January 4th 2011
My mother’s eyes still follow me everywhere.
When I was small I used to wonder how she knew. But she just did.
My mother named me Arushi, I was born on a cold winter morning and she thought of me as the first rays of the morning sun….
Anyway, I had just turned eleven. It was winter, the December of 1994, to be exact. We, meaning my father, mother, sister and I went for a holiday to one of the many forests of North Bengal. The place was a tiny village boasting of a tea garden cum forest bungalow; the caretaker was most kind and willing to be bribed for extra fuel for the generator so we could have electricity all day. My father arranged it all, mother helped and we had a lovely peaceful holiday away from the mad Christmas rush of Kolkata. That day was the 31st of December. The year was drawing to a close, the holiday was coming to an end, but there was excitement in my heart, Ma had promised I could stay up tonight and we would have a bonfire and need not sleep before ushering in the New Year. I knew there were gifts for us, I had seen them in Ma’s suitcase, gaily wrapped. Baba went for a walk in the morning, he always did and usually I would accompany him. My mother laughed and refused, “no way, I’ll sleep while you get the bread and stuff and don’t anyone dare wake me up!” For once, we even bribed my sister, Aanya into going….she’s another late riser, and she was only seven at the time. So silently, Baba arose and got ready, we both wore our jeans and sneakers and stealthily prepared to slip into the morning fog. I don’t know what it was, but I saw my mother’s sleeping form and just wanted to cuddle, so I told Baba and Aanya they could go ahead and jumped back into bed with Ma. She muttered. Ma was famous for bickering about being woken up even a minute early but I was used to it, so I cuddled up and soon she was hugging me. How I wish we had stayed like that till Baba came back and found us.
But no, there was a banging on the door, the caretaker shouted something, my mother mumbled a reply but that was followed by more persistent banging. “Didi, didi, they are coming, we have to find dada….dada left so early...” My mother got up. She went to the door while the caretaker frantically shouted something at us, I realized we would have to go out to find Baba and Aanya, they were out walking and a mob (what was a mob anyway?) was coming this way. Now we could hear shouts from the distance, Ma quickly pulled on her clothes….and we both ran out, out the back gate from where Baba used to go out in the mornings, Ma knew the route, we walked it each evening for the last three days. But there were sounds coming from that direction too and Ma slipped into the woods next to the road. I don’t know how it happened, but we got lost, we went deeper into the woods and the tea bushes, it was a place we had never seen, the sun’s rays were just bursting out of the mist, the fog lay thick and we were running for we could hear shouts and footsteps following us. I ran, my mother always teased me that I couldn’t run but I held her hand and she dragged me along. After a while I was crying, my feet hurt, I stopped and refused to be dragged, ma saw some huts in the distance, “Just a little more, I can still hear those people…” I wanted to be carried, I was heavy but Ma tried. And I had faith in Ma, my Ma, she could do anything. But the sounds grew closer, so she put me down and we ran. Ma half dragged half pushed me along, we reached the huts. They were not huts, those were the deserted burnt remains of shacks, Ma darted into one and told me to hide. Where would I hide? There was broken furniture everywhere, a bed with one leg missing lay lopsided on the floor, mattresses with their stuffing exposed like animal entrails lay about. Ma tried to lock the door. There was a chain something to attach to the door, I saw her lift it up on the hook and look through the crack. All the time she kept telling me to go under the bed, hide, I did, but I was crying to her, you come Ma. The noises grew louder, the shouts neared, footsteps and then bang, the door was kicked open in my mothers face…. I saw the blood pouring from her forehead, I heard the thud as she fell back ward. The men that burst in were young, they looked angry and rough and wild, they had heavy sticks in their hands and they stopped, they looked at Ma bleeding and laughed. I can still hear that laugh. I watched in horror as they said something and started laughing and pointing, one man, (or was it a boy?) stood at the door while some others started tearing off her clothes. I was dumbfounded. Then Ma turned and looked at me. Her eyes were clear and told me to go. Then she was screaming and I was crying and I wanted to reach her but something was pulling me back. In my shock I had not felt the fingers around my ankles, fingers that were now pulling me backwards and away from my mother even as I watched her looking at me. I was dragged, my head hit something, and the rest went dark.
When I awoke I was covered in something rough and smelly. The smell of smoke was everywhere, I started up but a hand kept me down. I huddled close hoping this was Ma but I knew it wasn’t. I hurt, my head hurt and my eyes burned. Finally I looked up and into the face of the ugliest woman I’d ever see. She was dark, old and wrinkled. Her face was scarred, her mouth was black and dry and what was left of her teeth was dark and stained. She had tattoos on her arms that dangled off her skin like extra bags. I saw she only had a torn sari and shawl draped around her, her skin hung off her, hold it, were those boobs, boobs they couldn’t be yet, it couldn’t be anything else either. They hung off her like sacks, filthy and shrunken and the smell, the stench came from her, it seemed to fill everything. I started up but she held me down, from somewhere inside her clothes she took out a bit of bread and held it to me. I hesitated, I remembered all that my mother and father had told me about strangers but I devoured that bread greedily….I wanted more. Get up, the woman said, let’s go. No, my Ma…. Shhhhh she said, ominously and indicated I was to follow. It was evening, I noted, with surprise, we had been hiding in a small hut, and all around us, darkness was falling. Fast. The smell of smoke and oil stung my eyes as I blindly followed the woman as she made her way through the bushes and trees. I first tried to tell myself she was taking me home…..but that’s not how it was. I lost count of the days we would stay huddled in the sack and the nights we would walk, often she got food, some odd bits of scrap, some bread, some biscuits and I would devour it all. I must have slept but it felt like I hadn’t. I kept seeing the men in my dreams, I restlessly screamed and that woman was always there to pat me and hold me close. I did not understand it; I even came to welcome the stench of the filthy sack. Everyday I would ask where we were going, where the others were, but I got no reply. One night she pushed me awake, she took one long hard look at me and dragged me through some undergrowth, I hurt. I started crying….well before morning she sat me under a tree and we waited, the fog hung think and fast all around us….as it became dawn, she pushed me and I found I was on a road…..she pointed to a police station and I knew she wanted me to go there. I stumbled into the police station more lost and alone than ever before. Once I thought of running after the old woman but when I looked she had disappeared into the trees. At the police station a man was snoring at the desk. Another lay in a huddle on a bench, covered from head to toe in a blanket. I waited. I looked a mess. Dirty and streaked with earth, torn clothes, one shoe sole had come off and was flapping about….the cop at the desk looked at me yawned and told me to be off, “damn beggar girl” he started to mutter and then he sat up and stared. And stared. He asked me my name and quickly made a few phone calls, they got milk for me and biscuits. I devoured them and waited. By afternoon I had been taken by a woman police officer to the city. Siliguri, it was. They gave me food and water and allowed me to wash my face. I felt filthy. In the evening, my wait was over. My father had come for me. We hugged with tears streaming down our faces, but he wasn’t ready for my questions and somehow I think I knew the answers.
I was taken back to Kolkata and once more enveloped in the loving arms of my family. Except that my mother was not there. Everyone asked me what happened but I was quiet. Only Aanya’s eyes followed me about like a lost pup. Did I mention, Aanya has Ma’s beautiful eyes……I was taken to several doctors, they did every test they could think of, yes, I had lost a lot of weight and was malnourished and needed rest but they found nothing else. They talked and talked, they thought they were counseling me; some of them were even kind. But I could never talk about what had happened. Only Aanya knew and I did not have to tell her a word to make her understand. We slept with father, we hugged each other through the night and often, when I’d awake screaming I would find my father rushing about to bring me water, trying to calm me while Aanya would only look at me with fear in her eyes. By and by the dreams started to stay away. By and by I went back to school. I was the freak for a while, alternatively the center of attention and the object of curiosity….both of which I instinctively abhorred. I made few friends and I shied away from the ones I knew. Slowly I got back. It took me time but I got back to my studies.. I was determined to be someone my mother would be proud of so even though I was scared I ran hurdles and relays and took part in all school activities, by some stroke of luck, I was considered some sort of an all rounder. I had few friends, but I was socially acceptable. My friends were those who never made me a feel pitied nor asked any questions. My father in the meanwhile had become a shadow of his former self, the pain in his eyes never left him, still hasn’t. We never talked about what happened but I saw it on the internet. Some villagers had gone on rampage and attacked a police station and killed eleven policemen. In the aftermath, some people (a mob) went berserk and attacked tourists in the area. Ours was not the only family shattered by the events of that morning. My mother was raped and torched. Criminal action was taken but the miscreants (that’s one of the words used) were never found. No witnesses either.
As for Aanya, she’s a very quiet shy girl, given to rare bursts of laughter, but when she laughs, the room brightens and I feel Ma is back. Yes, we both know the words of a song that only we can hear….
Now you know.
That is why even though I got a degree from Stanford, I chose to return and work with this NGO that works with rape victims and their families. That is why when I teach the slum children I hope I shall make a difference in their lives. That is why I am indifferent to your views and conferences on climatic change. That is why I really couldn’t be bothered with your ranting about the ozone level. But you are persistent; you ensured we “bumped” into each other too often. In fact it was so often, it was obvious. I found myself smiling at your stupid jokes, I found myself looking forward to your company. That is why when you asked me to marry you I left wordlessly leaving you to wonder if this was yet another strange Indian custom you had tread on.
I had to let you know. For you should know. To my mother, life is a celebration which has no end.
She would have chosen life.
So if you would still want to, you can come tomorrow and meet my father. And Aanya.