Friday, February 19, 2010

A Valiant Fight

       A light breeze wafted into the room. Salma mumbled in her sleep. She dreamt of something she obviously liked and smiled. How cute she looked! She had had a rough day. The enthusiasm she showed in the beginning on her Daily trips to visit Rajeev was now slowly wearing thin. Though I tried to make up for it by taking her out for her favorite activity – eating out, it is just not enough. I know she is tired. She has had a rough time battling against a lot of things. Rajeev and I fight every time we meet. But I know Rajeev is very very good. It is just that I can’t seem to agree on anything he says. I do not listen to him because it leaves me feeling sad and empty. Though Salma adores him. And he in turn dotes upon her just like a father. Mushtaq has stopped visiting us. He no longer comes here. Ruksana is delighted that he pays attention to her and her daughters now. I no longer interest him, though he did come in last month to claim his nocturnal rights as my husband. I hope I will do something to make him angry, and he frees me in a fit of anger by saying the 3 magic words – talaq, talaq, talaq.

       Today’s visit was a nightmare again. Salma threw up on Rajeev’s carpet and fainted. When I lifted her, the sudden realization that she had lost far too much weight, hit me. I almost dropped her. I do not know why Rajeev keeps saying these things to me. To even think of separating from Salma for two hours is a torture for me. Then how can he expect me to give her up forever? Money is another issue. The Bank already refused my application based on the present loans running. My financial analyst says I am in a mess. But what would they have done in my situation?

       Rajeev proposed to me. I did not know what to answer. I asked him for some time to think about it. I know it will be difficult for me to live with Salma and Rajeev under one roof. I will have to forego either of them. But what scares me is that Rajeev is right about Salma. I will have to accept that she will have to go away from me sometime soon.

       I resigned from my job as a teacher to stay with Salma the whole time. Salma stopped going to school. She threw up a tantrum everyday and I could not afford to see her in tears. She did not want to go to Rajeev’s place anymore. I called Rajeev and he agreed to see us at our home every week. Today would be his second visit. As usual he remarked about Salma and said it was time for her to go. I got wild, I cried, I screamed at him, kicked him, clawed at him. He remained impassive as a stone. He only held me to him. I welcomed his touch. I melted and tears streamed down my face. There we were, standing, like two animals in distress. That’s when Mushtaq walked in. Rajeev started, his mouth forming a smile and not quite smiling. Mushtaq bellowed like a bull. Last I remember was receiving a slap across the face and a kick in the stomach. Then the world, mercifully, went blank.

       I felt a gentle stirring beside me. It was Salma mumbling in her sleep and placing her leg across my stomach. Her thigh was only as thick as my wrist. How frail she had become. I smelt coffee and opened my eyes to find Rajeev besides me. He stroked my hair lovingly. I remembered the evening before. My cheek was swollen red. He thrust a sheaf of papers in front of me. Mushtaq had said the word Talaq’ 3 times in front of his driver and Rajeev and served me the divorce papers. He accused me of infidelity. I had no regret. I was forced to get married to Mushtaq. I would have a tough time battling this out in court, I said to Rajeev. He looked me in the eye and said I already had an option. I nodded. He was right. When Salma was gone, I definitely needed someone to stay with me. I immediately signed the papers and Rajeev to drop it off at my lawyer’s office. I made arrangements to move into Rajeev’s place.

       Obviously his parents did not agree. Hindu-Muslim marriages happened only in Bollywood. They cut him off from the family. It only eased my worries a little. We got married in the Hindu style and I became Mrs. Rajeev Vashisht. Salma wore a red and golden lehenga and pranced about happily, but of course, requiring to be carried every five minutes. She had started losing hair in clumps and fretted about her appearance frequently. But at least the occasion had made her smile in spite of her condition. Two days after the marriage, Rajeev stopped her chemotherapy treatment. Her cancer had advanced to the last stage. She fought like a lioness against the disease but then how much can a five year old keep something as dreadful as cancer at bay? She died with that characteristic smile in place. I was inconsolable for days. But Rajeev saw me through it. We moved to the US where Rajeev had got an offer as Head Surgeon at the Minnesota State Hospital. I missed Salma so much I saw her in every child I met. 
       Its been 6 years since she died, but she is still alive in my heart. After all she was my firstborn. We now have a little boy of four. Shaan has the same eyes as Salma’s – blue-grey and starry. 
       And I am pregnant with my second child. I just know it is going to be a girl and I know exactly what I will call her – Salma.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Closed Windows

       I cry, whimper, wail. She looks on without any emotion on her face. I thrash my legs about trying to break free of the ties that bind my hands and feet to the rusty, squeaky bed. To no avail. They are too tight. Bruises cover my wrists and ankles, I wince. I realize the futility of my actions. I lie there defeated. She injects something into my veins at the elbow. I drift into oblivion.

       I wake up a long time later. My lips are cracked, my mouth is parched. I see that the ceiling paint is flaked. The walls are supposed to be white, but are now brown and yellow at the corners and where the floor seams into them. The tiles are small and square shaped with patchwork bits of other tiles on them for design. The joints between the tiles are brown and grubby. I am thirsty but there is a gag on my mouth. It smells of dried saliva, crusty spit. I pass out.

       Hands slap me, Someone splashes water on my face. It is her again. She scowls, shakes me, screams at me. ‘Get up you bitch’. I hear. I open my eyes. I see a man. A fat short man with an protruding belly that matches his protruding lower lip. He stinks of liquor, unwashed armpits and beedis. ‘This is the girl, How Much?’ she asks him. He pulls up my frock, feels my thighs and says’Four’.She shakes her head’. Too less, seven is what I can give you for.’ They bargain for sometime. They go away.
       I wake up. This time it is a bigger room, painted gaudy orange. There is a yellow border all around. Bottle green heavy curtains flap in the breeze. I hear sounds of traffic, people shouting, hawkers selling. To my surprise I am not tied or gagged. I stumble towards the curtain, part them aside and find a barred small window. It opens into a by-lane that looks like an old part of the city. I see dirty stained one storey buildings with similar windows. I smell dirty gutters running down the street. I shout and scream. A girl’s face appears in the window opposite to me. I shout at her, ask her to help me get out. She smiles sadly and closes the window shut. I slump onto the floor.
       The door opens. I turn around. A woman with a gentle motherly face comes in with a covered plate. ‘Where am I, Who are you?. Why am I here?....Questions come pouring out of my mouth. She puts the plate down, places her hands on my shoulders and gently nudges me to sit on the bed. ‘Do not ask anything. It is for your own good’. I am told that you are ‘Laila’, You will be taken care of provided you listen to what the Mistress says. You will get clothes, money, food everything.’ She takes the plate and hands it to me. I push it away violently. It clatters to the floor. Someone screams from the corridor’ What is that?’. I hear feet pattering in the direction of the room. ‘It is the Mistress’, says the woman on my bed. An ugly woman with a big mole on her cheek and warts around her neck appears. She comes directly at me and slaps me across the face. ‘Why, you, little vermin, I am giving this to you for free and you actually have the cheek to throw it away? Well, Sonabai, make sure this worm doesn’t get food until she appreciates its value.’ The woman in my room scampers away to clean the floor. ‘Let me make one thing clear, I have paid a big price to you and I will make sure you are worth it.’ She stomps away. I cry. I sit in the corner with my arms wrapped around my knees. I miss my parents, my brothers, my sisters. I miss playing with them. Even though my father used to beat the hell out of me, I miss him. Even though my mother cursed me and taunted me, I miss her. I miss them in the way only a fifteen year old can. I try to remember how I came to be in this hell. I only remember playing with Babli next to the pond, and the guy who comes to me and gives me a candy. I do not remember anything since.
       I sit for six days in that room. Locked in. Shut in. Hungry. Sleepless. Peering out of the window. Crying myself to sleep, Screaming my lungs out. I am surprised that no one bothers to even ask what I want. People look up at me from the lane below and passy by, shaking their heads. I pass in and out of consciousness. Hazy images of brightly colored sarees, people’s faces remain in my mind. The seventh day, I knock on the door, and agree to doing whatever Mistress wants me to. That night, I get to eat for the first time in ten days. I lunge at the plate, lick it clean. I ask for more, and I get another plate. I am taken to the bathroom to be washed. I get to wear a new silk skirt. I do not like the colors, But I am happy they are clean. I tie golden ribbons in my hair. I try on heels for the first time. Sonabai applies lipstick and rouge and powder. I do not know why I am being made to get ready, But I am afraid to ask. Mistress comes into the room. She applies kajal to my eyes. She seems very pleased and makes me turn this way and that. She takes me to her room. She opens her dresser and takes out a bottle of ittar. She applies it to my neck, wrists and between my legs. ‘Now you are ready, my darling.’ She grins and I see her red tobacco-stained teeth. I dare to ask her why, since she is in such a happy mood. ‘Oh, today is your debut. Hasn’t that old hag told you anything?’ I shake my head in wonder. ‘She throws back her head and laughs. ‘All the more better, All the more better.’ She says and takes me into a room. A red colored bed sheet is draped over the mattress. Jasmine flowers are littered on the bed. Blinds filter out the noise from the street outside. She instructs me to wait on the bed. And walks away locking the door behind her. 
       I wait. I do not know for what or whom. 

       After some time, a man comes into the room. He has a grizzled beard, gray hair. He stinks of liquor. He locks the door behind him and I hear someone bolting it from outside. I know something is wrong. I run to the corner. He lunges at me, drags me by my hair, and flings me onto the bed. He lies on top of me, and leaves slobbery kisses all over my face, neck. He removes my clothes and lies on top of me, heaving like a great bull, trying to part my thighs. My lungs are crushed under his bulk. I scream out. He seems not to care. I feel a sharp stabbing pain and a trickle of wetness between my legs. I feel something flowing onto the mattress. Like always, my body comes to my rescue and I pass out.
       I wake up to a soreness and a sickening sensation. To the realization that something horrible has happened to me and will continue to happen. I now know why that lady at the window smiled at me. She already knew my lot. She has seen many like me in such rooms. I let my tears flow until I am exhausted.

       Today I will turn twenty two. I do not have anything special to look forward to. It is going to be another night with either no customers or too many customers. I am now allowed to go out wherever I want. Except that Rinku always accompanies us. He-She-It has been with the Mistress since He-She-It was twelve. Thirty Years is a longtime to be in this business. Especially for Eunuchs. But it seems they are the toughest survivors. I like going to the temple. But the priests do not allow us to come inside. So I stand outside and hear the bells ringing. It gives me a sense of Déjà vu. I know I have done this somewhere, maybe when I was a little girl. I try so hard to remember, but my mind remains stubbornly blank.
       I am Mistress’ favorite. I bring in the Moolah with my looks. Being the favorite means I have three to four customers most nights. While the others have only one or none at all. Some of the customers are my Regulars. They share their stories of grief, betrayal, love, revenge all in the two hours they have. Many come just to talk to me. Some have weird fantasies like this old man who wants me to only scream ‘Have Mercy on Me, have Mercy on Me.’ He was thin and frail enough for me to blow him out with a sneeze. Sometimes I get hurt by the Perverts who let out all their frustration on me. But the next night I am ready again. Many of the customers are the Policemen who shoo us away and call us names and arrest us in the day, but come whining to us at night. Mistress’ contacts with them ensure we see as much less Police raids as possible. 

       I no longer miss home. I no longer remember home. My colorful life ensures I have many things to reminiscence or regret about. When I am too exhausted I Drink. When it is too much to bear, I take Drugs. I have a bigger room and an even bigger window with a view of the main street, not the bylane. Of course I spend much time gazing out.
       What is that I hear? 
       Someone screaming? 
       I run to the window. Yes, there is a girl in the window opposite me. 
       Like a monkey in a cage, she peers out, cries out for help. She wants to be free. 
       The Fool! 
       She sees me looking at her. She pleads, stretches out her hands to me. 
       I smile sadly at her. 
       I draw the curtains across and clasp the window shut.