She was fisting the curtain with one hand. In the other hand she held her family’s picture. The deathly quietness of her voice chilled Raj and beeji. It vaguely occurred to Raj that she probably got the picture down to share something about them. But what she said stunned him. He never could have imagined that her abuser would have been so close to home. Her beautiful countenance held a deceptive calmness as she waited for them to say something, her visage giving away nothing. Only the whiteness of her knuckles that held the curtain gave away the extent of her distress. There was something dark and forlorn about her stance…almost defiant.
Beeji moved first. Her face contorted with the pain she felt for her daughter, she stumbled as she rushed toward Naina. Raj moved then, steadying her. She held out her trembling arms, “Oh Naina! My child…my child.” She couldn’t say anything more, only wanting to hold her daughter in her arms.
However, Naina evaded beeji’s embrace and held up her hand, stepping back a couple of steps, “No, beeji. No. Hear me out first and then decide whether I am worth touching or not.”
Beeji whispered, “What are you saying Naina? Don’t you know me beta? Nothing you say will make any difference in my love for you. Don’t say such things about yourself. You are worth all the sunshine lighting up this world.”
Raj felt beeji’s tears splatter on his hand, and a responding ache resonated in his heart. He squeezed beeji’s hand in silent communication and took a step forward, “Speak Naina. Unburden yourself. This silence has gone on long enough.” At her glazed look, he continued to talk normally, calmly, in an affection-laced tone, “We are in this together sweetheart. I will fight all the demons for you…the past, present, and whatever comes in the future…anything that hurts you. Just let this out of your chest. Don’t hold back.”
Naina walked slowly toward the living room window, and stood twisting her hands. She looked at them with a look that caused waves of pain to spread inside Raj like monsoon showers.
“I don’t know where to start,” she whispered.
Raj sat beeji on a sofa and walked up to Naina, till he was a couple of paces away, “Start by trusting us Naina.” When she looked out of the window without acknowledging him, he continued softly, “I know it is very difficult for you to trust me or anyone with the part of your life that hurt you the most. But Naina, I need to know, so that we ride out this storm together. Most importantly, I need you to know that nothing you say today will change how I feel about you or make me leave. Nothing will change.”
She looked at him then, “Don’t be so sure of the unknown Raj.”
“I am. Trust me. I am.” His tone held a resolve that didn’t go unnoticed by Naina. He locked her gaze with his, “I promise you I’ll be still here when you finish. You own me Naina. I love you with all of me. I am not going anywhere…in this life or beyond. Better get used to your Colonel being around you all the time.”
Naina stared into those beautiful eyes that were swimming with innumerable emotions as they looked at her. She wanted to believe…oh, how she wanted to believe. But she couldn’t. What after she bared all, he turned his back on her…or worse, what if he found her story so farfetched that he couldn’t believe her. It would devastate her completely, even though she was about to open the forbidden door expecting exactly that….Destruction. Naina knew that she was setting herself up for a heartbreak that would leave her with so many broken, scattered pieces that she wouldn’t even know where to begin to fit them together. There will not be any pretending…no more living in denial…no more pushing back memories that blocked the present. No. From now, reality will be as stark as it can get.
Naina looked at beeji who was still trembling in agony…her eyes red with silent tears. She wiped her face with her saree aanchal, and gave Naina a reassuring nod, “Raj is right Naina. Trust us, and I promise that the love we have for you will make all the shadows leave. No one outside this room will ever know what you say now. Raj and I will see you through this beta.”
Raj pulled a chair next to her, “Sit down Naina.”
She shook her head staring at the opposite wall, “I’d rather stand.”
He nodded and then waited with his back to the living room pillar. The air got thick with the silence…and they waited.
Naina gave a start as across the street the temple bell pealed. She turned and paced the floor and then stopped. With her gaze fixed somewhere between beeji and Raj, she started to speak, “I have already told you about my expectations when I married Manmeet. It didn’t matter who I married as long as I got justice for my parents and Milli. I wanted my uncle and aunt to pay for their crime. Dhariwals seemed a decent family. I presumed they would help me in getting justice.” She sighed and closed her eyes briefly, “I couldn’t have been more wrong. I found that out on my wedding night itself.”
She looked first at Raj and then beeji as if to gain some strength for what was to follow, “I was taken to Manmeet’s bedroom by the village ladies. After they left, I got down from the bed and looked around. I could not see the small bag I had packed for myself before the wedding ceremonies, which contained my essentials. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to go out or not. So, I stood near the window and waited. Hours went by. No one came. It was much past midnight when I thought what if my bag was in the cupboard. I needed to freshen up. I had just opened the cupboard when someone pulled me by the hair and threw me across the room. It was Manmeet. He reeked of alcohol. He slapped me a number of times and kept on asking how I dare touch his things. He said I had to be punished for what I had done. The more I tried to explain the more he beat me, till I kept quiet. I was dragged past my smirking in-laws who were standing outside the room, and were egging him on, to this room on the top floor. He threw me in and bolted the door from outside.”
Naina paused as a low growl of anger and grief escaped Raj, “Dear God! I am so sorry, Naina.” He wanted to pull her into his arms and not let go ever. It took all his self-control to stay where he was.
“You don’t have to be sorry for anything. You were not there. You didn’t do anything. Besides this was just the beginning.” Her voice and body language were getting more and more detached. The more she put into words the events of her marriage, the more distant she became. It was as if she was folding herself inside layers and layers of protective shield, leaving behind just an outer shell to continue with the narration.
She continued in a monotone, not once looking at either of them, “It was a small room with low roof and a high window. It had a single bed in one corner and a wooden chair next to it. The chair was sealed to the floor. There was no other furnishing, not even a cupboard. A low-powered bulb was the only source of light. A door led to a small washroom. My bag was there on the bed. Thankfully it had the few clothes I had carried from my uncle’s house. I washed myself and changed and then sat on the bed. I must have slept toward the morning. When I woke, it was afternoon. No one had even bothered to give me a glass of water. I drank from the toilet tap. When the night came, I heard the door opening. I had braced myself to confront Manmeet. I had no idea what I was going to say, but I was not going to go down without a fight. If he didn’t let me go, I was going to escape…anyhow. However, I saw a woman entering with food. I couldn’t see her as her face was hidden behind her saree veil. She left the food on the table and turned to leave. I stopped her and questioned her as to where my husband was. She looked up then, and I saw pity in her eyes before she left, closing the door behind her. I knew then that I was a prisoner….just didn’t know why. I ate the food, because I needed the strength if I had to escape. There was no way I was going to stay in the marriage after what I was subjected to on my first day.”
“Was that woman Manmeet’s wife?” Beeji asked.
“Yes,” Naina nodded, “but I didn’t know then.”
After that she was silent for so long that beeji prompted, “Naina?”
“That night he came.”
“That’s what I thought first. But it was not…. It was my father-in-law. He….” Her chin wobbled as for the first time since she started speaking as the pent-up emotions finally broke through the surface, seeking release. She took a deep breath and continued, “He came and just pushed me into the bed and tried to…. I screamed and tried to kick him away, but he was too strong. Even then I fought with all that I had. Luck favored me that night, as my groping hands found the brass thali (plate) on which my food was brought. I hit him as hard as I could. He cursed and punched me. My head banged against the bedpost and I lost consciousness. When I came to, I saw Manmeet and his mother.”
Naina shivered violently as the unguarded memories assaulted her soul over and over…the slaps, the punches, the abuses…too many to count. Raj couldn’t stand it any longer. Her pain twisted his guts in waves of agony, and he reached her in two long strides pulling her in a tight hug. For a brief moment she let herself feel his warmth and then she moved, untangling herself and stepping back.
Beeji also got up, “Naina, you don’t have to do this beta. It’s OK.”
Naina shook her head and whispered, “I have to.” She looked at Raj, “You need to hear all.”
He clenched his fists and nodded. Her words coming out in a rasp now, she spoke haltingly, “Manmeet told me haughtily that he had changed his mind and that he refused to touch me. His mother then took up from there. She said that they always abided by their son’s wishes. If he didn’t like me, then they won’t force him to share a bed with me. But since they needed Manmeet to become a father of a boy, who carried their bloodline, I had to sleep with Manmeet’s father. No one would know. Everyone would just assume that the boy was Manmeet’s. She spoke such crass words with such ease that I was shocked. I said, if that is the case, then all Manmeet had to do was divorce me and remarry. That’s when she said that Manmeet already had a wife, who too was childless. The only reason I was brought into the family was because they wanted a son from me. That’s when it struck me. I looked at Manmeet and asked him point blank whether the reason he would not touch me was because he was impotent. I knew I was right when he lost it completely and beat me mercilessly, till his mother held him back saying they needed my body in one piece. Then they left, with a warning that if I didn’t comply, they’d kill me. I realized then that Manmeet married me not only for a son but also to show to the world that he was a virile man.”
She paused, gathering her thoughts. The tense silence was broken as the clock struck the hour. Naina looked at beeji, “The kids? They’ll be home in half an hour.”
It was Raj who spoke, “Don’t worry. I have already passed on a message to Altaf chacha to take them to the mahal.” Raj was fighting an internal fury that he had never felt before in his life. The fact that she was treated so violently made him insanely angry. He knew without doubt that if Manmeet and his father were not already dead, he would have definitely killed them.
Naina was again silent for awhile. When she looked up, she deliberately held Raj’s gaze, “I fought the lecher’s advances the second night in a row, so they drugged me the following day. It was some kind of herbal drug, which they mixed with my food. It acted as a partial anesthetic and made me numb neck downward, but I could see, hear, and smell. That night, and subsequently for many nights, I was repeatedly raped, in so many different ways you cannot even imagine. That man was a pervert. I saw him doing all that to my body but could not do anything to save myself. I had never felt so helpless in my life. His breathing, his smell, the way he stared at me with lust will remain with me till the day I die. Whenever he touched me, I’d turn my head and look out at the hill I could see from the high window. I found a strange spiritual strength by looking at it…as if the hill was standing there as my sentinel, protecting my dying spirits, telling me I was not alone, helping me to stay alive for another day. I have only to close my eyes to remember each and every feature of that hill, something that is etched into my heart. That hill helped me escape the repugnant reality that my body was being subjected to.”
Tears fell down freely now as her body shook with each heinous memory. She searched Raj’s eyes, expecting to find revulsion and disgust…or at the very least anger, pity, and frustration. But instead she only saw love and tears for her and an emotion that was so unexpectedly profound in its expression that Naina couldn’t bring herself to fathom its depth in her present troubled state of mind. She couldn’t imagine what had brought upon such a look on his face…She certainly didn’t deserve it.
He wrapped his strong arms around her, and this time she didn’t protest. She was too baffled to move away. Raj didn’t make sense. His words when he spoke in a thick emotion-laden deep voice made no sense. So, she just stood stiffly in the circle of his arms and heard him speak the impossible, “I love you. Do you hear me? I love you. Naina, none of what happened has anything to do with who you are. You are the most incredible, beautiful, strong woman I have ever met. I am in awe of you every single moment of the day. If you thought you could ever push me away from you, then you are wrong. I am going to spend the rest of our life proving it to you. I am going to have my forever with you, sweetheart.” He put a finger under her chin and tilted it so that she could look at him. For the next few seconds he didn’t say anything. Instead he cupped her face and let his thumb caress her cheeks up and down, all the while gazing into her soul.
Naina suddenly felt weak…as if she was having an out-of-the-body experience. She had spent so many hours building up his reaction in her mind that he totally confused her with his gestures. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He was supposed to be out of the door the moment she uttered the R word. Yet he was still here, holding her, touching her…healing her. His unexpected behavior threw her off-kilter.
Still, the convictions that she had built in her mind for so long refused to loosen her insecurities. Ignoring the lump that rose in her throat, she whispered, “You don’t have to be gallant about this Raj. Your life is too precious. You can leave if you want to. I won’t mind at all.”
“I am here and I am not going anywhere. Get that into your stubborn head.” He pressed a kiss on her forehead. “You didn’t deserve any of it…not one second of it. They had no right to do this to a young, defenseless girl. Do you hear me? It was not your fault. None of it was.”
Raj’s hands stilled on her face when he heard the self-contempt in her voice as she said, “Yes. It was. I didn’t fight hard enough. I let them drug me. I let weakness take over me when they forced the drug on me after I refused to have the food. I should have been stronger. Instead I let that man use me like a cheap wh…”
Raj clamped a hand on her mouth, “Stop it! Just stop belittling yourself. I won’t allow it.” He cursed as tears streamed down her face.
She held his wrists as he wiped the tears away, “Let them be Raj. They help me breathe. Otherwise not a single day goes by when I don’t wish that I had suffocated to death under that man.”
“Oh God darling, don’t. Don’t ever say that. Not ever.” His voice choked as he bent, and he did the only thing that he could have done at the moment to make her feel loved. He held her head and softly kissed her. Then her eyes. Her cheeks. Her jawline. Her forehead. “Everything is going to be fine. Just have faith. Please.”
Naina felt beeji’s hand on her head, “He loves you Naina. Listen to what he is saying.”
Naina turned and hid her face in beeji’s neck. “Why beeji? Why can’t love be simple?”
Beeji rubbed her back with a hand around Naina and with the other brushed away the tears from Raj’s face who stood behind Naina, crying silently, “Love is never simple my child.”
“But why beeji? Why can’t it be? ”
“Because often enough we don’t appreciate something that comes to us easily. We take them for granted. That’s human nature. But when we fight for something, we ensure they stay with us forever.”
Naina recalled how beeji had fought for her…to get her resettled in life…to create happiness around her. She brought her here, gave her home, and made a family with her and Adi. It was complete acceptance by a person who was a stranger by all means. All because beeji believed. Can she believe too? Dare she believe too? Can she hope for a future with Raj?
Beeji kissed Naina’s cheek and said, “Naina, what is going in your heart and mind right now…whatever thoughts are crossing within you, those are what are going to stay with you forever.”
Naina pulled back and stared at her mother, “Beeji how do you know?”
“I am your mother. Trust me. This love is worth fighting for. More importantly, it’s worth fighting the demons that say that you are not worth it.”
A flicker of hope crossed her features, “Do you mean that?”
Beeji just opened her arms and pulled Raj in the embrace, “We both do.”
Naina felt Raj’s hand grip her back tightly as she curled into beeji’s bosom. Could she do it? She was tired of running away from her past. Not that it helped her any. The past found her in the end. It would have found her anytime. Because it never had gone away. It was always there…being part of her. It made her who she is. And if Raj and beeji believed in who she is now, can she not? How can she behave like a coward, if they were her greatest strengths? In their arms Naina knew what she had to do. At least what she knew she had to try to do…face her past, like today, and make peace with it…Accept it. Tough, but not impossible. She just had to take that leap of faith.
To be continued………….