Whittled Down by the Steam by Chitra Gopalakrishnan

An abstract painting of a young Indian girl and an ivy plant in front of her

“Let me go,” I command my younger brother Subbu, “at eighteen, I know what I want and what I don’t.” 

My voice rasps and echoes in my ears.

Even though my uncordial words make his ten-year-old eyes widen with nervousness and bewilderment, I continue. Perhaps as I intend them more for me than for him.

“I don’t want to wait for God to bring what is best for me by dispossessing me of my own will and my free spirit. In the end, I know it will be about the same village, the same people and the same life of quiet calm, peaceful self-containment and limitedness. I am past catching its certainties,” I tell him as we sit together on the stone-hewn steps of the Payaraneeswarar temple that sears with sultry heat.

I point to its imposing, conical structure. To its entrance and its endless strands of woven rose, jasmine, lilies and vilvam leaves for the deity, each one encased in sparkly silver filaments. To the dark-green, placid temple pool water, its level of stillness and its invisible motions. To the tremulously swaying patches of rice fields, and mango, coconut and banana groves in our line of vision. To the simple and unadorned houses, some tiled, the more modest ones thatched. To the girls and women who walk demurely by, in the heat, in saris and pavada sattais, adorned by winking, diamond nose pins and earrings and jasmine in their hair.

“I want to rise above my Uddarpalayam village life, its still, familiar freedoms, and my timid wanderings in and around Kumbakonam. I want to be able to see the whole of Tamil Nadu and beyond,” I say with vehemence.

 “Maybe our village’s misty mornings, its soft rains, its raw, ruthless heat of the day, its fragrant breezes that always carry the smell of shenbagam flowers, its white finches that circle in a feathery shimmer and its memories that are nested in sights, sounds and sounds and carry with them the scale of time hold magic for others, but not for me,” I tell him.

Even as I speak, I hear my running footsteps hurtling towards the zigzagging, electric unforeseeable world that is out there. Foreclosing the certain, the retentive and the predictable. I see my life in a tall building ablaze with high-voltage electricity, in clothes other than a sari, in a job rather than cooking in copper utensils in an airless kitchen and holding hands and kissing the man I love in public.

I am ready to let go of my past, my family, my Subbu who I love beyond measure. I am prepared to be comfortable in everything I do not know. To open the door to the whirlwind, its volatility, its impermanence, to its complexities and its contradictions. To see the strangeness and stings of the human condition, its identities and its emotions.

I wait for the man who has promised me all of this. Till the sun sets. Till the pool frogs begin to sing. Till the slanted, gangly coconut trees that arch over the temple roads become presences in their dark, isolated surroundings.

Then I walk back with Subbu, my limbs filled with lead, past the tube-lit savory stall of the village’s hunch-backed granny, unseeing of the lentil vadais, the dumplings hissing in her huge, copper-bottomed frying pan, like a swarm of disturbed bees.

We cross our home’s front door, with its string of chillies and lemons meant to ward away evil, its red-oxide corridor that glimmers with a soft, iridescent sheen, and enter the kitchen.

I begin to cut vegetables, set the weighty, bellied, rice pot on the fire and wait for my whims to be whittled down by the steam. For my past and present to rise and efface my future.


Chitra Gopalakrishnan, a New Delhi-based journalist and a social development communications consultant, uses her ardour for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript, and tree-ism and capitalism.

Know more about Chitra and her work at Chitra Gopalakrishnan.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Terveen Gill says:

    Chitra’s short story brings forth the aspirations of a young, village girl. Eager to discard the conservative and familiar ways of the village life she knows so well, the girl places her hopes on a man who has promised her the shimmer and excitement of a new life in the city. But hopes are often dashed and the young girl returns home with her brother to reconcile with fate and accept disappointment. Painful and moving.
    Congratulations Chitra!


  2. I like this Chitra. It agrees with what I try and do.. Push the boundaries. Don’t be tied to what society dictates you should do. Don’t be a sheep and go with the pack..baa

    Also, your writing is excellent……..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. elcieloyelinfierno says:

    Wonderful entrance !! Full of feelings and emotions; of the permanent search for a change in that state of southern India. Your narrative is excellent and you do not lose any detail, for the reader to enjoy. I congratulate you and send you hugs of light.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello Chitra your writing really touched me. People at times if they trust others blindly,do suffer most of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jonicaggiano says:

    Wishing you all the best. I love your piece and the way you have discussed what I would call wanting, waiting and hoping for things to change where you live. Wanting more but it is expressed so lovely. Blessings to you and may your dreams come true. Hugs, Joni

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Often young women imagine a world without the complexities of a dismal life. They want that perfect man, believe that love brings with it fairytale endings, and hopes for a prosperous life. It is indeed sad when dreams like these are far from reality for some. Loved the narrative here.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. floweringink says:

    So beautifully written. This story will stay with me. I look forward to reading more of your work!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Enjoyed this. Was inside the work the entire time. The prose just pulled me along.

    Liked by 1 person

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