| Roopa Swaminathan | January 2024 | Short Story |

I got off Chennai Central station and as soon as I set foot outside, I was accosted by as many as six auto-rickshaw drivers. What would cost me about 225 rupees from Chennai Central Station to Nungambakkam came out from anywhere between 600-800 rupees from the mouths of these ingrates. After fighting off every one of the six drivers, I lugged my luggage all the way to what was eventually a non-existent auto line and I ended up taking a 7th auto-rickshaw. It cost me 900 bucks. That’s Chennai.

The auto driver was mumbling. He seemed fairly mad. The traffic in Chennai has to be seen to be believed. For the most part, there are no medians dividing oncoming traffic. Buses, cars, auto rickshaws, cycles, pedestrians pretty much drive, ride, or walk however and whichever way they choose to. You can go half a mile thinking a road is completely one-way when you suddenly see a monster truck hurtling its way toward you from the opposite side.

The auto-rickshaw dropped me off at the beginning of Haddows Road in Nungambakkam (it’s a one-way street and I didn’t want the driver to drive around and come the other way and charge me another 200 rupees in the process). So…I got off at the beginning of the street and walked towards College Road. With my backpack in its right place, I started to make the final trek of my journey.

Someone just whistled at me. Some guy passing by in a taxi just whistled at me and said, “Hi sexy!” I was the only woman on my side of the street and I knew the hi was addressed to me. What the hell is that? What do these guys think? A whistle, a hoot, a hello yelled out from a running taxi will bring them long-lasting relationships? I decided to test out my theory and yelled back, “Hi yourself! I am in love with you. I have been waiting for you all my life! Let’s elope and get married right away.” The slimy snigger on the bro’s face turned upside down into a sheepishly embarrassed frown. It felt good to freak the living daylights out of one of these a-holes.           

I walked up the streets of Nungambakkam, which is among the posher areas of Chennai. The walls on either side of the roads were either adorned by posters of Udayanidhi Stalin’ Rajnikant, his son-in-law Dhanush, Jayalalitha and/or paan stains.

I have traveled to a few places. And I have lived in a few. Chennai. Mulund. Panchgani. New Jersey. Thane. I wake up, get ready for school or work, make and eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, study, and maybe go out. The places have changed. Not much else has. I have never understood what people mean when they call the “soul” of a city. Or the vibe a city emits. The “energy”, “verve”, “vigor” of a city are all foreign words to me.

A house, a place, a city, a state are interchangeable to me. They are but a means to an end.

Who I know means more than where I live.

This is why all I can think of is the stench of urine emanating through the posters of Pathaan on the walls of College Road. It is pungent enough to kill.

I am back. 

Back home for the summer.

The final summer?

My parents had unofficially bought the entire lane before College Road and cordoned it off for privacy. The Manickam Mansion stood at the end of it. Huge. Alone. Splendid. The long winding driveway bordered by a beautiful landscaped garden on both sides lead to the entrance of the white mansion that my parents called home. There’s Ramu. Ah, Ramu. Sweet, sweet Ramu. Good ol’ watchman Ramu.  

“Where have you been Ruju baby? We’ve been waiting for you for four days!”

I hugged him.

As usual, he flinched. He is such a wonderful man. Tall and distinguished with that white air and force-like metallic uniform he wears so crisp and ironed and impeccable. He was embarrassed. My hugging him really embarrassed him. Like everyone else in my family, even he believes I should know my place in life. And stick to it. And not hug him.

The house where my parents and sister live is huge. It’s an obscenely huge white house – white as the pure driven snow, white as milk, white as the Taj Mahal…except the Taj Mahal is a monument of true love. But wait…maybe the Manickam Mansion in a weird, curious, and sick kind of way, is a monument as well.

But a monument of love?

At least like monuments the house has a lot of tall, high pillars. I look up and, as always, I am a little scared. The ceiling is so high and forbidding. No other time do I resent my lack of height as when I look up. Not a thing here looks like it’s ever been touched for a long, long time. There’s always a sense of eternity, of time having come to a halt here. Not even when my parents fill the house with people does it look like it’s been lived in. From M.F. Husain to Ravi Verma, from the Chinese Ming vases to all the little knick-knacks collected from their trips abroad, from mother’s porcelain collection to my grandmother’s classic Thanjavur paintings that she inherited from her grandmother – everything looks shiny and polished and perfect. There are no flaws. Not a speck marr the sheer incandescent and clean whites of the house. I wonder if, one day, someday, when the secrets came out and when the Manickams admitted their faults the colors would finally spill through? Maybe the dirt and grime that has accumulated from the past years and were shoved behind the walls would come gushing out. It was a scary thought.

For now, though, it’s all white. So white I really don’t need to go to Denmark or Aspen or the Alps to experience what snow is all about. Between the white décor and the coldness of my family, the mansion is colder than I would ever want to experience.

I walk around the plush white couches that look so regal and perfect. Each time I sit on any of them, they bundle up and crease and make these weird noises. And then there’s mother. She just walks in…tall, regal, and glides on the same couch that doesn’t do as much as purr. It takes a lot of class and years of practice to perfect that.

My father belongs to the original elites of Tamil Nadu. Somewhere in his ancestors there is royalty. He belongs to the richest of the very rich. The snottiest of all snobs. Tall, grey, and very distinguished my father looks and acts really cool. He knows what colors suit him and sticks to wearing his khaki and brown color pants and cobalt blue and white shirts ironed to crisp perfection. A few flecks of grey in his temples, a pipe that is almost always never lit and the erect posture contributing to his straight walk complete the picture. He is just the kind of guy that people would look at in a magazine and say, “Wow! He looks so good for his age!”    

My old man was born into an impeccable upbringing. The old lady – Geetanjali ‘Chellam’ Manickam – developed hers through rigorous practice. She is stunningly beautiful and knows it. She’s polite and reserved. Elegant and polished. A touch-me-not attitude reeks out of her every pore and a soft-spoken, no-nonsense voice spells sophistication. Mother dropped everyone like hot potatoes – everyone from Ammanji Karai (or the slums of Madras as the place was once called) that is – once she got married. She was always polite about it too. I am assuming she was. And she was always nice to people. She claimed that the truly upper crust would never be rude to anyone. Never. They would always be polite. Polite and firm and let people know just how little they can get close. It’s only the nouveau riche who would be rude to the less fortunate and think that was being cool. Never mother.

Mother has a PhD on etiquette. All self-taught too. She would let everyone down oh so nicely and gently. She always told friends she would love to get together but was so swamped right now. You understand? And everyone did. For it was something just to be able to talk to Geetanjali. Of course, Geetanjali had the Manickam mansion to run and the responsibilities that came with it.

Everyone understood.

And never heard from Geetanjali again. She gracefully said her polite thank yous for time spent and bid her goodbyes and moved right on along.

My parents lived by every cliché known to mankind. Everything that is there in the house is because it should be. Not because it’s something they like or even care about. It’s the perceived value of life that counts. Not life itself. 


I walked up the stairs, which were in one corner of the massive living room. I walked along the long carpeted corridor to the left that led to my father’s den. They’d be waiting for me there.

I did all I could. Looked around, procrastinated, took a few deep breaths, and sighed in desperation, irritation, and resignation.

Sheer willpower, blatant fear, and plain wimpiness made me stand where I was. It’s been a year since I spoke to either of them. And now there were two for the price of one. I looked down at my dirty jeans and grimaced. Coming back by train meant I hadn’t bathed in two days. I stank. I adjusted the collar of my shirt. Laid my backpack down. Ran fingers through my disheveled hair. Smoothened all the creases on my shirt. At least I wore white.

I knocked on the door.

“Who is it?”

“Rujuta.” I squeaked.

The door opened. It was father.

“Rujuta? It’s you. Finally.”

I went inside the den.

“Where were you the past four days? We were worried.”

I shrugged and stayed quiet.      

“We were very worried.” Mother huffed a little.

“It would’ve been nice if you had telephoned and told us when you were coming, that’s all.” Father added quietly.

I nodded.

“Dinner is at 8pm. We’ll be waiting.”

I nodded again and left the room.

With my parent’s general behavior towards me as my yardstick, pretending to be indifferent has been one of my greatest assets in dealing with them and has often been a friend during those lonesome growing-up years. But I do allow myself some sentimentality, some sappiness in my life when I am with Ammamma.


The lady who has been more of a mother than my own. Sweet, sweet Ammamma.

I wanted to call her amma. She flatly refused. She said I had one amma and that was Geetanjali Manickam. You don’t go around calling every Sita and Geeta your Amma, she said firmly. 

I did not ask to be Geetanjali Manickam’s daughter, I yelled back.

Geetanjali Manickam did not ask for you to be her daughter either, she retorted right back.

In Geetanjali Manickam I inherited an Amma. But I adopted Mrs. Rukmini Arumugam and decided to make her my amma amma. Ammamma.

As I walked inside my bedroom, I stared at the small, round figure with white hair. Ammamma was probably in her late sixties and her face had lines that showed each one of those sixty-odd years. But when Ammamma smiled, it seemed like she was like a kid again. I literally flew across to her and hugged her tight.

Ammamma’s parents had worked for father’s family as their housekeepers. Their entire extended family worked for the Manickams as their domestic aides. Ammamma wanted to go to college but couldn’t afford to. So, she chose the family business but ensured that her only son went to college.

She was my father’s Dayima who changed his diapers, made sure he took his vitamins every night, and took care of him growing up. Every night, she made up stories about mythical beings that were around to protect him from all those demons that he was convinced were out to get him. She was there when his father died. Father liked her. Trusted her.

Ammamma also saw everything and knew right from wrong. But never said anything even though she could have. Father would have listened to anything she may have said. But she always kept quiet. People should know their place in life, she always said. It went beyond being an employee. It’s knowing how much to say and when to stop. Knowing when to shut up.

But she did the next best thing. Even when mother and I lived away, she came to visit once every few months. She’d bring me clothes, chocolates, paint supplies…things she thought I needed. It was enough that she came. 

I bullied Ammamma into resting her tired legs and body and then sat on my bed and looked around my bedroom. My hideaway from the Manickam mansion. My room is at the end of a series of rooms on the second floor. Funny. When mother gives a tour of the house to her friends, she always passes by mine and pretends it’s a storage room. Actually, her storage rooms are more happening than my bedroom. My room was the only one in the whole mansion whose walls were not white. Since “no whites” was a rule I had made for myself, I painted the walls a bright red. When the bloody-colored room scared the living daylights out of me I covered the walls with bad paper paintings that I had done as a child.

After a few moments of quiet stillness, I hear the hubbub of scurrying legs running all around downstairs. Party time! The Manickams throw the best parties in all of Chennai. They have that pat down to an art form. How much planning goes into each party! The decorations – each party had a new theme. Sometimes Mexican, sometimes Hawaiian. Sometimes even traditional South Indian. The caterers and the gifts (ranging from crystal to gold pendants studded with precious stones) were all very painstakingly picked to appear as casual and original and creative as possible for guests. Week after week, they hosted parties…to the same people. The same dull-as-dishwater crowd show up, pretend nonchalance (but can’t wait to see what the Manickams were giving them this week), and went home.

Anyone who is anyone in the city wait with bated breath to get an invitation to enter the Manickam mansion. Every once in a while, they get the golden ticket – an entry to the hallowed white halls of the Manickam Mansion – that makes the wannabes thrilled that they have “arrived.”

You have to be ‘someone’ to be over to my house for Mother and Father made sure that only the someones got invited to the Manickam mansion. They never really worked – my folks – they didn’t have to. They were wealthy beyond sin to have to do something as mundane as earn a living. But they very diligently worked to maintain their exclusivity in this world. 

Too bad.

While everyone worked (and worked really hard) to gain entry into the mansion, I took the easiest way out. I got in by birth.


Roopa Swaminathan writes essays, opinions, humor, and fiction. Her fiction, satire, and creative non-fiction essays are published on Outlook, Sybil, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Kitaab, The Federal, Free Flash Fiction, The Lark, Eksentrika, Women’s Web, and more. She now has a monthly opinion column on Elephant Journal. Her humor is published in The Belladonna Comedy, Slackjaw, Frazzled, Greener Pastures Magazine, The Haven, and more.

Check out her writings at www.themessyoptimist.com


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