In every Indian community, I'd like to say in the world, there is that one kid that defies stereotypes. That rebels. That all the neighborhood aunties gossip about. The one that turns heads and gets second looks. The kid that brings their family shame because they refuse to be the good studious child that society pushes them to be.
I was that kid.
I knew very well the person my parents wished I was. The Jai they secretly fantasized about and tried to turn me into was the version of me who lived by Indian tradition, the one who took the blessings of his elders before he left the house. That was Jai 2.0, whom I could never be. I was the original Jai, the bad one. I feel that the main reason I became who I am is that their expectations were so restricting. I didn't want to follow tradition—I wanted to be free.
So I broke the pillars society bound me to. I traded religious classes for drinking games. I spent more time with my girlfriend than my mother. I swore. Failed classes. Pierced an eyebrow. There's more, much, much worse, I’d just rather keep it private.
"This is who I am," I thought. "I'm just different."
There was my mistake. Right there.
Different wasn't who I was. It was who I tried to be.
The popular assumption of kids like me was that we didn't know where we were going. We cruised through life without holding a compass and drawing ourselves a map first. True to the trait so common in my nature, I defied yet another stereotype. I knew where I was headed.
I had always believed that I had the heart and soul of an actor. One of the reasons I thought it was fine to fail my classes was that I knew I wouldn't need that nonsense when I became an actor. I was weird, or as I termed it, “eccentric,” because I knew that as an actor I could afford to be that way. Being crazy and different could only strengthen my creativity, I figured.
Of course, no one ever believed me. "What a child!" aunties would comment to each other. "He can't even behave properly before his mother, how will he ever act?"
At first, I kept myself oblivious to these words. I knew that their perception of me, though admittedly true, should not bother me. I knew I would become rich and famous one day, and I thought faith in myself was all that mattered.
Once, when I was fourteen and a half years old, I was sneaking out to go to a party at night and I heard my parents talking downstairs. Hearing my name, I stopped to listen.
"Never bothers himself about anything. I'm worried for him. All the relatives are talking, you know. It's humiliating. I hear things about him from the other kids' parents that I would never dream he would do." I heard my mother say in hushed tones.
"So let people talk," I heard my father say. "Jai has plans. He wants to become an actor."
"What has he ever acted? He fails English every year and I've never seen him do anything productive,” replied my mother. "He may say things, but actions speak louder than words."
I'd like to say those words moved me, sent me back to bed and on the right road in life, motivated me to study hard and follow my dreams, but they didn't. I went to the party that night and had a good time. I cut class the next day and almost got a tattoo. I lived life like a Ferris wheel — spinning, but going nowhere.
Inevitably, however, high school came to an end. I faced one of the biggest forks in the road of my life. In the end, I chose to go to college. Mainly, I think, because I thought it would be like an extension of high school. I went to the nearest state university, a great stroke of luck for me, with my reputation and all.
College was good fun. People thought that the things I had done in school had been outrageous—if only they could have seen me in my college days. After barely passing my classes, I graduated six years after I had started, with a bachelor’s degree in English.
After college came work, but I wasn't all too great at that. I lived with my parents, using my degree to its fullest extent as I slept all day and partied all night. Needless to say, my parents were devastated to realize that their early assumptions of what I would grow up to be turned out true. That was when it happened.
January 21, 2007. A date that would send spiders down my spine for the rest of my life. I had slept through the day, rising at seven to eat breakfast and get ready. I left the house at nine that night, and skateboarded down to my friend Lance's house a few miles away, where the party was going to be. I knocked on the door, but only a dead silence greeted me. The front door was bolted tight, and so were the windows, curtains drawn everywhere. I texted my friends, but no one replied. An elderly lady, hair in curlers and donning a nightgown, stepped out of the house next door, suspicious of me and my appalling appearance. I ignored her; I was used to that. My calls to Lance kept going to voicemail. Mystified, I went around the house and tried the back door. It opened easily. My concern for Lance’s safety was rising by the second. I looked around the house but there didn't seem to be anyone inside. Soon, my other friends began to show up, and when they saw that Lance wasn’t around, they gave me a ride home.
I didn't think much of the incident for a while, assuming Lance would call me later about whatever happened. I didn't get a call, but I did receive a home visit. Not from Lance, though.
“We’re looking for Jaisimh Mehra.” Two burly, uniformed policemen stood just outside the threshold of my family’s Fremont home. Unaware of the graveness the situation held, I said,
“I prefer Jai, thanks.” The policeman on the left frowned, his handlebar mustache concealing his upper lip.
“Lance Hall has been confirmed a missing person. Reports of you being involved with his disappearance have reached the police,” he said, taking off his sunglasses to look at me straight in the eyes, condescendingly. I was shocked.
“What? Missing person? What happened to Lance?”
“That is not your biggest problem right now, Mr. Mehra. You were seen making phone calls at his house, breaking and entering, as well as taking off in a getaway car just hours before Mr. Hall was found gone,” the policeman on the right continued.
The old lady next door had been running her mouth, I realized with a start.
“But - I didn’t do anything!” I said explosively. “I’m just hearing about this now!”
“Please come with us quietly, Mr. Mehra. You don’t need any more problems.”
I had no choice. They let me have a trial, but the odds were pinned against me. My lawyers didn’t believe me, as I realized too late. My reputation for being heedless of rules, combined with my atrocious appearance, (both understatements, by the way), didn’t help either. I was going to suffer the consequences of a lifetime of trying much too hard to be different, though at the time it seemed as if I was paying for something I never did.
But it didn’t matter what they said. Since I had been a child, people hadn’t believed in me. They hadn’t understood me, hadn’t wanted to. I remembered something I heard my mother say, all those years ago. “Actions speak louder than words.” And as I marveled at the truth of that statement, I decided I wouldn’t sit around and say I was angry. I would go show people I was angry. Show them they were wrong about me. I could do things if I wanted to.
I grabbed anything heavy I could find and smashed it on anything else in sight. Exploding out of the bonds keeping me prisoner, I ran rampant through the city, crushing and destroying every last innocent thing I could see. I had been innocent, and now I was to suffer. Why should every other innocent thing stay happy? I had become some kind of deranged lunatic, drunk on my own anger and sorrow. I was intent on paying back the world for the injustice it had shown me. I wanted to cause destruction, to do something. And I did.
Because actions speak louder than words.