… a white-knuckle ride through a disintegrating Bombay as a terrifying encounter propels our heroine from her everyday commute into a battle for survival – her own survival and the survival of the city she loves.” – Fran Pickering, Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award winning author.
“Laxmi Hariharan can write! With great detail and high emotions, Ms. Hariharan’s world feels real, depressed and stark.” – Dii, Amazon Top 500 reviewer
“…In the end it’s not only Ruby who has many lives and many possible paths: it’s the reader who follows her journey to self-realization and newfound perspectives. And perhaps this is the greatest strength of all in a dystopian young adult novel that presents so much more than a singular, easy path.” – D. Donovan, eBook Reviewer, MBR (Midwest Book Reviews)
“The Many Lives of Ruby Iyer, intricately weaves high stakes adventure, voracious determination born out of love, and richly detailed prose in one captivating story. In a market flooded with YA thrillers and dystopian fantasies, The Many Lives of Ruby Iyer offers the best features of this subgenre while forging new paths in its setting and context.” – Charmaine Savage, Reviewer, NetGalley
“The author does an excellent job of portraying the city-as-a-mother, leaving the hero(ine) to grapple with the dilemma of choice.” – Jormund Elver
“Laxmi builds worlds populated with endearingly down to earth bravehearts.” – Inma Martinez, world leading digital media strategist (FORTUNE and TIME)
The Origins of Ruby Iyer
Growing up in Bombay I was weighed down by the expectations of traditional Indian society. Yet, I wanted to be economically independent. So, daily I would leave the relative safety of home, knowing that my commute to work was going to be nightmarish. It’s just how public transport is in this city. When you get on a bus you know that the man standing behind is going to brush against you. When you walk through a crowded local train platform, you accept that you are probably going to be felt up. Every time this happened to me, I would get really angry.
But, I would deal with it and get on, because if I raised my voice or did something about it, the results would not bode well for me. So, when a young photojournalist was raped in the centre of Bombay in broad daylight, I was furious.
It was as if nothing had changed in all the years I had been away.
Then, I had a vision of this young girl who would not back down anymore; who would stand up for herself regardless of the consequences. Who would follow her heart … Thus Ruby Iyer was born.
Make no mistake though Ruby is her own person. She leads and I follow.
THE MORNING INVOCATION from the Shiva temple seeps through the holes in the faulty concrete walls of my bedroom. By the time they reach my ears, the Sanskrit chants entwine with the pinging of my iPhone, a multi-layered vibration, which blends with the humming of the air conditioner. The resultant noise is a mix of the spiritual and the electronic, tinged with the salty air from the Arabian Sea. It’s that special Bombay vibe, found only in the former seven islands of Bom Bahia—the Good Bay, as named by its Portuguese founders. Reaching out to shut off the phone, my hand slams into the glass of water next to my bed. It promptly falls over, the crash more effective in cutting through my sleep than the iPhone’s wake-up alarm.
Meanwhile, the air conditioner works overtime, trying to bring down the temperature of the room to less than blistering hot. I stumble out of bed and into the adjoining kitchen to fire up the stove below the saucepan half filled with water.
“Where’s my chai?” Pankaj, my flatmate, props himself against the doorway to his own cubicle-sized room.
“Get it yourself, bitch,” I reply mildly, spooning out tea leaves into a saucepan.
“… Please?” He wheedles, “Pretty please?”
Ha! I’ve trained him well. “But, since you have asked me so politely … I might just make your chai. This time.”
“Haven’t I told you to wait till the water boils before adding the tea leaves?” Pankaj protests. I mentally mouth before adding the tea leaves in sync with his voice.
“Okay, Mum,” I mumble, splashing milk into the now boiling liquid and letting the concoction stew for a few seconds before pouring it into the mismatched cups. I add sugar to Panky’s cup, pausing in the act of adding a spoonful to my own.
“Ah! Time for the sugar dance, I see.”
“Umph!” It’s uncomfortable that Panky knows me that well.
“Go on, do it, Ruby. A spoonful more can’t kill you.”
Of course, I agree with him. Not that I would ever admit to it aloud. I dunk in the sugar, stirring it quickly. If I didn’t see it, it didn’t exist, right?
Sliding one of the cups towards him, I gulp down the steaming liquid from the other. The blood vessels along my skin bloom as if dancing to the sudden onslaught of the monsoons.
“Don’t kill all your taste buds in one go, now,” Panky says, grinning.
“I have to drink my chai boiling hot.”
“No kidding!” He teases. “You are the first South Indian I know who prefers tea to coffee.”
“Strange, no?” I perch on the sole remaining barstool at the tiny breakfast nook. “I knew we were going to be friends for life from the moment you called me a South Indian, instead of that hated M word.”
“The M word?” Pankaj sputters. “Whoever says Madrasi anymore? Just because Madras is one of the biggest cities in the south of India, doesn’t mean you just have to label anyone from the region Madrasi.”
“I know, right? Once, I had my friend Tania over for lunch. Ma was happy to ignore her till she asked me innocently if I was Madrasi. At which point Ma gave poor Tania an earful and had her run off crying. I don’t know what traumatised me more—having my best friend call me Madrasi or losing a friend, thanks to Ma’s outburst.”
Not that being called Madrasi is derogatory. It had just felt uncool in South Bombay, or SoBo, as those square miles of eye-wateringly expensive real estate are called. I had grown up there surrounded by prime quality human specimens, all tall, and fair, bearing genes of their Aryan forefathers from the north of the country.
Culturally we may well have been from another planet, the smells and sounds of my home were that alien to them.
“Your ma’s quite a character, hanh?”
“Yah!” You have no idea! “You should meet my dad, though.”
Panky opens his mouth as if to ask another question about my family. I am relieved when instead he queries, “Breakfast?”
“Nah … On a diet, remember?”
“No dinner, no breakfast—you are going to fade away,” he chides.
“If only that were true. This,” I pinch the pyjama-clad skin of my thighs, holding it out to the side, “is proof that I have enough fat to survive a few famines.”
“Honestly, lovely,” he grumbles, “you do need energy to survive.”
“I live on vitamin C and fresh air,” I proclaim.
“In this city? Perhaps you should rephrase that to vitamin D and recycled air.”
Panky always has these facts right at his fingertips. Trust me to have the only fashion-conscious, high IQ geek in the world for a best friend.
I pat his cheek. “Stop worrying. I will be just fine.” Tossing back the dregs of my chai, I thump my mug down. “It’s an experiment,” I call out over my shoulder, en route to my room. “I am trying to see how many meals I can skip before I give in to the hunger.”
Panky groans, “Why can’t you place the used mug in the sink? I simply don’t understand, you spoilt children from rich homes …”
It makes me grin with wicked pleasure.
Passing the sword hanging on the wall of the living room, I pull it down, brandishing it at him in a mock attack. It’s a strange weapon inherited from a past tenant. It’s quite ugly to look at, and rusted from the sea air. Yet it seems to have some kind of antique value; it’s probably the most valuable thing in the run-down living room.
It’s definitely the quirkiest item there.
Our landlady, Mrs D’Souza, has furnished the room, combining antique pieces with modern glass and chrome. It’s an unsettling combination, as if I am forever balanced on a portal between the past and the future.
I slip the sword into its sheath and hang it back on the hook. My regular workouts with the weapon have made me feel rather possessive about it. Or perhaps it has claimed me?
Walking past my bedroom into the bathroom, I drop my pyjamas before stepping into the shower.
Despite my earlier dawdling, I am dressed in under ten minutes. I throw on my usual uniform of sneakers and a plaid shirt tucked into the waistband of skinny Diesel jeans, with my satchel-like handbag slung over my shoulder. Oversized Ray-Bans are perched on my nose.
I may have left SoBo, but damned if I was going to give up my designer clothes. Sure I am just an intern, but hey, nothing stops me from being with it, right?
I pause at the doorway to the living room. Panky has draped himself across the settee with the delirious chatter of a hyper-excited news presenter for company. “… Mars, Earth, and the sun all aligned last night, a rare opposition of the planets that only happens once every 778 days. But this event is even more remarkable as it occurred precisely a week before everyone on Earth will see the first of four blood-red moons. An extraordinary event some believe represents the second coming of the saviour …”
“Oh! What trash,” I complain. “It’s worse than reality TV. And why is she always screaming at the top of her voice?”
“It’s breaking news, and she’s excited to break it to us. Isn’t that enough?” Panky asks. “Besides, I am a news junkie.” He turns down the volume and whistles. “Sexy model look today, I see?”
“You think?” I pose, my right hand on my slightly thrust out hip. “Really, Panky? This is hardly sexy.”
“It’s those sunglasses, my dear. V-e- r‑y sexy.”
“And here I was trying to downplay my allure.” I flutter my eyelashes.
“Just the opposite, d-ah-ling!”
“Will it attract too much attention?” I ask, worried. “Should I change, you think?”
There is bound to be at least one smart-ass, wannabe Romeo on the street who is going to whistle while cycling by, or offer rude remarks while I’m walking past.
“Nah!” Pankaj assures me. “You can handle yourself, no? After all, if it wasn’t for you …” I know he is thinking about how we met. One night, on the way back home, I had stumbled across Panky, surrounded by three other kids. One of them had him by the collar, the other held a knife. They had been trying to rob him of his phone and his wallet. Good thing I had some knowledge of self-defence.
I stayed to help Panky.
And they had come at both of us.
If it had not been for a family passing by who had raised the alarm … I dread to think what would have happened.
Still, one rash act of courage does not mean I am used to unwanted male scrutiny on the streets.
I am better at coming to other people’s aid than my own.
“I am not so sure.” The skin-tight jeans live up to their promise, embracing my curves. I know the trousers will seem provocative.
Glancing down at my iPhone to check the time, I shrug. “Damn, no time to change anyway.” I pull at the shirt till it comes free of the jeans, the material now halfway to my thighs.
“Gotta go, bye, honey!” I blow Pankaj a kiss. It’s a joke between us, this role-playing at matrimony.
“Ciao, darling.” Pankaj grimaces. “We’re never gonna find husbands at this rate.”
I lean over to kiss his smooth cheek. “With friends like you, who needs a man?” I grin.
“I do!” Pankaj’s voice follows me out the door as I run towards the gates of our bungalow in Pali Hill, the most genteel of all the middle-class suburbs of the city.
I pause on the threshold next to a man who is always there, just outside the gates. He is always bent over his notebook: writing.
He has curly hair worn in a halo as if to contain the flow of letters, like Lord Shiva trying to contain the restless holy Ganges river in his matted locks. As always, he is wearing faded jeans, a grey shirt tucked in, and a tie loosely knotted around his neck. His shoes have seen better days. The sign in front of him reads:
The end is near
There’s an upturned hat to receive any donations from passers-by. He never asks for money.
He is a writer.
He is a beggar.
“How many days, then?” I ask as I always do. It’s another running joke in my life, this wisecracking with the gentleman-beggar. He’s never answered me. Till now.
He holds up his fingers: seven of them.
A tremor runs down my back.
“Seven what? Months? Years?” I demand fiercely.
He only smiles, showing a gap between his front teeth. I am looking for reassurances. I get questions in return. I run out of the gates of the bungalow.
Having hailed down an auto rickshaw, I stand on the platform of Bandra train station. I have to position myself sideways to fit between the saree-clad aunty on one side, and a girl furiously working the keys of her phone on the other. The fishy smell of sweaty armpits shot through with the sharp notes of red carbolic—Lifebuoy soap—entangle in the hairs of my nostrils.
A ripple runs through the throng in anticipation of the arrival of the train. We are runners at the start of an obstacle race, each of us itching to be the first off the mark.
I brush away a light stroke on my thigh, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, pushing away the large handbag of the woman next to me, which threatens to get in the way, hampering my own jump to the finish line. As the touch persists, I finally look down to see a hand. It brushes my thigh, once, then again. Its fingers walk their way up my leg, disappearing underneath the hem of my shirt. The hand has a life of its own, detached from its owner. It pauses once to gently squeeze the soft bulge of my jeans around the skin of my inner thigh.
I follow the arm, the other way, all the way up to the face of the thin, gangly fellow it belongs to. Where did he come from? And I had thought it was safe to travel in the ladies’ compartment.
He stares straight ahead, a serene look on his features, as if to say, Don’t look at me, I don’t know what my hand is doing, really! It belongs to someone else.
I open my mouth to protest at the invasion, yet something stops me from saying anything aloud. Should I scream? Shove away that horrible thing even now touching my body?
He smiles. Innocence—it flickers on his face, breaking the trance I have fallen into. My hand jerks up to slap him; once, twice—and then I am falling.
Shoved by the same hand, I am thrust through the birth canal of the crowds. I burst through to the other side, plunging headfirst off the platform. Hitting the edge of the surface, I tumble onto the railway tracks. Pain explodes through my side.
I have always obsessed about the future … is it because I don’t have one?