Trigger alert: This post contains graphic and disturbing scenes. You may skip this and click here to go to the next chapter – One Step Forward…
“I don’t understand? I don’t understand,” Aditi was shivering and shaking with the force of her emotions. “You dare say that to me who was every bit the naïve idealistic idiot that you are? You know why I took leave from office? Because I couldn’t bear to see history repeat itself again. I tried to warn you, show you the way hope that you can learn from my mistakes, my tragedies but you are hell bent on destroying yourself,” she choked, “and Ayesha.”
“Anisha.” Rajani automatically corrected her.
Aditi drew a shuddering breath. She went to the cabinet and drew out a photograph, which she handed Rajani without looking at it. “Ayesha. She would have been 19 this year. I failed her as a mother, as a human being. Perhaps if I can convince you to save yourself and Anisha I would be able to beg her forgiveness.” Tears streamed down her cheeks unchecked.
Rajani stared at the photo. The camera had captured the toothless grin and the bright glint of her mischievous eyes perfectly. And those chubby little hands!
“What happened Ma’am?” Rajani asked.
“It is a sordid tale and one that I am not proud of.” Aditi heaved a huge sigh. “But if it helps you take a stand,” she blew her nose and began her story.
“Once upon a time I was young, foolish and idealistic. I wanted to change the world, clean it of all the injustices, perhaps take a huge broom and sweep everything clean. I decided journalism was the way to do it. I would fight for the rights of the downtrodden and crusade against the evil and the corrupt. During this period I met Sahil. He was in the computer applications field and although we were in different branches we met during the college festivals. I used to actively participate in debates, making posters, organizing and stuff like that while he drew and painted remarkably well. And,” Aditi’s lips twisted, “very soon he became my pet project.”
Rajani sipped at her coffee not taking her eyes off Aditi.
“Sahil was shy, retiring, a brilliant artist and student. But was a lame duck. He stammered. People mocked him and made fun of him. I promptly took him under my wing. He opened up with me and confessed that he had a nervous disposition and his stammer was mostly because of his abusive father, who had aspirations of making it big as a politician. He was in the habit of venting his failures on Sahil or his mother. I felt terribly sorry for him and exhorted him to get away from his father’s shadow strike out on his own. Slowly, bit-by-bit, he blossomed and gained confidence. He still stammered but he opened up and joined the groups I was in and even participated in college plays. He was no longer self-conscious of his stammer and even if somebody mocked him, he would retaliate with a bit of mimicry of the abuser or a self-deprecatory joke. We wanted marry but my parents were dead against it. But I didn’t care. I was in love and nothing could convince me to leave Sahil. His parents had no issues and welcomed me into the family like the daughter they never had.” Aditi drank some water and looked at the clock. “I’ll try to keep this short.” She assured Rajani who shook her head.
“Please carry on Ma’am.”
“My MIL,” Aditi resumed narrating her story, “was a meek submissive woman who was completely under the shadow of her husband. He was her lord and master to be obeyed unquestioningly and if he was happy, so was she. When I got married, my FIL had won some election. Riding high on the wave of popularity and power he generously attributed his success to me. I was his lucky mascot, his Devi Lakshmi. Peace, joy bonhomie reigned supreme and we were one happy family. I didn’t even care that my parents hadn’t still forgiven me and had in fact completely washed their hands off me. Busy in my own little bit of heaven I didn’t even bother to reach out to them, convince them. I was in the seventh heaven of delight shuttling between work, home and parties. It was all going well until,” Aditi faltered, she cleared her throat, “until Ayesha was born,” she swallowed, “and my FIL lost the elections.”
There was a long pause. It seemed as if Aditi regretted opening up.
“Ma’am?” Rajani prompted.
“Everything just collapsed thereon. Nothing could please my FIL. He thrashed my MIL at the slightest provocation.”
A wide-eyed Rajani nibbled at her thumb. “What about your husband? Didn’t he say anything?”
“He was the smartest of the lot.” Aditi bared her lips in a mirthless grin. “The day the election results were declared, he left home.”
“Why didn’t you go with him?”
“Because he didn’t take me or even tell me that he was leaving. He probably had a clear idea of what was coming or his mother had warned him.” Aditi shrugged.
“But didn’t you try to contact him? Find him?”
“I made the usual attempts, his office where he had taken indefinite leave of absence, his phone which was switched off. Besides I was furious with him. If he didn’t want us, we didn’t want him either.”
“So what did you do?”
“I couldn’t go back to my parents and I had no choice, or at least that is what I thought,” amended Aditi, “that I had no choice, but to stay where I was.”
“But where could you have gone with a baby girl?” Rajani was empathetic.
Aditi’s eyes flashed before banking out. “Anywhere but there. I should have run away and forced myself on my parents, friends relatives but I was too proud and ashamed. I thought I was doing the right thing by my daughter, sacrificing my life for her. Staying on was the best thing I could do for her at least,” her voice broke, “at least she would be safe. But I was wrong. Even the streets would have been better.”
“Why…why do you say that Ma’am?”
“Things went from bad to unconscionable.” Aditi plodded on, “Initially I tried to keep my distance and close my eyes and ears to his actions but it was too much. I stood up against my FIL and tried to reason with him.” She gave a mirthless laugh. “More fool me. You can’t reason with a rabid dog can you?”
“What else could you do?” Rajani asked.
“I should have done what Sahil did and left. In hindsight I cannot really blame Sahil for disappearing. He probably knew that I, flying high on my ideals and visions of a perfect world and righteous determination to wipe out the evils, would never agree to leave home. And I wouldn’t let him leave either. So he did the next best thing and ran away.”
“How can you say that Ma’am!?” Rajani was up in arms. “Running away never solves anything. Only cowards run away.”
Aditi looked at Rajani. “These dictums are drilled into us from childhood to condition us and force us to face and ride out difficult times. Running away is looked down upon as a sign of weakness yet even mythological wisdom advocates running away.” At Rajani’s puzzled expression, Aditi elaborated. “Do you know that even Lord Krishna ran away from the battlefield to win the war. Does that mean He’s a coward?” Aditi shook her head. “His story is just a way to teach us mere mortals, the importance of strategic retreat, a lesson like the story of Ranchodji, we have forgotten, much to my eternal regret and sorrow.”
“What happened Ma’am?” Rajani asked with horrified fascination.
“When I protested and stood up against my FIL, his fragile ego couldn’t take it. He turned against me and blamed his ill luck on Ayesha. I went from being the apple of his eye to the root of all evil. And there was only one solution – get rid of Ayesha and produce a boy.”
“Get rid of…!” Rajani gasped. “How…what did that mean?”
“Throw her into the dustbin, kill her, whatever.”
“No!” Shocked Rajani stared at Aditi in dread.
“Did he…is that what happened to Ayesha?”
What could be worse? wondered Rajani.
Aditi rubbed a weary hand over her face. She looked drained and empty. “To cut a long sordid story short, the more aggressive he was the more determined I was. It became a battle of wills egos and ideologies. Unable to bear the idea of a woman defying him, he took the age-old way of showing a woman her place.”
Rajani looked blank. “He raped me with the help of my mother-in-law.” Aditi ignored Rajani’s shocked gasp and continued unemotionally. “Repeatedly. I wasn’t allowed to go out of the house or use the telephone.”
“How… why would he do that?” Rajani’s voice was a mere whisper.
“Power and dominance. Not content with raping me he wanted me to willingly submit to him. That would be his victory and my punishment for crossing swords with him.”
Rajani was sobbing by now.
“When I didn’t submit, when I spat in his face he used my daughter. They took her away from me and let me hear her shrieks of hunger give way to exhausted mewing and then silence.” Aditi sat still and straight. “I considered several times about submitting but I couldn’t. Not even for my starving daughter. It helped that my MIL had some semblance of humanity. She would bring Ayesha for feeds when he wasn’t around. And then one day he came back and caught us. He first thrashed his wife and forced her to tie me up in a chair and watch as he raped Ayesha.”
Aditi doubled over and retched. She went to the washroom and threw up. Rajani sat in frozen shock and horror.
A drained Aditi returned to her seat. “He untied my hands, tore open my kurta and thrust Ayesha into my arms saying feed her, I want her strong and ready for more.”
“Ma’am please,” begged Rajani, “Please stop. Please.”
“I held my broken bleeding precious baby in my arms and crushed her to my breast. Until she breathed no more.”
“You killed her!?” Rajani gasped. “How could you? How could you?”
“How could I not?” Aditi said fiercely. “Is death the worst thing that can happen? At that moment the only thing I wanted was for her pain to end. Any which way.” Aditi wiped her face. “Of all the things that happened that is the only thing I don’t regret. I would have killed myself too but that would have been too easy for them and me. I swallowed my pride and shame and called a reporter friend. The media took it over from there. Not content with the media having a field day I called up my FIL’s rival. There was nothing he could do to avoid a life term. MIL was let off with a lighter punishment.”
“And your husband?”
“He took the easy way out. He took a drug overdose.”
Rajani’s phone rang. She had never been so relieved to receive a call from her MIL. “I have to go now,” she said jerkily, “guests are coming and I need to buy some things from the market.”
Aditi nodded. “Yes of course.”
“Thank you for sharing your story.” Rajani said formally feeling that she couldnt leave without acknowledging it.
“I didn’t share it to unburden myself. In fact I have never told a single soul the entire story. I told it to you because I can see similarities and am very much afraid of history repeating itself.”
“Don’t worry Ma’am. I’ll make sure nothing of the sort happens…”
“Don’t you get it Rajani?” Aditi pleaded. “You can’t make sure! You can only go away. Cut your losses and go away. Go to your parents. Force them to accept. If you can’t, come to me. I…we’ll find a way. I promise you,” she urged. “Just don’t make the mistake of thinking Kuldeep or your MIL’s suggestion was a one off thing. You don’t know these people…”
Rajani backed away from the crazed glazed look in Aditi’s eyes. “Yes Ma’am. I understand Ma’am. Thank you Ma’am. I have to leave now.”
She ran down the stairs feeling sick in the stomach. How would she face Aditi in the office? She had killed her own daughter! How could she do that?! Why didn’t she take her to the doctor? Go to the police? She shuddered. You are a fine one to comment Rani! She scolded herself. What if you had been in that position? No! She couldn’t even bear to contemplate that. She drove home recklessly and didn’t draw an easy breath until she had clutched Anisha soft warm bundle in her arms.