me on the cheek, her bad breath falls over me like a carpet of rotten tomatoes. Yugh! I think I am going to be sick. Get me out of here.
I turn away, managing to duck out of her grasp before she can pinch my cheek.
"Mum," I tug at her
"can we get ice cream?"
I lick the chocolate cone. Yum! I slurp off the drops that splash on my finger, running down the side. I crunch it down, quickly before it melts. The sugar gives me a nice buzz, enough to have me fidgeting around in the car until we pull up in front of our apartment block at Breach Candy. I am out in a flash. Mum's voice—"Vik, come home in time to do your homework, okay?"—follows me into the heat of the 5pm sunshine. Putting on a burst of speed, I run around the apartment block—once, twice. Some of the pent-up nervousness from the earlier competition fades and I come to a halt, panting, in front of the parked cars. Drivers chat with each other, standing around in front of their respective vehicles. Xavier, our driver, comes up to me. "You okay, Master Vikky
"Don't call me that." I frown. "My name's Vikram."
" He grins.
I know he's teasing me. But I hate him calling me that anyway. "It's Vikram. And please don't call me
—"little boy"—is a term of endearment. It also shows respect, drawing a line between the household help and me, the child of the family they serve. It makes me uncomfortable.
"Okay, Vikram …
." He laughs as I screw up my face at that.
. I told you."
"But I can't call you
by your name." His face is adamant. "After all, you are my employer."
"What the 'hell', Xavier?" I try to sound like Dad and Mum when they fight. "Forbidden" words are such fun to use. But only around Xavier, because I know he won't tell Mum or Dad.
Xavier nods, but I don't think he really gets what I am saying. Opening the car boot, he pulls out a basketball. Yay! I love playing with Xavier. He always lets me win.
"Vik, eat your greens now." I look down at the beans on my plate and resist the urge to throw them off.
"Big day tomorrow, Vik?" Dad asks, his voice super casual. He wants to find out how I feel about the spelling finals. I don't want to tell him. I continue staring at my plate and don't look up.
Mum scolds me. "Look at your father when he asks you a question, Vikram."
Not fair. It's not like they always look at each other while speaking to each other, so why should I? I fold my arms and look at my plate, wishing I were back in my room.
"Leave him be, darling." Dad pats her shoulder comfortingly before picking up his own fork. "I take it you are not too thrilled about attending the finals of the spelling competition," he says.
At that, my eyes swivel to his face. "I don't want to go tomorrow," I say softly.
"What do you mean you don't want to go? It's the finals, you made it this far!" Mum explodes, only to quiet down when Dad puts up a hand cutting her off. She stares at me, eyes darting daggers.
I look away. Look down at the plate.
"Why don't you want to go?" Dad asks me. His voice is stern, but there is a softness about his eyes that tells me it's okay to tell the truth. I don't look up.
"I don't like it," I say in a halting voice. He doesn't say anything. I hope he too is not angry with me. "I'd rather play basketball."
"You know you're real good at spelling, right?" he says, in a gentle voice.
I gulp and nod. "I like words," I say, "but don't like being on stage. It makes me feel—" My eyes dart to Mum, then back to my plate. This time I pick up my fork and stab at a bean string.
"—Feel what?" Dad prompts.
"Feel sick. It makes me puke." I bend my head, not wanting to look at either of them. Oh! No. I really don't want to tell them how I feel. Just talking about it makes me feel funny inside.
"Did you puke before the semi-final round?" His voice is stern now.
I nod, my eyes still tracing the lines of the beans on the table.
I sense Dad looking at Mum, who doesn't say anything.
"You don't have to do it if you don't want to, you know?" I look up at that, as hope bursts an explosion of colour in my heart.
"Promise?" I ask.
He nods. Besides him, Mum says, "What are you saying, Rajiv? He is so intelligent, there's so much he can achieve—"
"He might not reach the heady heights of the other contestants, or kids as smart as him, but at least he'll be happy. And normal. What's more important? For him to be a well-settled kid, or to feel like a freak on display?"
Normal. I roll the word around in my head. Dad says I should be normal, and happy. I do want to be happy.
He takes Mum's hand between both of his. "Let him explore his talent in his own time, be comfortable with it," Dad says in a soothing voice, caressing her palm.
"Yes, keep spoiling him this way. Then don't blame me when he turns out to be a loser." Her tone is stiff.
"He'll turn out fine, won't you, Vik?"
I nod with enthusiasm. I don't know what he means by that, but it feels important to agree with him. Right now I'll agree with everything Dad says. As long as I don't have to go to THAT competition.
"Right, so, now you make me out to be the villainess of this piece, as usual." Mum huffs, then gets up and leaves the table. "I'll leave you two best friends to finish the meal in peace."
Dad looks at me and makes a comical face. It makes me chortle with laughter. "She has a temper, your mum, but don't worry, it'll blow itself out soon."
Whew! Okay. I let out the breath I am not aware I was holding all through the conversation. I feel almost lightheaded with relief at not having to go up on stage.
"And Vik? Eat your greens now … Mum was right about
I scoop up a mouthful of greens obediently.
I am little, but somehow I just know how rare it is to have a dad like him. I am never going to let him down. Ever.
He's thin, skinny, and when he sniffles a trickle of snot runs down from his nose towards his lips. The boy flicks out his little tongue and touches it. Yuck! He licks it off and swallows. Ugh. I used to do the same thing, but that was when I was a little boy. I don't do it anymore. Mum's drilled it into me that it's a horrible habit. I think the boy feels my disgust, for his murky, sunken eyes track up and meet mine.
I expect him to look away but he holds my gaze. We stare at each other across the length of the living room. I may be smaller than you, but don't take me lightly,
his eyes seem to say. I hold the stare. There, finally his eyes skitter away. He moves a bit closer to my father. Dad bends and pats his head before straightening to look at us. Huh! Why'd he do that?
I stand up taller and try not to grip the folds of Mum's
I am only ten, yet old enough to feel the waves of distress from Mum. Her eyebrows are drawn down towards each other, almost meeting at the centre. There is a furrow in the centre of her forehead. It only appears when she is angry or upset. Her lower lip trembles and she bites down on them trying to still the movement. Her gaze, too, is fixed on the boy.
She is upset. Very upset.
The boy is much shorter than me and dressed in frayed denim shorts. His legs are skinny—so thin they barely make a shadow against the light pouring in through the doorway. He looks from me to Mum and then his eyes latch onto me again. An intense hunger leaps out of them. He's starved. Of food. Of kindness. Of human company. His eyes turn once again to Mum's face and back to me. He purses his lip, frowns, and raises his eyebrows. A look of hatred crosses his face, but it's gone so quickly I think I imagined it. Why should he hate us, anyway? We've done nothing to him. We don't even know who he is … Right?
Still, the imagined look makes me clutch Mum's hand firmly. Her palm is sweaty. She returns the pressure. She is as nervous as me. It doesn't make any sense.
"How could you bring him here, Rajiv?" Mum's low voice cuts through the silence.
"Try to understand, Meera." Dad's voice trembles a little. His tone begs her to understand. The light coming into the room from the setting sun bounces off his eyes, making them shimmer. Wait! Is that tears in his eyes? In life we don't cry over our losses, Vikram, we just give as good as we get. That's what he often tells me. Something's really unsettled him though … enough to move him to tears.
"His mother can't take care of him anymore—" Dad's voice is soft. A thread of sorrow runs through it. Whoever it was, he is grieving over her loss.
"Whore that she is," my mother bursts out.
I see Dad stiffen. "Mind your language in front of the children," he replies, his voice now steady.
"What else do I call a woman who sleeps with my husband and gives birth to his son? Knowing fully well he is already married and with a family of his own." Mum's voice is rising with each word.
"Not in front of the kids. Please." Dad's voice is nervous. He is fast losing his confidence. I've never seen him so helpless before. He grips the boy's hand in his. "It's not his fault. I beg you don't punish him for his mother's mistakes."