This short story was published in Rigorous, an international literary magazine.
Inspection – your most dreaded day of the month. It’s not that you remembered it yourself. The early dinner served as an ugly reminder. You’ve long stopped keeping track of dates. Just as, you’ve realised, no one bothers to remember your 17-year-old existence either.
The heavy silence hanging in the air outside your cramped dormitory tells you it’s probably midnight. You’re grateful for the dim, spindly light sneaking in through the small windows fitted with iron grille, high up on the wall. Complete darkness suffocates you – you gasp for breath, as if strangled under the choking, threatening weight of your adolescent memories. Memories now; an everyday reality earlier.
So, who is it today? You feverishly try to recall that one face you missed spotting in the dorm after dinner. The cautious unbolting of the door alerts you. Instinctively, you wrap yourself tighter with your frayed quilt. And that’s certainly not because of the nippy November night. You spy a frail, puny frame… or rather, a silhouette… walking in, with laboured, unsteady steps. You train your eyes in the dark to catch a clearer glimpse of her, as she drags herself across the narrow yellow shaft streaming in from above. With a start you realise, it’s the bubbly, well-endowed 15-year-old from Assam who was brought to this state-run Juvenile Remand Home, on charges of theft.
You curl up further in dismay as the creaking boots and cheap cigarette smell from outside, invade your heightened senses. The truncated whispers that you’ve picked up in these past few months have bolstered your belief that the tag of the ‘supervisory visit’ of the Inspector is simply a veneer for what is actually a debased carnal desire, unleashed on the already distressed housemates. And then, you’re consumed by a strong sense of déjà vu, a revisiting of the searing torment that ripped apart your tender body and soul for two agonising years! And landed you here, in your second home. One, that was probably as ghastly as your first and real one!
I toss and turn on the bed. Sleep eludes me. One more night to spend with my eyes wide open, and a thousand sights and sounds swirling inside my mind. Or, whatever is left of it.
I try to focus on the large photograph mounted on the wall in front. The single-strand jasmine garland adorning it has dried up and a sickly stale whiff permeates the air. It doesn’t affect me. In fact, no stench does…not any more. The waning incense stick sends up the last few whorls of smoke before it burns out completely. Somewhat like my soul.
I rise and step out of the room into the small portico. The mild November chill calms my frayed nerves. Sitting on the steps leading to the garden, I gaze intently at the sky, trying to spot a slice of my heart, throbbing amidst the silver-spangled expanse.
Laksh, my boy, where are you? How do I live without you? Come back to me, please Laksh!
I pose the same rhetorical questions to the universe every night. Only to be greeted by the same yawning vacuum, the same deafening silence, every single time.
Of late, I’ve often found myself wondering, why is it that my heart beats only for Laksh? Why don’t I grieve for Roshni? Isn’t she, too, as good as dead…my own flesh and blood, the ‘light’ of our lives, now snuffed out and rotting away in a hell-hole that goes by the fancy name of a Juvenile Remand Home?
No! Never! Roshni deserves no sympathy…no reprieve. After all, isn’t she single-handedly responsible for thrusting us into this darkness?! My Laksh is gone forever…Roshni is condemned to a life in prison…and I, a middle-aged widowed mother, remains shackled to an empty house, a cache of hideous memories, and an unending vista of loneliness and anguish.
The moon has climbed higher…you can see its shimmering sliver suspended above and beyond your window. The chorus of the cicada outside and the breathing of the sleeping inmates inside, collectively sound like a rhythmic orchestra to your ears. Your mouth curves into a wry smile – talk of finding beauty in a bog! Your mind starts wandering, as it does on most sleepless nights. You’re tempted to follow the breadcrumb trail of memories, both happy and sad…how did it all begin?
If there was anybody you blindly trusted or relied on, as a child, it was your brother Laksh. Elder to you by five years, you considered Laksh as your emotional anchor and the father figure you never had. Temperamentally, you were his diametric opposite. While he had this fun-loving, dynamic persona that attracted hordes of friends, you were the quintessential fly-on-the-wall…the perennial bookworm…happy to remain in the shadows while your brother basked in the halo of adulation.
It was on your fifteenth birthday that you first noticed the red flags. The modest celebration that your long-widowed, educator mother had organised was a big success. She got you your coveted little purple dress, one that effectively accentuated your peach-and-cream complexion. And you loved how all your friends gushed over your dark curls and chic trinkets. But, why was Laksh hovering around you, staring at you, hugging and petting you at every available opportunity? So unlike your nonchalant, macho brother, you mused. And was it just a coincidence that his brawny hands brushed over your chest a couple of times while you were all dancing together? Of course, yes, you chided yourself for the unruly thoughts that crept into your mind. But your radiant face did lose some of its sheen by the time the party ended.
The days that followed steadily turned horrendous for you.
Did his hand just linger around your hips? Did you catch him staring at your reflection in the mirror?
Laksh progressively degenerated into a person you couldn’t recognise any more. The faint whispers about him – ‘porn-addict’, ‘unsavoury company’, ‘obsession with girls’ – that you had indignantly dismissed all these days, now appeared true. You felt nauseous to even imagine that all the dangers you had been forewarned of, in school, were actually lurking within what should have been your safe space – your home.
You did try to confide in your mother. You were sure your mother would believe you, and stand by you like a rock. How naïve and unversed were you!
“Roshni! How dare you speak ill of your own brother? And make such a damning allegation!?” You couldn’t recognise her entirely hostile tone when you first told her – a curious mix of denial, rage and discomposure.
“But Ma, I’m speaking the truth.” Your voice was quivering, pleading, “It has been happening for a while now. I know you’re shocked, but Ma…”
“Enough Roshni, not one word more! Or else, I’ll leave this house right now. Do you want that?” You looked at your mother, petrified at the thought of losing your last parent, and slunk away, tears blinding your sight. The only port, where you hoped to find shelter from your raging inner tempest, had been shut upon you.
You noticed a paradigm shift in Laksh’s behaviour after this episode – he seemed more brazen, knowing he had his mother’s unwavering support. No matter how assiduously you tried to evade him, he would find ways and means of touching you inappropriately – sometimes with his coarse, urgent hands; and at others, with his salacious gaze which threatened to pierce right through your layers of clothing and singe your nubile, virgin body. You retreated into a shell, building an impregnable wall of isolation around yourself.
And then, the inevitable happened. One afternoon, in your mother’s absence, Laksh forced himself upon you. Crushed under the weight of your own heaving, panting, aroused sibling, you fought back to the best of your ability…your petrified, petite self, ravaged and scarred for life! You failed to figure what hurt you more – the gripe of physical violation, or the abysmal humiliation and betrayal your mind suffered. You simmered in liquid rage and helplessness. Especially, when Laksh finally zipped himself up. How could you miss the devilish smile he flashed on his way out? One, that reeked of revenge. Revenge for ratting on him to your mother. But even through your searing pain, you looked at him pointedly, eyes blazing with hate and certitude, bearing an obdurate promise to avenge this.
This incident marked the beginning of a series of such similar episodes in your adolescent life. You found yourself at the receiving end of Laksh’s libido, once every two to three months. The over-the-counter pregnancy inhibitors that you procured from various chemists, did their work well. You watched helplessly as your grades plummeted, which further angered and distanced your mother. And as the months rolled into a year and then the next, your steadfast resolve to eliminate this menace grew even stronger. All you needed now was just that one opportune moment when you could strike!
I still remember the words my neighbour blabbered over the phone.
“Didi, come home right away…it’s an emergency!”
With my heart hammering against my rib cage, I managed to hail a rickshaw and reach home. I took in the sight without quite processing it – Laksh, my darling boy, eyes and mouth wide open, lay spread-eagled on the floor amidst a semi-congealed, malodorous, carmine pool. My newly bought kitchen cleaver, now a scarlet mess, was screaming for attention. Slumped against the wall nearby, sat Roshni – dishevelled, dry-eyed, dauntless, and perhaps…triumphant?! I spotted the red stains on her clothes; bile arose inside me. A thousand questions clogged my mind; none found a voice. I remember hearing the sirens wailing outside before I crumpled into a heap on the floor.
What followed was largely a blur. Police, doctors, child rights’ activists, lawyers, counsellors and neighbours…in my state of stupor, I watched them all came and go. Roshni was also led away – she actually deserved the elaborate report I filed against her with the police. Once the mandatory rituals got over, our kin left. I quit my teaching job and resigned myself to a life, bereft of any purpose, value or vision.
I do not realise how the minutes and hours have ticked by. The mobile says it’s 4.30 a.m. It’s Laksh’s hearing today, hopefully the penultimate one. And then, it’ll be verdict time. Justice for my Laksh. And penalty for Roshni.
But why am I feeling so hollow? Isn’t this what I’ve been waiting for, for the past so many days? Why am I having second thoughts……misgivings…about Roshni?
Have I been unnecessarily harsh to her? Turned a blind eye to her predicament? Probably.
Has my perspective changed because of what Laksh’s bestie, Nakul, told me the other day, when he came home to check on me? That Laksh would brag to his friends about his massive appetite for bodily gratification, and his sexual conquests, which included his own sister. He had shown them supporting pictures, apparently. I was left speechless in shock and disgust.
How did I fail to notice my son’s depravation? Doesn’t that make me party to this heinous crime?
But Roshni killed my Laksh, how could I not have her incarcerated?
What about her own suffering, her debasement, her violation, in the hands of her own brother? As a responsible parent, shouldn’t I have remedied the situation? Made the home a safe space for both my children?
Not all is lost. I shall speak to the lawyer today. Maybe I can still hold up a beacon of light in Roshni’s life…
You wake up to the early morning voices – time to get ready for today’s all-important hearing. The roseate filigree splashed across the slate sky arrests your attention…an overwhelming calm envelopes you.
Is that a sign from the universe…is this a dawn of fresh hope, of light?
Without waiting for answers, you hurry towards the washroom, as the matron’s decibel rises to a crescendo.
PC: Marcin Czerniasweki on Unsplash