Ellie Watson was browsing through the physics book. Her mother had bought it for her. It was the preferred career choice. Her mother’s.
Everything about Ellie’s life spoke of her heritage. Her room was filled with photographs of the scientists and Nobel Prize winners in her family. Her parents were noted physics professors in reputed universities themselves.
The wall across her bed was filled with books handed down to her by the elders in the family. She was expected to complete every book handed over to her within a certain time frame and submit a summary at the end. They were replaced by more books thereafter.
Sports, music or any other hobby never made it to the list. At most, she could turn to learning more languages, which involved getting the respective books handed over to her by someone in the family.
By the age of ten, she was proficient in English and French. By twelve, she had learnt Spanish. Three years later, Japanese had made it to the list.
Everything in her life was already decided. By her lineage.
She put the physics book down and headed to the door of her room to lock it. Her mother was downstairs cooking and was expected to be busy for about half an hour. That meant Ellie could have thirty minutes to herself.
She picked up her mobile, opened The Artist app and started drawing. Every time she logged in, her heart beat faster. She felt as if she was on an adventure, sneaking out from her life to become someone else.
Or, sneaking out to be herself.
The app was a community of artists across the world. There were painters, graffiti and other artists. They drew on their phones and uploaded.
Ellie had quickly become popular within the community. She had over fifty thousand followers. People loved her artwork.
But she hated the dual life she lived.
She had first realised her love for art two years back. She had just finished her exam an hour early and was sitting idle. Her teacher had asked her to sit in another class while she waited for her mother to pick her up.
It was an art class. The teacher had given her a blank paper and a pencil to draw and she had ended up drawing the scene around her. Looking at her confident strokes and expert use of the pencil, the art teacher was awestruck. She had suggested Ellie join her class, but it was not a choice she could make.
Her parentage didn’t allow her.
‘That is not what the Watsons do’, she had reminded herself, ‘there’s no Noble Prize in the field of art’.
She had quietly left the room. That was the last time she saw the insides of the art class.
But the art refused to leave her alone. She couldn’t shake off the calling no matter how desperately she tried. That one encounter set off a series of sleepless nights for Ellie. Her fingers ached to draw.
For a year, she kept fighting the demons within. Her life path was set. She would grow up to become a physicist and go on to winning the Nobel Prize one day. Art did not have a place in her life.
But her heart held a different opinion.
When sleep eluded her, she felt a nagging, beseeching need to draw. It was calling her, pulling her away from her duties as a Watson.
It was driving her mad and she needed a solution to what she considered to be a grave problem. Her studies had taken a hit and her scores had crumpled against her family’s expectations. When she recorded a B minus for the third time, it was the last nail in the coffin.
Her mother, Megan, had freaked out. She had reprimanded Ellie, both worried and angry at her. It was time to put some corrective measures in place.
Ellie’s physicist uncle had advised that she should connect with fellow science students across the world to gain some new perspectives. She was asked to search for online communities and report to her parents.
But fate intervened and while searching online for a community of young scientists, she had found herself staring at another group altogether. That of artists.
She knew she couldn't paint or draw on paper for the fear of getting caught. This was her only option.
Her fingers had taken control of her mind at that moment and signed her up on The Artist. All the while, her eyes kept drifting to the door, keeping a watch for her in case someone from her family emerged to stop her from making this grievous mistake. She felt like a thief.
Her heart was beating so fast, she felt it might explode out of her chest. It was the first adventure of her life. Though, there was another feeling filling her up, which felt alien to her. She couldn’t put a name to it then, but it felt positive.
On the fifth day of signing up and uploading her drawings, she had crossed the mark of one thousand followers. That alien feeling had emerged again, stronger this time.
Probably, it was euphoria. Or, liberation. She couldn’t say.
Every time she drew, she got a taste of freedom. Art carried her away from the world of expectations that penetrated every aspect of her real life.
At seventeen, she had got through the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, for their Physics program. Her family had celebrated when she got the scholarship. They were elated and saw her walking forth on the path to Nobel.
She was to leave in two weeks. Caltech was the first step towards her dreams, the ones chosen for her by her lineage.
But her heart had been beating for Rhode Island School of Design. She felt her passion could only thrive there. Surely, it would take her away from the inherited dreams of winning the Nobel, but it would certainly make her happy.
She wasn’t sure if the latter mattered at all.
As the countdown to the day of her departure started, she began having panic attacks that she struggled to hide. Every time her parents spoke of Caltech, she ran upstairs to her bedroom and opened The Artist. The second tab bookmarked in her browser was the Rhode Island School. She had learnt everything about that school but had not mustered the courage to apply.
She couldn’t go against her family’s wishes. She believed she wasn’t that strong.
But something within her had changed in the past few months. She was never the one to throw a tantrum in front of her parents, but as the D-Day drew nearer, she had started losing control of her emotions. She expected herself to remain calm in front of her family, but her feelings overpowered her sanity.
She felt like her heart was under attack and was being pulled apart into pieces. She wanted to scream and fight back, tell them that she was tired of living her life as per their expectations. She searched within her heart for some valour to do so but found none.
Ten more days passed. Ellie was at war with herself. The part that wanted to stand up to her parents was revolting now. Every time she stepped down from her room, a wave of anxiety flooded her, taking over her rationale. Her rage had conjured a life of its own too and poured out when Ellie least expected it to. Just in the past one week, she had abruptly retorted at her mother twice. And it wasn’t received well. For the first time in her life, Ellie had ended up getting grounded.
Her mother, Megan, couldn’t fathom what had gotten into her.
“She’s just being a teenager. That’s how teenage girls are these days”, Ellie’s father had concluded.
“Just a few days before she leaves? I don’t think so. Something else is up.”, Megan had countered. She had a troublesome feeling about her daughter.
Although Ellie had been a private person all her childhood, Megan could feel her drift further away now.
A day before her departure, Megan decided to talk to Ellie. She wanted to make things right before her daughter began her journey alone, away from home.
It was an unprecedented situation and Megan had to prepare herself to speak with her daughter. She went up to Ellie’s bedroom later in the evening and saw the door ajar. She peeped inside and saw her daughter sitting in the dark fiddling with her mobile.
“You busy, sweetheart?”
Ellie jumped out of her skin on hearing her mother from inside her room. Her mobile sprung from her hand and slipped on the bedside. Megan saw some art on the mobile screen and entered.
The curtains of the room were drawn and it was gloomy inside. The photographs of family and Nobel Prize winners were lying face down on the top of the closet, drenched in darkness. The only light in the room was emanating from the mobile. Megan could see her daughter’s dim facade. The sparkle in her sharp blue eyes had shadowed over the past few days.
She picked up the mobile from the bedside and caressed its screen. It gleamed with an intricate artwork which seemed like the structure of the Milky Way galaxy to Megan, only more colourful.
“That’s lovely, Ellie. That’s the Milky Way, isn’t it? Did you draw it?”
Ellie was too numb to answer. She was hung up on the use of ‘lovely’ for her artwork by her mother. She tried to speak, but her voice eluded her. She kept gaping until Megan put the phone aside and sat down next to her.
For the first time, Megan struggled to form words to speak with her daughter. She ultimately turned to Ellie and took her hands in her own.
“Is something wrong, baby? You seem distant these days. I am sorry to have grounded you twice in the past few days, but…I never thought I would have to”
Megan waited for Ellie to say something, but when Ellie kept staring at her own hands, she continued,
“Please speak to me, Ellie. Is it the fact that you will be staying away from home?”
All Ellie could manage was more moments of silence. She opened her mouth, but words refused to come to her aid. Her heart was thudding in her chest, desperate to break out of the cage and open up to her mother.
But again, she believed she didn’t have the courage. Speaking up was not expected of her.
Every moment of Ellie’s silence was a blow to Megan. She could see that her daughter was in pain, but not acknowledging it. This was not the usual silence that Ellie enveloped herself in. She was an introvert, but this anguish felt different.
Megan felt a stinging pain at her inability to recreate a bond with her own flesh and blood. She decided to continue to pour her feelings out, hoping her daughter would reconnect with her somewhere.
“Ell, baby, I know it can be very scary to move out of your home, where you have spent all your life. You will be out of the safety net, but this is part of life. One day, everyone has to move on, get out of the comfort zone to fulfil their dreams. You need to be courageous, Ellie!”
Courage. Her mother’s verbose ordered some temerity to well up within Ellie. She finally lifted her gaze, trying to keep it as steady as she could. She met her mother’s eyes that matched her own blue shade, but had lost their charisma over years.
Megan felt her lips curve up at the little response received by her girl. She felt euphoria rekindle in her own voice.
“Caltech is the first step to accomplishing your dreams, Ell!”
“My dreams, or yours?” Ellie heard herself saying, but her own voice sounded alien to her. This was beyond her imagination. Where did she get the audacity from?
Megan blanched. She felt her child’s words cut deep into her skin, making her soul bleed.
“Wh..at are you saying, Ellie?”
Megan’s plea met with more moments of silence. She prodded again.
“Ell, please speak to me. What is it that’s troubling you? You still want to go to Caltech, right?”
Megan saw an unknown glint in her daughter’s blue eyes momentarily before Ellie ducked her face down again. Speaking up was slowly resurrecting the fire in them. But her response had rendered Megan speechless. It was a blatant rejection that reminded her of an age-old battle she had fought, and lost.
She was staring at the same skirmish, but tables had turned this time.
Forcing herself to break through the thick and rebellious air between them, Megan let some words out loud,
“What…when…umm...what do you want to do then, Ellie?”
Ellie searched for the boldness within that had surfaced a few moments back. A voice in her head told her that this was the do or die moment. If she didn’t speak up now, she will never get a chance again.
She will have to face the consequences of her numbness at this moment for the rest of her life.
She withdrew her hands from her mother’s and turned away. She was trying to reignite the spark within. After a few moments of failed attempts, she blurted,
“I want to be an artist.” and heaved a sigh, but not of relief. There, she had said it. A tingling sensation took over her body. It was dread, anxiety, fear, with a tinge of courage, as if she was about to begin an unknown, but adventurous journey.
“Artist? What…” the art on the mobile flashed across Megan’s eyes and she turned to pick up the mobile again. “Is this what you have been doing? What are your plans, Ellie? What do you mean you want to be an artist?”
Ellie felt a sudden rush of rage which made her stand up. She moved across the bed against the wall of books, turning her back towards them, she spoke,
“Yes, mother. I want to be an artist. I am tired of living up to your expectations. My whole life has been a goal-to-be-accomplished for you and everyone else in the family…I am not a person, a human to you…I am just a project that you all expect to be successful and bring more laurels to the Watsons. Just another badge of honour in the family of pretentious humans.”
“Ellie!”, Megan was dumbstruck at her daughter, her perfect child’s outburst. She stood up sharply in angst and stepped closer to Ellie.
“You dare talk that way about your seniors!” her eyes glared into the stark blue shade of Ellie’s that she recognised as her own from a few years back.
Ellie felt her emotions daring to go ballistic. The dam was breaking and she could no longer hold it. In fact, she wanted it to break.
Before she knew it, words started darting from her lips,
“See, that’s what I am talking about mom. They are not supposed to be my seniors! They are supposed to be my family! My parents, uncles and aunts. But that is all you are to me. Just seniors in the field of science. You have never bothered to ask me what I want, what I need, or even what makes me happy. All you wanted, all each one of you expected, was for me to live up to your hopes, to your standards. You have shoved your expectations down my throat ever since I was born. I…” Ellie halted to breathe, she wasn’t done yet. “..I am afraid to dream. Every time I draw, I feel like a thief. Why can I not be a scientist? Would it really be that bad if instead of winning a Nobel, I become happy instead?”
Megan welled up. She saw herself in her daughter’s eyes. She had had this conversation years ago, with her father. And that was the end of whatever little freedom she enjoyed.
She had ended up hating her parents then. She had sworn to be a better parent to her children. ‘How did it come to this?’, she questioned herself.
Megan knew one of them needed to have the warmth to thaw the frozen. She dug within and evoked what she would have wanted for her parents to say that night, years ago. She held her shaking daughter by her shoulders and stitched some words together,
“Ellie, I want you to know that we all love you. We are very proud of you.”, Ellie turned her wet eyes away from her mother, but Megan pressed on,
“You are the child of our dreams, Ell. We couldn’t be luckier to have someone like you who is perfect in every sense. And even if it might be difficult for you to believe this, I know exactly what you are feeling right now…. Where do you think you get your artistic skills from?”
A crease appeared between Ellie’s brows. Her rage was halted momentarily by confusion.
It was Megan’s turn to pour her heart out to her daughter.
“I stood once where you are right now and unleashed the storm within at my father. I wanted to be an artist too”
Ellie couldn’t contain her surprise. She stared wide-eyed at her mother, who continued spilling her secret,
“..but I wasn’t allowed to. That day I had promised myself I will never be that parent. I am sorry, baby. I don’t know how it came to this.” Megan gestured Ellie to sit on the bed and knelt next to her.
“I am glad you spoke up”, she took Ellie’s hands in her own, “My daughter will not bear the burden of her lineage like I did. You will follow your heart. You will not bear the weight of others’ expectations anymore.”