Tuesday 10 August 2021

Nirmala Kasinathan, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

Tugging At Heartstrings

Aavishka and Aravind Sivaretnam were siblings, born just over a year apart, both from Malaysia and of Jaffna Tamil heritage. They were brought up in a moderately traditional Hindu home. Dad a civil engineer, mom a dentist. Aavishka adored her father and loved her mom. However, Aravind was by far his mom’s favorite. They were both engineering students, both housemates at their Texas apartment, and studied at the same university. However, few ever saw them together.

They were as different as night could be from day in character, and despite all that the had in common, the were both north poles on the inner side of opposing magnets – the more they were thrown closer together, the further and stronger they pushed apart. In fact, they often bickered even while back home, and now, they just had different interests and a different set of friends. But the few who’ve seen both couldn’t possibly miss the resemblance in their looks and the accent with which they spoke. The one thing that kept them communicating was their love for their parents who adored them both. They made it a point to call home almost daily.

Aavishka was the older sibling. She was stubbornly independent, quick witted, intelligent and funny. Like Aravind, she was broad built, tall and fair and she had wavy shoulder length hair. She had few girl friends initially. Most of her course mates at her faculty were boys. One of her team mates on several projects begun showing some interest in her and despite her initial hesitance, she started to reciprocate. He was Alexander Fischer, fair skinned, tall and lanky, a son of a successful surgeon, a vegan, atheist from Germany. Aavishka too soon chose to be come vegan; a choice that made her more conscious and aware of her own religious and cultural heritage. Being vegan aside, they both enjoyed attending pop dance and musical shows and concerts and joined in on university excursions to nearby tourist spots on rare occasions. She was completing her second year study for a honours degree in electrical and electronic engineering when Aravind joined her in Texas to commence an honours degree in Civil Engineering.

Aravind was the younger of the two. He was earlier the quieter one of the two and a book worm by nature. His intelligence and inquisitiveness won him numerous young scientific inventor awards in school besides keeping his grades at the top of his class. He missed his parents and the comforts of home terribly upon initial arrival in Texas but being away from home gave him a new sense of independence and he quickly made new friends. He under went a rapid transformation, swapping his nerdish habbits for dancing and drinking at parties, becoming a popular life wire and gradually fitted in well with his surroundings and his friends. He met a lot of girls from various cultural backgrounds and enjoyed being set up on romantic dates but felt that it was just too soon for him to make a choice.

Aavishka and Aravind argued from time to time. One particular incident they both couldn’t forget. Aavishka and Alexander were cooking supper at the sibling’s rented apartment one evening, when Aravind returned from a party half drunk. Alexander had dished out their vegan macaroni on a plate at the kitchen and was washing the frying pan. Aavishka was clearing the books from the dinner table for the food. Aravind walked in stuporously, and carelessly reached for iced water from the refrigerator which instead of pouring into his mug, he spilt into the steaming macaroni. Aavishka walked in that very moment and immediately got enraged.

“Aravinddddd...” she screams aghast, her voice becoming shrill. “You just ruined our vegan macaroni... you’ve turned into a useless, silly, drunk... and now you’ve rendered our macaroni inedible too. I don’t want to hear your voice ever ... Please stay out of my sight...” she uttered angrily.

“Oh, so that’s what I’ve become ? A useless, silly, drunk? You think you and your German vegan, atheist boyfriend are so much better off, don’t you?” Aravind mutters frustrated but a little more sober. “But your feelings are mutual. You both please stay away from me...”


Their lives went on as usual in Texas after that incident. The argument kept them from speaking for several weeks. Soon their final exams were drawing near. Both were locked in their respective rooms pouring over some books one day when suddenly Aavishka’s mobile telephone rang, breaking the monotonous silence. It was Mom. Aavishka put her phone on the loud speaker mode to keep her hands free. The conversation started of as usual with inquiries on each other’s well being. When Aavishka inquired about Dad, there was a moment of silence on Mom’s end. When she spoke, Mom’s voice shook uncertainly. The tears were unmistakable in her voice.

“Aavishka, Dad was passing blood in his stools. He had to go for surgery. He’s currently warded at the hospital. The biopsy test results suggest colon cancer.” Mom pauses, crying. “Part of his colon had to be resected. He’s got a temporary colostomy opening on the lower left side of his abdomen. The doctors feel he’ll need chemotherapy and radiotherapy too.”

Aavishka never had that coming. Dad had always been her hero. He was her strongest support and inspiration. She loved him to the moon and back. Her heart sank deep down. Mom had never dropped a hint that Dad might be unwell. She couldn’t reply immediately. Tears of shock rolled down her cheeks. Her mind was in disarray. The distress was unmistakable. Words flooded her mind but nothing came out. The silence on her end was pronounced.

“Mom...” she muttered finally, “Why didn’t you or Dad hint that something wasn’t right ? I am overcomed with shock and am not quite prepared for all that has transpired... I wish I could have been home with dad and you.” Both ended up crying uncontrollably.

Aravind had just come out of his room to get some water and heard Aavishka crying in her room. He briefly gave it a second thought before he decided to knock and barge in. “What’s happened Aavishka? Why are you in tears ?”

Mom was still on the line. Before Aashvika could answer, their Mother’s voice was heard “Aravind... it’s Dad...” She narrated all that had happened once again to Aravind. Aravind stared at the telephone in silence. He instantaneously gave Aavishka a hug as tears rolled down his cheeks. “Please be strong Mom and Aavishka ...” he finally managed to speak. “We’ve got to be strong for Dad’s sake... We’ve got to be there for him during this trying period. Pray for him and be his pillars of strength...God won’t let us down.”

“Thanks Aravind... I didn’t want to upset you’ll just before exams but the burden of it all was weighing me down. My spirits were sinking. I was anxious, worried and just couldn’t sleep. Thought it better to break the news to you’ll. Thanks for the reassurance. I feel a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. Need your full support and need you two to be my team players and give dad all the support and reassurance he may need. Together we’ll be able to handle all that’s coming. Speak to Dad if you must but please focus on finishing your exams well. We’ll arrange for you’ll to come home immediately after exams to be with us through out your three months break.” They bid farewell and ended the call hanging on to each other for support themselves.

They then spoke to their father who was recovering at the hospital, reassuring him that everything will work out for him. They reassured him that they were all praying for his full recovery and love him dearly. Dad was most grateful for their love and support and was much looking forward to seeing them during their vacation in a couple of weeks. They visited a nearby Hindu temple the next day to perform prayers. It lifted their spirits somewhat and helped them regain their confidence.

Exams progressed well for both. Calls home became more frequent – sometimes two to three times daily. Aavishka and Aravind made all arrangements to return home. Aavishka had updated Alexander of her dad’s condition, and her plans to return home for the vacation. Earlier, the couple had planned a cross country vacation of the USA but decided on a change of their plans. Somehow, the relationship between Aravind and Aavishka had improved drastically over the last two weeks and Aravind even developed a liking for Alexander, and similarly Alexander developed a soft spot for Aravind. Much to Aavishka’s delight, Alexander too decided that he’d love to visit Malaysia with them, to get acquainted with their parents, convey his speedy recovery wishes in person and do some sightseeing as well before returning to West Germany after a month. It was to be his first trip to South East Asia and he much looked forward.


The trio decided to keep Alexander’s visit a surprise for the parents. In fact, apart from Aravind, no one at home knew about Alexander at all. For the usually bubbly, outspoken Aavishka, Alexander was her best kept secret. The two of them, had grown closer over the last couple of years, often sharing private moments and spending more and more time together. She trusted and loved him dearly. He was very affectionate towards her and adored her dearly. Aavishka wanted to break the news of her relationship with Alexander to her parents in person when the time was right. She knew she’d get some resistance from mom and dad because of his different racial and religious background and place of origin. She had even warned Alexander beforehand.

As much as Dad was a highly educated civil engineer, with a successful practice and a cumulative wealth he was immensely proud of, a Freemason, an open minded and concerned citizen who took interest on a lot of current affairs, he was also a staunch Hindu and took immense pride in his affliations to the local Ganesha temple. As genuine as her love for Alexander was, her tugging heartstrings was bringing her home to her first love, her Dad and Mom and her loyalties were unshakable. She definitely needed their approval and blessings and prayed they’d accept him as part of the family. Knowing her Dad’s temperaments, she prayed and hoped that it was an appropriate time, especially considering her dad’s illness and recent surgery.

The situation at the Fischer home was somewhat different. Alexander’s Dad was a successful surgeon and his Mom was a law professor in Hamburg where their family home was. Alexander was the eldest of 2 children and had a younger sister who was taking up medicine in Germany. Alexander’s parents were very open minded, and encouraged him to make his own choices even in women. In fact, they’d met Aavishka during their recent trip to Texas and had been very warm and pleasant. Aavishka felt most welcome and was already treated as part of their family. She had developed a liking for them right from the start.

The exams were over finally and the three of them boarded the same flight. It was a long haul flight with a layover in the United Kingdom. Dad had been discharged well following the surgery and was scheduled for follow up in a couple of weeks prior to arrangements for radiotherapy and chemotherapy. They had called home from London.

The long haul flight also gave them time to spend some time together. Aravind finally got to be with his sister Aavishka and Alexander and found them an incredibly interesting pair. Aavishka too marveled at Aravind’s transformation over the last year. Their parents were not going to recognize him with his long shoulder length hair and new found dressing style. She realized that she very proud of her little brother despite his many differences.

The flight landed at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport as scheduled at around dinner time. It was an uneventful flight but nevertheless extremely tiring. They were greeted at the airport by Mom who came alone. She hugged them hard. She looked hard at Aravind’s overgrown hair. She eyed Alexander curiously, gave Aavishka a suspicious glance when he was introduced to her as their friend who was going to stay with them. She extended her hand to Alexander and shook his hand firmly, smiling warmly, and expressed her pleasant surprise. She informed them that Dad was awaiting their arrival at home in Kota Kemuning with their paternal Grandma who was visiting and their full time domestic aid.


Dad was overjoyed to see his offsprings at long last. It had been two years since Aavishka came home and one year for Aravind. The reunion with their parents was especially emotional this time, filled with hugs and tears of joy as well as uncountable questions and stories to share. Dad was recovering well and appeared healthy. Alexander watched the warm reunion and close family ties, awed and impressed. He had been introduced as their friend to Dad who was happy to meet him. Dad bombarded him with a barrage of 10 questions at a stretch one after another. Alexander smiled and answered him happily. Somehow, no one questioned his association to Aavishka... at least not yet. The night was still young.

Dinner was good as always. Mom and grandma had planned everything from the appetizer to the mains and desserts. An impressive Jaffna feast that had everything. Aravind devoured the meat and seafood. As Aashvika had earlier mentioned she was vegan, the menu was complete with vegan items that Alexander and she happily enjoyed. Grandma’s and Mom’s cooking was in top form as always. “They have perfected the art of cooking Jaffna cuisine, and have left no room for improvement” Aavishka proudly declared. Aravind burped and nodded in agreement. Alexander thanked and congratulated the chefs on their excellent food. He told them how he had become a fan of Jaffna cuisine.

When it was time to sleep, Alexander was assigned the guest room on the ground floor. The rest of the family went upstairs after bidding him Good Night. Dad slowly climbed the stairs. Aravind and Aashvika lugged their heavy luggages upstairs trailing close behind. They reached the television and enterteinment den which was just at the top of the stairs. Dad paused to rest on the couch and asked that they all joined him there for a few minutes.

Aashvika thought it was the right time to break the news of her relationship with Alexander to her parents. She spoke slowly and honestly explaining how being away from home with hardly any friends, Alexander had become an important part of her life, described him and his family and how much she had grown to love him. She ended by explaining how important their approval and acceptance was to her. She had anticipated some questions on Alexander but nothing had prepared her for her father’s loud booming flare up. He was so outraged that his oldest and only daughter would disregard their family traditions and religion.

“Enough is enough, Aavishka. Have you lost your mind ? We sent you to Texas to offer you a world class opportunity to further your education and achieve your academic aspirations. It’s fine to build your network of friends and contacts. But do you think I am going to approve of your relationship to a German fellow ? You don’t know me better? Didn’t we bring you up a Hindu ? How dare you expect me to approve and bless you both ? You listen my child, It’s either you break off your relationship with that man or you leave my house and severe all ties with us. You decide. I don’t want him in my house tomorrow morning” Dad’s message was clear.

Mom saw the tears welling up in Aavishka’s eyes. Mom tried to calm Dad down but nothing seemed to work. Aavishka imagined Dad storming into the ground floor guest room angrily and sending Alexander out but he wasn’t up to his usual level of fitness just yet and for just a fleeting second Aashvika felt relieved. She tried to say something but words failed her. She loved Alexander and couldn’t imagine how offended he’d be right now especially considering how warm his family was to her. She fell on her father’s feet begging for him to reconsider. He walked away haughtily. Mom pacified Aavishka and led her to her bedroom.

Aavishka had a warm shower. Tears streamed down her face. Her hurt was evident. She then walked out of her bedroom heading towards the stairs to go down to speak to Alexander but was stopped at the stairs by Mom. She returned to her room and tried to fall asleep on her comfortable bed but couldn’t catch a wink all night. She tossed and turned, her mind distraught. She rose at 6 am and once again had a shower.

Immediately, she headed downstairs to the guest room. To her dismay, Alexander had left. The bed was made. Non of his belongings were in sight. She called him up several times but no one answered her calls.

She was aghast. Shocked beyond believe. She couldn’t come to terms with her present reality - her world with Alexander had collapsed and crushed... In her mind, she kept seeing a pack of cards collapsing in domino effect. She cried and cried of anguish. Her head was a whirlwind of memories and a myriad of emotions. She locked herself up in her room. She couldn’t look at her Dad in his eyes. She refused to speak to her parents. Her heartache was too profound.

Will she ever see sunshine again? Would she even return to Texas to complete her engineering degree? How would she face Alexander ever again? “Time will heal” she heard Mom’s recent words echoing in her mind ... but will it ?


“Hello Aravind, is everything all right at home ? It’s me Alexander. How’s Aashvika keeping?” Aravind heard Alexander’s voice at the other end of the line.

“ Alexander... where are you now ? Aashvika’s has locked herself up and is refusing to speak or eat. Mom and Dad are terribly worried about her.”

“I’ve booked my flight to return to Hamburg tomorrow morning. Please talk to Aashvika. It upsets me too but tell her everything will be all right. Time will heal. If your Dad changes his mind, I’ll be happy to talk to him about marrying Aashvika. I’ve got to go now. Bye.” the call ended abruptly. Aravind wasn’t certain if he correctly heard Alexander’s voice getting emotional towards the end. Alexander was strong though he thought. But how about Aashvika ?

He tried hard to talk to Aashvika, called her, knocked on her door, and as a last resort, slipped in a note saying ‘Lets talk’ and some cookies through her balcony window using a stick and hook wire attached to a small plastic basket. He was reminded of their childhood midnight pyjama parties long after their parents had gone to bed. Aashvika or himself would sneak into each other’s room by jumping across the balcony and entering through the single panel window. The doors were always locked. They were little then, and easily slided in through the window. They spent many hours telling each other horror stories and giggling at each other’s jokes. He couldn’t quite recall when exactly they turned against each other. Became opposing north poles. It must have been during puberty. Aashvika had a crush on a school mate and wanted her privacy. Aravind was too young and nosy and let out Aashvika’s secrets. Then a small argument arose about Aashvika getting Aravind into trouble by telling on him. Tid for tad. Then a decade of silence. A decade of Cold War. But Dad’s illness and Alexander had brought them back together again. They were thick friends and the closest siblings once again. But now, how would they get across to Mom and Dad ?

Aashvika reluctantly reached for the cookies and saw the note. She in turn put a note into the basket attached wire. ‘Thanks Aravind. Come in through the balcony door, we need to talk.’ read the note. The balcony doors were no longer kept locked. They were older now. Aravind immediately jumped across the balconies and entered Aashvika’s room. The room seemed smaller now than he could remember from more than a decade ago.

“ Is Dad out of his mind ? Does he think we’re little children ? Doesn’t he realize Alexander means so much to me...” Aashvika cried out, tears rolling down her face. Aravind gave her a bear hug. “We’ve got to talk things out with Mom and Dad, Aashvika” Aravind said. “We can bring them around. I know how much Alexander means to you. But you caught Dad by surprise. More than three years and Mom and Dad knew nothing. He’s probably more shocked than enraged.”

It took a while to get Aashvika back into her senses. He told her about Alexander’s call. Aashvika began sobbing again. Aravind continued to reassure her. She calmed down considerably after a while. She finally decides to take a shower and come down for dinner.

Aravind thought it was only fair he said a few words to their parents in Aashvika’s favour. He went down and talked to his parents about Alexander. About how he was a friend and confidant to Aashvika when she was new and had no friends. He was honest, sincere and caring. Took good care of Aashvika. Made her feel loved. Alexander was from a reputable family although he was of German ancestry. He made a plea for them to take their time to consider things from Aashvika’s perspective. We’re in an evolving world. Studying overseas in the USA has made them realize that intermarriage is inevitably a part of globalization. After all, Alexander was a great guy. Good values, good upbringing. She deserved to be happy. He told them she’d be coming down for dinner. He insisted they not display their frustration and talk to her open mindedly instead.

After a lengthy discussion over dinner, and pouring over their photo albums from Texas, Dad and Mom realized Aashvika’s happiness meant more to them than preserving their culture and religion. Aashvika and Aravind were too different from their parents already. Had different ideologies, aspirations and needs. Things were never going to be the same anyway and Aashvika might even turn for the worse if they didn’t give Alexander a fair chance. No strings attached. They agreed to meet Alexander again and his parent when possible. It was 2:00 am. They decided that everyone should go to sleep.

Aravind immediately messaged Alexander to update him on the great news. He decided against calling due to the inappropriate hour of the night. Instead, Alexander called him up immediately. He sounded thrilled. He informed Aravind of his plans to cancel his flight and instead call his parents to see how soon before they could arrange to come to Malaysia. Aravind was happy but decided to keep it a secret from Aashvika till Alexander’s plans were finalized.


However, it seemed that Alexander and Aashvika had already got in touch. At 9:00 am the next morning, everyone was down for breakfast when the door bell rang. Aashvika immediately leaped up excitedly and pronounced Alexander’s arrival. She smiled happily when she opened the door. The morning sunshine immediately filled their home. Brighter days were here once more. Aashvika’s heart leaped with joy and her happiness was unmistakable to the rest of her family.

The emotional roller coaster all of them had experienced in the last few days were left unspoken, but everyone had grown wiser by far. The parents stated their terms and were not obliged to give in all the way - no strings attached they had said. But definitely words alone were meaningless when their heartstrings knew the truth. Be it amongst parents and children, siblings or lovers, the tugging at heartstrings always dominated with its own justice.

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