In school, I was the oddball. I was — still am — an Indian who could not speak Tamil. Because I learnt Mandarin during my kindergarten days, my father wanted me to continue taking Mandarin classes. My then principal, who was Indian, was adamant that I picked up my mother tongue. I was completely inept. My classmates teased and taunted me, saying I was a disgrace. I remember thinking: ‘Yes, I’m lousy at speaking and writing Tamil. I don’t know, perhaps you could teach me?’ Such an obvious solution was apparently impossible. My mindset soon changed to that of ‘fine, if you don’t want to talk to me, I won’t talk to you.’
So, I became the outcast, the loner. And in school, being different meant I was the easiest target of bullying. My classmates would steal my pencils. Once, someone toppled the trash bin and made a huge mess. When the teacher reprimanded the class, everyone framed me as the culprit. I profusely denied the allegation, but the teacher called me a ‘liar’. I just had to accept it.
Another time when I was nine, I was minding my own business when a group of my classmates approached me. They told me to go to the basketball court. ‘This is it! They want to befriend me! I’m now part of a group,’ I thought, sillily. A girl pushed me to the ground, and the rest just ganged up on me and started hitting me. I reported the incident to my teacher, who informed my parents. True to form, the latter insisted that I was being melodramatic and that I was imagining things.
With all the things going on, school became living hell. To get out of it, I’d feign an illness. Whenever my father saw that I was playing truant, he would pull me by the hair to get me out of bed. With little time and dread, I had to get ready for school. There I stood in the assembly line, with my unkempt hair and wrinkly uniform, the laughingstock again.
Where I lived, there used to be a street vendor who peddled cigarettes. I bought a few sticks from him using my pocket money and picked up my first vice at the age of nine. There were also seniors from my school who frequented the uncle’s makeshift shop. I started hanging out with them. They introduced me to alcohol. They wanted to confront my bullies and fight them. I relished their company: it made me feel cared for. It was my first taste of friendship.